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Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Infinite Desire For Growth: a review [feedly]

The Infinite Desire For Growth: a review

What's so good about economic growth? This has been a tricky question ever since Richard Easterlin pointed out (arguably (pdf)) that there is no connection between GDP growth and a nation's overall subjective well-being. In The Infinite Desire for Growth, Daniel Cohen proposes an answer to this question. It's that economic growth helps to legitimate societies:

Growth is more important than wealth for the functioning of our societies; growth gives everyone the hope, short-lived but always revived, of rising above one's psychological and social condition. It is the promise that soothes worries, not its fulfilment.

This echoes Adam Smith:

The progressive state is in reality the cheerful and the hearty state to all the different orders of the society. The stationary is dull; the declining, melancholy.

Cohen places this in a wider context. The Enlightenment, he says, replaced the Christian hope of redemption in the next world with the hope of progress in this one.

This is consistent with – and a complement to – Ben Friedman's observation that slower economic growth breeds intolerance and racism: when people lack hope, they get meaner. This is perhaps the single most important fact about western politics today. 

And herein, of course, lies the problem. We are, says Cohen, "experiencing an industrial revolution without growth." Whereas earlier industrial revolutions saw workers leave agriculture to work in capital-intensive factories where they became more productive, today's revolution is bumping workers out of such jobs and into less productive ones; this is a natural effect of Moravec's paradox. Sure, tech giants such as Apple and Facebook are very productive. But they are too small a part of the economy. As Cohen says, "if a worker's individual productivity does not increase, growth is necessarily weak."

Whereas growth offers hope for all, its absence has, says Cohen, led to an increase in management by stress; rewards for a few, the sack for others. There's more stick, less carrot. Again, Cohen places this into a deeper context. Whereas the Enlightenment offered freedom and autonomy for all, these values are denied to people in capitalistic workplaces.

All this poses profound questions. Could decent growth resume? Cohen is pessimistic (though personally I'd have liked him to stress the shortcomings of neoliberal capitalism more than digitization and environmental constraints). If it cannot, he says, we need different types of progress. As John Stuart Mill said, a stationary state of incomes "implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress."

It's here that Cohen disappoints me. He offers few suggestions of what such progress might be, and how we might rekindle the legitimating hope societies need. Like Roger Betancourt, I found the end of the book a letdown.

This, however, is only a minor criticism. In a short book, Cohen has packed in countless thought-provoking insights about the links between growth, technical change and society. I suspect that many English readers will share my humility at just how much he has read that I haven't.

And Cohen is at least posing questions that most of the political class in the west are not even considering. Societies, he says, are "demonstrating an astonishingly weak capacity to project themselves into the future." In a country whose rulers are debating how to project us into the past, Cohen's book is a much-needed breath of fresh air.

 -- via my feedly newsfeed