In defence of abundance

Today’s critics of prosperity are guarded about expressing their views directly, instead hiding behind climate change, ideas about ‘moral limits’, and the elevation of happiness over GDP. This makes it even more important to oppose them.

Daniel Ben-Ami

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If someone was transported from 1900 to the present day, their first reaction would almost certainly be amazement at what humanity has achieved. Then they would probably do a double take. After getting to know our world better they would be bemused by the widespread resentment towards the benefits of prosperity.

The world at the start of the twentieth century was far poorer and less technologically advanced than the present age. Inventions we take for granted today were yet to be devised: the aeroplane, antibiotics, atomic power, computers, insulin, oral contraceptives, space travel, television and the vacuum cleaner, among others. Many other technologies had been invented, but were not yet widely available. The Ford Model T, the first mass-produced car, was not launched until 1908.

We also, on average, lead healthier and longer lives than back then, are taller, better educated, and, at least as measured by IQ, more intelligent. For example, the average life expectancy for both sexes in America increased from 47.3 years in 1900 to 77.7 in 2006 (1). Although black Americans still have a lower life expectancy than whites, they have enjoyed a clearly improving trend and the gap between the two groups has narrowed. The average life expectancy for a black person in 1900 was 33.0 years; it reached 73.2 in 2006 (2).

Despite these astounding gains of modernity, mainstream commentators constantly complain that we have too much. Too much food makes us fat. Too much consumerism is emptying our life of meaning. Too much affluence makes us miserable. Too much development threatens to destroy the planet. Rather than being encouraged to work out how to take society forward, we are constantly warned that we have gone too far.

Such anxiety about rising prosperity is best referred to as ‘growth scepticism’ as it is typically presented as a healthy questioning of the priority attached to growth. Although most mainstream commentators say they favour growth in principle they generally add numerous caveats to their support. Most often they talk of the need to recognise limits to growth: environmental, moral and social. Another tack is to change the meaning of development from economic transformation to an approach focusing on psychological and psychosocial wellbeing.

Perhaps the most frequently discussed form of limit is environmental or natural. Since it is often referred to on spiked, I will not examine it in detail here. Just take one common example: climate change. It is widely argued that the existence of global warming means that we need to rein back growth or face planetary catastrophe. We are told to modify our lifestyles by making sacrifices. We are constantly exhorted to change our behaviour by consuming less.

Drawing the opposite conclusion from the existence of climate change is rarely entertained. That is, to the extent that climate change is a problem, it is best dealt with by producing more. More resources as a result of growth, more human ingenuity, more and better technology. Restraint is probably the worst way of tackling what should essentially be a practical problem.

Although the most commonly discussed forms of limits are natural, the idea of moral limits has rapidly gained ground with the economic downturn from 2008 onwards. One of the most articulate exponents of this approach is Kurt Andersen, an American writer who first floated the idea of moral limits to growth in a Time magazine cover story last year (3). Since then he has expanded on the theme in Reset, his New York Times bestseller on the subject (4).

For Andersen, the economic crisis is a result of moral laxity: ‘We’ve brought about the current crisis through a quarter of a century of self-destructive financial excess and reckless overdependence on debt and fossil fuels.’ (5) As a solution he proposes a ‘Seven Step Program for America’ modelled on the 12 steps followed by Alcoholics Anonymous. Andersen’s steps include: admit that we are powerless over addiction to easy money and cheap fossil fuel and living large; admit the exact nature of our wrongs; and be entirely ready to remove defects of our character.

The elitist character of his outlook is revealed by an off-hand remark on Homer Simpson. ‘The popular culture tried to warn us. For 20 years now, we have had Homer Simpson’s spot-on caricature of the quintessential American – childish, irresponsible, wilfully oblivious, fat and happy.’ (6) The implication is that ordinary Americans are dumb kids who need enlightened individuals such as Andersen to tell them how to behave.

But who is really guilty of being wilfully oblivious? Andersen, like many commentators on the downturn, takes astonishingly little interest in the productive side of the economy. Yet it is this area, rather than the moral failings of Americans, that is key to explaining the boom and bust of recent years. In the run-up to the crisis, the American authorities kept interest rates low, relaxed restrictions on lending and spent heavily as a way of trying to offset the effects of a sluggish economy. They created the basis for the financial and economic crisis rather than the American people. Consumers simply took advantage of the situation they found themselves in.

Another popular attack on prosperity from the growth sceptics is to focus on what could be called ‘social limits’. This most often takes the form of a discussion of happiness. The sceptics point to a vast body of empirical data which shows that, in rich countries at least, growing wealth does not make people happier over time. Americans are about as happy as they were in the 1970s despite becoming substantially richer over the past four decades. Typically the experts conclude from this data that happiness, rather than accumulating wealth, should be the overriding goal of individuals and society.

Barbara Ehrenreich, a veteran radical commentator, is concerned with the conclusions that are often drawn from the preoccupation with happiness. In particular she challenges the notion that Americans and others should engage in positive thinking towards all areas of life and even death. The most moving and powerful chapter in her book, Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, is the first one in which she describes her experience of being diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. She soon discovered that the ‘appropriate’ attitude to the condition was to be ‘upbeat and even eagerly acquisitive’ (7). Indeed, she describes a huge industry of pink-ribbon themed cancer products and other merchandise designed to demonstrate a positive stance on the condition. Yet she could not find any scientific evidence for the frequent assertion that positive thinking is essential to recovery. On the contrary, she argues that it adds a double burden to patients as they come under intense pressure to feel positive about their condition. Understandable feelings of anger and fear are frowned upon.

It was her experience with cancer that led Ehrenreich to study positive thinking more generally. Her book looks at areas such as business, the workplace, the church growth movement and positive psychology in academia. In each case she presents positive thinking as at least a very influential, if not the mainstream, outlook. For example, workers who are made redundant are meant to embrace their experience as an opportunity rather than react angrily.

Her least convincing chapter, however, is on the economic crisis, in which she argues that positive thinking led to an unbridled desire for individuals to get rich quick. Here, her approach has similarities with Andersen’s, even though her focus is more on the rich espousing ‘market fundamentalism’ rather than on rampant consumers. Like Andersen she feels the economic crisis can be explained mainly in relation to attitudes rather than through examining the structure of the real economy.

Unfortunately, Ehrenreich fails to grasp the paradoxical character of the drive towards positive thinking. It is not, as she suggests, an expression of the relentless optimism of the American people. On the contrary, the rise of positive thinking coincides with an intense social pessimism. The extreme emphasis on individual solutions to problems has come to the fore at the same time as the idea of social change has receded into the background. Since the idea that There Is No Alternative holds sway, it is not surprising that individuals try to make the most of what they already have.

Indeed, Ehrenreich is sufficiently influenced by the contemporary mood to accept the basic premises of the happiness movement. She says she takes it ‘as a sign of progress that, in just the last decade or so, economists have begun to show an interest in using happiness rather than just gross domestic product as a measure of an economy’s success’ (8). As it happens, the discussion she refers to goes back to the 1970s, but more importantly it has severe drawbacks. The essential message of the happiness movement is the archly conservative one that individuals should be happy with what they have got. It fails to see that massively more resources are needed to solve problems in rich countries, including an ageing population, climate change and simply raising living standards. Not to mention the need to resolve the dire poverty of the developing world.

Although growth sceptics more often talk of limits to growth, there are other ways in which the benefits of prosperity are brought into question today. The most prevalent is to downplay the importance of growth by introducing many other factors as key social goals. Amartya Sen, who won the 1998 Nobel Prize for Economics for his work on this subject, is the most influential exponent of this approach. He argues that the goal of development should be redefined in terms of ‘capabilities’, by which he means the freedom to achieve various lifestyles (9). These can include a wide variety of elements, from having adequate food or being free from avoidable disease to participating in community life and having self-respect. Although Sen’s work focused on the developing world, his approach can also be applied to developed countries.

Sen’s perspective changes the meaning from development as a process of economic transformation to one focused on what could be called therapeutic governance. Under the old view, which held sway from the late 1940s to the late 1970s, there was a broad consensus that development meant transforming poor countries into rich ones (10). It emphasised the importance of industrialisation and urbanisation as part of a broader transformation process.

In contrast, the new conception of development has essentially given up on material transformation – at best it pledges to mitigate the worst excesses of poverty. Its main focus is on the psychological and psychosocial lives of individuals. As Vanessa Pupavac, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Nottingham, has argued: ‘Development becomes a form of therapeutic governance focused on enhancing people’s capacities, motivation and sense of wellbeing within their existing material circumstances.’ (11)

Half the Sky, a journalistic study of the plight of women worldwide, gives a good sense of what the therapeutic approach means in practice. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the first husband-and-wife team to win the Pulitzer Prize for journalism, are both accomplished writers. Kristof is a columnist for the New York Times and is influential in America’s official development circles (12). His work was discussed at Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearings as the US secretary of state (13). Their book is even endorsed by A-list celebrities, including Angelina Jolie and George Clooney.

The book consists mainly of graphic individual tales of how the poorest and most marginalised women suffer. There are numerous gruelling accounts of sex trafficking and forced prostitution, gender-based violence including honour killings and mass rape, and maternal mortality. But Half the Sky is also an explicitly activist text. There is much talk of how poor women in the developing world and American women can work together to tackle the problems described. This typically involves Western backing for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as well as helping to provide small loans to women in the developing world through microfinance schemes.

Although it is impossible not to be moved by many of the individual tales, the thrust of Half the Sky’s argument is troubling. It portrays a large part of the world’s population as primarily victims of abuse. There is no sense of women playing a role in taking control of their own lives and transforming their countries into developed societies. Although there is talk of ‘empowerment’, this is seen as the gift of external agencies rather than as being the initiative of women themselves. Instead of the striving for prosperity, what is being offered is ever greater intervention in the personal lives of Third World women by the authorities and Western-backed NGOs.

Such skewed priorities follow from the motivation of the new movement advocated by Kristof and WuDunn. Rather than start from the needs of the world’s poor, including for greater material resources, it is largely motivated by the need to provide a sense of meaning for Americans: ‘While the primary purpose of a new movement on behalf of women is to stop slavery and honour killings, another is to expose young Americans to life abroad so that they, too, can learn and grow and blossom – and then continue to tackle the problems as adults.’ (14) So Americans will apparently become better people if they learn to see poor women primarily as victims and come to view the aspiration to Western living standards as unrealistic.

Growth scepticism is one of the trickiest sets of ideas to challenge nowadays – as well as one of the most important. It is difficult because its advocates do not generally present themselves as overtly hostile to economic growth or prosperity. Instead they attack growth indirectly by discussing supposed limits to mass affluence or talking up the importance of other social priorities. But underlying the apparent scepticism is a deep pessimism about the possibility, or even desirability, of economic progress.

Yet material advance remains vital to human welfare. Despite the huge gains of the past two centuries, there is still an enormous problem of scarcity. Economic growth is the pre-condition for raising the world’s living standards to a decent level – by which I mean at least that enjoyed by middle-class Americans, if not higher. It also remains central to the project of remoulding the environment to better meet the needs of humanity. There is a long way to go before true abundance is achieved.

Daniel Ben-Ami is a journalist and author based in London. Visit his website here. His new book, Ferraris For All: In Defence of Economic Progress, will be published by Policy Press in June.

Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, by Barbara Ehrenreich, is published in Britain by Granta. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) (In the US, it is published by Metropolitan Books as Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.)

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, is published by Alfred A Knopf. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

Reset: How this crisis can restore our values and renew America, by Kurt Andersen, is published by Random House. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

(1) Centers for Disease Control

(2) Centers for Disease Control

(3) The End of Excess: Is this crisis good for America?, Time, 29 March 2009. Discussed in No, the economic crisis is not good for America, by Sean Collins

(4) The Archbishop of Canterbury has made similar remarks about Britain. See There Is (Still) No Alternative, by Mick Hume

(5) Reset, Kurt Andersen, Random House 2009, p30

(6) Reset, Kurt Andersen, Random House 2009, p30

(7) Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich, Metropolitan Books, p26

(8) Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich, Metropolitan Books, p26

(9) Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen, Oxford University Press 1999, p75

(10) Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark: how development has disappeared form today’s ‘development’ discourse, Ha-Joon Chang, February 2009, p1-2

(11) ‘Human security and the rise of global therapeutic governance’, Vanessa Pupavac, Conflict, Security and Development 5(2). August 2005, p173

(12) Kristoff’s columns can be found here while his blog is here

(13) Transcript of Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearing, 13 January 2009

(14) Half the Sky, Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Alfred A Knopf. P21.

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