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September 27, 2012 1:06 PM   Subscribe


 
I'm skeptical.
posted by dfriedman at 1:13 PM on September 27, 2012


Isn't the answer to these kind of questions always 'No'?
posted by leotrotsky at 1:16 PM on September 27, 2012 [19 favorites]


Even if you accept the (extremely dubious) prospect that advances in information technology are geometric and infinite, it doesn't follow that we can base our entire civilization's productive capacity on selling phones and apps to each other, forever.

I also think specifically of cancer research, strangely enough. I've read enough old SF novels to remember that 30 or 40 years ago many futurists considered a cure for cancer to be essentially inevitable within the next half century. Now in 2012, we have spent hundreds of billions on cancer research for a very small reduction in mortality rates in a few minor cancers. The overall average lifespan of US females has actually fallen since the early 90's.

It may be that we are approaching the limits to our technological and social progress as a species. Which is to say, that it may not be possible for us to grow further without radical alterations to our fundamental natures.
posted by Avenger at 1:18 PM on September 27, 2012 [11 favorites]


I thought the answer to these kind of questions was always "Well..."
posted by daniel_charms at 1:19 PM on September 27, 2012 [11 favorites]


I think economic growth is still possible but I think the notion that the economy can and should grow all the time and will do so forever was always a pipe dream.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:20 PM on September 27, 2012 [26 favorites]


I also think specifically of cancer research, strangely enough. I've read enough old SF novels to remember that 30 or 40 years ago many futurists considered a cure for cancer to be essentially inevitable within the next half century. Now in 2012, we have spent hundreds of billions on cancer research for a very small reduction in mortality rates in a few minor cancers.

PhD Comics: There Will Never Be a Cure for Cancer
posted by adamdschneider at 1:28 PM on September 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


MetaFilter: a whole pu-pu platter of life-changing inventions
posted by stltony at 1:28 PM on September 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


So we are approaching peak pique?
posted by chavenet at 1:29 PM on September 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's also possible that capitalism itself is stunting the kinds of research that would lend itself to unlimited growth. (There is no direct, immediate profit in interplanetary travel which means there are no mining colonies on Mars like everybody assumed there would be in 2012).

Without direct competition from the Soviet Union, capitalism has turned inward on itself and devoted itself to producing newer and better personal electronic devices rather than, say, nuclear engines.
posted by Avenger at 1:29 PM on September 27, 2012 [25 favorites]


I just don't see any good news about the economy and after having spent a month in China I am very skeptical of that country's ability to sustain the global economy. I am not a stockpiling survivalist type, but lately I've been feeling the need to create some kind of buffer around myself consisting of some land and a really productive small farm for personal use, along with a lot of preserved food. If I'm dead wrong, then hey, at least I end up with a lot of food and a nice small farm.
posted by mecran01 at 1:40 PM on September 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


Yes, we finished progressing technologically in 2004.

Ubiquitous Star Trek style communicators that can access the grand total of human knowledge almost instantly anywhere, glasses that augment reality, artificial limbs that exceed the performance of real ones, 32 gigabyte drives the size of your thumbnail you can buy at the drugstore, and cars that fucking drive themselves through busy traffic not withstanding.
posted by justkevin at 1:42 PM on September 27, 2012 [17 favorites]


Without direct competition from the Soviet Union, capitalism has turned inward on itself and devoted itself to producing newer and better personal electronic devices rather than, say, nuclear engines.

I think you are arguing the Broken Windows Theory a little bit, aren't you? That wasting all that effort for 25 years fighting a cold war was actually beneficial?

The thing that makes capitalism work is productivity. The fact that we can devote time to making better personal electronics means that we have more or less already gotten food, clothing and shelter taken care of.
posted by gjc at 1:42 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Isn't the answer to these kind of questions always 'No'?
posted by leotrotsky at 1:16 PM on September 27 [1 favorite +] [!]


Eponhysterical!
posted by chavenet at 1:44 PM on September 27, 2012


chavenet: So we are approaching peak pique?

Actually that may one of the few things in the universe that doesn't have an upper limit.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:44 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]




There is no direct, immediate profit in interplanetary travel which means there are no mining colonies on Mars like everybody assumed there would be in 2012

This, I suspect. While there might someday be enough profit in (say) asteroid mining to make the private sector interested, it's entirely possible that it might only occur after enough terrestrial resources have been depleted (increasing prices) that we're no longer capable of the huge investment that asteroid mining would require. I.e., the economics that would make asteroid mining profitable would also make it impossibly expensive to put together a space program. Or that by the time resources become expensive enough to go get them from space, we'll be too busy lobbing ICBMs at each other to consider building spaceships.

Whoops.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:45 PM on September 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


the notion that the economy can and should grow all the time and will do so forever was always a pipe dream

+1 to that. What I find incredibly baffling is that there are economists, and I'm talking Ph.D. level economists that hold faculty positions at prestigious institutions, who literally don't believe there are limits to economic growth. Think about that: they do not believe in finite limits to economic systems. If that ain't cuckoo nuts, I don't know what is. Enjoy your economic theories boneheads WHILE THE REST OF US ARE SEARCHING FOR FOOD.
posted by mcstayinskool at 1:49 PM on September 27, 2012 [19 favorites]


gjc: "I think you are arguing the Broken Windows Theory a little bit, aren't you? That wasting all that effort for 25 years fighting a cold war was actually beneficial?"

Well, it's only a little bit. All the effort spent beating the Soviets had technological benefits. All the effort spent getting to the Moon and back was not just the scientific benefit, but also the permanent technological benefit.
posted by mkb at 1:57 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Seems to me he is underestimating the impact of globalization. Growth in China, Brazil, India and elsewhere has been huge. If we avoid WWIII, growth in the Middle East and Africa should follow, at least according to energy outlooks from IEA or energy companies.

Depending on how you measure global growth, it doesn't seem like it will level off for another 50 years at least; and if it does that will probably be a good thing and doesn't mean average global quality of life won't continue to improve. In the mean time, shouldn't quality of life in the U.S. suffer comparatively just due to uncompetitive costs of labor?
posted by Golden Eternity at 2:07 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


The 'we' is off course only applied to the Western upper middle class. There is plenty of room for growth and innovation in the rest of the world and within the less well off in West.

America and the west is experiencing some stagnation. The rest of the world? Crazy progress is needed to even get to where we are. There is a world of growth going on.
posted by srboisvert at 2:09 PM on September 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


People were saying the same thing in the 1930s, to explain the depression then. (Or many thought we had technologically regressed)

Of course, it kind of depends how you define "growth". If you trade your old iPhone for one that's basically the same but has slightly more pixels, is that "growth"? Sure, you bought it, and maybe it makes you feel just as happy as when you got your old iPhone, but is it really growth? It takes the same amount of energy, does the same things, etc.

If we all agree that "cooler" = "more valuable" and all decide that the newest, most hyped thing is the coolest, then we can have an ever increasing amount of "coolness" in the world without expending more resources. But that kind of sounds like B.S.

However, I think there are a few obvious technological areas where we can have some growth:

1) Renewable energy. This one is obvious. Wind, and especially solar need to be installed to meet our energy needs. In the long run this energy will be much cheaper then coal/natural gas. Check it out, in texas you can get an energy plan where at night, electricity is free. In the old days, you'd have coal or natural gas plants you'd shut off at night. But wind turbines don't cost any more to run at night, so you can essentially give power away for free.

2) ROBOTS. Need I say more? Stuff like self-driving cars is just the tip of the iceberg, IMO.

3) Healthcare. People are still dying from diseases, and as long as that's happening there will be a drive for people to try to cure them. Of course, it's unlikely that new cures will require more energy or more natural resources, just knowledge. So how do you quantify 'growth' in terms of pure knowledge?
posted by delmoi at 2:12 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


See also: Steady State Economics — Center for the Advancement the Steady State Economy. Their basic premise: "Perpetual economic growth is neither possible nor desirable. Growth, especially in wealthy nations, is already causing more problems than it solves."
posted by beagle at 2:14 PM on September 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


+1 to that. What I find incredibly baffling is that there are economists, and I'm talking Ph.D. level economists that hold faculty positions at prestigious institutions, who literally don't believe there are limits to economic growth. Think about that: they do not believe in finite limits to economic systems.

For example:
Economist: I don’t think energy will ever be a limiting factor to economic growth.

Physicist: Thermodynamic limits impose a cap to energy growth lest we cook ourselves. I’m not talking about global warming, CO2 build-up, etc. I’m talking about radiating the spent energy into space... at a 2.3% growth rate (conveniently chosen to represent a 10× increase every century), we would reach boiling temperature in about 400 years.
posted by weston at 2:19 PM on September 27, 2012 [17 favorites]


What's with the graph showing no economic growth before 1700? Did this economist read any medieval and early modern economic history? Big growth - not by modern standards, no, and largely only keeping pace with the population, but still economic growth (allowing the expansion of the population). In England, the population grew a lot between 1000 and 1300, fell 1300-1400 (Black Death, famine) though the economy grew through the 1400s -- and kept growing even as the population doubled 1500-1650.
posted by jb at 2:20 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


That said, I totally don't believe that limitless growth is desirable or possible. Economic growth may not inherently limited, but so long as the economic growth means that there is an increased demand for natural resources, those natural resources are very finite.

But economic growth didn't start in 1700 -- it was just much slower and more modest before we moved from being an organic economy (reliant on organic forms of energy, whether human or animal labour, or plants for fuel) into a mineral-based energy economy. (awesome book by Wrigley).
posted by jb at 2:28 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Before making another snarky comment, please read at the very least the linked article, and preferably the short version of the original article. First, Robert Gordon is a really smart guy who's thought about this topic more than just about anyone in the world, and that includes you. Second, as he writes, "The paper is deliberately provocative..." Third, he's not suggesting that growth will be zero, but that there will be factors that will make it much slower than we've experienced in recent history.

I'm a skeptical of his conclusions, but it definitely deserves serious engagement.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 2:33 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


But economic growth didn't start in 1700 -- it was just much slower and more modest before we moved from being an organic economy (reliant on organic forms of energy, whether human or animal labour, or plants for fuel) into a mineral-based energy economy. (awesome book by Wrigley).
Yeah, it kind of did. Population grew, slowly (and btw, there were other places in the world besides Europe, which didn't experience black death) - but per capita economic output, for the most part, did not.
posted by delmoi at 2:47 PM on September 27, 2012


Well, it's only a little bit. All the effort spent beating the Soviets had technological benefits. All the effort spent getting to the Moon and back was not just the scientific benefit, but also the permanent technological benefit.

...and all funded by the now-demonized federal government.
posted by goethean at 2:53 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


> If you trade your old iPhone for one that's basically the same but has slightly more pixels, is that "growth"?

If it releases greenhouse gasses, it's growth.
posted by jfuller at 2:54 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Peak Money has been hit. I will now accept your clamshells and diamonds.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 3:03 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Check it out, in texas you can get an energy plan where at night, electricity is free. In the old days, you'd have coal or natural gas plants you'd shut off at night. But wind turbines don't cost any more to run at night, so you can essentially give power away for free.

There is still mechanical wear and tear of not only the turbines themselves but all the transmission gear. Maybe it is too cheap to meter, or maybe shutting down the turbines and restarting them would cost more than running them 24x7 but there is a cost to running the turbines at night.
posted by Mitheral at 3:05 PM on September 27, 2012


Paul Gilding makes a similar argument, centered around global warming, in his book The Great Disruption. I find it compelling.

I don't think it's necessary to believe these kinds of arguments. I do think it's inadvisable to dismiss them without considering them.
posted by gurple at 3:08 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


And holy crap that plan, if there isn't a fine print escape clause in there, is too good to be true.

All you'd have to do is invest in the sort of load averaging equipment people with solar or wind power have (IE: batteries and an inverter) (less actually because you are gauranteed that the sun will shine/wind will blow the power will be on at night so you don't have to store more than 16 hours tops) and you'd have as much energy as you can store for the base charges the fine print impose. If you were willing to fux around with an ice machine you could even cover your A/C for free.
posted by Mitheral at 3:26 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is still mechanical wear and tear of not only the turbines themselves but all the transmission gear. Maybe it is too cheap to meter, or maybe shutting down the turbines and restarting them would cost more than running them 24x7 but there is a cost to running the turbines at night.
If it costs more not to do something then it does to do it, then it is effectively free. Also, since when is there "wear and tear" on solid state electronics? Older transmission gear that might have used electromechanical devices could have wear out, but if it's solid state it should last forever, or at least enough to the point that running less electricity through at night won't have a noticeable effect.

Also, some wind turbines don't even have a way to shut down. You would need huge mechanical breaks, and then you would have all kinds of stress on the turbine blades and breaking system. Some systems are designed to shut down if they are in winds that are too fast (like a hurricane) and some can even fold up to prevent damage.

But those systems are designed to protect the blades in high winds. They're not designed to be turned on and off whenever, you would probably have wear and tear by stopping them every night then by simply letting them run and giving out power for free.
posted by delmoi at 3:33 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


As a counterpoint, I'll throw out Robin Hanson's Economics of the Singularity, which appeared in IEEE Spectrum a few years ago. As you might guess from the title, it's a little woo woo, but everyone in this thread seems Socratic enough I hope it's OK. At the very least (and, admittedly, with some handwaving), it treats total global economic output over human history, instead of 300 years of per-capita real GDP in two selected countries.
posted by 7segment at 4:08 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Economies cannot grow infinitely.

Resources are not infinite.

We are a long way from tapping human ingenuity, technology, and the massive, HUGE amount of virtually free energy streaming through the solar system from the Sun.

For the purposes of hundreds of years? It would do us very well to put a lot more thought into what a steady-state economic system and near-100% reuse and recycling will look like and what it will take to implement.

For the purposes of the realistic (as of 2012) lifetime for everyone on the planet? There's a LOT of room for a LOT of continued economic growth.
posted by chimaera at 4:23 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, it kind of did. Population grew, slowly (and btw, there were other places in the world besides Europe, which didn't experience black death) - but per capita economic output, for the most part, did not.

It completely depends on your definition of economic growth. Would you seriously claim that The stone-bronze-iron-steele progression didn't grow the prosperity of individuals in the respective eras governed by those technologies? Economics doesn't know how to measure anything but money, and until VERY recently vast swaths of peoples lives were not measurable in dollar terms.
posted by Chuckles at 4:30 PM on September 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


Oh, economists. Reminds me of a joke:

A physicist, a historian, and an economist are walking in the woods when they step into a giant trap. They find themselves in a deep pit with sheer walls 100 feet high. What are they to do?

"Well," says the physicist, "there is no way we can climb the walls, given their angle and our inability to create enough traction."

"Alas," says the historian, "in the past, whenever this has happened, they trapped persons have not been able to get out."

"This should be easy to get out of," says the economist. "First, we assume a ladder."
posted by dhens at 4:33 PM on September 27, 2012 [13 favorites]


Physicist: Thermodynamic limits impose a cap to energy growth lest we cook ourselves. I’m not talking about global warming, CO2 build-up, etc. I’m talking about radiating the spent energy into space... at a 2.3% growth rate (conveniently chosen to represent a 10× increase every century), we would reach boiling temperature in about 400 years.
The problem with this critique is that it assumes all growth must take place on earth...
posted by delmoi at 4:41 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Factor Four, by E Weiszacker, is one of a number of books that point out that economic growth can be and must be decoupled from material growth.

One simple example from the book that I recall - optical fibre is made out of sand, something we're not going to run out of soon, and it's ten times as good at carrying data as copper cable, which we could run out of.
posted by wilful at 4:44 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I read the Gordon article a few days ago. He raises plenty of interesting points but ultimately I thought his analysis lacked any real conception of what technology was (which shouldn't be surprising given he's an economist...) and how his 3 industrial revolutions actually worked. As others upthread have noted, he doesn't really touch on energy usage at all.

Though he makes plenty of disclaimers, I also think that considering the USA in isolation makes his arguments a whole lot weaker.

He also apparently sources his quotes from my mother's email forwards. ("Bill Gates said '640k...'")
posted by ropeladder at 4:46 PM on September 27, 2012


I've read enough old SF novels to remember that 30 or 40 years ago many futurists considered a cure for cancer to be essentially inevitable within the next half century. Now in 2012, we have spent hundreds of billions on cancer research for a very small reduction in mortality rates in a few minor cancers.

I would like to ask for what you mean by "very small reduction."

30 or 40 years ago, we understood cancer much less and had no idea of the vast diversity in cancers. Hence, the idea that "cancer" as a monolithic entity could be cured wasn't entirely inconceivable. Now, with advances in rapid genetic sequencing and better understanding of epigenetics (and better methods of manipulating) we might be able to treat even individual cancers on a custom case-by-case basis.

Today, medical science is focused more on treating cancers and reducing morbidity. A *lot* of cancers have dramatically better 5- and 10- year survival outcomes through low level chronic chemotherapy. The cancer is never completely eradicated in most cases, but there are increasingly good strategies at managing cancer and cancer-related morbidities.

Take for example my dad's multiple myeloma diagnosis. Ten years ago, he'd probably be dead of it. With current treatment, his 5 year survival is now in the 80% range and improving with the new round of therapies - and he's essentially at 90% capacity to enjoy life and the odds of an opportunistic infection taking him is higher than the MM relapsing and taking him.

For solid tumours, as long as they're caught early enough, the cure rate is incredibly high.
posted by porpoise at 4:52 PM on September 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


I was ready to casually dismiss this with a simple "yes, we have" and to rebut the oft-repeated idea that technology will save us.

but.. well it isn't that simple. the world isn't what it was in 1750 and never will be again. what we have reached, and I have said it here time and again, is the limits of cheap energy. growth is energy transferred. but developments in nuclear energy (again, I even started a post about this) will enable all of us, not just the west, to continue improving our living standards.

when proper, next-generation nuclear is developed, it will enable new kinds of growth. there's still the issue of how to feed everyone, and of how much energy we are putting into the atmosphere/climate, but in comparison to carbon-based energy it should help us dramatically.

we have electric cars. again, a much discussed topic, but they start making a lot of sense when the source of energy is nuclear.

tech won't solve all our problems. and we have a long way to go before the nuclear is ready. I had high expectations Japan would double-down on nuclear and realize it was lax safety and old designs that enabled the disaster, but they've gone cold-turkey instead. and a lot of other developed nations have followed.

growth is over right now, within the parameters of our current economic/energy infrastructure. but it doesn't HAVE to be this way forever.
posted by ninjew at 4:58 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I guess something like cold fusion could count as a "singularity." It's frightening to imagine what machine intelligence will be capable of in 100 years or so; Seems to me it (and other technology) could be disruptive in a negative way be eliminating jobs.

Fresh water is supposed to become another limited resource problem in the not-too-distant future and is probably in need of an industrial solution.

For the purposes of hundreds of years? It would do us very well to put a lot more thought into what a steady-state economic system and near-100% reuse and recycling will look like and what it will take to implement.

GDP, as I understand it, is measured in dollars or "value" which is completely subjective. I don't see why we couldn't reach steady-state energy use (or hopefully even declining energy use) and sustainability and still have GDP growth. Maybe we will have a better understanding of human behavior in 400 years and how it can be adapted to form a more sane and sustainable economic and political global structure. That seems to be the root of the problem.
posted by Golden Eternity at 5:14 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, I'm not sure I get the "Service economy". Seems almost ponzi like. We can't just spend the rest of our days thinking up and selling each other new coffee based recipes using the suffix "achino".

Also, I own too many power tools. I've even got a router for fuck's sake. Never routed, never will but it was on special at the Taj Mahal of a hardware store, and it was Boch, so it seemed like I was losing if I didn't buy it.
posted by mattoxic at 5:20 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Matt, what are the biggest growth areas of the economy? Health, education, finances, restaurants. All services.

And I'll take that router off your hands for you!
posted by wilful at 6:00 PM on September 27, 2012


There are some assumptions in the paper that are well worth questioning.

This piece points out in particular that the idea that there is a neat step change is pretty questionable.

Also, as others have pointed out other countries are picking up the slack. Africa has grown impressively over the past decade albeit from a low base. But technology like mobile phones and the net may be more beneficial for places where some infrastructure was very poor.
posted by sien at 6:02 PM on September 27, 2012


From the American perspective, growth may continue worldwide but if we're at a point of permanent stagnation here, which I think is possible, there will be a civil war. Hell, we're on the verge of one now.

And anyway, as per technological or medical advances, I'd also have to ask - how are we going to pay for them? In this era of global wage arbitrage, wages just aren't going to rise. But maybe we can keep on charging it all
posted by kgasmart at 6:52 PM on September 27, 2012


I heard a show on the CBC that discussed the claim that continued economic growth in a finite world would only be possible thanks to advertising... only advertising can make people value something more than its real value. So if people need to start consuming less, but the economic system demands constant growth, then advertising must fill the gap and make people happy about real energetic contractions.

It sounded like bullshit then, but in retrospect they might be on to something...
posted by anthill at 6:59 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


The problem with this critique is that it assumes all growth must take place on earth...

I know. It's just that we're going to have to wait a bit while the FTL drive is developed. Shouldn't be long now though. Who wants to play some Crib?
posted by sneebler at 7:17 PM on September 27, 2012


Regardless of when "economic growth" started happening, it was not until 1934 that the concept of GDP was developed and economic growth started to be measured. Before that, we knew that times were good or times were bad, but the idea that some level of growth was necessary did not exist. Only since we started measuring has their been a perceived imperative for growth, pretty much to the exclusion of anything else.

The thing is, we can decide to start measuring other things, and decide that whatever those are, they are more important than economic growth. Measures of happiness, well-being, health, safety, peace, for example. Even in the absence of economic growth, it will be possible to make progress in such metrics.
posted by beagle at 7:40 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


There is still mechanical wear and tear of not only the turbines themselves but all the transmission gear.

It's comparable to coal (5-9¢ vs 8¢ per kWh) and cheaper than nuclear, with drastically fewer externalities(global warming, cancer).
posted by clarknova at 8:02 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Economic growth (is the same as) increased energy use per capita (is the same as) increased complexity. When population increases, it must follow increased complexity and thus increased economic growth. So the only way economic growth would stagnate is if pop growth stagnated (assuming unlimited energy etc). 1750 happens to be the time when pop growth started spiking upward from a long period of stagnation that started around 1350 (in Europe anyway). There was an earlier spike from around 1100 to 1300 (high middle ages). And other spikes in the Roman era. So the question of when economic growth flatlines is the same as when pop growth flatlines. Which raises questions of why populations stop growing. In the past it is due to multiple factors but mainly disease, famine and political instability. Now it's due to birth control. So we actually have control over the catalyst of economic growth, thus it's very difficult to predict, we don't know what people will do in the future.
posted by stbalbach at 8:06 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I find it strange that the analysis in the linked article leaves out politics altogether. The last big period of growth (in the US anyway) is show in the graph in the article to be mid-20th century, and the decline to begin in the last quarter of the 20th century - that this corresponds pretty closely with the New Deal, and the only period in our history when we've had heavily-regulated capitalism at the beginning, and the deregulation policies of the Reagan / Bush / Clinton / Bush that dismantled the New Deal and returned us to the politics of the Gilded Age seems to me to be pretty important.

On the other hand, nothing grows forever, and anything that tries is either sick, or a sickness.
posted by eustacescrubb at 8:09 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


A good rule of thumb is, when someone publishes an article with a question in the title, the article is always crap.
posted by deathpanels at 8:19 PM on September 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


delmoi - per capita economic productivity grew noticeably between 500 and 1200 in western Europe (agricultural innovations like the horse collar) and between 1500 and 1700 (first part of the agricultural revolution). There was also a big growth in manufacturers in England especially in the 16-17th centuries - people had a lot more stuff in c1700 than in c1500.
posted by jb at 8:27 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


eustacescrubb: "The last big period of growth (in the US anyway) is show in the graph in the article to be mid-20th century, and the decline to begin in the last quarter of the 20th century - that this corresponds pretty closely with the New Deal, and the only period in our history when we've had heavily-regulated capitalism at the beginning, and the deregulation policies of the Reagan / Bush / Clinton / Bush that dismantled the New Deal and returned us to the politics of the Gilded Age seems to me to be pretty important. "

The graph of growth is almost a perfect match for this graph of historic oil production in the US. The decline in the last quarter could very well be explained by the oil production peak in the 1970s.

Once the pie is no longer growing, we go back to fighting over who gets the biggest slice. And surprise surprise, the biggest slice is going to the wealthiest people who have the best political connections.
posted by mullingitover at 9:14 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I believe it was Greenspan who said that the US economy produced about as many tons of output now as a hundred years ago. Yet we are far richer now than then, and the population is far larger.

As I understand it (I'm only an engineer) economic growth comes from productivity, and productivity is about using resources (workers' time, raw materials, energy, capital, information) more efficiently. So I sincerely hope and believe economic growth will go on for some time yet.
posted by Triplanetary at 11:25 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why exactly should _I_ care about economic growth anyway? As a gen X'er, all the financial benefits of productivity improvements during my entire lifetime have gone to the top few % - they've generally made the wealthiest much wealthier, along with creating a few Bill Gates and equivalents. But for me, and pretty much everyone else of my generation, we're worse off than our fathers were at any given age in real terms despite huge productivity improvements. And that's without including the multiple housing booms that's made having a family home barely achievable, or the constant rise in energy prices - petrol is literally 3x the price it was when I started driving in '91, yet it should only be 70% higher due to inflation. Gen Y have it even worse than gen X.

Oh, jobs. Except employment rates don't seem to follow growth directly anyway. They're inter-related, in that the same causes can and do affect both. But you can easily see a jobless recovery, as we are at the moment, and it's not hard to posit an economy with good employment even it's not growing at 3% a year.

That growth was bought on the back of cheap oil and exploitation of labour as much as it was any technological advance. If you look at the huge growth in consumer electronics, the cheap labour being exploited has largely been overseas; taiwan, china etc, and cheap oil has made it practical to make it, and to ship it half way round the world. And the profits are extracted from an increasingly poor working and middle class who are slowly but surely ending up as telesales drones and walmart greeters.

And my pension scheme is utter crap and will be barely worth the effort if I even make it to retirement, so it's not like that a side-benefit of stock market growth for me. I'm hardly alone in that since all the company pension schemes closed to my generation and younger.

In short, the focus on economic growth and enriching the owners above all other factors - be it social wellbeing, quality employment or reducing the ecological price of all that oil and mineral based production - has stiffed several generations of actually seeing much if any benefit from all that extra productivity. And the next few generations get to live with the cleanup, not least the debt hangover and the consequences of a 2+ degree rise in temperature. Fun fact - our current trajectory draws a nice neat line to a 6 degree rise by 2100.

Sorry Gen Y and Z. We only had to deal with getting screwed economically. You're going to get screwed by having weather that's trying to kill you.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:43 PM on September 27, 2012 [9 favorites]


beagle: "The thing is, we can decide to start measuring other things, and decide that whatever those are, they are more important than economic growth. Measures of happiness, well-being, health, safety, peace, for example."
Yes! I found it strange that the article didn't include this in its list of counter-arguments. One of the critics it listed has even brought this up with respect to Gordon's book:
Matthew Yglesias: "But I think it's actually quite important to not mix and match arguments about subjective utility with arguments about GDP and economic growth. I'd gladly give up small kitchen appliances…rather than Wikipedia…"
It's easy to respond that the items on your list aren't easily measurable–can we accurately tell if "happiness" is growing or shrinking? How about "safety"? But art and knowledge are other qualities not reflected in GDP, and I'm pretty sure that the total sum of both are continuing to grow.

(This isn't even considering the enormous informal economy! Barter exchange, gifts, domestic responsibilities, favours…even economists who can't see beyond prices concede these have value. It's plausible that the future economy will involve more of them, but hard to tell.)
posted by vasi at 2:10 AM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Economist: I don’t think energy will ever be a limiting factor to economic growth.

Physicist: Thermodynamic limits impose a cap to energy growth lest we cook ourselves. I’m not talking about global warming, CO2 build-up, etc. I’m talking about radiating the spent energy into space... at a 2.3% growth rate (conveniently chosen to represent a 10× increase every century), we would reach boiling temperature in about 400 years.


Economist: [thinks about how overcoming this problem will create new, profitable industries over the next 400 years]
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:00 AM on September 28, 2012


As a footnote to my comment about alternative metrics, above, the state of Bhutan has actually decided measuring Gross National Happiness is the way to go.

Components (via Wikipedia) include:
Economic Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of economic metrics such as consumer debt, average income to consumer price index ratio and income distribution

Environmental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of environmental metrics such as pollution, noise and traffic

Physical Wellness: Indicated via statistical measurement of physical health metrics such as severe illnesses

Mental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of mental health metrics such as usage of antidepressants and rise or decline of psychotherapy patients

Workplace Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of labor metrics such as jobless claims, job change, workplace complaints and lawsuits

Social Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of social metrics such as discrimination, safety, divorce rates, complaints of domestic conflicts and family lawsuits, public lawsuits, crime rates

Political Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of political metrics such as the quality of local democracy, individual freedom, and foreign conflicts.
A US organization, Gross National Happiness USA, seeks to popularize the concept over here. "Measure what matters" is the slogan.

How would we view a Presidential candidate who ran explicitly on a platform based on these metrics?
posted by beagle at 5:15 AM on September 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


A lot has been said above about the nature of growth and the measurement of growth creating its own justification for the single-minded focus on maintaining growth. I do think that if we constrain ourselves to our planet, a finite space with finite resources there have to be limits to growth. I think the author's argument is that we've plucked all the low hanging fruit so growth will be interminably slow as we do our best to reap the benefits of increased efficiency. I think his argument falls down in the face of his assumptions about technology, however. He stops with the IT revolution without contemplating any additional potentially disruptive advances.

Any one of these -- if they come to fruition -- could help goose growth back to our accustomed rates for a few decades at least within 100 years:
  • Space Elevator
  • Space Solar Power
  • (Finally) cheap fusion power
  • Ubiquitous, intuitive brain/computer interface
  • Cybernetic brain augmentation (well, maybe in a couple hundred years)
  • Human genetic enhancement
  • Affordable anti-matter production
  • Quantum computing
  • AI approaching human-level, at least in specific domains
posted by rocketpup at 7:07 AM on September 28, 2012


This would be a very good time for everyone to go and read:

Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit by David Graeber
A secret question hovers over us, a sense of disappointment, a broken promise we were given as children about what our adult world was supposed to be like. I am referring not to the standard false promises that children are always given (about how the world is fair, or how those who work hard shall be rewarded), but to a particular generational promise—given to those who were children in the fifties, sixties, seventies, or eighties—one that was never quite articulated as a promise but rather as a set of assumptions about what our adult world would be like. And since it was never quite promised, now that it has failed to come true, we’re left confused: indignant, but at the same time, embarrassed at our own indignation, ashamed we were ever so silly to believe our elders to begin with.

Where, in short, are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now? Even those inventions that seemed ready to emerge—like cloning or cryogenics—ended up betraying their lofty promises. What happened to them?
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:33 AM on September 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


beagle: The thing is, we can decide to start measuring other things, and decide that whatever those are, they are more important than economic growth. Measures of happiness, well-being, health, safety, peace, for example.
I'm no economist, but I suspect an economist would say those things all come back to dollars in the end. If X contributes to our personal happiness, well-being, and peace, then we're willing to spend more money on X, the price of X rises, employment in the manufacture and delivery of X increases, etc.

Which is not to defend the "industrial growth forever" sort of mindset at all. I just think you're not going to escape the economists mental clutches, such as they are, quite that easily.
posted by Western Infidels at 9:39 AM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


What happened to them?

We don't need any of that crap now that we know we can just scan our minds into software and upload them onto spacecraft.
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:49 AM on September 28, 2012


I'm no economist, but I suspect an economist would say those things all come back to dollars in the end.

Of course they would, but.. The economist, by nature of being an economist, is invested in making that happen. As a society (or maybe a civilization), Money is an abstraction we can choose to do what we want with. It is hard of course, when the inertia is pushing so strongly, to back off and limit the scope we assign it. Nonetheless it is just technology.

Of course the economist doesn't even want to admit that. The economist wants Money to be as fundamental as physics to the way the world works. That's because they aren't just engineers of the technology, they are also the priests of a religion.

I think there are more economists out there who are just engineers nowadays, actually. You do hear economists talking that way from time to time. In grad school, when I started really thinking about my role in society, I wondered about pursuing research in economics. Economic anthropology seems like it should be fascinating. And, I think economics needs a lot more moderating influences. Like.. we need more Hippies in economics, and more economists in the Occupy movement.
posted by Chuckles at 11:48 AM on September 28, 2012


The thing is, we can decide to start measuring other things, and decide that whatever those are, they are more important than economic growth. Measures of happiness, well-being, health, safety, peace, for example.

I'm an economist who does exactly this; while monetary value has historically been our most easily tracked indicator of well-being, we're now able to look I led a research project called the Halifax Index which looks at the people, economy, quality of place and sustainability of the local community I live in and reports out on how we're doing across a number of non-monetary indicators.

It's at the small city level, so a lot of indicators around democracy and inequalities are quite rudimentary, but we're working to build a more robust model. The first year was extremely well-received in the local community (even the business community) and we're starting to have conversations about how social capital affects crime, how crime effects the vibrancy of neighborhoods, and the vibrancy of neighborhoods attracts talented individuals who network, collaborate and create lots of wealth.

More and more, the really good economists I know are embracing the grey areas and abandoning the schools of thought centered around perpetual economic growth forever and wealth generation as the measure of our progress. Chuckles, you may take a little solace in the fact that some of us in the field are around Occupy, are advocating for things other than money, and we're getting some traction locally.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 11:55 AM on September 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


> As a society (or maybe a civilization), Money is an abstraction we can choose to do what we want with.

I've been collecting them for a while and by now have a respectably long list of examples of what might be called "This we you speak of, there is no such thing as this we." Latest entry on the list (quoted) goes straight to the top.
posted by jfuller at 1:01 PM on September 28, 2012


Looking at the economic and social factors alone is pretty short-sighted when we know that with a couple percent growth in energy use, we'll boil the oceans in a couple hundred years assuming we can find a sufficient energy source (fusion?). Doesn't matter whether technology improves to find that power source or not - the earth physically cannot dissipate the quantity of energy implied by growth continuing at its current rate for a couple more centuries.

And that completely disregards any second-order effects like climate change, i.e. the atmosphere holding more heat due to change in composition. I'm talking here about cooking just due to human exothermic economic activity if the economists/plutocrats have their way.
posted by polyglot at 5:43 PM on September 28, 2012


I heard a show on the CBC that discussed the claim that continued economic growth in a finite world would only be possible thanks to advertising... only advertising can make people value something more than its real value. So if people need to start consuming less, but the economic system demands constant growth, then advertising must fill the gap and make people happy about real energetic contractions.

The problem with that approach is that if the perceived value growth is ever seen to falter, it tends to snap back to the actual value - if not a little farther, due to backlash. That leads to the sort of economic conditions we're living in now.
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 8:29 PM on September 28, 2012


Catastrophic global climate change is a factor that may influence our economic growth in ways we have yet to imagine. Just sayin.
posted by chance at 7:51 AM on September 29, 2012


The fact that we can devote time to making better personal electronics means that we have more or less already gotten food, clothing and shelter taken care of.

Or, that we're we've merely decided to ignore those members of society for whom food, clothing and shelter are not "taken care of".
posted by Thorzdad at 8:51 AM on September 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


all the financial benefits of productivity improvements during my entire lifetime have gone to the top few % - they've generally made the wealthiest much wealthier

Incentives: You built that, but why? "There is also the problem, of course, that many of those who have become rich owe their wealth more to rent-seeking or rule-gaming than innovation and gumption. For many, the incentives and outcomes among financial professionals mean that their incomes are unproductively earned if not entirely illegitimate. And there is the further question of the role of inherited wealth and power in success, and the extent to which the success thereafter earned should be discounted."

Catastrophic global climate change is a factor that may influence our economic growth in ways we have yet to imagine.

Our Generation's Great Failing - "Elizabeth Kolbert is alarmed at the almost complete lack of climate change coverage from the media and on the campaign trail. The news they seem to be ignoring."
Last week, the National Snow and Ice Data Center, in Boulder, Colorado, announced that the Arctic sea ice had reached a new low. The sea ice shrinks in the summer and grows again during winter’s long polar night. It usually reaches its minimum extent in mid-September. On September 16, 2012, the N.S.I.D.C. reported, the sea ice covered 1.3 million square miles. This was just half of its average extent during the nineteen-eighties and nineties, and nearly twenty per cent less than its extent in 2007, the previous record-low year.

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of this development.

We are now seeing changes occur in a matter of years that, in the normal geological scheme of things, should take thousands, even millions of times longer than that. On the basis of the 2012 melt season, one of the world’s leading experts on the Arctic ice cap, Peter Wadhams, of Cambridge University, has predicted that the Arctic Ocean will be entirely ice-free in summer by 2016. Since open water absorbs sunlight, while ice tends to reflect it, this will accelerate global warming. Meanwhile, recent research suggests that the melting of the Arctic ice cap will have, and indeed is probably already having, a profound effect on the U.S. and Europe, making extreme weather events much more likely. As Jennifer Francis, a scientist at Rutgers, observed recently in a conference call with reporters, the loss of sea ice changes the dynamics of the entire system: "It's like having a new energy source for the atmosphere."
More and more, the really good economists I know are embracing the grey areas and abandoning the schools of thought centered around perpetual economic growth forever and wealth generation as the measure of our progress.

-Intangible Dividend of Antipoverty Effort: Happiness
-Beyond happiness
-Bernanke to Economists: More Philosophy, Please
-Bernanke boards the happiness bandwagon
-Economic Measurement
posted by kliuless at 7:42 AM on September 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


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