Greens face problem with economic ‘growth’ framing

With well-being central to economic thinking, things like leisure and quality of life ‘naturally’ come to the fore – they’re assigned a value that was always excluded by the ‘economic growth’ frame.

Brian Dean
14 October 2014

Outside governments and corporations, the pursuit of economic growth is no longer taken for granted – some commentators are challenging the orthodoxy. But the ‘growth’ concept has deep roots, and in its absence we have what George Lakoff calls “hypocognition”, a lack of established frames enabling us to think differently about the economy. Cognitive-linguistics studies have even suggested that direct opposition to ‘growth’ may be counterproductive for Greens.

The ‘growth’ frame shapes economic thinking along metaphoric lines – ‘natural’ organic growth being the source of the “more is growth” metaphor. As Michael White points out (in Metaphor and economics: the case of growth), this isn’t just a convention of language: “[W]hen economists and journalists deal with economic performance, the metaphoric sense of growth is highly active”.

What this means is that various ideas are imported automatically – and largely unconsciously – from the ‘growth’ metaphor into our attempts to think quantitatively about ‘the economy’. For example:

- Growth tends to be conceptualised as natural and good. This deeply positive sense is universal, and is imported into our conception of quantitative increase in economics via the metaphor. It’s not just a superficial ‘surface language’ matter.

- Conversely, absence of growth is conceptualised as bad and unnatural – eg due to adverse conditions, or to interference with the natural process. The list of examples of economic metaphor expressing this fundamentally negative, unnatural aspect of ‘no-growth’ seems endless in our culture. One interesting example is economic ‘flatlining’, in which ‘flat growth’ metaphorically signifies death. The negative connotations of no-growth aren’t overt here – they’re entailments of the metaphor.

So deeply established is the ‘natural growth’ metaphor (and its negative obverse) that we might find it hard to think in positive terms about the economy without it. Or, as Anna Gustafsson puts it (in The Metaphor Challenge of Future Economics), “We may even have difficulties in conceptualizing a society not built upon growth; this is visible in our language.”

Both ‘growth’ and ‘the economy’ are what Lakoff calls ontological metaphors. They enable us to think about multifarious phenomena (eg all the things ‘of value’ that people do) in terms of “discrete entities or substances of a uniform kind”. The price we pay is to be stuck with crude, reductive logic, eg growth/no-growth. And it doesn’t help much to change the definition of ‘Gross Domestic Product’ (GDP), or to divide ‘the economy’ into sectors – it simply applies the same logic to slightly different, or smaller, entities.

Of course, there have been many conventional criticisms of GDP as a ‘measure’ – eg. that it confuses different types of ‘growth’, and doesn’t reflect (unequal) distribution, environmental damage, etc. These criticisms have been around for a while – some of them were made by Simon Kuznets, the economist who originally developed the ideas behind GDP. ‘Economic growth’ was first adopted by governments as national policy objective after the introduction of GDP (1940s-1950s) – not for its own sake, but as an approach towards achieving ‘full employment’. Peter Victor, an ecological economist, has argued (Nature, 18/11/2010) that because ‘growth’, as a government objective, is a relatively new notion, “dethroning it seems less improbable.”

From a cognitive frames perspective, that seems optimistic. ‘Growth’ is a ‘deep frame’ – its use in economics goes back at least as far as eighteenth century classical economics (although not as government policy). But, most significantly, it’s been a key feature of business propaganda for decades, since political strategists first noticed that ‘economic growth’ and market ideology are mutually reinforcing. That means the frame has been hammered into our skulls relentlessly – in all kinds of ways, without pause – for much of our lives.

‘Growth’ frame reinforces market logic

Market ideology holds profit maximisation to be a moral good, and interference in the market (eg by government) to be a moral ill. Both notions combine easily with the ‘economic growth’ frame. Firstly, with the idea of total increase as a ‘natural’ good, regardless of the characteristics or manner of distribution of that increase; and, secondly, of interruptions or interferences with ‘growth’ viewed as unnatural and inherently nefarious.

Market logic on labour is reinforced by the notion of ‘growth’, also. This regards labour as “a natural resource or commodity, on a par with raw materials”, to quote Lakoff and Johnson (Metaphors we live by), who argue that uniformity – or interchangeability – is implied by the metaphor of labour as material resource. Overall ‘productivity growth’ is the criterion – the well-being of the worker doesn’t enter into the equation.

Another aspect of market ideology reinforced by the ‘growth’ frame is the heroic individualist entrepreneur fairy tale. ‘Growth’ as a personal or business metaphor seems unproblematic, but when we conceive of ‘the economy’ as an object with an attribute of ‘growth’, the entrepreneur idea extends to it ‘naturally’ because of the ‘good growth’ frame. In fact, market ideology and ‘economic growth’ framing seem so closely intertwined that the mutual reinforcement appears seamless. Perhaps the most obvious example for most people would be ‘trickle-down economics’ – the idea that as long as ‘the economy’ is ‘growing’ all those minor inconveniences like mass poverty and corporate monopoly will ‘naturally’ sort themselves out.

“Degrowth” and “post-growth”

The labels, “degrowth” and “post-growth”, obviously express little more than negation of ‘growth’. Lakoff advises that direct negation of a frame merely activates that frame, although this might seem like a trite formula to those who fervently oppose any further ‘economic growth’. And judging by the frequent use of these “de-” and “post-” terms in Green projects and proposals, Lakoff’s advice has either been overlooked or misunderstood. As a result, these growth-negating labels tend to communicate the very idea of ‘growth’ that market ideology thrives on.

A better frame? – Wealth as well-being

“[T]here is a crucial movement toward a new economics – an economics of well-being, in which the Gross Domestic Product is replaced by an overall indicator of well-being. This new perspective is directly counter, in many ways, to the narrowly imagined concept of economic growth.” (George Lakoff, Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment)

Promoting an economics based on well-being and its indicators has the advantage, from a cognitive frames perspective, that wealth as well-being is a very deeply rooted – and universal – metaphoric frame. Our original conceptions of “wealth” are inseparable from expressions of well-being.

To give a ‘concrete’ example: Work evaluated in terms of the well-being of the worker, as opposed to employment policy made on the sole basis of boosting ‘growth’. If economic ends are primarily framed in terms of well-being, not abstract ‘growth’, this makes sense. The subjective experience of the worker is barely considered at all by governments and corporations fixated on ‘growth’. With well-being central to economic thinking, things like leisure and quality of life ‘naturally’ come to the fore – they’re assigned a value that was always excluded by the ‘economic growth’ frame.

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