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More U.S. Economists See Half-Full Glass

Posted by on in Wall of Shame
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No, your eyes aren’t failing you; that graphic above isn’t the real New York Times. The front page of Friday's New York Times business section actually looked like this:


I created the alternate version to illustrate what we might see from an unbiased New York Times staff. Unfortunately, pro-growth bias is alive and well. Month-after-month, reporters phone in the same unimaginative, lazy, biased reports that assume perpetual economic growth is feasible and universally pursued/applauded. Maybe today’s Wall of Shame post will inspire a few journalists out there to get off their butts and widen their circle of go-to “experts” for quotes about the latest GDP figures.

More U.S. Economists See Half-Full Glass suffers from the usual unexamined assumptions about the universal goodness of economic growth, and backs those assumptions up by quoting only experts who share a fetish for economic growth. This sentence offers plenty of clues:

“Healthier consumer spending, including the strongest annual increase in automobile sales since 2007, spurred by a booming stock market and an improving housing sector.”

Increasing consumer spending is characterized as “healthier,” even though the U.S. is consuming resources at a rate that would require 5 Earths to support sustainably. Increasing automobile sales are described as “strong” even though the manufacture and operation of those automobiles contributes significantly to climate disruption and increasing resource scarcity. An “improving housing sector” assumes there is universal agreement that paving over more farmland, forest and prairie to build houses is somehow an improvement (it is not an improvement for the food supply, the quality of our water and air, or the prospects for several endangered species).

I’m sure New York Times financial reporter Nelson Schwartz knows his craft. Why he’s forgotten it when it comes to reporting on the economy is a mystery yet to be solved (I suspect it has something to do with a lifetime of indoctrination from news coverage like this). With apologies, I must slap him in the face today and embarrass him into doing his job.

Memo to Schwartz and New York Times: Perpetual economic growth is physically impossible on one planet. Economic growth is killing the ecosystems our economy is a part of and depends on. On a full planet (like ours), economic growth is not healthy. If you're not ready to accept these truths - inconvenient as they are - then you should at least acknowledge there are many experts with that view.

Imagine what it might look like if the New York Times headline writers had not been programmed from birth to worship growth everlasting? And what if intrepid reporter Scoop Murrow was on the story, insisting on writing a complete and accurate (or at least “balanced”) report? Instead of turning only to growth fetishists for expert quotes, imagine that Scoop also sought out economists with a different view. Here’s an example of how that story might start out:

Indicators Show Threat of Continued Economic Growth

The U.S. economy is likely to remain in an unhealthy growth pattern, according to some experts’ interpretation of current indicators. Notable increases in consumer spending, auto sales and housing construction are signs that a stable economy may not be in the cards for some time. Continued economic growth is considered by most scientists and ecological economists to be closely aligned with injuries to ecosystems and depletion of natural resources.

Not all economists share this concern. Michael Hanson, senior United States economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, would like to see more economic growth. “We’re growing more optimistic,” reports Hanson. Since BofA Merrill Lynch profits from increasing economic throughput, Hanson sees the glass as half-full.

“Half-full glass’ alright.  And it’s getting less full by the minute – of clean water, fish and wildlife, green space, oil, future prospects – as we pull out all the stops to stimulate the economy,” was Brian Czech’s response to Hanson’s rosy perspective. Czech is author of the book, Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution, and is visiting professor of natural resource economics at Virginia Tech and president of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

Incoming Fed Chair Janet L. Yellen is apparently siding with the pro-growth crowd, suggesting in an interview with Time magazine that this data gives her confidence that real growth, adjusted for inflation, could reach 3 percent or more this year.

Dave Gardner, director of the documentary GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, observed, “Yellen is serving the agenda of the pro-growth lobby and the Obama administration. To keep their jobs, politicians continue to think they must promise us perpetual economic growth with no unfortunate consequences.” Gardner points out in his documentary that 3% annual economic growth would result in an economy one billion times the size of today’s economy if continued for 720 years, which he terms, “clearly an impossibility.”

Rob Dietz, coauthor of Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources, provided this reaction: “Until economists adopt measures that can gauge when the economy is getting better, and not just bigger, we'll be stuck with policies that fail to provide for well-being over the long haul.”

That's how an unbiased report on the economy might begin!

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  • Misha
    Misha Monday, 13 January 2014

    I applaud this unmistakable exposure of blind adherence to growth cheerleading uninformed by the many consequences beyond those of profit! It should be admitted by any reporting on economic prospects that the economy is inextricably linked to ecology, and an economy planned and guided by ideals represented by GDP charts with a positive slope overlooks the crumbling foundations that prop up the value of this measure.

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