Thursday, October 14, 2010

to the barricades....,

Video - Frank Roterberg on the economics of needs and limits.

NeedsandLimits | In the late 1980s I was quietly raising a family and pursuing a computer career in Vancouver, Canada. However, like many others, I was becoming increasingly alarmed by global warming and the clearcut logging that was devastating the forests of British Columbia. In 1989, while attending a rally to save an old-growth forest from the corporate saw, I heard David Suzuki thunderously denounce the world’s economists for their stupidity. He accused them of encouraging economic growth while ignoring ecological limits, thus causing irreversible damage to the environment. I soon put my career on hold, returned to university, and began to study this apparently destructive discipline. My journey to the revolutionary barricades had begun.

"Economists are stupid!" What I learned at university amply confirmed Suzuki’s assessment. With few exceptions, the economists I encountered had a deep commitment to growth and virtually no awareness of the natural world. Despite this, I learned some important principles of economic thought, and I had one revelatory experience. This was courtesy of my international trade professor, Steve Easton. Although extremely conservative, he was always willing to chat about concepts and policy. During one such after-class discussion, as I was expounding a progressive position, he cut me off abruptly with the words, “Where’s your model?” In other words: where is the theory underlying your position so that I can check your assumptions and logic?

My immediate reaction was dismissive: I had virtue and passion on my side, so why would I need a theoretical model? This attitude quickly dissipated as I considered the implications of Easton’s challenge. I realized that, without an economic theory of their own, progressive thinkers could not provide reliable guidance to activists, and could not hope to prevail against conservative thinkers like Easton in the court of public opinion. This not only weakened the oppositional role played by progressive forces, it prevented them from eventually gaining political power, thus consigning them to a weak oppositional role in perpetuity.

“Where’s your model?” After graduating in 1992 I returned to my computer career, but in a contractual role so as to leave time to develop the missing model. This development consumed the better part of the next 18 years and resulted in thousands of pages of notes, drawings, and graphs that reflected my unfolding thoughts. A few highlights from this period will depict my tortuous progress.