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Date: 2022-07-03 Page is: DBtxt001.php txt00009457

Tim Jackson

Tim Jackson ... Growth is not the answer to inequality

It was in the late 80s that I wrote something about 'profit being the highest cost in the modern consumer economy'. Technology was starting to power very significant improvement in productivity enabling lower payroll costs and the financial sector was becoming aggressive about giving consumers more buying power by making credit more accessible (and, of course, for the banks, also profitable). Everything the consumer bought was largely profit, and increasingly so over time. At a macro level this type of an economy is bound to crash because it is unsustainable, and of course it did ... several times in fact ... culminating in the big one in the 2007 / 2008 time period. Nevertheless. the conversation about growth has continued: 'The economy will get better if there is more growth.' This is patent nonsense. Growth is not needed in the more developed economies though growth would be healthy for all the poor economies. The business model for the big banks and business conglomerates needs to be changed so that the massive after tax profits that has produced huge corporate liquidity gets allocated not so much to owners of the shares of the companies but either to consumers through better prices, or employees by better wages, or to the huge investment initiatives the world needs to upgrade private and public infrastructure and essential services for a modern efficient resilient society. Some are going to say that this requires regulation and taxation and it will reduce the potential for growth. This is ideological rot. There are huge projects that need investment in order to maintain the infrastructure we have today and what we will be needing for tomorrow ... but it is abundantly clear that the owners of the modern economy up to now have chosen to enrich themselves and do rather little for everyone else. These are choices ... and I would argue very bad choices. Something better is possible, and something better is needed. And, lest we forget, growth in the manner of the last 100 years is unsustainable from the environmental perspective, anyway. A good start will be better metrics ... and it is this component of reform that I focus on. We have the technology to do amazing things. We have business models that make amazing things impossible. The growth solution to economic malaise is stupidity on steroids.
Peter Burgess

Growth is not the answer to inequality

Thomas Piketty might argue that we need growth to resolve inequality, but this is just a comforting half-truth our politicians can use to justify business as usual

IMAGE Anti-austerity protests across Europe highlight discontent with worsening income inequality. Photograph: Kim Petersen/Alamy

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our politicians focused on things that matter, like the kind of society we want to live in, instead of squabbling over TV debates and “empty chairs”? Why couldn’t they be a bit more like actor Michael Sheen, for instance, whose barnstorming defence of public values went viral after he turned out for a rain-soaked St David’s Day rally in support of the NHS?

The closest we’ve come to that kind of passion is Ed Miliband’s measured attack on the perils of inequality. “Tackling inequality is the new centre ground of politics,” claimed the Labour leader in his Hugo Young lecture last month, citing Obama’s State of the Union Address, the election of New York mayor Bill de Blasio and the Pope.

Some of what motivates this surge of political interest is prudential rather than moral in nature. Miliband is quick to point out that inequality “holds our economies back”, tapping into the somewhat confusing arguments about the relative merits of equality and inequality. The idea that tackling inequality will give us more growth is of course comforting to those who believe that economic growth is the answer to everything – including inequality.

But this opportunistic thinking ignores the fact that some of the things we’re doing to promote growth, like economic financialisation and political austerity, are rapidly worsening income inequality. A recent report from the New Economics Foundation (pdf) calls financialisation and inequality a “dangerous mix”, while Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s colourful new finance minister, has described austerity as a form of “fiscal waterboarding”. There is little doubt that the success of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain testifies to a rising discontent with the huge disparity in incomes which is continually justified by economic recovery.

Those like me who fear that the continued pursuit of economic growth on a finite planet might be neither possible nor desirable face a different kind of challenge, brought home to us by Thomas Piketty’s 700 page tome Capital in the 21st Century. The astonishing popularity of the “rock-star economist” is itself a resounding testament to our concern for inequality.

But his painstaking analysis reveals an uncomfortable story. Piketty places the responsibility for rising inequality firmly and squarely on declining growth rates. Like Benjamin Friedman in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, he implies that only growth can bring civility, in part because an expanding economy allows for a degree of ‘catching up’ by the poorest in society, without much sacrifice or compromise by the rich.

For those of us less than convinced by the mantra of growth at all costs, the idea that only growth can save us from disastrous inequality poses some pretty serious challenges to our endeavour. Serious enough, that two of us – my Canadian colleague professor Peter Victor and I – decided to spend a bit more time analysing Piketty’s arguments.

What we found was fascinating. Piketty’s hypothesis only holds when the growth rate, savings rate and return on capital remain unchanged over long periods of time. When they move about, as they usually do, the economy is always chasing equilibrium but never quite arrives. In some circumstances, Piketty is absolutely right: declining growth can lead to rising inequality. In others, the exact reverse can happen: de-growth can in fact be compatible with greater equality.

This was definitely good news of a kind. Even more striking were the circumstances that made the difference. It turns out that if we are serious about reducing inequality, we must pay attention to the quality – as well as the quantity – of work in our economy. The endless mining of working life in pursuit of productivity gains for the owners of capital is not just detrimental to prosperity, it is inimicable to social justice.

If the debate about inequality is really back on the political agenda, it seems important that we approach it sensibly, without resorting to comforting half-truths. It remains to be seen how that will play out in a political debate mired in trivialities.

The rethinking prosperity hub is sponsored by DNV GL. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled “brought to you by”. Find out more here.

Tim Jackson is professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey and author of Prosperity Without Growth.

Economics / NEF

Open PDF ... NEF-Inequality-and-financialisation-a-dangerous-mix-2015

Tim Jackson
Friday 13 March 2015 08.50 EDT Last modified on Saturday 14 March 2015 12.37 EDT
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