While Europe may be reaching a deal of sorts between Teutonic lender and Latin borrower, and while pre-election America may appear to be regaining momentum in the form of lending and employment data, economic turbulence has merely moved eastwards in its slow, global orbit.
With the Asian Development Bank cutting regional growth forecasts from 6.9% to 6.1%, and Future Fund chief David Murray warning of an external finance shock in Australia, IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard seems right when he forecast on Wednesday that the world would not recover from the financial crisis until at least 2018.
But what if Blanchard were wrong? What if his premise was incorrect? Certainly, there is a very real structural slowdown in China, a pause in the consumption rates of South Asia and Indonesia, and a continuing malaise in Japan, but what if we didn’t look at this as a crisis, but as statis? What if our obsession with economic growth and measures of growth turned out to be an illusion.
The Financial Times’ Martin Wolf opened this can of worms on Tuesday, asking if unlimited growth was a thing of the past. Citing research on historic rates of productivity by economist Robert Gordon, Wolf questioned whether our current third industrial revolution – that of information, rather than steam and mechanisation in the 19th, or urbanisation and middle class expansion in the 20th century – was really all that profound.
Who, for instance, would trade Facebook or an iPhone for indoor heating or a flushing toilet? What economic gains could broadband have over the original subsea telegraph? Could the benefits of green energy really compare to the discovery of alternating current or the invention of the turbine?
These are questions others have asked as well, ranging from the longue durée historians of the Sorbonne, who are attempting to pinpoint capitalism’s demise by 2100 (economic systems, like those of feudal Europe or the Roman Empire, apparently last 600 years), to UBS strategist Andy Lees, who last year provocatively claimed the world had hit its innovation peak in the 1840s.
Furthermore, these questions are not new. William Morris, better known for his wallpaper designs, wrote of a cashless society in late Victorian England. In 1516, philosopher Thomas More described the isle of Utopia where gold and silver were cast aside for pursuits of real prosperity, the metals only used for the “humblest items of domestic equipment”.
And of course, there was John Stuart Mill, who in 1848 would advance the notion of the ‘stationary state’, where objectives of economic quality were to be pursued over objectives of economic quantity. This no-growth model would later have appeal for Kibbutzniks, survivalists, and environmentalists such the authors of the 1972 Club of Rome report – who reintroduced Mill’s concept of the limits of growth to a new Malthusian audience. Even John Meynard Keynes, an admirer of Mill, would at times lament the obsession politicians would come to have with GDP, an instrument of measurement he helped devise for limited use during the Second World War.
Yet Mill’s legacy is perhaps most relevant today with global populations now stabilising, the risks of catastrophic climate change becoming ever more apparent, technology supplanting labour and productivity seen by many economists as the last great hope for growth. Indeed, outside of canonising modern liberalism or the idea of falsification in the scientific method, Mill’s most important contribution to political economy was arguably his theory of development: that growth was a function of capital, labour and land (or natural resources). Mill felt that sustainable development was only possible if growth in labour was exceeded by growth in land and capital productivity, rather than debt. With middle class wages stagnating and the so-called 99% seeing few of the economic gains that we are supposed to have made since the economic deregulation of the 1980s, Mill’s dictums speak a remarkable truth across the gulf of time.
In a week where prominent fund manager Bill Gross likened America’s credit-based economic model to a crystal meth addiction (like any ‘hopium’ or narcotic, debt borrows the benefits of tomorrow for the enjoyment of today) and when central banks, from Australia to Russia, are joining peers in Europe, Britain, the US and Japan in pushing down rates or pump-priming markets with liquidity, one can see another of Mill’s classic warnings – the tyranny of the majority – coming true, with quick fixes and short-term solutions the order of the day.
Yet no country is as perhaps as apt for Mill’s analysis than China: a country that is in a self-imposed demographic decline, where utilitarianism and capital factor productivity have been warped into a fixed-asset bubble and where land is quite literally denuded of soil, drained of moisture and acidified by the detritus of industrialisation.
In an oped for the New York Times last week, economist Richard Easterlin described China’s belief it could purchase social stability through rapid economic growth as a “Faustian bargain”; a phrase also used recently by Bundesbank chief Jen Wideman’s in criticising the European Central Bank’s outright monetary transactions.
In a survey of opinions on life satisfaction scored between 1990 and 2011, Easterlin and his colleagues found that the average Chinese is no more satisfied today than they were in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. Moreover, scores on satisfaction for urbanites actually declined for most of the period, as old social safety nets – China’s so-called ‘iron rice bowl’ – were removed in the name of productivity, efficiency and, ultimately, economic liberalisation, and as the competitive urges of capitalism overtook the cooperation, forced as it was or not, of socialism.
Yet unlike other post-Enlightenment political philosophies – both the capitalism of Adam Smith or the communism of Karl Marx – Mill saw growth as more than material. Borrowing from its classical antecedent – the Ancient Greeks spoke of humanity’s goal aseudaimonia, or flourishing – modern society is built on the ideal of improvement, development, growth and expansion, but it needn’t be so mono-dimensional. Indeed, Aristotle considered an essential pillar of eudaimonia, or one of the four cardinal virtues, to be moderation.
The problem is that in many ways we may have already reached the limits of growth. Politicians like to talk about half-glass full and half-glass empty, yet ultimately we’re still drinking from the same poisoned chalice. By relooking at John Stuart Mill there may be a more refreshing alternative.
Michael Feller is an investment strategist with Macro Investor, which is offering a free 21-day trial. This week Macro Investor is looking at companies that are using innovation and efficiency to make profits where system growth is otherwise wanting and at concrete ways to make money in a deleveraging economy.