The English magazine “The Economist” has this month twice editorialized on the end of an infatuation with the concept of economic growth through a deemphasis on free trade. It never stops to question the continued emphasis on GDP growth when for the past century, the demand for unwavering economic growth was rooted in both unhalting population growth paired with technological progress, two forces that began to plateau decades ago.
The articles bemoan the increase in social spending over the decades, even as the ease of doing business (a nebulous and subjective figure itself) and new construction has declined.
While it is true that much regulation has been introduced, mostly for the purposes not of protecting consumers but stymying competition and raising barriers to entry for many industries, the increase in social spending, the decline in constructions, and the true declines in growth are all tied to the same mind-numbingly obvious phenomenon: Western populations are in decline.
Aging seniors and low fertility rates have meant that demographic shifts of course limit commercial growth, as well as the demand for new housing, as the populations begin to decrease in several countries around the world. This includes large EU members such as Germany, Italy, and Spain, ailing hegemon Russia, but especially tech giants like Japan and Taiwan.
As those populations age, their demand for the most costly of social services, government-subsidized health care, will inevitably increase, while also eating up a larger share of budgets that continuously shrink as the working age tax base declines.
So if the Economist’s misleadingly cited statistics have less to do with “economic growth” than with demographic collapse, then this should beg the obvious question, should we demand or even expect growth when our industrial bases are actually shrinking and human capital decaying?
Some will argue that the pace and scale of technological innovation that have driven much of the productivity and GDP gains over the past century necessitate continued economic growth.
In the words of Peter Thiel though, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” To those focused on the unit-level of nation rather than consumer, much of the past two decades worth of innovation have been squandered, focused on user-end software, an industry that has proved to be far less profitable than expected with dismal PE ratios, and whose revenue bases are still mostly based on old-school advertising in the troubled social media giants. All the promises of the future from the last decades, fusion technology, a carbon-free grid, and labors’ replacement with AI have instead been supplanted a cheap repeat of the 1979 Oil Crisis reflecting our continued reliance on fossil fuels, and the proliferation of valueless meme-stocks and fads whose big ideas seldom deliver on their promises.
The emphasis on consumer entertainment software at the expense of structural and physical challenges signal both Western and global priorities. Instead of facing the future head on, the world has collectively resigned in the face of major crises, from responding to novel viruses with a refusal to do anything more than subsidize vaccines whose efficacy is essentially limited to a handful of months and whose adoption rates teeter in the low teens, to a change in focus from preventing climate change to admitting its inevitability and aiming to simply mitigate its effects. This amounts to an essential admission of capitulation and preparation for the decline and end of the species. At the individual level, such actions signal that short term costs will always take precedence over long term structural threats to our species’ survival and welfare, damaging incentives to save, invest in the future, or even to have children, exacerbating global decline.
Revolutionary technological innovations like mainstream quantum computing could of course catalyze productivity leaps and jumpstart economic growth, but each of these shifts, just like compulsory education and gender balancing in the workplace, will eventually plateau, meaning that as returns diminish, we will eventually return to stagnation.
That includes the equally anachronistic calls for more “free trade” with a world full of other countries that are also mostly in decline, and in a security order in which countries can no longer trust they will be free from invasion or blockade, and thus will choose to maintain their sovereignty through ending economic interdependence. Even if increasing free trade were viable, as the world saw in the 1980s, the marginal gains from differing competitive advantages of course will terminally plateau just like any other one-time adjustment to the international structure.
Perhaps we must admit that productive growth is not reasonable to expect in a period of species decay. If human development is stagnating or even regressing, and technological innovation has hit a temporary plateau, perhaps we should accept that permanent economic contraction that is a necessary corollary to a population and species locked in decline.