Monday, April 27, 2015

Jeffrey Sachs on growth

Sachs' remarks on growth are a mix of good and bad in need of differentiation, hence this postscript. Let's start with the climate quote at the end of the last post. Good is Sachs' recognition that "markets alone ... will not carry us to safety." But bad about Economics for a Crowded Planet is that there is no serious engagement with economic growth as a problem. Sachs is an old-school developmentalist--development is good, growth is better, and even a mature technology-based economy should not spell the end of growth. Indeed, long-term economic growth, nudged along by government intervention in markets, remains the ultimate invariant goal for him (cf. 211-212).

This conclusion is contradicted by research from the likes of Assadourian, Alperovitz, Costanza, Daly, and other ecological economists. According to the critics, systemic change is unavoidable, while Sachs, and the establishment that celebrates his work, contend that political and technological change alone will suffice. Both sides agree that change is needed. But the critics insist there must be a paradigm shift, while Sachs hopes we can get by with tweaking the system a bit. I fear the planetary boundaries will dash this hope. So the reason why Sachs ranks last on the list is that he fails to recognize the need to get out of the economic-growth paradigm.

At the same time--hence the need for differentiation--he does clearly recognize the need to get out of the demographic growth paradigm. "Completing the Demographic Transition," chapter 8 of Crowded Planet, makes a frank case that population growth is for losers, that zero growth is the way to go, and that the worries over the costs of an aging population, with fewer workers and more retirees, are overblown (cf. 201). The presumed costs are exaggerated:
First, with slower population growth or even outright decline, society will not ned to invest in major infrastructure (roads, power, and the like) merely to keep up with poplation growth. This marks an enormous social saving. Second, it is likely that retirement ages will rise, probably with more flexible work times. We are, mercifully, not only living longer but living better, with more healthy life years. (201-202)
His critique of demographic growth is also ballsy: the section "The Bush Administration's War on Family Planning" (197ff.) doesn't mince words, and neither does the opening of the chapter. About the cuts in direct U.S. funding of family planning services in developmental aid, Sachs writes,
It's hard to think of a single more misguided policy; it runs directly against American interests in the reduction of conflict and terror, as well as against the support of economic development and environmental sustainability more generally." (181). 
Here's why:
The evidence ... is that a youth bulge significantly raises the likelihood of civil conflict, presumably by raising the ratio of those who would engage in violence relative to those who would mediate disputes. Most directly, unemployed young men become prime fodder for militias, raiding parties, terrorist groups, and armies. ... Three kinds of demographic stressors are related tothe likelihood of civil conflict: the youth bulge, the shortage of arable land per capita, and the rapid growth of urban areas. All, of course, are lreated to the persistence of high total fertility rates. (198-199)
Here and the preceding chapter, Sachs points to a phenomenon that has become a pattern: whereas the United States "played a major role in Bucharest [the first major intergovernmental conference on population in 1974], urging the widespread adoption of bold population programs" (179), American leadership collapsed with the rise of the religious right, whose disproportionate political might stymied any further American initiatives.

Obviously, the religious right would take offense at the peer-reviewed evidence Sachs presents and the logical conclusion he draws. Therein lies the problem: the shift to the right after 1980 yielded in the American Disenlightenment. Enlightenment, in its modern, western sense, refers to the respect for facts, the authority of the sciences, and the value of universal human rights. Disenlightenment, in the wake of the Reagan Revolution, meant a turn away from fact-based policies, contempt for scientific counsel, and embrace of values of the religious right.

On such values, in the context of female empowerment and the education of girls, Sachs makes a remark so terse it would make Nietzsche proud:
The cultural assumptions ... have developed under a set of demographic conditions ... that are no longer applicable. (187)
Ouch. That's the other reason, next to his gifted information-compression, why such an otherwise conventional thinker like Sachs still makes the list. A transformation of values is in the making because the material conditions that shaped the conservative value-set don't apply anymore. Rightwing values, from the political ('the manifest destiny-doctrine') to the social (the 'virtue of selfishness'-doctrine) to the religious (the monotheistic doctrines), all arose in a cultural context of a lack of material boundaries. But today, we're at the limit, and the challenge is to turn this into an opportunity for cultural evolution.

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