Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson


Since the days of Thomas Malthus, if not earlier, political philosophers have grappled with the possibility of exhausting the carrying capacity of Earth, and attempted to square those limits with the real improvement in living standards since the Industrial Revolution, or to evaluate the limits on improvements implied by that carrying capacity.  Brian Czech's Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train:  Errant Economists, Shameful Spenders, and a Plan to Stop Them All is in that tradition, although Book Review No. 3 will argue that the author has too frequently erred on the side of the polemic.

In his first part, he views economic growth for its own sake as a runaway train.  (In so doing, he's questioning the manifestos of both major political parties of the United States, as both see economic growth and Job Creation as Good Things.)  Where his work goes off the rails (hey, I'm second to nobody at railroad metaphors) is in coupling political policy to neoclassical economics.  Yes, the received paradigm in development economics and macroeconomics is one of growth models, while advocates of a steady-state or sustainable or less-ostentatious mode of analysis or of living are on the margins.  In part, that is because actually existing reality is one of rising living standards in market-based economies and as of yet a model that convincingly shows the source, and the possible timing, of an end to that rise has not been developed.  In that reality, one of the symptoms of resource constraints binding, a predictably rising price for exhaustible resources, exists in theory but not in practice.  The material intensity of goods has been declining, with consumer electronics and automobiles accomplishing more with less in a productive way (a phenomenon not necessarily true when it comes to downsized work-forces, but that's for another day) and some goods formerly priced as if exhaustion approached once again becoming available at popular prices.  And the political economy of environmental protection is one for which the best policy response is itself contested territory.

Taken together, the actually existing conditions of political economy are conditions within which the existing research agendas of economists are probably reasonable.  Mr Czech makes much of the Kuhnian paradigm shift in his call for a different approach in economics.  But there can be no paradigm shift without anomalies.  At the moment, the anomalies are in the inaccuracy of exhaustible resource models and the market failure approach to public intervention.

The second part contemplates stopping that runaway train.  The author offers the advocate suggestions for dealing with three types of individual.  First come members of the "liquidating class."  The terminology is deliberately provocative.  There are substantial overlaps between this class and Thorsten Veblen's conspicuously-consuming leisure class, although anyone who rents a storage bunker or buys a ticket to a motor-sports event (on land, sea, or air) might be a liquidator, less politely thought of as a wastrel.  Next come members of the "steady state class."  There are here overlaps between this class and members of the middle class and poor, particularly those living in modest houses and riding buses to work.  Walking or biking to work, but building a model railroad in one's basement is, however, suspect.  Where the overlaps are too hard to parse, you have a member of the "amorphic class," who might not be susceptible to persuasion or re-education, just yet.

Taken together, the policy part drips with that particular East Bay smug, and it will no doubt be referred to favorably in wealthy environmentalist circles, and among back-country hikers.  As a call for public action, the plan is unlikely to stop that runaway train.  The book appeared in print a few years too early to ride the wave of disaffection against corporate welfare manifested by the Tea Party and Occupy movements alike.  That wave can help accomplish some of the environmental goals, if only in slowing the channelling of resources to liquidators supported by the public purse.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)
Tags: academic, non-fiction, politics
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