What is economic growth for?

Posted by on Apr 11, 2009 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Eric Hobsbawm - England one

Rory's blog picks up (in his brilliant and inimitable style) on that Eddie Izzard quote I posted back in February about creativism and capitalism: one sees money as a means to an end and the other…

This is a really important issue to chew on right now, after several decades of creep of the idea of "economic value" into every aspect of our lives, after all the distortion of our institutions (both private and public) by the same notion (despite the clear learnings from the likes of Richard Layard & Oliver James that economic value is largely irrelevant to the stuff that really matters to people like…oh, happiness), after those greedy so-and-sos in fancy suits… "set our money on fire"

So it's timely that today the great historian, scion of Birkbeck and all-round good egg, Eric Hobsbawm raises a similar issue , calling for

"a bigger break with the economic and moral assumptions of the past
30 years…[than we're currently imagining]…
a return to the conviction that economic growth and
the affluence it brings is a means and not an end.
The end is what it
does to the lives, life-chances and hopes of people. Look at London. Of
course it matters to all of us that London's economy flourishes. But
the test of the enormous wealth generated in patches of the capital is
not that it contributed 20%-30% to Britain's GDP but how it affects the
lives of the millions who live and work there. What kind of lives are
available to them? Can they afford to live there? If they can't, it is
not compensation that London is also a paradise for the ultra-rich. Can
they get decently paid jobs or jobs at all? If they can't, don't brag
about all those Michelin-starred restaurants and their self-dramatising
chefs. Or schooling for children? Inadequate schools are not offset by
the fact that London universities could field a football team of Nobel
prize winners"

For London read your home town. It's that long forgotten idea of social capital – the common-wealth, our shared world, my friends.

Going forward, maybe "[t]he test of…policy [should] not be private but public, not just
rising income and consumption for individuals, but widening the
opportunities and what Amartya Sen calls the "capabilities" of all"

[for those of a nervous disposition, please note the "not just" – this is not an either/or]

As individual financial businesses seem to be conveniently rediscovering how rooted they are in society and how connected they are to the rest of us (having done every darn thing to deny it*) as we bail them out, so maybe our ideas about what economic activity and growth are for might need a bit of a rethink.

Of course, there are going to be people telling you that when the markets lift again, it's going to be business as usual and that the certainties of the last 30 years are worth holding onto (indeed, MUST be held onto for fear of…I don't know what). But they would say that wouldn't they?

We've got too much to sort out for that kind of lazy stuff, haven't we?

Just thinking aloud. Just thinking aloud…

*remember this? Download Mintzberg-beyondselfishness


  1. neilperkin
    April 11, 2009

    So agree with this. The constant thought for me throughout all the bail-out shennanigans is that it is based on thinking that is simply not different enough. There are many ways to classify wealth. We seem to be stuck on one.

  2. Mark Earls
    April 11, 2009

    Glad you think so, Neil. David K’s comment on the previous post also seems to resonate here: when we lose the we…

  3. Hannes Couvreur
    May 11, 2009

    Hi Mark, Neil,
    Agree with the both of you. Yesterday my dad told me that economists got it wrong because they didn’t understand the reality of exponential growth. He told it as a joke, but there was some truth in it.
    Doesn’t a lot of the trouble we’ve caused on this planet relate to this exponential growth paradigm?
    Could we come up with another paradigm for growth, not just another paradigm for value (although they’re probably closely related)?
    And what would your ideas be for such a paradigm?

  4. tim
    May 11, 2009

    When we have all got time(!) it would be good to investigate in more depth Rudolph Steiner’s approaches to the economy and Social Threefolding. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Threefolding
    Economics doesn’t hold all the answers, but some; likewise culture and politics each have a strong input. If we can obtain a dialogue to hold these three social territories in dynamic balance we might just be able to stumble forward into a new era. Big job me thinks!!