Professor Jon Erickson is an ecological economist and advisor to policymakers including Senator Bernie Sanders. In his new book The Progress Illusion, he criticizes what he calls “the fairytale of economics” and argues we are failing “to design an economy that is socially just and ecologically balanced.” Show host Gene Tunny discusses Prof. Erickson’s new book with him in this episode of Economics Explored.
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About this episode’s guest: Jon Erickson
Jon D. Erickson is the Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy at the University of Vermont, faculty member of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and Fellow of the Gund Institute for Environment. His previous co-authored and edited books include Sustainable Wellbeing Futures, The Great Experiment in Conservation, Ecological Economics of Sustainable Watershed Management, Frontiers in Ecological Economic Theory and Application, and Ecological Economics: a Workbook for Problem-Based Learning. He is also Adjunct Professor at the University of Iceland, and has been a Fulbright Scholar in Tanzania, Assistant Professor of Economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and visiting professor in the Dominican Republic, Norway, Germany, and Slovakia. Outside of the university, he is an Emmy-award winning producer and director of documentary films, co-founder and board member of numerous non-profit organizations, past-President of the US Society for Ecological Economics, and advisor to state and national policymakers. Jon lives in Ferrisburgh, Vermont with his wife Pat, their occasionally visiting sons Louis and Jon, and a menagerie of dogs, cats, horses, chickens, and donkeys.
Links relevant to the conversation
You can buy The Progress Illusion and if you listen to the episode Jon will reveal a discount code:
Transcript: The Progress Illusion w/ Jon Erickson – EP166
N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.
Gene Tunny 00:00
Coming up on Economics Explored.
Jon Erickson 00:03
Since at least the night, late 1970s. For a country like the United States, we’ve been in a progress recession, the GDP has grown, grown, grown, grown. But these alternative metrics, whether it be GPI, or surveys on quality of life, or the ecological footprint, these things have not improved. They have not kept up with the pace of growth, right.
Gene Tunny 00:25
Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny broadcasting from Brisbane, Australia. This is episode 166 on the progress illusion, a new book from Jon Erickson, Professor of sustainability science and policy at the University of Vermont. Professor Erickson is past president of the US society for Ecological Economics. And he’s an adviser to state and national policymakers, including Senator Bernie Sanders. Please check out the shownotes for relevant links and information and for details where you can get in touch with any questions or comments. Let me know what you think about what either Jon or I have to say in this episode. I’d love to hear from you. Right oh, now for my conversation with Professor Jon Erickson on his new book The Progress illusion. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Professor Jon Erickson, welcome to the programme.
Gene Tunny 01:00
Thank you so much.
Jon Erickson 01:03
It’s a pleasure, Jon to have you on. I’ve read your new book, progress, the progress illusion, reclaiming our future from the fairy tale of economics. So given this as an economics podcast, there’s definitely a lot to talk about with your new book. Yes, yes. So can I ask you first? Why do you think progress is an illusion? What are you trying to communicate in this book, please?
Jon Erickson 01:56
Sure. Sure. Yeah. So the progress illusion is really a reference to a fairy tale of humanity’s place and purpose in the world. Certainly, economics isn’t the only discipline that is subject to the solution, but it’s the one that I’m trained in. It’s a story that economists like myself have been teaching and practising for decades, decades that, you know, every time we see the size of the global economy double, which doubles every 25-30 years at current growth rates, that we erode the very foundations of life and human societies in the process. So, in this book, I questioned that, that reigning logic, that reigning story, I unpacked various dimensions of this grand illusion of economics, you know, which I see as an illusion of history and a lot of economics programmes, mine included, we don’t teach the history of economic thought we don’t discuss the debates of, of economists of the past. It’s an illusion of the individual, me, so much of the focus of economics is on the individual and what’s best for the individual in the assumption that whatever’s best for the individual is best for society. So I unpack that and think about the debates over that question. It’s an illusion of choice. I mean, economics sort of sets itself up as the science of choice. But it’s always framed this choice at the margin, right, the choice of the next incremental decision. Yet, when you add up all those decisions together, we very often get into situations that the original decision makers never would have voted for. Right. And ultimately, it’s an illusion of growth and illusion of, you know, a sort of fairy tale or dream of infinite economic growth on a finite planet.
Gene Tunny 03:52
Gotcha. I think it’s interesting. You mentioned that there were these debates, and they’re not always well covered in economics. I remember. I remember learning at least about Malthus, and there was the Malthusian prediction or his his view that, well, we’re in trouble because any economic growth we had, we just ended up having more children, and we’d be back to subsistence. Whereas I think the way that economists started to view that was all well, we solved that problem with technological progress. And, but I mean, look, I understand the point that that’s in a few 100 years or over the last couple 100 years say we’ll be able to do that. Who knows if that can continue indefinitely? I mean, who knows what shocks are coming? So, I mean, maybe, is that what you’re arguing? We could be we could be too optimistic based on recent history.
Jon Erickson 04:48
Well, look, I mean, we’re recording this in the second week of November during that latest Conference of Parties for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. And there’s ample evidence to show that this economic system we’ve created is putting dangerous strains on the global climate system, right? A climate system that is, is increasingly called as chaos as in danger of, you know, collapsing the whole experiment of the economy. So, you know, we can go back to Malthus if you’d like. But we’ve always seen that a growing economy creates benefits, and costs. And what we’ve seen, particularly over the last three or four decades is as those benefits have become super, super concentrated. And the costs have been spread out on more and more people, and especially on future generations. So we’re in kind of, you know, yet again, a kind of Malthusian tragedy.
Gene Tunny 05:51
Right. And so is that your biggest concern at the moment, climate change, or other other concerns,
Jon Erickson 05:58
tThere are plenty of concerns to go around. But having a habitable planet is a big one. It’s a big one that fellow economists are concerned about. You know, economists have been part of various signatures, signatories to various pledges of action. It’s a concern that’s related to mass extinction. It’s a concern that’s related to growing inequality and persistent poverty and declining quality of life, even in the richest countries. You know, I think it was, I think it was Alcoholics Anonymous, right, that said, you know, when you do the same thing over and over again, expect something different. You know, that’s the kind of insanity. And that’s what this book is about.
Gene Tunny 06:39
Right? Now, you mentioned, well, you talk about the fairy tale of economics, you mentioned you were trained in economics, do you still consider yourself an economist?
Jon Erickson 06:50
I mean, I often describe myself as an ecological economist, because I’m really trying to understand interdependencies between the economic system, and society and culture and the social system and the environment. I see this work as reforming economics for sure. I’d love someday, where we didn’t have to have all these kind of competing camps and different flavours of economics, we could just call it economics. But since I really don’t identify with the mainstream of economics, I tend to call myself an ecological economist.
Gene Tunny 07:22
Right? And you tell a story in the book about how just something like that was it the JEL, the Journal of Economic Literature codes, and you were stunned? Yeah, the way that Yeah, could you tell that story because of those fascinating, I’d never thought the JEL. Yeah, would be so controversial, or yeah, but please tell the story. I thought it was a good one.
Jon Erickson 07:47
I don’t know that they were controversial it just it just gave me pause. When I saw that ecological economics was given its own code, and treated as a sub discipline of a field that we were trying to overturn or be the alternative to. And this really is, you know, this, this is, you know, reflect on kind of why I wrote this book. You know, it’s a reflection on my career in Ecological Economics, when ecological economics was formalised in the late 80s and early 90s, before it got to JEL code, books and journals and organisations and degree programmes, and folks like me were supposed to be created to try to question the mainstream and reform it. So in many respects, this book is kind of my midlife crisis book, where I take a critical look at the history state and fate of this movement of ecological economics as an alternative to the mainstream. Funny story about 10 years ago, I was the president of the US society for Ecological Economics, and one of these professional societies that have emerged to support this field. And I was at our conference at Michigan State University, and I had thrown my back out. So I was like, during most of the meeting, I was horizontal in my hotel room, just miserable, just really grumpy. I was laying on my back, trying to write notes for my presidential address right, to the society’s membership. And I just was so grumpy, so grumpy, so grumpy. And it really got me thinking about the state and fate of ecological economics, and made me think about like this code, Q 57. Right, the seven hundreds plus subject areas of economics, and how ecological economics was increasingly being absorbed by the mainstream, including by folks who call themselves ecological economists. In fact, at that meeting, there were just, you know, all of these sessions on monetary valuation of ecosystem services, which I saw as, you know, a real slippery slope, you know, can we sort of challenge the mainstream with the logic of the mainstream and commodify nature. So, in a lot of ways that kind of grumpy week in Michigan, set the stage for this book, and, and my desire to really critique my own field.
Gene Tunny 10:16
Right. Okay. So I probably should provide some background on so these JEL codes, they’re the codes that you would put at the bottom of an abstract for a journal paper or a conference paper to signal this is the field or that the field of economics are the sub discipline of economics that it’s in. And so that helps them identify where it should go in conferences, for example, which session. Now, it’s interesting you mentioned how environmental economists have come to start valuing nature or to quantify environment, environmental damage, or to value what a wetlands are worth or in I mean, as a, as an economist, I’ve done various exercises like that in the past. I just want to understand where you’re coming from, do you think that’s the wrong way to go about it, to think about the the economy or the environment to think about? Well, we’re doing this many dollar dollars of damage to the environment, and therefore we need to impose this, this cost this charge on people who are damaging it, and to make sure we have, you know, where I’m going, what we’re trying to get ya get some sort of, we’re getting some solution by having the right taxes and charges in place or Pigovian tax, for example, what do you what are your thoughts on that, Jon?
Jon Erickson 11:43
Yeah, that the field of environmental economics and and before that natural resources, economics, really preceded this field that I’m describing of ecological economics, really treating the economy as an ecosystem, and environmental economics has its roots in the late 1960s, early 70s. And, you know, reaching back to Pergo, in the 20s, and 30s. And fitting the environment inside the marketplace, right, using prices to correct the so called market failures of what were framed as environmental externalities. So that’s how I was trained at Cornell University, I was in an agricultural economics department, learning natural resource, environmental economics, and kind of, you know, buying into that logic of, of the environment is just a failure of the marketplace. Ecological Economics. So that’s valuable. And that’s pragmatic. And I’ve done my share of work that is trying to make the case the economic case for environmental protection. The challenges is when that tool when that approach, when the sort of expansion of cost benefit analysis to environmental concerns, when that rises to a worldview, right? When you commodify all of nature and when you reduce all social relations of humanity to market logic, we start to run into what economic historians or people in the 40s and 50s The Economist name is escaping me right now, the fellow who wrote The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi. Yeah, the Karl Karl Polanyi warned of the merging market society, right. Whereas the rules and priorities of a market system that envelop the democratic system, that envelop our social and environmental values. So I’m okay using economics as a tool and treating economists as mechanics or janitors to sort of tune the market system. But when economists are sort of framed as overlords of the social environmental system, right, or conveyors of a master worldview, that’s where my hairs go up. And that’s, that’s largely what this book is about, and thinking about the progress solution of economics.
Gene Tunny 14:08
Right? Is the problem that we have this objective of maximising economic growth where we’re concerned about GDP, are you arguing? We’re not as concerned about these environmental measures? How do you what do you think we should be concerned about? Or how should we be making decisions as a society?
Jon Erickson 14:30
I’m making the case that 21st century economics should reflect 21st century problems and values. I think when the mainstream of economics or what we often call neoclassical economics was formed in the late 1800s, early 1900s. Maybe the focus was well placed on growing an economy of the efficiency of market system right, of taking power away from the church and state and putting it into the hands of the consumer. and producer. You know, it’s much like thinking about an ecosystem at the early stages of any ecosystem. It’s the pioneering species that are prioritise its growth and competition and resource exploitation, that is prioritised. But as the system matures, as the system grows into a fixed, fixed environment, the goal should change, right, the goal should move away from growth and towards maintenance, bitterness, towards durability, towards resilience, away from competition and towards cooperation right away from sort of thinking about the number one priority is to grow our way out of problems, to realising that growth itself creates problems that growth can’t fix. So Ecological Economics reflects a maturing of economic thinking, that reflects the challenges of the 21st century.
Gene Tunny 15:59
Right. Okay. So it seems you’re, you’re concerned about the problems that growth can’t fix. Okay. You don’t think regulations can help? I mean, because we’ve got cleaner air?
Jon Erickson 16:12
Not exactly. I mean, I think we need to move beyond just economic instruments to fix things using the market to fix market failures, right. But really trying to find that balancing act between market mechanisms and government regulation between improving and making government work better, instead of the opposite narrative of, you know, government is the problem, not the solution. No, in this book, I reflect on kind of my own upbringing in the United States, and my parents generation, you know, and growing up in the Kennedy years, where the narrative was, you know, you know, ask not what your, what you can, what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country. And I grew up in the Reagan Thatcher generation, right. And the Reagan narrative was, you know, it’s all about the individual, it’s greed is good. Don’t ask what you can do, you know, do for your country, get government off our backs, you know, that’s what we need to do. So, I think in an age of climate chaos, in an age of the sixth mass extinction, and an age of growing inequality, the narrative has to change, the story has to change, we have to recognise that a system and an economics that was created in the context of a 1940s 1950s expansion out of the Great Depression had its day. And now, the realities of our time, need to need to start to shape a new reality.
Gene Tunny 17:44
Okay. And so what does that? What does that mean, Jon? Does that mean, we need? Do we need redistribution policies? Is that what you’re arguing for to address inequality? We need greater environmental? Well, we need to prioritise the environment. I mean, that’s gonna be I mean, obviously, the environments important, I’m not denying that. I’m just thinking in in Australia here. I mean, it’s we’ve got very stringent environmental regulations already. And if we have more stringent environmental regulations, it’d be very difficult to develop anything. So I’m just wondering what it all means is it? Does it mean, we have to accept a lower standard of living in the future? are you pessimistic about technological change or ability to to innovate our way out of these constraints? Could you talk about that, please?
Jon Erickson 18:38
Yeah, I think that’s too narrow of a frame. When you think about economy environment, and what I’m concerned about, there is reams of evidence show that so called advanced economies, such as the United States and Australia, built on hyper individualism, built on the legacy of a social disease that sociologists call affluenza, right, or this addiction to consumerism, that this model of progress has leaves a little lot to be desired. And that in fact, maybe we’ve been in a progress recession for some time now. Scholars in the United States and Australia and dozens of other countries around the world have been estimating for years now. What’s called the genuine progress indicator, something that is meant to be compared to the more common gross domestic product. And what this indicator does is it recognises that a growing economy has benefits and has costs. In fact, I first discovered the GPI when I was in grad school in the early 1990s. And in the US, we were in in the the bush one recession. And there was a beautiful article written in the in the Atlantic and it had the title of something like if GDP is up. Why is America so down? Right? We were kind of in this recovery state. And people were, you know, economists are saying, hey, the economy’s growing, we’re all good again. And the average American, I’m not good, I can’t make ends meet. I’m miserable. And the same narrative has popped up at the tail end of every recession ever since ever since. In fact, it started working on this book at the tail end of the so called Great Recession. And the same thing was happening, we were using the instruments of economics using mainstream thinking to grow our way out of problems. And the average person was saying, who is benefiting? And who does who? Who’s paying the cost? Yeah. So the GPIO through this series of 26, some odd calculations and says, What are the true benefits of a growing economy? And what are the costs? What are the environmental costs? What are the social costs, and have shown quite convincingly that since at least the night, late 1970s, for a country like the United States, we’ve been in a progress recession, the GDP has grown, grown, grown grown. But these alternative metrics, whether it be GPI or surveys on quality of life, or the ecological footprint, these things have not improved, they have not kept up with the pace of growth, right. So we have to start asking at these kind of higher levels. What do we do with this for right? What’s, what’s the new balancing act in a maturing economy? How should we reprioritize what is the good life? And how should we I mean, you frame it as accept the lower standard of life, the standard of living the material standard of living, I frame it as as asking the question, how do we live better? How do we how do we live well, within our means?
Gene Tunny 21:47
Yeah, sure. I can, I can understand that. I guess what I’m thinking, Jon, is that at the moment, in Australia, one of the big issues is, well, the rising cost of living, high inflation relative to wages, and the lack of housing, I mean, we’ve got a dire shortage of housing here in Australia. Now. I mean, look, there are a variety of reasons for that, possibly. But I mean, at the moment, when I’m looking at things, I’m thinking a bit more economic activity to construct houses would have been good over the last 10 to 20 years. And, and we’ve got rising cost of energy. So yeah, I take your point, I think I think a lot of people out there would be concerned though, about this. Yeah, that they that, yeah, I’m not I’m not necessarily wanting to criticise what you’re saying, I understand where you’re coming from. I’m just yeah, that’s where I’m coming from, if that makes sense.
Jon Erickson 22:51
Yeah, that makes perfect sense. And that’s the big question, right? Like, can the same kind of thinking that got us into these current messes? That is making the billionaire class hugely, hugely more material well off, while the rest of us feel like we’re on a treadmill, just barely getting by? Can the same kind of system, right? That has privatised the benefit of growth and socialise, the costs? Can that continue? Or should it continue? Right? Should we sort of create a social movement and start to ask, what is the economy’s purpose? Who is the economy? And growth for whom and for what? Now, you know, when I debate economists, they always say, like, come on, come on, you know, you’re not being fair economics is just a model. It’s a model of progress. All models are wrong, some are useful, right? They quote George George Box. Right? All models are wrong, some are useful. And I said, Yeah, I, I agree, all models are wrong, some are useful. But what box didn’t ask is useful for? Right. So in the US, we’re seeing these energy prices, and we’re seeing record profits to oil companies. In the US, we’re seeing housing shortages, right? Yet we’re seeing record rents to the ownership class. In the US, we’re seeing families, you know, struggle to get by in these kinds of post pandemic months and year. And kind of returning to, you know, try and train as quickly as we can to get back to normal, right? Pre pandemic years. And a lot of us, and a lot of folks that are most vulnerable in this current system, are saying we don’t want to go back to normal normal was already in crisis.
Gene Tunny 24:47
Yeah, yeah. Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.
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Gene Tunny 25:24
Now back to the show. Okay, can I ask about that genuine progress indicator? Who’s producing it? And can I ask him about what, what some of the the variables that go into? It are? Please, you’re really interested in that? Because look, I understand the criticisms of GDP. And I mean, at least if we’re destroying, or we’re subtracting from the environment, or we’re, we’re damaging the environment that you probably should recognise that as some sort of disinvestment or a loss of capital stock. So yeah, would you be able to explain the genuine progress indicator, please?
Jon Erickson 26:04
Sure. I mean, it starts with the basic premise, right, that the economy is subsystem of the environment, and that when the economy grows, it has opportunity cost. So I mean, it’s a basic, it’s built on basic economic system has benefits and has opportunity costs. So with GPI, we start with consumption, the biggest part of GDP, and we say, Okay, let’s take consumption, and then let’s correct it for income inequality, to recognise which what Pergo recognised in the 1920s and 30s, right, that growing incomes grow and give diminishing returns, right, that the next unit of of income to a rich person creates far less welfare society than the next income, a next unit of income to a low income family or a low income person. So we correct for income inequality. We then go through a series of calculations that for example, take consumer durables and GDP and say, you know, a society a GDP benefits by building a throwaway society. With durables, washing machines, automobiles, long lasting expenditures, if they were out often have to be replaced. That’s great for GDP. Right. But is it good for progress? So we say, Okay, here’s the expenditure of durables, and here’s the benefits of durables, right? Over time, these things are supposed to last more than a year or two or three years. So there’s economic adjustments, there’s an adjustment for over for underemployment, right. Idle work, people who wish they could work more. So it’s got that kind of basic economic logic built into it. But then there’s a whole category of depletion and pollution costs, right? We shouldn’t be treating depletion of our soils, our water, our air, as income. In fact, any business that treated depreciation of capital assets as as income instead of costs wouldn’t be in business very long. But that’s exactly what we do in our economic book keeping for nation states. Then there’s a whole series of interesting calculations on the social side of thing, right, we have to recognise that the GDP only recognises the value of your time in a market, earning income, earning wages earning profits. And so what the GPI the genuine progress indicator says is that there’s, um, use trade offs, right? Every hour extra hour work, the opportunity cost of that is an hour, not with your family, an hour, not in your community. And now we’re not leisure. So rather than feeding every single hour at work as a benefit with no costs, GPI goes through and says, let’s be honest here, right? Work is good, up to a point, income is good, up to a point consumption is good, up to a point. But we have to recognise that consumption and income and growth have diminishing returns. And at some point, at some point, the growth of an economy creates more costs than benefits. What Herman Daly, one of the founders of ecological economics, who, unfortunately passed away a couple of weeks ago, called an economic growth, right, a growing economy that creates more cost and benefits. Okay, we could do a whole podcast just on GPI, so don’t get me going.
Gene Tunny 29:40
Yeah, that’s fine. I might. I’ll have another look at it. Because, I mean, it’s one thing that comes up in various conversations I have, and I’ve been looking at the national accounts recently, I’ve had people on talking about that and their conceptual foundations and we’ve, we’ve we’ve mentioned that every
Jon Erickson 29:58
time we have a recession Yeah, the critique of GDP comes up, right? Yeah. Like, hey, wait a second growth isn’t providing what’s going on here. And every time coming out of recession, we question the metric. And then we kind of start growing again and says, Okay, let’s go back to normal. Yeah. But we have to kind of keep revisiting these alternatives. You know, the original architect architects of GDP back in the 30s, and 40s. Were very careful to say this is not a measure of human progress, human welfare. This is a measure of economic activity, which contributes to human welfare, but is not in and of itself. human welfare.
Gene Tunny 30:40
Yeah. Yeah. I agree there. Now, what about what can be done? Do you have a set of policy recommendations? Jon, are there? What would What do you think needs to be done? Are there things that there will be things that need to be done by governments? Are there things that need to be done by individuals? I mean, it sounds like, Well, okay, maybe you tell me if I’m wrong here. But when I read your book, and I heard about the progress, I was reading about the progress illusion that concerns about how we were consuming too much, I mean, do we need to show that we as individuals be consuming less Is that is that part of your argument? We should we shouldn’t be going on as many overseas trips, we shouldn’t be using the car as often we should think about our purchasing decisions, not get a new washing machine or get a I only get one, when it breaks down, try to repair things. What are you arguing in this book? Is the solution?
Jon Erickson 31:40
Well, what would an economy look like? That was built on maintenance resilience and cooperation is that growth, efficiency and competition, right, a late stage maturing economy like yours in the Australian ours in the US? That’s, that’s what I’m asking, you know, an economy, a mature economy should have different goals than an economy at pioneering stages. So it really is about a reprioritization of our goals, especially on consumption, right? Because there’s ample evidence to show that we in the West are over consumers, and our kind of addiction to consumption is creating psychological problems, social problems, that consumption has been kind of become a cure for social ills, right? Like, it’s a distraction. I mean, the whole advertising industry is designed around the idea of kind of making you and I feel bad about ourselves, right. And to sort of fill the void with more consumption. And I actually think this is one of the lessons coming out of COVID. Right, as sort of people were, especially, you know, high income people who, who could weather the storm, better than most, were forced to slow down, were forced to pee at home, were forced to kind of reevaluate life’s priorities, and found out that, you know, this kind of ever, burning hamster wheel of economic growth isn’t all that it’s cut out to be. So it’s the reprioritization of goals, which is going to have to reprioritize policy instruments. Daily Herma, daily use the analogy of a plinth Plimsoll line, I’m not sure I’m pronouncing that right, of a cargo ship. Right. So this is the line that’s painted on a ship, very easy technology. And as the as the cargoes ship is loaded, it sinks into the water. And when it gets to the line, you’re supposed to stop, right, because you’re in, you’re in danger of overloading the ship. So if we sort of reprioritize and think about the principle line of an economy, we can’t just more equally or equitably distribute the cargo of an overloaded ship and expect it to be resilient. We can’t just more efficiently load an overloaded ship and expect it to weather the storm. As the pump, some land goes underwater, right. And there’s ample evidence to say that we are kind of in an overshoot on a lot of environmental parameters. You’re in danger of sinking the ship, especially in stormy waters. So this analogy implies that as we run up against planetary boundaries, planetary limits to growth, the scale of the economic system is way more important to stress than distribution or efficiency. And if we can’t count on a growing system to solve distribution problems, then we’re gonna have to quickly think about the fairness of this distribution of benefits and costs of that system. And then it only then can we get to efficiency, which is the priority of economics. So this means that you know, new policy instruments stuff that focused on scale distribution, then efficiency is the way to go. And I talk a lot about this in the last chapter book, as I kind of wrestled with the idea of how did I put it radical pragmatism? Right? Yeah, that’s a pragmatic things that we can do now, for example, to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, you know, home weatherization, and carbon taxation, and, you know, maintenance of our systems, electrification of transportation, transition to renewable energy. But all of these are really hard to do in an economy that continues to bloat an economy that continues to grow. So we have to be thinking about the scale of a system. And that’s probably the radical part of radical pragmatism, right? What’s it going to take to rein power away from the status quo, that part of the system that’s benefiting from this growth model, and create an economy that works for all?
Gene Tunny 36:05
Okay, so I’m just wondering what exactly that involves? And is this part of this whole idea of D growth? Is that what you’re arguing for? I’ve heard about this concept of D growth, that that’s coming up, and there was an article in the FT about it the other day. So you’re just wondering, what needs to be done? I mean, do how do we, how do we have that, though? How do we recognise those constraints? I mean, you mentioned carbon tax. I mean, that’s something that, but you’re also saying that that’s not going to be enough and mean, given current magic
Jon Erickson 36:41
bullet, but it changes that changes the system? Yeah. Yeah. I mean, degrowth is the sort of social movement side of ecological economics, if you will. It’s a question of, how do we orchestrate a just transition to a right sized economy. Now in some parts of the world, and for some people in the world, you know, growth still creates more benefits and costs. But there are plenty of parts of the world and plenty people in the world where growth, Grace, more cost and benefits, right. So we have to orchestrate a kind of Race to the middle. And in fact, if you plot something like the HDI, the Human Development Index, which is a UN level index, this used to sort of monitor, you know, the benefits of development. If you plot HDI at national levels against energy per capita, you get this curve, right that the initial development improves considerably, with just a little bit more energy use per capita a little bit more than final impact per capita, Right. but only to a point that we get into this kind of club of countries, where continuing use of energy continuing depletion of the environment, continuing materialisation of the economy, doesn’t improve development doesn’t improve the HDI. And you get this long tail with countries with the same HDI of countries that that consume 20 or 30, or 40, or even some cases 80% less energy and material. So countries like mine, the US were way out on this tail, where we’re not getting improvements in human development. Yet, we’re consuming way, way, way more energy than the average human right. And way more energy in the countries that have similar levels of development, similar qualities of life. So what are we doing? Right? We’ve got to orchestrate a race to the middle and whether you call that d growth for the rich countries, and to be more agnostic about growth for everyone else, like grow, where it makes sense and shrink where it doesn’t. That’s the kind of century that we’re in. That’s the biophysical reality of the new economy.
Gene Tunny 38:57
So Jon, do you need a command economy to actually to orchestrate this transition to a right sized economy? I’m just trying to think about how this would happen. Because I mean, people, a lot of people out there, just, you know, they’re trying to live their lives and do the best they can. And a lot of people have to a lot of families, the couple have to work two jobs. They’re trying to make ends meet. I mean, they Yeah, they probably wouldn’t see themselves as as living a hugely materialistic lifestyle, but then compared with other parts of the world. Yeah, sure. It probably is. Yeah, I’m just wondering how we how we can do that. I mean, I’ll
Jon Erickson 39:37
yeah, yeah. My trainer has economists. I assume you’re trained economists. We were sort of taught these, these two different DS, roughly two different models, market economy and a command and control economy. And we were taught that this command and control thing is inefficient and unfair and results in a kind of an over regulated world and we need to the market economy is not perfect, but may Is it better than command and control? I’ve come to realise that that’s a load of BS. The market economy is also a command and control economy, right? Markets are designed by those and power markets are social constructs, especially the last three or four decades of neoliberalism has created a kind of free market experiment, right? That is concentrating the benefits and widely distributing the costs. So talk to the average guy or gal on the street and ask them, Is this economic system working for them? And if they say no, do you say, well, let’s double down on the logic of the system? Or do we try something different, right. So we’re finding that more cooperative forms of of economies are resulting in more shared benefits and shared costs. Were working with a group called the next systems project that has been sort of systematically cataloguing different political economics systems, local skills, community skills, United States that have dramatically different outcomes and dramatically different structures. It’s not just either or of command and control of free markets. It’s blending things in between, it’s the continuum in between, that is the secret sauce. So I don’t buy that we immediately just have to go to command and control. Although in crisis, what we learned from COVID is what happened is the world’s government goes goes to command and control, right? If climate is a crisis, if, if environmental depletion is a crisis, we might be using the very system of free market thinking, to push us into a state where the only option is going to be command and control. And I don’t want that you don’t want that. People don’t want that. We want our basic liberties and freedoms. But we want to do it in a way that creates an economy for all for children and for for future. I also kind of reject the the narrative of economic freedom, right? Because that’s awesome. That’s also painted as freedom to do things. And instead of freedom from tyranny, right, freedom from the impacts of, of the environmental costs of a growing system, freedom from the social inequalities, of a system that’s geared towards making the billionaire class even richer. Freedom from the costs of growing economies, what we should be thinking about, not freedom to do things to our neighbours, to our environment, and to future generations that ultimately are going to come back and bite us in the tail. Yeah, a buy in any of this.
Gene Tunny 42:58
Well, I’m interested in the new systems project. I’ll have to make system next systems project. I’ll have to look into that. I mean, do you have any examples of those communities you’re talking about?
Jon Erickson 43:10
Well, it’s examples of of. So you take the US and you think that we’re this kind of, you know, outside looking in and the narrative on the mainstream news channels is that, you know, we’re this free market, capitalistic system. It’s actually not true. So much of what makes the US economy work is cooperative ownership, collective ownership, state run, companies, state state run banking systems, state state runs systems of have that make the the economic system work. Take the banking sectors, trillions of dollars and coops where the depositors get votes on the matters of their banks. Take agriculture and education, and even energy and electric utilities. So much of those industries are run by cooperatives. In fact, electricity cooperatives deliver electricity, the United States, to a well over half of the geography of the high states, to rural communities, where the sort of economics doesn’t work for for industrial companies. There’s experiment after experiment, after experiment of different kinds of political economic institutions that have that we have lots of lessons to learn from. And this is what I meant in the beginning, when I talked about you know, economics, part of the Progress illusion is this kind of illusion of history right. To think that the current economic system, the neoliberal system, the free market, system, is is is the only one is has been perfected, right? Is the kind of logical inclusion of everything along the way, and that we don’t have to learn from our history. We don’t have to revisit the debates. We don’t have to consider the morality of our economic choices, or their biophysical consequences. And yeah, there’s a lot. I mean, I speaking mostly as a, you know, from the perspective of an American, maybe it’s different in Australia. But man, we have this sort of US centric view of the world, that everything we do is right. And every thing that we do is the best that ever was. And we don’t need to learn from our history. And we don’t have to need to learn from other other experiments around the world. And where I land is, that’s some pretty insular thinking,
Gene Tunny 45:45
huh? Yeah. Yeah. Okay. We’ll start wrapping up soon, Jon, this has been Yeah, really thought provoking. So it’s good to have you on the show. could ask you about neuro neuro economics. So you talk about that in the book. This is a new field, I’ve only learned about recently, what what’s that? What’s your interest in that field? And what’s it broadly trying to tell us? Or what’s it found?
Jon Erickson 46:11
Yeah, sure. Well, so this is where, you know, I’m kind of researching the book, like, what are some alternative ways to think about the human agent and our economic models? Because the economics, we’re taught a very, very, very narrow version of humanity, right, which is sometimes called like a subspecies of human homo economic is, yeah, isolated individual at a point in time, right, who
Gene Tunny 46:36
just wants more? The rational utility Maximizer? Yeah,
Jon Erickson 46:40
exactly. Exactly. And both within economics and outside of economics, you know, we’re learning that when we test our theories, with real data, and not just abstract mathematics, that this sort of foundations of this rational actor model, unravel. So what I do in the book is I explore what you might call borderline disciplines, right? Where economists have cooperated with other disciplines, especially other natural science disciplines. And so neuro neuro economics is one of those examples where economists have collaborated with neurosciences to ask questions of proximate cause. Right. So in science, we think of proximate cause and ultimate cause. And then the case of economic decision making proximate causes asking how we make decisions, whereas ultimate causes more a question of why do we make decisions that we do? Neuro economics is an example of a borderline disciplined, proximate cause where, literally economists are taking tests objects, with their neuroscience colleagues, asking people to solve economic puzzles, or make economic choices that are watching their brain light up, right, and trying to understand where and when do the kind of precepts of the rational actor model hold up? And where don’t they? So it’s one of these Borderlands this was, such as neural economics is an example. But also behavioural economics, experimental economics, where we’re trying to kind of understand the brain in the case of economics, the whole human case of behavioural economics, groups of humans in the case of experimental economics, groups of groups in the case of institutional economics. And then there are entirely evolutionary history as a species in the case of evolutionary economics. So these are all examples of, of the isolated discipline of economics, starting to cooperate with other fields, and building what I call in the book, borrowing from the biologist, EO Wilson, a more conciliate form of economics, where we find the jumping together of knowledge to really watch it watch the 21st century version of this field.
Gene Tunny 49:13
Right now. Okay. Well, yeah, oh, it’s something I want to have a closer look at, because I definitely recognise the limitations of that. That standard economic model. I mean, for years, economists were saying, Well, it’s, we recognise that all the assumptions are a bit unbelievable. But as long as it makes good predictions, and it’s, then it’s fine, but it turns out, it may not actually make good predictions. So,
Jon Erickson 49:39
I mean, I gotta go through the history of you know, the running joke, of course, right is that economists have successfully predicted seven of the last three recessions. So it’s, this this model of the rational actor model turns out to be not a very predictive model, or a model. Again, all models are wrong, some are useful. But we should start asking useful for whom? And it turns out this this isolated model is useful for the billionaire class but not useful for the rest of us.
Gene Tunny 50:10
Right I so we might start wrapping up, I’m keen to just learn about, what are you hoping this book we’ll achieve? Jon, what’s your What are your hopes for this, this book,
Jon Erickson 50:22
my generation, I’m 50 birthday this month, I’m 52 going on 53 My generation was inspired by the works of a number of like, you might call a renegade economist, right? Who sort of solid different path. Folks like Herman Daly, who I mentioned to, we just recently lost that 84 years old. I mean, Herman was on a similar journey that I was he started out with aspirations to be a growth economist, he thought that the logic and approach of market fundamentalism could be sort of bred when he was training to be an economist in the 50s and 60s, to solve problems, particularly problems of poverty, right to grow the economy, lift people out of poverty, but in his own educational journey, set against the aspirations of the Great Society in the US in 1960s, the civil rights and environmental movements of the 60s and 70s You know, he was inspired by inspired, inspired by the work of earlier group of renegades folks like Nicholas Dzerzhinsky regime who wrote on energy and the economic problem, bringing the principles of physics into economics, Kenneth Boulding, who wrote the infamous article, the economics for the coming Spaceship Earth that was really coming to terms with the opportunity costs of a growing economy inside of a fixed ecosystem. John Kenneth Galbraith, who, whose social critique in the affluent society really sort of, you know, early on question a society built around, creating more and more affluence into an affluent class. And, of course, the 1962 book by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which was really impactful on Herman’s thinking, and design of an economic study of economy inside environment. So, you know, these sorts of scholars were also inspired by long standing debates about the function and purpose of the economy, you know, really going back to the classical era of economics, when economics was seen as as a branch of moral philosophy, right. Not not a pseudo science hiding behind abstract mathematics. So Herman’s work was another kind of link in the chain. His work on economics, the life sciences, first big published article, his work on steady state economics in 1977. Book, his work on for the common good that he wrote in 1989, with a theologian, John, John Cobb, you know, he was created another link in the chain that was trying to build a study of economics as if people and planet mattered. So I hope, you know, this book is yet another link in this chain of link that comes from my generation, that can continues to build a kind of more modest, more humble economics that can contribute to social well being and environmental, environmental protection, and not just simply,
Gene Tunny 53:39
okay, well, I’ll put a link in the show notes. So if you’re in the audience, and you’re interested in, in the in the progress, illusion, and look, it’s got a lot of, it’s got a lot of great information in it. Lots of lots of great analysis, and it’s very thought provoking. So I certainly enjoyed or I learned a lot reading it. I thought it was good. I liked how you went through the evolution of of economic thought and all the debates and even what I was struck by was, I didn’t realise that was Tinbergen, the famous Dutch economist. Yeah, he had a bit of a Nobel Prize winner. Yeah, he ended up he started to question the whole the the economic growth narrative in the was it the 80s or 90s? Are some of the you tell the story along those lines, I thought was interesting. Yeah. Yeah. So I think there’s a lot of good stuff in there. Okay, Jon, any final thoughts before we wrap up?
Jon Erickson 54:42
Look, I really appreciate this. Thanks so much for your podcast. I was listening to a bunch of your past thoughts in preparation for this and this is such a great show. Very valuable show. And yeah, folks are interested in this book. It’s, it’s been published by Ireland press which is One of the bigger nonprofit publishers of environmental books in the US and give your listeners the secret code. If they order a book from Island Press they get 20% off if they answer the enter the code illusion so but on my capitalism have there for a second
Gene Tunny 55:17
okay, is that all is that this capitalization matter is what did you just tell me that and I missed it sorry was
Jon Erickson 55:24
no I don’t know that it needs to be capitalised. But it’s the word illusion is the code for 20% off.
Gene Tunny 55:30
Okay, good one. Well, I guess people try it and if, yeah, hopefully it doesn’t matter whether you capitalise it or not, or try and capitalise that, that doesn’t work. Without caps. Okay. Very good. Okay. Jon Erickson. Thanks so much for your time. I really enjoyed the conversation and really appreciated your insights. So that’s been terrific. Thank you. Okay, that’s the end of this episode of economics explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact at economics explored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Till next week, goodbye.
Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au.
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