Editor’s note: This commentary is by Will Patten, a retired Ben & Jerry’s executive and former executive director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. He is president of Back to Basics Vermont Inc.
On a recent edition of NPR’s “Science Friday” host Ira Flatow was interviewing Sir David Attenborough, the 94-year-old British naturalist. Their discussion about the condition of our earth included a couple of profound truths. Flatow quoted a truism from the 1960s:
“Growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of a cancer cell.”
“Anyone who thinks we can have infinite growth in a finite circumstance is either mad or an economist.”
Growth has been the goal of economic theory and political practice since the start of the industrial revolution 250 years ago but it is increasingly obvious to many that we need to update our goals. We no longer have the inexhaustible abundance of natural and human resources that fueled our growth.
Economic growth as measured by Gross Domestic Product has been the essence of modern capitalism and anyone questioning its value is quickly labeled a socialist or communist. That’s nonsense. The goal of a more sustainable capitalist economy would be economic vitality, not economic growth. Here are three features of no-growth capitalism.
Competition drives innovation and provides value to consumers but over the last few decades mergers and acquisitions have created giant companies that absorb or destroy competitors in every sector of the global economy: pharmaceuticals and health care, media and communication, consumer goods and retail, transportation, finance, technology and more. Giant corporations are created for the purpose of removing competition. In no-growth capitalism a cap will be imposed on market share to encourage competition and ensure that no companies will be deemed “too big to fail.”
Robert Reich, a professor of economics at UC Berkeley, recently wrote a succinct description of a market-driven economy: “If you amass a billion dollars you must deserve it because the market has awarded you that much. If you barely scrape by you have only yourself to blame.” Decades of free-market capitalism have destroyed the middle class and the American dream that hard work will produce prosperity.
Capitalism will only survive in a democratic society if the popularly elected government restores some control over the innate greed and excesses of the marketplace as it did for the first 200 years of this American experiment. Regulations are required to promote and protect the “greater good,” the interests of the majority, by protecting our environment, enforcing justice and fairness, ensuring equal opportunity for all.
A competitive and regulated economy will have tremendous entrepreneurial vitality. Businesses will be born and prosper. Others will wither and die. Currency will circulate rapidly but not always equally. No-growth capitalism, by definition, is a zero-sum game. There will be winners and losers just as there are now. But when everyone is able to play the game, economic vitality thrives.
Market capitalism has deprived an increasing number of people and small businesses of the basic necessities needed to participate in the economy: early and equal education, health care, access to technology, mobility, affordable housing. It is in the interests of everyone that no one be deprived of these necessities so that everyone can participate in some way in a new, vibrant, sustainable economy.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, representing 37 democratic capitalist countries of Europe and North America, the United States ranks 33rd in life expectancy, 32nd in infant mortality. But defenders of the status quo are howling that a competitive, regulated and humane economy threatens the god-given liberties upon which America was founded.
When Patrick Henry wrote his famous 1775 exhortation, “Give me liberty or give me death!” there were less than 1 billion people on the earth. Today there are 7.5 billion of us with another two billion expected in just 30 years. That is metastasis.
We need not fear a future without growth. We need to invent it and embrace it.