(2007-07-10) Lewis No Growth Economics
Nathan Lewis considers the desirability of Economic Growth. I often use the term "economic health" instead of "growth," as it gets closer to what I mean. For probably the last hundred years, there have been criticisms that "growth" has not really led to any apparent improvement in livelihood... By "economic health" I mean largely that people enjoy prosperity and abundance... When economists talk about "growth" they are often talking about avoiding UnEmployment. Historically, when there isn't "growth" then there's unemployment, and most everyone would choose "growth" right? I defined economics previously as the study of how people make a living (Making A Living), which gives us a wider scope of inquiry than nattering on about GDP or interest rates... I would say that, for the most part, it appears that the simple lifestyles of the Native Americans provided prosperity and abundance, on their terms. They enjoyed "economic health," in a format without apparent growth. At least they didn't need Prozac to get through the day. They didn't pay taxes or work 9-to-5 either. And they were never unemployed... One of the reasons why we perceive the Native Americans as having enjoyed prosperity and abundance is that, despite their rather low capability of creating stuff (productivity), they were able to satisfy their basic requirements of living with almost no effort. If they wanted a house, they would simply make one out of naturally available materials. This might take about a week of labor, less with help. No mortgage, no taxes. When they wanted to go somewhere, they walked. When they were hungry, they produced food in some manner, and they didn't have to go to a job interview for the right to do so... The example of the Native Americans produced quite an impression on the incoming Europeans, who had lived for centuries under one tyranny or another. The American project as conceived by the Founding Fathers, with its Constitution, no taxes, no standing army and so forth, was heavily influenced by the Native American example.
Yet, if prosperity and abundance comes from making the hurdles to livelihood very low, how might that come about today? In the poorer parts of the US, many people live in "manufactured (Pre-Fab) housing" (Real Estate)... Germany has passed a law requiring all new construction to have R-49 wall insulation, which is certainly a more sensible approach than making AutoMobile fuel from Algae. With such insulation, our 424-square foot apartment could be heated in the Boston winter with the waste heat generated by a personal computer.
The second element in making the hurdles to livelihood very low is transportation. (Urban Village density makes AutoMobile expense unnecessary.) Even in relatively rural environments, you can have good bus service to the nearest city or train station and something like a scooter to get around the neighborhood, avoiding the automobile problem. (This was the case in rural Tuscany, by the way, so I am not just making this up.)
The third and fourth major hurdles for livelihood, for most American families, are medical care (HealthCare) and Education, two spheres which are in a state of disaster (see Education Healthcare And Leisure)... Western medicine appears to have hit a high mark around the late 1960s. Really, it was and is only good for two things -- infectious disease and traumatic injury. If you're in a motorcycle accident or have tuberculosis or dysintery, modern Western medicine is a true marvel. Other than that, however, it is a very expensive flop, propogated by people's slavish attachment to the idea that all they need is surgery or another pill. Most modern ailments -- heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression, and all of the "cosmetic surgery" flaws -- could be cured with a better diet and a little exercise (Diet And Exercise), both of which are nearly free and don't require a doctor.
Wouldn't there be a Recession if people stopped "consuming" (Consumer)? Certainly there would be an adjustment, but in truth economies are always evolving so there's nothing new there. Recessions, certainly the meaningful ones, tend to be caused by an impairment of the process of production -- high taxes, unstable money -- not insufficient shopping. I assert that it is possible to enjoy a healthy economy without "growth." Otherwise, an economy is nothing more than a sort of elaborate Ponzi Scheme serving no-one except the corporate overlords, which consumes people and the planet until it finally goes kerflooey. How this transition would exactly come about is hard to say. Low taxes and stable money -- which allow efficient cooperation between people -- would seem to be a part of it, but in the past this has normally resulted in accelerated growth. Pehaps it is a matter of mindset, and the Europeans seem to be making real progress in this regard.
Theory aside, it appears that we are coming to a time when these issues will be practical matters. I assert that it is possible to have a healthy economy -- prosperity and abundance -- with less fossil fuel consumption, indeed with no fossil fuel consumption at all. Just think of the Babylonians, with better plumbing and high-speed rail powered by windmills, and afternoons off at the local bathhouse.
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