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Growth and Wellbeing

"Economic growth has become a fetish, a proxy for everything we are supposed to care about."

One problem with putting too much faith in growth is that its fruits are never evenly shared. Our standard gauge of average income – or wellbeing – is calculated by taking the size of a country’s economy and dividing it by the number of people living there. Averages are a trap. Bankers earn more than bakers, who earn more than the unemployed. To take an extreme, if the entire economic pie of a wealthy country went to one individual and nothing went to anyone else, then the average person would be doing very nicely, thank you. But the typical person would have starved to death.

The real world is not quite so extreme – outside North Korea at any rate – but even in countries like the US averages can be grossly skewed. Let’s just imagine for a moment that a large proportion of the wealth created each year goes to just 1 per cent, or even 0.1 per cent, of the population. Sounds far-fetched? In fact, the top 0.01 per cent of Americans, just 16,000 families, has seen its share of national wealth quintuple since 1980. They now enjoy a bigger slice of America’s economic pie than their counterparts did in the so-called Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. If your country’s economy is growing solely because the rich are getting richer and if you are working harder and harder just to maintain your living standard, then you are entitled to ask what, precisely, is all this growth for?

That is particularly true since study after study shows that people’s happiness depends not on their absolute wealth, but rather on their wealth relative to those around them. In an experiment written up in a paper called ‘Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay’ two capuchin monkeys were initially perfectly content with a reward of cucumbers when they successfully performed a task. But when one monkey was subsequently given tastier grapes as a reward, the monkey receiving plain old cucumbers became enraged, angrily flinging the previously satisfactory salad vegetable at its handler. The monkeys’ economy had grown, since grapes are better than cucumbers. But the resulting inequality brought only discontent.

Economic growth, then, is partly the effect of an arms race between individuals who must always stay one step ahead of their neighbors. Imagine going to your local restaurant to discover that no one is any longer prepared to work for a waiter’s or chef’s wages. Your relative wealth depends on someone else’s relative poverty. And it is that individual compulsion to get ahead or to stay ahead that keeps us running faster and faster on the economic hamster wheel, propelling the economy forward without making us any happier.

It was not always thus. For thousands of years no one had heard of growth. Agricultural economies were basically static. Only with the Industrial Revolution did humans become capable, slowly at first, of increasing output from year to year. That is why Britain, then Europe, then America and Australia and New Zealand gradually began to pull away from the pack, leaving the still predominantly agrarian economies of Asia, Africa and Latin America behind.

If growth is a relatively new concept for human societies, then the economy is an even newer one. Before the invention of GDP in the 1930s, it was pretty difficult to define what an economy was, even if you wanted to. Now we are all too familiar with the concepts of the economy and economic growth. One could go as far to say that they rule our lives. But what do they mean precisely? In France, Nicolas Sarkozy, a right-of-center former president not exactly known for chiseling at the foundations of capitalism, set up the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. In a foreword to the final document he wrote, ‘We will not change our behavior unless we change the ways we measure economic performance.’ Experts had long known, he said, that we were not properly measuring our economies, let alone our wellbeing. ‘We knew that our indicators had limitations, but we went on using them as if they didn’t . . . We have built a cult of the data, and we are now enclosed within.’

The danger, said Sarkozy in remarks that foreshadowed a populist backlash across the world, was that people knew instinctively when the wool was being pulled over their eyes. ‘That is how we begin to create a gulf of incomprehension between the expert certain in his knowledge and the citizen whose experience of life is completely out of synch with the story told by the data. This gulf is dangerous because the citizens end up believing that they are being deceived. Nothing is more destructive of democracy.’

Bill Clinton’s ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ meant voters only cared about the state of the economy. At the time this carried more than a grain of truth. Though few people could give a precise definition of what the economy actually was, many did vote according to their perception of how it was performing. That might be based on personal experience: whether their job felt secure and their mortgage payments manageable. But two quarters of something as nebulous as negative growth – the technical definition of a recession – could be enough to bury a political career. Voters had been hijacked by an abstract concept.

Defenders of GDP say it was never meant to reflect wellbeing. To criticize it for failing to capture everything important in life is like blaming a tape measure for not telling us about a person’s weight or personality. That would be a valid rejoinder if the economy were just another concept, one of many we used to judge how we are doing as societies. But economic growth has become a fetish, a proxy for everything we are supposed to care about and an altar on which we are prepared to sacrifice all. In pursuit of growth, we are told, we may have to work longer hours, slash public services, accept greater inequality, give up our privacy, and let ‘wealth-creating’ bankers have free rein. If environmentalists are right, the pursuit of growth without end could even threaten the very existence of humanity, ransacking our biodiversity and driving us to unsustainable levels of consumption and CO2 emission that wreck the very planet on which our wealth depends. Only in economics is endless expansion seen as a virtue. In biology it is called cancer.

Excerpted from THE GROWTH DELUSION. Copyright © 2018 by David Pilling. Published by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

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