We have introduced the idea of an economy working “well” or “badly,” and have referred to high unemployment, persistent high inflation, and destruction of the natural environment as bad things that virtually no one wants. “Bad” and “good” are value-laden terms: Do they belong in an economic textbook?
Social scientists often make a distinction between positive questions, which concern issues of fact, or “what is,” and normative questions, which have to do with goals and values, or “what should be.” For example, “What is the level of production in our country?” is a positive question, requiring descriptive facts as an answer. “What level of production would be most desirable?” is a normative question, requiring analysis of what it is we value and what goals should be set. However, both of these questions require a definition of production; positive and normative issues are inevitably intertwined in efforts to reach such a definition.
Using both empirical evidence and various theories, we will describe—using the best available economic research—how an economy functions at the macro level. Yet, while perhaps a few people enjoy studying economic principles for their own sake, the main reason anyone would study macroeconomics is to try to understand how we—as a society, nation, and world—can reach the goals we desire. Thus we cannot avoid the normative question of what goals the macroeconomy should achieve.
Not everyone has the same goals, on a personal level, or in their idea of a “good” society. However, agreement becomes easier at a more general level. Therefore, we will start with the term well-being as a way of referring to the broad goal of promoting the sustenance and flourishing of life.
One macroeconomic goal is to get and keep people’s living standards high enough that their lives can be long, healthy, enjoyable, and offer them the opportunity to accomplish the things they believe give their lives meaning.
The most basic living standard issues relate to the quality of people’s diets and housing, their access to means of transportation and communication, and the quality of medical attention they receive. Taking a somewhat broader view, we might also include less tangible aspects of life such as the quality of education people receive and the variety of entertainments they can enjoy. In addition, the way in which people participate in producing goods and services—as well as their consumption of them—has important implications for their health and happiness. So, for working-age people, the quality of their working lives is part of their standard of living. On the other hand, for many people who cannot do much work because they are too young, old, ill or handicapped, the quality of the hands-on care they receive is a major component of living standards. We could add even more categories to broaden our notion of well-being, going beyond economic issues to include things like political freedom and social inclusion. Economics has traditionally, however, taken the goods-and-services or provisioning aspect of life as its central focus, and living standards growth has been a top concern.
How can living standards be maintained or improved? For a long time, “raising living standards” was considered to be nearly synonymous with “achieving economic growth.” By economic growth we mean growth in the level of production or output. Traditionally, this has been measured within a country by the growth of its gross domestic product (GDP).
Global economic growth has been impressive in recent decades. Figure 1 plots the sum of GDP for all countries from 1960 to 2003. The data from which this chart has been plotted is far from perfect – different countries have at different times used a variety of methods (some approaching guess-work) to calculate their GDP. The conceptual definition of GDP is also controversial. Nevertheless, we can view as a reasonable approximation the conclusion from this picture: that global production has increased greatly over the last few decades. By this measure, the value of global production in 2003 was about 4.6 times the value in 1960.
But the growth in economic production has not been equal in all countries, and living standards are still very low in much of the world. This fact has important meaning for people’s enjoyments and options in life. Poverty in the modern world can mean that people crowded together in unsanitary urban slums or isolated in rural huts, have barely enough to eat, no education, and never see a doctor. Worldwide, extreme poverty is still a major concern. The United Nations estimates that about 1.2 billion people—or about 20% of the world’s population—live in absolute poverty, subsisting on the equivalent of U.S. $1 per day or less. The production of more and better housing, better roads, more grain, more schooling, and more medical care—more goods and services—is necessary to raise living standards in such situations.
It is because of such an underlying concern with living standards that for many decades economists focused very strongly on measures of economic growth, and the question of how it could be maintained and even speeded up. The process of moving from a general situation of poverty and deprivation towards one of increased production and plenty is what has traditionally been referred to as economic development. Generally, the process of economic development has been thought of as a process of increasing agricultural productivity, investing in machinery and technology, and making changes in the organization of work (from home-based shops to factories, for example), so that labor productivity rises. That is, people can produce more in each hour that they work.
Of course, while increased production is necessary in such a situation, it is not sufficient on its own to improve living standards for the people living in a poor country. For one thing, the increase in production may not be enough to keep pace with a growing population. Improvement in general living standards can only result if production per person (GDP per capita) on average rises. Some of the increase in global production shown in Figure 1 is simply a result of more people producing goods and services. When we adjust for the growth in the world’s population, we see that production per capita, as measured by dividing global production by global population, has also grown over the last several decades, but not by as much. Figure 2 shows that global production per capita has increased by about a factor of 2.2 between 1960 and 2003, according to this measure.
If we were to disaggregate from the global figures we would see that changes in economic production over these years vary significantly across different regions and countries. In East Asian countries, GDP per capita has increased by over seven times between 1960 and 2003. In Sub-Saharan Africa, however, GDP per capita is actually lower now than it was in the 1970s.
- First, it matters what is produced. An economy may experience “economic growth” by increasing its production of military hardware or large public monuments, for example, but these kinds of production are much less likely to raise living standards than growth in production of nutritious food, widely available health care, or the quality of basic education.
- Second, it matters how it is produced. In some poorer countries today, many workers—including young children—work 14 to 16 hour days in unsafe, badly ventilated mines and factories; many suffered severe illnesses and early death.
- Third, it matters for whom economic growth occurs. How are the increases in production, or incomes arising from production, distributed among the population? Do some regions, or some groups of people as defined by income class, race, ethnicity, gender, or other factors, receive more of the gains from growth than others? If the benefits of economic growth only go to a tiny global or national elite, the bulk of the population may remain desperately poor.
Sometimes these queries about “what, how, and for whom?” are referred to as the “three basic economic questions.” Even given these qualifications raised by these questions, you can still see that some economic growth is necessary in regions that are very poor.
In richer regions, the situation may be different. In a country that is already rich, is economic growth still the key to improving living standards and increasing overall well-being? In most highly industrialized countries, populations are growing very slowly—or even declining. When the population isn’t growing, and when the majority of families already enjoy decent housing, safe water, plenty of food, easily washed and dried clothing, readily available heating and refrigeration, a car or two (or more), airline travel, TV sets, DVD players and the like, do we really need more in general? Some people would say that we do, but others believe that we should instead switch our national priorities into making sure that production is designed to increase well-being. In countries that already have a high level of production, living standards growth may be achievable even in the absence of economic growth, by improving cultural, educational, and environmental conditions, raising the quality of work-life, and promoting an equitable allocation of the economic rewards of production among workers, non-workers, managers, and owners. Another possible shift in priorities would be to put less emphasis on economic growth, and more emphasis on other elements of well-being, such as long-term environmental and social sustainability.
Stability and Security
While closely linked to living standards goals, the goal of stability and security brings in a time dimension that we have not yet discussed.
Imagine that you are an old person, and looking back over your life you can say that on average, you enjoyed a good standard of living. This might arise from two quite different scenarios. In one scenario, you enjoyed a fairly steady, or gently rising, living standard and were always able to plan confidently for your financial future. In the other scenario, you were quite successful at some points in your life, but also had to periodically face the real possibility of “losing it all.” You did well and bought a house, but then you became unemployed and had to face the fear that your house would be foreclosed on because you wouldn’t be able to make the payments. You did well and believed you were on a solid path to a pleasant retirement, and then high inflation or a jumpy stock market wiped out the value of your savings and pensions, and you had to start over. Even if, after the fact and “over the long run,” you can say that on average you did OK in terms of your living standards, the uncertainty and anxiety of living with economic fluctuations in the second scenario would have taken a toll on your overall well-being, relative to the more stable case.
High rates of unemployment are associated with many indicators of individual and social stress, such as suicide, domestic violence, stress-related illnesses, and crime. Unpredictable fluctuations in rates of inflation, interest rates and foreign exchange rates make it difficult—and in the worst cases, impossible—for individuals and organizations to make productive and economically sensible plans for the future.
One common pattern is for fluctuations in the level of production to occur as a cycle in which recessions (or “contractions” or “slumps”) and their attendant problem of high unemployment alternate with booms (also called “expansions” or “recoveries”) which often bring with them the problem of more rapidly rising prices. This is called the business cycle or trade cycle. Even if these problems are “short-run” and do not last long—people eventually find jobs or inflation slows down—fluctuations cause considerable “ill-being” while they last. So creating a stable, secure economic environment is a separate important macroeconomic goal.
Figure 3 shows GDP for the United States going back all the way to 1800. You can see that while the general trend is upwards, the curve on the graph does not indicate steady growth. The curve is somewhat wavy. There are periods in which GDP fell as the country experienced economic contractions, and other periods of rapid expansion during which GDP rose very steeply.
A widely accepted macroeconomic goal is the achievement of sufficient economic stability to enable individuals and families to enjoy economic security and to be able to make reasonable predictions about their future. In the light of new knowledge about our dependence on the natural world, which is undergoing radical alterations due to human economic activity, the goal of security now must also include a much longer time horizon, recognizing a serious responsibility to future generations. This leads us to our third goal: sustainability.
We want good living standards and stability not only for ourselves right now, but also for ourselves later in our lives, and for our children, grandchildren, and other generations to come. That is, we would like a macroeconomic environment that is not only good now, but sustainable into the future. In particular, the goal of sustainability requires that we address the questions:
- Are economic activities financially sustainable into the future? Or is a nation incurring a high amount of debt that may create a heavy burden on a country’s future workers?
- Are economic activities socially sustainable into the future? Are disparities between the “haves” and the “have nots” diminishing or based on justifiable causes? Is the next generation receiving the upbringing and education required to enable them to contribute to a healthy economy and society? Or is the current structure of economic activity setting the stage for future social disruption and political strife?
- Are economic activities ecologically sustainable into the future? Is the natural environment that supports life being treated in a way that will sustain its quality into the future? Or is it becoming depleted or degraded?
Financial, social and ecological sustainability are important macroeconomic goals.
For many generations, it seemed that technological progress and economic growth were magical keys that unlocked the door to unlimited improvements in the standard of living. In 1970, for example, real output per person in the United States was about ten times what it had been in 1840. “Developed” countries in North America, Western Europe, and elsewhere experienced long-run rising standards of living through industrialization, improvements in agricultural technology, and the development of service industries.
Some observers believe that this process can continue forever, and that any sustainability problems can be remedied by more GDP growth. For example, the issue of financial sustainability includes both concerns about the levels of government debt (which accumulates whenever governments spend more than they take in) and national debt (what all people and organizations in a country owe to foreigners). Too much debt is a problem since it means that a large proportion of a country’s income may in the future need to go to into servicing the debt rather than into other, more socially beneficial, uses. Indebtedness, however, is usually considered manageable as long as GDP grows at least as fast as the level of debt. Regarding social sustainability, some people believe that economic growth is also the way to relieve social ills and political strife. They reason that the bigger the pie, the bigger everyone’s share can be, and that rising personal incomes will naturally lead to a peaceful and productive population. Concerning ecological issues, some economists think that any current negative effects of economic growth on the environment can be remedied by additional economic growth, since higher incomes give countries the wherewithal to invest in new exploration for resources and new pollution-controlling technologies. So, to the most growth-oriented economists, “sustainable growth” simply means making sure that the growth rate of GDP stays high well into the future.
As against those who continue to believe that economic growth and development, as traditionally defined, hold out the best answers to financial, social, and environmental problems, by the end of the 20th century many other economists have started asking whether these might instead contribute to these problems.
To the extent that a country’s economic prosperity depends on short-sighted or unrealistic financial planning, prosperity may be unsustainable. For decades, for example, many poorer countries were encouraged to borrow heavily from richer countries in order to progress in economic development. However, many of them did not achieve the high rate of economic growth that was supposed to result from the borrowing, and a severe “debt crisis” has resulted. Some very poor countries currently send more funds out of their countries simply to pay the interest on their debt than they pay for health care for their own populations; many also pay more in interest than they currently receive in grants and loans.
Meanwhile, in some industrialized countries including the U.S., governments have recently cut taxes in order to “spur economic growth.” But this means that governments instead borrow heavily to fund their activities. Many fear that such borrowing may already have become so excessive that dramatically higher taxes will be required in the future in order to pay interest on the debt. Those called on to pay these higher taxes—and hence suffer lower living standards—would be future workers like you. Setting good priorities about how we borrow is important to long-run sustainability.
Turning to social sustainability, many economists and other observers have come to question whether “development” as traditionally defined will solve the problem of global disparities in living standards. Some economists suggest that historical factors such as the legacy of colonization, and political factors such as rich country protection of their own industries within the system of global trade, mean that it is impossible to expect poorer countries to “develop” in the same way as countries that industrialized earlier. Analysts have also estimated that giving everyone in the world a U.S. life-style, including a meat-rich diet, multiple cars per family, etc., would require an extra two to four planets to supply resources and absorb waste.
Traditional goals of unlimited material affluence have also been called into question within richer countries, to the extent that social scientists have noticed that consumerist and more-is-better values may actually contribute to personal and social discontent and the weakening of social norms of trust and reciprocity. Societies that suffer bitter divisions between “haves” and “have nots,” or a general sense that everybody is just out for themselves, are more likely to suffer social and political breakdown—perhaps to the point of violence—than societies where people enjoy a greater sense of social cohesion.
Regarding environmental issues, increased urban concentration and certain agricultural practices have caused extinction of some species and notable decreases in genetic diversity in others. Contemporary “developed” economies are presently heavily dependent on the consumption of fossil fuels. Yet these fuels are not in unlimited supply, and high-level scientific panels concur their burning contributes to global climate change.
Because of these and other problems, ecologists emphasize the complexity of natural systems and our relative ignorance about long-term, irreversible, or potentially catastrophic effects of economic behavior on the natural systems that support us. They suggest that, instead of placing blind faith in technological progress and economic growth, society should adopt a precautionary principle. This principle says that we should err on the cautious side, preferring to cooperate with natural systems rather than assuming we can safely replace them. Or, as stated by one group of experts, “When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” Such attention to environmental sustainability need not preclude also giving attention to the goals of living standards improvement and stability, but it does clearly call into question the idea that economic growth, in itself, is always the only, or the best goal.
Traditionally, many economists did not recognize a separate goal of sustainability, since they believed that achieving economic growth would naturally contribute to the achievement of any other goals that we might choose. We also present the view that suggests that environmental, social, and financial sustainability need to be considered as goals in their own right, perhaps requiring a dramatic shift in how we think about economic growth.
- Global Development And Environment Institute, Tufts University
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