Pedestrians walk by the window display at an Old Navy store in Monday, Sept. 21, 2009 in downtown Chicago. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato) (Kiichiro Sato)

Why growth, not consumerism, is good

It's not about having more "stuff." It's about the U.S. providing everything its citizens need


Robert Reich
August 18, 2010 12:30AM (UTC)

Economic growth is slowing in the United States. It’s also slowing in Japan, France, Britain, Italy, Spain and Canada. It’s even slowing in China. And it’s likely to be slowing soon in Germany.

If governments keep hacking away at their budgets while consumers almost everywhere are becoming more cautious about spending, global demand will shrink to the point where a worldwide dip is inevitable.

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You might ask yourself: So what? Why do we need more economic growth anyway? Aren’t we ruining the planet with all this growth -- destroying forests, polluting oceans and rivers, and spewing carbon into the atmosphere at a rate that’s already causing climate chaos? Let’s just stop filling our homes with so much stuff.

The answer is economic growth isn’t just about more stuff. Growth is different from consumerism. Growth is really about the capacity of a nation to produce everything that’s wanted and needed by its inhabitants. That includes better stewardship of the environment as well as improved public health and better schools. (The Gross Domestic Product is a crude way of gauging this but it’s a guide. Nations with high and growing GDPs have more overall capacity; those with low or slowing GDPs have less.)

Poorer countries tend to be more polluted than richer ones because they don’t have the capacity both to keep their people fed and clothed and also to keep their land, air and water clean. Infant mortality is higher and life spans shorter because they don’t have enough to immunize against diseases, prevent them from spreading, and cure the sick.

In their quest for resources rich nations (and corporations) have too often devastated poor ones – destroying their forests, eroding their land, and fouling their water. This is intolerable, but it isn’t an indictment of growth itself. Growth doesn’t depend on plunder. Rich nations have the capacity to extract resources responsibly. That they don’t is a measure of their irresponsibility and the weakness of international law.

How a nation chooses to use its productive capacity -- how it defines its needs and wants -- is a different matter. As China becomes a richer nation it can devote more of its capacity to its environment and to its own consumers, for example.

The United States has the largest capacity in the world. But relative to other rich nations it chooses to devote a larger proportion of that capacity to consumer goods, healthcare and the military. And it uses comparatively less to support people who are unemployed or destitute, pay for non-carbon fuels, keep people healthy and provide aid to the rest of the world. Slower growth will mean even more competition among these goals.

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Faster growth greases the way toward more equal opportunity and a wider distribution of gains. The wealthy more easily accept a smaller share of the gains because they can still come out ahead of where they were before. Simultaneously, the middle class more willingly pays taxes to support public improvements like a cleaner environment and stronger safety nets. It’s a virtuous cycle. We had one during the Great Prosperity that lasted from 1947 to the early 1970s.

Slower growth has the reverse effect. Because economic gains are small, the wealthy fight harder to maintain their share. The middle class, already burdened by high unemployment and flat or dropping wages, fights ever more furiously against any additional burdens, including tax increases to support public improvements. The poor are left worse off than before. It’s a vicious cycle. We’ve been in one most of the last 30 years.

No one should celebrate slow growth. If we’re entering into a period of even slower growth, the consequences could be worse.


Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written 15 books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's also co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism."

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