The economic “growth” frame – and its opposition
Aug 27, 2014 – Outside of governments and corporations, the pursuit of economic growth is no longer taken for granted – some commentators are challenging the orthodoxy. But the “growth” concept has deep roots, and in its absence we have what George Lakoff calls “hypocognition”, a lack of established frames enabling us to think differently about the economy. Cognitive-linguistics studies have even suggested that direct opposition to “growth” may be counterproductive for those who oppose it.
Promoters of “economic growth”, together with their opponents (eg “degrowth” and most “post-growth” adherents*), share the same starting premise – that something called “the economy” has a meaningful single measure (“growth”, GDP, etc) which should either be increased or not, depending on the respective view.
Both views (pro- and anti- “growth”) tend to reinforce aspects of market ideology as a consequence of this shared premise. To understand why – particularly in the case of Greens – we need to look closely at what the “growth” frame brings to economic thought.
Since we don’t want “to confuse the map with the territory”, it seems a good idea to briefly recall the human-level terrain – the unthinkably diverse activities, communications, materials (or “resources”), processes, “products”, “services”, skills, know-how, information access, etc – all of which have different, and largely irreconcilable, “measures” – and all of which we contrive to aggregate into a single object, or entity, called “the economy”.
Okay, now back to the abstractions which govern us.
Framing economic “growth”
Economics at a “macro” level is, by necessity, a construct of models and metaphor. The conceptual metaphors we use to think about “the economy” bring their own weird logic to the party – mostly from domains more concrete than macroeconomics. This is no trivial matter, as metaphoric frames define the dominant economic worldviews.
Even the basic notion of economic “growth” shapes our thinking along metaphoric lines – in this case, the “natural” growth of a living organism, which is source domain for the growth-as-increase metaphor (“more is growth”).
“Growth” might seem to be merely a dead metaphor – ie one which is conventionalised (or “lexicalised”). But, as Michael White points out (in Metaphor and economics: the case of growth): “despite this lexicalisation, when economists and journalists deal with economic performance, the metaphoric sense of growth is highly active“. (My emphasis)
This seems an important point – and worth emphasising, particularly for those who aren’t familiar with the field of conceptual metaphor. What it means is that various ideas are imported automatically – and largely unconsciously – from the “growth” metaphor into our attempts to think quantitatively about “the economy”. For example:
- Growth tends to be conceptualised as natural and good. This deeply positive sense is universal, and is imported into our conception of quantitative increase in economics via the metaphor. It’s not just a superficial “surface language” matter.
- Conversely, absence of growth is conceptualised as bad and unnatural – eg due to adverse conditions, or to interference with the natural process. The list of examples of economic metaphor expressing this fundamentally negative, unnatural aspect of “no-growth” seems endless in our culture. One interesting example I’ve previously written about is economic “flatlining”, in which “flat growth” metaphorically signifies death. The negative connotations of no-growth aren’t overt here – they’re entailments of the metaphor.
So deeply established is the “natural growth” metaphor (and its negative obverse) that we might find it hard to think in positive terms about “the economy” without it. Or, as Anna Gustafsson puts it (in The Metaphor Challenge of Future Economics), “We may even have difficulties in conceptualizing a society not built upon growth; this is visible in our language.”
(Note: There are a few exceptional cases where growth is regarded as bad in its source domain – eg disease and obesity. The phrase, “obese economy”, might have satiric potential, and “cancerous economic growth” makes a point about growth with no end. But I suspect that if Frank Luntz found that his opposition was framing economic growth as “disease” or “cancer”, he’d clap his hands and take the day off. The implication would be of humanity as disease – presumably not a frame that Greens would be keen on promoting.)
“It’s the economy, stupid”, stupid
Both “growth” and “the economy” are what Lakoff calls ontological metaphors. They enable us to think about unthinkably multifarious phenomena (eg all the things “of value” that people do) in terms of “discrete entities or substances of a uniform kind”. This isn’t about “mere language”, but about how people think. The “price we pay” is to be stuck with crude, reductive (eg two-valued) logics, eg growth/no-growth. And it doesn’t help much to change the definition of “Gross Domestic Product” (GDP), or to divide “the economy” into sectors – it simply applies the same binary logic to slightly different, or smaller, entities.
Of course, there have been many conventional criticisms of GDP (and GNP) as a “measure” – eg that it confuses different types of “growth”, and doesn’t reflect (unequal) distribution, environmental damage, etc. These criticisms have been around for a while – some of them were made by Simon Kuznets, the economist who originally developed the ideas behind GDP.
“Economic growth” was first adopted by governments as national policy objective after the introduction of GDP (1940s-1950s) – not for its own sake, but as an approach towards achieving “full employment” (a point I’ll return to). Peter Victor, an ecological economist, has argued (Nature, 18/11/2010) that because “growth”, as a government objective, is a relatively new notion, “dethroning it seems less improbable.”
From a cognitive frames perspective, that seems optimistic. “Growth” is a “deep frame” – its use and extension in economics goes back at least as far as 18th century classical economics (although not as government policy). But, most significantly, it’s been a key feature of saturation-level business propaganda for decades, since political strategists first noticed, or vaguely intuited, that “economic growth” and market ideology are mutually reinforcing.
That means the frame has been hammered into our skulls relentlessly, repeatedly – in all kinds of ways, without pause or break – for much of our lives. This is why Lakoff and his colleagues often bring neuroscience and the physical brain into the equation. If it were just a question of “pure”, disembodied ideas, we could drop the idea, or belief system, immediately, erase it from our minds and replace it with a new one. But we know it doesn’t work like that.
“Since the synapses in neural circuits are made stronger the more they are activated, the repetition of ideological language will strengthen the circuits for that ideology in a hearer’s brain. […] ideological language repeated often enough can become ‘normal language’ but still activate that ideology unconsciously in the brains of citizens – and journalists.” (George Lakoff, Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment)
“Growth” frame reinforces market logic
Market ideology holds profit maximisation to be a moral good, and interference in the market (eg by government) to be a moral ill. Both notions combine easily with the “economic growth” frame. Firstly, with the latter’s entailment of total increase as a “natural” good, regardless of the divisions, precise characteristics or manner of distribution of that increase; and, secondly, of interruptions or interferences with “growth” viewed as unnatural and inherently nefarious.
Market logic on labour is reinforced by the notion of “growth”, also. This logic regards labour as “a natural resource or commodity, on a par with raw materials”, to quote Lakoff and Johnson (Metaphors we live by), who argue that uniformity – or interchangeability – is implied by the metaphor of labour as material resource. Overall “productivity growth” is the criterion – the well-being of the worker doesn’t enter into the equation.
Another aspect of market ideology reinforced by the “growth” frame is the heroic individualist entrepreneur fairy tale. “Growth” as a personal or individual-business metaphor seems unproblematic, but when we reflexively conceive of “the economy” as an object with an attribute of “growth”, the entrepreneur idea extends to it “naturally” because of the “good growth” frame. This is the myth that practically all wealth/”growth” derives from entrepreneurial enterprise, which is heroically fighting against “unnatural” interference to growth (eg from governments, “do-gooders”, Green activists, etc).
In fact, corporate market ideology and “economic growth” framing seem so closely intertwined that the mutual reinforcement appears seamless and largely invisible – unless it’s pointed out. Perhaps the most obvious example for most people would be “trickle-down economics” – the idea that as long as “the economy” is “growing”, all those minor inconveniences like mass poverty and corporate monopoly will “naturally” sort themselves out.
The inverse is “mutual inhibition” between “economic growth” and policies which oppose corporate-market domination. Perhaps this explains why the idea of a “leisure society” seemed to grow weaker in our society during the period in which the dogmatic pursuit of “economic growth” grew stronger. As mentioned above, “growth” was originally adopted as a government measure/policy for the purpose of achieving “full employment”. This situation now seems to have reversed, with “economic growth” regarded as an end itself, and “job creation” (at all costs) as a putative (and usually dubious) means to serve that end.
“Degrowth” and “post-growth”
Obviously, these terms express little more than negation of “growth”. Lakoff, as we know, advises that direct negation of a frame merely activates that frame, but this might seem like a trite formula to those who fervently oppose any further economic “growth”. And judging by the frequent use of these “de-” and “post-” terms in various Green projects and proposals, the advice has either been overlooked or misunderstood.
Any use of these terms (eg as proposals, without quotes) tends to imply (and communicate) the premises that I’ve described above, which market-ideological views thrive upon. GDP (or any alternative single “measure” of “growth” of “the economy”) is, by definition, bought into. It’s simply a “for” or “against” inversion according to the narrow terms of the worldview which created the problem.
I’ve seen differing definitions of “green growth”, but they all start with the conventional premise of overall “growth” in “the economy”, and its inherent two-valued logic. Some “de-” and “post-” “growth” adherents oppose “green growth” by using the argument that any society (historic or modelled), regardless of how “green”, will show correlation between rising GDP and environmental damage. (Some studies have indicated that this correlation does indeed apply).
That seems a good argument against continuous pursuit of “growth” (eg rising GDP) in even the most greenly-imagined society – but only if you accept that a single aggregate “measure” of “growth” in “the economy” isn’t a nonsense to begin with.
A better frame? – Wealth as well-being
“[T]here is a crucial movement toward a new economics – an economics of well-being, in which the Gross Domestic Product is replaced by an overall indicator of well-being. This new perspective is directly counter, in many ways, to the narrowly imagined concept of economic growth.” (George Lakoff, Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment)
Promoting an economics based on well-being and its indicators has the advantage, from a cognitive frames perspective, that wealth as well-being is a very deeply rooted – and universal – metaphoric frame. Our original conceptions of “wealth” are inseparable from expressions of well-being.
The problems of hypocognition posed by negation of “growth” thus seem partly averted when we envisage a system of economic indicators based on the existing deep frame of wealth as well-being.
To give a ‘concrete’ example: Work evaluated in terms of the well-being of the worker, as opposed to employment policy made on the sole basis of boosting “growth”. If economic ends are primarily framed in terms of well-being, not abstract “growth”, this makes sense. The subjective experience of the worker is barely considered at all by governments and corporations fixated on “growth”.
With well-being central to economic thinking, things like leisure and quality of life “naturally” come to the fore. Policies previously avoided because they don’t provide “growth” will be considered if they boost well-being. Interestingly, some of the research into how societies might function without “growth” have found that greater leisure and reduction of poverty may be key elements (together with reduction in the use of fossil fuels, materials, etc) – even without any focus on well-being as a criterion.
More leisure, less anxiety
In the late 1700s, Benjamin Franklin predicted we’d soon work a 4-hour week. In 1965, a US Senate subcommittee predicted a 22-hour work week by 1985, and a mere 14 hours by 2000. Paul and Percival Goodman, in the 1960s, estimated that just 5% of the work being done would satisfy our food, clothing and shelter needs.
What happened to the dream of a leisure society made possible by more-for-less efficiencies in know-how and technology? The conventional answer is that productivity increases were channeled into a spiral of greater consumerism and more work, rather than into increased leisure. And the conventional reason is the massive propaganda push from big business to sell the consumerist culture.
Less conventional a reason, but probably just as important, is the moral framing of work in our society. As David Graeber puts it, “there’s this ideological imperative to validate work as virtue in itself. Which is constantly being reinforced by the larger society. On the other hand, there’s the reality that most work is obviously stupid, degrading, unnecessary, and the feeling that it is best avoided whenever possible.”
Economic “growth” is tied into the “full employment” narrative, and has been since the 1950s. This is where I see an interesting leverage point for change – in terms of broad public acceptance of a new economic worldview. Not in terms of “growth” abstractions (for or against), but towards a greater emphasis on free time, leisure, contentment, happiness, fulfilment – rather than more work, more stuff to buy.
That, and less anxiety. Anxiety seems epidemic in our society – much of it related to work and income. That’s why I see a need for something like a Universal Basic Income to accompany a shift in attitudes away from “more work at all costs” consumerism (or “growth”), and towards an embrace of a time-rich leisure society for all.
* Note: Some “post-growth” and “degrowth” adherents do question the validity of GDP, and argue for alternative measures, etc. But the post-growth and degrowth literature typically proposes reduction or stabilisation of overall “growth” of “the economy” (in other words, it accepts the premise of a single measure of “growth”). 1/9/2014
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