Tuesday, July 20, 2010

If GDP goes down, so what?

"Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God."

- Proverbs 30.8-9.

It has long been known that above a certain level of having basic needs met, increasing material wealth does not correlate with increased happiness or satisfaction with life. An interesting, though brief article in the NYT on rethinking the measure of growth mentions more economists in Asia's growing economies questioning whether the pursuit of ever higher GDP is costing us the earth.

Sometimes ecological concerns are critiqued as patronising or colonialist: developed nations telling developed nations that they can't get as rich as us. Or ecological responsibility is seen as a luxury that only the wealthy can afford: "First comes a full stomach, then comes ethics," wrote Brecht in his Threepenny Opera (1928). But the reality is that developed nations must learn joyfully to embrace less, and developing nations must be liberated from the idea that a western lifestyle is the only life worth aspiring to.


cyberpastor said...

Amelia and I were musing over the possibility of Christians making such choices only this morning. It would seem like a remarkable "statement of choice" for rich Christians not to live in certain areas of Sydney - we were at Balmoral - for the sake of godliness.

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...

I have to say, though, that there is a fairly strong correlation between GDP and unemployment levels.

Of course this is not to say that a steady-state or declining economy will result in mass unemployment - but moving from a growth to a steady-state model will result in some pain.

spike said...

Amen. It's easier said than done. Cora and I live quite simply compared to some, and we have a committed to living simply. In terms of our neighbours and friends, we enjoy more relational time, time for our kids, time for others etc, and we don't feel we miss much by not having a big bank account, lots of travel, and toys etc. But then compared to my parents, we live more luxuriously, and certainly not as simply as many in the world.

byron smith said...

Cyberpastor - Are you really saying that buying property in Sydney is not one's highest obligation? That's dangerous talk!

OSO - I assume you mean a fairly strong correlation between GDP and employment levels (or a fairly strong negative correlation with unemployment levels)? And does it correlate to the GDP level or to GDP per capita, or to the GDP per capita relative to time? That is, the US has the world's highest GDP, but its employment figures are not wonderful. It has even seen something of a "recovery" (however short term that may turn out to be), and so has had rising GDP, but this has been a "jobless recovery". Some countries have low unemployment, but also low GDP (e.g. Ghana, Cambodia, Laos), though their GDP per capita is rising. The question is whether there are any models of GDP per capita falling without leading to high unemployment.

Spike - Yes, it is all relative isn't it? Our perceptions of what is "a lot" or "a little" are so often based on our immediate neighbours. It is hard to keep perspective.

stef said...

One question is how to effectively communicate this point without falling to the patronising/colonialist trap. Living in SE Asia in a country that is rushing headlong into consumerist culture (despite its obvious clash with the prevailing political and previous social structures) is quite depressing at times, yet it seems difficult as a "rich westerner" to speak truthfully into this situation - even when we do live a frugal life here compared to most other foreigners and even many of the wealthy locals.

The example of our lives is one thing, but its hard to move people past the arguement that we have come here by choice, while many who want a "better life" (read more stuff - especially plasma tvs it seems!) don't come from a position of choosing a life of less. It is heartbreaking and frustrating to see a population (or at least the section of this population that is benefitting from the opening of international trade here) chasing the false dreams of western materialism without seeing the emptiness and unhappiness it seems to bring to many who have already got there.

byron smith said...

Yes, you're right Stef. The moral failings of the west make it difficult to communicate such a perspective without coming across as patronising or hypocritical ("it's all very well for you to say that you've tried wealth and found it wanting!" (reminds me of the saying "money may not bring happiness, but it lets one look for it in more interesting places")). This is one of the reasons I found it interesting that the link discusses the views of economists from SE Asia, not just westerners.