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The Degrowth Fallacy

It has long been known that social outcomes in terms of poverty and human development vary across countries at given mean income, such as measured by GDP per capita. An early demonstration of this point is found in Amartya Sen’s 1981 paper “Public Action and the Quality of Life in Developing Countries” (Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics 43(4): 287-319). Sen pointed to countries such as Sri Lanka that had used social policies to attain the social indicators (such as life expectancy) that are more typical of high-income countries. Costa Rica is another example.

There are hazards in inferring that social policies explain why some countries have better social outcomes at given mean income. This relates to a general class of problems in inferring “social efficiency” from regressions of outcomes on mean income, as explained in my paper “On Measuring Aggregate Social Efficiency” (Economic Development and Cultural Change 53:.273-92). However, let me put those problems to one side here, and assume that good social policies help explain cases such as Sri Lanka and Costa Rica.

Does this imply that rich countries can maintain their better social outcomes (in terms of health, education, absolute poverty) at a lower mean income? That is the claim made by the Degrowth Movement, which has argued that the way to improve environmental outcomes (and, in particular, to reach targets for carbon emissions) is to contract aggregate economic activity. Clearly, this would meet with near universal opposition if it was thought that social outcomes would worsen as a result. That is where the experience of countries such as Sri Lanka and Costa Rica becomes so important in the eyes of the Degrowth Movement, which points to those countries to support their claim that degrowth need not have a social cost.

The problem in this argument is that better social outcomes are not only attributable to better social policies. Higher average incomes have also played a role, both directly (through poor people’s greater command over commodities that matter to those outcomes) and indirectly (by creating the resource availability needed to finance better social policies). (Sudhir Anand and I elaborate this argument in our paper, “Human Development in Poor Countries,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 7(Winter 1993): 133-150.)

There lies the Degrowth Fallacy: The fact that some countries have better social outcomes at a given level of mean income does not imply that richer countries can attain the same social outcomes at lower mean income.

In an example of the Degrowth Fallacy, in a radio interview (posted today) Jason Hickel (introduced as an economist and anthropologist at the London School of Economics) points to Costa Rica to support his claim that rich countries can maintain their social outcomes at lower mean income. Yes, Costa Rica has had good social and environmental policies over many decades, and other countries can learn from that experience. However, the country did this in combination with economic growth. Indeed, mean income has tripled in real terms since 1960, and the average growth rate has been above average for Latin America (World Bank). By combining social policies with policies that directly supported economic growth, Costa Rica was able to attain over time good social outcomes for a country at its level of mean income. Costa Rica is definitely not an example of how good social outcomes are possible without economic growth.

The degrowth advocates have also disputed claims that social outcomes tend to improve with growth. For example, Item 3 of the Degrowth Manifesto says that “Global economic growth has not succeeded in reducing poverty.” I will grant that there are cases in which economic growth has by-passed poor people; there is no reason why growth will inevitably come with lower poverty or better outcomes in terms of human development. However, the bulk of country experiences have indicated that better social outcomes (including poverty reduction) generally come side-by-side with economic growth. In marked contrast to the Degrowth Manifesto, economic growth has succeeded in reducing poverty. Also, lower poverty has helped promote economic growth. (On all this see Chapter 8 of the Economics of Poverty.)

Of course, this does not mean that growth on its own, without good social policies, will improve social outcomes. There are also examples of countries that have squandered much of the social welfare gain from economic growth from this perspective—the gains have been largely captured by those who are already well-off, with modest benefit to the broader society. The US today is an example.

As Hickel also argues, many social outcomes were better in the US in the 1970s, when mean income was roughly half what it is today. But one must seriously doubt that halving today’s average income in the US will restore the social outcomes of 50 years ago.

How might we reach a broad political consensus against inequality?

(This is the original English version of my oped in Le Monde, 12/15/2017.)

Probably more than any time in history, we have a broad political consensus today on the desirability of eliminating the worst forms of poverty in the world. We see this consensus in many places, including the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. There is no such consensus against inequality.

From a global perspective, we are making progress against poverty. Higher rates of economic growth in the developing world during the current period of globalization (though not just due to globalization) have come with success in reducing the numbers of very poor people. In the world as a whole, the number of people living below the frugal poverty lines found in low-income countries has fallen, from around 1,800 million in 1990 to just under 800 million in 2013 living under the World Bank’s international line of $1.90 a day (2011 prices). China has played a major role in this success. But since 2000 we are seeing progress in reducing the numbers of very poor people in all regions of the developing world. We are also seeing progress in human development, with rising literacy rates and falling infant mortality rates.

Growth in the developing world has also helped attenuate global inequality. This is typically measured by pooling all household incomes in the world (ignoring country of residence and) and measuring relative inequality—a summary statistic of the proportionate differences in incomes—in this anonymous global distribution.  By this measure, inequality has been falling over the last 30 years or so.

But when we look more closely at the data, there are some troubling features, pointing to serious policy challenges going forward. Relative inequality within countries is trending upwards on average, and markedly so in many countries, now famously so in the US. And absolute inequality—the absolute income and wealth gaps between rich and poor—is probably rising within all growing economies.

We have also learnt that growth processes in all countries have had both winners and losers. Some people have been pushed into poverty, while others escape it. This creates social tensions despite overall progress. We are also seeing rising numbers of relatively poor people, meaning that they are poor by the standards of what “poverty” means in their own countries, even though they live above $1.90 a day.

Nor are we seeing much progress in raising the level of living of the poorest—the world’s consumption floor. Despite higher growth rates in most developing countries since 2000, the consumption floor is still somewhere near the biological minimum in many countries, at around $1 per day. The developing world has been far more successful in reducing the numbers of people living near the floor than in raising the floor.

Before we can expect to see public effort to address these distributional concerns, there needs to be a political consensus that effort is called for. The lack of consensus for inequality is stalling public action. Granted we will never want to eliminate inequality, as that would surely leave too little incentive for innovation and growth. The consensus we need is about reducing high inequality. To some eyes, such inequality is morally objectionable, but not to other eyes.

Broader public support for redistributive effort may well emerge from the body of research that has indicated that high inequality undermines the scope for sustained economic growth, which makes it harder to maintain progress in reducing poverty. Also, the higher the initial level of inequality, the less poor people tend to share in the gains from economic growth. In short, high-inequality countries tend to see less growth and less of it helps those who need it the most. Inequality is thus a policy concern even if we think poverty reduction is the far more important goal.

Not all inequalities matter equally. There is scope for greater consensus about reducing those aspects of high inequality that matter most to growth and poverty reduction. These are the specific inequalities that constrain economic opportunities for poor and middle-class people. Inadequacies in schooling, health care and social protection are socially and economically disabling—creating a loss of freedom to fulfill people’s aspirations in life. So too do the many imperfections in markets for credit and land—creating inequalities in access to production inputs and technologies. All such inequalities limit employment opportunities, impede physical and social mobility, weaken democracy, and render people vulnerable to subordination to the will of others and exploitation in all domains of life. This represents lost economic opportunities, such that poor people have little hope of sharing in the new sources of wealth and in helping to generate that wealth. We then see an inequitable growth process going forward, perpetuating poverty across generations.

This can be the basis for developing a broad consensus against high inequality, as we now have for poverty.


An interesting step backwards in measuring global poverty

A new paper by Robert Allen, “Absolute Poverty: When Necessity Displaces Desire” (American Economic Review, December 2017), has proposed and implemented a method of measuring global poverty. Allen advocates this as an alternative to the World Bank’s longstanding method using Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) rates across countries in trying to assure that the international poverty line has constant purchasing power globally.

At the core of Allen’s method is the use of Linear Programming (LP) to set a least-cost diet for attaining stipulated nutrients, following George Stigler (“The Cost of Subsistence,” Journal of Farm Economics, 1945). Allen estimates country-specific least-cost diets anchored to globally-constant nutritional requirements with an allowance for spending on his stipulated bundle of non-food goods. Allen does not present his method as a complement to the Bank’s, but as superior. He claims that his method yields substantially high global poverty counts than the World Bank’s $1.90 a day line.

My comment on Allen’s paper, “An interesting step backwards,” argues that his proposed method is the resurrection of a method famously rejected long ago, including by Stigler, because it produces poverty lines of little social relevance. From the point of view of the history of thought on poverty, it is interesting to see what this old method delivers with new data for the developing world.

On a close inspection of his results and on doing some extra calculations, I find that his claim that the global absolute poverty count is much higher than currently thought, based on the Bank’s $1.90 line, is no longer true when one uses nutritional requirements that would seem to accord more closely with practice in low-income countries. This gives a much lower poverty count than the Bank’s $1.90 line. And the trend over time is virtually identical. I also argue that there is an urban bias in the prices Allen uses for valuation, which raises his counts relative to the national lines in low-income countries that have been used to determine the $1.90 line.

The comment argues that Stigler was right, and the method Allen proposes should still be rejected, based on Allen’s own findings. PPP’s remain essential for global poverty measurement.

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