The idea that economic growth should be the top political priority, after keeping people safe, became established in the 1950s, and has become so imbedded in political thinking that it is now taken for granted. But it’s a bit like Wil E Coyote running over a cliff; we may not realise it yet, but the ground has disappeared from under this notion. We need to focus on different priorities, in rich countries anyway.
What is economic growth? It is the expansion of the money economy through the ever increasing consumption of volumes of paid-for goods and services. It focuses mainly on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a measure of aggregate income, adjusted for inflation. This (and the related Gross National Product: GNP, more used in the earlier days) only started to be measured consistently in the 1950s. Prior to that economic policy focused more on things like unemployment and the balance of payments, with growth only being an implicit goal. Focus on growth led first to the widespread use of Keynesian demand management within a system of managed exchange rates and capital controls in the 1950s and 60s, and then on the management of interest rates within a world of free capital movements and floating exchange rates, since the 1980s. It is the one element of continuity between these two very different worlds.
Why is there a focus on growth? I think there are two main groups of advocates. The first are public policy expansionists who wanted to secure growing amounts of tax revenues upon which to build the state system, as well as to reduce the need for welfare safety nets. It is probably fair to say that these dominated the earlier growth period.
The second are the rentiers. By rentiers I mean those seeking “economic rent”, or making money without making anything (such as renting out land). The more money there is sloshing around the more opportunities there are for rentiers. These include people with investments, workers and owners in monopolies that overcharge, many senior managers, and so on. These are much more than the top 1% of the wealthiest, and include people with a substantial stake in property (such as owning their own home) or other assets. In other words not just profiteers, but those who want and expect the value of their house to keep going up. The rentiers have been in the driving seat since the 1980s, since post-Keynesian (or Neo-Keynesian) economic policy became general. There is a bit of a paradox here: rentiers make growth harder to achieve, and in fact are one of the causes of slower growth, but they adore the policies designed to promote growth.
The first critics of growth were environmentalists. An early example was E.F. Schumacher in his book “Small is Beautiful”, which made a deep impression on the my parents in the 1970s. Environmentalists pointed out that growth implied the consumption of ever increasing amounts of natural resources, and damage to the environment, and that this was not sustainable. This was not entirely true, as economic activity became more efficient, reducing its impact on the environment. Many of Schumacher’s predictions turned out to be nonsense, and yet when I look back from now to the 1970s I am struct by how much we have destroyed; and then there is the rapidly emerging climate crisis.
A second group of critics might be called “lifestylers”. These people have rejected the need to work ever harder to consume ever larger amounts of stuff. At first these could be dismissed as eccentric hippies – but people who retire early come into this category, and that became a widespread life objective from early on. Since then the expression “work-life balance” has become popular among younger people. The interesting thing about lifestylers is that they don’t usually object to economic growth in principle (they may be rentiers after all), but their economic choices make achieving economic growth harder. They vote against economic growth with their feet.
The third important group of critics are conservatives: those that object to the changes that growth brings, such as the closure of old-fashioned businesses, outsourcing abroad or the growing use of immigrants. While some supporters of Brexit claimed to do so to improve Britain’s growth prospects, the Remainers cut little ice with their arguments that Brexit would slow growth down. Most Brexiteers simply thought that it was a price worth paying to send the immigrants home.
All three groups have been steadily gaining ground, and then into the mix has come the Coronavirus crisis. It is quite sobering to see how much economic activity people regard as “non-essential”, and how rapidly people are happy to reduce consumption when health and wellbeing are at stake. As we climb out of lockdown, we happily pile restriction upon restriction onto businesses to make them safer. There will be an inevitable cost to this, making it an impossibility to get back to the level of GPD prevailing before the crisis. Now even people who favour growth in theory will be unable to accept the price in practice. Furthermore, after the sobering experience of life being turned upside down in weeks, it is likely that people will save more and consume less to improve their financial resilience.
But abandoning growth as an objective means a profound change to the way our political class makes public policy choices. It is not surprising that so many of them are emulating Wil. E Coyote. What are the new priorities?
I put jobs first because that must be the focus of the recovery from the Coronavirus crisis, and it is urgent. It used to be argued that jobs had to follow growth. This isn’t nonsense: job creation schemes not based on sound economic principles will fail the end. But the link between jobs, and especially the sort of jobs that give people security and self-respect, and growth has become a lot weaker. Government interventions need to focus on jobs first, while still considering sustainability. The idea of a government-sponsored job-guarantee scheme is certainly worth a closer look. There are many potential pitfalls in such an idea, but for my money it is more promising than the much-touted idea of Universal Basic Income. It is important to make the point that an economy without growth is not an economy without jobs.
Second in my list is sustainability. This has both environmental and economic senses. Economic sustainability will need to be rethought, especially if people start to consume less and save more. This will mean that much higher levels of government debt will be sustainable. Environmental sustainability should be the main guide public investment. There is a lot of work to do to make our economy environmentally sustainable, but we should not delude ourselves that this will necessarily increase GDP.
Third is inequality. There is a lot of poverty in our society, and if the cake isn’t getting bigger then poverty will only be tackled by making somebody else poorer. This is a notoriously difficult problem, but some countries manage it much better than others. A job guarantee scheme could play an important role. Another important point is to tackle rentiers, through taxes and promoting competition.
And finally in my list (I could go on) is government effectiveness. In a low growth economy, the ability of governments to tax is limited, and a lot of resources will be consumed in addressing inequality. It follows that governments should use their resources more effectively. The public sector is rife with its own class of rentiers, from consultants offering to implement “world-beating” systems that don’t work, to defence contractors using national security to cover up waste, to excessive union power stopping managers from managing. We need to develop a culture of effective, delegated public sector management, accountable to a reworked political system.
Low growth has arrived, however much policymakers may dislike the notion. It is imperative that the political elites of rich countries reorient themselves to the new reality.