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Population Growth: The Ironic Vexer

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 22/01/2021 - 5:20am in
By Brian Czech

In a world of vexing issues—and our topic this week is certainly that—population growth might just be the most ironic. That’s because it should be among the simplest of issues; almost trifling in its mathematics. Yet opinions about it are beset with political, economic, and even some technical controversy.

For steady staters it seems perfectly clear: Population must be stabilized for the sake of societal well-being and even mere sustainability. On this, steady staters are aligned with ecologists, anthropologists, and most folks grounded in the natural sciences. Steady staters are more than just academic observers, though. Population stabilization is a central policy goal in advancing the steady state economy. It must be pursued through public education, fiscal policy, sustainable immigration, and international diplomacy.

Unfortunately, for many other groups, population growth is like the elephant in the room at an 800-pound gorilla convention. Most environmental organizations, despite dealing with one controversy after another, won’t touch population with a 10-foot pole. Conventional economists and politicians think little about limits to growth and almost invariably promote population growth. Even the Degrowth movement in Europe tends to dismiss population as an issue for colonialist hypocrites to wring their hands over.

Let’s consider a few of these controversies and complications that cloud the issue of population growth. Then we’ll identify some starting points for population policy congruent with a steady state economy. But first we’ll take another crack, as so many others have, at demonstrating the raw untenability of population growth using a few eye-popping calculations.

Lilies, Rice, and Warm Bodies Stacked Up at the Fed

So much has been written about the power of exponential growth, yet it never seems to sink into the brain of the body politic. We’ve all heard about lilies on the pond and rice on the checkerboard. Maybe we need to put it in simple terms of humans on the planet.

Crowd

No limit to population growth? (Image: CC0, Credit: Hans)

If our global population of 7.8 billion grew at 1 percent per year—a tenth of a percentage point slower than the current rate—we’d have 21 billion people on the planet a century from now. Yes, that’s 21 billion at 2121. (Any numerologists out there?)

Some folks don’t think very far ahead, but a century is hardly eons. We have quite a few folks on this side of the grass who remember Black Tuesday, the Bolshevik revolution, and Babe Ruth. Ask any of these old-timers and they’ll tell you: 2121 will be here before you know it.

Now can you imagine the traffic, horn-blowing, and garbage with almost three times the current crowding? And of course, these are mere inconveniences compared to the existential threats of global heating, resource wars, and pandemics. Yet if you think 21 billion sounds bad, consider that a thousand years from now, in the year 3021, we’d have 163 trillion. We better hope they’re all wearing deodorant, because that’s about 1.1 warm bodies per square meter of dry land! 

You don’t need a population dynamics course to come up with these calculations. Anybody can find the simple formula and tinker with projections using an online population calculator.

So much for blunt math. Now let’s try a thought experiment. If, as the no-limits folks assure us, we can accommodate a perpetually growing population with space-saving technology such as agroponics, genetic engineering, and nanobubbles, surely we could use that exact same technology to accommodate our current numbers in smaller areas. For example, we (7.8 billion humans) could all reside in North America.

But why stop there? Why not have everyone confined to Washington, DC? In fact, we could all move into some headquarters of this or that where the current occupants think there’s no limit. Maybe at the Federal Reserve or the Cato Institute. Not that we’d want to be there, stacked up like shrimps at Bubba Gump’s. But then, why would we want 163 trillion humans on Earth, either? Or 21 billion? Or even 8 billion? (The latter is slated for 2023.)

Yes, to think there is no limit to population growth is patently and provably absurd. All it takes is a modicum of math and a glimpse of geometry. Yet here we are, squeezing into the proverbial Bubba Gump’s with that 1.1 percent growth rate. So, what’s going on in the minds of those economists, politicians, environmental organizations, and degrowthers who refuse to call for stable population?

Population Growth in Conventional Economic Growth Theory

It is crucial for steady staters, population activists, and environmentalists to understand how conventional economists think about population growth. The “second team” of sustainability—anthropologists, engineers, and perhaps public health professionals—should understand likewise. Most would already know that economists are very pro-growth, at least GDP growth. But most of these same rational thinkers probably also assume that economists aren’t necessarily pro-population growth. Most would probably surmise that economists are for GDP growth with a stable population. That way, everyone would have more—a higher per capita consumption—while the hand-wringing over population growth would cease. Surely our GDP-promoting economists would be for that, right?

Wrong! As I described at length on the Steady Stater, the most shocking idea to come out of conventional economics is this: Not only does it take a growing population to increase GDP, but it takes a growing population to increase…(brace yourself)…GDP per capita!

Yes, you read that right. Mainstream economists believe it takes a growing human population not only to grow the economy but to grow the economy per person. In other words, not only can a growing per capita consumption be reconciled with population growth—it requires population growth. So, if you want your grandkids to have a bigger piece of the pie, you better hope the world provides more mouths to feed!

Julian Simon explained this counterintuitive notion—his self-christened “Grand Theory”—in The Ultimate Resource (1981). He said in a nutshell that, yes, environmental problems crop up as the population grows, but so does the number of brains to solve those problems. These brains would ultimately trump resource shortages every time. In fact, there’d be enough brainpower left over to solve any kind of environmental problem. It was a simplistic, shoddy, and sloppily derived hypothesis (as I documented at length in Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train), but pro-growth interests loved it and spread it far and wide.

Paul Romer

Paul Romer: Everyone makes mistakes. (Image: CC0, Credit: Doerrb)

The bigger problem came along when Paul Romer, in so many other ways a brilliant scholar, adopted the same basic logic in his “endogenous growth theory” thirteen years later. That’s what set him on a path to fame among economists, economic journalists, and of course the pro-growth think tanks. His Nobel Prize (which wasn’t a Nobel prize per se, but that’s another story) served to legitimatize whatever he had postulated.

Compared with the unfounded optimism (or salesmanship) of Simon’s “theory,” Romer’s growth calculus was much more complex, and I doubt he actually thought GDP or GDP/capita could grow forever. But based on his writings, neither did he think limits to growth were relevant at this point in history. That’s approximately the next-biggest mistake for big-picture thinking in the 21st century.

Fake News, Conspiracy Theories, and the Southern Poverty Law Center

Population activists range all along the spectrums of innocence, ethics, and intent. Many are ecologists concerned with protecting biodiversity. Others are humanists concerned with posterity’s prospects. Still others are card-carrying white supremacists who hate non-white immigrants. We should be grateful, then, that organizations have formed to root out intolerance and rub out the stains of slavery and racism. Unfortunately, guilt by association is an ever-present threat.

Enter the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). They and like-minded groups have smeared the names of population stability advocates, often with the broad brush of guilt by association. Such smearing is a travesty for numerous individuals and organizations, and more importantly a huge barrier to population stabilization. It spreads like wildfire, too.

A good example starts with the late John Tanton, who simultaneously drew the praise of population activists and the perdition of the SPLC. Tanton was a philanthropic saint for population organizations and a race-baiting sinner to the SPLC network. I’m not here to play God one way or the other, but I do declare that the very first Google result I checked pursuant to this matter contained an obvious error. I immediately found the SPLC page that states (as of 1/20/21), “President Dan stein [sic] (left) and fair (sic; should be “FAIR”) founder John Tanton have both suggested that america [sic] is better off under ‘Anglo-Saxon dominance.’” Yet I believe the photo on the left—indeed the only photo on the page—is of Tanton, not Stein. Either that or Stein is a helluva doppelganger.

In other words, the SPLC’s sloppily written page contained a reckless misidentification of a person the page was chiefly concerned with—a dead person no less.

I have no reason to doubt that the SPLC was borne out of the excellent intentions of “fighting hate, teaching tolerance, and seeking justice.” That doesn’t mean they’re good at it, though. If they’re recklessly fomenting a movement that ends up hamstringing other crucial missions—such as the sustainability of the human race—then they’re not so good after all. It’s ironic, too, because while they’re busy fighting hate, teaching tolerance, and seeking justice, they sure seem hateful and intolerant of population activists, unjustly painting them with the guilt-by-association brush.

And so it was that on Sunday, August 23, 2020, I received an email from an entity calling itself “End Environmental Racism.” This otherwise anonymous entity stated, “It has come to our attention that you have accepted funding from an organization that also funds systemic racist organizations. We, together with the League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, and other environmental organizations, see an “urgent need to dismantle systemic racism within our own organization and the environmental movement” (Sierra Club). Many environmental groups have refused funding from organizations linked to racism.” It goes on to identify the “racist organizations” as “a cluster of organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Institute [sic] regards as hate groups, and that have been founded by activist John Tanton.”

I’m not going to identify the “cluster of organizations” or the funder, because gossip is a plague worse than COVID (according to Pope Francis). It destroys people left and right. What I will say is that the funder is one of the few organizations with the fortitude and clarity to go straight at the root cause of biodiversity loss, global heating, and the ecological footprint at large. Just as the funder is rare in that regard, so are the organizations to be funded. Indeed, the Sierra Club is not one of them, nor are any of the big environmental NGOs. With their corporate boards, they won’t say a thing about limits to growth; it’s left to organizations like CASSE to do the heavy lifting.

Meanwhile, neither the funder nor CASSE can help it if other organizations (focused on immigration for example) end up having some racist followers. Yet the August 23 email ended with, “We would like to know your concerns about receiving funding from an organization being linked to racism.”

“Linked to racism?” Libel much? And what does that mean, “being linked?” Who’s assessing what constitutes a link—the SPLC?

Who’s next to be “linked” to racism, CASSE itself? That seems to be the implication of the vaguely threatening email. Yet linking CASSE to racism would be like linking Aunt Gertie to obstruction of justice if she accepted grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency, because the EPA happened to originate under Richard Nixon. Like Nixon, John Tanton is deceased and his actions on Earth go way back in time. Meanwhile, population organizations, boards, and staff have come and gone.

Robert E. Lee

Anyone “linked” to Robert E. Lee via Pizzagate? (Image: https://steadystate.org/dating-sites-without-fake-profiles/, Credit: pink dating app)

So, what’s next, linking us with Robert E. Lee? Via funding sources, the ghost of John Tanton, and the sri lanka dating womens?

No, what CASSE is firmly linked to is its mission and its position on economic growth, which calls for population stabilization. The SPLC and the anonymous emailer ought to have better things to do than harassing fighters for the common good like CASSE.

But since they brought it up, who’s funding the SPLC, anyway? The Koch Brothers? Cato Institute? Heritage Foundation? Any number of pro-growth operators would love to see the demise of limits-to-growth organizations. They must be “linked” in some way.

Other Detractors from Population Stabilization

Aside from neoclassical economics and the Southern Poverty Law Center, several other groups put a damper on population stabilization politics. One such group could be called Anti-Abortion Christianity. That includes the Catholic Church but also a far-right complex of God and Guns.

Pardon the awful metaphor, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. It’s easy to empathize with the Catholic teaching on abortion (especially outside of extreme contexts such as rape and incest). We face accelerating threats to the integrity of human life and the reproduction thereof: genetic engineering, in vitro fertilization, cloning, CRISPR, cryonics, etc. Protecting life in the womb is looking quaint and quixotic in the face of such assaults on naturalness.

The problem is, of course, that the anti-abortion stance tends to morph into politics against family planning in general. Yet, with a pope advising that we don’t have to breed “like rabbits” and calling for “responsible parenthood,” I don’t think Anti-Abortion Christianity is the biggest challenge today. Thank goodness, “God and Guns” won’t get far either. My vote would be for neoclassical economics, Wall Street, or Dark Money.

Another group, and more surprisingly at first glance, is the Degrowth movement in Europe. This group is far from united on goals and policies, but many degrowthers seem to be against the immigration reforms that would be necessary to stabilize populations in European countries. In such countries (as well as the USA), the “native” birthrate is at or below the replacement rate, and population growth results primarily from high rates of immigration; 90 percent in the case of the USA.

The degrowthers’ case against immigration reform stems from a concern for social justice. Degrowthers realize that European nations have a history of colonization, of taking slaves and resources over vast regions of the world. In some ways, colonization continues, if we include corporations among the colonizing powers. For degrowthers, it only exacerbates the injustice when emigrants from colonized regions are locked out of the colonizing countries where they might find greener pastures.

Population Stabilization and Steady Statesmanship

Steady staters can empathize with the degrowthers, and in fact just about all the groups noted above (not including white supremacists or Dark Money.) However, we start with the principles of steady-state economics, which means we deal with three major issues: sustainability, justice, and efficiency. We seek an efficient allocation of resources toward a socially just distribution of wealth, in an aggregate amount that fits on the planet.

The order is important, too. No other goals are feasible for long—by definition—without sustainability. So, while others may prioritize social justice (such as the SPLC and many degrowthers) and others prioritize efficient allocation (such as most economists), we prioritize “sustainable scale.” That means a stabilized population and economy at a sustainable size; ideally at an optimal size.

To stabilize population, we need buy-in from the public and policymakers. That starts with public education. How can we expect any policies toward population stability without it? Articles like this and blogs such as the Steady State Herald can help, but of course, we need sweeping coverage in primary and secondary schools as well as colleges and universities. Nuggets about lilies and rice grains work for starters, but public education must build up to sustainability concepts such as the ecological footprint and carrying capacity.

At post-graduate levels, where education blends into policy formulation, how exactly should our message be presented? A good strategy for steady staters is to “lead” with the need to stabilize the economy as measured with GDP. That way we don’t run immediately into the undiscriminating teeth of Anti-Abortion Christianity. When population does come up—as of course it must—we can quickly point out that it’s not angels on the head of a pin we’re talking about. Rather, we’re interested in population growth only because real, warm-blooded humans consume and have an ecological footprint that affects every other human (present and future) with a right to life. But we lead with GDP—and constantly go back to a focus on GDP—because GDP growth is a very secular issue and not at all taboo. It’s constantly on the airwaves, televisions, and internet.

Yet when limits to GDP and the devastating effects of GDP are firmly established in political dialog, population comes back into the spotlight, right next to per capita consumption. Agreement builds that population cannot be left to chance, passion, or an attitude of “outgrowing” other groups.

Once we achieve that level of understanding, we can get down to the brass tacks of population policy. The brass tacks are fiscal policy reforms. The two that immediately come to mind in the USA are the earned income tax credit (EITC) and the child tax credit (CTC). Reforming the EITC to provide more eligibility for childless workers and less credit for multi-child couples (especially wealthy couples) is a clear and viable starting point. So is reducing or even eliminating the CTC, especially for those with higher incomes (and therefore heavier ecological footprints). These are low-hanging fruits; they’re already-existing tools in the tax code. They simply need to be re-tooled toward population stabilization rather than population growth.

Policy reforms beyond these low-hanging fruits are a matter of policy entrepreneurship. Fiscal policy—the budgets and tax codes of federal, state, and local governments—is the working environment of the population policy entrepreneur. Fiscal policy is especially relevant to “native” population growth, stemming from the reproduction of current citizens.

white supremacist

Not a steady statesman. (Image: CC BY-SA 2.0, Credit: Robert Thivierge)

Immigration, on the other hand, requires more than just fiscal policy. It requires statesmanship; steady statesmanship in this case.

If population growth is the elephant in the room at an 800-pound gorilla convention, then immigration is the black sheep in a room full of elephants at the gorilla convention. In order to get the discussion going with a dispassionate and apolitical tone, pure math is the place to start. A steady state economy requires a population growth rate of zero—do the math—and if the immigration rate tips the balance into a positive growth rate, reform is required.

That said, once again the ordering of goals is crucial. The ordering of policy goals is what separates steady staters from “non-growth at all costs” population activists as well as diversity-hating white supremacists. Steady staters are convinced that, until the USA (for example) establishes a steady state economy, at least as a policy goal, closing the borders will backfire. Closing the borders while pursuing GDP growth—with American interests extracting rents from Tuvalu to Timbuktu—would make the USA look like a greedy hog. Not only would it be unethical; it would be disastrous for national security.

Imagine instead that the USA announces it is undertaking a transition, pursuant to the Full and Sustainable Employment Act, away from unsustainable growth to a steady state economy. Imagine the president announcing that, as part of this transition, the borders will be gradually tightened until the population is stabilized. Meanwhile, the USA will assist poverty-stricken nations in their own backyards. The Secretary of State clarifies that such assistance will be predicated on goals of population stabilization in those nations as well. The USA will be practicing steady statesmanship, in other words.

Now that would be good for national security, and good for the soul of America.

[Note: This article will be followed up with a Steady Stater episode (1/25/21) featuring Leon Kolankiewicz on population facts, figures, policy and politics.]

Brian Czech

Brian Czech is the Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

The post Population Growth: The Ironic Vexer appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.


Steady Statesmanship and Climate Policy in the Midst of a Fascist Threat

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 15/01/2021 - 4:36am in
By Brian Snyder

The insurrectionist mob that stormed the Capitol last week has been frequently described as fascist. Certainly, it was a far-right, racist mob attempting to overthrow a democratic election, as with the Beerhall Putsch or the March on Rome. Yet, the real fascists in the Capitol weren’t the mob. The actual fascists are far more powerful than a bunch of conspiracy-addled cosplayers. The real fascists were the half-dozen senators and 140 or so representatives who abetted and instigated the insurrection. Furthermore, the real problem in American democracy is not determining how to punish the rabble, but determining how to handle the fascists who’ve infiltrated our American government.

Trump

Donald Trump: Conservative or fascist? (Image: CC BY 2.0, Credit: Michael Candelori)

The Mob Was Not Fascist

Do not mistake my argument that the mob was not fascist for sympathy. Quite the opposite. But the difference between fascism and conservatism—even far-right conservatism—is profound. Conservatives believe in democracy; fascists do not. Conservatives and fascists may (or may not) have similar policy preferences, but fascism seeks power through any means—democratic or not. Conservatives, because of their respect for the rule of law, propriety, and precedent, would not seek to abrogate the results of an election. Mitt Romney is a conservative; Donald Trump is better described as a fascist. Of course, this definition seems to suggest that the rioters were fascists. Followers of Trump tried to undermine democracy.

Yet, it would appear that the rioters did not think that they were undermining democracy. They seem to have been deluded into believing that the democratic process had been corrupted and that it was up to them to right that wrong. They saw themselves as democracy’s savior, not its destroyer.

Fascism in the Republican Party

While I do not believe that most of the mob could be fairly called fascists, some members of Congress clearly are fascists, and this should be far more frightening. The mob was enabled by a group of senators and House members who planned to object to the results of free and fair elections in six states. In most cases, they followed through with these objections even after the insurrection. These politicians, all of whom are high-achieving, highly educated individuals, surely knew they were misleading Americans. They knew the elections were fair and that Joe Biden rightfully won, but they did not care. They were willing to trade democracy for power. That makes them nihilists. That the power they sought—another term of Trumpism—was racist, nationalist, and far-right, makes them fascists.

Of course, the Republican Party also has a conservative, non-fascist core centered around Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, and a handful of Never Trumpers. At present, it seems like there will be a prolonged dispute within the party between those who will seek power at all costs, and those who believe in democracy. If this conflict occurs—that is to say, if Mitch McConnell is able to rid the party of Trumpism—the mainstream conservatives will win. What they lack in an enthused base, they will more than make up for in corporate dollars, and so a new iteration of the Republican Party may emerge, if not simply revert to the pre-Trump version.

What Now?

In the midst of all of the problems of 2020 and 2021—an attempted coup, racial injustice, a global pandemic, increasing tensions with Iran—we still have all of the problems we had in January 2017 when Donald Trump took office, and most of them are worse. The past 12 months will be the warmest in recorded history—until it is overtaken soon—as global emissions continue to rise. The national debt has ballooned due to the stimuli and tax cuts used to maintain growth. Our geopolitical rivalry with China has deepened, causing concern about a new cold war. The government’s ability to leverage political capital has plummeted as our European allies wonder if we will elect more fascists in the coming years. In just about every way, the USA is worse off than it was four years ago.


Global heating: Concurrent with political division, no less. (Image: CC0, Credit: NASA)

Meanwhile, some of us have trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time. Dealing with all of these problems at once will be like riding a unicycle while eating meatloaf. Yet, that appears to be the hand we’ve been dealt, and the consequences if we fail—if we remain divided by race and class, divided on climate and energy, at odds with the world—will be catastrophic. Trump has brought us to the precipice of the abyss, and it is up to Joe Biden to walk us back.

Joe Biden has a task before him unlike any president has faced since 1932; and, as in 1932, the problems we face cannot be solved in a divided, polarized nation. Thus, Biden’s first job must not be climate or economic policy but unity. Unfortunately, Biden can only accomplish something approaching unity with the help of Republicans in the Senate, especially Mitch McConnell.

The unicycle is on a bumpy path when the highest hopes for the Republic rest with Mitch McConnell, yet if anyone in the Democratic Party can work with McConnell, it’s probably Biden.

What Does This Mean for Environmental and Steady-State Policy?

While many of the issues facing the USA are critically important, climate change takes on a special urgency and needs to be addressed immediately. But climate change lacks the immediacy of a pandemic, or insurrection, or a conflict with Iran. As a result, there is a risk that it will be pushed to the back burner. That would be both disastrous and understandable.

Joe Biden

Joe Biden: Not a steady-stater, but a symbol for climate stability. (Image: CC BY 2.0, Credit: Michael Stokes)

Further, it is hard to imagine how climate legislation could be passed in a nation so divided. We cannot even agree if our elections are fair or if the President incited a violent mob. How can we possibly agree on a contentious policy that we have argued over for decades?

Yet there is room for a certain degree of optimism. History is instructive. Our nation has been divided in the past: During the late 1960s following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the riots following King’s assassination, the Kent State Massacre, the My Lai Massacre, and the police assault during the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Then, as now, domestic terrorist organizations were dedicated to overthrowing the U.S. government from the left (Weather Underground) and the right (the Klan).

Despite these stark divisions, the early 1970s witnessed the passage of nearly every major piece of environmental legislation in U.S. history. The National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Clean Air Act (extended 1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976) were all passed or strengthened during this period and still, five decades later, form the backbone of U.S. environmental policy. Perhaps this was just the culmination of growing environmental awareness, or perhaps it was because passing environmental legislation was easier than dealing with issues of race or war. Whatever the cause, something positive emerged from this great division. Perhaps something similar can happen today.

Perhaps Americans watching this division and hatred will recoil and attempt to build a more community-centered nation, along the lines of that explored in Herman Daly and John Cobb’s For the Common Good.  Perhaps they will react against the gilded excess of Trumpism and return to a saner level of personal consumption and debt. Perhaps Americans will begin to understand that they should not rely on their drunk uncle’s Facebook feed as a source of information and return to factual news sources. Or perhaps Americans elect representatives in future elections that make real, substantive change in our political culture, our public policy, or both. If they are looking for a place to start, I might humbly submit the Full and Sustainable Employment Act (FSEA). Indeed, steady-state economics is a curious mix of progressive ideals and conservative values. (What could be more conservative than community-centered, fiscally-conservative conservationism?) The FSEA could make for common ground from which to start.

Brian F. Snyder is an assistant professor of environmental science at Louisiana State University and CASSE’s LSU Chapter director.

The post Steady Statesmanship and Climate Policy in the Midst of a Fascist Threat appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.


Christ Didn’t Shop for Christmas Presents (Much Less Jets and Guns)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 24/12/2020 - 2:31am in
By Brian Czech

With Christmas two days out, folks are making tough decisions about Christmas presents. Unemployment rates in 2020 have reached their highest rates since the Great Depression, and gift-giving is a real strain for many. My advice for anyone stressing out over Christmas presents is: Don’t be too hard on yourselves. It’s not like you need an excuse to temper the shopping, but if an excuse was needed, the COVID-caused recession would be it!

It’s true that little kids galore are expecting presents from gramma, grampa, and Santa Claus. But is that a good thing to encourage? This year provides a chance for children to learn about the real meaning of Christmas. If you’re a Christian, the meaning should be simple enough to convey. Even if you’re not a Christian, Christmas 2020 is still an opportunity for teaching kids about material scarcity and the need to conserve. They’ll need such lessons for the 21st century!

With or without COVID-19, isn’t it high time for a re-set on the material expectations of Christmas? Christmas lights, reindeer ornaments, inflatable Santas, lit-up geese, larger-than-life snowmen, Big Dots of Happiness…and that’s before we even step inside! Then in the house we have Christmas trees (chopped down or plastic), another set of lights, presents under the tree, and basically the whole set of lawn ornaments in miniaturized form, on and about the tree. Half of this junk is thrown out and replaced the following year.

consumption

What happened to the little, sustainable Nativity set? (Image: CC0, Source)

What happened to the little Nativity set, re-used for decades? It told the real story of Christmas, or Christ’s mass. Made out of wood, no electricity needed, and possibly even hand-carved, it also told a story of sustainable consumption. I like to believe there’s no coincidence here. I believe, in other words, that Christianity and sustainable consumption are supposed to go hand in hand.

Christ Wasn’t Much of a Consumer

I’m no theologian, but I was born and raised a Catholic. I read the Bible and learned the Catechism. All that teaching left me with plenty of uncertainty that plagues me to this day. Yet there’s one thing I’d bet the farm on: Christ was no conspicuous consumer.

The New Testament—supplemented by biblical archeology—has a lot to say about Christ’s lifestyle, starting with food, clothing, and shelter. His diet was typically at the subsistence level, with plenty of fasting. He probably wore a mantle (a type of shawl), sandals, and a one-piece tunic; “extremely basic.” It’s unclear whether Christ ever owned a home. As a child, he lived in a house with Mary and Joseph. A passage in the Book of Mark suggests he might have had a house as an adult. Yet he spent much of his life on the road—on foot—teaching whoever would listen, giving little thought to living quarters.

consumption

Jesus wasn’t into shopping. (Image: CC0, Source)

If Christ had a house at all, I’m guessing it lacked a swimming pool, wine cellar, and gold-plated bedroom.

Let’s face it: Jesus wasn’t much of a shopper. The one time we find him interacting in the marketplace, he’s driving the moneylenders out! This we read in the Book of John:

“In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’”

Of course, those were the days long before the study of “political economy” and debates over laissez-faire capitalism vs. socialism (democratic or authoritarian). It would be crazy to call Christ a Keynesian, a Georgist, or a Marxist. But he sure didn’t find much redemption in the peddling of goods. That’s enough to know with regard to Christmas shopping.

“Prosperity Gospel”— A Theological Oxymoron?

Despite all we read in the Bible about Christ living frugally, we have (primarily in the USA) televangelist pastors who preach a so-called “prosperity gospel,” the notion that Christian faith will lead to material wealth. So, when you give to the church (such as for building a bigger church), it’s sort of a financial investment mixed in with your witnessing for Christ. Theoretically, then, you’d have more money for Christmas presents later.

This prosperity gospel goes back to the late Oral Roberts, and disciples today include the likes of Joel Osteen, Kenneth Copeland, and the unbelievably named Creflo Dollar. Dollar owns two Rolls-Royces, a private jet, and multi-million dollar mansions. Another prosperity preacher is Jesse Duplantis, known for inspiring his followers to buy him private jets. Evidently he’s had four of them—“just burning them up for the Lord,” he says. His latest ride is the Falcon 7X. It flies near the speed of sound with noise-limiting acoustic technology, a Bluetooth-enabled entertainment center, and an in-flight shower.

Whatever happened to the teaching of Christ, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24)? Maybe with a jet, you can just blast your way on through there before anyone notices.

That reminds me of a little story. One time I was giving a talk to a small group of faith leaders in Washington, DC. They’d asked me to talk about limits to economic growth and provide a synopsis of the steady state economy. We then went around the group, maybe ten people in all, and discussed the issues. One minister stroked his chin for a moment and then, deep in thought, stated matter-of-factly, “The steady state economy; now that’s the Kingdom of God.”

As I recall, he was an Episcopalian pastor. While he didn’t elaborate with a theological argument, I think he was getting at the fact that Christians wouldn’t be conspicuous consumers. Instead, they would conserve, caring for creation and leaving room for future generations and non-human species. That resonated with me, and it seems consistent with the life of St. Francis and the teachings of Pope Francis, most notably in the Laudato si’, the Pope’s encyclical on “Care for Our Common Home.”

When it comes to consumption and consumerism, who should we put more stock in: Pope Francis or Creflo Dollar?

St. Francis and consumption

St. Francis of Assisi established a Catholic tradition of caring for creation, a tradition underpinning the theology and teachings of Pope Francis. (Image: CC BY 2.0, Credit: Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca)

Which Collection of Semi-Automatic Rifles and Handguns—Plus Designer Ammo and Shooting Accessories—Would Jesus Haul Out with the Hummer to the Thousand-Acre Moving Target Range?

As you might guess from the heading, I’m going full-preacher mode here. Normally I’d have little standing for preaching purposes, but the notion of “God and Guns” is some of the lowest-hanging fruit I’ve ever seen for an ethical critique. It makes as much sense as “Broccoli and Buns.” It’s a pair that just doesn’t fit. That’s relevant here because guns and ammo—and copious paraphernalia—are increasingly common Christmas presents.

I could use any number of sectors or products to illustrate how ludicrous it is to think of conspicuous consumption as congruent with Christianity. Maseratis, mansions, McMansions, fancy furniture, thousand-dollar bottles of wine…let’s keep them all in mind. Yet something is particularly, exceptionally, ridiculously ludicrous in the case of guns, and more broadly the “shooting sports” sector.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against guns per se—far from it. The NRA likes to point out that guns don’t shoot people: people do. Well, by that logic, I’d like to point out that guns didn’t coin the idiotic slogan “God and Guns.” Neither did God. Gun nuts did.

And of course, a lot depends on the type of gun. I’m not against mufflers either, but I don’t like those outlawed mufflers designed to make the most noise. Not many of us do; that’s why they were outlawed! Similarly, assault rifles with hundred-shot drum magazines are obnoxious as hell and let’s face it: they reek of evil.

I grew up in a hunting and fishing culture and I’ve always had a rifle or two (for deer hunting mostly) and a shotgun or two (for turkeys and such). One good firearm lasts a lifetime and more. I take a certain amount of pride, too, in the lost art of using a single rifle shell per year for venison (maybe two if the freezer is low) and maybe a handful of shotgun shells. I don’t mind hearing a few shots in the distance during deer season. In other words, I’m still not against inconspicuous consumption of guns and ammo. I also understand the country-boy resistance to Second Amendment infringement.

But we’re not talking about the Second Amendment here. We’re talking about a 21st-century cultural phenomenon of conspicuous consumption in the shooting sector. It will play out over the holidays in counties across the country.

Most city dwellers know little about this, but we have an entire subculture out in the countryside these days, including weekenders from the city, driving out with Hummers and SUVs, then jumping onto 4-wheelers and spending countless hours pumping out rounds—hundreds per hour—from semi-automatic assault rifles, shooting targets spiked with Tannerite and leaving a nasty footprint specific to the shooting sports. It may not always be visually conspicuous, but if you’re within a mile, your ears will be polluted with the sound of wanton waste of time, energy, and lead.

When gun nuts get rambunctiously political, the visuals can be uglier still.

God and Guns

Google results from “armed protesters” search, 12/22/20.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t picture Jesus Christ with an AR-15. No way. Not for hunting, protesting, or anything at all. Branded as “America’s rifle,” this phenom of the market hits the bullseye only if you’re shooting for a noise-making, peace-wrecking, lead-polluting, obnoxia-producing Christmas present!

In the Name of God

If you’re a Christian—and maybe if you’re not—you have to be really careful with the name of God. That’s the Third Commandment! The “God and Guns” crowd might want to stand down and reload with new rhetoric. Or the God crowd, at least, might want to separate themselves from the gun nuts.

It’s one thing to pair, for example, “God and Guts” (for bravery) or “God and Grits” (for salt-of-the-earth sensibility). Or even something vaguely (very vaguely) geopolitical, like “God and the Grange.” But for God’s sake, “God and Guns?” That’s about as edifying as “God and Gambling” or maybe “God and Gossip.”

Just because you have a right to gamble, gossip, or bear arms doesn’t pair it with God. You have a right to shell peanuts in church, too, but that hardly makes it godly. In my opinion, when you start hearing “God and Guns” chatter, the country’s on the road to perdition.

Similarly, the “prosperity gospel” reeks of “green growth” deceit. It’s just an excuse for extravagant living and greed. I bet Christ would have nothing to do with it.

He wouldn’t be buying many Christmas presents, either. (He might donate to Smile Train, though.)

Brian Czech

Brian Czech is the Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

The post Christ Didn’t Shop for Christmas Presents (Much Less Jets and Guns) appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.


The Impact of Evolutionary Pressures on Economic Narratives

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 10/12/2020 - 7:15am in

By Carey W. King

People use narratives to support their position, and narratives can serve three purposes. First, they tell a story of belonging. If you meet a stranger and realize you are from a common area, you more easily engage in conversation than otherwise. Second, they describe norms that guide our actions. Most people in society follow certain norms such that by doing so, they are accepted as part of the group. Third—and most relevant to advancing the steady state economy—we use narratives to describe and learn about how the world works.

Unfortunately, most narratives don’t serve all three purposes effectively. A narrative around an economic theory can help facilitate conversation by creating a common vocabulary (the first purpose of narratives), but that narrative might inhibit accurate explanation of the natural world around us. Some problems with economic policy derive directly from the fact that our economic narratives, perhaps useful for belonging and norms, are not useful in their ability to describe how the world works.

I decided to write a book about such narratives to explore some of the outcomes that affect our prospects for environmental and economic sustainability. In The Economic Superorganism, I’ve explained how and why people disagree about the role of energy in the economy. I realized that these disagreements weren’t entirely about the characteristics of energy technologies and resources. Far from it. The disagreements are more about why we consume energy in the first place, and how much energy consumption does or does not relate to economic prosperity and social livelihoods.

Energy and Economic Narratives

In Superorganism I break down narratives along the two axes of energy and economics. Because people disagree about the costs, capabilities, and benefits of different energy technologies and resources, proponents of different visions use narratives to convince stakeholders of the validity of their positions. At opposite ends of the energy axis are the fossil fuel and renewable energy narratives.

Economic narratives

The fossil fuel narrative is getting old—and dangerous. (Image: CC BY 2.0, Credit: Richard Hurd)

The fossil energy narrative starts with the fact that fossil fuels enabled us to achieve what we have today because the physical fundamentals of fossil fuels—most notably high energy-density and portability—ensure high utility and low cost. A proponent could say, “Fossil fuels, and the technologies we have developed to burn them, enable us to shape and control the environment.”

The renewable energy narrative is that we can use renewable energy technologies and resources to sufficiently and cost-effectively substitute for the services currently provided by fossil fuels. A proponent might say: “Thank you, fossil fuels, but we’ve modernized. We don’t need or want you anymore. Fossil fuel production and consumption create environmental harm both locally in the short term and globally over the long term to such a degree that their continued unmitigated use ensures environmental ruin that leads as well to economic ruin.”

We cannot fully understand a proponent (or detractor) of the fossil or renewable energy narratives without also contemplating their position within the economic narratives. At one end of the spectrum is technological optimism and perpetual GDP growth, and at the other end is technological realism and the need for a steady state economy or even degrowth toward a steady state economy.

The techno-optimistic narrative is a story of unbounded substitutability for anything before we run out of it in the faith we can invent our way to a solution for any and all economic, social, and environmental problems. Both the fossil and renewable narratives are usually paired with some degree of techno-optimism, and this year the combined narrative of renewables and techno-optimism was challenged in the film Planet of the Humans.

The techno-realistic economic narrative is the story of biological and physical constraints. Its narrators agree we are inventive, but that we can neither break the laws of nature nor access an infinite supply of natural resources for perpetual physical growth. This narrative underpins the CASSE position on economic growth, the signatories of which comprise a narrative community (or a significant portion thereof).

Which economic narratives, and subsequent mathematical models, should we be following, and are there some unspoken reasons why we might expect one to become more prominent than the other?

Can a System Understand Itself?

Economic narratives

The renewable energy narrative—too often coupled with the techno-optimistic narrative. (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, AleSpa)

To think about this question, consider that in 1977 ecologist Howard T. Odum argued that a system cannot fully understand itself (or its purpose), but by making models of itself the system can achieve some understanding.[1] One extension of this idea is that we humans, in being a part of this system we call “the economy,” cannot fully understand the function or purpose of the economy, but we can try by making our economic models as accurate as possible. Biophysical economic models with realistic dynamics, finite resource constraints, and a direct representation of natural resource flows among parts of the economy (including the original model used within the original Limits to Growth book from 1972) have proven more capable of representing long-term trends of the economy, such as population and energy consumption, than have the conventional economic growth models that rely on equilibrium principles and either exogenous or endogenous “technological change” without directly accounting for flows of biological and physical resources.[2] Given the obvious fact that economic activities involve machines and information processing that in turn require energy consumption to function, and thus that every economic activity is supported by natural resource consumption, why would the predominant economic models fail to account for biophysical resource flows?

A follow-up question is: “Would an economy that uses a more accurate economic model of itself generally be more fit, in an evolutionary sense, and prevail over an economy with a less accurate economic model of itself?”

I propose that a biophysical model of the economy is a more accurate construct than the conventional or “neoclassical” models, and we should be working on models that integrate biophysical flows with flows of money, including debt. For example, my “HARMONEY” model helps us understand how the 1970s OPEC oil crisis (and the constraint in energy consumption) could concur with rising GDP, but also with rising income inequality and debt levels, evidence for what Herman Daly calls “uneconomic growth.”[3]

However, I recognize the continued dominance of the neoclassical growth paradigm, even as it’s increasingly challenged due to its failure to anticipate the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, much less the outcomes of the OPEC oil crises. Hence my question as to why a given economic paradigm may be more evolutionarily “fit” than another.

In ecology, the maximum power principle is that, in the sense of natural selection, more “fit” organisms are those that acquire higher rates of energy consumption from their environment. (For non-ecologists, “fitness” redounds to the ability to survive and reproduce.) Now assume that more reproductive economies better propagate their technologies and organizational characteristics just like more fit biological organisms better propagate their genes. Pursuant to the maximum power principle, then, the economy that accesses more energy, and transforms it more efficiently into new structures, is more fit to survive and propagate its narratives.

Maximum Power Principle

Maximum power principle translated into economic production terms. (Credits: Brian Czech)

Do We Want the Truth?

But how do biological organisms or economies know which options enable higher power consumption? Do they know that energy input makes them more fit? Can they actually, consciously “seek” the inputs that increase their reproductive rates? We don’t get any sense that they attempt to model themselves via scientific and economic calculations. Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science, has studied the evolutionary impact of an agent (organism or society) having “truthful” and often complex—versus simple and less accurate—representations of what is really happening in the world around it.

Consider the following excerpt from Hoffman’s 2010 article:

Seeing more data takes more time. So, in the simplest version of this game, simple chooses first when competing against truth. […] Similarly, seeing more data takes more energy, so truth requires more energy than simple. We subtract the cost of energy from the utility that each agent gets. (Emphases added.)[4]

Here, lower utility is the same as lower evolutionary fitness. In addition to the necessity of consuming energy in order to extract energy from the environment, an agent (for example, an economy) must also invest some amount of time to learn more about the environment. Hoffman also emphasizes that it takes energy just to gain more knowledge. His argument is that simpler rules take less time and energy to make a decision.

Thus, in the context of evolution, organisms with simple decision-making rules based on relatively inaccurate descriptions of the environment can be more fit than organisms with more complicated rules based on more accurate descriptions of the environment.

What might simple decision-making rules look like for an economy? Prices, the study of which is the summum bonum of neoclassical economics.

Not only do neoclassical economics and neoliberal politics focus on the derivation of prices in the market, but in reality, prices that plague the market lack full and accurate information about the costs (especially the environmental and social costs) of production. Prices can even be determined by reckless whims of buyers and sellers. Even in well-structured markets, where short-term whims play little role, prices often reflect only a portion of the full costs.

Nevertheless, by focusing simplistically on markets and prices, neoclassical economics provides a relatively simple and teachable method to make economic choices in an expedient manner. All else equal, then, neoclassical economics could have an advantage in fitness over steady-state economics.

Thinking About What We Are Doing

The possibility of greater fitness for neoclassical economics (including perpetual growth theory) is a bitter pill to swallow for steady staters. I for one have a hard time thinking that neoclassical economics might have some enhanced usefulness over more biophysically based approaches to economic modeling. But, at this time, neoclassical economics is winning the evolutionary game of self-replication. That won’t necessarily always be the case, though.

Evolution just occurs; it is not forward-looking and thus involves no long-term planning or design. Similarly, markets focus on short-term profits and consumer utility rather than long-term societal goals. Friedrich Hayek, who perhaps more than anyone promoted markets to establish prices for guiding our choices, believed that we shouldn’t think about what we are doing: “The problem is precisely how to…dispense with the need of conscious control and how to provide inducements [prices] which will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do.”[5]

Of course, Hayek’s “desirable things” aren’t necessarily the same as mine, yours, or anyone else’s.

My point is not that we have no choice but to react in knee-jerk fashion to prices, buy into the rhetoric of perpetual growth, or generally accept ways of economic thinking that overlook biophysical principles. Rather, my point is that those of us who try to explain limits to growth and advance steady-state policies have the additional challenge of using more complicated, comprehensive models and concepts. That—and not the merits of our analysis—helps explain why we don’t always prevail. Yet the more we try, the better our chances of reaching the threshold of success.

[1] Odum, H. 1997. The ecosystem, energy, and human values. Zygon 12(2):109–133. 

[2] Meadows, D.H., D.L. Meadows, J. Randers, W.W.I. Behrens. 1972. Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. Universe Books, New York; Jackson, T., R. Webster. “Limits revisited: a review of the limits to growth debate.” Limits to Growth. 2016. http://limits2growth.org.uk/revisited/.

[3] King, C.W. 2020. An integrated biophysical and economic modeling framework for long-term sustainability analysis: the harmoney model. Ecological Economics 169:06,464; King, C. ” How Wages are linked to Energy Consumption: Data and Theory.” Carey King Blog. January 2, 2020. http://careyking.com/how-wages-are-linked-to-energy-consumption-data-and-theory/; Daly, H. 1999. : Uneconomic growth in theory and fact. Festa Review 1.

[4] Mark, J.T., B.B. Marion, D.D. Hoffman. 2010. Natural selection and veridical perceptions. Journal of Theoretical Biology 266(4):504–515.

[5] Hayek, F. 1945. The use of knowledge in society. The American Economic Review 35(4):519–530.

Carey King is a Research Scientist and Assistant Director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

The post The Impact of Evolutionary Pressures on Economic Narratives appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.


We're not really out of recession, as these graphs show

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 02/12/2020 - 11:42am in

Tags 

GDP

It’d be wrong to say that we are out of recession, although that’s how the graph of Wednesday’s GDP numbers makes it look.

Gross domestic product (the measure of everything produced and earned and spent) fell 7% between the March and June quarters after slipping 0.3% between the December and March quarters, and then rebounded 3.3% between the June and September quarters.

It was the biggest bounce since 1976, after the biggest fall on record.

Quarterly percentage change in gross domestic product

ABS National Accounts

But it hasn’t anything like got us back to where we were.

When the levels rather than the changes in GDP are graphed, it is clear that, as Treasurer Josh Frydenberg put it, we have “a lot of ground to make up”.

Quarterly real gross domestic product

ABS National Accounts

At first sight the graph of quarterly gross domestic product looks odd. Surely if GDP fell 7% and then rebounded by half that much it should have got back half its losses.

But 3.3% of a small number is much less than 7% of a bigger number. We’ve regained only two fifths of what we lost.

Read more: 6 things to watch for as Australia crawls out of recession

And we’ve lost more than that. Had the economy grown as the Reserve Bank forecast before the coronavirus crisis, we would have spent and earned A$509 billion in the September quarter instead of $476 billion.

It’s consumer spending that’s bounced

What drove the bounce was a rebound in consumer spending after months in which we were confined to quarters, and here the news is better than it seems.

Quarterly change in household final consumption expenditure

ABS Australian National Accounts

Nationwide, household spending jumped 7.9% after falling 12.5%, but excluding locked-down Victoria (which will have its own delayed bounceback) household spending in the rest of the country rebounded 11% after falling 12%.

And it bounced back in exactly the places it collapsed while we were locked down; in services such as tourism and hospitality.

Household spending by category

National, percentage change between June quarter and September quarter. Australian Treasury

Victoria’s economy literally went backwards.

Spending in Victoria continued to fall while spending everywhere else bounced back.

In only one category, home alcohol consumption, did spending in Victoria advance while spending in other places retreated.

State and territory final demand, September quarter

ABS Australian National Accounts

Consumers financed the extra spending by saving less, but even so, Australia’s household saving ratio remained alarmingly high.

In the June quarter Australian households saved a record (upwardly revised) 22.1% of what they earned. In the September quarter that fell to 18.9%, which is still far too high.

In good times, less-worried Australians save less than half that.

Household saving ratio

ABS Australian National Accounts

Frydenberg put the best spin he could on the extraordinarily high amount of saving by saying it would provide “ongoing support for the economic recovery in the new year as confidence continues to build”.

Australia was as well positioned to recover as “any nation on earth”. Over the past year its economy has contracted less than Britain, France, Germany and Japan.

Exports, business investment continue to fall

Much of that success is due to Australia’s achievement in getting on top of the virus and the success of JobKeeper in keeping Australians in work until conditions improved. The Reserve Bank believes it saved 700,000 jobs.

Working against that has been the forth consecutive quarterly fall in export income (something set to worsen unless relations with China improve) and the sixth consecutive fall in business investment.

In a quarter when consumer spending recovered, non-mining business investment fell a further 3% on top of a fall of 8.6% in the previous quarter.

The US National Bureau of Economic Research defines a recession as

a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production and wholesale-retail sales

On that basis Australia is still in one. Employment, income and production remain well down on where they were a year ago. GDP is down 3.8% on where it was a year ago.

Speaking as the national accounts were being released, Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe said he expected Australia’s unemployment rate to remain above 6% for the next two years.

Annual wage growth would remain less than 2%

It was possible the economy could do better.

His forecasts assume no widespread vaccination against coronavirus until late next year. They also assume international travel restrictions until 2022.

But it was also possible things could be worse.

Just three months ago that many were hailing a robust bounce-back in Europe.

Now, Europe’s economy is expected to sink again in the December quarter as member states struggle to contain the virus.

Australia was on a different path, but there was “no guarantee we will remain so”.The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Peter Martin is economics correspondent for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.

He blogs at petermartin.com.au and tweets at @1petermartin.

COVID-19 in the UK: A Choice Between Life and Lucre?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 26/11/2020 - 8:45am in

By James MacGregor Palmer

1.8 million pounds.

That’s how much the UK government thinks our lives are worth.

Placing an economic value on a human being is nothing new. It’s standard practice in a growth-obsessed society that ascribes economic value to whatever it can. 

Boris Johnson

A servant of GDP growth. (Image: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Credit: Number 10)

The Economy Over All

Last week the UK’s COVID-19 death toll broke the 50,000 mark. With our own wild-haired leader of the post-truth era at the helm, Britain (or England more specifically—the devolved Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish administrations have taken a far more cautious approach) has followed in America’s footsteps, resisting lockdowns for as long as possible. We are nearing the end of a second national lockdown, albeit one with far fewer restrictions than the first. This could have been avoided had Prime Minister Boris Johnson followed his scientific advisers’ recommendations for a two-week “circuit breaker” a few weeks ago. Instead, he ignored the science, sacrificing common sense, expert knowledge, and human life at the altar of GDP. Ironically, the result is likely to cause far more of an economic impact than a short “circuit breaker” ever would have. Now, despite cases leveling off, the lockdown is set to end on December 2nd, with shops, pubs, and restaurants reopening.

All this begs the question: Why is economic growth more important than human life? Or, in the words of De Graaf and Batker, “What’s the economy for, anyway?”

The UK government might reasonably reply that it is not just lives but livelihoods they are charged with protecting. This is true, of course, and the pandemic has hit most of us in the pocket. Small businesses have folded. People have lost their jobs. The self-employed struggle to find work. Career-seekers have seen opportunities dry up. The thing is, all of this has happened even with the government’s insistence on protecting the economy at all costs.

The government has consistently acted upon the key logical flaw that the steady state economy aims to redress: valuing the entity of “the economy” over its real-world human impact.

“The economy” is not a number. It is not a growth rate reported on the nightly news. No, “the economy” is about us. It is about our livelihoods. Our wellbeing. Our standard of living. It’s about you.

If “the economy” isn’t a number, then you aren’t either.

You Are Not a Number

1.8 million pounds.

The UK government has built their pandemic response around that figure. Back in March, if a lockdown had been enforced just two weeks earlier, an estimated 20,000 lives would have been saved. If we treat each of those people purely as a number—that £1.8 million—then their combined worth is £36 billion. That’s a lot of value to take out of the economy. But it pales in comparison to the value lost by two more weeks of lockdown.

COVID London

CDC guidelines ignored on the crowded London streets. (Image: CC0, Credit: Lteixeira)

It should be obvious that human life has value that is not economic. But the ideology of the economy-over-all is so deeply entrenched, so advanced in the hegemonic war of position, that the government’s insistence on preserving the economy does not seem perverse until we recall that stark reality—that £1.8 million.

The net result is likely a less severe drop in economic activity than would have occurred with an earlier lockdown. The government’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, which subsidized 100 million meals in August, helped the economy grow. It’s also been linked to more coronavirus deaths.

This is a government that has its economic priorities all wrong. When the first lockdown began to ease, the reopening of the non-essential retail and hospitality sectors was sold as a gift to the British people. It illustrated starkly the disconnect between what the government thought was important to its citizens and what was actually important to us. They wanted us to consume; we wanted to hug our families. The things we missed were not economic but uneconomic—the ability to socialize with our friends, visit people, and enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. To the government, the value of reopening pubs was in the money exchanged for drinks; to us, it was in having the space to be social.

The government has fallen hook, line, and sinker for the consumerist ideology that tells us “the economy” is a sacred cow that must be protected for its own sake. Not that the economy is unimportant, but it’s only important in how it affects people. What good is it when it’s killing them?

The government protected GDP, yet furlough was capped at 80 percent. They protected GDP, yet the self-employed were left out to dry. They protected GDP, yet Universal Credit was raised by just £20 a week.

What is the economy for, if not to help us when we need it most?

An Economy That Serves Us

The COVID-19 pandemic has made economic shrinkage inevitable across the world. The UK government had an opportunity to manage this shrinkage in a planned way by redistributing wealth and moving toward a more sustainable future. Indeed, this global tragedy could have been the metaphorical Big Bang that resulted in the dawn of the steady state economy. But the desire for GDP growth was too strong, it turns out.

Keir

The Labour Party needs to rethink a “green recovery.” (Image: CC BY-SA 4.0, Credit: Rwendland)

In the UK, even the rhetoric of the opposition Labour Party falls woefully short. They are championing a “green recovery”: A restoration of the economy to its former state while supposedly ensuring the growth is environmentally benign.

This is a fantasy. There is no such thing as “green growth,” especially in the huge economies of the global West and North. We are past the point where our economy can grow without damaging the environment.

Aside from this, the linguistics are off. “Recovery” implies that the economy has been damaged and must be repaired. This language is loaded with neoliberal ideology. What we need is not a “recovery” but a “reimagining.” A “recovery” is a return to the status quo, no matter what color you paint it. It would enshrine the idea that the correct response to economic crises is to minimize the hit, then build back stronger.

Instead, we must learn the lessons from this pandemic. The reason the virus has hit us in the pocket is not that the economy shrank, but that the economy is structured in such a way that it does not work for people. The logical response, then, is not to rebuild but to restructure the economy.

James MacGregor Palmer graduated from Newcastle University with a BA in Music with Politics in 2019 and is pursuing a master’s degree in International Journalism at the University of Stirling.

The post COVID-19 in the UK: A Choice Between Life and Lucre? appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.


Orange Cone Headaches: Construction in an Overpopulated, Pro-Growth World

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/11/2020 - 7:28am in

By Karen I. Shragg

Spotting a “Road Work Ahead” sign is enough to make any driver groan or nervously clutch her steering wheel. These warnings are meant to ensure people’s safety, yet they often also come with a myriad of traffic problems: congestion, noise, car wrecks, etc. In cities especially, orange cones are littered everywhere, causing copious delays and all for the sake of further “improvement” projects.

road work ahead (overpopulation)

Warning: these signs are inescapable in cities all across the USA. (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, Credit: josefstuefer)

While infrastructure repair is an ongoing necessity, these endless construction headaches are symptomatic of something deeper: A fruitless scramble to accommodate our growing numbers. More people means more cement. More cement means more traffic, more pollution, and higher demands on our resources. We build out and up with total disregard for the impact on our quality of life, the survival of wildlife, and the sustainability of our water resources.

Cities throughout the USA are strangled with construction because city managers are encouraged by their councils to welcome developers into their neighborhoods. They still believe in the antiquated narrative that growth equals progress, but the truth is the complete opposite. More and more people fuel the now common vistas of sky cranes and bulldozers that are an integral part of city growth in the USA.

The Worn-Out Lies of “Open-Road” Projects

Taxpayers are consistently promised an ever-elusive “open-road” freedom when construction projects are completed. City councilmen and women trust their transportation engineers with all of their fancy graphs and charts that traffic bottlenecks will be resolved. They’re never able to fulfill their promises, and the weight of responsibility doesn’t fall on the engineers, either. Population growth hurts even the best transportation projects. This leaves us with traffic headaches, huge price tags, and no congestion relief in sight. It costs approximately 4 million dollars per mile to go from four to six lanes of highway. Taxpayers pay the bill, and the only results are poor air quality and more room for traffic jams.

Traffic jam

Some traffic jam to go with your morning news. (Image: CC BY 4.0, Credit: Abbas Shariati)

Road closures have become so prevalent that Departments of Transportation across the country have websites permanently dedicated to detours due to road construction. Local news stations also report on traffic—not just once, but multiple times daily. We accept that traffic is unavoidable, so we make do by planning trips ahead and traveling before peak times.

It’s common sense: Road construction takes time. City populations are growing rapidly. By the time one construction project is completed, more cars are squeezed onto the road and city councils are calling for another project. Yet instead of questioning this endless cycle, city councils continue to accommodate growth by introducing or updating urban development and traffic control plans every few years.

Construction woes are particularly frustrating in the Southwest where population is growing the fastest. In the Midwest, though, it’s much the same story. In my own hometown, the Twin Cities of Minnesota, the construction of Minnesota Highway 62 took four years of orange cone headaches to complete. Yet traffic was still horrible by the end of the project, and now it’s far worse!

Well, no wonder. Highway 62 was completed in 2010, and the metro population of the Twin Cities grew by 9.3 percent between 2010 and 2018. What happens in a city with limited mass-transit choices? Thousands of residents are forced to drive, of course, erasing the “open-road” promises of highway improvements.

Cost overruns and delays due to weather events are also incredibly common in road construction projects, and yet they are readily accepted as business as usual. This whole merry-go-round of building roads to accommodate growth remains virtually unchallenged by citizens and politicians who accept these failures as a part of “progress.”

Growth is the Wrong Medicine for Progress

Progress is supposed to make things better. High rise-developers make promises that their projects will be key to a better future for all. In turn, city councilors offer TIF (tax increment financing), which allows governments to invest in public infrastructure and pay at a later date—as much as 25 years away! There is no full-cost accounting of such developments. The projects are meant to line the pockets of city councilors who perpetuate the myth that they are helping their city’s vitality. What these councilors don’t account for is a dense population, which creates more traffic and crime and less of a sense of community among residents.

Furthermore, the construction of high-rise apartments threatens our environment and resources. Densely populated areas light up the night sky with light pollution, destroying the chance to see stars. Hundreds of residents in high-rise buildings put a concentrated demand on water for showers, cooking, and laundry.

All of these developments require fossil fuels and raw materials. The earth is a limited place, and developers treat these materials as if they can be extracted for forever. For instance, sand would appear to be an unlimited resource. However, due to our ever-growing population’s need for glass and concrete, sand is being extracted at a faster rate than it is renewed. The problem also lies in the type of sand being used: Marine sand is too full of salt, and desert sand is packed with crystals, making it poor for creating concrete. Therefore, all sand used in the making of glass and concrete must be mined.

Sand mining

Most people don’t consider the resources needed for construction, such as sand. (Image: CC0, Credit: RitaE)

To break the cycle of growth, we must first accept the limits of the earth’s resources and that development pollutes our life-giving biosphere. This is particularly true in the developed world, which is hooked on growth, much like an addict is hooked on drugs. The benefits of growth, like illicit drugs, are temporary and always end up creating more damage in the long run.

For example, the world has added over 5.5 billion people in the last century and continues to add over 80 million per year. The US population just hit 330 million in 2020 and is still growing by over one million per year. So, why aren’t more people concerned by these numbers? For one, more growth means more profit. Politicians and business leaders equate a growing economy to the “progress of mankind,” when in reality, the only thing it advances is their positions of power.

Another problem is that the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection is ignored by the media, and even by most environmental groups. If the conversation doesn’t start there, it’s not going to get far.

Catastrophic mortality rates can ultimately be depended upon to take care of the overpopulation problem, but in ways no one wants to experience. It is lazy and evil to allow nature to take such a course for us. It’s not inevitable, either.

Warning: Paradigm Shift Ahead

Accommodating GDP growth in our hyper-capitalist, overpopulated world is like putting out a welcome mat for cancer, or thinking we can get around it with chemotherapy and radiation. Breaking free from the grip of growth is much easier said than done, but it all begins with changing our worldview. We’ve been led to believe that growth is our salvation, when clearly it is just the opposite.

Thankfully there are activists and NGO’s dedicated to clarifying this. Aligned with CASSE principles, for example, is the Overpopulation Project, which in turn lists 37 national and international groups that are dedicated to working on the critical issue of population growth. These organizations have given plenty of thought about what to prioritize. Should the focus be on total fertility rate? Do we need to tighten our immigration policies? Is it wiser to start by amending the Employment Act? Taken together, one thing is clear: These organizations amount to advancing the steady state economy as the sustainable alternative to growth.

I propose that each of these organizations and efforts have their merits; we should appreciate them all. Meanwhile, we need to start seeing the orange-coned construction zones for what they really are. They represent not only short-term headaches but long-term migraines. The only cure is a detour from the highway of growth.

Let the warning signs read: Paradigm Shift Ahead!

 

Dr. Karen I. Shragg is a retired nature center director, author, and overpopulation activist. She runs her own environmental consulting LLC in Bloomington Minnesota.

The post Orange Cone Headaches: Construction in an Overpopulated, Pro-Growth World appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.


A Steady-State Analysis of the 2020 Presidential Election

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 13/11/2020 - 3:30am in

By Brian Czech

We now have a 46th President-Elect, with Joe Biden promising to restore the soul of America. What does it mean for advancing the steady state economy as the sustainable alternative to growth? And what did we learn in the process?

Donald Duck Trump

Donald “The Duck” Trump. (Image of Donald Trump: CC0, Credit: White House)

I for one ended up with egg on my face, if not a whole omelet, by calling Trump a lame duck way back in early August. Although such labeling was largely for purposes of engendering a meme (“Donald ‘The Duck’ Trump”), I’d also hypothesized that a fairly resounding majority had had enough of Trump World. Enough of a majority, perhaps, to dampen Trump’s tirades with a tinge of temperance. Turns out I was as wrong as the pollsters. Trump kept right on strutting and preening for another three months; not a lame duck at all but a spring gobbler on steroids, surrounded by loyal broods of hens and jakes.

Omelet fully on face, I also had to eat some crow from November 3–5 or so. I’m just relieved to have picked the winner—happy as a lark actually—even if Biden won by the down of a chickadee’s breast. Why there was so much drama, I ran out of bird metaphors. (Never mind the albatross of Trump’s legal challenges).

Like so many others, I’m not convinced the closeness of the election reflects well upon the American body politic. How could such an arrogant, greedy, conniving ignoramus manage to impress, loyalize, and even endear 72 million of us? Most surprising to me is that the 72 million were largely scattered around the countryside—in places like where I came from. Heck, I thought the rural folks were still common-sense, modest, honest, hardworking countrymen and women that preferred an Honest Joe over a Dishonest Donald every time.

Hey, here’s a thought: Maybe the 72 million were actually voting for Mike Pence!?

While I tend to jest, there’s no thumping of chest. The election was close enough that no overwhelming mandate can be claimed. Besides, Biden is no steady-state miracle worker in his own right. Let’s take a look at what we’ve won and what we’ve lost, not from the perspective of Politico or The Hill or the National Review, but through the lens of advancing the steady state economy.

What We Lost

What we lost—“we” meaning steady staters—was a wealth of bad-growth education. Trump was the single best example—possibly in history—of the obsession with GDP. He was the dark underbelly of economic growth, the epitome of economic asininity, the posterchild of pro-growth philistinism. The examples he set with trashing the planet, scrapping international agreements, denigrating “shithole countries,” etc., illuminated the chambers of a mind that was hellbent on growth. Greedy growth. Soul-less growth. Growth at all costs. But soon he’ll be out of the limelight. While he may remain on a mural here and there, serving as some sort of cult figure, he’ll be increasingly discredited and his policy relevance will be nil.

So, while Biden’s victory is a step toward healing the country’s psyche, our learning and teaching opportunities will ironically suffer. The steady stater losing Trump is like the criminologist losing Ted Bundy. One of the most-studied serial murderers in history, Bundy was executed in 1989. Suddenly there was nothing left to study! Similarly, Trump won’t be “bad-growthing” any longer, at least not after Inauguration Day, and we won’t be able to teach, “That’s what we get with a GDP growth obsession.”

Yet we had quite an educational ride with Trump, no? As he announced upon taking office, GDP growth was his single greatest policy concern. Now it’s true that he knew little about public policy, so what else could he announce? Aside from GDP growth there was wall building, getting rid of Obamacare, and regulatory rollbacks (designed primarily for GDP growth).

Why didn’t Trump know anything about other policies? Largely because of his obsession with growth, which went back to his pre-president days, and possibly even his pre-pubescent days. It kept him so busy, he found no time for learning about higher pursuits. First there was the growth of his own income and assets, and later of the entire GDP.

GDP growth was like Trump’s personal ego trip as the “CEO” of USA, Inc., a subsidiary of the Trump Organization. Trump loved to boast about setting records for this or that: GDP growth, the stock market, military buildup, audience size, conservative judges appointed, Twitter followers, etc. But in Trump’s mind and rhetoric, the greatest of these was GDP.

While Trump was an extreme example, I suspect that many of those preoccupied with GDP growth have a need to feel bigger and more powerful than peoples and nations without the capacity or concern for huge GDP figures. I propose, then, that the preoccupation with GDP growth says something about the soul of America. It’s a soul that’s been tarnished with greed and a false sense of accomplishment, accompanied by an intellectual laziness where “success” boils down to the simple measurement of materialistic activity. Without Trump providing such a telling example, we steady staters will have a harder time shining a light on this blotch in the soul. Let’s hope Biden and Harris have already spotted it.

Will Democrats Ever Catch On?

Aside from our growing band of steady staters, a much larger group of Americans will be losing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. These would be Democrats. If they’d thought a little harder outside the box, they could have seen the stupidity of “GDP Trumpism,” the phrase we use to describe a growth-at-all-costs mentality coupled with Trump-like levels of dishonesty. If Democrats had caught on quickly enough, they could have re-set the political landscape and tilted the board toward a bluer shade of purple.

Correct quadrangle

GDP Trumpism: Shortsighted and greedy, dishonestly so. (Credit: CASSE.)

To refute Trump specifically on grounds of his GDP obsession would have provided a systemic and long-lasting advantage to the Democratic Party. That’s because, ever since the contrast between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Republicans have jockeyed visibly harder than Democrats to prove their ability to grow the economy. For anyone old enough, it’s hard to forget Jack Kemp and his unhitched rant, “We should double the rate of growth, and we should double the size of the American economy!”

For their part, Democrats have argued from a severely disadvantaged position. Instead of taking the high road—morally and intellectually—and stating “that’s enough” of the GDP growth phase in American history, they’ve sacrificed themselves on the altar of political expediency. Instead of truthful steady statesmanship, they’ve been running with the devil and the win-win rhetoric, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” Many Democrats have even tried to compete with Republicans for the title of GDP growth champion, doubling down on the wrong message for environmental sustainability and economic wellbeing.

The Democratic Party missed a golden opportunity to break out of their win-win rhetorical rut with Trump in the White House. It may never again be so easy to counter the stupidity and repulsiveness of the GDP growth obsession. The analogy is stark, but Democrats failing to provide steady-state leadership during Trump’s stay in the White House is like the failure to ban assault rifles in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting spree. The biggest difference is that the number of lives endangered by GDP Trumpism is orders of magnitude more than the 60 killed and 411 wounded by Stephen Paddock and his arsenal.

Just as the gun control movement struggles onward—striving for assistance from a Democratic establishment of limited power and milquetoast tendencies—steady staters will struggle onward as well. The biggest difference is that, at least among the rank and file party members (as opposed to party hacks funded by Wall Street), limits to growth will become increasingly evident on both sides of the aisle. In fact, the steady state economy will find a special resonance with many conservatives out in “the grange” who’d like to see their farming, hunting, and fishing maintained instead of undermined by developers, higher taxes, and no-trespassing signs.

Yet, as long as the Republican Party remains the party of growth at all costs, the Democratic Party has the opportunity to forge a victorious electoral path in the climate-changed, limits-to-growth landscape of the 21st century. 

What We Gained

What did we gain, in steady-state terms, with the election of Joe Biden? First, of course, is the end of GDP Trumpism. But that’s only a “gain-by-loss” accomplishment. To solve the problems caused by economic growth, problems that built up before and during the Trump Administration, we need a more proactive approach then merely removing Trump.

The gold standard would be a president-elect who is loud and clear about limits to growth and the need for a steady state economy. This is one of the top reasons CASSE maintains a signable position on economic growth: to give politicians (and everyone else) the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of steady-state economics, and to better inform voters about who’s who in steady statesmanship.

Joe Biden

While he’s no steady stater, Joe Biden will put an end to “GDP Trumpism.” (Image: CC BY-SA 2.0, Credit: Gage Skidmore)

We do not have a steady stater in Joe Biden. In fact, we have a decidedly pro-growth politician. Yet he is better than most, if only by virtue of maintaining strong interests and concerns with other policy goals that conflict with growth. The best example is Biden’s position on climate change. He seems serious and sincere about the goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Steady staters understand that the odds of maintaining GDP growth while phasing out fossil fuel combustion are about the same as having your cake and eating it too. Ultimately the key question arises: What do you want more, your cake or eating it? Likewise, Biden will encounter the question of what he wants more: a stable climate or GDP growth?

At least Biden respects science and will listen to scientists about the dire consequences of global warming. Being less obsessed with GDP—far less than Trump—he will at least attempt to balance his priorities. Balancing priorities is a far cry from growth at all costs, so the rate of GDP growth will at least decline. Alas, that won’t be enough to stave off environmental and economic crisis, but it will buy us some time to develop real steady statesmanship, which can stave off such crises (or at least certain levels thereof).

Biden’s position on COVID-19 follows much the same script, and with even greater urgency. Because of the immediacy of a pandemic, we’ll see his position play out in real time. Trump was so obsessed with GDP growth, he opposed common-sense protections (such as temporary shut-downs of eating and drinking establishments) because they slowed the rate of commerce. Biden cares more about public health; he will support or enforce certain shutdowns as guided by the scientists on his already-appointed coronavirus task force. Again, though, as a pro-growth politician he will couple these shutdowns with the point that shutting down for the sake of public health allows for faster and higher GDP growth upon recovery. He’ll be right about that, but it will be another unsustainable, pyrrhic GDP “victory,” and a failure to practice steady statesmanship.

What’s Next for Steady Staters?

Advancing the steady state economy is destined to be an ongoing struggle, perhaps for the remainder of the human run on Earth. Limits to growth in the 21st century—ultimate, global limits never encountered before—will make the steady state economy one of the most important goals. Yet, as soon as a certain degree of stability might be achieved, you can bet the obsession with growth will come out of the woodwork to haunt us. The effort to maintain a steady state economy, then, will be similar to the effort required to maintain democracy. It’s going to take alert citizens to see through the corrupt efforts of greedy CEOs and politicians obsessed with power, personal assets, and GDP growth.

Using the terms of drama, the stage has been set for advancing the steady state economy. The exposition has already been performed with Dalyist scholarship and CASSE-like activism. The bulk of the show will play out in the coming decades. Public education on limits to growth, re-branding of the environmental movement, conscientious consumerism, steady-state legislation, and even religious re-focusing; these will be some of the major acts in the drama for a sustainable USA and world. GDP Trumpism amounted to the “inciting incident,” with crises brewing in the environment, the economy, and international diplomacy. Heroes are badly needed for a denouement of wellbeing, which absolutely entails the steady state economy.

Kamala Harris and Joe Biden

Given her unique upbringing, Kamala Harris might have a steady-state mindset. (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, Credit: Gage Skidmore)

Joe Biden may not amount to a steady-state hero, but a Biden Administration can open doors for such heroes to appear. The emphasis on sound science, with climate change and coronavirus as precedents, should allow for serious questioning of GDP growth as a policy goal. Who might these heroes turn out to be? Might they include a Secretary of the Interior who recognizes the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection? A Secretary of Energy who gets it about limits to renewables and the perils of nuclear and fossil options? A Secretary of Defense who assesses the spreading landscape of resource wars as an inevitable outcome of pursuing GDP growth?

One thing is for sure; our list of heroes cannot be confined to the halls of academia, the airwaves of talk shows, or the electrons of social media. The list has to include men and women of action and policy, bringing their knowledge of limits to growth into steady statecraft.

Which brings us almost full circle (with the option of resurrecting the ornithological metaphors). While we’d have to be crazy as a loon to think that 72 million Americans voted for Mike Pence, by no means was Kamala Harris an insignificant element of the Biden ticket. Presumably millions—possibly many tens of millions—of Americans voted as much for Harris as for Biden. Birds of a feather flock together, and many Americans may have voted partly for a woman, a black woman, a woman of South Asian descent, or simply a non-Caucasian regardless of gender. Yet in most cases I think they voted primarily for a smart, courageous person to help guide the country, not only as a back-up plan for an elderly Biden but as a potential presidential candidate for the coming cycles.

Steady staters should take a special interest in Harris. Her parents separated when she was five years old, and afterward she lived primarily with her mother. Her Jamaican-born father, though, was a Ph.D. economist with a specialty in economic growth theory. While his education was neoclassical, he was a critic of conventional growth theory. Despite the separation of her parents, the Vice President-Elect may have taken some interest in what her father did for a living. For all we know, she might be well aware that neoclassical growth theory—which tends to support notions of perpetual growth—has been discredited for various reasons.

Harris’ Indian-born mother was a Ph.D. biomedical scientist, and one doesn’t garner such a title without a broad-based education in the biological sciences. It’s not a stretch to think the Vice President-Elect absorbed some basic scientific principles during her upbringing. She also spent significant amounts of time in India where limits to growth are readily observed by anyone looking for them—or by those with formative thoughts about growth and the sciences.

Yes, Joe Biden’s been a pro-growth politician, but let’s give the Biden Administration a chance. Let’s see what Kamala Harris brings to the table of macroeconomic discussion. Let’s see who ends up comprising the Cabinet, especially in those key roles at the Interior, Energy, and Commerce departments. Let’s see, too, what kind of big-picture, long-term central intelligence is brought to bear.

And let’s do more than see. Let’s weigh in on these pending appointments while it’s still relatively early in the game. Call and write Biden, Harris, and your elected representatives in Congress, and tell them you want a Cabinet that acknowledges the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, economic sustainability, national security, and international stability. Tell them you want long-term planning for a steady state economy to begin with this administration. Tell them you want steady statesmanship in international diplomacy. Tell them your vision of a steady state economy is one of the main reasons you voted for them and rejected GDP Trumpism.

Bald eagle

Strong, steady, and soaring: the bald eagle as a metaphor for an American steady state economy. (Image: CC0, Source)

Tell them you want an economy that soars like an eagle! Not frantically flapping ever upward like some foolish phoenix going up in flames, nor plunging downward like an inglorious coot into a polluted lagoon. Soaring, rather, like a bald eagle: steady, strong, and sustainable.

Now that would be an exceptional America—for a long, long time.

Brian Czech

Brian Czech is the Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

The post A Steady-State Analysis of the 2020 Presidential Election appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.


The Meat of the Matter: Diet, Climate, and the Steady State Economy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 31/10/2020 - 2:03am in

By Haley Demircan

The saying “you are what you eat” is clearly true to a great extent, but there’s more to the story. The food we consume not only affects our being directly, but also the environment and the economy—and therefore us indirectly as well. Eating more vegetables and less meat and dairy is better for the health of most individuals here and now, and certainly for the health of the planet, now and for the long run. Without a healthy planet, there’s no healthy economy.

Cow and plant-based diet

A dairy cow raised for milk production. (Image: CC0, Credit: USDA)

The science is pretty clear, starting with the fact that Earth is warming at an alarming rate and economic growth is a major cause. According to the latest estimates, many regions have already surpassed 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Meanwhile the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clearly links greenhouse gas emissions to GDP growth. Among the factors contributing to that GDP growth is food consumption, and not all food consumption contributes equally (Figure 1).

When most people think about what they can do to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they don’t even think about GDP. They don’t think about their diet, either. That’s a problem. As Jalava et. al found: “Shifting away from animal-based foods [could not only] add up to 49% to the global food supply without expanding croplands; but would also significantly reduce carbon emissions and waste byproducts that end up in our oceans and as seafood byproducts.”

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

When shopping at a grocery store or eating at a restaurant, how many of us think about the process of meat production and how it affects the climate? It’s a question with significant repercussions. In 2018 farming was responsible for 574 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in the USA, or 8.3 percent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Meat production accounts for the lion’s share of these emissions.

Due to population growth and the lack of a plan for replacing or slowing meat production, those numbers will continue to grow. Emissions from agriculture are projected to increase to 80 percent by 2050.

 


Figure 1. Greenhouse gas emissions per food product. (Image: CC0, Credit: Vision Capitalist)

 

Earth or One Big Farm?

Ten percent of Earth’s surface is covered by glaciers (Figure 2). Nineteen percent of Earth’s surface is desert, salt flats, beaches, and sand dunes. The remaining 71 percent is considered “habitable land”—land that includes forests, grasslands, surface freshwater, and urban areas. As of this year, about half of the habitable land is farmland (which, as with urban areas, is much less “habitable” for wildlife).

Agriculture not only emits copious greenhouse gasses, it commits a colossal water footprint. Agriculture including livestock production accounts for 70 percent of freshwater use and is the largest water-consuming sector worldwide. This percentage accounts for all the sectors of agriculture; however, meat and dairy products are responsible for using the most. It takes about 1,840 gallons of water to produce one pound of ground beef, mostly because of the water needed to grow grain and other forage crops, and to provide drinking water for the cattle.

If we compare those 1,840 gallons to the daily per capita water use of an American (101.5 gallons), then the meat produced for a quarter-pound hamburger costs 4.5 days of water use. Meanwhile, the water footprint of a chicken egg is 50 gallons. If the USA cut animal product consumption by half, our food production would require 37 percent less water.

 


Earth’s surface and land use. (Image: CC0, Credit: Our World in Data)

 

Diet and Savings (In More Ways than One)

Consuming less meat (or no meat) is not only beneficial to the environment and human health but seemingly also the economy. If we continue increasing meat consumption at current rates instead of shifting to a vegetable-heavy or plant-based diet, it will cost the USA $197 billion–$289 billion each year, and the global economy up to about $1.6 trillion annually, just in direct and indirect healthcare costs. If we’d eat less meat or adopt a plant-based diet, we’d save a lot or all of that money. 

Wouldn’t saving that money, and/or preventing those costs, be a smart thing? Of course, this perspective entails the recognition that more expenditure—higher GDP—is no longer the goal. The economic benefits of saving as opposed to spending is highly congruent with the trophic theory of money, and hopefully with the common sense of many citizens, but not with conventional economics and growth politics.

Advertising Kills

Given all the evidence for how a plant-based diet is more sustainable for society and healthier for people, why do we continue to consume so much meat and so many other animal products? It’s not entirely a matter of rationality on our part. For one thing, advertising gets in the way!

The U.S. meat and poultry industry represents $1.02 trillion in “total economic output.” With that kind of money at stake, the meat and poultry industries have an abundance of motivation (and resources) for advertising. The same motives apply to the dairy industry. Advertising plays an enormous role in what consumers believe and buy.

Direct advertising by producers isn’t the only form of public relations conducive to meat, dairy, and poultry consumption. The American Cancer Association’s “champion sponsors” include the likes of Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms. The American Diabetes Association gets money from Dannon and Kraft. It is no surprise then that the recipes promoted by these “health” associations include ingredients from these heavy hitters in the meat, dairy, and poultry industries.

Behavioral and Policy Implications

People can readily change their diets to reduce their carbon footprints. Customers can opt for lentils or beans in their home-cooked meals, or even plant-based “meats” that have gotten increasingly similar to the real thing and quite tasty in their own right. Yet, individual dietary choices will not be enough to solve climate change, prevent the transmission of animal diseases, or conserve wildlife habitats. Among other things, we need systemic reform in our agricultural system.

For starters, a tax should be imposed on meat products. This could prevent 222,000 deaths and save $41 million in global health costs every year. Health warnings could also be issued on meat packages to inform consumers of harmful side effects. Certain farm subsidies could be cut, too, saving taxpayers money, reducing overproduction, and reversing the trend toward factory farming.

Farmers markets are an encouraging and more sustainable option for purchasing agricultural products due to the organic and low-impact practices of participating farmers. These markets have grown in popularity, and with help from local governments, their accessibility could be improved in more regions. The Farmer’s Market Coalition has already proposed recommendations for cities and counties to follow in building healthy foundations for farmer’s markets.

Of course, these types of reforms—especially the fiscal and regulatory policies—will be far more feasible if tied to the goal of a steady state economy. Otherwise the argument will be made at every step that such reforms are “getting in the way of business” and impacting GDP. Only when steady staters are populous enough will we overcome such arguments with, “Yes of course lowering meat consumption will lower GDP, and that’s just what the doctor ordered for you, the climate, and our planet.”

Haley Demircan is CASSE’s fall journalism intern.

The post The Meat of the Matter: Diet, Climate, and the Steady State Economy appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.


Machine learning the news for better macroeconomic forecasting

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 20/10/2020 - 7:00pm in

Arthur Turrell, Eleni Kalamara, Chris Redl, George Kapetanios and Sujit Kapadia

Every day, journalists collate information about the world and, with nimble keystrokes, re-express it succinctly as newspaper copy. Events about the macroeconomy are no exception. So could there be additional valuable information about the economy contained in the news? In a recent research paper, we ask whether newspaper stories could help to predict future macroeconomic developments. We find that news can be used to enhance statistical economic forecasts of growth, inflation and unemployment — but only by using supervised machine learning techniques. We also find that the biggest forecast improvements occur when it matters most — during stressed periods.

Newspaper articles are different from the official data produced by statistical agencies such as the ONS in several respects. Official data, like GDP, have a clear meaning and method of construction, whereas newspaper articles cover everything and anything.

But newspaper articles can potentially augment official statistics in forecasts because of three key properties: they are timely, reflecting developments as they happen; they may affect the economic behaviour of the people reading them; and they cover developments that traditional statistics aren’t designed to tell us about (‘unknown unknowns’ in the words of Donald Rumsfeld). For instance, gathering economic storm clouds could take many forms, but we think that journalists will always write about them if they have the potential to affect the national economy — whether they are captured in national statistics or not.

Policymakers already use a vast range of tools and information, including the official data released by statistical agencies, to make their judgements. But anything that can expand the pool of data further, and so allow them to be better forewarned of what might be ahead, is welcome. Of course, policymakers already read the news and factor it into their judgements — here we are formalising that process using statistical models. However, these models have the advantage that they can ingest more articles than any one person could read.

To test whether newspaper text contains useful information, we took half a million articles from three popular British newspapers — The Daily Mail, The Daily Mirror, and The Guardian — and tried numerous methods to forecast GDP, unemployment, inflation, and more. We chose these three because they broadly reflect the differing styles and readership of UK newspapers, and because they have long back-runs available in digital formats.

To show whether newspaper text contains useful information on its own (for now ignoring the official data), we took some of the most popular ways of turning text into sentiment indices, for example counting positive and negative words using the Loughran and McDonald dictionary (see our working paper for a full list of indices), and applied them to articles in The Daily Mail. In Figure 1, we plot these sentiment indices against indicators often used to gauge sentiment about the economy, for example the Purchasing Managers’ Index or PMI. The blue solid line is the mean of the text-based measures; the dotted line shows the mean of indicators often used in policy; and the pink shaded region shows the minimum to maximum swathe of these.

Figure 1

Figure 1 makes it clear that newspaper text-based sentiment closely tracks other measures of economic sentiment. We also see that it often leads other indicators of sentiment — it anticipates the downturn in sentiment during the 200708 Global Financial Crisis and the subsequent recovery. This is a hint that text might be useful in economic forecasts.

However, newspaper text must provide additional information relative to the standard economic data that is used by statistical models if it is to be useful. Figure 1 just shows that it contains a signal, but it could be the same signal that’s captured by existing data. And, indeed, when we ran forecasting exercises using the popular existing methods of gauging sentiment and uncertainty, we found that the vast majority did not improve on forecasts that took account of standard economic data, which in our case included real output, labour market indicators, inflation, business and household expectations, and more.

So, to get the best out of text, we came up with an alternative based on machine learning. Rather than dictate how sentiment is determined by text, for instance by assigning ‘happy’ a score of +1 and ‘sad’ a score of -1, as is done in most current methods, we fed the counts of many different words related to the economy into a neural network (a type of machine learning algorithm) and let it decide what words to put weight on to forecast the future. We used this trained neural network to forecast economic activity out-of-sample up to 9 months into the future. We found that, across newspapers, across forecasting horizons and across macroeconomic variables, the combination of text, standard economic data and a neural network was able to improve upon similar forecasts that just used the standard data. The performance of the more sophisticated approach was fairly similar regardless of which newspaper the text came from. We tried numerous other machine learning approaches and not all were able to augment forecasts relative to the benchmark — but those that were put a little weight on a lot of different terms from the text. The neural network provided the best overall forecast improvements.

Figure 2

As a simple demonstration, Figure 2 shows an out-of-sample forecast by a neural network of GDP growth at 3 months ahead — here RMSE stands for root mean squared error, and a smaller RMSE means better forecast performance. The neural net uses text from The Daily Mail and GDP from the previous month (using the ONS’ monthly GDP series). The benchmark forecast uses ordinary least squares (OLS) and GDP from the previous period as there is overwhelming evidence that, on average, and across series and time periods, OLS is tough to beat (but the results are the same if the benchmark uses a neural network rather than OLS). The figure shows that adding text to existing data can improve forecast performance.

Exploring the channels behind the success of forecasts that include text in this way is outside of the scope of the research but there is a plausible story that no news is good news and — conversely — bad economic news that’s brewing is news, and journalists will report on it. And, as noted, it’s also possible that — like Keynes’ animal spirits or Shiller’s ideas about irrational exuberance and viral economic narratives — newspapers themselves play a role in forming expectations and shaping economic behaviour.

However, we did explore when it is that newspaper text adds the most forecasting power, and it seems that it’s most potent at times of economic change, for instance during the Global Financial Crisis. So if text is trying to tell a story about an incoming economic storm, it’s worth taking it seriously — and such periods of change and stress are precisely when good economic forecasts matter the most.

US President Bill Clinton once said, “Follow the trend lines, not the headlines” but, with the help of machine learning, perhaps we can do both?

Arthur Turrell works in the Bank’s Advanced Analytics Division, Eleni Kalamara works at King’s College London, Chris Redl works at the IMF, George Kapetanios works at King’s College London and Sujit Kapadia works at the ECB.

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