Heroes 2008: Peter Victor

Torontoist invited me to contribute to this year’s Heroes and Villains (“the people, places, and things that we’ve either fallen head over heels in love with or developed uncontrollable rage towards over the past twelve months”). Below is my hero entry. Interesting to read similar sentiments in The Toronto Star.

In the years leading up to the present economic collapse, economist Peter Schiff made numerous appearances on American news networks foretelling the coming maelstrom with uncomfortable accuracy. His prescience was roundly rewarded with mockery, not just from the other guests but also from the network hosts themselves. (Torontoist can’t help but feel a certain amount of empathy with Schiff. In last year’s Heroes and Villains, we wrote that “the subprime mortgage crisis, which began late last year but really picked up steam in the last few months, is not going away. In fact, it is a trigger incident that will continue to unravel the American economy into 2008, almost certainly leading to a recession and likely a depression.” That entry, for what it’s worth, received only 1.1% of the villain votes. It’s fine. We’re over it.)

Now that some of the worst-case economic predictions are playing out, smugly saying “I told you so”—while satisfying—isn’t particularly helpful. Many of the economic myths we’ve grown up with are being systematically dispelled, so simply rebuilding the economy as it was before this collapse is inadequate. Instead, we must re-imagine how our economy functions and what we expect it to do for us.

Enter Peter Victor, an economist at York University. For the last several years, Victor has been pursuing, in his words, “a topic which is anathema to most members” of his profession. Specifically, the idea that “people in rich countries can and should manage without economic growth,” not just because “it is implausible that the biosphere can support the nine billion people…who are expected to be on the Earth by mid-century at a standard of living remotely like that of current day North Americans,” and not just so that “people living in poorer countries can enjoy the benefits of economic growth where it really makes a difference,” but because “there is plenty of evidence to show that economic growth is doing very little to increase the happiness of most of us in rich countries.”

Victor’s timely new book Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster argues that government should shift its focus away from economic growth as its pre-eminent policy objective towards more effective measures of well being, and offers specific ideas on how to get there within a Canadian context.

Like Peter Schiff, Peter Victor will likely face strong opposition from some. Proposing to overhaul some of our most basic assumptions about how economies should function is no easy task. But that’s part of what makes it courageous, and perhaps just a little bit heroic.

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