The Myth of Growth

An expression I’m fond of using is “no tree grows to the sky.” I don’t know where I picked it up, but like most of my pithy expressions, it appeals to be sense of the natural order. Everything begins, evolves, changes, adapts, but eventually ends. It strikes me that most of the periods of tumult were the result of people just assuming the trend lines would never change. Everything would stay the same forever.

The one area where this always jumps out to me is the cult of economics. If you scrape away the posing and posturing, this strange modern religion is built on the absolute belief that economies can and must grow forever. The “economy” has been turned into a thing with agency that punishes and rewards the people, based on their treatment of the economy.

Nowhere in modern economics do you find people talking about steady low growth or even static economies, other than as cautionary tales. In the word of modern economics, the economy of a country is the plant from Little Shop of Horrors. It must be fed so it can grow and nothing must be permitted to get in the way of feeding the thing. In the moral hierarchy of modern economics, everything comes second to the economy, even human life.

To some degree, this is what drives the open borders fanaticism among the ruling classes. The shamans of the cult of economics tell these simple minds in politics that the economy must grow or we all die. Further, they tell them that the only way to grow it is to grow the population. Since the locals refuse to have ten kids per woman, the only solution is to import millions of peasants from the fringes of civilization.

In fact, growing the economy is so important to the health of the people that it trumps the life of the people. Mark Dayton comes pretty close here to saying that opponents of mass immigration don’t deserve to live, that they can be fed to the economy like the murder victims are fed to the plant in the above musical. To Mark Dayton, his statement is noble because he is saying he is willing to sacrifice his kin to please the god of modern economics.

Harsh words and heartfelt sentiment were exchanged by community members and local officials on racial issues in Central Minnesota at the St. Cloud NAACP Community Conversation with Gov. Mark Dayton.

Hosted Tuesday at St. Cloud Public Library, about 100 people from diverse backgrounds gathered to ask questions of St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, St. Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson, State Rep. Jim Knoblach, Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey, Council on Black Minnesotans Community Program Specialist Kolloh Nimley and St. Cloud AFYA Pharmacy co-owner Dr. Edris Kosar.

From the start of the event, Dayton bluntly stated his opinions on the racial tension in St. Cloud and across the state in regards to immigration.

“Look around you. This is Minnesota,” Dayton said. “Minnesota is not like it was 30, 50 years ago. … This is Minnesota and you have every right to be here. And anybody who cannot accept your right to be here, and this is Minnesota, should find another state.”

Dayton is defining citizenship here based on your acceptance of the New Religion. Much as libertarians think the unproductive should be turned into fertilizer, the man of the New Religion thinks the infidel is no longer his fellow citizen, maybe not even his fellow human being. The Bantu tribesman on the other side of the planet wishing to settle in your neighborhood means more to Mark Dayton than you, if you are not sufficiently enthusiastic for the new faith.

The bit of reality the shamans cannot contemplate is that the economy will not grow forever. Much of what is called growth is just currency manipulation. Another part is gaffing the numbers so the spreadsheets look pleasing. Automation, of course, is going to eliminate most work in the next generation. Growth as currently understood will come to an end by the middle of this century, no matter how many Bantus are imported to Minnesota.

The trouble is, everything in the West is based on the assumption that the economy will grow forever. That’s not irrational. For most of human history, scarcity has been the great challenge. The great minds were all put to the task of figuring out how society can allocate scare resources to support the maximum number of people. In a world with shortages of food, water, housing, shelter and safety, growing the supply of those stocks is paramount. It trumps everything.

That’s not the modern West. It’s barely the case in the savage areas. The population explosion in Africa is due to more food, medicine, shelter and security. We live in an age where poor people are obese because they sit around all day eating massive calories, taking massive amounts of intoxicants while watching television. Mexico is the most obese country on earth and they are allegedly waddling north in search of more stuff, like grazing animals.

A post-scarcity world should be a world of steady populations, with periods of modest growth and decline, based on fashion. It is a simple math problem. Instead, our rulers are convinced that we must have more and more people in order to feed the economy. Whether or not they really believe it is hotly debated on the Right, but clearly it is baked into their world view. The modern politician talks about nothing other than economics and economic growth.

I think it goes deeper than just a current fad. Everything is based on growth, real or imagined. Our institutions and culture are based on growth. We deliberately debase the value of labor through currency manipulation, for example, in order to encourage productivity and economic activity. The explosion of debt is so the welfare state can keep growing. Those massive credit markets everyone now fears is to keep the economy growing.

Generations of ruling classes have been trained on the core belief of never ending growth. Remove Audrey II from the modern discussion and what do we have? The error made on the Right is to assume this obsession with economics is in order to avoid answering that question. It may simply be that they fear discussing culture because it may upset the gods of growth and then there will be hell to pay.

7 thoughts on “The Myth of Growth

  1. I respectfully disagree. Let me clarify…

    I do agree that free market capitalism is indeed an innovation growth machine. William Baumol makes the case in the book of the same name. What differentiates free enterprise from other economic systems is that innovation self amplifies, and the participants have to innovate or they effectively lose ground relative to their peers by standing in place. Your basic Red Queen phenomenon, but with a twist. Free enterprise requires people to solve problems for other (a form of cooperation) to advance their own interests (when properly functioning).

    Second, I need to clarify that endless growth is possible. The reason is because what grows is Problem Solving ability. Value and knowledge are not objective material qualities and they can increase without limit, or increase so much further than today as to make any limits to growth discussion absurd.

    Third, growth — again defined as cumulative problem solving volume in a society — is in general a good thing. The reason is that people tend to prefer solutions over problems, and if the world is not growing in net solutions then any improvement in position for one needs to come, by definition from a net deterioration to someone else. This is a zero sum, win/lose dynamic, and it leads quickly to arms races of exploitation, attack and defense which actually tends to become a negative sum situation as people redirect their efforts to struggling over capped resources. I will say that not everybody wants growth in problem solving ability. Fine, they don’t need to pursue it. Those that do, had better have positive sum outlets (where they can advance their own interests by advancing that of others) or we are screwed.

    Fourth, the track record for “the strange modern religion” of free enterprise vs all other alternatives is simply unbelievably amazing. The other systems have always capped out at a couple dollars per day in purchasing power problem solving (aka Malthusian subsistence living for most people) with virtually no growth, short lifespans, longer working hours, thirty to fifty percent child mortality, and so on. Modern non market systems can however free ride or draft upon free market innovation and growth (many do).

    I agree that increased immigration is NOT essential to market growth. International trade accomplishes much of the same thing in the same way. Indeed, although more humans does seem to correlate with more growth per capita in free markets as per Julian Simon, there are obvious trade offs.

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  3. Wow, talk about a group of people with no knowledge of how things work.

    “We need to let in more people to grow our economy”.

    But in order to grow an economy, you (meaning some entity) must harvest and process natural resources like petroleum and metals and such.

    But, the CML doesn’t WANT to harvest resources. They are Luddites, for the most part, who worship the god of environmentalism, and thus want the earth protected.

    How are you going to grow the economy if you don’t harvest resources?

    Not only that, but if you bring in more people to grow OUR economy, you have fewer people in the other country, and their economy will shrink. Can you say Zero Sum Game, anyone?

  4. The prog may as you say rely on many forms of ersatz growth to attain his ends, but there is no growth in Utopia. Growth is a word which is opposite to Utopian ends. The chief prog will of course have all the privileges which are his due in running the monastery…shepherding the citizen in his duties, improving his mind and awareness.

    When Adolf couldn’t make things go his way he blew up his ungrateful country. I don’t see why things should happen so differently here. At that time progs will re-settle in Davos.

  5. Asset valuation is an ephemeral thing. Things are worth only what someone else will pay for them, at any given moment. The notion of never-ending economic growth is the means to feed the asset valuation beast. If assets are not in ever higher demand, then available supply will often overwhelm demand (oil and copper right now?), and asset values shrink. The uber-wealthy are all wrapped around the valuation of the assets that they own, that are surplus to their own real needs. They spend considerable time and money greasing the way for the surplus assets they own to be ever valued more highly. The limits of growth and the shrinking of demand frighten them to their very core. They will sacrifice all of our long runs, including their own, to satisfy their short run preference. It is just human nature to do so, I suppose.

  6. They’re scared out of their little minds by deflation. The only way they know how to forestall it is by throwing people and money into the equation.

    The thing that scares them the most after deflation is population growth. So they’ve convinced their own people to stop having babies and have started importing Vandals and Huns to fill the empty houses and retail aisles until they can propagandize the barbarians to stop having babies.

    They don’t want to believe the tenets of the CML, they must. Otherwise, they’d have to face the horror of the coming disaster that they themselves have fashioned.

    The analogy is exact. If religion helps us cope with the horrors of death, then CML buffers its adherents from the collapse of their world. They’ve completely hosed themselves. Indefinite growth is unsustainable. The barbarians are inside the gate. The civilization-crushing specter of long-term deflation flickers on the near horizon. Their faith is the only thing left to sustain them.

  7. I think the Cult of Economics is like the Cult of Modern Liberalism — a piss-poor ersatz answer to one of the old, profound questions. As CML answers the old existential question “What’s the meaning of life?”, Economics answers the question “what’s a nation for?”

    Since the Peace of Westphalia, the answer to that second question has been “to preserve the lives, property, and culture of the people within its borders.” The point of Germany was to help German-ness thrive. France was above all things the guarantor of French-ness. Italy unified because Italian-ness wasn’t sufficiently protected by the hodgepodge of powers on the peninsula, and Austria-Hungary collapsed because Austrians weren’t Hungarians (and vice versa).

    But now there’s no such thing as nation-ness. The ruling clique sees all humans as fungible, to taste based on their ideology — either interchangeable producer-units (for the socialists) or interchangeable consumer-units (for the libertarians). The Elite’s job is to reconfigure these units to optimize output. If the economy isn’t always growing, what good are the Elite?

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