Politicians and economists have for years now worried about dwindling productivity growth – the failure of economies in recent years to keep producing ever more valuable output with the same quantity of inputs. Nearly all economists think we need more productivity growth if we’re to restore steady economic growth. In the U.K., the opposition Labour Party has just gone so far as to propose setting an explicit 3 percent productivity growth target for the Bank of England.
But are we right to place such store by ever-increasing economic growth?
Alongside its obvious benefits, growth has brought a raft of increasingly serious environmental problems, from rapidly declining insect and bird populations, to plastics pollution and climate change. Since 1980, growth has also driven a vast increase in wealth inequality, stirring political instability. Modern economics sees growth as a necessity, but some researchers are wondering if we might actually do better with less growth, or even no growth. Managing it will require some creative thinking.
Economists widely acknowledge that growth is a terrible indicator of beneficial economic activity. It goes up if we have more traffic jams that waste gasoline, or more pollution that needs cleaning up. It says nothing about social well-being, or inequality.
Some economists have proposed better measures, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator, which includes a number of social and environmental factors. It gives a rather different picture of the benefits of growth. For the U.S., for example, GPI data indicates that economic growth made the nation better off up to around 1970, but further gains have been offset since then by worsening social conditions and the depletion of natural resources.
A new study has extended these results on a state-by-state basis, with some surprises. Alaska has the highest Genuine Progress Indicator per capita, while Wyoming comes dead last. Seven states actually have negative GPIs, meaning that economic activity in these states actually costs more than it achieves. The distinguished states are Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming, all hosting big energy extraction industries.
Given this mixed picture, why do economists almost universally support policies pushing for growth? Of course, one of the big arguments for growth (and productivity growth) is that it’s the best way to move people out of poverty. But it’s a stretch to say we know this is true in the long run, given the limitations on today’s economic models which ignore costs such as inequality, social exclusion, environmental problems or resource depletion.