Alan on me on growth

(Since TAS Alum @ayjay has disabled comments on his blog, I’m responding here, so this will not be like a regular blog post. Here’s me and here’s Alan. )

With regard to grammar, a subject on which you’re more qualified than me, I take your point, though only to some extent. I am not merely arguing that “in conditions of economic growth many heated debates would become less heated or would disappear altogether.” I am arguing that these debates arise as a result of decelerating economic growth and that the only sustainable solution to these debates is higher economic growth.

With regard to, say, pensions, it couldn’t be clearer. We are arguing about “saving” Social Security, and whether the way to “save” it is to raise taxes, or lower benefits, or raise the retirement age, or move to some form of private accounts, or some combination of those things, or whatever. There’s only one problem with this: absent long run economic growth none of these solutions will “save” Social Security and Social Security will be in serious trouble whatever we do. And on the other hand, if there is long run economic growth, “Social Security” under whatever form will do fine.

This is rather like being stuck in a car on railroad tracks with a freight train rapidly approaching and arguing about whether the way to avoid it is to change the car’s paint job or install a different sound system. These things may well be desirable and these questions are worth posing. But if your objective is to avoid getting crushed by the freight train, they are also quite irrelevant. If you want a better paint job that’s a very legitimate thing to want. But if you want to avoid being pancaked you have to put the pedal to the metal. And everyone is acting under the assumption that getting the right paint job will stop the freight train. It won’t.

These debates are “about” economic growth in the sense that any rational outside observer would view “avoid the incoming freight train” (prevent a Social Security collapse) and “move the car off the railroad tracks” (reignite economic growth) as essentially identical propositions. The debate “about” avoiding the freight train is the debate about moving the car off the tracks. Now maybe the accelerator is stuck or the engine is out, or something, and in that case that’s something really worth looking into. But that’s not even the debate we’re having.

So that’s with regard to the point about semantics, which is incidental.

With regard to your points about economic growth…

Except that we don’t know what policies generate and sustain growth. At best we might be able to discover and eliminate some policies that inhibit growth, but economic flourishing in any given society depends on a great many unpredictable and uncontrollable factors. Often the stars just have to align.

First of all, I would vigorously dispute just about all of these points. (And also note that if all we know is what the bad policies are, then that’s already a place to start.)

But second of all, I would note that if you’re saying all these things, then at least we’re having the right debate, which was my whole point to begin with.

If we spent all the time we’re spending debating the deficit, unemployment, Social Security, immigration reform, etc. instead debating how to reignite economic growth (including, perhaps, whether that’s possible) we would be in a much, much, much better place. Which, again, is my point.

Now, on to this:

As James Poulos has recently argued, in these matters as in so many others we are susceptible to the illusion that proper planning can both eliminate failure and ensure success, which means that if growth doesn’t happen someone has screwed up and is to be blamed. That is wrong, but more than that, as James argues, it’s a mode of thought that misses a vital truth: The planned life is not worth living.

So my response to PEG’s post is this: we need to strive to articulate and commend visions of the good life, of human flourishing, that do not depend on economic growth. Then, if the growth comes, well and good — what a delightful bonus.

Now, why didn’t I think of that? Yes, Marie Antoinette, it’s possible to live the good life without bread. Why, I’m sure many vagrants lead a much happier life than many people with their fancy McMansions and their cars and their indoor plumbing! All this fretting about material concerns is so bourgeois, so materialistic.

Sorry for being sardonic, but this is where I lose my patience with the Poulos-Jacobs “critique” of politics and policy. Yes, it’s important to realize that politics and policy can’t solve all our problems, and certainly not “save” us in any metaphysical sense. It’s important to realize that we as individuals have a duty to first change our own lives and those of people around us, and to realize that we can transfigure one another in our private lives in a way that politics never can. It’s important to realize that culture matters a great deal. It’s important that wonks have some humility. Yes to all these things.

But we also live in the real world. In this world, people organize collectively—as they always have, as they always will, those political animals. In the parts of the world we live in, they do so through things called governments. They have things called elections where they appoint representatives. These representatives then implement things called policies. Out of the universe of possible policies, some are more desirable than others. The more desirable ones will improve the lives of millions upon millions of people in countless tangible ways. The less desirable ones will make the lives of millions upon millions of people worse in countless tangible ways. That stuff, like, matters.

The wonder of the life to come does not absolve us of the duty to serve our brothers in this life—indeed, it reinforces it. In a world of angels, we wouldn’t need politics and economics, but that’s not the world we live in (didn’t you write a book about that? I recall it was quite good). As Pascal (the better one) said, man is neither angel nor beast, but he who would make him an angel turns him into a beast. This is pretty basic stuff.

If you want us to prepare for a world without growth, I assume you’ve been really happy with the state of the United States for the past 5 years, because you got your wish. I hope you’ll visit the 50% of unemployed Southern European youngsters to see how wonderful a zero-growth world is. I hope you’ll experience the deep social malaise of Japan, with its suicide rate and its bone-deep risk aversion. This is not just about material living conditions. Societies tear apart. Neighbors and strangers stop trusting each other. No one wants to take a chance on other people. When the pie gets smaller people fight like dogs over the scraps. The young turn against the old and the old against the young, the rich against the poor and the poor against the rich, the white against the brown, the citizen against the migrant. Maybe you’ll say “See? What was PEG worrying about?” But I doubt it.

A further reason why your line of thinking is so pernicious is that these things have a self-fulfilling quality, what Keynes called the paradox of thrift. If no one expects growth, people will invest and consume less, and the zero growth will continue.

The stubborn fact of the matter is that modernity relies on economic growth. I don’t know which revolutionary said the Revolution is like a bicycle, if it doesn’t keep moving forward it falls down, but communists have a strange way with insight sometimes, and while that may not be true of revolution, it’s certainly true about the modern world. It is a world built on growth—built by growth and also built on the expectation of future growth.

And if your response is “Well if we have to always have growth then maybe we’ve been on the wrong track all this time” I would respectfully suggest that living past 40, not starving to death, not dying of a toothache, not losing half your children before they take their first steps, not being forced to watch a warlord rape your wife are all pretty cool things and that only modernity brings this. But hey, the Dark Ages produced lots of saints, so that’s cool too.

Several generations of Americans have organized their lives in expectation of a government program called Social Security that will serve them through retirement, and this expectation will be dashed if growth is too low for the next 20 years. “Sorry Grandma, time to eat cat food now, but remember that Jesus loves you and you can still make friends with your neighbors” is, simply, not acceptable as a response to this problem. Oh, but “the planned life is not worth living.” (Said the tenured professor to the entrepreneur.) Okay then.

Just because ships sink sometimes does not mean that it’s irrelevant who the captain is and what she does, or that sinking is somehow equally valid as an option as not sinking. I mean, who can tell? Sometimes we hit icebergs, sometimes we don’t. It’s all a big mystery. Ashes to ashes and all that, lad. All we can do is put on life jackets and be nice to the people in the next cabin and pray. And if we do get to port, why, “what a delightful bonus.”

And if you don’t like my analogy of society as a ship with a captain—well, tough. This is the City of Man.

Replacing less desirable policies with more desirable policies is not “the planned life” in any by me comprehensible sense of those words. And by the way I am very inclined to believe that in many instances the more desirable policy is “the government should just leave it to private initiative”—but that is still a policy decision and “decide to do nothing” is just as much “planning” as “decide to do X”. A vision of the good society is put forward, with certain government policies considered as a means of getting closer to it. This is what human beings do.