Reversal of Fortune


from Mother Jones

by Bill McKibben

For most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch. You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both. That’s why the centuries since Adam Smith launched modern economics with his book The Wealth of Nations have been so single-mindedly devoted to the dogged pursuit of maximum economic production. Smith’s core ideas—that individuals pursuing their own interests in a market society end up making each other richer; and that increasing efficiency, usually by increasing scale, is the key to increasing wealth—have indisputably worked. They’ve produced more More than he could ever have imagined. They’ve built the unprecedented prosperity and ease that distinguish the lives of most of the people reading these words. It is no wonder and no accident that Smith’s ideas still dominate our politics, our outlook, even our personalities.

But the distinguishing feature of our moment is this: Better has flown a few trees over to make her nest. And that changes everything. Now, with the stone of your life or your society gripped in your hand, you have to choose. It’s More or Better.

Which means, according to new research emerging from many quarters, that our continued devotion to growth above all is, on balance, making our lives worse, both collectively and individually. Growth no longer makes most people wealthier, but instead generates inequality and insecurity. Growth is bumping up against physical limits so profound—like climate change and peak oil—that trying to keep expanding the economy may be not just impossible but also dangerous. And perhaps most surprisingly, growth no longer makes us happier. Given our current dogma, that’s as bizarre an idea as proposing that gravity pushes apples skyward. But then, even Newtonian physics eventually shifted to acknowledge Einstein’s more complicated universe.

1. “We can do it if we believe it”: FDR, LBJ, and the invention of growth

It was the great economist John Maynard Keynes who pointed out that until very recently, “there was no very great change in the standard of life of the average man living in the civilized centers of the earth.” At the utmost, Keynes calculated, the standard of living roughly doubled between 2000 B.C. and the dawn of the 18th century—four millennia during which we basically didn’t learn to do much of anything new. Before history began, we had already figured out fire, language, cattle, the wheel, the plow, the sail, the pot. We had banks and governments and mathematics and religion.

And then, something new finally did happen. In 1712, a British inventor named Thomas Newcomen created the first practical steam engine. Over the centuries that followed, fossil fuels helped create everything we consider normal and obvious about the modern world, from electricity to steel to fertilizer; now, a 100 percent jump in the standard of living could suddenly be accomplished in a few decades, not a few millennia.

In some ways, the invention of the idea of economic growth was almost as significant as the invention of fossil-fuel power. But it took a little longer to take hold. During the Depression, even FDR routinely spoke of America’s economy as mature, with no further expansion anticipated. Then came World War II and the postwar boom—by the time Lyndon Johnson moved into the White House in 1963, he said things like: “I’m sick of all the people who talk about the things we can’t do. Hell, we’re the richest country in the world, the most powerful. We can do it all….We can do it if we believe it.” He wasn’t alone in thinking this way. From Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev thundered, “Growth of industrial and agricultural production is the battering ram with which we shall smash the capitalist system.”

Yet the bad news was already apparent, if you cared to look. Burning rivers and smoggy cities demonstrated the dark side of industrial expansion. In 1972, a trio of mitresearchers released a series of computer forecasts they called “limits to growth,” which showed that unbridled expansion would eventually deplete our resource base. A year later the British economist E.F. Schumacher wrote the best-selling Small Is Beautiful. (Soon after, when Schumacher came to the United States on a speaking tour, Jimmy Carter actually received him at the White House—imagine the current president making time for any economist.) By 1979, the sociologist Amitai Etzioni reported to President Carter that only 30 percent of Americans were “pro-growth,” 31 percent were “anti-growth,” and 39 percent were “highly uncertain.”

Such ambivalence, Etzioni predicted, “is too stressful for societies to endure,” and Ronald Reagan proved his point. He convinced us it was “Morning in America”—out with limits, in with Trump. Today, mainstream liberals and conservatives compete mainly on the question of who can flog the economy harder. Larry Summers, who served as Bill Clinton’s secretary of the treasury, at one point declared that the Clinton administration “cannot and will not accept any ‘speed limit’ on American economic growth. It is the task of economic policy to grow the economy as rapidly, sustainably, and inclusively as possible.” It’s the economy, stupid.

2. Oil bingeing, Chinese cars, and the end of the easy fix

Except there are three small things. The first I’ll mention mostly in passing: Even though the economy continues to grow, most of us are no longer getting wealthier. The average wage in the United States is less now, in real dollars, than it was 30 years ago. Even for those with college degrees, andlthough productivity was growing faster than it had for decades, between 2000 and 2004 earnings fell 5.2 percent when adjusted for inflation, according to the most recent data from White House economists. Much the same thing has happened across most of the globe. More than 60 countries around the world, in fact, have seen incomes per capita fall in the past decade.

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2 Responses to Reversal of Fortune

  1. David Matthew Parker says:

    An excellent article, but I was disappointed to see that it was three years old. I doubt much has happened in any good way since then, other than the fact that the current recession is forcing people to make do with less. Maybe this attitude will remain, even when (or if) times are good again.

    • Josh Grigsby says:

      It’s fascinating to dig up articles from years past and to see how many of them still resonate. I read Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature for the first time only a handful of months ago. That book is now twenty years old…it could have been written last week. The same goes for Deep Economy. Actually, the same goes for an awful lot of books and articles. I just read some snippets from Thomas Malthus that were written over two hundred years ago, and they were largely the same observations that McKibben and his ilk are sharing today. Change comes slowly, I guess.

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