All Hail Growth: The Language of Neoliberalism

Source: Sheffield, Carrie (2013). “Let’s Focus On Growth Rather Than Inequality In The New Year.” Forbes. Published on December 29, 2013. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/carriesheffield/2013/12/29/lets-focus-on-growth-rather-than-inequality-in-the-new-year/ on January 26, 2014.

Excerpt: “Yet there’s no solid evidence that income inequality harms economic growth, and the left fails to properly measure inequality by controlling for taxes and transfer payments. Also, much of the economic research on inequality conflates correlation with causation from other social ills. Many from the left also don’t properly control for household size and the fact that higher-income homes typically include two workers more often than lower-income homes. When you adjust for this, inequality relative to per capita spending has been steady since the 1980s.  And as Robert Grady points out in the Wall Street Journal, ‘In periods of high economic growth, such as the 1980s and 1990s, the vast majority of Americans gain, and have the opportunity to gain. In periods of slow growth, such as the past four and a half years since the recession officially ended, poor people and the middle class are hurt the most, and opportunity is curbed.'”

Analysis: This excerpt reflects a much larger discourse intended to justify and defend the material conditions of the neoliberal status quo. In particular, this text seeks to defend and promote the core neoliberal tenet that economic growth is the panacea to all our problems. It does this in three ways: by making an appeal to specialization and scientific rules; by presenting a consensus of “experts” around her position in the debate; and finally, by utilizing a vocabulary that has been informed and even molded according to prevailing capitalist values. The reader is, in a sense, geared to accept her “truth.”

This text fits into a larger discourse within capitalist between those on the “right” and “left” over whether economic growth should be prioritized above all other concerns or whether the inequality created by uneven wealth creation should give us pause, either because inequality is normatively bad and/or inequality is actually harmful to growth. Sheffield is making an economic argument in this text, and as such, makes appeals to quantitative measures of the economy and criticizes the nebulous “left” for not “properly” measuring (or controlling for) assorted variables in their analyses of inequality and its effects on growth. Note that she utilizes the “confusing correlation with causation” argument, drawing on the language of social science methodology. “Focusing on inequality” is therefore not just normatively wrong, but a consequence of “bad math” and flawed research. In other words, unless the “science” of economics actually supports addressing income inequality then we should not do it; there is no consideration of addressing inequality from any other perspective; rather, it is lumped in with other “social ills,” which are presumably unpleasant but unavoidable social problems beyond economics (the “dismal science,” indeed).

I find it interesting that toward the end of the text Sheffield cites another opinion piece without presenting it as another editorial. Her like-minded colleague, Grady, “points out” that periods of high growth were beneficial to poor people as well as the wealthy and middle class. (Note that, after berating “the left” for failing to provide evidence for their arguments to focus on inequality, Sheffield cites only Grady’s conclusion, not his evidence.) Although Forbes and the Wall Street Journal are very similar in that they are both conservative, free market-promoting newspaper outlets, Sheffield’s citation of Grady gives the impression that there is a consensus around her perspective, and that putting growth before questions of wealth distribution is a foregone judgment in the minds of other “experts” who value “economic research.” Therefore, going against this judgment is not only to align oneself with “bad math” and poor research, but against conventional wisdom that what hurts poor people most is not an imbalance in the distribution of wealth but not giving them the “opportunity to gain.”

What exactly is meant by the “opportunity to gain?” The text presumes that, when the economy is growing, it follows implicitly that there will be more jobs created, wages will increase and the poor will have the chance to improve their socioeconomic status. In other words, a rising tide lifts all boats. Of course, this ignores the reality that poor people suffer from numerous disadvantages in terms of education, training, networks and otherwise that enable them to capitalize on such opportunities, if they can capitalize on them at all; if the economy is booming due to growth in the technology sector, for example, this will be of unlikely benefit to working class individuals with little knowledge or skill in that industry. Nevertheless, within the discourse of neoliberalism, the “opportunity to gain” is sufficient; whether poor people pull themselves up by their bootstraps is an individual question.

I also find it interesting how “work” is defined in the text, because it obviously takes a view that “work” means entering the economy, earning a wage, and so forth. However, what happens when we consider the labor people do on a routine basis that do not for a wage but out of duty or sheer necessity? For example, raising a child is undoubtedly work, as is maintaining a residence, finding outlets for creative expression, and so on. From this perspective, the idea that a household with two well-paid professionals “works” more than a single mother responsible for her entire household is risible on the face of it; she must juggle her occupation with all the other labor that comes from being a parent, a homeowner, a member of her community, and so on.

On a more general level, this text reflects how, as noted before, the entire discourse is framed not as neoliberal capitalism versus some alternative, but merely whether we should take a pause from the uninterrupted accumulation of capital and economic growth to somehow consider sufficient scraps are making their way to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. There is no attempt to ask the larger question of “What is the economy really for?” As Doreen Massey recently pointed out in an editorial in The Guardian, the way we discuss the economy as though it were a force of nature, beyond human control, rather than a constellation of social relations we can manipulate. In the prevailing discourse, we debate about what to do in the wake of the market rather than whether it is serving the common interest in its present conception. I can think of no greater way to protect material conditions than to orient discourse in such a way that it is unthinkable to consider an alternative to the status quo.

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