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Obsessed with ‘Growth’: why Will Hutton needs to innovate his outlook

February 13, 2011

I’m sitting in a stationary car in a traffic jam on some motorway. I’m on the phone to my partner, who asks if I’m making any progress.

Nothing moves. I stare vacantly out of the window at the sky. Psychic lightening strikes and I have a small epiphany. Now I must answer the question: I’m not moving, but am I making progress?

* * * * * * *

Writing in The Observer, Will Hutton discusses a book by US economist Tyler Cowen called  The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better.

The title is long enough to convey the concept, but here’s Hutton’s take on it:

My grandfather grew up in the 1900s in a world of horse-drawn carts and candle-lit houses. In the following 50 years he would live through a series of astonishing transformations – electricity, the motor car, television and radio, the telephone, the refrigerator, the vacuum-cleaner, penicillin and the aeroplane, just to name a few. It was not just these things that made the 20th century what it was. Their production was industrialised. They created huge employment and wealth.

I grew up in the 1960s and have experienced no such parallel transformations. Certainly, over the past 15 years, the mobile phone and internet have changed the way we all communicate. But the world of the early 2010s is recognisably the same as the early 1960s. The technologies have all incrementally advanced but the artefacts of, say, Mad Men are essentially the same, whereas those in, say, Downton Abbey are not. We live broadly as we did 50 years ago.

The Observer: Don’t be blinded by the web. The world is actually stagnating

I was considering various aspects of this position and the best way to describe them at the beginning of my own discussion, when it occurred to me that his premise could be summed up by something analogous I have experienced. We called it ‘the killer app’, and it was a term used to describe novel computer software that was astounding, exciting and presaged great changes, the nature of which we could barely perceive. The first spreadsheet – accountants all over the world have to change their underwear.  Photoshop – jaw dropping creative potential. Pagemaker – as someone with a print background, I knew a revolution in the making when I saw one, especially when combined with Freehand (first vector drawing program) and postscript.

These are my personal killer apps (applications, or programs) because I moved in those worlds. Of course, there were medical apps, engineering apps, scientific apps, and later – apps that were entirely a product of the technology that spawned them, which had no previous analog – web browsers and email clients are perfect examples.

By Christ, that was an exciting time if you liked computers and were interested in what they could do. Thing is – and here’s where I found my analogy for Hutton’s analysis – the appearance of killer apps that were so frequent back then, gradually slowed down, and finally halted. I can’t remember a single really innovative, novel item of software being released for a while now. Everything in the last decade seems, perhaps arguably, to be a refinement, a re-definition or restatement of what went before. So does this mean that in IT, as in the broader economic world that Hutton (and Cowen) addresses, that primary innovation has ceased?

If we want to step up the pace of invention, there has to be a huge shift in the way we think… Invention and innovation, we are discovering, are much too important to be left to the tender mercies of markets.

So speaks the economist. Hutton bemoans a lack of radical innovation, comparing it to the ‘low-hanging’ fruits of the industrial and scientific revolutions that gave us electricity, flight, satellites and MRI scanners. And computers. His solution is interventionist, and I think it flawed, but not by method, but by assumption. What Hutton does not do is distinguish between types of progress.

Here’s another analogy: I am sitting in a hollow, protected from the wind, but when it rains I get wet. I invent a covering that I construct over my head and call it a roof. It is very novel, but should I now bemoan the fact I haven’t invented another roof since the first one? Or should I consider instead what I can now do under this marvel above my head, that I could not do before?

…on one big thing [Cowen] is surely right: the importance of innovation as a driver of growth and the imperative to exploit it…

The trouble I have with Hutton’s position is that it singularly fails to think out of the box. Here is, for me, the greatest disconnect – another paean to bloody growth. Has he not heard of climate change? Of peak oil? Of 9 billion people soon to be wanting their respective slices of a pie too small for half that number?

Hutton appears not to understand a fundamental aspect of human development; once you’ve invented a roof and made all the money you can from it, that’s the end of the innovation. Roofs are not an end in themselves, they are a means to something more important: our wellbeing. Once we have them, we can concentrate on those things we do when not drenched in rain, shivering and vulnerable.

What we have created through our innovations is a world in which much fear can be diminished, much hunger can be assuaged, the darkness held at bay, our movements not constrained by pedestrian progress, our heath not merely the lottery of evolution and chance. Now we have created these benefits, we should be turning to the challenges they allow us to address: the uneven distribution of our intellectual and economic wealth, repairing our destructive relationship to the environment, seeking the calm and security that peace and generosity infer. Bettering ourselves through knowledge and education, weaning ourselves off the compulsion to measure our growth by that we consume, how much we own, how freely we can throw things away.

Cowen (and Hutton) seem to think that a lack of new roofs means the world is stagnating. I think they are wrong; it is more that, as in the world of computing, most of the heavy lifting has been done. We’ve addressed many of the key issues that protect us from the vagaries of nature at its cruellest. Now we have to figure out what to do with the freedoms we have earned. What we cannot pine for more novelty and expect our nostaligia to become a paradigm of permanent novelty. Discoveries can only be made once. After that, we have to pursue progress of a different kind. I believe that the progress mankind needs to make is spiritual, moral, egalitarian – and absolutely not the pursuit of more economic growth, the endless and mindless greed for more, without ever asking why we might need it.

This is my response to a critical question I have come to consider: how do we move forward as a civilisation in light of climate change and the other ‘limits to growth’ that are imposed by nature itself? This is my answer: mine is a call for inner progress, to turn away from the rotting carcass of consumerism and towards a world in which our demands and our needs can be met without depending on markets and materialism, where we do not measure ourselves and our worth by what we own, but by what we are. It is of course a call to arms for the hopelessly naive, but I am not without hope.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2011 12:33 pm

    Graham, this is sheer poetry mate! I couldn’t even begin to articulate my inner feeling and drive half as well, but you’ve explained it all above and beyond.

    If I had read the Guardian article, I would’ve come to a similar point, but my would be another; if Cowan/Hutton thinks we’ve stagnated for more than 50yrs, I’d ask them to run this by a midwife who’s worked in the industry for at least the past 40yrs. Decade by decade medical science provides miracles. I know personally witnessed how much conception through to a happy baby has changed in the 30yrs I’ve been kicking around.

    But even more than this, your correct with what needs to happen next. We are entering a new phase and innovative thinking will be every important. How do we keep all these new people dry under the roof and ensure food passes around equally? We’ve got little experience of that so far – the “revolution” that innovation can inspire might be yet another shining example of our finer points (but, taking the pessimistic angle for a moment, all this bitching, complaining and political paralysis could equally leave a black mark in the history books).

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 13, 2011 1:24 pm

    Thanks Moth – I struggled with it for a while until I realised it was Hutton’s ‘oldthink’ that was the problem, because all the other premises for his argument stemmed from his desire for this mythical ‘growth’.

    Anyway, glad you liked it…

  3. Lobma permalink
    February 13, 2011 3:09 pm

    Hello Graham

    You are spot on. I am Bodhisattva in the Guardian, and wrote a comment after Hutton’s article, which seemed to generate some interest.

    I just cannot understand why so called progressives like Hutton still cling to the old dogmas of continued growth. Surely they must be aware of the utter destruction such a position causes to us all.

    I live my partner and I have an income of under £10,00 a year, but we are content and have all we need. It fills me with sadness to look around and witness the utter folly in the exploitation of the environment for material gain. Never satisfied with what they have but always wanting more and more.

    I am pleased to have found your blog though.

    Best wishes
    Lobma

  4. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 13, 2011 3:19 pm

    Well, you are very welcome here Lobma – and thanks for the comment. I enjoyed your post in the Hutton debate and I suspect we share rather similar views. Oddly, I live on my own and live on exactly half of what you and your partner draw, so perhaps that 5K mark per person is the modest minimum these days.

    Anyway, nice to see you, and do drop by again if you have time

  5. February 13, 2011 4:36 pm

    Thank you Graham

    Good to meet you too, yes I feel we have similar outlooks. I’m going to devote some time to reading a few of your older articles on here

    Oh yes, £5,000 should be adequate for a single person, I have no doubt. Yet people are so caught up in the never-ending realm of desire and fulfilment, that the idea of loving so frugally would perhaps be anathema to must. Why say a banker need so much money I can’t understand. How much wealth/possessions does one person need?

    I’ve become interested in an even more radical alternative to the present economic set up of late’ that of a Resource Based Economy, where money is by passed and natures resources are distributed freely to all. As I say very radical, so I don’t see this idea taking hold in the foreseeable future. Here’s a blog I wrote about it anyway:

    http://nakedearthx.blogspot.com/2011/01/leaving-behind-old-values.html

    I see that you contribute to the Guardian, I’d like to as well, but haven’t gotten round to sending off an email putting my self forward as yet. Don’t know if my grammar would be up to the task though!

    I have been writing comments on Jamie Delingpole’s blog in the Telegraph too, since I saw him make a complete fool of himself on the Horizon programme. My, they are an angry lot over there!

    John Cook’s Skeptical Science site is excellent too isn’t it!

    Best regards

    Lobma

  6. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 13, 2011 5:01 pm

    Lobma: “Why say a banker need so much money I can’t understand. How much wealth/possessions does one person need?”

    That’s the thing, isn’t it? Money should be a means to an end, but I guess that some people forget they should be earning money to build that roof I mentioned, and that money itself is not the point, but what we can do with it. When the point becomes the money, then greed must surely follow, and the result is exactly the kind of moral corruption that has purchased American democracy and turned it into a farce where the only people whose voices are heard (and respected) are those of the wealthy. It wouldn’t be so bad if the rich and powerful also looked after us and the environment a bit more, but they seem to get so obsessed with gaining ever greater wealth and power that they don’t have time to do anything useful with all those dollars.

    (Mind you, I have the greatest respect for Bill and Melinda Gates, whose foundation – funded by Gates’ wealth – really is doing good things. They set an example of philanthropic generosity that puts most other rich people to shame).

  7. Birgit permalink
    February 17, 2011 1:38 pm

    Hello Graham! It is good to be back on this site after a long time. This is an interesting comment. But I think it is not so easy for most peoples to live on £5000 per year. Do you grow much of your own vegetable in the garden? Also I think you must own your house because if you pay the rent out of £5000 there might not be so much to live on. But you set a good example for us.

    And this question of the bankers pay is a good one. Of course even in Sweden we have this problem and our banks did this bad behaviour in 1990 and 1991 which was a huge cost to all Swedish people when they needed to be bail out. But Anna-Maria ask me a good question which I did not answer so well. She ask if no-one has any savings then who will own the businesses and factories?

  8. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 17, 2011 2:15 pm

    Hi Birgit – nice to see you again.

    You’re right that I own my own house. It was only after I’d paid off the mortgage that I was able to get out of corporate life and live more modestly, but that’s what I saved up for. Thing is, I don’t like ‘things’ very much (people come to my place and ask why it looks so tidy – it’s because I don’t own enough things to make it untidy :)).

    I don’t grow much – fruit mainly. The rest I get locally, because I live the country and there are lots of good local places to buy stuff. As petrol gets more expensive the advantages of driving to supermarkets etc diminishes, so although I’m paying a bit more for some things, I think the costs even out in the end.

    Your question about savings is a tough one. I’m not sure who will own factories and businesses in the future, but I do know that the smaller the business, the more likely it is to remain in private hands. I’m a ‘small is beautiful’ kind of chap…

  9. birgit permalink
    February 17, 2011 5:18 pm

    I think this is a good way to live Graham and it is good too to have the fruit grown in your own garden. Fruit does not do so well in Sweden apart from some berries but I think I shall try to grow the vegetables when I have the chance to leave corporate life.

    And Lobma I am rather interested in this so-called Resource Based Economy. But I don’t really understand how natures resources can be distributed freely to all? Who will do the distributing?

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