It isn’t a good thing to have contradictory beliefs. Since I’ve notice what appear to be such beliefs in myself recently, I thought I’d share, both because I guess that there are others out there who also have them, and in the hope that Crooked Timber’s community of readers can tell either that I should discard some of them (on grounds of falsity) or that I’m wrong to think them contradictory. So here goes.
Belief 1: As a keen reader of Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong (yes, really), our own John Quiggin and other left-leaning econobloggers, I believe that most Western economies need a stimulus to growth, that austerity will be counterproductive, and that without growth the debt burden will worsen and the jobs crisis will get deeper.
Belief 2: As someone concerned about the environment, I believe that growth, as most people understand it, is unsustainable at anything like recent rates. Sure, more efficient technologies can reduce the environmental impacts of each unit of consumption, but unless we halt or limit growth severely, we’ll continue to do serious damage. There are some possibilities for switching to less damaging technologies or changing consumption patterns away from goods whose production causes serious damage, but the transition times are likely to be long and the environmental crisis is urgent.
Belief 3: Some parts of the world are just too poor to eschew growth. People in those parts of the world need more stuff just to lift them out of absolute poverty. It is morally urgent to lift everyone above the threshold where they can live decent lives. If anyone should get to grow their consumption absolutely, it needs to be those people, not us.
Belief 4: The relative (and sometimes absolute) poverty that some citizens of wealthy countries suffer from is abhorrent, and is inconsistent with the status equality that ought to hold among fellow-citizens of democratic nations. We ought to lift those people out of poverty.
If I were to attempt a reconciliation, I’d say that this suggests zero or negative growth in material consumption for the wealthier countries but a massive programme of wealth redistribution among citizens at something like the current level of national income, coupled with a commitment to channel further technological progress into (a) more free time (and some job sharing) or a shift in the mix of activity towards non-damaging services, like education (b) switching to green technologies© assistance to other nations below the poverty threshold. All of those things need mechanisms of course if they’re to happen—and I’m a bit light on those if I’m honest, outside of the obvious tax-and-transfer. What we don’t need is more in the way of “incentives” to already-rich supposed “wealth creators” and the like. What we certainly don’t need is a strategy that purports to assist the worst off in the wealthiest countries by boosting economic activity without regard to the type of activity it is, in the hope that this gives people jobs and, you know, rising tides, trickling down and all that rigmarole. The trouble is that Belief 1, which I instinctively get behind when listening to the austerity-mongers, is basically the same old tune that the right-wing of social democracy has been humming all these years. It is just about the only thing that will fly for the left politically in a time of fear, joblessness and falling living standards, but it seems particularly hard to hold onto if you take Belief 2 seriously.