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U.S. Economy May Need Continued Support from Fed

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There is something disappointing about the performance of the U.S. economy. This Associated Press story reports as though slow growth is bad and robust economic growth is an unalloyed good.

AP Economics Writer Christopher Rugaber does not question the take of a federal government report and the Federal Reserve. The perspective of this writer comes across loud and clear: Of course, EVERYONE agrees we need more growth! The judgment that slow growth is bad is telegraphed at several points in the story (emphasis is mine):

“The economy grew at a lackluster 1.7 percent annual rate….”

“That was better than a revised 1.1 percent rate”

“Despite the economy's tepid showing in the April-June quarter, it's now improved for two straight quarters as measured by the growth in the U.S. gross domestic product, or GDP.”

“Fed policymakers slightly downgraded their assessment of the economy.”

From the perspective of some economists, slower growth would not be characterized as “downgrading,” but would rather be called an “improvement.” Yet Christopher Rugaber provides no alternative perspectives from economists who believe a stable or contracting U.S. economy is an essential step in achieving long-term sustainability.

Why does economic growth preclude sustainability? Because it is driven by consumption growth. Consuming the planet is not sustainable. The judgment that increased consumption is good is also apparent in this story. It would have to be, if economic growth is so wonderful: 

“…the rise in consumer spending last quarter was better than most economists had expected,…”

“Robust auto sales” are characterized as “the best first-half total,” and should “remain solid,” we are told. We even get an enthused response from a banker:

“That is ‘a very nice indication of consumers' willingness to go out and make big-ticket purchases,’ said Peter D'Antonio, an economist at Citigroup.”

Of course a self-interested bank’s economist is going to love increased auto sales. Did Rugaber seek out an alternative opinion from a climate scientist or a steady-state economist? No.

A big part of the problem in this reporting and our society’s worship of economic growth is an unwarranted focus on GDP. We continually forget the fact that GDP ignores destruction of natural capital and counts resources spent cleaning up our messes as a positive. Here, Christopher Rugaber offers a dangerously incomplete definition:

“GDP is the broadest measure of the nation's output of goods and services. It includes everything from manicures to industrial machinery.”

It would have been more accurate and balanced to write, "It includes everything from manicures to cleanup of oil spills."

The one thing it’s hard to argue with in this story is the view that rising employment is good news. Of course we all want people to have meaningful work and their needs met. But even rising employment, on a full planet where the human race has overshot a sustainable level of population and economy, could be considered catastrophically bad news over the long haul.

Photo Credit: Kim Scarborough, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

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Guest Tuesday, 02 September 2014

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