Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Making the case for pluralism in economic thinking

John Barry: After writing a post asking Where's our 'Green' Whitaker?, I was reflecting on the relationship between the imperative for orthodox economic growth (and the conventional neo-classical economic theory and thinking which accompanies it) and sustainability, (in)equality and well-being.

I'll begin by citing Thomas Friedman, once the cheerleader for unfettered neoliberal globalisation, who has recently become a 'proto- green' (at least from an economic perspective). In an extremely interesting op ed piece for the New York Times in March he states:

"Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: ‘No more’.”

Welcome to the party, Thomas. Us greens have been saying as much for at least four decades.

Couple that with two excellent discussions this week - one by John Woods, director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, and another by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett – both of which spoke to the same key issue, namely that we have the empirical evidence that economic growth is not just ecologically unsustainable (i.e. not compatible with 'one planet living') but also needs inequality which undermines general well-being in society.

John Woods presented a summary, and outlined the implications for Northern Ireland, of Tim Jackson (Economics commissioner of the UK's Sustainable development Commission) and his recent SDC publication Prosperity without Growth John's talk and Tim's argument is, basically, that what the green movement has been saying for decades is true: beyond a certain point, economic growth does not only not add much to general and average well-being but, through positional competition, status competition and 'defensive' consumption, actually undermines human well-being. Here the real challenge is how to design public policy and especially macro-economic policy which aims to enhance human flourishing rather than a narrow focus on one means to flourishing i.e. conventional economic growth.

In the excellent discussion which followed John's talk, it was clear that the dominance of the discourse and myth of 'economic growth' is one of the main reasons for people to misunderstood greens and others who question 'growth'. The issue seems to be that many people cannot but view a non-growth argument as anything but 'bad', whereas the real issue is to separate out growth from 'prosperity' (as Jackson does), 'flourishing' (after Sen) or in my own work 'economic and social security', or to simply draw a distinction between economic growth and well-being. The evidence behind Jackson's report is pretty compelling, drawing on decades of research in economics, behavioural economics, psychology and cultural studies, all of which show that growth after a threshold does not appreciably add to average well-being (the infamous 'crocodile graph', is illustrative here demonstrating rising GNP over decades coupled with well-being flatlining since around 1960).

Wilkinson and Pickett's talk was also robust in its empirical evidence. They were talking about their new book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better and presented an impressive range of statistical and cross-country analysis which shows the strong correlation between inequality and a range of issues from obesity, lack of trust, crime, imprisonment, mental health. What I found particularly striking was their evidence that inequality does not simply negatively affect the least well off: in fact, almost everyone does less well the more unequal the society.

So, the upshot? Well... green critiques of economic growth now have a firmer evidence base, the need for more redistributive economic policies is apparent, the creation of less unequal societies not only is inextricably linked to challenging economic growth (i.e. if you are an egalitarian or on the left, you should be in alliance with greens), and what is needed above all is more pluralism in economic thinking. What does public policy look like when it’s free from the imperative of economic growth, competitiveness and all the other guff of 'there is no alternative' economic thinking, and what does public policy look like when its aimed at directly improving quality of life, human flourishing rather than economic growth?

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