Can We Have Jobs Without Growth?

Dave Roberts makes the case that contrary to politically expedient happy-talk, meeting the no-more-than-two-degrees-of-warming climate change target that the world has set for itself would realistically require rich countries to take a holiday from economic growth.

Obviously you’re not going to hear candidates for office espouse that view. But the possibility of aiming for zero-growth is an interesting exercise to think through. And I don’t think I’ve really heard limits to growth people spell out what they want this to look like. It’s quite true that America as it exists has enough wealth and income to support people at a decent standard of living, especially if you allow for increased redistribution. But presumably technology and business processes will keep improving, so output per hour worked is rising. At the same time, the population is growing so output per worker needs to fall. That implies a giant drop in aggregate hours worked. Working less is fine, and what you find in growth-oriented economies is that people generally do take some of the gains of increased productivity in the form of more leisure. But in order to ensure that the drastic decline in annual hours worked that zero-growth would require doesn’t result in mass unemployment would require a great deal of micromanaging of how people spend their day. It’s fine to say that the reduced output that would come from a lower Social Security eligibility age is a small price to pay for the increased leisure it would afford, but would we really stop a healthy 60 year-old retiree from launching a small business on the side in his golden years specifically in order to reduce output? I see huge problems here. Of course there are also huge problems with our current headlong rush toward a 4 degree temperature increase and the longer we go without implementing reasonable moderate ideas the more likely it becomes that we may have to resort to extreme sudden-stop measures.