Two cheers for Piketty: Or, why both he and the OECD and nearly everyone else are wrong on growth. Part 1

Post-growth projectToday’s post is the first of two articles by Rupert Read, Reader in Philosophy in the School of Politics, Philosophy and Languages at the University of East Anglia, Chair of Green House and parliamentary candidate for Cambridge for the UK Green Party. Part 2 will appear tomorrow

Piketty’s alleged-updating of Marx, Capital in the 21st century, is taking the intellectual world by storm. I’m delighted that such an improbable happening can occur in our rather-impoverished public sphere, and pleased to cheer him on.

Piketty’s proposal for a global wealth tax to counteract the literally-insane levels of inequality now generated in our world is most welcome.

Piketty’s prior analysis of the importance of wealth-inequality (and not just income-inequality, on which Wilkinson and Pickett focussed in their epochal work The Spirit Level) is of course equally welcome.

That’s two thumbs-up. But sadly, I can’t give Piketty anything like a full-throated ‘three cheers’.

Piketty argues that if growth in a capitalist economy is higher then, other things being equal, wealth will be more evenly distributed. (I am extremely doubtful as to whether he has proved this; causation is of course not proven by mere correlation. The data are equally compatible with the claim that there has been a lucky partial correlation between high economic growth and periods of democratic regulation, reform and governance of the economy, and that it is the latter that have been more responsible for the relative evenness of wealth-distribution at times of higher economic growth.)

However, his claim in any case only applies to present-day people. Piketty fails almost completely to think about future people. If economic growth will lead to future generations suffering, then it is not egalitarian – provided that we take seriously that future generations matter, that they ought to be included as among our equals. Now, economists will counter that all people from now to the end of time are in their equations as if they live in a discounted present: but that it is the point. Rashly – madly – assuming that growth will continue forever, and additionally assuming that humans are selfish and don’t really care about their offspring, standard economists standardly discount the future: the further into the future one looks, the less the people living there matter, so far as economists are concerned. This is unacceptable.

I suggest that, at a time when it is ever clearer that humanity is running up against the limits to growth (the climate crisis being only the most large-scale of these phenomena), it is delusional and in fact disgraceful to seek to make an ‘egalitarian’ argument in favour of growthism. Growthism is causing the undermining of the living conditions of all our children and grandchildren: for it is above all economic growth that is to blame for our collective breaching of planetary limits. This alone is enough to completely undermine Piketty’s case for economic growth. For if we can’t take care of our descendants, what good are we? The first virtue of any decent society is to not destroy the conditions of possibility for its children, the conditions of possibility for their flourishing.

But there’s more. Piketty makes the assumption that our economy must remain fundamentally capitalist (and in this fundamental respect it is more than presumptuous of him to seek to don the mantle of Marx). But given the looming contradiction between capitalism and the planet, he ought not to have done so. Stopping doing so would mean that the truth, if such it is, that growth is necessary in a capitalist economy to help allegedly equalise the distribution of wealth no longer carries much weight: for we have to start to think beyond a capitalist economy.

A post-growth ‘steady-state’ economy by definition would not be one in which the growth imperative of capitalism was allowed to let rip: in such a post-growth economy/society, humankind would continue to develop culturally, but would no longer seek to expand the amount of economic activity and would seek to reduce to one-planet levels the amount of material throughput (i.e. of resource-use and pollution).

A post-growth society will be forced to face the question which growthist ideology – with its promise of an ever-growing pie – allows one endlessly to evade: how shall we share what together we have? So Piketty’s claim that a ‘stalling’ of growth is bad for the majority may well be exactly wrong. Not just because the capture of all growth by the elite is happening right now. But also because once one considers the future, and once one considers that we need in any case to be thinking beyond capitalist political economy, and once one considers especially the way in which growth functions as a rhetorical device to shield from view the necessity for sharing out the wealth more fairly, then it is simply no longer convincing.

I would submit in fact that a ‘stalling’ of growth – or, better, a facing up to living in a post-growth society – and a willingness to see that we simply can’t keep growing the pie now that the ingredients are running out, will finally be what force the majority to take back some of the wealth currently being hoarded by the rich.

Useful links

Some portions of this article appeared previously in my Green economics versus growth economics, available here

OECD work on green growth and sustainable development

OECD work on income inequality and poverty

Does income inequality hurt economic growth? From the OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

Intergenerational Justice in Scandinavia: Super Model?

Click to download the report
Click to download the report

Today’s post is by Mi Ah Schoyen of NOVA Norwegian Social Research and Bjorn Hvinden  Professor and Head of Research at NOVA and the University of Tromso, and director of the Nordic Centre of Excellence ‘Reassessing the Nordic Welfare Model’ (REASSESS). It is published in collaboration with Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) Network

When it comes to balancing the needs of current and future generations, the Nordic welfare states have done fairly well: reforms of the pension system, low child poverty levels and public debt, and work-friendly family policies. Yet, environmental considerations remain neglected – in the Nordic countries and elsewhere in the OECD.

Few would disagree that intergenerational justice is a goal that all governments and societies should adhere to. Beyond this general consensus, the issue undoubtedly raises a number of dilemmas, which are notoriously hard to solve. The Nordic societies are far from immune to these challenges. However, there are a number of indications that this region has developed public policies which are more balanced with respect to both age and generation than in most other OECD countries.

In advanced democracies, intergenerational justice is only one of the objectives public policies are expected to meet. There are also aims such as intra-generational solidarity and fairness, gender equity, and the creation of a competitive economy combined with macroeconomic soundness. For intergenerational justice to be achieved, a simple theory suggests that successive generations (birth cohorts) – also future ones – should be treated the same. “Makes good sense!” you may think. So why are issues of intergenerational justice so hard to resolve?

First, it is difficult to account for the unborn and consequently controversy surrounds the debates about what we need to do today to achieve justice for the future. Second, the concept of intergenerational justice is typically applied in an ambiguous manner. It sometimes refers to age groups; at other times, the point of reference is to the treatment and position of successive generations or cohorts. This blurs the important distinction between age groups and generations. While you pass from one age group to another as you move through the life course, you remain part of the same generation (or birth cohort) from the day you are born until you die. Therefore, differential treatment of age groups does not necessarily violate principles of intergenerational justice. Think, for instance, of a contributory old-age pension system which by design transfers money from the working age population to the elderly. As long as current workers receive a similar level of transfers when they reach retirement, this kind of redistribution will be neutral with respect to generations. In fact, this mechanism is sometimes referred to as an implicit intergenerational contract and has until now been the most common way of organising public old age pensions.

Finally, matters are further complicated if successive cohorts differ in size. Unfortunately, this represents the rule rather than the exception. The current situation in most of the OECD world is that larger generations are followed by smaller ones, creating problems especially for old age social protection systems, which were created under the assumption of steadily growing populations. With modest fertility rates and steadily increasing life expectancy, the tax base does not grow fast enough to continue to finance public pensions in the way that was done in the past. This is the basic reason why we have seen large pension reforms in a number of OECD countries.

Pension reform has been an important policy issue also for Nordic governments. Sweden (in 1999) and Norway (in 2011) implemented comprehensive reforms of their old age pension systems. However, setting public pensions on a financially sustainable path is only part of the story of how Nordic societies seem to balance the distribution between generations and across age in a sensible way.

As the findings of the SGI Study on Intergenerational Justice in Aging Societies show, from a comparative perspective, children in the Nordic countries are doing well. Child poverty levels are relatively low and government debt is well below the OECD average (which was equal to just over 50 per cent of GDP in 2010). Note also that in the peculiar case of Norway, government debt indicators – also as they are represented in the SGI Study – are less meaningful. The country has built up a massive public fund from petroleum revenues with a market value currently approaching €600 billion!

Moreover, work-friendly family policies (including an emphasis on providing affordable care services for dependent children and elderly) have long been a priority in the Nordic countries. As a result, even though they – with the exception of Iceland – do not quite reach the replacement fertility rate of 2.1, generally, more babies are born in the Nordic countries than further south on the European continent. At the same time, female employment is high, providing a broad tax base that helps in meeting the costs of population ageing.

The Intergenerational Justice Index (IJI) includes environmental, social, economic and fiscal dimensions, as well as a measure of pro-elderly bias. Estonia ranks highest of the 29 OECD countries included in the study, the US is bottom.

Click to see full size

Overall, while not seeing it as a super model – like the Economist actually did earlier this year – it seems fair to say that the Nordic social and economic model has managed to strike a sound balance between intra-generational and inter-generational concerns. This has been achieved by combining policies which contribute to the equalisation of life chances (e.g., free access to education, active labour market measures for the whole adult population, and a comprehensive system of social protection) with policies to foster economic competitiveness and efficiency.

The most innovative feature of the SGI Study is the inclusion of an environmental impact indicator in the assessment of intergenerational justice across countries. While a common dimension in discussions of environmental policy and sustainable development, ecological concerns rarely enter assessments of the welfare state and social justice more broadly.

The environmental impact of human activities reported in the SGI Study on the basis of countries’ Ecological Footprint, gives a rather mixed result for the Nordic countries. We get an intergenerational picture which is less positive than when considering only the welfare state more narrowly. It is important to note that several kinds of indicators have been defined for measuring different aspects of environmental performance. Country rankings are sensitive to the choice of indicator. For instance, if we instead rank countries according to the Environmental Performance Index, the Nordic countries all appear in the top quintile. We are not in a position to judge which indicator is superior, since that probably depends on your specific purpose. However, we strongly encourage further debates and research on the linkages between social and environmental policy and their outcomes. In this regard the SGI Study offers a welcome contribution.

Useful links

Paying for the Past, Providing For the Future: Intergenerational Solidarity OECD Ministerial Meeting on Social Policy, May 2011