Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Degrowth"
I would like to thank Giorgos Kallis for cogently summarizing the current thinking of the “degrowth movement.” The discussion has been stimulating, and I will mostly build on points also made by others.
1. One welcomes a strong and youthful voice from Europe in opposition to growthism. Their goal of getting off our suicidal growth path and reducing our ecological footprint to a sustainable level, justly distributed, is one I enthusiastically support, and I wish them more success in promoting it than others of us have had to date.
2. The name “degrowth,” as others have suggested, is infelicitous, but it is hard to change names once something has begun. Neither positive nor negative growth is possible in the long run. A steady state can at least last for a long time, although not forever.
3. Degrowth currently pays too little attention to population growth, and this is especially the case if population growth arises from net immigration, as is the case in Western Europe and the US. In the past, some degrowth writings have seemed to advocate a policy of open borders, although a reasoned case was not attempted. It would be good for them to be explicit about such a fundamental policy position. Globalization erases national boundaries to movement of goods (free trade) and capital (free capital mobility), and increasingly to people as well (free migration). Kallis discusses problems of “global governance” without really offering a position for or against globalization as a driver of growth. I see global governance as requiring a federation of nations. But if goods, capital, and people cross national borders at will, then nations are basically dissolved as political units, and there is nothing left to federate—just post-national corporate feudalism in a global commons. Most likely, the degrowth advocates are trying to develop a consensus among themselves on these difficult and divisive issues, and understandably have not yet arrived at one.
4. On the vexed issue of absolute decoupling, ecological economists see GDP as fairly tightly coupled to throughput and loosely coupled to welfare, while neoclassicals believe that GDP is only loosely coupled to throughput but tightly coupled to welfare. There is clearly room for empirical work here. However, I think basic policy does not much depend on the results. We should limit throughput first and foremost. If GDP coupling is loose, that makes things politically easier, but if it is tight, welfare can still increase since it does not depend much on GDP anyway, beyond a basic sufficiency.
In the US and Western Europe, GDP growth is as much a measure of increase in illth as of increase in wealth. Just distribution and efficient allocation should be the policy focus, not growth in scale of the macroeconomy, which should shrink for a while. This would seem to be consistent with the degrowth view.