Growth is Good (I hope): An open letter to Jason Hickel

To Jason Hickel:

I read your blog post elaborating the “de-growth” position that was recently criticized by Branko Milanovic.  I have not read your recent book linking the inequality debate to the global warming crisis.   And I’m not an academic or a professional economist.  And I realize that Branko has already responded to your post.  But rather than talk about quintile-level implications, I want to respond to your post from a growth perspective.

While your response to Branko was complex, I see it as boiling down to two assertions:

  • The first is that growth is not necessary either for human happiness or the achievement of a just society.
  • The second point is that the first point doesn’t matter; the earth has only so much carrying capacity and it will adopt a “de-growth” policy if we humans don’t.

Were it not for your pedigree as an anthropologist, I would brand (and write off) your first point as a exercise in cultural criticism.  Whether it comes in newspaper columns or sermons or self-styled “critiques” full of post-modern terminology, I confess (call me a “hopeless positivist”) I don’t care much for this kind of thing.  Cultural criticism presents its purveyors with an Archimedean illusion: it constantly offers spots to set one’s lever, but nothing ever moves.

I’ll give you a pass here because anthropology does have this unease-with-modernity tradition: I hear echoes of Rousseau’s discourses in your post, of Marx’s critique of the commodity-based liberal order, of Wendell Berry’s anti-urban diatribes, of Lévi-Strauss’s famous tristes – point taken.

My problem is not with your uneasiness but your illustrations.  For example, you write: “Costa Rica has a GDP per capita that is one-fifth that of the US, but it has life expectancy that outstrips that of Americans, and levels of happiness that rival those of Scandinavians.”

But Costa Rica is a growth story (4.8% per year between 1992-2015).  And I strongly suspect that the happiness of its citizens comes not despite having a per capita GDP lower than the US but because they enjoy a per capita GDP two to five times greater than other Central American countries (Panama excepted).  That divergence occurred entirely, I believe, in a post-war period that saw many growth-oriented reforms and during which Costa Rica received an outsized amount, compared to its neighbors, not just of eco-tourism but foreign direct investment.   To say that Costa Ricans are happy is equivalent to saying that growth is good.

Rather than discuss additional examples or go into any between-country/within-country distributional aspects of happiness, I want to go on to your second point, which revolves around the prospect of environmental catastrophe – a concern that economists certainly share with anthropologists.  Here I would like to make two points of my own.

The first is simply to point out the very significant work being done by economists on assessing climate-change range and calibrating a prudent (or possibly required) response.  Here I would simply point out the work of (and the intense debates between) William Nordhaus, Robert Pindyck, Martin Weitzman, and others.  Climate change inevitably comes down to questions of what to do and how much to do – and economists are building on the work of climate scientists to make strong contributions to the second question.

On the “what to do”, I must say that practical measures like a carbon tax – I say “practical” despite the already awesome obstacles to implementation – seem to me hugely preferable to and more practical than any scheme to effect a global economic regime change (as if we knew how to do that or would have any way to anticipate or control the consequences).  If we are to believe its opponents, a carbon tax offers just the sort of de-growth impact you are looking for.  Failing that, it can help to change the mix within GDP from energy-intensive “commodities” to services and to less energy-intensive goods.

In the end, GDP is as green as we make it.  Getting that choice into our everyday cost/benefit decision, via a carbon or energy tax, despite all the issues of effectiveness and fairness that come with that approach, seems like a difficult enough place to start.  At least, that’s what an economist would say – and that’s the perspective I have tried to represent in this response.

2 thoughts on “Growth is Good (I hope): An open letter to Jason Hickel

  1. A good addition to Branko Milanovic’s reply, thank you. Just one comment on Cost Rica and the happiness of its citizens with a GDP/capita that is still a fraction of that of the US and other developed nations. In addition to the argument that they’re happy because they have been growing, and because their wealth is higher than that of other nearby countries, I think it may also be because they *are continuing* to grow. The knowledge (or at least strong and justifiable assumption) that they’ll be even better of next year is likely to be a further factor contributing to their contentment. It’s be interesting to poll the good Costa Ricans and ask them how happy they’d be if they were told that, by edict, next year they’d earn exactly what they earned last year, as well as the year after, and the one after that and so on.

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