This isn't just about pensions anymore - there's a revolution afoot


It was a strategic error, on their part.  Universities UK and USS thought they could score an easy win, but they started a revolution.  The pension thing was the straw that broke the camel’s back, apparently, and it has triggered the greatest wave of staff-student mobilization the sector has seen in decades. 

What did they think lecturers would do while on the picket lines for three weeks?  Chat about the weather?  Snack on cucumber sandwiches?  And what about students?  Were they going to stay at home and sleep?

Hardly.  For starters, we learned a few things.  We learned that there is no “deficit” in the pension fund; in fact, there is a surplus.  We learned that the whole thing is a ruse to justify offloading financial risk onto pensioners so that universities can get cheaper credit to buy new buildings – which has somehow become the raison d’etre of higher education in the UK.  We learned that richer universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, were instrumental to this scheme.  We learned that women are going to be hardest hit by the pension cuts.  We learned that pension bosses make obscene amounts of money, in excess of £1.2 million per year.  And we learned that UUK and USS are opaque and anti-democratic.

But we’ve also been thinking way beyond pensions.  Pensions are the last thing on our minds now.  What we’re really after is nothing short of reclaiming our universities from the banal and reductive logic of neoliberal capitalism - including the uberization of lecturers, the CEO-ification of managers, and the customerization of students.  Because really, what’s at stake here is the public university itself.  Across the country, staff and students are forming groups, sharing ideas, discussing strategy, even staging occupations toward the goal of making our universities fairer, more caring, more democratic places.    We’re not content to weed around the edges of this broken system.  We’re going straight to the heart of it. 

Demands are snowballing.  Everything is on the table.  Some of us have found inspiration in a list of ideas posted by Jacob Bard-Rosenberg from Birkbeck.  I’ve reproduced some of them here, and added others that seem to be gaining traction.  This list is only partial, of course – and it’s just the beginning.  

• Reject the proposed cuts to pensions.  More specifically, demand an immediate re-valuation of USS.  There is zero reason for this process to take 3 years.

• Abolish tuition fees, and restore adequate block-grant funding to higher education.  Public universities should be publicly funded with progressive taxation.

• Democratize university governance. Open the Academic Board (and the vote) to all academic staff, including post-docs and fractional workers, and extend the powers of the Academic Board to include the right to review decisions made by the Council and the Vice Chancellor.  Once we have meaningful democratic power over university management, we will be able to enact much of our broader vision, including many of the points listed below.

• Include service staff on university management committees all the way to the top, including those on the lowest pay such as cleaners.

• Demand transparency at UUK and USS.  Subject UUK to the Freedom of Information Act, and require USS to publish its valuation reports and methodology.  Bring UUK/USS salaries in line with normal salaries in the HE sector.

• Demand that all university staff receive annual pay rises in line with inflation as a contractual right.  And introduce reasonable fixed pay ratios between lowest-paid workers and highest-paid managers.

• Demand an end to outsourced labour; bring all university staff in-house and guarantee them equal working conditions (pensions, holiday, sick leave, etc).

• Demand an end to zero hours contracts in the sector.

• Refuse to take part in REF and TEF, which show no evidence of improving research or teaching and which create destructive competition and hierarchies.

• Refuse to publish anything held behind paywalls (the knowledge monopolies of Elsevier, Springer, and Co. must be ended).  Set up free online alternatives where necessary (as anthropologists have done with Hau and Anthropology of This Century).

• Refuse to publish books with academic presses where books are so expensive only institutions can purchase them.   Set up alternative presses where necessary (publishing is now remarkably cheap).

• Refuse to take part in league-tables, which create destructive competition and hierarchies.

• Demand a student-staff ratio cap, so that increases in student numbers are matched by new academic hires.

• Demand an end to PREVENT, and an end to the use of lecturers as a surveillance mechanism against students who are not UK citizens.

• Allow departments to review the use of marks and time-bound exams, which often narrow the meaning of learning and trigger unnecessary anxiety for students.

• Ensure that students have access to adequate and affordable accommodation

• Abolish the position of Vice Chancellor and replace it with an internally elected role in service of democratic bodies like the Academic Board and Council, paid like a public sector worker rather than a corporate CEO.

After the pensions dispute is over, the status quo will no longer be an option.  Our employers are kidding themselves if they assume otherwise.  Ideas are proliferating like a thousand butterflies.  What once seemed impossible now seems imminent.  


A letter to my students about the UCU strike


Dear students,

For some time now I have been mulling over what to say about the upcoming strike by the University and College Union.  I know it must be frustrating for you, to have your education disrupted like this.  I know that some employers have chosen to cast this as a selfish act by staff more interested in defending their pensions than in teaching their students.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  

To understand why, you need to know that what is at stake here is not really pensions.  What is at stake is the public university itself.  

When tuition fees were introduced a number of years ago, faculty across the nation raised their voices in loud dissent.  We joined our students to march in the streets, day after day, facing down lines of aggressive police.  We did it because, like our students, we fundamentally rejected what fees do.  They commoditize education, they render students as consumers and put them at financial risk.  They individualize and atomize, and they break down the solidarities that underpin the university as a public good - as a commons. 

The present crisis is just the latest wave of the same broad attack on the public university.  First it was fees, now it's pensions.  The privatization of pensions places lecturers at financial risk, and severs the social contract we have with the public.  You see, we lecturers are public sector workers, and we are paid as such.  Most of us could earn double or triple in the private sector, but we choose to take low salaries because we believe in our jobs, we believe in our students, and we believe in the value of public education.  It is a moral decision.  The social contract we have with the public is that in return for this service we will get stable retirement.  We will never be rich - quite unlike the management bosses who take home salaries in excess of £300,000 a year - but we can rely on a modicum of decency in old age.  It is part of our collective commons.  

Now that is being severed.  First with students, now with lecturers, our commons are being enclosed and we too are being made into objects of financialization and risk.  

As I see it, we are in this battle together.  Just as we stood with your predecessors to fight the imposition of fees, we now ask you to stand with us to fight this latest attack on the public university.  But we should not simply be defensive about this.  On the contrary, we should seize the offensive.  Instead of just demanding that they leave the pension system alone, we should demand that they abolish tuition fees too.  Let us bring that battle back.  Let us make it clear that we see these struggles as connected.  Let us demand the full restoration of the public university, and reclaim our commons. 

The truth is that you students have much more power than staff do.  The administration doesn't care if we strike.  They only care if students get upset.  And get upset you should!  There are many things you can do.  You can join the picket lines.  You can write to the members of the Senior Management Team to express your opinions.  You can demand a refund of your tuition, leveraging the logic of fees against those who have imposed them.  And - possibly best of all - you can get your parents to phone the administration.  There are many other tactics I'm sure you'll come up with yourselves.  New student movements across the world - from Chile to South Africa - have recently staged successful campaigns for public education.  We can join them - and we can learn from their tactics.  

I am reminded of that quote I shared with you from Angela Davis at the beginning of the term.  "You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time."  After all, power has never ceded anything without a demand.  If we want to reclaim the public university, we'll have to fight for it.  Together.

In solidarity,



human flourishing doesn't require endless GDP growth


Martin Ravallion, a former World Bank economist, recently wrote a blog post attacking my views on de-growth as “fallacious”.  Since his post seems to be offered in good faith, I thought I would take a few minutes to respond.  I admire Ravallion’s work.  He’s an impressive scholar.  But I’m afraid his argument about de-growth is a bit muddled.  Let me see if I can clarify things, in the spirit of mutual learning.

Ravallion questions a central tenet of de-growth theory, namely, that the ecology-busting levels of income and consumption characteristic of rich nations are not necessary in order to maintain their strong social outcomes.  We can say this because there are a number of countries that are able to achieve equally strong social outcomes with vastly less income and consumption.  

Costa Rica is one of them. With a life expectancy of 79.1 years and levels of wellbeing in the top 7% of the world, Costa Rica matches many Scandinavian nations in these areas and far outperforms the United States. And it manages all of this with a GDP per capita of only $11,000, one fifth that of the US.  In this sense, Costa Rica is one of the most efficient economies on Earth: it produces high standards of living with low GDP and minimal pressure on the environment. 

How do they do it?  Professors Martínez-Franzoni and Sánchez-Ancochea argue that it has to do with Costa Rica’s longstanding commitment to strong social policy, which guarantees everyone equal access to generous, high-quality healthcare, education and social security, regardless of income. 

Examples like Costa Rica are important.  We know that if we want to avert climate catastrophe, rich nations are going to have to scale down their bloated economies to get back in sync with the planet’s ecology.  The science on this is clear.  Fortunately, Costa Rica proves that this needn’t entail immizeration; it simply requires that we share our resources more fairly, and find ways to efficiently convert those resources into human flourishing.  We can do it; we know it's possible.  And this is good news. 

But Ravallion doesn’t think so.  He writes: “The problem in this argument is that better social outcomes are not only attributable to better social policies. Higher average incomes have also played a role, both directly (through poor people’s greater command over commodities that matter to those outcomes) and indirectly (by creating the resource availability needed to finance better social policies).”

Ravallion’s attack is leveled against a straw man.  Of course higher average incomes play a role in achieving better social outcomes!  That’s why Costa Rica does better than, say, my home country of Swaziland, which has a per capita income of only $3,000.  Regardless of how much Swaziland invests its meager resources in social policy, it probably won’t be able to match Costa Rica’s outcomes.   

My argument is not that social outcomes have nothing to do with income (indeed, no de-growther has ever claimed such a thing!).  My argument is that high social outcomes can be achieved with relatively modest income – and certainly much less than rich nations currently command.  

Ravallion’s second point is more interesting.  He says that the story of Costa Rica is not just a story of good social policy.  It is also a story of growth: after all, its real GDP per capita has tripled since 1960.  So he concludes: “Costa Rica is definitely not an example of how good social outcomes are possible without economic growth.”

Once again, Ravallion misses my argument.  Of course growth is part of Costa Rica’s story!  Strong, state-led development policies brought Costa Rica’s income from less than $3,000 in 1960 to $5,000 in 1980.  And with that very modest level of income they built up strong social policy and raised their life expectancy from just 61 years (way behind the US) all the way up to 71, nearly matching that of the richest nations in the world at the time. 

Herein lies Ravallion’s mistake.  Degrowthers have never argued that poor countries don’t need to grow.  Growth may indeed be necessary for very poor countries (like Swaziland) to generate the resources necessary to build social policy and achieve strong social outcomes.  But this does not require endless growth; it requires sufficient growth – in other words, growth up to a point of sufficient income.  It's not growth as such that matters, but sufficiency.  Ravallion confuses the two. 

In fact, Costa Rica proves that growth past a certain point growth is not necessary for continued improvement in social outcomes.  Here’s the story:

During the 1980s, the US leveraged the Third World debt crisis to destroy state-led development programs and social policy all across the global South through structural adjustment programs imposed by the IMF and World Bank.  Incomes collapsed virtually everywhere as a result.  In Costa Rica, GDP per capita plunged from 1980 to 1983, and didn’t recover until 1991, more than a decade later.  Yet during that decade, Costa Rica’s life expectancy continued to rise at a world-leading rate, from 71 years to 76, catching up to and surpassing the United States with a GDP per capita that was one-seventh the size, and stagnant.

If growth as such is necessary to improve social outcomes – as Ravallion claims – how did Costa Rica manage this miracle?  Presumably not by magic.  No, it was because Costa Rica – thanks to savvy political maneuvering – was able to defy the Washington Consensus and keep its social policy system intact.  It was one of the only countries in the South that managed to do so: a rare beacon amid the wreckage of structural adjustment.

Of course, Costa Rica is not a de-growth economy.  We point to Costa Rica not as an example of de-growth, but as an example of what can be achieved with relatively modest levels of mean income.  That's an important distinction. 

But all of this is really beside the point.  Again, we de-growthers do not target our critique at poor countries.  We target rich countries.  We argue that rich countries have grown too much, and that they could maintain or even improve their social indicators with vastly fewer resources than they presently consume.

Ravallion insists that this is a fallacy: "The fact that some countries have better social outcomes at a given level of mean income does not imply that richer countries can attain the same social outcomes at lower mean income," he writes.  But why not?  Unfortunately he doesn't explain.  Meanwhile, Europe achieves better social indicators than the US with 40% less income.  And we know that the US in the 1970s had better wages, higher levels of happiness, and lower poverty than it does today, with roughly half the real GDP per capita.

Ravallion's response?  "One must seriously doubt that halving today’s average income in the US will restore the social outcomes of 50 years ago.”  But this is another straw man.  Literally nobody has ever argued that cutting the average income of rich nations would automatically produce better social outcomes.  That Ravallion makes this strange assertion leads me to worry that he is not serious about engaging with the literature on de-growth and ecological economics.  If he was, he would find that we carefully and studiously think through the policies that would be necessary in order to maintain and improve social outcomes while scaling down economic activity.  We do not, as Ravallion claimed in a tweet, blindly “hope that economic contraction comes with pro-poor redistribution”.

Take Peter Victor’s work, for example.  In Managing Without Growth, Victor runs a standard economic model that shows that if you stop or reduce GDP growth, then poverty and unemployment suddenly shoot up.  That’s obviously bad.  It happens because our economies are structurally dependent on growth.  But they needn't be.  Victor shows that if we introduce new policies into the model, like new measures of economic progress; a carbon price; more generous social policies; limits on material, energy, waste and land use; a shorter working week; etc., then you can actually reduce poverty and unemployment in a zero-growth scenario. 

Strangely, for a man who has devoted much of his career to thinking about how to achieve human flourishing, Ravallion seems uninterested in such research.  Instead, he says (in another tweet), let’s stick with growth and “try harder on the environmental policies”. 

Yes, we need to get the environmental policies right.  But unfortunately this, in and of itself, is not going to be enough.  Schandl et al (2016) show that even if we (a) impose a carbon price of $50 per ton, rising by an extraordinary 4% per year to $250 per ton, and (b) somehow miraculously manage to double the material efficiency of our economies more or less immediately, rich nations will still only be able to achieve decarbonization of max 4.7% per year. But this doesn’t get us anywhere near the emissions reductions we need to keep from blowing the 2C carbon budget (viz, 10-12% per year).  Plus, with a background growth rate of 2%, nearly half of that decarbonization will be wiped out.  Schandl et al also find that the same best-case scenario achieves no absolute reduction in material footprint in the long term. 

There’s no way around it.  Averting climate catastrophe and ecological collapse is going to require that rich countries right-size their economies.  Our task now is to figure out how to make that happen in a way that enhances - rather than erodes - human flourishing.  This is the single biggest challenge of the 21st century, and I hope that Ravallion will join us in rising to it.


De-growth is feasible: people want a new economy


Branko Milanovic has written a response to my argument.  As I read it, I was struck by two things – both quite significant.  

First, Branko now seems to accept the science on how “green growth” is not a thing, and has backed off his assumption that endless growth is (a) possible, and (b) something we should promote.  Or at least he has chosen not to defend his earlier claims on this matter.  This is quite a shift. 

Second, Branko does not insist that growth is necessary in rich nations.  In fact, he seems to agree that we can maintain well-being in rich nations while reducing material consumption.  And he accepts the notion that we can accomplish this by shifting to a different kind of economy, along the lines of my suggestions.  “I do not think that this program is illogical,” he says.

So far, then, we’re on the same page.

But Branko doubles down on one bit of his earlier argument: that degrowth is not politically feasible.  “It is just so enormous, outside of anything that we normally can expect to implement, that it verges, I am afraid, on absurdity,” he writes.  He claims that people are so penetrated by the ideology of competitive consumerism that they would never voluntarily walk away from the system.  So it will be impossible to put degrowth into practice in a democracy.

I do not disagree with Branko that the task is enormous; I have complete empathy with this perspective.  Indeed, it is the single greatest problem of our century – how to enable human flourishing while reducing emissions and material throughput – and it demands our total focus.  But let me offer three thoughts that give me hope.

1. People are not just consumption bots.

Branko advances a dystopic vision of people who identify totally with the extrinsic values of competitive consumerism and growth.

First, it’s just not true.  People over-consume not because it aligns with their inner values, but because they feel compelled to do so, and because our economy is structured so as to incentivize it.  The system requires endlessly growing consumption, and so externalizes true costs and bombards us with messages and ads to provoke consumptive behavior, seeding us with discontent and anxiety that is particularly acute in conditions of high inequality. 

It will be difficult to overcome these forces, to be sure. We need to change the messages, change the incentives, internalize costs, and ultimately change the logic of the economy itself. But we have on our side the fact that people already yearn for something different.  According to recent consumer research, 70% of people in middle- and high-income countries believe overconsumption is putting our planet and society at risk. A similar majority also believe we should strive to buy and own less, and that doing so would not compromise our happiness.

This is not surprising.  Nobody wants to live in an economy that is so obviously programmed to ruin the planet we call home.  It makes us feel horrible.

Importantly, there is a massive literature in happiness economics, anthropology and social psychology that finds that people have much more nuanced visions of the good life than the old homo economicus model would suggest: that they aspire to good health, intimate relationships, community, knowledge, and time, and are motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose rather than monetary reward.  We need only appeal to the better angels of our nature.

As for growth, check this out: 81% of people in Britain believe that the government’s prime objective should be “the greatest happiness” instead of “the greatest wealth.”  This throws a wrench in Branko’s argument.  And it brings me to my next point:

2. Democracy is the answer.

Branko articulates a common worry: that the only way to degrow an economy is to have some kind of authoritarian dictatorship do it for us.

I completely disagree. Imagine: what if we had an open, democratic conversation about what kind of economy we really want?  What would the economy look like?  What kinds of objectives would it have?  How would it distribute resources?  The evidence I've cited above leads me to believe it wouldn’t be anything like our current system, with its tyrannical obsession with endless GDP growth and pro-rich resource distribution. 

We have never had this conversation on a mass scale, because (a) our media is controlled by a small number of mega-corporations that are structurally disinclined to facilitate such a conversation; and (b) we do not live in real democracies.  As a recent study pointed out, the United States resembles an oligarchy with the policy preferences of elites routinely overriding those of the majority. The same is likely true in every nation where money buys political outcomes.

So, as George Monbiot put it in an elegant proposal on Viewsnight recently, kick big money out of politics, dismantle the media conglomerates, and let’s have a real discussion about the economy.  Our vision of a different economy does not require totalitarianism.  Quite the opposite: it requires the exercise of democracy against the violent tyranny of growth.

3. There is already a movement for change.

Branko concludes on a frustrated note, saying, basically: “if you really believe in degrowth, then why don’t you try to make it happen?”  He assumes that we are crying out in the wilderness, and that nobody will actually accept what we propose. 

I’m not so pessimistic.  But let me be clear: is there widespread public support for de-growth?  Not yet.  And that's hardly surprising: as I have been at pains to point out, degrowth is structurally impossible in our existing economy.  So the first step is to change the logic of the economy.  And on this front the movement is surging. 

The US states of Vermont and Maryland have already adopted an alternative to GDP – the Genuine Progress Indicator – and a number of European governments are considering the same.  Key economists like Stiglitz and Sen support this shift, and it appears as a goal in the SDGs.  As for decommoditizing social goods, there is overwhelming popular support for this in most rich nations.  About debt: there is the Jubilee campaign, and the anti-debt movement among US students, and virtually everyone in Greece.  And on fractional reserve banking there is Positive Money, and the Chicago Plan promoted in a recent IMF report.

A carbon tax would be a key step – something that Branko himself supports, along with a growing chorus of others, as a way of internalizing costs.  I bet getting rid of the $5.3 trillion fossil fuel subsidy would be popular too (look at the divestment movement for proof of mass resistance to fossil fuels).  As for redistribution as a substitute for growth: is there momentum there?  Just look at Occupy, the Bernie campaign, the Corbyn Labour Party – or talk to any person on the street. 

Speaking of Labour, Dr Dan O’Neill, a prominent degrowth economist, was invited to write a policy brief that the Labour Party has publicized, highlighting a number of sensible objectives, including limits on resource use and waste production, and a shorter working week.  These ideas were unthinkable even a decade ago.  Now they are shooting into Europe’s biggest political party – and finding concrete expression all over the place, from the local food movement and Transition Towns to alternative currencies and regenerative farming. 

This is just a small fraction of what’s out there.  We are already building the new economy.  Nearly everyone I meet is inspired by this – and students and young people rally around it with energy and passion.  Still, we have a lot of work to do.  I hope that Branko will join us.

*          *          *

Our demands are not “absurd”, as Branko claims.  What is absurd is to believe we can continue with the status quo, against the rising tide (literally) of evidence to the contrary.  Fortunately, we have one thing in our favor: while it may not be possible to change the laws of physics, it is possible to change social and economic systems – we have done it many times in the past, and we will do it again.  We have to.

This brings me to another thought.  In service of his bleak view of consumption bots, Branko recruits the image of Sudanese immigrants crammed into tiny compartments on trains so that they can make it to France and… “buy more stuff.” 

I bet any actual migrant would object.  As someone who has spent years living with migrants and researching migration, I know I do.  They’re not risking their lives because they want to buy more stuff, but because they want to survive, and – if luck is on their side – live a decent life.  Many risk the journey because they’ve been displaced by violent military intervention in the service of Western capital, or in order to flee the ravages of climate change in their home countries.  It is coercion, not choice.

If we zoom out, it becomes clear that these refugees are in many cases victims of Western over-consumption and excess growth, not disciples of it.  They are a living, breathing reason for why we need to change the system.

*          *          *

Let me finish by clarifying one key point.  On a couple of occasions Branko has tweeted his dismay that we simultaneously call for degrowth while also calling for the end of austerity.  But this is not a contradiction.

Think about it: the whole point of austerity is to slash public goods in order to re-start economic growth, with devastating consequences for the poor.  Austerity is a violent expression of our system’s need for endless growth.  In this sense, de-growth is the exact opposite of austerity.  It calls for redistribution (in support of public goods, for example) in order to render growth unnecessary.  It names the violence of the growth imperative and calls for something better.


Why Branko Milanovic is wrong about de-growth


Branko Milanovic has written a blog post titled “The illusion of degrowth in a poor and unequal world.”  He penned it, he says, following a conversation he had with a proponent of degrowth. 

As it turns out, that proponent was me. 

First, let me say that I have a lot of respect for Milanovic's work on inequality.  I cite him all the time.  But unfortunately he doesn't have a strong grasp of degrowth.  Let's look at his argument in detail:

Milanovic rejects degrowth because he believes it is unfeasible.  He notes, correctly, that if we were to cap global GDP at its present level then the only way to eradicate poverty would be through redistribution: reduce the income share of the richest and shift it to the poorest.  He thinks this is a terrible idea.  If we bring all of the poorest up to $5,500 per person per year (the global mean income), then in order to stay within the GDP cap everyone above this level (almost all of whom live in the West) will have to take an income cut, with the richest taking the biggest hit.  This would also require “gradual and sustained reduction of production” in rich nations, with economic activity slashed to one-third of its present size. 

Milanovic calls this “the immiseration of the West,” and he dismisses it as “not even vaguely likely to find any political support anywhere.”  Forget about it, he says; we need growth.  Let’s focus instead on reducing our consumption of emissions-intensive goods and services by taxing them, and “think about how new technologies can be harnessed to make the world more environmentally friendly.”

This is exactly the argument that Milanovic articulated during our email exchange.  I responded by pointing out some of its problems and by gesturing in the direction of relevant literature he might find useful, but he never replied.  Apparently he had made up his mind, and was ready to take a public stance.  So let me publicly lay out some thoughts in response.

1. Degrowth does not call for immiseration.

Milanovic’s argument is levelled against a straw man.  If he had read the literature on degrowth, he would know that it does not call for immiseration. 

Imagine cutting the GDP per capita of the US down to less than half its present size, in real terms.  This might sound horrible on the face of it, but it would be equivalent to US GDP per capita in the 1970s.  Folks who lived through the 70s remember them as heady days.  And the poverty rate was lower back then – and happiness levels higher – than now.  Real wages were higher, too.  The only difference is that people consumed less unnecessary stuff.  It’s not clear why Milanovic considers this to be so dreadful.

There are lots of other examples we might cite.  The GDP per capita of Europe is 40% lower than that of the US.  I live in Europe: it is hardly a dystopia.  Costa Rica has a GDP per capita that is one-fifth that of the US, but it has life expectancy that outstrips that of Americans, and levels of happiness that rival those of Scandinavians.  All of these examples prove that we don’t need ecology-busting levels of income and consumption to live good lives.  The literature is very clear on this: just check out Tim Jackson's Prosperity Without Growth, Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, Firamonti's Well-Being Economy, Raworth's Doughnut Economics, or anything by Giorgos Kallis. 

2. In fact, degrowth calls for human flourishing. 

Proponents of degrowth don’t just want to redistribute income within the already-existing economy, as Milanovic wrongly assumes.  We want to redistribute income in a way that improves social goods, like universal healthcare and education, which are key to reducing poverty and improving people’s lives.  Not only are universal systems cheaper and more efficient at achieving these outcomes than private ones (healthcare in the UK costs one-third that in the US), but having them in place also improves the "purchasing power" (if you will) of incomes.  Think about it: if Americans didn’t have to pay exorbitant prices for healthcare and higher education, they would need a lot less income to live good lives. 

In this way, decommoditizing key social goods is a good way to take pressure off the planet.  We can even extend this insight to housing.  Housing in London, where I live, is obscenely expensive.  Most people spend half of their income just to keep a roof over their heads.  If the housing stock was even partially decommoditized, Londoners would be able to work much less than they do now – producing less unnecessary stuff in the process – and still have the same quality of life that they presently enjoy. 

3.  Degrowth demands a different kind of economy.

Of course, all of this requires that we shift to a different kind of economy altogether – one that supports and promotes the commons, and focuses on improving human well-being rather than only on improving monetary incomes.  This is where Milanovic makes a key mistake.  The point of degrowth is to reduce the material throughput of the economy not by shrinking the existing one (which would surely be painful), but by shifting to a better one: one more in line with our planet’s ecology.

To be honest, I'm surprised that Milanovic didn’t jump on a more obvious issue, namely, that if our economy stopped growing it would more or less immediately bump up against financial crisis.  Why?  Because our economy is shot through with debt, and debt comes with interest; and because interest is a compound function, all of us have to run around producing more and more each year, shoveling money into the pockets of the rich, just to pay it down.  If we halt the rat race, the whole house of cards will collapse. And it doesn’t help that, given fractional reserve banking, our money system itself is based on debt.

So if we want to throw off the tyranny of growth we’ll have to have some kind of debt jubilee, and get rid of our debt-based money system.  These necessary changes are not compatible with the logic of the existing economy.  We need a different kind of economy. 

4.  Trying to eradicate poverty through growth is going to immiserate everyone. 

Milanovic rejects degrowth and claims that we should stick with the existing plan for eradicating poverty: more growth.  But he hasn’t thought through the implications of this. 

We need to remember that the existing distribution of global growth is skewed heavily toward the rich.  David Woodward points out that even during the most equitable period of the past few decades, only 5% of new income from annual global growth went to the poorest 60% of humanity.  At this rate of trickle-down, it will take more than 100 years to get everyone above $1.25 per day, and 207 years to get everyone above $5 per day.  And in order to get there we will have to grow the global economy to 175 times its present size. 

That’s 175 times more extraction, production and consumption than we’re already doing.  And to reach Milanovic’s minimum of $5,500 per year would require much more than this by far.  Even if this kind of growth was physically possible, it would cause catastrophic ecological crisis that would more than wipe out any gains made against poverty.  Redistribution may not seem feasible to Milanovic, but the existing plan is much less feasible still.

Yes, one might argue that we can improve the share of growth that goes to the poorest.  That would be an important first step, to be sure.  But as long as the rest of the world continues to grow, increasing aggregate material throughput and emissions, we’re going to be in trouble.  In fact, we’re already in trouble even at existing levels of throughput and emissions, and we can see it all around us: rapid deforestation, collapsing fish stocks, mass species extinction, soil depletion and of course climate change, with the poorest getting hit hardest by far. 

Milanovic believes we can reign these problems in with more “environmentally friendly” growth.  But that’s a pipe dream.  And this brings me to my last point:

5.  Green growth is not a thing.

Milanovic likes to run numbers, so let’s look at some. 

First, emissions.  As we know, emissions rise more or less in line with GDP growth.  Climate scientists Anderson and Bows (2011) say that if we want to stay under 2C, rich nations will have to reduce emissions by 8-10% per year.  Since the dominant assumption in the literature is that reductions greater than 3-4% per year are incompatible with a growing economy (Stern 2006; UK CCC 2008; Hof and Vuuren 2009), they conclude that the only way to prevent catastrophic climate change is by reducing economic activity

This conclusion is in keeping with that of other studies (e.g., Raftery et al 2017).  Keep in mind that the existing rate of decarbonization is only about 1.6% per year.  Schandl et al (2016) suggest that some rich nations might be able to bump this up to a maximum of 4.7% per year in the future if they roll out a high and fast-rising carbon price, and somehow manage to double their material efficiency.  But even this extreme best-case scenario is a far cry from the 10% we need.

Of course, some think we’ll be able to buy time by deploying new technology, the most “promising” being bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.  But there is a growing consensus that BECCS won’t work. The technology has never been proven at scale, and it probably won’t appear in time to prevent us blowing the 2C budget (which is only 19 years away). Even if it did, it would require that we create plantations for biofuel equivalent to three times the size of India. Think about the consequences for the global food supply: hardly good for poverty-reduction.

But let’s be charitable and assume that Milanovic is right – that we can somehow manage to reduce emissions by reducing the consumption of high-emission goods and services.  Of course, in order to keep the economy growing, we would still have to increase the consumption of other goods and services.  Milanovic sees no problem with this.  I don’t know why.  Maybe he believes that new technology will make us more efficient, and we will be able to grow the GDP without growing material throughput.

This is known as “absolute decoupling”.  But unfortunately absolute decoupling is not a thing.  Take two recent studies:

Ward et al (2016) find that even the most optimistic projections of efficiency improvements yield no absolute decoupling in the medium and long term. The authors state: “this result is a robust rebuttal to the claim of absolute decoupling”; “decoupling of GDP growth from resource use, whether relative or absolute, is at best only temporary. Permanent decoupling (absolute or relative) is impossible… because the efficiency gains are ultimately governed by physical limits.”

Schandl et al (2016) find the same thing.  Even in their best-case scenario projection, global material consumption still grows steadily.  The authors conclude: “Our research shows that while some relative decoupling can be achieved in some scenarios, none would lead to an absolute reduction in energy or materials footprint.”

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I laid all this evidence out for Milanovic, but he didn’t engage with it.  Instead, he chooses to believe, against all available evidence, that we can continue with indefinite exponential GDP growth without causing ecological collapse. 

Milanovic accuses us – incorrectly – of wanting “the immiseration of the West” in order to eradicate poverty in the global South.  But his blind faith in growth, and his implicit denial of scientific evidence, is sure to lead to ecological collapse – entrenching the misery of the poor and immiserating the rest of us in the process.  


**NOTE: Milanovic responded to this post insisting that degrowth is not politically feasible.  But I disagree: people are ready for a new economy.  See my argument here.