Bryan Caplan  

Wilkinson, Rogoff, and the Presumption in Favor of Economic Growth

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"Economic growth seems like an extremely good thing.  But growth could have undesirable side effects so severe that growth is actually bad."  This position is totally reasonable - and totally uninteresting.  Could?  Could?!  If something seems extremely good, you need a let more than "coulds" to counter it.  Indeed, you need strong evidence that side effects of the seemingly-extremely good-thing are on balance extremely bad.

All this seems pretty obvious.  But Will Wilkinson still takes my old macro teacher Ken Rogoff to task on this very point.  Rogoff:
[A]sk yourself how much you really care if it takes 100, 200, or even 1,000 years for welfare to increase eight-fold. Wouldn't it make more sense to worry about the long-term sustainability and durability of global growth? Wouldn't it make more sense to worry whether conflict or global warming might produce a catastrophe that derails society for centuries or more?
If Rogoff immediately added compelling evidence that faster growth on balance increased the probability of a catastrophe, this would be a great point.  But read the whole piece.  He doesn't.  So I'm afraid Will's quite right to respond with incredulity:

Well, tell me how much a growth rate of n% increases or decreases the probability of conflict or global warming of such and such severity and how much that warming or conflict would ding welfare, and then I'll tell you if it makes more sense to worry about it. The rhetorical implication here is that high ongoing growth rates increase the likelihood of some sort of catastrophe, but this is just empty bluster--just Rogoff flapping his arms and hunching over like Quasimodo and growling and shouting "Oh no! Look out! The scary growth monster!" for no apparent reason at all.

What if a quick octupling of world welfare produces a lot more global warming faster, but simultaneously produces the capacity to adapt to exactly that amount of global warming? What if the welfare damage of global warming is greater the flatter the global growth path? Wouldn't it make more sense to worry about that? Maybe! Also, is there less conflict or more conflict as people get richer? We know the answer: less conflict.

Of course, maybe Rogoff will do better in round two, if there is a round two.  Wait and see.


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COMMENTS (3 to date)
John V writes:

Very Malthusian of Rogoff. It's a trap that many learned people seem to fall into.

English Professor writes:

I was shocked by Rogoff's essay. First of all, prosperity is unevenly distributed across the globe with billions of people still miserably poor. The only thing that can lift them out of such poverty is world-wide growth. If, over the next fifty years or so, we can lift almost everyone up to an acceptable standard of living, then we can begin to talk about the trade-offs between growth and other benefits. But until then, this concern amounts to people in rich countries condemning those in poor countries to unending poverty because the rich have tender consciences about things like the environment.

Rogoff also seems to presume that we can know the future effects of such things as global warming and continuing economic growth. IF continuing economic growth lifts people worldwide out of poverty, and IF it has the same effects on those people that it has had on most of its beneficiaries so far, we are likely to find lower birth rates worldwide (perhaps even a declining world population over time) and a greater desire to preserve the environment.


English Professor writes:

More thoughts. The population of the US continues to grow. If we do not have economic growth, we are doomed to a decreasing standard of living for the average American. This is not likely to have good political consequences.

Behind Rogoff's argument lies the assumption that political elites can channel productive resources towards beneficial ends, indeed, more beneficial than those flowing from the choices of individuals. This is the persistent belief of the technocrats. It is half wishful thinking and half self delusion. They obviously are unwilling to accept the arguments of public choice economists.

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