books growth

The Economics of Enough, by Diane Coyle

The Economics of Enough came out in 2011 and I’ve been meaning to read it for a while. Based on the title and its rather good front cover art, it looks like it might tread some of the same ground as my own book. In the interests of checking out the competition, if nothing else, I ought to give it a go.

Ultimately, I needn’t have bothered, as this is an oddly titled book. One of its recurring themes is that people need more economic growth, in rich and poor countries alike, and that GDP should remain a key policy. The book returns to this subject again and again, over a dozen times, as if the idea of growth is under threat and needs defending. This would get repetitive in any book, but it’s particularly odd in one that is supposed to be about enough:

  • “The new conventional wisdom about happiness and growth is mistaken. Growth does make us happier.”
  • “Economic growth contributes to happiness, and GDP growth should remain a policy target.”
  • “More money makes people happier because it means that they can buy more.”
  • “More income and more consumption do make people happier.”

I happen to think economic growth in rich countries is a deeply misguided policy, but I’m aware that mine are unorthodox views and I don’t take against authors who disagree. But 100 pages into The Economics of Enough, I still hadn’t worked out what it was that the author thinks we’ve had enough of. It isn’t growth or consumption, so what does the book mean by ‘the economics of enough’?

There are a couple of answers. The book was written in 2010 and is rooted in the aftermath of the financial collapse. Coyle argues that there had been too much debt, too little transparency, and a huge erosion of trust – so we’ve had enough of those things. On that I agree. Trust is an easily overlooked topic and there’s an interesting chapter on that. Coyle writes well about the value of institutions and the public good, and foresees the alienating effects of austerity. She also recognises that processes of government have not kept up with digital technologies, and that we need a more responsive politics and new ways to engage with decision-making. I also like the way that Coyle argues for longer-term perspectives in all aspects of governance, ensuring that the way we measure success respects future generations.

Despite repeatedly banging the drum for more growth, the book does suggest that there is an optimum level for growth and that this isn’t the same as maximising it. One might forego things that would deliver more economic growth at the cost of inequality or environmental destruction. That would be a radical enough notion in government today, and perhaps that’s the ‘economics of enough’ of the title. Though I still think it’s a contradiction in terms to “look at how we can reconcile more growth with our strong instinct that we have reached a point of ‘enough’.”

The book is very weak in other places, particularly the chapter on climate change. Coyle doesn’t deny climate change, but is so equivocal here that she might as well. Climate change is described as a ‘controversy’, where the science isn’t settled and a growing number of people think it isn’t happening. This makes the book a product of its time: 2009-10 was the era of peak denial, scuppering the Copenhagen talks, manufacturing scandals and generally delaying action by a decade. Coyle goes along with far too much of this, and off the back of the failed Copenhagen talks she suggests that international agreement is more or less impossible and everybody should do their own thing. And of course, nobody should threaten economic growth, which we need more of.

There are some good ideas and important values in The Economics of Enough, but to me they seem to be fighting against an obvious truth that economists are simply forbidden to express: that growth in developed countries may have done its job. Perhaps it’s even working against progress, and we’re losing some of the benefits of growth as we grasp for others, like a man trying to carry too much at once.

Ultimately the message of this book seems to be that “growth can and should continue but must be more sustainable”. The real solutions are beyond the imagination, and so The Economics of Enough is, in my opinion, nowhere near an economics of enough.

3 comments

  1. Thank you for the review! I had seen that book at some point and was thinking of reading it, but now I don’t have to. I’m not interested in arguments for growth, and the chapter on climate change sounds rather infuriating. I have only just started The Economics of Arrival (on chapter three), but so far I’m very taken with the idea of Arrival. I’m from the US, and Americans are famous for not planning ahead or thinking long-term, but climate change has made both extremely urgent. Growth for growth’s sake is ending badly, and I am more and more interested in alternatives like the ones you have introduced me to, here and in your book.

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