Economic Growth is Not a Sacred Cow

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Running to Nowhere? Image courtesy of Ian Wakefield on Pixabay

Out-Pacing Google…

I remember when I first got google maps on my phone, I would use it to navigate when I went on trips, especially when I was on foot in places like London or other cities I visited.

I found myself trying to ‘beat the map’. If google reported a certain destination as 27 minutes away, I would get a small buzz of pleasure from arriving in 26 minutes. I know, a small dopamine hit, but it was fun.

Until, at some point, I realised that the way the app worked was that the time was constantly adapting to my walking speed. Of course, I knew this, but at some point it became laughable that I was even thinking I could out-walk myself-of course, that’s impossible-at least, not in a way was fun-and so, just like that, the game was over.

…is Like Chasing Economic Growth

Hubby and I were speculating yesterday, in the wake of a new forecast of a 25% post-covid drop in economic output, about the unreliability of forecasts, how growth happens and why is it that we chase an always increasing level of output. Why is it bad if we don’t get ‘back on track’ and what is it that we’’re chasing anyway?

Of course the economy is not exactly like the human form walking the streets of London. And, in some ways, it is. If I’ve agreed to be somewhere on time, and I’ve invested in, say, hiring a room, or someone has paid me in advance for my time, and I get diverted, or I fall and get delayed, then there is a consequence, a commitment that has been made that cannot be paid. Something I might have to pay back, or would ask to be refunded, which would leave the conference suite with a small deficit.

At a larger scale, as with covid, where commitments are being cancelled, then workers are being put on furlough, or made redundant as some businesses survive.

But, before we rush back to chasing the path we thought we were on and the time prediction that the metaphorical google maps made for us, maybe we want to reassess why we’re doing any of it.

What Would be so Bad if We Didn’t?

If we are constantly trying to ‘walk faster’, then we can surely make incremental gains, but do we end up missing the point of why we wanted to walk in the first place?

When it comes to economic growth, what, really, would be so bad if we just eased off a bit from chasing a single metric?

OK, I’m over-simplifying for the sake of a metaphor. I understand that we’re wrapping up a whole lot of desirable gains into a single metric. Wealth, at a country level, generally equates with better education, better health, more free time. Lots of things we consider desirable as humans.

And of course, there are implications of throwing it all away.

We live in a renewable world and we design fancy technology that allows us a degree of efficiency and ease and the expression of human ingenuity, and it’s all very well for me to say, let’s ease off on growth, sitting in a wealthier country, as an older person, in reasonable comfort and confident of my resilience and ability to create value no matter what.

There Would be Consequences

What isn’t the same for people like my oldest son, currently on unpaid leave from his service sector job, which would experience a reducing demand should the economy contracts and, therefore, a potential period of instability, and unemployment. And without an effective social safety net, people in some countries would suffer more than others.

Chasing growth is a also a bit like the arms race. If you don’t join in the game, then you get even further behind, and being behind makes it harder, if not impossible, to ever catch up.

In that game, the one we play now, low-income countries become ever more distant from their better off neighbours, and the lower the base the greater the gap. So, yes, I understand the complexity, but I also understand the limitations of the game.

Celebrating Achievement…

I watched a documentary last week about Eliud Kipchoge breaking the two-hour marathon time.

I adore seeing feats like this-someone dedicated to his or her sport, who trains, takes it seriously but has a human side, achieving something outstanding. It gives us a shared means of celebrating human potential and appreciating what’s possible.

And it’s special, of course it is.

And, it’s sport. We can come home and switch off.

…While Maintaining Perspective

When I saw the Resurfacing documentary about Andy Murray a few months ago, I wanted to scream at the screen for him to,

Just stop!

It was palpable how much pain he was in, despite the procedure of the title, and how much he was pushing from, what seemed to me, a sense of obligation to himself and others, and not being able to see what choices he had.

Until, it seemed he had no choice but to retire, to step out of the game. that moment, when he seemed to accept that his tennis career, as he’d known it, might be over.

It looked to me, the viewer, that letting go of a target he felt compelled to chase, no matter what pain he was enduring, was a moment of complete freedom, from which he took a series of actions he wouldn’t even consider before, which let to him falling back in love with his sport and his sporting life in a way that was pure joy to watch.

We Always Have This Choice

It can seem as if we have to reach a low-point in order to be able to re-evaluate, but the truth is we always have this choice, in any moment.

Every day I have the choice of my walking route and how fast or slow I’m going. Every day, Andy Murray has the choice to play tennis, or not (I’m sure he doesn’t experience it as a choice, but it’s there nevertheless!).

What’s inevitable, it seems to me, is that we will chase, we will drive to create and invent, and utilise our resources, renewable and otherwise, economic or human.

And, every so often, I think we have a moment when it seems easier than other moments to ask ourselves what we are sacrificing in pursuit of the win.

When we can see that we’re chasing a target that doesn’t exist, we can step aside and allow time to reflect on what we really want.

And if that’s to run, rather than walk because it’s fun to trick google maps then let’s do that too-but let’s do it with the awareness that there’s nowhere to get to until we create the illusion of a destination.

Economic growth, like anything, is only a sacred cow if we create it as such

With love,


Originally published at on May 14, 2020.

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