Economic Growth as Salvation

For those of us concerned about socioeconomic trends and their consequences, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth is one of the most important books we’ll see in 2016. This blog post is the fifth (and final) in a series that touches upon the issues the book covers: inequality, economic growth, and poverty, among others. Click on links for first, second, third, and fourth posts in series.

 

Wouldn’t it be great if the American economy regained the robust growth that it once had? And wouldn’t it be grand if that economic growth could, to quote Donald Trump, “make America great again”?

According to economist Robert Gordon, it’s not going to happen. Gordon, in The Rise and Fall of American Growth, has one major message that he wants to get across: The great inventions and innovations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that created the incredible economic growth that in turn drove the standard of living higher in the United States was “a revolution that could only happen once.”

The phenomenal economic growth experienced in this country from 1920-1970 was a perfect storm event that won’t be repeated. Neither a Trump nor Clinton presidency has the power to make an economic golden age return.

According to Gordon, here are the reasons why the economic revolution could only happen once:

*Relatively cheap and available energy stores. Oil became the fossil fuel of choice at the beginning of the twentieth century, fueling incredible economic growth. Today, 75 percent of world energy consumption is yet from fossil fuels. Gasoline is cheap currently, but it’s not as cheap as it used to be, and crude oil extraction is much more difficult than ever before.

*The advantages of America, post-World War I and II. The transfer of gold reserves from Europe to the US and the general lack of territorial devastation in the US helped create conditions for an economic boom.

*Worker productivity skyrockets. New Deal pro-labor regulations (the crucial standardization of the eight-hour workday along with increases in wages), the advent of air-conditioning and improved heating in workplaces, and “continuous learning by doing” forced upon the manufacturing sector during World War II all contributed positively toward productivity. As an example, Henry Ford’s mammoth B-24 bomber plant outside of Ypsilanti, Michigan initially produced seventy-five bombers per month in February 1943. By August 1944, the plant achieved its peak rate of production of 432 bombers per month.

*The plethora of subinventions made possible by electricity and the internal combustible engine. Air-conditioning has already been mentioned; additionally the following made for increased economic growth: public transportation, elevators, and all types of electric and machine tools.

*Widespread use of the assembly line in manufacturing. The nascent American automobile industry adapted the disassembly line from nineteenth century meat packers, and Henry Ford perfected the assembly line for production of his Model T in 1913. Modern commercial manufacturing was born.

*Standardization of manufacturing parts. Already begun in the nineteenth century with gun manufacturing, the standardization of parts allowed for interchangeability and afforded easier assembly and repair of machines. The standardization of seemingly mundane nuts, bolts, and screws in the 1920s was an enormous improvement for industrial efficiency.

*Education boom creates better workers. In 1900, only 10 percent of American youth finished high school. By 1940, the graduation rate rose above 50 percent of the first time ever. Today’s rate of 75 percent has held steady since the early 1970s. The post-WW II GI Bill helped swell American college and university rolls, further creating a more capable and highly skilled workforce.

*Construction of the national highway system. Started in earnest under President Eisenhower in the 1950s, and mostly completed by 1972, the US interstate highway system afforded more versatile and efficient transport for American businesses and consumers.

These revolutionary innovations and improvements, according to Gordon, could only happen once. Current and future innovations and improvements are not ruled out; they simply don’t and won’t have the impact on the rate of economic growth as did the revolutionary ones. The rate of economic growth in the US since 1980 is about 1.5 percent. During the 1960s and ’70s, the tail end of the boom, it averaged 3 percent. It’s time we replaced the term economic growth with the more appropriate term economic development, and its accompanying emphasis of quality over quantity.

Monarchs were the guardians of salvation – a strictly earthly variety for a chosen few – in ancient days. The church and its priests succeeded monarchs as the purveyors of salvation – mostly heavenly – during medieval ages. Since the Industrial Revolution, economic growth has brought, and delivered, salvation back to earth. Economic growth has provided food, clothing, housing, goods, and purposeful employment to millions, liberating many of these from poverty. It also has created a small class of economic elites whose financial holdings are historically gargantuan.

But how much is enough? The days of exponential economic growth are over. If we’d truly like to make America great again, future greatness will be determined more so by economic development that favors many, rather than a status-quo economic system (going on thirty-five years) that favors the elite.

 

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

Connecting the Dots Between Extreme Weather and Economic Growth

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Boundary Waters Trip – 2013

Three generations of my family have been to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), which lies north of Lake Superior and borders Canada within US National Forest territory. The BWCA consists of close to one million acres of lakes, streams, ponds, woods, and portage trails; inhabitants include moose, black bears, loons, eagles, walleye and northern pike. The BWCA’s surface area, incredibly, comprises 20 percent water. No motorboats, no roads, no cars, no cabins, no phones. Your canoe, paddles, map, and compass team up to transport you and your travel companions to and from campsite destinations; your tent, gear, and food – ensconced in backpacks – glide gracefully over the water. These necessities jangle weightily upon your back, however, when you portage them over land. No worries – your canoe comes equipped with shoulder rests. When you turn it upside down and carry it to the end of the portage trail you engage in a workout not replicable on any exercise machine at Gold’s Gym. It’s a great feeling when you throw down your canoe at the end of the trail and simultaneously feel the spray of water upon your legs and hear the boom of the canoe as it bottoms upon flat water.

bwca2
Boundary Waters Trip – 2006

My most recent trip to the BWCA, in 2013, was with a high school youth group from the church I serve in Austin, Texas. It was a great trip full of challenges and rewards. At the end of our trip, we came across a US Forest Service worker. Forest Service employees in the BWCA tend to myriad tasks, including trail maintenance. I asked him how long he had been working for the Forest Service – twenty-five years. I then asked him what were the biggest changes he’d seen in that time – extreme weather.

“The storms in the past years have become stronger and greater in intensity.”

Climate change. It’s happening everywhere. Travel writer Rick Steves sees its effects in Europe. Author Charles Fishman writes about the crippling droughts affecting Australia. Haboobs – an Arabic word we now know because of climate change, meaning intense dust storms – hover from the Middle East and North Africa to Arizona and Texas. Straight-line winds in excess of ninety miles an hour hit the BWCA in July 1999 felling an estimated 25 million trees; one person was killed and sixty were injured. Called a derecho (“straight” in Spanish), it was the largest northernmost storm of its type in recorded history to hit the North American continent.

Climate change is now an accepted reality, yet, people still bicker back and forth as to its cause – or whether it’s simply part of the climate variation that has always existed. Will the effects of historically excessive amounts of carbon dioxide (now at 400 parts per million) in the atmosphere doom the planet?

In Just a Little Bit More, I describe the culture of excess that has been prominent since 1980. Three tenets undergird the culture of excess: bigger and more is always better (from restaurant serving portions to silicone breast implants), economic growth is the panacea for all problems (politicians Republican and Democrat agree), and wealth is the highest societal value. (Is anyone ready for a new Rushmore of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon, and Trump?)

Extreme weather events – and accompanying manifestations, like wildfires – have ravaged the planet for a very long time. Yet, the intriguing connections between recent extreme weather and the current reign of the culture of excess beg investigative thought and reflection.

Economic growth, unequivocally, is the maker and driver of the world we call modern. Before the industrial era (when carbon dioxide levels were at 280 parts per million), poverty and life expectancy rates were – by today’s standards – dismal. The changes and capabilities wrought in the last 250 years simply astound. But how far and how long can economic growth continue as is?

In the bodily progression from childhood to adulthood, limitations eventually halt human physical growth. Human development – in wisdom and maturity – continue on (we trust) as an adult ages. Similarly, I argue that now is the time for greater emphasis on economic development – smart, efficient, and purposeful – as opposed to unabated economic growth.

With religious-type zeal, those who oppose limits on economic growth (see George Will’s recent article on Pope Francis) thunder as if to say whosoever shall stand in the way of the divine right to make as much money as possible be damned! Do not mess with the combination of the three tenets of the culture of excess! Yes, people need jobs – the main mode by which to physically survive on this modern planet. But we must steward the resources of the planet, responsibly and wisely, in the process of working, living, and surviving – together.

When you don’t get enough sleep, your body tells you via symptoms that you need more sleep. If these messages are ignored, breakdown is certain. The recent extreme weather events of heat, cold, floods, snow, drought, and wind could very well be symptoms of a planet that is being transformed by an elevated carbon footprint. As the phrase proclaims – life will go on. But whether or not human life is part of the planet’s future is an open question. Theologian Matthew Fox says that we are the only species on Earth that has the power to control our own destiny; but even so, we’ve yet to decide what to do – whether to live or to die.

The next time you wander out in the darkness – maybe on a canoe trip – and look up and see “the stars pinned on a shimmering curtain of light,” think about Matthew Fox’s statement.*

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

*Quotation from Bruce Cockburn, “Northern Lights,” Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws (1979, True North).

Water’s Lesson – The Future Favors Development, not Growth

Third in a series of blog posts on water. Click here for first, second.

A Google search on economic growth yields 65 million results – double that of a search on economic development. Whereas politicians and pundits tout economic growth as the panacea of all that ails us, economic development is the way of the future (and present).

What’s the difference between growth and development? It’s not just semantics, but the difference between 10-11 billion people surviving on one planet or having to look for two to three other planets in order to support lifestyles that are hyper-exhaustive of resources and waste sinks. Whereas growth tends to push aside all other considerations for the sake of bigger and more, development is built upon efficiencies and accepts the reality of limits.

Water1As I said in my first blog post on the irreplaceable and life-enabling resource of water, the freshwater supply on Earth is completely stable, having arrived here some 4.4 billion years ago. We have what we have: we can’t order any new supplies of water on Amazon, nor can we expect China to manufacture new supplies. As population continues to increase (currently 7 billion and projected to be 10-11 billion by 2100), the fresh water that exists will have to be shared. Desalination has become a somewhat cheaper process than it used to be, but its overall yield is minimal. Saudi Arabia and Israel – situated in desert climes – benefit from desalination. But for Americans, surrounded by rivers and lakes, desal is not a great solution.

Charles Fishman’s excellent book, The Big Thirst (Free Press, 2011), shows over and again that conservation and decreased use of water IS compatible with economic development. Have you been to Las Vegas lately? The desired destination in the desert gets most of its drinking water from Lake Mead, the big pool of water from the Colorado River that sits behind the Hoover Dam. Vegas gets all of four inches of rain annually. The past twenty-five years, as Lake Mead’s levels have plunged due to drought, Las Vegas has been very intentional about its water consumption. Vegas’ water consumption per capita has decreased more than 30 percent since 1990. Yes, its many golf courses and hotel water fountains betray an extravagant use of water, but Las Vegans have adopted a new mindset: conservation of water is the new normal.

Let’s be honest. Conservation goes against what many Americans have grown accustomed to: wanting what we want (now) without having to accept anything less. It’s all part of the just a little bit more spirit. But, alas, all is not lost. We Americans are an adaptable bunch . . .

According to Fishman, American industry leads the way on smart water usage and conservation. Campbell Soup uses less water today to produce a can of soup than it did five years ago. Coca-Cola, Intel, Monsanto, IBM, and GE have this in common: these corporations realize water availability is limited and are doing (and planning to do) what they can to get by with less water. Their present and future vitality – continued economic development – depends upon water use efficiencies.

Are there any purple water pipes in your neighborhood? Purple pipes signify the presence of reclaimed water or treated wastewater. Some cities in California, Texas, and Florida are saving on potable water via increased use of reclaimed water. Is it really necessary to flush our toilets with potable (drinking) water? In the future when our grandchildren’s generation looks back to review our water habits of today, potable water in toilets will be deemed wasteful (even though appreciated by a number of our dogs). Soon enough watering lawns and plants with drinking water will also be a thing of the past – as will be many of those lawns.

Water is the new oil. The sooner we treat both resources as precious, limited, and belonging to the whole human family – including those coming after us – the better. Economic development, smart and efficient, with a nod to conservation is the only economic activity that will survive as this century goes forward. Our understanding of water is now permanently altered due to climate change-induced drought and population growth. The crucial issue of water use deserves our very best attention and innovative thinking as we go forward.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!