24 April 2016

Escaping the growth trap

The recent meeting of the G20 finance ministers and central bank governors in Washington resulted in the usual conversation about economic growth—the need for more of it. That we are exhausting our planet's resources faster than it can replenish them, that we are sucking it dry, did not apparently make the agenda. There seemed little recognition that endless growth will eventually bring global civilization crashing down around our ears.

The problem our leaders face arises from the growth trap. The Industrial Revolution brought accelerating technological advance which in turn brought ever-increasing efficiency. With greater efficiency, we can produce more stuff with fewer workers, resulting in surplus workers, i.e. unemployment. But the unemployed can't buy much stuff, and that is bad for the economy. If something isn't done, it may enter a downward spiral. The solution has always been to produce more stuff and therefore create more jobs. In other words—growth.

It's a trap. As long as technology continues to increase efficiency, and no end is in sight, we must have growth in order to keep people employed. So the question becomes, is it possible to end economic growth? Fortunately, the answer is yes. We have a number of tools at our disposal. They include the following:
  • Shorten the work week. Produce the same amount of stuff (or less) but share the work more broadly, thus creating jobs.
  • Create more jobs that demand little or no growth, e.g. teaching, health care, the arts, etc. For example, if optimum class size in schools is 20, but the average is currently 30, reducing the size to 20 would create 50 per cent more jobs with little growth and, in this case, improve the product in the bargain.
  • Reduce efficiency for the sake of job quality. When Henry Ford began producing his cars on an assembly line, he greatly improved efficiency, thus reducing the price of cars. But there was a sacrifice. His skilled mechanics were turned into human robots, repeating the same simple task over and over, all day every day. The sacrifice was accepted at the time as cheaper cars, and a lot of other cheaper stuff, helped pull society up from what was a very low standard of living. Our standard of living today needs no such boost, thus we are able to focus on quality of work rather than quantity.
  • Pay people not to work. The guaranteed annual income is being bruited about a lot these days, often as a more efficient way to provide welfare, but with the speed at which artificial intelligence and robotics are advancing, jobs may become increasingly scarce. Technological efficiency may help solve the problem it created. 
How practical or effective any one of these measures may be is debatable, but they clearly illustrate that we are not helpless in the face of maintaining a decent standard of living while ending growth. We can exit the trap.

It took a long time for our leaders to recognize the threat of climate change. They finally have and actually seem to be getting serious about it, but when it comes to the folly of endless growth, they remain oblivious.

The rest of us can help alert them to the challenge. For example, our new government has established an Advisory Council on Economic Growth. Attempting to do my bit, I wrote to Minister of Finance William Morneau and to the Chair of the committee, Dominic Barton, pointing out that long-term growth is not viable and urging the Minister to "put our economy on a path that will offer future generations a prosperity that respects our planet’s limits." Perhaps if these two gentlemen get enough letters, they will put the end of growth on the committee's agenda. We can but try.

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