George Monbiot is right about one thing-we should draw the election battle lines around economic growth

18 12 2009

Humanity is no longer split between conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and progressives, though both sides are informed by the older politics. Today the battle lines are drawn between expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments and those who believe that we must live within limits.George Monbiot

The debate about economic growth has a peculiar character to it. On the one hand there are the plainly anti-growth forces of the environmentalists, as embodied in the shape of George Monbiot, with their quasi mystical commitment to Gaia. On the other are those, like myself, who believe that continuous economic growth is the salvation of mankind. Then there are many who struggle to accomodate a sense of limits within a recognition that economic growth is desirable. Broadly speaking these can be characterised as being in favour of sustainable growth. I am fascinated by the interplay between the living reality of the  stagnant  economies of the advanced countries, including the UK,  and the prevailing orthodoxy of sustainable development.

Maurice Saatchi recently summed up succinctly a common view amongst the UK elite about our economic prospects

…during a recent visit to the London School of Economics. I asked if any professors thought it was possible, by an act of will, to increase the long-run trend rate of growth of UK GDP. The answer was: “It can’t be done.” Or at least that to do it would require preconditions so daunting that no realist could contemplate them — more investment, higher productivity, a different culture, a new education system, etc. That list is the dog-eared trump card of those who see such ambition as a touching illusion. For them, the growth rate of the UK economy will always be the “trend rate”. It is like the weather. You can complain, but you can’t change it.

There is a distinct convergence between the kind of people Saatchi was describing and those who believe in sustainable growth. As I have argued before, it is convenient that climate change offers both a justification for accepting what Saatchi calls ‘trend growth’ in stagnating western economies and an excuse for not looking for ways to change it. It is this pessimistic outlook which explains why so many are ready to jump on the ‘share out the misery’ response to the recession exemplified in the Tories championing of austerity.

We seem to have moved from TINA (there is no alternative to the market) to there being no alternative, stagnation is inevitable (NASTI perhaps?). There is an exhaustion of ideas at the heart of the political establishment which leads to fatalism about the economy. But we should remind ourselves that the economy is not something external to us. It is the sum product of our daily activity. It is influenced by our ideas and energy. It is what we are and who we are.

In the run up to the next election it is vital that a challenge is launched against the prevailing orthodoxy of NASTI. We should be arguing for:

*an end to negativity around economic growth. We need to create the infrastructure and support necessary to encourage a more entrepreneurial society.

*Government should be bolder in defending new technologies and scientific breakthroughs which have the potential to make us healthier and live longer.

* Government needs to play a greater role in modernising our transport and communications systems.

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We need real growth not sustainable growth

3 12 2009
It is not clear how the UK will earn its living in the years to come        Financial Times  3/12/2009
A new survey of the state of the UK’s economy has drawn a bleak, if not surprising , picture of the weaknesses of the UK economy as we begin to come out of the recession. The survey, carried by the FT today and over the next few days, reveals that despite all the claims of New Labour to have turned the UK economy into something more dynamic the truth is that the long-term trends of sluggish growth and the disappearance of manufacturing have if anything gone faster under New Labour than before:
  
  • Growth since 1997 has averaged just over 2%, slightly less than in the previous 20 years
  • Manufacturing has shrunk from 20% of the economy in 1997 to 12% now
  • The growth areas of the UK economy have been business and financial services, real estate and public services-all financed directly or indirectly from the proceeds of the financial bubble.
  • Around 2/3 of jobs created under New Labour have been in the public sector-which bodes badly for employment prospects if public spending is cut
To add to the ominous character of this survey a timely piece of new research by two academics at Kent University has looked at the experience of recessions around the world over the period 1960-2000 and concludes that deep recessions such as the one we are currently experiencing have profoundly negative impacts on productivity for years after the recessions are over. 

Our main findings show that, cumulatively, from the last year of the recession up to fours years after, recessions have significant negative productivity effects. These effects, however, arise as a combination of different mechanisms. Recessions tend to increase the level of frontier TFP (technology growth and efficiency) but decrease the rate of technical progress. The combination of these two effects is a fall in frontier productivity relative to the one that would have prevailed without a recession. Recessions also increase significantly technical inefficiency in the economy. Finally, deep and long-lasting recessions tend to have larger impacts on productivity, although the mechanisms differ from standard recessions.
  

 There are key debates to be had still about to what extent the UK needs to restore manufacturing as opposed to services, and also whether cuts in public spending are necessary and in what areas. However, one thing is crystal clear, that whatever route the UK has to take to recover a growth dynamic it is going to be very hard work. The dawning recognition that this is the case, and the absence of any coherent plan to achieve it,  must be one reason at least why those arguing for a more sustainable (ie environmentally focused ) economy are influential today. For a clear explanation of what the sustainable economists have in mind for us this new report spells it out. 
   The traditional function of investment, framed around increasing labour productivity, is likely to diminish in importance. Innovation will still be vital, but it will need to be targeted more carefully towards sustainability goals. Specifically, investments will need to focus on resource productivity, renewable energy, clean technology, green business, climate adaptation and ecosystem enhancement. These are precisely the kind of targets that emerge from the consensus around a global Green New Deal. Foregoing consumption growth seems inevitable if we are to sustain this enhanced need for ecological investment. 

 The necessity of ‘foregoing consumption growth’ in favour of saving the planet is, in this context, a convenient way of also avoiding the issue of tackling the stagnation of advanced economies such as the UK’s. The question of how to create a turn around in the UK economy should not get sidetracked by the sustainable growth lobby. The solution to all our problems, including environmental ones, involves greater control over our environment, through scientific and technological breakthroughs and through greater productivity of labour, which creates more human time to focus on new challenges rather than slogging away at the old ones.