Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy
Regular Contributors:  Herman Daly, Brian Czech, Brent Blackwelder, James Magnus-Johnston, and Eric Zencey. Guest authors by invitation.

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Who Moved Obama’s Win-Win Cheese?

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechWhether or not you like President Obama or his policy preferences, you have to acknowledge his consistency. Even those with “zero regard” for the president confess, “At least Obama is consistent.”

But not consistently. There is one issue, at least, on which he hasn’t held still, moving in and out like an octopus in a sunken ship. That issue is the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection. Based on his state of the union address, his current tack is a mixture of avoidance and vague allusion.

Yet Obama’s inconsistency on this issue is nothing to be hypercritical of. In fact, given this recent turn, we might even say, “At least Obama is inconsistent.” As odd as that may sound, it’s better to be inconsistent when you were, at one time, dangerously wrong.

Obama’s rhetoric on the issue has basically been through three phases, which can be categorized and paraphrased as:

  • Integrity phase. “Economic growth is ultimately not sustainable, and that’s becoming more apparent. We need a new economic model that protects the environment, like a steady state economy.” This was the pre-presidential, relatively innocent phase, a distinctive feature of the original Obamanomics.
  • Win-win phase. “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” Obama ventured onto this slippery slope of win-win rhetoric during the run-up to his re-election.
  • Avoidance phase. “Economic growth is my top priority, and let me elaborate on that… (Oh and by the way, we also have to protect the planet.)” In the state of the union address, this notion of protecting the planet was limited to climate change mitigation, and even this was kept in a separate compartment from growing the economy. No more win-win, growth and environmental protection. In fact, Obama used the word “environment” exactly zero times.

The progression from Obamanomics to the win-win rhetoric, while cynical, was predictable, but what happened next? What caused the President to retreat from win-win, nearly all the way back to a position of environmental irrelevance? After all, win-win has held a central spot on the Politician Bingo card for as long as baby boomers and younger can remember. Furthermore, the shining example of win-win since the late 1980s has been the marriage of economic growth to environmental protection. The wedding of these opposites allowed presidential candidates, from left to right, to appeal to pro-growth and pro-environment interests simultaneously. It didn’t matter that it was a scientifically fallacious shotgun wedding. It worked at the political altar.

Bingo Card

So what happened? Did Obama move his own win-win cheese, or did some speechwriter move it for him? It’s not like we have a trail – say a money trail – that’s easy to follow. With a lot of issues it’s easy to backtrack a politician from his or her mouth all the way back to Big Money. It might be big gun money generating rhetoric like “a good guy with a gun in every school,” or big tobacco money puppeteering, “I believe tobacco is not addictive.” No matter how wrong, such well-endowed rhetoric sticks around long after everybody understands how fallacious it is. Eventually, though, it either goes away or becomes an icon of ridicule.

Yet Obama’s dropping of the win-win rhetoric is different, because there is no money to be had from doing so. Big Money, even its better side in the grant-awarding foundations, will have nothing to do with talk about stabilizing the size of the economy or even slowing the rate of growth. In fact, Little Money doesn’t want much to do with it either. This explains the plethora of organizations promoting various notions of a “new” economy or a “green” economy without coming clean on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. They’re all chasing the money to keep their boats afloat.

Will the ironies ever cease?

Yet there are two things – both extremely powerful – that clarify the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, loud and clear. One is science; the other is common sense.

The science is sound and sufficient, but it’s not like the libraries are overflowing with it because, again, there’s little money available for such research. Therefore this type of research–ecological macroeconomics we might call it–tends to be swamped out by Big-Monied, “neoclassical” economics with its fallacious theories of perpetual growth. But ecological macroeconomics is there for the reading: theoretical and empirical detail about the trade-off between economic growth and biodiversity conservation, a stable climate, and ecological integrity in general. And we know that Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, has a background in the environmental impacts of economic growth.

So Obama’s relinquishing of the win-win rhetoric probably stems from a mixture of scientific awareness, plain old common sense, and perhaps a sense of pride. Obama recognizes that, with a short two years of presidency remaining, his legacy is ever more on the line. It would be a shame to end up like President Clinton, for example, who is haunted by the inconvenient irony of his own unmitigated and relentless win-win rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

Whatever the explanation may be, let’s hope Obama sticks with phase 3, or even comes full circle to phase 1, the more innocent Obamanomics with its recognition that economic growth is unsustainable and increasingly harmful in a century already slated for extinctions, climate change, water supply shocks and the like, all in proportion to our obsession with increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate, otherwise known as economic growth.

Let’s also hope he starts using the word “environment” again, prominently and eloquently. This is the 21st century: the environment should be a central feature when assessing and discussing the state of the union. Let’s even hope Obama starts re-connecting the two issues–environment and economy–but this time so publics and policy makers on both sides of the aisle get used to dealing frankly with the trade-off. Only then can we hope for policies that protect the environment, sustain the economy, re-secure the United States, and help to stabilize the international community.

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10 Responses to “Who Moved Obama’s Win-Win Cheese?”

  1. Jimmy says:

    I suppose in the mind of the lay person the alternative to economic growth sounds scary. Doesn’t society equate economic growth with a good job, money to spend, safety and security for the kids? Perhaps society won’t accept an alternative until we understand ultimately we have no choice. Hopefully for my children’s sake we realize that fact sooner rather than later.

  2. Brian Sanderson says:

    Thanks Brian for an insightful article. I must admit, I needed your reminder of how Obama had rearranged his economic thinking.

    The great difficuly is the debunking of the standard economic model. It is “hardwired” into every aspect of our culture, like a religion. I suspect that the standard model will prove to be impervious to ecological concerns.

    On the other hand, I was re-reading Malthus’s essay on population a few weeks ago and I happened upon his notion of “forced growth”. He was, of course, talking about the “forcing of population growth”… But I think that the notion naturally extends to “forcing GDP growth”. Here we find a vulnerability in the standard economic model. “Forced GDP growth” is actually harmful to most people, I think. That is the angle that is most likely to gain popular support (IMHO).

    I suspect that we have reached a point where “the people are grist for the economy” — wherease once the economy was for the benefit of the people. I understand that a prophet expressed a similar view of the sabbath — once upon a time.

  3. Tom Kelly says:

    I’ve just read Brian’s article in Daly News. As well as the question he raised about losing the win-win segment from the Bingo card, I note that nowhere on this card has there ever been a reference to population growth, which is the blindingly most obvious factor in any discussion of sustainability.
    As long as population growth is looked upon as a given, whose demands must always be met by a continuously growing economy and technological advances to mitigate shrinking natural reserves of energy, we humans will find ourselves on a never-ending treadmill, which can only end in tears.

    Brian Sanderson referred to the work of Thomas Malthius on population, whose early prophesies of doom have been dismissed as being irrelevant because they did not come to pass in the short term. One of his other less well known prophesies was that any country which decided to set up and maintain a welfare state with a continuously growing population would eventually be overwhelmed by the demands placed upon it, by that population growth. I believe we are reaching that situation today, and that Thomas Malthius’s writings are coming true. There were no fundamental flaws in his arguments, and I don’t think he tried to put a timetable on predictions.
    A steady state economy without steady-state or even shrinking population could clearly not deliver any promise of maintaining anything like the quality of life which could help prevent a growth of world unrest. Chasing continuous growth almost certainly increases the risk of such unrest.
    The search for continuous growth is the problem, not the answer.

  4. greg gerritt says:

    There is a fundamental disconnect in the lamestream for sure, and even in the new economy folks. Then we get hit with the business climate club to spur ever faster growth in the incomes of the 1%. We are already getting poorer. Might be time for the government to admit it and figure out how to create prosperous and thriving communities while we let the world heal and make sure the poorest people on the planet have enough to eat and healthy conditions.

  5. Hans Noeldner says:

    To question any form of consumption is to attack the legitimacy of all the associated jobs, businesses, profits, pensions, tax revenues, and yes, government spending. The more that we have mechanized, automated, and outsourced production of things we actually need, the greater our desperation for increases in “luxury” consumption. No, it is worse than that: every luxury is a need now – especially the fuel we “need” to drive to the mall.

    The growth imperative emerges from millions – and now billions – of us consistently choosing lower price over considerations of employment. The political left in particular is in massive denial about it. It is a truly bizarre state of affairs.

  6. Hans Noeldner says:

    Upshot: Obama can’t afford to say what we-the-people emphatically do not want to hear.

  7. Chuck Wright says:

    This is the century when we deal with the implications of an essential truth that everyone acknowledges, but few really own up to: the Earth is round.

  8. Don Beams says:

    I am a newbie to the concept of a steady state and a steady economy, but the articles I’ve read so far have intrigued me. Probably because I believe in the value of occasionally taking a step back and questioning the validity of the “assumptions” upon which one hangs a “belief system” and which establishes a track which guides (and limits) a conversation, especially a public conversation, about the belief system and the policies born of that system and its effects upon the issues of our lives and our institutions.

    All too often I see what I perceive to be erroneous and destructive belief systems based upon assumptions that were utter bullshit to begin with, but the bullshit persisted to the point that everybody that mattered bought off on it. And as a result the conversation takes place inside a box or paradigm that is guaranteed to keep bullshit firmly entrenched in a society.

    And that is where OUR society is stuck, in stultifying and sometimes pointless debate about how things work in the world, without entertaining possibilities that actually might make a difference for the better. I am all about workability and to me our world does NOT work for the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants, and that really pisses me off.

    So I embrace the ideas of those thought-full enough to ask the good questions, to question the assumptions, to point to a better way, to a more workable and rational way of life, and of governance. And I pray that the conversation that Y’all at CASSE are having can find a way to go viral in this nation, can be a topic on peoples lips and can find a way to shake up the current paradigm and the misery it inflicts on people. And it occurs to me that we don’t have a whole lot of time to waste…

    And it occurs to me that what the conversation might need is a “Rock Star” or better yet, a whole Band of persuasive, concise, popular and attention-generating communicators to put it on the national agenda. This is a nation of non-readers with the attention span of a gnat. Would appearances on Rachel Maddow make an immediate difference in awareness about the topic? Ed Schulz? Bill Maher? John Oliver? President Obama? Paul Krugman? Robert Reich? Elizabeth Warren? Bernie Sanders? Jimmy Carter? I think it might. Just a thought…

  9. On January 6th on Maine Public Broadcasting Network on the Maine Calling program the topic was the Maine economy and its future. The show seemed incredibly bias and didn’t focus on sustainable practices for minimizing environmental impacts; instead it was heavily leaned toward growth and how Maine’s aging population will requie immigration from other states to grow the economy. The word grow was used over and over again in this program with little concern for stability or protection of our lands. Tourism and diversification were hot topics but seem like a tortise verses hare fallacy to me. Short term diversity and growth bursts that are not stable can’t win the long race. Economists are inept in their understanding of natural resource imputs and the ability to harvest, maintain stock, and to care for waste properly. It’s time to put the environment above the economy or our economy will destroy what is left of nature.

  10. Dave Gardner says:

    As usual, Mr. Czech entertains and enlightens. Honored today on the Wall of Fame at http://www.growthbiasbusted.org/wall-of-fame/entry/who-moved-obama-s-win-win-cheese

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