Growth Myth-Takes

16 Jul

Some notions are so firmly embedded in mainstream minds that they seem impossible to debate.  They might once have been classed as ‘truths we hold to be self-evident’, ‘rocks to which we cling’, or ‘life’s firm foundations’.

If not learned at our mothers’ knee, some notions are dinned into us through school, college and both corporate and political manifestos.  These notions are not just deeply embedded but often, it seems, beyond questioning – sacrosanct.

Politics, commonly regarded as the ‘art of the possible’, is more often the graveyard of ‘supposedly impossible’ concepts that may not, should not, WILL not be uttered, or considered.  They are thoroughly ‘beyond the pail’ as might once have been said in ring-fenced Dublin.

In February, college sophomore Trevor Hill stood up during a televised town hall meeting in New York and posed a simple question to Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives. He cited a study by Harvard University showing that 51% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 no longer support the system of capitalism, and asked whether the Democrats could embrace this fast-changing reality and stake out a clearer contrast to right-wing economics.

Pelosi was visibly taken aback. “I thank you for your question,” she said, “but I’m sorry to say we’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is.”

The footage went viral. It was powerful because of the clear contrast it set up. Trevor Hill is no hardened left-winger. He’s just your average millennial—bright, informed, curious about the world, and eager to imagine a better one. But Pelosi, a figurehead of establishment politics, refused to – or was just unable to – entertain his challenge to the status quo.

Sources: Fast Company newsletter – 11th July 2017 and Washington Post

Capitalism aside, the centrality of ‘economic growth’ in most mainstream debate is another sacred cow. It is not just that, in pursuit of growth goals, the way we measure our success is deeply flawed and massively misleading. It’s as if we have collectively forgotten the distance between crude approximations represented by economic models and reality.

GDP, the primary measure of economic activity, “does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play . . . it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” Robert Kennedy

But even if some can acknowledge the definitional downsides, the centrality of the drive for growth is assumed to be one of those tenets that cannot, should not, WILL not, be shaken – or even lightly stirred. Fortunately, despite the suppressive weight of custom and practice, some economic re-thinkers are, very gradually, gaining greater airtime and setting the myth-takes in their original context.

“And so, over half a century, GDP growth shifted from being a policy option to a political necessity and the de facto policy goal. To enquire whether further growth was always desirable, necessary, or indeed possible, became irrelevant or political suicide.”

Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics, Chap.1 p40

But the show rolls on. Rebellious economists may pour scorn on economic myths. Satirists can stretch popular imaginations to sow seeds of doubt. Cartoonists can seize upon contemporary comedic contradictions. Film-makers and writers can expose deficiencies and ‘events’ can throw a spotlight on issues that have escaped serious attention. But despite all these angry shouts from the sidelines, the players on the field carry on within the established rules of the game.

Following years of great effort, two of Kate Raworth’s central themes have shifted towards wider acceptance. Folks may not yet picture a ring doughnut whenever they hear a Treasury Minister, economic correspondent or Bank Governor, speak of economic imperatives, but these speakers do seem (subject to delivery) to have grasped the need for redistributive and regenerative economic policies: Redistributive to tackle gross societal inequalities and Regenerative to avoid trashing the planet.

But the 3rd of Kate’s principles still sticks in the throat and, if uttered at all, is in a thin voice as if from the back of the class, hiding from attention. The idea that infinite growth is not central to survival is, for many, problematic.  Kate’s approach is not, as the alarmist popular press might presume, a denial of the search for economic growth.  Rather, this enlightened economist argues, growth (devoid of objective purpose) should not be central or mandatory.  We can, Kate argues, be Growth Agnostic.

And in that drawing back from directional determination, we have another touching contrast between Economics (as pseudo science) and the reality of everyday life.  For many of us have, sometimes permanently and at other times ephemerally, created our own economic and societal unions – commitments that do not have growth as the central, essential, exclusive objective: ‘for better, for worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health’. Whatever.

Central government will inevitably continue to depend on the economic approximations of models and metrics that are ill-defined and adrift from reality.  That is all they have to go on.  They depend on averages, and, on average, their conclusions are pretty average.

The UK economy is the aggregate of many diverse local economies each with its very own needs and priorities.  If some forms of positive growth occur (whether it’s new ventures or improved citizen wellbeing) they will reflect local activities engendered by investments and creative endeavours within those communities of citizens, businesses and shared services.

This will not happen merely because Growth has been mandated from on high. Nor will it happen if (for the bottom-protecting-avoidance of any risk) it is forbidden to engage in local endeavours for which short-term cast-iron profit-certainty is not assured.   This is something well understood within far less centralised, more federal, more locally empowered, continental communities.

Dogma-driven theorists still know little of locally nuanced needs.  Local leaders, on the other hand, are better placed to understand the complex warp and weft of their economic fabrics and societal priorities. Local leaders should be committed, as in marriage, to ‘honour and comfort’ their communities.

Set aside the myths. Blow away the fog.

Move on from the growth myth-takes of past regimes.

The place-making re-enlightenment of local leadership is underway.

________

 

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