Degrowth?!

BY Paul Solman  February 10, 2011 at 10:34 AM EST

Paul Solman: The last post began to answer Jane Maier’s epic email by discussing “heterodoxy” in economics.

Today’s takes up her second issue: “degrowth.” Following her point about the disinclination of economics to invite alternative views, Ms. Maier wrote:

“… heterodox economists come in many persuasions. The ecological economists also get very short shrift in the media. I suppose they are too controversial since many of them question the holy grail of both the left and right in this country – “economic growth”. Clearly an idea that would be unorthodox and unpopular to question. Actually there are a few in European circles calling for economic “degrowth”. http://www.degrowth.eu/v1/index.php?id=56

Well, I hope someday that you may look into presenting some of these unconventional opinions.”

Someday is today, Ms. Maier, at least with respect to “degrowth.” For all my aversion to wanton consumption and sympathy for Buddhism even, I ask you: just how realistic is a program of material diminution?

The justification for market economics can be put simply: would you prefer one piece of pie or two? Capitalism, as Karl Marx forcefully observed 153 years ago, is a system that produces the goods.

Yes, it produces “bads” as well. Noxious side effects (“negative externalities”) may wind up poisoning or flooding or boiling us all to death, though I wouldn’t bet on it. Yes, the march of science may be leading us down a path to self-destruction, as we humans unleash forces we can’t control. In other words, yes, I’ve read Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” and you probably have too. We probably all should. But I very much doubt the world is going on a “degrowth” binge anytime soon.

If you’re an overweight Westerner, maybe the answer to the pie question should be: one piece is better than two. But for quite a few folks in this world — a billion? two billion? — the cry would be: give me any pie at all. Give me the Green Revolution, even if it creates water problems that will be hard to manage. Give me automobiles and air conditioning and hot running water — or give me death.

But even if you don’t buy all of the above, Ms. Maier, let me offer this last argument against “degrowth”: more humans are living longer, more pain-free, more “self-actualized” lives than ever in the history of the planet. Growth makes that possible. Monty Python made the point memorably in the brilliant 1979 film, “The Life of Brian,” answering the question “What have the Romans ever done for us?

I’ll respond to your third issue — automation and what you call “the economy of labor” — soon, though perhaps not in the next post, for who knows what tomorrow may bring?