The only way to a soft landing is down
The only way to a soft landing is down.
In a brief article on DeSmog by Emily Murgatroyd, a Cato Institute type, Jerry Taylor, is quoted as saying
Scientists are in no position to intelligently guide public policy on climate change. Scientists can lay out scenarios, but it is up to economists to weigh the costs and benefits and many of them say the costs of cutting emissions are higher than the benefits.
Can we consider this claim, or is it somehow protected by a taboo? Is one a Marxist or even a Stalinist for pointing out that economists are not, themselves, necessarily right about everything?
Economists, meanwhile, claim to have the key to rationality. Their claim is based in their own definition of their field, which is about "how people collectively make decisions", but they proceed very quickly from there to the marketplace via a number of dubious assumptions.
The marketplace is real enough, and the fact that it affects the decisions we make is inescapable, but that doesn’t prove a claim that economics is uniquely placed to resolve our differences.
A claim in more desperate need of challenging I cannot imagine — yet on it goes, essentially unchallenged in circles of power.
A crucial problem is the idea that the purpose of our society is to maximize "growth."
Is infinite growth of some meaningful quantity possible in a finite space? No scientist is inclined to think so, but economists habitually make this claim without bothering to defend it with anything but, "I’m, an economist and I say so", or perhaps more thoughtfully, "hey, it’s worked until now".
Such ideas were good approximations in the past. Once the finite nature of our world comes into play they become very bad approximations. You know, the gods of Easter Island smiled on its people "until now" for a long time, until they didn’t. The presumption of growth is so pervasive that great swaths of economic theory simply fail to make any sense if a negative growth rate occurs. What, for instance, does a negative discount rate portend?
Perhaps it’s because much of the theory breaks down under economic decline that the presumption of growth pervades everything economists do. Even the Stern report, which is based on enough understanding of our circumstances to see that unconstrained carbon emissions are to be avoided, has to torture economics a bit to come up with the result. More striking, though, Stern speaks of the consequences of failure in terms of "slowed growth" and not of actual, you know, catastrophe.
Well, the cockroaches and jellyfish won’t consider it a period of absolute decline, I guess …
The whole growth thing becomes a toxic addiction. The only path to a soft landing is down; we in the overheated economies need to learn not just to cope with decline but to celebrate it. We need not just an ideology but a formal theory that can not only cope with reduced per capita impact but can target it.
Decline isn’t bad news in an airplane. Decline is about reaching your destination. Perhaps there is some level of economic activity beyond which life gets worse? Perhaps in some countries we have already passed that point? Could the time where we’d all be better off with a gradual decline have arrived? How much attention should we pay to the folks who say we should keep climbing, that there’s no way we can run out of fuel, that we’ll think of something?
I think the soft landing is still within our grasp. The longer we treat the people who call themselves economists as a priesthood above criticism rather than as a human subculture with serious dysfunctions, the bumpier the best landing we can achieve gets. Climate change is just a symptom, though an increasingly salient one. I suggest that the core problem lies in our collective failure to consider what human decency means and to use that understanding to manage what money means. We don’t have to listen to people who get that backwards.