Summary | The Infinite Desire for Growth: A Book Talk by Daniel Cohen

On 31 October, the Center on Global Economic Governance hosted Daniel Cohen, head of the economics department of the Ecole normale supérieure and a professor and founding member of the Paris School of Economics, who spoke about his new book The Infinite Desire for Growth. Ishac Diwan, Visiting Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), introduced Cohen and his work noting that the book stitches many pieces of interesting scholarship into a succinct yet coherent narrative and demonstrates the author’s ability to be precise and global.

Cohen stated that the book is an attempt to understand our collective addiction to economic growth which has become synonymous with progress. It also raises the question of what the future would look like if the world was incapable of further growth. Citing Keynes’ 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” Cohen observed that nearly all major modern thinkers have predicted a time when the accumulation of wealth will no longer be significant, and we will be faced with finding other ways to organize our lives. He pointed to the modern age where we have moved from a world of perpetual hunger to one of perpetual frustration.

Cohen stated that when economists are asked about world history, they boil it down to two key events – the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The Agricultural Revolution increased productivity but failed to alleviate starvation as it was accompanied by sedentariness resulting in demographic concentration. Cohen then spoke about the Malthusian Theory of Population, observing that questions of demographic pressure were not considered by these societies.

The Industrial Revolution, of which the economy was a key driver, occurred alongside the Enlightenment. They were both results of the Scientific Revolution. The Industrial Revolution – which used the vertical hierarchies of the Agriculture Revolution – was antithetical to values of the Enlightenment such as liberty. Cohen stated that the shift to the information economy brought back the values of the Enlightenment. He observed that while post-materialist ideals have flourished in the information economy, they have not stemmed the appetite for economic growth.

Cohen attributed this to a few key factors – the habituation process by which we simply get used to whatever we have and search for deviation, comparison to the other and the need to differentiate ourselves, prospect theory which states that we make comparisons with a reference point which is itself variable, and projection bias or the inability to accept the idea that our preferences evolve with time.

He went on to describe yet another paradox – the fact that we are in the midst of a new industrial revolution driven by computer technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) that has not translated into economic growth. He observed that productivity has either decreased or stagnated since the beginning of the digital revolution. Development in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) has resulted in the reorganization of labor via multitasking and outsourcing but has had no real effect on growth. This has contributed to rising inequality.

Cohen stated that the endeavor with AI and similar innovations is to create growth in the service economy that is characterized by humans working on humans (as opposed to land or matter). The effort is to change the nature of the humans we work with by converting them into data sets to ensure more efficient delivery of algorithmic solutions. Cohen concluded by stating that we may reach a cross roads where we will forget this humanistic great hope and pay the price for economic growth.

-Aswathi Kizhekalam Puthenveettil, SIPA ‘19