Growth: We’re there!

I can’t find out when Gandhi said: There is enough for everyone’s need, and not for everyone’s greed,” but it must have been before 1948 because that’s when he died.  Yet, still 80 or so years later, rather than concentrating on better sharing of the world’s munificence, we are still looking for yet more economic growth as a free pass for “enriching” everyone without anybody paying the price.

The measurement of an economy’s growth via its GDP is largely a post 1945 obsession.  When he was the UK’s Chancellor R A Butler alerted us to the fact that, if we could achieve growth at the rate of 3% per year we could double our standard of living in 25 years.  Harold Wilson and the Labour party, in the campaign for the general election of 1964, promised all sorts of wonders, and they wouldn’t cost us a penny: they’d be financed out of growth.

Waring shots about this painless panacea were fired by the Club of Rome and its publication of “The Limits to Growth” in 1972.  The earth’s resources are finite and  more and more production risks poisoning  it .  It’s not a question of “Will the planet survive.” It almost certainly will, but not necessarily life as we know it, or perhaps any life at all.

Several subsequent books have emphasised the dangers.  Among the latest  Tim Jackson’s “Prosperity without growth”.  (2009 is very readable.  Kate Raworth provides a helpful illustration with the concept of “Doughnut Economics.” (2017)  Viable and sustainable economic activity needs to take place between the rings of a doughnut. Inside the ring there are insufficient goods and services (clean water, lavatories, shelter, food, law and order, schools, medical services) to sustain an acceptable quality of life.  Beyond the outer ring production risks ruining the planet by exhausting its resources and making it uninhabitable by pollution and global heating.

Even current levels of production in the richest countries (which still incudes the UK) are beyond the limit.

Al the above is commonplace among those who study such things, the much derided “experts” on whom the Tories pour scorn.

However, they do not impinge upon our current political discourse.  The Tories go hell for leather for any sort of growth, however damaging.  Yes, we will license further exploitation of fossil fuels in the North Sea, and if building houses more profitably means pouring  more poison into our rivers, too bad.  And the Labour Party is adamant that they will “fix” broken Britain, not by asking the comfortable to pay more taxes, but through growth.  No advance on Harold Wilson and the 1960s.

 And yes, the Liberal Democrats’ “For a Fair Deal,” to be debated at our conference next week, is sprinkled with references to “growth” as the solution to repairing  our under-resourced public realm.

Given the evidence of devastating floods and fires in only the last few months, it beggars belief hat our political discourse takes place in this childish fantasising., rather than acknowledging  the fact that “more of the same” is already endangering the existence of millions.

In “the Economics of Arrival,” (2019) economists Jeremy Williams and Katherine Trebeck express the truth succinctly: “It is time to recognise that the richest countries have already Arrived in the world long hoped for. . .the priority is now not to make ourselves at home. . .”

I hope some-one has the courage to make these points at our Conference.  We can’t just leave it to the Greens.

It’s not an exact parallel but I love this aphorism. In one of Oscar Wilde’s plays (I forget which) one dowager duchess says to another:  “We have no need for travel: we are already here.”

 

* Peter Wrigley is a member of Spen Valley Liberal Democrats and blogs as keynesianliberal.blogspot.com

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8 Comments

  • Peter Wrigley 20th Sep '23 - 10:29am

    Sorry about the intrusive “not” towards the end of the third to the last paragraph. it should read: “Our priority is now to make ourselves at home.”

  • Jenny Barnes 20th Sep '23 - 12:20pm

    Those suggesting that growth will solve the UK’s problems have no coherent ideas as to where they will find the magic growth fairy. Liz Truss thinks her ideas of a year ago are still good, and they will probably become the beliefs of an opposition Tory party. Labour don’t seem to have any theories, which at least is better than nonsense.
    We need to work out how we’re going to collectively handle the end of growth, which will not be politically easy.

  • Christopher Haigh 20th Sep '23 - 3:10pm

    Good article Peter. The political parties seem to be obsessed with economic growth presumably to increase government revenues through taxation. Just what economic growth really is in a post industrial society like ours now is really difficult to imagine.When the lower don valley got covered with massive steel mills that was obviously economic growth although workers loved in squalid conditions. How is technology development to provide a cleaner environment counted in terms of post industrial economic growth ?

  • James Fowler 20th Sep '23 - 7:50pm

    If you scroll down to the previous but one article (first the Lib Dem disco, then on to Mark Valladares) you’ll a fairly punchy demand by Sarah Olney for there to be more economic growth… and angrily denouncing the Conservatives for not having delivered enough of it.

  • The reality is that for many people in our country the reality is that the have slowly got poorer. Perhaps we need to try to look at the way we measure our national income. The growth of demand for food banks is real. Perhaps we need to focus on the real needs of real people.

  • Peter Martin 21st Sep '23 - 12:03pm

    The economics of growth, or lack of, isn’t really that difficult in principle. It’s the politics that probably will be.

    If the economy is growing, on a per capita basis rather than just because of an increase in population, then we’ll all, in aggregate have more goods and services to consume.

    It won’t necessarily mean that we’ll be able to afford to employ more teachers, nurses and doctors though. They will want to share in the increased national income and so will be more expensive. The only way to do that will be to divert workers, to these occupations, who were previously doing something else. So in this sense increased automation could help us do that.

    If it isn’t growing then we’ll all have the same to consume in aggregate. If we decide that those at the bottom of the income scale will need more then someone higher up will have to get less. There is no getting around that.

  • The real question is how we want to measure things. When we claim to measure the wealth of a country we are simply producing a number in a way that will satisfy one section or another of our society. Unfortunately there is always a temptation to manipulate the numbers to prove that we can or can’t do things. In our country we are very dependent on trying to persuade people outside the U.K. that sterling is worth dealing in.
    To measure things you need to be able to have some sort of objective yardstick. Money is a creation of people. There cannot be an external yardstick, as it’s properties can vary over time. We need to analyse our economy in a way that better reflects reality.

  • Peter Wrigley 21st Sep '23 - 4:16pm

    Thank you all for your comments. I’m disappointed that there are so few of them. Does that mean that LDV readers don’t think the issue is all that important, or, as Jenny Barnes state, “handling the end of growth will not be politically easy.” ie Too hard, so best left alone.
    Maybe, , but somebody has to introduce the issue into the political debate. Maybe our strategists think that the time is not yet ripe. If so, how many more fires, floods, forced migrations, polluted rivers and contaminated atmospheres must there be before we heed the warning signs?
    Thanks to James Fowler for flagging up Sarah Olney’s press release. This is what she said:
    “. . . under the Conservatives, the UK economy is stuck in the slow lane.. . .It’s time for a proper plan to grow the economy and tackle the cost of living. That means boosting apprenticeships to tackle skills shortages and helping exporters by fixing the government’s botched trade deal with Europe.”
    Probably, if she’s had time, she’d have stipulated that the growth should not add to contamination or pollution, and should not make unnecessary use of the earth’s scarce non-renewable resources but if we don’t find the time we fall into the Harold Wilson trap of pretending that there’s a painless solution to poverty and a clapped-out public realm. There isn’t.
    Tom Harney is right: we need to attend to the “real needs of real people.” We can do that by more sharing, as the Gandhi quote implies, but , as Peter Martin points out, if we do share more equitably than “someone higher up will have to get less.”
    Tough. Back to Jenny Barnes, it’s a difficult call, but in my view an essential and increasingly, and increasingly obviously, urgent

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