A friend attacked me today for advocating economic growth. We must, she said, reduce our human footprint on the sole planet we now inhabit. I happen to agree with her, but it doesn't detract from my point.
Regardless of current problems, we happen to live in the wealthiest phase of human existence measured by the basic measures of food, health and housing. If you want a comparison, try reading Homer. Do we really want to engage in war over a handful of cattle, some jars of olive oil? Or engage at all?
I support economic growth because is gives us choices, because it raises billions out of the grinding poverty that has been the norm since we (the human race) discovered farming with its capacity to generate surpluses that could be expropriated by the top few. Do we want to go back to ages when old men were in their late twenties?
But what do I mean by economic growth? Not the statistical construct that actually counts costs as growth. Rather, a focus on the quality not quantity of life. Winton Bates tries to explore some of these issues in his Freedom & Flourishing blog. I am more simple minded than Winton and also, at times, have a different focus.
When I think about it, I keep coming back to a simple issue. The quantum of things that could improve the basic texture of life for the ordinary person seems inexhaustible, and that quantum does not require ever added quantities of physical consumption. It requires a reordering in the way we do things.
It was the Canadian born economist John Kenneth Galbraith who coined the phase private affluence, public squalor. He's pretty right actually. Ayn Rand, and that's a contrast!, actually had something of the same idea, for in Atlas Shrugged we see the collapse of the social structure in the face of greed and a belief in entitlement.
To be opposed to an entitlement culture, bread and circuses was the Roman equivalent, does not mean opposition to state action. In fact, in circumstances where policy leads to a Galbraithian outcomes, there is every justification for demanding public action for the common good.
Now at the moment we are caught in what I call the savings trap.
Lots of people are saving, freeing resources for investment in our future. But the returns on investment and hence on saving have collapsed. Why? There is no way of channeling savings into the things that will give us a real social return, while real investment opportunities have declined. The millions of Australians saving for their future just won't get the returns they need to meet their retirement needs. The rest of us won't get the society that we need.
That's another part of my charge against current attitudes and structures. They just don't work. We need new approaches.