Growth Trumps Sustainability
An opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal just begged to be on the Wall of Shame here at Growth Bias Busted. They had me at the headline:
So even though it’s written by two senior policy advisors to U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump (making it hard to take seriously), its failings must be noted here and officially dismissed.
“Which candidate has the best economic plan to get America growing again? This is the most important question of the 2016 presidential campaign….”
It begins with the assumption that, of course we all want a growing economy. Unfortunately, most of us do – because we’ve grown up drinking the pro-growth Kool-Aid and don’t know any better. But it also assumes that our blind faith in the Holy Grail of economic growth is well-placed. (See More About Limits to Growth for a little background on why a growing economy should not be on our bucket list.)
“Donald Trump will cut taxes, reduce regulation, unleash our abundant energy and….”
Unfortunately, the more we grow the scale of the human enterprise (either our population or our economic activity), the more we need regulation. The bigger your factory and the closer it is to neighboring families, the more critical it is that your factory be clean as a whistle.
If you want to “unleash our abundant energy,” you need to know that fracking requires a LOT of regulation because it’s done down the street in your schoolyard. You need to know that the costs of climate disruption from burning coal will dwarf any GDP boost you might get from the cheap energy. Oil from the Gulf of Mexico isn’t cheap and driving growth – not if you properly include the billions of dollars it took to clean up after Deepwater Horizon. We either put up with the cost of “regulatory burden” (behaving responsibly and exercising caution) or we face the cost of the damage done by unregulated activity.
Another assumption here is that more robust economic growth is physically possible. There is only so much media in a test tube for bacteria to feast on, and there is only so much natural capital on Earth available to convert into dollars and nonsense. We’ve been converting it much faster that it is regenerated, so it does have to come to an end at some point. Those who are in a hurry to get there are not guilty of big-picture thinking or practicing the intergenerational golden rule.
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