February 15, 2004


Below, I made the claim that trying to shoot for "balanced trade" would slow growth. Well, why is that so bad?

The Wife and I often have discussions about economic policies, whether about the European economies or free trade, where the issue of growth comes up. She's quick to point out that "growth" is a socially-constructed, capital-inspired concept of a consumerist society, and that there are conceivably other equally valid, even more worthy, goals for a society to have than economic growth.

The problem that I have with this argument (as well as similar ones by the anti-globalization left, the nativist right, and neo-luddite, sustainable development folks) is that a lot of things that these people consider good (e.g. the modern welfare state, social security, health care, environmental protection, etc.) are predicated on a continued high rate of growth.

We will eventually have to face the music on our national debt and our impending Social Security and Medicare bills (especially if we keep raising the benefits) but the only thing, the only thing, that makes the concept tenable that we will face that reckoning without a major disaster, is the possibility that our economy can continue to grow at a such a rapid pace that past commitments become small compared future earning potential. Within our current mode of spending, the country has to be like the lawyer whose tens of thousands in school loans are quickly dwarfed by her seven figure salary.

Whether this eventually turns into a Ponzi scheme will be determined by how many additional commitments we make and how fast technology, the ultimate arbiter of productivity, can continue to advance. But, there is no other way, and there is no going back to a pre-growth society (if there ever was such a Rousseauian locale) without serious trauma to everything we (at least I) hold dear.

What "balanced trade" (whatever that actually means and however it would be enforced) is likely to do, is slow growth and make the eventual reckoning come sooner and be more painful.

Posted by richard at February 15, 2004 05:04 PM

what is it, exactly, that you hold dear? growth for growth's sake? technology for technology's sake?

Posted by: Julia Ott at February 15, 2004 07:37 PM

I'm with Julia. I've thought quite a bit about what the "endpoint" to our economy is. I think about it when I'm wondering why, if we're the richest country in the world, we have to work the longest hours. Oh yeah, if we didn't work the longest hours, we wouldn't be the richest country anymore.

Technology works for us in two ways:

(1) it helps us do more work more quickly. Take office equipment — the Xerox machine, for example. It sure helps lawyers do their jobs. But it doesn't make their jobs any easier. How's that? Because the Xerox machine, far from fulfilling the promise of freeing up Wednesday through Friday for golf, in fact enables you to double or triple your workload. Yippee.

(2) it enriches the time we actually have off. There's nothing more rewarding than spending your first free Saturday in months in front of the plasma flat screen TV you worked so hard to pay for.

So technology keeps you alive, well-fed, and energized, so that you can use other technology to get more work done so that you can pay for all the technology that fills in the gaping hole in your life created by the fact that you spend almost half of it with people who aren't your friends and family and you could give a crap about. It's a big ugly spiraling run-on sentence. Where does it end?

The only answer I have, at the macro-society level, is art. Not art that you can buy from Sony to play on your make-me-happy technology, but art that might explain why humankind is leaving such a big, angry footprint on the world — and on its own backside. Shakespeare kind of art. Art that makes people drop their rational economic actor get-up for a minute and really think about what should make the world go round.

It seems to me you can serially ask "Why?" about everything that humans make and do, and some economist could give you an annswer about how it makes society better. But better for what?

That was a completely pointless and nonresponsive rant, I know. Gotta go eat dinner, so my stomach doesn't grumble during my job interview, so I can get the job and help assist the judicial redistribution of wealth among big corporations so that I can get a paycheck so I can buy a brand-new house so that I can entertain my bosses so I can get a promotion so I can really help grease the wheels of corporate wealth redistribution so I can make more money for that flat screen TV. And maybe I'll make enough to send my kids to a nice college so that they can go to law school . . .

Posted by: Brad A. at February 15, 2004 09:32 PM

Julia: I'd say freedom and knowledge. I happen to think that liberal democracy is the best way to guarantee the first and maximize the second. I think that growth is inextricably tied up with the continued success of the liberal experiment (within which the welfare state can be seen as a conservative force). I suppose that knowledge for knowledge's sake could sound as hollow as technology for technology's sake, and they are related, but to me it's hard to come up with a point for this whole thing called life that doesn't involve, at least partially, "knowing more than when you started". But that's just me – I believe in science.

Posted by: richard at February 16, 2004 10:56 AM

Brad: random thoughts that don't answer you (and that I'm not sure I buy all of)...

  1. Perhaps we work harder because work is more stimulating and less physically fatiguing. While this might sound unlikely given some of the mindless nonsense that passes as office work these days, virtually every job is less strenuous and offers more time for creative problem solving than jobs in previous generations.

  2. Virginia Postrel would argue that there's something to be said for the aesthetics behind the plasma screen TV, and while seemingly wasteful, our lives do get better when the functions we want can be fit into the forms we like.

  3. On the margin, the newest gadgets and the most frivolous toys, technology seems like a consumerist tread mill. But it's the same science that gives us the good stuff -- the stuff that gives us a better quality of life than a 19th century coal miner.

  4. You're falling into a Romantic notion that the local communities of family and friends are better than what we've got now. For you, that might be the case, but what about for those whose local community's intolerance makes life unbearable. Religious persecution, homophobia, etc. To them the option to move on into modern cosmopolitan society might seem like an improvement. Which leads to the final point,

  5. You've chosen one way to live your life within this society. Yes, perhaps it was not completely freely chosen – there were expectation from your parents, your wife, your friends, social norms to follow – but it was as free as it ever would have been in history. Said another way, there are more ways to drop out of the rat race (and not, say, starve to death) now than ever before. More ways to build your own community (through physically moving or building it online). So go live on an island, run a farm, join the peace corps, become a Goth. We find ourselves trapped, for the most part, because we like it more, but then (sometimes) hate ourselves for liking it more.

Posted by: richard at February 16, 2004 11:21 AM

I agree with Richard (for the first time in a while, it seems) on his very last point. If you want to be a civil servant or salried employee, you might eb better off in Europe, working fewer hours, taking longer vacations, getting free (poor) health care and free (good) elementary education and free (poor) higher education.

But this society offers unparalelled opportunity for carving your own path. Despite, the burdensome taxes on small businesses, it's actually fairly easy to work for your self, provided you have something to sell. Granted I bust my ass harder than I did as an employee and mkae much less - but for now. Because we live in an open society where new ideas are more likely to be accepted, people are more likely to say, yeah, I'll pay money for my child to have a new educational opportunity. The guy next door to me is an electrician who works for himself. He's home a ton during the day becasue he makes his own schedule.

Neither he nor I make tons of money at this point, but we both benefit from the technological and economic advantages of our society. Becasue people make money, they have some to spend on discretionary items (e.g., math enrichment). Because we have techonological advances, I can run my business from my home.

I agree that that the conveyor belt mentality is powerful and many of us end up leading unhappy lives because we don't get off the the conveyor belt. But in this country, the choice is indeed yours.

My little company still has a long way to go, but I wonder if I would even be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel in, say, France or Angola - or anywhere pre-20th century, for that matter. The progress has had some benefit, I beleive.

Posted by: Mike F. at February 17, 2004 06:43 PM

Don't mind me — I'm just going through my change of life. I don't mean to come off as someone who sits in the lap of luxury and whines about his predicament.

I guess my point is that, as Svetlana said in a Sopranos episode, America is the only country where people expect to be happy. But too often we're grinding ourselves to the bone. Now it may well be that work makes people happy. Good for them. They have a home. The problem is they screw it up for the rest of us.

I am often heard to say that no one really likes jazz. They just think everyone else does, and so they buy in. It's an enormous collective action problem. Likewise, I would imagine that if you stripped America down to its underpants and got the people to be honest about it, more than 50% of its upper-middle class would admit that they like leisure more than they do work. So let's, as I suggested to Mike, all voluntarily switch to a 4-day work week and live at 4/5 speed. I could accept 56 cable channels instead of 70, a 4/5 super-sized fries, and 32 GB capacity on my iPod. I think most people who have their necks above water could.

So why not slack off a little, for crying out loud? I understand a couple flaws in the argument: 4/5 input does not guarantee 4/5 output, and maybe more than half of the above-water crowd really does feel genuinely enriched busting its butt. And maybe it's not the above-water crowd, but the below-water crowd, that would bear the brunt of the slacking off.

But as long as people are cheating the curve, we'll never know.

For my part, I don't see the nobility in working for the economy — just as I don't like these all-encompassing theories of life that reduce all of human interaction to economic principles. It's a visceral thing, and it has a lot to do with the fact that I'm looking for a job right now, and it's so blecch.

Ultimately I hope not to be judged by how many Doritos I've consumed or how many billable hours I generated. And fine, maybe I can opt out, maybe I can execute a dramatic dismount from the conveyor belt — or maybe my contribution to the economy will be well-received written criticisms of this economy-obsessed society. I've just seen the conveyor belt make too big a wreck of too many people. And I suppose they're at fault for that in the end, but it's like calling a guy out at home plate when he tore both ACLs rounding third.

What I'm saying is that you're right, Rich. I just don't like it.

Posted by: Brad A. at February 17, 2004 10:51 PM