My previous post in this series on the distribution of wealth included a simplified overview of supply-side and demand-side policy approaches to economics and advocated for more demand-side policies to get money moving through the system again. But demand-side economics has its issues, too.
Both supply-side and demand-side policies were developed at a time when we assumed that economic prosperity for all was achievable through growth. If the economy grew, then everyone would benefit from it. It turned out that economic growth doesn’t develop evenly in all places, so we ended up with disparities. Yet, we still maintain a commitment to growth so much so that growth is no longer just the means to prosperity but now it is the proxy for it — at least for most economists who wait anxiously for the announcements of GDP growth figures each quarter. “If we just have enough growth…” the refrain goes. But really, how much growth is considered enough?
Growth as a goal makes sense when a society is struggling with the basics for its citizens, but does it make sense for the United States now? And does our emphasis with constant growth — which is predicated on high consumption — make sense when that growth and consumption are destructive to our planet and humanity’s long-term survival?
There are definitely places in the world where growth as a goal makes sense, just as there are certainly areas within our own country where economic growth and development are sorely needed. So what do we tend to do with those who need growth as a goal right now? In the U.S. sometimes we offer them grants from government or private philanthropy. Sometimes we provide tax incentives to businesses who locate there. Sometimes we create low-interest loans or micro lending programs. But these strategies amount to telling the bottom 80% to grow their own chair and handing them a toothpick. If you want to do it before we reach the ecological point of no return, we have to redistribute. It is the fastest way.
Clinging to growth as the goal of the economy is a denial of the reality that we have reached the point of enough and now must face the responsibilities of distribution. Distribution requires us to consider many ethical questions, particularly who deserves what and how much. The subject of who is deserving puts us face-to-face with all of our assumptions, stereotypes and judgements about “those people” and why we think “they” are less deserving than ourselves. On the positive side, it provides us the opportunity to establish what all human beings need and deserve at a time when we have the technology to provide everyone with the basics and then some.
The only way out is through. Growth as a goal is no longer enough. We have what we need, and now we have to decide who gets it. Talking about distribution peacefully will require us to have a system of deliberative democracy that can support that level of conversation. We will need to listen to each other and figure out how to live together, together. When we are clear about our values and how we will live them, an economy that recognizes sufficiency will emerge. Actually, it’s already starting to.