GDP Growth, climate change and the end of the peripheral science

Economics has long been known in academic circles as “the peripheral science”. It became increasingly side-lined as people realised how little it added to the world’s well-being. This is another extract from the Chronicles of Nat Eb, the memoirs of the former prime minister of England during the low carbon dictatorship of the 2030s and 2040s.

Nat Eb, recently resigned from being prime-minister of the Midland Counties of Former England, sat on the terrace of the Forgotten Password, overlooking the rewilded M54. Time was, it would have been impossible to hear yourself think just a hundred yards from what used to be known as a motorway. But now from the woodway came only the chirping of song birds preparing for spring, as a couple of i-cars eased gently along the conduit, brushing fronds of wild clematis and carefully nudging lazy bumblebees out of danger.

There was a good crowd in Telford’s favourite pub. Some MPs waved to Eb, who acknowledged them with his pint glass. No better greeting than a lift of Shropshire Gold. Eb’s son was with him, just turned 15, and finally able to share in Shropshire’s finest beverage in a public house.

‘So Dad,’ began Eb the Younger, a bright spark who was in his first year of an apprenticeship in carpentry and insulation at Uni West. ‘How come no-one studies economics these days? Stumpy Regenkurt said the other day that everyone studied economics when you were young.’

His father smiled. “One of our greatest victories, that was. We used to have a thing called GDP Growth. No-one really knows where the word comes from. The general view is that it’s from a kind of Chinese proverb. Something like Gee Dee Pee. Like – Gee, as in gee-gee or horse, Dee I think as in the River Dee, and Pee as in piss. I think it came from the heavy Chinese influence in our economy back in those days, before the fall of the Great Wall. You see you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. However, you can make it pee. The mere sight of flowing water stimulates the urinary tract in a horse. It was a metaphor for a subconscious unthinking reflex of politicians, economists and economic journalists. Remember that pink newspaper I once told you about? And Growth. It’s another word for a tumour or a kind of cancer. So GDP Growth was a kind of cancerous mental behaviour which not very bright politicians would adopt when they didn’t have the time or patience to think more deeply about the world.’

‘Sounds totally bonkers,’ grinned Fred Eb.

Osborne the hunchback barman came out onto the sunny terrace, squinting in the bright light, hobbling unhappily, wanting to be back in the comforting shade of the saloon. ‘Another one for the young gentleman?’ Nat EB nodded, showing Osborne his own empty glass. He raised two fingers. ‘Make it two.’

‘It was bonkers. And we were the ones that put an end to it.’

‘They were looking for some simple panacea. A simple number which would tell them how they were doing. And for some reason they latched on to this figure of GDP Growth. But it only really told us how much business we were doing; very little useful information. It ballooned in importance and politicians and nations were judged by the size of their GDP Growth. Probably so many men with little fundamental self-confidence: size was everything.

‘It was full of flaws. It couldn’t distinguish between good and bad, so bad things increased GDP. Then there were lots of good things people did, acts of kindness like baking a cake for a friend, which would not be included in GDP, even if they were good things. Sitting around at home, doing nothing, just resting or meditating, although a very important thing to do, didn’t affect the GDP count. So we were all forced to work more and more just for the sake of pushing up this daft number. Oh these are just some of the problems with it.’

‘But how odd that they mixed up bad things and good things into one number,’ said Fred Eb. ‘Couldn’t they tell the difference?’

‘In short, no. Or if they could, they didn’t have the courage to say so. There was perhaps a conspiracy of silence, as they say. The real problem was that all sorts of serious people took it seriously: politicians, economists, bankers and financiers, economic journalists. Rather silly people, but awfully influential. That was the way things worked then. Of course, the Truth Laws put an end to that. Once they saw those press barons strung up in Trafalgar Square for falsity and misguiding the general public, the press started showing the Truth a lot more respect.’

‘Cor blimey,’ said Fred.

Nat EB looked at him askance. ‘Where are you getting these old-fashioned phrases from?’

‘They’re what we say at college. It’s cool.’

‘ “Cool”? Crimsons, it’s a long time since I heard that word!” chuckled the former prime minister, thinking of his own days at school and university, when “cool” was the ultimate aspiration.

Fred look alarmed: ‘Dad, for goodness sake, don’t say ‘Crimsons’. No-one says that any more. You know what it means these days?’

‘No?’

‘Well, just don’t say it, right? Anyway…’

Meanwhile the dutiful Osborne returned with two fresh pints of Shropshire Gold. Osborne himself had once been a growthist, then had been shamed and ostracised, and now many years later returned to work in the Forgotten Password. ‘Did I happen to hear you mention GDP Growth, Mr Prime Minister?’ he bleated pathetically. ‘Oh those were the days…’

Nat Eb looked up at him. ‘Osborne,’ he said sternly. ‘How long have you been on the wagon for?’

Osborne raised his eyebrows as if better to look into the past. ‘A good fifteen years since I last advocated any form of unqualified economic growth.’

‘Good man,’ said Eb. ‘And let it stay like that.’ He turned to his son.

‘You see we didn’t have a problem with GDP Growth as long as it was Good Growth. This was the principle error of growthists like Osborne,’ he said as the waiter made his way back inside with the empty glasses. ‘They couldn’t distinguish between good and bad. Extraordinary really. You wonder where the first ten years of their life went. Must have been completely wasted.’

‘So how did you and Stumpy change all that, Dad?’ asked Eb Junior.

‘It wasn’t just me and Stumpy. It was the combined effort of thousands of people, thousands of good thinking people who finally found courage and voice to speak their mind. And, by executing the evil press barons, we put an end to the Business of Falsehood. That helped a bit, I suppose. And putting P.O.T.[1] on the primary school curriculum.

‘But what really ended GDP Growth was the marginalisation of economists. Just as with fossil fuels, we realised that GDP Growth was not necessary. In fact there was quite a parallel between fossil fuels and GDP Growth. Funny really.’

Eb’s son was confused. He wasn’t sure if the two pints of Gold had clogged his faculties or Nat Eb was talking nonsense. What on earth could climate change and GDP growth have had in common?

‘You see for a long time the establishment insisted that burning fossil fuels was necessary; it was the only way of doing things. Without that we would starve, we would all die, we would run out of antibiotics, we would all end up unemployed. Yes, it sounds quaint, I know, but that was how they thought. And in the same way people thought if we got rid of GDP growth, we would all starve, we would all die, we wouldn’t be able to afford hospitals and we wouldn’t have any jobs.

‘What happened, in fact, was that fossil fuels became marginalised. New forms of energy generation were developed – rather rapidly as a matter of fact. New ways of making things so we used much less energy. By gum, if you look back, how we squandered energy in those days! And of course we do all sorts of things these days which don’t use so much energy. The way we live! We don’t spend time rushing around the world to see tourist sights. We don’t drive cars to work and to the shops. We don’t build huge motorways and constructs of cement and steel. We build beautiful forests and restored wilderness. Our richest men and women are not narrow-minded egoistical technologists as in the olden days, but great creators of natural space, who inspire all according to their means, to plant trees and bushes and wild flowers and create eternal legacies for themselves. Thus burners of fossil fuels have been marginalised.

‘Similarly, GDP Growthists simply became extinct like all other species that fail to adapt to change. We realised that our health was important, so we examined statistics relating to health and the prevention of illness. We realised that spending time together as a family was important. And so forth. Whatever was important, we attended to, or, rather, encouraged people to attend to. And if we needed numbers, we used the numbers that pertained to the matter in hand.

‘We worked on health and eating and exercise and families and peacefulness and kindness and restoration of the natural world, and gardening and cooking, and so on and so forth. We didn’t have time to worry about GDP Growth. The economy – whatever that means – looked after itself as people rediscovered what is important in life and therefore thrived with a deeply rooted sense of purpose.

‘Gosh, Dad, that sounds great. But surely lots of people were dead against it?’

‘Oh yes they were. Remember I told you about climate change deniers. People who, despite whatever evidence you could throw in their face, would deny that there is climate change or deny that man’s actions were responsible. Well, similarly, there were deniers in economics. These were people who, despite all the evidence put their way that GDP Growth was bonkers, still denied the damage to society caused by their obsession of GDP Growth. You could throw all the stinking flaws in GDP in their face and they’d wipe it off and ignore you, and deny that GDP Growth was a harmful mantra.

‘And were they the same people, Dad?’

‘Who?’

‘The climate deniers and the people who denied that GDP Growth was a cranky thing?’

Eb thought for a moment over his dwindling pint.

‘Often, although there was another category of people who believed in climate change but believed that unqualified GDP Growth was needed to address climate change. How can you advocate bad in order to achieve good?’ asked Eb wistfully. ‘But in their defence, they were schooled long before the First Ten Years Act was introduced and all the other changes in education.’

Nat Eb looked up. ‘Osborne – refills please!’ The sun was reaching the horizon to the west, flushing the cloudscape in gaudy pinks and oranges. ‘It should be a good day for a spot of gardening tomorrow… Could do with some rain, though,’ he said.

 

Notes

[1] P.O.T. or Pursuit of Truth is one of the most popular and important subjects on the school curriculum.

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Writing memos won’t help the bees: cultural change might

In 2014 President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum setting up a task force to create a strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators.  The strategy was launched a year later in May 2015. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/Pollinator%20Health%20Strategy%202015.pdf

As part of this effort the White House instructed embassies abroad to do their bit and make pollinator friendly gardens.

In contrast to the benevolent intent of President Obama, I recently heard that in the US ambassador’s garden in Budapest, a 100 year old tree was cut down in order to remove a colony of bees which had settled there. Such was the US of A’s Hungarian representative’s blind fear of these little pollinators that they would have a tree cut down to remove them.

I was struck by the similarity of another situation encountered in a recent discussion with a friend who is a director of an energy company in post-communist Central Europe. Following privatisation some twenty years ago, after the fall of the Wall, the company has tried to introduce a culture of helpfulness, customer-friendliness and efficiency, cutting back on officiousness and red-tape. Sadly, despite the best intentions of enlightened management, egregious inefficiencies still prevail, employees with attitudes continue to insult customers like it is appropriate behaviour, and information channels remain constipated.

In both situations the people at the top know what should be done, but the operatives still don’t get it.

There’s a funny thing going on here. Sometimes we think that leaders of organisations “don’t get it” because they are so wrapped up in their ways, blinded by power, too far from the coal-face to be effective. If only they could leave it to the people on the ground, who really know what it going on. Then things would get sorted.

These two cases show something different. The people at the top do know the right thing to do, and they try their best to get the people in the ranks to do it. But the underlings in the ranks are ignorant or badly socialised or conflicted or don’t get it or have their minds clogged up with Ego paste and so forth.

We are not talking about trying to get people to acquire very specific skills or attitudes. We are talking about pretty general things: how to treat the living world with respect; how to treat other people you deal with civilly.

I suspect that neither of these can be easily taught and certainly cannot be arranged through the sending of a presidential memo. These are the products of cultural attitudes which are imbued by people in the formative years of their life.

Again and again we must seek the solution for our problems not in the school or the workplace but in the first few years of people’s lives : the first five to ten years of nurturing by their parents. Society needs to spend immensely more attention to getting those first few years right. If it did, we wouldn’t need to worry so much about schooling and higher education and all the other stuff on which billions are fruitlessly spent.

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Boosting GDP through better protection of animals

It is estimated that some 50,000 hedgehogs are killed on British roads every year. The population has fallen by a third in the last ten years or so. http://www.hedgehogstreet.org/pages/how-many-are-left-.html

I have devised a simple legal mechanism to protect the hedgehog which would boost GDP dramatically. Much as the UK government loathes the natural world, it does love things that boost GDP, so I expect this will find favour with them.

The mechanism would be an amendment to the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. Under this act animals are given different forms of protection: various schedules list different species and specify what you are not allowed to do with them. Hedgehogs, for example, are given feeble protection: you are not allowed to use a “trap, snare or net, electrical device for killing or stunning, poisonous, poisoned or stupefying substances or any other gas or smoke, automatic or semi-automatic weapon, device for illuminating a target or sighting device for night shooting, artificial light, mirror or other dazzling device, sound recording, and mechanically propelled vehicle in immediate pursuit.”

However, despite the dazzling effect of headlights, we are not seeing prosecutions of people who run over hedgehogs with a car, and this needs to be addressed. (Does a Nissan Leaf count as an electrical device – could the switch to electric cars save the hedgehog?)

A new term of Road Kill or Road Killing needs to be introduced and a new schedule would be added to the Act listing Species Protected from Road Killing. Road Killing (deliberate or accidental) of species listed under the new schedule would be punishable by a substantial fine.

This would create an economic incentive for technological innovation, which means one thing for politicians: smart jobs!!

First, engineers would develop sensors to warn drivers of imminent risk of a road kill event. These would be built into cars or placed on the dashboard and connected by blue tooth to your iphone. Assuming around 30 million vehicles in the UK, and a cost of around £100 for a Road Kill Sensor, you are looking at a boost to consumption of some £3 billion; an amount not to be sniffed at by the Treasury.

Second, the police would begin to install devices to track Road Kill events to support the large number of prosecutions expected. Once these devices are made compulsory in every car, you can expect another £3 billion spend. Add to that a National Integrated Road Kill Monitoring System (NIRKMS) – and they’d spend a billion with Siemens before scrapping that one and spending another billion with KPMG. Still, money wasted is money spent, and from the point of view of GDP it matters not.

Third, online communities would emerge, spawning consultancies, training and coaching, therapists for treating Road Kill anxiety and Road Kill guilt (RKA/RKG). There’s a few hundred million pounds of spend here.

Finally, we will lobby other countries to adopt similar laws and thereby create additional markets for all the knowhow and technology we have developed in the fight against Road Kill.

All in all we are talking about a boost to the economy of at least £5-10 billion, something sorely needed shortly after Brexit.

Let’s add some spine to the UK economy and give the hedgehog the protection it deserves.

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Applying the evil genius of Finkelstein for the common good

In October Hungary will hold a referendum on the EU’s plan to force member states to receive immigrants / migrants / refugees. To ensure victory in the referendum, the Hungarian government has already started a large scale bill-board campaign: Budapest is wallpapered with large, blue, xenophobic posters. You drive from the airport into the city and can count dozens and dozens of these.

The posters tell us:

-          Since the start of the migrant crisis over 300 people have died in terror attacks in Europe

-          Since the start of the migrant crisis the number of attacks against women has grown dramatically in Europe

-          Brussels wants to move a towns-worth of illegal immigrants to Hungary

-          The Paris attacks were committed by immigrants

and so forth.

Here are some examples:

Guided by uber-nasty PR guru Arthur Finkelstein (http://budapestbeacon.com/politics/arpad-habony-partners-with-arthur-j-finkelstein/22981) – the irony of a Jew driving a xenophobic and racist PR campaign is so delicious you almost want to bathe in it – the Hungarian government is not leaving a stone unturned to shape the minds of the people and to win the referendum.

Not even the Olympics safe. Government-funded anti-immigration advertisements punctuate the TV coverage. Loyal TV commentator Jenő Knézy pointedly ignored the Syrian refugee’s victory in the 100m butterfly. https://muosz.hu/hirek/2016/08/07/miert-hallgatott-knezy-a-menekult-uszorol/ (linguistic paywall; i.e. it’s in Hungarian).

Without doubt, on 2 October the Christian nation of Hungary will vote overwhelmingly to reject the welcome of their less fortunate neighbours. [To be fair, I agree that the EU should not forcibly send migrants to Hungary. At the same time I think that Hungary should willingly take in some families, say, after screening to be sure that they are not extremists.] But this is not the point. The point is that it is all fantastic news for the climate and the natural world.

It is good news because it shows that through advertising the minds of the people can be controlled, with a high level of predictability. You need to use the right techniques (just ask Mr Finkelstein), figure out how to access the reptile brain of the masses, and you can get them to do what you want.

Based on this, I envisage a number of other campaigns which the Hungarian government could try out once the referendum is over:

-          Promotion of wildlife gardening: posters would exhort people to make hedgehog holes in their fences; to stop applying pesticides in their gardens; to uproot those ecologically dull rows of evergreens so beloved of the nouveau riche and their aspirants; to plant wildflowers and orchards; to mix up their emerald lawns with daisies and wild carrot and clover and buttercups

-          Promotion of transport modesty: posters would ridicule the profligacy and vanity of Ferraris and Porsches; they would surely mock peroxide yuppie wives and their vain attempts to reverse park 4x4s single handed while on their mobile to their masseur; they would celebrate the benefits of public transport; they would remind us of the joys of walking or of pottering around at home

-          Celebration of insulation: another poster campaign timed for winter would expose the evil of insufficient insulation; it would turn into social outcasts those who skimp on wadding out up their walls or lofts; just like the migrant campaign, it would be cruel and socially divisive, yet ruthlessly effective

-          Veganism: using the horror show of factory farming (try http://www.nationearth.com/earthlings-1/) to full effect, the veganism campaign, expertly choreographed by Finkelstein, would slash meat and dairy consumption across Hungary by half within a few months, substantially cutting the country’s greenhouse gas emissions

I think that this approach would be far economically effective than battling with major investment in technology and infrastructure and having to deal with unhelpful lobbying from oil, cement, steel and energy companies.

Finkelstein and the Hungarian government understand how to engineer the behaviour and beliefs of the people. If it saves the world, perhaps climate policy makers might want to take a leaf out of their book.

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Naming trees

At Danube Kids, a start-up charity aimed at helping children who live on the Danube Delta and along the Danube to develop a connection with nature, we have learned that children have a simplistic and utilitarian view of the natural world. There are four kinds of animal: dogs for chasing away strangers, cats for eating mice, mice for being eaten by cats, and pigs for eating. There are two kinds of bird: chickens for eating, and everything else. This is an exaggeration, but broadly it is true that their knowledge of living species is very limited.

We take children out into nature and open their eyes to that rich diversity – sparking their awareness of hundreds of different kinds of insect, spider, worm, duck, goose, woodpecker, lark, falcon, hawk, eagle, stork, gull, tern … The thinking is that when things are lumped into too few classes or groups, then we do not care for them. When things start to be identified into finer and finer groups, when they take on colour, sounds and behaviour, they take on identity and we begin to care for them. Once they have names that care become stronger. Class names yields one level of care, individual names yield a higher level of care.

A ferry sinks in Bangladesh and 250 people die and we don’t really care that much. Fred gets knocked over in the street and we do care.

Getting children to name trees and animals will make environmental policy far more effective than it is today. Policy measures for nature naming should be relatively simple to devise and implement.

Illustration from an earlier post –  Ten policies to increase demand for low carbon living and policies, November 2013 - http://www.thebustard.com/?p=1190

 

 

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