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Limits to Growth – of stuff, value, and GDP

I’m starting to think that perpetual growth notions are the Achilles heel of the human brain. They pop up like munchkins on a Whac-a-Mole machine. You smash one and up come two.

A recent example comes from Tim Worstall, a business and technology writer for Forbes. Like the long lineage of Homo polyannas before him, he assures his poor readers that we can have perpetually growing GDP without using more resources. He uses a variety of the old “growth is more value, not stuff” argument.

Worstall says, “It really is true that as value increases we have economic growth. And how are we determining that value? Through the market prices that people are willing to pay for them. And what is the determinant of that? Well, actually, it’s us. Our own often arbitrary and always subjective estimations of what something is worth to us. Which isn’t, as I hope can be seen, something that is bounded by any physical limit at all.”

Now I don’t know about you, but when someone is compelled to announce, “It really is true,” my “Prove It” flag pops up. And sure enough, Mr. Worstall has a lot to prove.

For starters, just exactly what evidence does Mr. Worstall have to support his notion that our estimations of value are unbounded? I don’t recall having or hearing of an experience where something just seemed to increase in value more, more yet, and forevermore. Do you? Now it may have seemed that way for some short period of time with something like coffee. But unless you’re moving into ecstasy ad nauseum – an oxymoron if there ever was one – the value of the experience was bounded. Right?

Why can’t Worstall and the perpetual growthers just face it with the rest of us: life is all about limits. Life, death, taxes, and limits. What’s wrong with limits, anyway? If there weren’t any, what value would a certain level of progress or satisfaction have? How would you measure it?

Now sure, you might “value” living more as you get closer to dying. You might try to measure this value and say, “I’m twice as concerned with living now.” You might even spend twice as much money on health food. That’s fine and understandable, but it’s not economic growth. If you spent more on health food, you had less to spend on coffee, chiropractic, or bingo at the Elks Club.

That brings us to an even bigger burden of proof begged by Mr. Worstall. The main point of his article is that all this ever-increasing appreciation or satisfaction or happiness, which requires not one jot or tittle of energy or material, will result in GDP growth! This, he lectures the scientists, is really what GDP growth is all about: increasing value, where value may increase without increasing use of energy and material.

Where’s the proof? Have we ever seen GDP increase without increasing use of energy and material? If the Worstalls of the world would only put their money where their mouths were, we could cap energy and material flows and test their hypothesis. But no, their mouths are preoccupied with perpetual growth slogans like “drill baby drill!”

But just for the sake of argument, let’s say we can wave a magic wand or a hypnosis gismo and have ever-growing value without the use of more energy and materials. All of a sudden, bread tastes better, suits look spiffier, hymns even sound holier. And that’s without using more energy or material. It’s all in the mind, you see.

So we spend more on it? Thus increasing GDP?

Prove it.

While the Worstalls of the world are busy with an exercise in futility, the rest of us can think about something more evident. Where does the money come from to spend on things of value? As Adam Smith noted in the Wealth of Nations, money originates when there is agricultural and extractive surplus. With agricultural surplus, not everyone has to farm. That frees the hands for the division of labor and the generation of real money to be spent on a variety of goods and services. Agricultural surplus is the physical basis of money and market expenditures.

Oh sure, we can double the supply of money overnight if we really want to. If we all wake up one morning insisting that we value everything twice as much, why not double the money supply to account for it? But that’s not growth in real GDP. It’s mental and monetary only. The mental part is fine — a nice mood at the least — but the monetary part is called inflation!

The foundation of the real human economy is the producers. Only with surplus production will there be expenditures on consumption. Growing GDP takes more surplus production. Such are the trophic origins of money, in ecological terms. But as Worstall said, “when extremely bright people step off their own knowledge base they can make very interesting mistakes when they attempt to explore other fields.” I don’t know if Worstall is extremely bright or not, but he obviously isn’t conversant with ecology, also known as the economy of nature. That sets him up poorly for economic matters. If you don’t get the basics of the real sector, you can make a real mess of the monetary sector.

If anyone still views this as an argument, maybe we can settle it democratically. After all, it seems that plenty of folks value democracy, so the more democratic the approach, the more valuable it should be (within limits, I’d say). So let’s take a vote. What do readers think is more feasible: Ever-growing satisfaction and ever-growing GDP with no additional stuff? Or declining satisfaction and declining GDP as the supply of stuff declines?

I’d like to hear your thoughts. I do value your opinion. But whether you give it or not, I won’t be spending a dime on it. GDP will just have to sit there.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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