Economy & Budget

Obama Adviser’s Green Manifesto: Americans Will Be Better Off When They Work, Produce and Earn Less

When the Commerce Department reported Friday that the economy had grown at a humble 2.4 percent in the second quarter, even the liberal Washington Post suggested President Barack Obama’s policies were not leading to the sort of economic growth necessary to reduce unemployment, which has risen from 7.7 percent to 9.5 percent since Obama took office. 

“The recovery is fading, and a troubling pattern is setting in: economic growth that is too slow to put Americans back to work,” said the first paragraph in the Post’s report on the new GDP numbers.

But in the worldview presented in an early environmentalist manifesto co-authored by Stanford University’s Paul and Anne Ehrlich and John P. Holdren—who is now director of Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy–sluggish growth would not be seen as the “troubling pattern” the Post perceives it to be. In fact, it might be viewed as a positive. 

In my new book, “Control Freaks: 7 Ways Liberals Plan to Ruin Your Life,” I look at the vision that Holdren (who advises Obama on climate change and health care) expressed in his 1973 book “Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions.” That vision held that the world could be a better place if Americans worked, produced and earned less.

“In the longer term, it may be that the solution to the employment problem will require a reduction in the amount of work done by each worker in order to create more jobs,” wrote Holdren and his co-authors.

“Gradually shortening the work week (ultimately to 20 hours or less) or decreasing the number of work weeks per year (companies could have different spring-summer and fall-winter shifts) would accomplish this,” they wrote.

Working less to make room for other people to enter the job market would be good for Americans, Holdren and his co-authors concluded, even if it meant workers had to accept less pay.

“There should be few but positive consequences from such a reduction in working time,” they wrote. “Pay would perhaps be reduced but so would many expenses if material goods were built to endure and there was no longer social pressure to consume for the sake of consuming. If people can be diverted from the speedy, mechanized forms of leisure activity now promoted by advertising, the pace of life would undoubtedly slow down, with attendant psychological and physical benefits.”

Holdren and his co-authors endorsed a vision presented by economist Kenneth Boulding, who called for America to turn away from a “cowboy economy” that exploited natural resources and stressed growth in the Gross National Product to a new “spaceman economy” that recognized growth had limits.

“Boulding has described a rational alternative to the GNP-oriented cowboy economy, calling this alternative the ‘spaceman economy’ in harmony with the emerging concept of ‘Spaceship Earth,’” Holdren and the Ehrlichs wrote. “Consistent with the finiteness of this planet’s supply of resources and the fragility of the biological processes that support human life, such an economy would be nongrowing in terms of the size of the human population, the quantity of physical resources in use, and mankind’s impact on the biological environment.”

With admirable candor, Holdren and his co-authors conceded that this enviro-economic vision required the redistribution of wealth on a global scale.

“One problem that must be faced squarely is the redistribution of wealth within and between nations,” they wrote. “Otherwise fixing the quantity of physical goods in use would ‘freeze’ the majority of human beings in a state of poverty.”

In the recommendations at the end of their book, Holdren and the Ehrlichs wrote: “Redistribution of wealth both within and among nations is absolutely essential, if a decent life is to be provided for every human being.”

Now, it might be fairly pointed out that Holdren and the Ehrlichs wrote these things almost four decades ago. And in his 2009 Senate confirmation hearing, Holdren said, “I no longer think it’s productive … to focus on the optimum population for the United States.”

That contrasts sharply with the view expressed in Human Ecology, where Holdren and the Ehrlichs wrote: “Political pressure must be applied immediately to induce the United States government to assume its responsibility to halt the growth of the American population.”

But as late as 1995, Holdren joined Paul Ehrlich and Gretchen Daily in co-authoring an essay on “The Meaning of Sustainability” included in a book published by the World Bank. Here they listed things ‘[w]e know for certain.” Among them: “No form of material growth (including population growth) other than asymptotic growth, is sustainable.”

“This is enough,” they concluded, “to say quite a lot about what needs to be faced up to eventually (a world of zero net physical growth), what should be done now (change unsustainable practices, reduce excessive material consumption, slow down population growth), and what the penalty will be for postponing attention to population limitation (lower well-being per person).”

In a table published with this essay, Holdren and his co-authors listed as one of the “Requirements for Sustainable Improvements in Well-Being” what they called “Reduced disparities within and between countries.” The “rationale” for this, they said, was: “The large gaps between rich and poor that characterize income distribution within and between countries today are incompatible with social stability and with cooperative approaches to achieving environmental sustainability.”

Or as Obama told Joe “the Plumber” Wurzelbacher in 2008: “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

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