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Columns, Opinions

Hall ’20: Pandemic exposes America’s irrational obsession with growth

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, April 16, 2020

In my last column, shortly before classes were canceled and campus closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I pointed out that the U.S. was setting itself up for a public health disaster because of the nearly absurd inadequacy of its response to the coronavirus. Like many others writing then and now, I laid the blame at the feet of the conservatives in state and federal governments who have systematically gutted the capacity of the U.S. to care for its citizens, in a crisis or not. Ample evidence has emerged in the past month to prove this point. I’ll return to that evidence shortly, but first I want to explain how our country’s uniquely deficient public health response reveals a deeper ideological rot endemic to the halls of power: the obsession with economic growth, defined here in terms of GDP per capita. America’s worship of “growth” as a societal imperative and panacea not only cripples and confuses us during this pandemic — it will continuously weaken this country for the rest of the twenty-first century unless we give it up.

In any living system other than the economy, we naturally view unfettered growth as a very dangerous process. True, some kind of growth must always continue to sustain life: Cells grow, ecosystems and communities grow, our personalities and social networks and muscles all grow, as we hope they do. But once those things start expanding without end, we get cancer, invasive species, narcissism, social burnout and synthol biceps. (Seriously, Google it.) The exponential spread of the coronavirus is just the most recent example of what out-of-control growth can cause.

Unending growth triggers catastrophe in any system except, supposedly, the economy. Respected scholars claim that the economy of the United States should grow at 2.2 percent per year indefinitely. Uncapped exponential growth has been a feature of some, but not all, human societies for a few centuries at most. Yet now we take it as a precept that the economy must continue growing forever — that is simply our basic expectation. When growth slows or reverses for any significant length of time, it’s a disaster.

With a mindset like this, it comes as less of a shock when President Trump says well before the peak of the illness that “We have to open up our country” because “we can’t have the cure (for the pandemic) be worse than the problem.” Or when the conservative legal scholar and aspiring amateur epidemiologist Richard Epstein writes that the global response to the coronavirus is an “overreaction” and that falling stock prices show “there is only one cure … to reverse these self-destructive policies before it is too late.” Or when Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick suggests that he and other seniors are willing to die if it would rekindle the economy. The specter of slowing economic growth has led politicians into destructive vacillation: Unable to commit to lockdowns for fear of a slowing economy, they are stuck trying to weigh lives against dollars. Texas and Florida are still failing miserably to protect their citizens for just this reason.

These egregious quotes aside, isn’t it true that the coronavirus lockdowns are harming the economy and thereby pushing millions of Americans into danger? In other words, isn’t this downturn in growth harming us? To which I answer: Of course, with three caveats. 

First, many experts, such as government leaders and health officials, agree that closing down all nonessential economic activity, no matter the near-term economic consequences, remains the best option all around. This fact alone invalidates the conservative-led rush to reopen for business.

Second, Americans are taking a spectacular beating from these shutdowns because four decades of conservative economic and social policy have left us with no ability to help the vulnerable in times of slow growth. As Professor of International Economics Mark Blyth points out in a recent Foreign Affairs article, the U.S. has a unique strategy for dealing with recessions which leaves it especially vulnerable to the virus. Trade-dependent countries like Germany have large welfare states which buffer against external economic shocks. The U.S., conversely, has a small social safety net and generally allows recessions to play out through austerity and unemployment, and compensates by bolstering businesses in the hopes that they begin hiring again. We can allegedly afford to do so because our economy is more self-sufficient and less dependent on outside trade than Germany’s. Our particular “growth model” therefore leaves working people unprotected in the best of times, and is prone to collapse when, as is happening now, businesses are forced to shut down no matter how much credit the government drenches them in. The mass unemployment we face due to the pandemic is a political choice which we must not make in the future.

At this point we should ask whether it is the ultimate goal of growth or merely our model for pursuing it that has so crippled our country’s response to the pandemic. We only have evidence for the latter claim so far, because countries with a similar growth imperative but better social safety nets (e.g. Germany) have dealt with the virus while avoiding massive unemployment. This brings us to the third and most important caveat: While some growth models may fare better than ours now, in the long run, any economic system that depends on growth to ensure the livelihood of its people will fail for two reasons. First, continued growth will become structurally impossible, and second, growth obsession will only make countries more fragile and people worse off. 

A confluence of forces in this century will make it nearly impossible for growth to continue indefinitely. The foremost is climate change. Climate change will erode the material foundation for continued growth by disrupting supply chains, food production and infrastructure. Even famously conservative economic models predict huge costs from these impacts alone. Those models ignore the political upheavals due to mass migration and accumulating social instability which will also make the international order that sustains trade (and therefore growth) far more fragile. Most importantly, it appears unlikely that countries like the United States could maintain growth indefinitely without relying on the same ever-increasing extraction and consumption of material goods which fuels climate and ecological breakdown in the first place. As growth continues, its impacts on the natural world will accumulate until they become overwhelming. In this context, “green growth” — economic growth decoupled from environmental damages — looks like a contradiction in terms: While economic expansion can have more or less impact on the natural world, no country has come close to reversing those harms entirely.

Other trends will make growth even more difficult to sustain. Demographic shift — a decline in the fraction of the population at working age — has already slowed growth in Japan and parts of Europe. Its effects in the US have hit rural areas first and will reach ever further into urban areas. Additionally, much of the global growth frenzy of the twentieth century fed off of technological developments which have since slowed down.

The second reason that our growth-based politics are harmful — that in the long run, the primacy of growth will only harm countries like the U.S. — is far more controversial. It has become almost clichée to attribute all sorts of benefits to economic growth. These include greater happiness, democracy, less hunger, less violence, a healthier environment and healthier people and even better sex. Economist Tyler Cowen sums up this view well in his book “Stubborn Attachments,” writing that “growth alleviates misery, improves happiness and opportunity, and lengthens lives. Wealthier societies have better living standards, better medicines, and offer greater personal autonomy, greater fulfillment and more sources of fun.”

Everything Cowen says here is true, up to a point. A relatively prosperous modern society is better off than a poor and disease-ridden one. Even if we can’t compare the subjective experiences of people in different cultures or times, it is certainly true that people living in America today would as a whole become far less happy if we regressed to 1940s living standards, when almost half the country lacked indoor plumbing. The millions of people in India currently struggling to find food amidst the pandemic lockdowns would likely be better off, to some degree, if their country were wealthier. Environmentalists in rich Western nations tend to forget just how vast the difference between low-resource poverty and mid-resource prosperity is, whereas Cowen writes with some justification that “economic growth is the only permanent path out of squalor.”

But a robust literature argues that the benefits of growth diminish rapidly after a certain level of wealth. Studies continue to show that just because growth has correlated with increasing standard of living in the past does not mean it will in the future, nor that it directly causes benefits like reduced hunger and longer life expectancy. More importantly, using “growth” as a metric serves to obscure the real societal outcomes we aim for. Proponents like Cowen tend to uncritically conflate various technological and societal advances, and the benefits we gain from them, with economic growth. But in many cases, confusing growth for the good things it often correlates with proves deadly. Cowen reports in “Stubborn Attachments” that the wealthier a nation gets, the better it can deal with huge catastrophes. The recent history of the U.S. shows us that crisis preparedness depends more on a baseline level of wealth combined with equality, democracy and competent governance; if anything, our leaders’ terror at slowing growth held them back from making effective choices. Obsession with growth entails all sorts of harmful restructuring — from privatizing health care to crippling the egalitarian policies of South American states — which ultimately leads to bodies in the streets. Just look at Ecuador.

So long as GDP growth remains the main policy objective of our governments, we face a deepening trench between the upper class and everyone else, an environmental breakdown and an economy prone to collapse in the many crises the twenty-first century will bring. We would do much better to follow the example of countries like Costa Rica, which at a GDP per capita less than one-fifth the size of ours has a higher life expectancy, lower long-term unemployment rate and a relatively minuscule impact on emissions and ecological degradation compared to the U.S. No country has the perfect set of policies, and strategies that work in one place will not work in others. But the fragility of our nation in the face of this pandemic, and the systemic devaluation of human flourishing in relation to economic growth, all go to show that we need desperately to search for other models — and end the vice-hold of growth over our politics. 

Galen Hall ’20 can be reached at galen_hall@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. Stop your whining, and ask how are my parents going to pay for the ridiculous tuition now that they are out of work. And more importantly is Brown really worth it as an “online school”.

    Lastly how much more greed are you going to allow by letting them pack all your asses into cramp and fire trap dorm rooms.

  2. Galen,
    Spoken like a true Ivory Tower student. “Yes, I’ve made it, but you can’t.” Pulling up the drawbridge once you’re in the castle.
    Galen, 3 billion people have been pulled up from abject poverty to lower middle-class and better lives in the past 30 years (look it up). The number of people living in abject poverty today is only 750 million people–about 10% of the world’s total population.
    To what can we attribute this improvement in people’s lives?
    Capitalism and its emphasis on growth have improved the lives of nearly everyone on earth. Examples: per capital income in South Korea in 1965 was lower than that of Kenya. Now South Koreans are among the richest in the world. Chinese have climbed from starvation during the Great Leap Forward in 1958 to an average of $10K per capita today–with more improvement in sight. If you take much of Asia (52% of the world’s population), you see a whole region lifted from drudgery and starvation to middle class prosperity. And BTW, this has engendered improvements in women’s rights, LBGTQ rights, and children’s rights.
    The very growth that you deride also applies to those of us in the United States. Many of us who start in lower classes can move up during our lifetimes.
    So Galen, a bit of advice from a slightly older Brown alum: get off the tower and look at what’s happening, particularly in what used to be the Third World. You’ll find that growth is not only salutory, but uplifting.

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