Thursday, March 22, 2012


Talk to TEAR Breakfast, Sydney, Thursday, March 22, 2012

I’m delighted to accept John McKinnon’s invitation to speak on TEAR’s theme for the year, Enough. What is enough for us? When will the poor have enough? The standard answer in a capitalist economy, of course, is that you can never have enough. Bigger is always better. And conventional economics gives the same answer. Indeed, the very goal of economics is to help communities deal with their craving for more.

The way economists put it is that their goal is to help the community deal with ‘the problem of scarcity’ - the fact that the physical resources available to us are finite, whereas our wants are infinite. There’s any amount of goods and services we’d like to consume, but the wherewithal to produce those goods and services is strictly limited. So micro economists see their role as to advise the community on ways to stretch those limited resources further, to help us get more bang for our buck.

But it can be argued that the developed market economies’ attack on the problem of scarcity over the time since the industrial revolution has been so remarkably successful we’ve actually defeated the problem of scarcity and replaced it with a different problem, the problem of abundance.

It’s hard to deny that the citizens of the rich world live lives of great abundance - of more than enough. Our material standard of living has doubled or trebled since 1950 and has multiplied many times over since the start of the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s. No one in the developed world is fighting for subsistence; even the relatively poor among us are doing well compared with the poor of Asia or Africa; we satisfied our basic needs for food, clothing and shelter a mighty long time ago; our real incomes grow by a percent or two almost every year, and each year we move a little higher on the hog. Our greater affluence can be seen in our ability to limit the size of our families, in the growth in the size and opulence of our homes, the fancy foreign cars we drive, our clothes, the private schools we send our children to, the restaurants we eat in and the plasma TVs, DVDs, video recorders, personal computers, mobile phones, stereo systems, movie cameras, play stations and myriad other gadgets our homes teem with.

How has this unprecedented and widespread affluence come about? It’s the product of the success of the market system and even of the sound advice of the economists in identifying ways to fine-tune that system. But above all it’s the product of all the technological advance - the invention and innovation - the capitalist system is so good at encouraging.

It’s therefore reasonable to say that, when we look around us, what we see is not scarcity but abundance. On the face of it, this is something to be celebrated. But, as with everything in life, no blessing is unalloyed.

The first and most obvious problem with abundance is the damage the huge expansion in human activity - most of it economic activity - is doing to the natural environment. For millennia, the environment was so vast and economic activity so limited it was easy to see the environment and the economy as completely divorced. Air and water and fish in the sea were in such abundance that economic analysis could class them as ‘free goods’ and promptly ignore them. By now, however, the huge expansion in economic activity has started to overwhelm the environment. We see that everywhere around us: air pollution in cities, widespread over-fishing and the destruction of species, waste discharges leading to the degradation of waterways and beaches, the damage caused by European farming methods, the near drying up of some of our river systems, the opening of the hole in the ozone layer and, of course, global warming. All these environmental concerns are the product of the abundance of human and economic activity, a concern that didn’t exist when our major concern was scarcity - our then-limited success in overcoming nature’s impediments to the satisfaction of wants.

The second but less obvious problem with abundance is that it exacerbates humankind’s difficulty achieving self-control. Problems of self-control are ubiquitous to daily life. The one we’re most conscious of these days is the temptation to eat too much. But there are many more: to get too little exercise, to smoke, to drink too much, to watch too much television, to gamble too much, to shop too much, to save too little and put too much on your credit card, to work too much at the expense of your family and other relationships. I could add: to give too little to the poor.

The more stuff we have - the fewer among us whose main problem remains satisfying our basic needs - the more problems of self-control emerge as our dominant concern. But there’s a deeper point: humans have never been good at self-control, but as long as we were poor and resources were scarce, our self-control problem was naturally held in check. It’s when things become abundant, when we can afford to indulge so many more of our whims, when we have a huge range of things or activities to choose from, that self-control problems become more prevalent and we have trouble making ourselves choose those options that are best for us in the longer term, not just immediately gratifying.

The third aspect to the problem of abundance - the problem of enough - is the increased resources devoted to the socially pointless pursuit of social status through consumption. When we have long passed the point where our basic needs for food, clothing and shelter are being satisfied, but our real incomes continue to grow by a couple of percent a year, we have to find something to do with the extra money. A fair bit of that extra income is spent on ‘positional goods’ - goods whose purchase is designed to demonstrate to the world our superior position in the pecking order. Everyone needs a car, but that need can be met quite adequately by a 10-year-old Toyota. When we feel we must buy a new car every few years, or when we buy an expensive imported European car, the extra we pay is commonly motivated by a conscious or unconscious desire to impress people and so constitutes a positional good. The fields in which we can use our spending to demonstrate our high social status are legion: the size, opulence and desirable location of our homes is probably the most significant instance, but there’s also the clothes we wear, the clothes we put on our children, the restaurants we visit, the cars we drive, the schools we send our kids to and much else. The point here is that, from the viewpoint of the community rather than the individual, the pursuit of status is a zero-sum game: the gains of those individuals who manage to advance themselves in the pecking order are offset by the loss of status suffered by those they pass. Thus a perpetual status arms-race is socially pointless. From the perspective of society, a lot of resources are simply wasted.

All this is the case for believing people in the rich world do have Enough already: that we waste so much trying to prove our superior social position, that we have so much trouble stopping ourselves doing things that feel good but are contrary to our long-term interests, and that the 15 per cent of the world’s population who make up the rich world have done so much damage to the natural environment in our efforts to raise our material living standards to where they are.

This is the case for saying we already have enough, that we don’t need more - that we should seek all further progress in the non-material dimensions of our lives - and that we should rejig our market economy in ways that allow it to function satisfactorily without growth.

But what about the world’s poor - do they have enough? Obviously not. Do they need to become as rich as we are before they can be said to have enough? In theory, and since it’s clear we have more than enough, it’s probably true to say they don’t need to have as much as us to have enough. But I doubt if they’d take our word for it and, more to the point, I don’t think we have a moral right to tell others they should settle for a level of affluence less than our own.

All this would be no more than a philosophical debate were it not for the fact that the two most populous poor countries in the world - China and India - are well-established on the path of rapid economic development. Their material living standards are rising quickly, and a lot of other large poor countries - including Brazil and Indonesia - are coming up behind them.

Is it physically, environmentally possible for all these extra billions to become anything like as materially prosperous as we already are? Looking at the environmental damage our efforts have already done, I doubt it. If so - if there probably aren’t enough natural resources and waste-absorbing capacity left for the poor to make themselves as rich as us - that says we should, at the very least, call a halt to our efforts to get richer. We already have more than enough.