11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 25 August 2012
Maybe it's too early to call it a trend, but it's nice to see that some "establishment" figures in the US and UK have begun speaking out against economic growth as a policy for wealthy countries. Former Harvard president Derek Bok did so in 2010 with his book "The Politics of Happiness," and now so has Baron Robert Skidelsky, in this book written with his son, an academic philosopher.
Like Bok, the authors (S&S) make "happiness" a prominent theme in their argument. Their perspective on it, though, is rather different from his. Bok focused on social science research, in which people in various countries responded to surveys about their subjective happiness. S&S are (rightly, I believe) skeptical about a lot of this research, and focus instead on the ancient philosophical question of "What is a good life?" This sort of happiness, especially as conceived by Aristotle and other Athenian thinkers, refers not to a state of mind but to a "state of being," a matter of "public appraisal, not private awareness" (@98). They turn this into a public policy issue with their declaration, "[T]he first duty of the state is to realize, insofar as lies within its power, the good life for all its citizens" (@168).
S&S also don't shy away from declaring what they think the good life consists in. While some reviews have lampooned their suggestions, e.g., claiming they approve of upper-class pleasures like Valpolicella and disapprove of crack cocaine, by and large their list (Chap. 6) seems reasonable: health, security, respect, harmony with nature, friendship, "personality" (access to private space to be oneself), and "leisure" (activity not undertaken primarily for money, but for its own sake). This recalls another and longer Aristotle-inspired list of the elements of "objective happiness," compiled by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. But while Sen and Nussbaum expect the state to provide people just with the "capabilities," i.e., the means, to enjoy a good life, S&S want the state to promote the items in their list directly. (It wasn't clear to me, though, how the state could provide some goods like friendship or personality -- capabilities for friendship and self-expression might indeed be the closest the state could achieve.)
The final chapter includes some more concrete recommendations, including: a guaranteed basic income; reducing advertising by eliminating tax deductions for ad expense; reducing working hours and increasing work-sharing; and less enthusiasm for free-trade agreements.
S&S make a couple of welcome departures from the usual tendencies of Anglophone writers who criticize growth. First, they don't base their opposition to growth on global warming or "peak oil" -- the foundation of their case is philosophical ethics. Second, they aren't entirely oblivious to the huge "de-growth" literature in Europe: they several times mention the late French social thinker André Gorz, one of the earliest and smartest "décroissancistes" or "objecteurs de croissance," objectors to growth. (Oddly, though, they refer to him as a "Marxist sociologist" (@33; also 216), even though he was a journalist by profession, and had broken with Marxism by 1980, long before writing the works S&S cite.)
Having recently published a book urging that Japan abandon growth-based policies (in Japanese, March 2012), I found a lot to agree with in this one. That includes a few of S&S's policy recommendations, such as about working hours and trade. We also have in common that we both use Aristotle's Politics as a jumping-off point. Aristotle distinguished between exchange (commerce) whose goal was to obtain things useful to the life of a household or community, and exchange for the purpose of accumulating money. His insight was that the first type has a "natural" limit -- there's only so much stuff anyone can use -- while the second type, which he called "unnatural," doesn't have any limit. I drew somewhat different conclusions about growth from this than did S&S, but they're complementary rather than in conflict. (A first-draft English version of my own take, from November 2010, is available for free on Social Science Research Network.)
There are a few topics, though, that I felt deserved more consideration in the book, some factual matters that could have been handled better, and some doubts I had about the way S&S articulate their arguments about ethics and the environment. They're the subject of the rest of this long review.
1. First, some under-represented topics:
(a) The ideology of innovation is closely tied to the ideology of growth, such as in the "New Growth Theory" whose rhetoric fueled the 1990s dot-com boom. S&S don't examine the links between the two. Despite criticizing growth, they seem to have unlimited faith in technology, e.g. to cure all environmental problems (Chap. 5).
(b) S&S set up a dichotomy between work (unpleasant stuff) and leisure (stuff you like doing, even if you get paid for it). As French sociologist Dominique Méda has pointed out, this dichotomy is common in academic writing -- but the biggest conflict for real people is between work and *family.* S&S ignore this issue, and indeed family altogether, except to argue why family is a type of "friendship" (@163).
(c) The role of business enterprises in economic growth, and in any future departure from it, isn't mentioned. Financial services are discussed only in the context of greed, though S&S also suggest that bankers are hard-working chaps who'd admit they are overpaid (@217; see also @23). You wouldn't know from this book that the speculative financial economy of capital gains is now *much bigger* than the economy of goods and services reflected in GDP -- a point that drives many decisions by managers, stockholders, and politicians, as well as driving the growth of inequality.
(d) Finally, S&S say too little about democracy. They seem to regard it as a Good Thing (@159), but the "good life" apparently is to be provided by "the state" without people contending over their visions of it. And S&S see "leisure" as time for playing football, making furniture or strumming guitars (@166) -- but not, as Gorz and others have suggested, for collective political activity.
2. Regarding factual matters, more often my concern was that some statements or examples created a misimpression, rather than being clearly wrong.
(a) S&S mention Adam Smith's idea in The Wealth of Nations, that societies will eventually reach a "stationary state" at various levels of affluence (@53). While this is accurate, it's also a bit equivocal. The reader isn't told that in the same passage Smith states his explicit preference for the "progressive" (growing) state -- a passage cited hundreds of times after WWII to justify economic growth.
(b) Later, S&S discuss Carl Menger as a representative of neoclassical utility theory (@90-91). But actually, Menger criticized the utility theory of W. Jevons and L. Walras (see M.'s Principles of Economics, Chap. 3, Sec. 2.), who are far more representative of today's mainstream economics. Menger also rejected the use of mathematics in economic reasoning, which puts his ideas even further outside the post-WWII mainstream (with all due respect to Ron Paul and the Tea Party in the US).
(c) S&S attribute "the dissolution of the [sic] distinction between use value and exchange values" to the neoclassical economists (@91), but to do so is doubly blurry. First, the early neoclassicals did maintain a distinction. Both Jevons and, more clearly, F.Y. Edgeworth identified exchange value with marginal utility, and use value with total utility (see my 2010 article for cites). Second, what S&S probably mean is that *a* distinction was dissolved: use value came to be treated as a quantity, like exchange value, instead of as a quality, as Aristotle had held it. But this shift, which Menger et al. did rely on, had already been accomplished by the time of Adam Smith, if not earlier; it also was picked up by Marx, via Smith.
I admit that examples (a)-(c) above, along with S&S's puzzling opposition between "ethics" and "utilitarianism" (@95, 134), are small, and bugged me more in the aggregate than singly.
(d) More problematic, though, because it's more central to S&S's main argument, is their narrative of the history of economic growth as a policy (@180-183). They seem to ascribe growth's prominence before 1980 to (i) the achievement of full employment after WWII, leading to "there [being] no other objects of economic policy left," and (ii) "left-wing politicians and economists" who were the "apostles of growth in the 1960s."
This ignores the role of US defense hawks in getting the US to adopt growth after the Soviet A-bomb explosion of 1949. The 1950s were the heyday of politically-motivated economic growth, of mathematical growth theories (including Robert Solow's, which won a Nobel Prize), and the origin of the international "league table" comparisons for GNP and GDP that continue to fascinate us today. (See, e.g., H.W. Arndt's excellent 1978 history, "The Rise and Fall of Economic Growth".) As Philip Mirowski has shown ("Machine Dreams" (2006)), many of the most influential Democrat economists, such as at MIT and the Cowles Foundation (with members variously at Chicago, Yale and the West Coast), were receiving funding from the Defense Department and its affiliated think-tanks, like RAND, from the 1950s into the 1970s.
The emphasis on the 1960s and "left-wingers" fits in with S&S's ethical theme, which rests on the corrupting power of the sexual revolution and of the ideas of Marxist counter-culture icon Herbert Marcuse: hedonism leading to consumerism (@63-70, esp. 68). But they're being, at best, overly selective when it comes to the historical record. To say nothing of it being a stretch to call Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, De Gaulle, Pompidou and Giscard "left-wing politicians."
3. Some other aspects of the ethical argument against economic growth weren't entirely convincing, either. The crux of it is that consumers, not governments, are most responsible for the obsession with growth. Why else rail against Marcuse, "who proclaimed the new doctrine of erotic liberation with heavy Germanic learning"? Marcuse might have inspired some college-educated hippies, but the time I was in college in early '70s, literary critic György Lukács had already replaced him as Most Fashionable Marxist Intellectual. And most people, including me, didn't read either of them back then. The linkage between Marcuse's ideas and government policy in the wealthiest countries is never explained in the book. (As if!)
Some readers, especially outside Europe, might also be alienated by S&S's strong promotion of Christianity, and put off by their emphasis on supposed links between sexual license and consumerist "insatiability" (mostly in Chap. 2). There are gentler and less sectarian ways to argue for a turn from consumerism to more spiritual pursuits, such as along the lines of Erich Fromm's "To Have Or To Be?" (1976). S&S, though, are of course entitled to their convictions. Their narrative in which consumers shoulder most of the blame for growth, and in which a return to Christian mores is part of the cure, has counterparts in Continental de-growth literature, especially from Alain de Benoist (a 2008 book) and Meinhard Miegel (2010). Fortunately, S&S aren't at all as politically reactionary as those authors.
4. Finally, S&S's discussion of the environment (Chap. 5) is the weakest part of the book: it's too dismissive of the connection between global warming and economic growth.
S&S are correct that environmental arguments aren't a *sufficient* argument against growth, as a scientific matter. However, this has nothing to do with the specious argument they advance, that economic growth could be necessary to finance technological fixes (@124). It has more to do with the laws of thermodynamics, and the huge amount of energy available to us from the sun. E.g., if we were willing to turn the earth into a disco ball of space-borne solar panels, we could harness sufficient energy to serve our demand, remove C02 from the atmosphere, recycle most pollutants with great thoroughness, etc. for many millennia. I do agree, though, that environmental arguments aren't a good *rhetorical strategy* for a critique of growth (@7), because it's so easy to get distracted by arguments about estimates and forecasts. (Like S&S, my paper and book put forth an argument that's independent of environmental impacts.)
However, S&S make the leap that all environmental arguments against growth are driven by "sentiment, not science" (@136). They welcome this, since they think that a desire for harmony with nature is a component of a reasonable *ethical* argument against economic growth; their problem is that "modern Greens" don't acknowledge their own emotionalism (id.). Aside from being unjustified, as I'll show in the next paragraph, their argument here becomes something like a rant. Although they think that harmony with nature is important for humans, they suggest that "environmentalism" is at root an invention of "an anti-Semite and ... an unrepentant Nazi" (Ludwig Klages and Martin Heidegger, @133), "exported to America" by the book's Mephistopheles, Herbert Marcuse (earlier called out for his "Jewish messianism" shared with Marx, @67). Come on. What's next: Rachel Carson, Donella Meadows, Barry Commoner and Paul Ehrlich were all either Nazis or Marxist Jewish free-love advocates? Here's another silly generalization: "climate radicals" are both "strongly opposed to discounting future welfare" (citing the Stern Review on global warming prepared for Tony Blair's government) and "passionate haters of greed and luxury, people who in previous ages might have been Cromwells or Savanarolas" (@130-131). This includes Baron Stern himself, I suppose? To compound matters, so to speak: S&S claim the support of "most environmental economists" for their position on discounts (@130), without ever reflecting that those economists are using the same flawed neoclassical approach S&S criticize elsewhere in the book.
While science might not prove that economic growth will inevitably destroy human life, S&S overlook the point that growth may very well do so *as a practical matter*. Not only is there no guarantee we'll come up with the political will to build that disco ball I mentioned earlier -- there's no guarantee we'll be able to discover and deploy *any* technological fix *when we need to.* So before we put our faith in unknown innovations to save us, as S&S seem to suggest, we've got to ask ourselves one question: Do we feel lucky? No sentiment necessary, other than a desire that humans stick around. S&S make the comforting claim that "the idea of a catastrophic 'tipping point'... is rejected by most serious scientists" (@129), but they're simply mistaken. They should check the pages of leading scientific journals like Science, Nature, Nature Climate Change, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, all of which regularly publish research papers accepting this notion. As long as environmental arguments avoid exaggerating about the laws of physics, they can be important complements to other arguments against growth -- and some of the most persuasive arguments for changing policy quickly.
By the way, neither the American edition's subtitle, "Money and the Good Life," nor the British edition's, "The Love of Money and the Good Life," is really apt, though the British one is closer to the mark. The real objects of S&S's polemic are "insatiability" generally, consumption, and sexual license, far more than the accumulation of money per se. I assume the subtitles were chosen by the publisher, who has served readers no better with the index, which omits entries for "Menger," "Easterlin," "use value," and "sex," among other topics significant for the book. All of my reservations notwithstanding, the book is well worth reading. If you're new to the topic of de-growth, or if you liked Tim Jackson's "Prosperity without growth?," or if, especially, you've only read environmentalist arguments like Bill McKibbin's or "The Limits to Growth," this book will give you a valuable additional perspective.