The view that economic growth improves our lives is the opinion of a the vast majority economists and the general public.
But for nearly two hours Wednesday afternoon, those who question the benefits of growth got equal time.
If the idea of four University of Vermont professors debating economic growth sounds sleep inducing – it was dispelled by the informal title of the debate: “The Rumble in the Econ Jungle”.
This was an energetic and entertaining event for the benefit of the crowd of students who came in out of the sunshine to listen.
In one corner were two representatives of the pro-growth, neoclassical school of economics.
“Do you think your parents want you to be worse off than they were?” professor Bill Gibson asked the students during his presentation.
In the other corner, a pair of ecological economists that included Gary Flomenhoft who argued that continued economic growth is good or that it can be sustained.
“If we follow the neoclassical prescription we’d be like bacteria in a dish or scum in a pond. They reproduce until their food supply is gone and then they die,”Flomenhoft said.
His argument is that growth is good for developing nations, but past a point and for countries like ours, it’s not beneficial.
According to Flomenhoft’s debate partner, economics professor John Farley, there’s no correlation between growth and human welfare. In fact economic growth is actually hurting our quality of life.
“When the economy grows, it doesn’t grow into a void,” Farley told the students. “ It grows into a finite planet. The economy is a physical system. It consumes real resources, burns real energy. Generates real waste. Endless growth is impossible on a finite planet but also undesirable.”
The counter argument, made by Gibson and economics professor Art Woolf, is that only through growth can a country have the economic resources necessary to improve our lives.
“Economic growth has been the most effective, indeed, the only way that the scourge of poverty can be eliminated,” argued Woolf. “ It’s growth that has enabled people to afford better sanitation, more and better food and housing and better health outcomes. The environment is getting better, not worse.”
This may have been a debate among academics, but it was far from an academic debate to one of the events organizers.
UVM Junior Greg Bove studies economics. He agrees that growth in a world with limited resources is impossible and will ultimately lead to a weaker economy. That prospect concerns him because someday he wants a job that reflects his values.
“I am a little bit worried,” says Bove. “ When the economy is not strong people do have to sacrifice their own values.”
Bove says what’s needed is a more humanistic approach to the study of economics that includes teaching about alternative business models and calculating social benefits along with profits. He says those ideas are lacking in the education he’s received.
“How come we’re only taught one form of an economy?” he asks. “ Shouldn't that first class be the history of economics to show that it is an evolving study?’
Bove has helped organize the series of events that included this week’s debate and culminates Saturday at UVM in a summit called “Owning the New Economy”.