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Questions about Growth
There is much ado about economic growth1. I wanted to better understand the debate, so I decided to collect the key questions. This essay is a breadth-first examination of growth and governance using questions
Why questioning instead of summarizing? Questioning requires understanding the intention of research in a way that summarizing does not. Empirically, it has prompted me to think hard about the relationship between different intellectual histories.
I think the result is a deeper grasp than I would have had otherwise. I recommend this exercise for those looking to form a clear map of a research field, whether or not they have had much prior experience in the field.
At the highest level, I found it helpful to divide questions about growth based on whether they were descriptive (how does it happen?) or normative (how should it happen?).
- What do we mean by economic growth?
- What are the different types of economic growth?
- What factors drive economic growth?
- What does education have to do with growth?
- What do capital accumulation, population growth, and technological progress have to do with growth?
- How much does the natural environment versus political institutions affect growth in society?
- What are the effects of economic growth?
- What is the relationship between economic growth and environmental degradation?
- What has caused the significant cross-country income differences?
- For instance, how were Singapore, Botswana, and South Korea able to grow so rapidly in the last forty years?
- How did the U.S. become so wealthy?
Much of economics attempts to explain growth. The subfields of developmental economics, economic history, and macroeconomics are especially relevant. Daron Acemoglu’s Introduction to Modern Economic Growth provides a good overview and inspired several of these questions.
- Should we foster economic growth?
- Is it necessarily linked with environmental degradation?
- Does growth necessarily lead to wealth inequality? Is that inherently problematic?
- Does economic growth enable pluralistic values?
The normative debate about growth is a lot more twisty than the descriptive equivalent. “Should we foster economic growth?” isn’t neatly decomposable because arguments on either side take stances that are motivated by significantly different worldviews. The various epistemologies, aesthetic orientations, and accepted facts that comprise these worldviews mean that individual ideologies are front and center in the normative debate2.
1. See e.g. Patrick Collison, Tyler Cowen. “The Atlantic.” Atlantic, 30 Aug. 2019, www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/07/we-need-new-science-progress/594946 ; “It’s Time to Govern — Letters to a Young Technologist.” 30 Aug. 2021, www.letterstoayoungtechnologist.com/It-s-Time-to-Govern. ↩
2. The strongest proponents for the moral importance of economic growth tend to point towards the enabling effects of increased wealth and, conversely, the harms of stagnation. Tyler Cowen, for instance, argues for the moral importance of economic growth using the following line of logic: economic growth is recursively self-improving, future people matter (almost) as much as present people, and economic growth allows better human living according to a broad range of values (e.g. most values agree that more infant mortality is bad). Therefore it is really important to foster economic growth
Peter Thiel instead argues for growth by emphasizing the harms of stagnation: “the hope is it can lead towards a more cornucopian world in which there’s less Malthusian struggle, less violence” . He later continues onwards to acknowledge that much technological growth has been linked with the increased capacity for violence (e.g. the creation of the atomic bomb) ↩