Tag Archives: peter victor

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.

Dr. Peter Victor – Managing Without Growth

The following is one post in a series: “Reporting Back: Green Party of Canada Policy Conference, Halifax

Dr. Peter Victor from the University of York York University went next, with a presentation called “Managing Without Growth.” Building on what Colman had said, Victor observed that economic growth has become “the over-arching policy objective” (as in, the ultimate objective of most government policies, towards which their effectiveness is measured) of countries around the world.

This development is extremely new, having only emerged about fifty years go. Go back only a little further on a evolutionary timeline — say, four hundred years, and we didn’t even have the modern notion of “progress.”

Victor demonstrated three main realities:

  1. Whether you like it or not, growth is not possible in the long term.
  2. Growth does not bring happiness. While real income has increased in the US since 1945, the percentage of people who describe themselves as “very happy” has decreased. While early levels of income increase do contribute to happiness, the effect drops off after a point. The results are matched around the world.
  3. Growth is not particularly effective at eliminating poverty, creating full employment, or safe-guarding the environment. Since 1976, as both the GDP and greenhouse gas emissions have gone up consistently, levels of unemployment and poverty have bounced around.

(During the question and answer period following his presentation, we discovered that point number one really needs to be hammered home with some economists. They’ve been taught that growth is not only good, but critical. Victor kept repeating something to the effect of, “ok, fine, but you can’t have growth for ever, so even if you’re right about how great it is that’s irrelevant.”)

Much of Victor’s presentation was actually very technical, but also possible for a lay person like me to understand. He’s created an economic model called LOWGROW, where he can plug in different variables (income tax, carbon tax, etc.) and see what happens to the economy (GDP, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, unemployment, etc) over a timeline. It’s sort of like a simulation video game, where the goal is to lower GHGs as much as possible, while also raising levels of employment and holding the GDP steady.

The fun thing (well, fun for nerds like me at least) is that you can play with the model yourself if you want. It’s available for download here.

It’s important to note that Victor is not advocating for a zero or low growth policy exactly. He’s simply trying to demonstrate that you can have a healthy economy and environment without growth. That’s important, because concern about maintaining economic growth is often a barrier for people who would otherwise be sympathetic to green policies.

Elizabeth May often points out that humans stop growing once we enter adulthood. That doesn’t mean we don’t continue to “develop” in a qualitative sense.