Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Economic Growth or No Economic Growth

I like leftism, which I see as "power for the people", in several different strains including Socialism (both pre-Marxist, Marxist, and post-Marxist), Keynesianism (political economy oriented to minimizing unemployment, and maximizing the common good, through collectivist guidance of a market system), and sustainability eco-leftism (we must preserve nature for itself independent of ourselves and as our common resource, and that means ultimately we decrease our footprint on the planet both by exploiting and polluting less).  Neither Marx nor Keynes (as far as I know) addressed the impossibility of maintaining exponential growth in resource utilization forever.

The System Dynamics thread within eco-leftism emphasizes that we must learn to live without economic growth, because endless economic growth is the driver toward unsustainable misuse of the environment.  I pretty much subscribe to that view (although I believe strongly that right now, especially, we need the right kind of economic growth to put people who want jobs back to work, in fact i would state is simply that as long as there is unemployment, or population increase, we must have economic growth to accomodate it).

However, in this very interesting discussion on the future of the left (which starts with a most excellent post by Chris Bertram) an alternative to the no-future-growth idea (which happens to be nicely argued therein by Sandwichman, one of my favorite posters) an alternative is posited:

Economic growth does not necessarily mean more stuff, it can also mean higher quality stuff (or even similar quality stuff that is simply more sustainably produced, though the poster did not mention that).  As long as the total "value" increases, you have economic growth.

I agree with that sentiment entirely.  I have long been attached to the idea of improving quality rather than quantity.  However, I fear it is hard to get to that point in our kind of economy not because of its logical or macroeconomic impossibility, but because it doesn't work as well for the kinds of capitalists we have now. Basically, it's not as profitable.  For starters, quality is always a hard sell, lower price (often based on greater exploitation of some kind) is an easier sell.

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