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Economic growth is not “natural”: re-thinking current economic challenges

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By Maria Alejandra Madi

[Reproduced from the here on the WEA Pedagogy Blog]

Since the late 1980s, the World Bank has been defending a policy agenda that reinforces the free market model of endogenous economic growth. In this model human capital plays an outstanding role since the acquisition of abilities would increase productivity levels and, as a result, income levels. This is because level of product per worker depends on the increase of productivity. Regarding the human capital model, long run growth in each country is analysed considering the particular features of infrastructure and human capital. The divergences verified in the levels of product per worker among different countries can be attributed to the abilities accumulated by labour and to the infrastructure of the economies.  The emergence and diffusion of the model of endogenous growth reflected the intellectual victory of ideas about the supremacy of the competitive economic order and the rejection of interventionism to promote economic growth and social justice. Considering the relevant economic outcomes of this intellectual victory, the main question that arises in the context of economics education is: What is at stake in the economic discourse that privileges the economic competitive order as the pillar of economic growth?

The competitive order, as a necessary one, is the central pillar of Hayek’s theoretical construction.  Hayek’s economic discourse “naturalizes” the competitive market as a superior arrangement. However, the “naturalization” of the competitive market – by considering it a “natural” arrangement – is in reality undermined by political interests that play a crucial role in economic and political decision procedures, and in the institutional management of such issues.

Taking into account a real-world approach to economic growth, it is relevant to highlight the ideas of Keynes, Minsky, Kalecki, Rifkin in order to re-think current economic growth challenges

  1. Uncertainty

John Maynard Keynes enhanced a more fruitful comprehension of the real-world where the outcomes of the entrepreneurs’ decisions do not behave stochastically, that is to say, they are not predictable.   In his opinion, the process of decision making is based on conventions. As uncertainty is inherent to all entrepreneurs’ decisions, Keynes relied on the concepts of credibility and degree of confidence in a conventional judgment that is historically built within the markets.  In a specific historical setting, the average opinion of entrepreneurs on future scenarios shapes a convention based on a precarious set of expectations about the behaviour of aggregate demand (consumption, investment, net exports, for example). Keynes focused the analysis on the expectations associated with investment decisions in a business environment where uncertainty about the future pervades the decision-making process.  The very nature of wealth management under uncertainty in a monetary economy is the cause of business instability. In this sense, due to uncertainty about the future, entrepreneurs could postpone spending decisions and search for alternative forms of wealth management. One of the main theses in his contributions to policy making, as opposed to the classical economists that defend the free-market system, is that government policies and actions could play a fundamental role in shaping a business environment that could reduce uncertainty and favour investment decisions.

  1. Finance and business cycles

Hyman Minsky considered the role of finance in the business cycle and developed the financial instability hypothesis which states that financial crises are inherent in the capitalist economy. From the Keynesian tradition, Minsky considered the capitalist economy as a set of interrelated balance sheets and cash flows among income-producing companies, households and banks. Minsky adds to our understanding that banks play a crucial role in determining the path of sustainable economic growth since investment decisions are affected by available finance. Through the period of boom, entrepreneurs borrow from banks and accumulate debts.  A sentiment of euphoria takes over and entrepreneurs begin to be over-optimistic in their short-term expectations while financial innovations impact upon banks’ assets and liabilities.

During the expansionary period of the business cycle, investment demand increases, and so does the demand for finance and funding. However, as financial fragility grows, lower levels of loans increase uncertainty and pessimism in the economy. Banks become unwilling to lend money because of higher credit risk since income flows turn out to fall short of debt repayment plans. As the investment decisions collapse, through the multiplier process, employment, income and consumption fall leading to a recession. If the financial crisis also leads to a sharp decline in prices, this can result in debt deflation where asset prices fall.  In short, while considering the relevance of investment as the unstable component of aggregate demand, the Minskyan approach also points out how banks’ strategies and weak financial regulation tend to induce financial fragility.

  1. Income distribution

Michael Kalecki’s theoretical contribution elucidates how profits grow throughout cyclical fluctuations and economic crises when the capitalist class strengthens its power relative to workers. Besides, the Polish economist shows how the evolution of income distribution affects the evolution of aggregate income. The dynamics of income and employment mainly depends on the level of   spending of the capitalist class. Given the income distribution in each economic sector, “the capitalists earn what they spend”.  However, the aggregate level of the workers’ consumption is subordinated to the consumption and investment decisions of the capitalist class. That is why Kalecki states “the workers spend what they earn”. In addition, his analysis of the oligopolistic trends in contemporary capitalism sheds light on important distributive issues at the micro level. The analysis of the role of the markup over prices introduces distributive challenges – not just between capitalists competing for market shares but also between capitalists and workers.  Indeed, the evolution of prices depends both on the market power of firms and on the trade union struggles to win higher nominal and real wages.

  1. Technology and labour conditions

Technology transforms the labour scenario as the result of the diffusion of new practices at the micro-level. More recently, the technological impact on the future of work was analysed in depth by Jeremy Rifkin. According to him, we are facing a new phase of history – a Third Industrial Revolution – that is characterized by the steady and inevitable decline of jobs in the production and marketing of goods and services.  Today, the Third Industrial Revolution is a convergence of internet and renewable energy.  The internet technology and renewable energies are currently starting to merge in order to build a new infrastructure for a Third Industrial Revolution (TIR) that will change the distribution of economic power in the 21st century. Indeed, changes in power will provoke a fundamental reordering of human relationships – from hierarchical to lateral power – that will impact the way we conduct economic and social activities. The intelligent TIR infrastructure—the Internet of Things—will virtually connect every aspect of economic and social life via sensors and software to the TIR platform. The connections will feed Big Data to every node—businesses, homes, vehicles, etc. — in real time.  In turn, the Big Data will be analysed with advanced analytics, transformed into predictive algorithms, and programmed into automated systems. On behalf of this high-technology revolution, the number of people underemployed or without work will rise sharply since computers, robotics, telecommunications, and other cutting-edge technologies are replacing human beings in manufacturing, retail, and financial services, transportation, agriculture, and the government sector. In truth, in an increasingly automated world, workers are being polarized into two forces: on one side, an elite that controls and manages the high-tech global economy; and on the other side, a growing number of displaced workers who have few prospects for meaningful job opportunities.


In contemporary Western societies, most people experience a feeling of uneasiness about the current model of growth that reveals an unsustainable path. For many, the outstanding feeling is that, in current societies, the outcomes of so called “progress” have been economic instability, deleterious working conditions and inequality.

Our critical gaze is fixated on the mainstream mode of thinking about economic growth that obscures current real-world challenges. In this attempt, rethinking relevant theoretical issues about economic growth indicates the need for a deep reformulation in the economics curriculum.


Kalecki, M. (1954) Theory of Economic Dynamics. London: Allen, Unwin.

Keynes, J. M. (2010 [1936]) The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.Mansfield Center, Connecticut: Martino Publishing.

Minsky, H. P. (2008) Stabilizing an Unstable Economy. New York: McGraw Hill.

Rifkin, J. (2011) The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World. Palgrave Macmillan

World Bank (2004) Making Services Work for Poor People, World Development Report Copublication of the World Bank and Oxford University Press.

From: pp.8-9 of World Economics Association Newsletter 6(5), October 2016

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6 responses

  • Greg Gerritt says:

    We are unlikely to see much growth due to ecological collapse. Financial issues are also a problem, but until the ecological crisis is dealt with the economy is likely to stagnate.

    • Maria Alejandra Madi says:

      Thanks for your comment. I would add a topic on this. Indeed, ecological growth is also “not natural”.


  • Tom L. Green says:

    Too many heterodox economists, like their orthodox peers, continue to pay scant attention to the biophysical dimensions of the economic process: all the resource and energy inputs and the consequent waste streams that an ever growing economy requires, the habitat lost, the biodiversity simplified. And in this article, it appears that Maria Madi presumes the desirability of further economic growth; her issue seems to be with current theories of what enables growth and that privilege policies that lead to unjust outcomes. Yet a quick examination of relevant environmental indicators shows a planet in dire straits and with all the trends in the wrong direction (Steffen et al, 2015). Further growth and consequent higher per capita incomes (especially concentrated in the rich world, or amongst the well off in less prosperous countries) would exacerbate current levels of extraction and humanity’s ecological footprint, while doing little or nothing to improve overall human well-being. This article would be much more relevant to humanity’s contemporary predicament if the author would incorporate some insights from ecological economics regarding the downsides of making growth the main macroeconomic policy objective (Jackson and Victor 2016; Victor 2010) and consider the critical role that cheap fossil energy has played in powering economic growth since the industrial revolution–and causing contemporary challenges with climate change (Ayres et al. 2013).

    Ayres, R.U., van den Bergh, J.C.J.M., Lindenberger, D., Warr, B., 2013. The underestimated contribution of energy to economic growth. Structural Change and Economic Dynamics 27, 79–88. doi:10.1016/j.strueco.2013.07.004

    Steffen, W., Broadgate, W., Deutsch, L., Gaffney, O., Ludwig, C., 2015. The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review 2, 81–98. doi:10.1177/2053019614564785

    Jackson, T., Victor, P.A., 2016. Does slow growth lead to rising inequality? Some theoretical reflections and numerical simulations. Ecological Economics 121, 206–219. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2015.03.019

    Victor, P.A., 2010. Questioning economic growth. Nature 468, 370–371. doi:10.1038/468370a

    • Maria Alejandra Madi says:

      Thanks for your comment. I would add a topic on this. Indeed, ecological growth is also “not natural”.

  • Ernesto Vaihinger says:

    La mágica “pócima” del crecimiento económico como base de la resolución de todos los conflictos “ya fue”, como así dirían los chicos. Repensar la organización social de la producción y su sentido con las necesidades de la vida de la sociedad civil es el futuro. Algo de esto emana de las configuraciones de escenarios posibles que imagina J. Rifkin y otros autores que ralentizan el crecimiento para este siglo..
    Al margen del calentamiento global, el actual el bloque cómplice del consumo irresponsable asociado a la producción se está comiendo el capital natural al no permitir la recomposición natural de la biósfera.
    Por tanto lo que se agotó es la inercia de seguir pensando en un modelo sólo sostenido en el crecimiento de la demanda impulsado por la distribución de los beneficios del progreso técnico. Hace 30 años que el progreso técnico con sus efectos masivos descalifica al trabajo activo y no crea trabajos suficientes para las calificaciones prevalecientes. Conclusión: sociedades civiles fragmentadas en la desigualdad de ingresos y condiciones de vida, sumada a redistribuciones regresivas del ingreso porque se requiere remunerar al cada vez más significativo capital humano y físico que participa de la producción y que a su vez acelera su obsolescencia.
    Por tanto romper con la inercia pretérita de las burbujas financieras es una necesidad, porque sólo alimentan la voracidad de quienes están en el negocio de las finanzas.
    Sobre la base de esta síntesis conceptual encaro mi curso acerca de las problemáticas del desarrollo económico sustentable. La idea es que la riqueza de las naciones se sostiene acrecentando su capital físico reproducible, su capital humano (productivo) y su capital social (instituciones), preservando su capital natural.

  • Maria Alejandra Madi says:

    Gracias Ernesto. Muy bien colocado el problema que el crecimiento no depende apenas de una gestión de denmanda, incluindo la estabilización de las borbujas financeiras. Tengo que adicionar las cuestión de la preservación del capital natural y relacionarla con el patrón de consumo.


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