Development Morality

I'll restate my moral argument. But first I'll repeat why I think the economic models are irrelevant.

1. There is no consensus on either the data to be used or the model to be used to determine the benefits of trade.

2. The conclusions reached by various analysts tend to mirror their ideological viewpoints, this alone should make one wary of accepting their conclusions. Liberals find less benefit and more problems with trade than do conservatives.

3. Mathematical modeling with sparse data sets generates unreliable results. Not only can a model be found to match any such data collection, but in this case there are variables which are excluded or unknown when doing the analysis. I'm afraid much of this type of work is GIGO.

So, I have concluded that presenting "data" and models is ideologically or politically motivated and should be treated as such. It's not science, or if it is attempting to be scientific, it is dealing with cases too complex to analyze reliably with current tools.

The moral argument, however, is independent of models and depends only on some simple data, to wit:

1. The world is already consuming more than a sustainable amount of "stuff". Recent estimates are 1.3-1.5 times the renewable amount.

2. The consumer taking the most unequal share is the US, followed by Japan and western Europe. The US consumes 40% of the resources with 5% of the population. For other countries to even reach a fraction of this level of consumption is mathematically impossible.

3. Therefore, any plan which increases US consumption must do so at the expense of others in particular and the future world in general. Taking more than your share is immoral. Taking even more than your share when you are already over consuming is evil.

What's the solution?

There are three proposals.

1. Continue to consume more in order to keep the economy "growing". The justifications for this are that the imbalance will be solved by future technological gains, and/or our growth will drag the less prosperous along. (The rising tide metaphor.) This is where the current trade debates among development experts is centered.

2. Improvements in efficiency and conservation will permit growth to continue and the benefits will expand to all. This is weaker than the first argument, because improvements in efficiency (or conservation) only delay the date when resources become exhausted. This is postponing the problem, not solving it.

3. Consume less. This is the only moral position, but since it runs counter to 300 years of capitalism and the industrial revolution it is never considered by either the left or the right. When this is coupled with an acknowledgment that the world population is above the sustainable level and is continuing to grow at a troublesome rate what is needed to be done becomes a series of stark and unpalatable choices.

Therefore all discussions about mutually beneficial trade policies where one of the partners already has too much are avoiding the real issues and are, therefore, if not immoral, at least amoral.

The US could cut its GDP in half and then be living the kind of lifestyle of Spain or similar places. What's so terrible about that?

Politicians have to pander to the self-centered interests of voters otherwise they end up like Jimmy Carter, but why do economists and other social scientists have to play along? Tell people to take their cod liver oil, it's the only moral thing to do. And then start to work on how to transition to a sustainable, but technologically advanced society.

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Copyright © 2008 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.