Degrowth: We can't let it happen here!
We won't help the environment or the poor by valorizing poverty and decline.
A year and a half ago, I wrote a post entitled “People are realizing that degrowth is bad”. Around that time, the degrowth movement had started to receive a bit of attention in the U.S., as part of the general push for major action on climate change. But writers like Ezra Klein, Branko Milanovic, and Kelsey Piper spoke up and criticized the idea. In a nutshell:
Klein pointed out that major reductions in living standards would be politically unacceptable in rich countries.
Milanovic showed that meaningful global degrowth would have to go beyond rich countries; it would have to stop poor countries from escaping poverty, which would be both politically untenable and morally wrong.
Piper noted that coordinated global degrowth would take much more economic central planning than we’re actually able to do.
These were all correct and solid points, and together they probably spell doom for degrowth’s chances of gaining serious support either in the U.S. or in Asia, or in almost any other region of the globe.
But there is one region where degrowth has gained both intellectual respect and some measure of popularity, and that’s Europe, where the movement began. The European Parliament just hosted an event in Brussels called the Beyond Growth conference, at which Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President, gave a speech. The economist Nathan Lane live-tweeted the conference, and you can watch videos of the various presentations on YouTube if you like.
This doesn’t mean that I’m worried that the EU will embrace centralized planning to intentionally halt its growth or shrink its economy. In fact, as I’ll explain shortly, I think the degrowth people have managed to make their ideas amorphous enough where basically any step toward greater social democracy or concern for the environment can be branded as a “degrowth” policy.
But I do think the idea of degrowth could be corrosive to the European economy in a more subtle way. Because they’ve chosen to frame their ideas as being fundamentally about reducing GDP, the degrowthers are essentially making a virtue out of economic decline. And that enables and empowers a whole bunch of actors whose main goal is physical and social stasis — even if that stasis isn’t exactly what the degrowthers themselves would want.
So I suppose degrowth is an idea that has to be engaged with, for Europe’s sake if not for America’s. In my previous post I mostly just channeled the ideas of others, but this conference prompted me to dive a little bit more into the degrowth literature and rhetoric. Unsurprisingly, what I found there makes absolutely no sense at all, either as an academic project or as a plan for policy. Let’s dive in a bit and see why.
Degrowth is a mishmash of leftist rhetoric, pseudoscience, and occasional tidbits of actual science
A good resource for learning about degrowth is Timothée Parrique’s website. That website recommends two reviews of the degrowth literature: Kallis et al. (2018) and and Fitzpatrick et al. (2022). Looking at these papers, we can get a pretty decent idea of what’s going on here.
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