The trap of an infinite growth economy

I often argue that it is necessary to divorce the workings of markets, one of the means to allocate and exchange scarce resource, from the particular infinite growth system they are embedded in for the moment.

Thomas L. Wayburn, a ‘thermo-economist’, who sees economics through the lens of energy expenditures and flows, reprints a contribution by David Delaney, who put all the arguments in a row, regarding the question: what factors make contemporary capitalism an infinite growth machine?

David Delaney:

“Economic growth requires increasing the amount of high quality energy and materials degraded by the economy each year. Economic growth on a finite planet will eventually stop. If it does not exhaust the resources needed for its continuation, it will stop earlier for some other reason. Allowing resource depletion and biosphere degradation to terminate economic growth will produce catastrophe. Unfortunately, our dependence on economic growth makes it extremely unlikely that we will give it up voluntarily before the catastrophe. Our dependence has at least four aspects: A) in the need to deal with adverse consequences of labor-reducing innovations, B) in commercial bank money, C) in the need to maintain tolerance of inequality, and D) in financial markets.

A) The first dependence on economic growth is in the need to avoid the adverse consequences of innovations that reduce the need for labor.1 By definition, each labor-reducing innovation either increases the amount of a good produced or throws some people out of work. Firms that create or exploit a labor-reducing innovation create new jobs internally by driving other firms out of business. The new jobs implementing the innovation offset the loss of jobs caused by the innovation, but the innovating firms don’t necessarily hire all of the job losers, because the innovation reduced the total amount of labor needed to produce the original amount of the good. In order to re-employ all job losers, the economy must grow to produce more of the good with all of the original workers, or produce more of some other good with the cheaper labor (the job losers) now available. In either case the economy grows. Much of what we consider progress is due to labor-reducing innovations. In order to live without economic growth, we would have to give up this kind of progress, or introduce arrangements to allow workers who become unproductive to retain their relative wealth and self-respect, or relegate most people to a repressed underclass. There is a powerful incentive to avoid these contingencies by encouraging economic growth.

B) The second dependence on economic growth is in the creation of money by the act of borrowing at interest from commercial banks. Much of the money in each loan by a commercial bank is created by the loan itself. The bank collects a fee—the interest—for providing the service of creating the money. Other ways of creating money have been explored in theory and practice. Successful local currencies have been based on some of these alternatives, (see Douthwaite, Short Circuit, page 61) but all national money is now created by interest-bearing loans from commercial banks. This way of creating money contributes instability to an economy based on it. In order to keep the money supply from contracting when a loan and its interest are paid, a larger total of new loans must be created, increasing the money supply. (This is not transparently obvious. For a more detailed explanation, see Douthwaite, The Ecology of Money, page 24.) When the economy grows to match the increasing money supply, the value of money is relatively stable, and commercial-bank-created money is benign. If the rate of economic growth does not match the rate of growth of the money supply, the money supply becomes unstable. Given the use of money created by interest-bearing loans from commercial banks, an economy can minimize the resulting instabilities of the money supply by sustaining moderate growth. Monetary instability would put significant hazards in the way of deliberate attempts to contract our economy unless the creation of money was radically reformed.

C) The third dependence on economic growth is in the political and geopolitical need for tolerance of inequality. Differences of wealth are at least as great within the developed countries as they are between developed and developing countries. Think of the ratio of the average income of American CEOs to the average salary of workers in their companies. Domestically and internationally, the tolerance of the poor and middle classes for the existence of wealthier classes and countries depends on a belief in economic growth. The poor struggle, while seeing that others are wealthy and still others are grotesquely wealthy. The poor are told a story: if they keep to their work and to their diversions, and tolerate the rich, they will be better off in the future than they are today. They believe this story, or at least don’t revolt against it, because it is supported by propaganda and shared myths, and has been true for many. When economic growth disappears forever, the poor, like everyone else, will recognize that they will be progressively worse off, with no future relief possible. The peaceful tolerance by the poor and the middles for the rich will disappear. A peaceful end of economic growth would require redistribution of wealth, with consequent political and geopolitical contention. Desire to avoid the contention makes it unlikely that deliberate elimination of economic growth will be attempted before economic growth is ended by nature. The intolerance of differences of wealth that will then appear will itself not be tolerated by the rich, causing additional domestic and international conflict just at the advent of other adverse changes. At that time, if not before, tyrannical repression of the poor will greatly tempt the rich.

D) The fourth dependence on economic growth is in the financial markets—the mechanism of capitalization of public corporations. Public corporations, the main actors in industrial economies, depend on financial markets not only for capital for innovation, but for discipline, valuation, motivation, and a major part of their rationale for existence. Owners of capital—investors—give the use of it over to public corporations by buying equity or debt in financial markets. They do so only because they expect that they will, on average, and over the long term, receive back more than they gave up. That expectation disappears when most investors understand there will be no economic growth. Most of the apparent wealth of the world consists of equity and debt bought and sold in financial markets. . Any realistic possibility of the end of growth would fill investors with something like terror. Political initiatives to bring an end to growth will be opposed by investors with every means at their command. The controversial nature of proposals that would reduce or eliminate economic growth will likely prevent the proposals from reaching even the status of political contention. When the onset of sustained economic contraction is generally perceived, investors will withdraw from financial markets. The resulting failure of the markets will make many necessary developments impossible to finance and will produce confusion and stasis in public corporations just when we need them to adapt to new circumstances.”

3 Comments The trap of an infinite growth economy

  1. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Apologies for missing thatt David. If you are the same author, I’d be interested in your other writings and thoughts. Thanks for correcting me!


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