Next Salon Discussion
Tuesday 4th Apr: First Tuesday Current Affairs discussion
Discussing First topical issue (Mark Iddon) and Second topical issue (Simon Belt)
|Manchester book reviews|
Reviewed by Mark Iddon November 2010
‘Ferraris For All’, is a book of bold ambition setting out to defend the idea of economic progress, from those with the presently dominant view who the author refers to as growth sceptics. It is also published at a time when we appear to have been at low point of the worst recession since the 1930’s, following the near collapse of the banking industry. The Labour Party has been recently voted out of office and the ConDem coalition attempts to reduce the national deficit with savage cuts to public spending and the Bank of England expresses deep uncertainty about the future.
Now, in complete contrast, Daniel Ben-Ami, a well established journalist specialising in writing on economics and finance for over 20 years, makes a very novel statement suggesting that everyone in the world should own a Ferrari. The title of the book is attributed to WORLDwrite, an education charity committed to global equality, whose slogan is ‘Ferraris For All’. Ben-Ami notes, however, that actually the Ferrari is symbolic, and it is not essential to be restricted to that particular brand, but it is about the aspiration and ambition for everyone to have much more than they actually need.
Daniel Ben-Ami, starts the book by asking the question of whether the present global downturn was caused by over consumption by greedy consumers and greedy bankers lending recklessly, as has been suggested by many commentators. He suggests that many economists have become sceptical of growth over recent years and ‘Ferraris For All’ is an investigation as to how that shift in thinking has come about? The first half of the book identifies the shifts in thinking from a time when growth was considered an unquestionable good, prior to the 1960’s, to the present when the term economic growth is preceded by terms like sustainable, that is, cautious and restrained. The second part of the book is setting down his arguments of why we should be concerned about trends which, he deems to be ‘Malthusian and misanthropic’. The trends identified by Ben-Ami are those associated with sustainability and climate change, the happiness movement, along with some initiatives on equality and poverty in developing countries.
On the face of it the above ideas seem self evidently progressive and, as Daniel Ben-Ami notes, they are often presented in humanistic terminology. After all the earth is finite, the population is growing and increasing carbon emissions do appear to effect global temperatures. People in Western countries are generally living longer, healthier lives, enjoying travel, good food and extravagant past times, but do not seem to be happier, less anxious and are often recommended counselling on encountering an alarming experience. Greater disparities in wealth do seem to increase with economic growth and with that the tensions which may be exhibited in power relations both within and between countries. Daniel suggests also that the trends of his concern are concepts which have been introduced by those of traditional left of the post war political spectrum or the radicals who have always campaigned for equality of opportunity and against the recklessness of capitalism.
While Daniel Ben-Ami describes much of the mainstream economic thinking as growth scepticism, his targets are actually reluctant to declare that they are sceptical of economic growth preferring to think of themselves as realists. However, the word sustainable is more often than not used both to precede and qualify the use of the term economic growth. The official definition of sustainable development is ‘... development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ UN World Development Commission 1987. Daniel notes the implied need for limits and that development is only considered sustainable if it uses minimal resources, recycled where possible and then after an impact assessment to confirm its environmental implications. The measuring of human activity in terms of a carbon footprint presumes from the outset that human activity is causing harm to the world and our environment and that we must (only) do what we can in order to preserve the finite resources. Daniel Ben-Ami notes that the Reverend Thomas Malthus stated in 1793 that within 50 years, the population would grow so much that the earth would not be able to provide enough food. Of course history has proved him wrong but there are many who think with great conviction that the same is true today.
Daniel Ben-Ami states that such views, do not account for human ingenuity where more technically efficient methods of producing / distributing food and commodities are able to meet the needs of a continually increasing population. Of course there are political reasons why some are still hungry and poor. Daniel suggests that, there is confusion between natural limits and social limits and notes that social advancement means that resources become redundant because more suitable resources are appropriated. Social / technical advancement and innovative discoveries occur because of risk taking, research and experimentation but the sustainability concept is predicated on the precautionary principle. The risk averse precautionary principle is inherently anti progress. Daniel Ben-Ami also argues that the concept of sustainability is about respecting nature and its laws, which, he suggests is entirely incompatible with enlightenment thinking. He suggests that it should be our intention to assert human presence and to make the unconscious and often destructive natural world, subject to, and for the benefit of humanity. It is by humanity being able to overcome the constraints of nature and making it subject to human need, that we can really hope to combat the issues of climate change.
A theory that has recently become prominent in economics discussions over recent years is that of happiness and well being, where it is generally understood that you cannot buy happiness. Although the absence of money can be distressing if you are denied essentials for comfort, it is widely recognised that there is a diminishing return in the happiness stakes beyond the threshold of comfort and security. Richard Layard of the London School of Economics, is one of the main proponents of this theory, who suggests that the pursuit of happiness and well being should be promoted as the ultimate goal in life, instead of the relentless pursuit of the acquisition of wealth, sometimes referred to as the ‘hedonistic treadmill’. Oliver James has written a book on this subject with the title ‘Affluenza’, with a deliberate reference to the link of the pursuit of affluence with sickness.
‘Ferraris For All’, however, argues that there is a distinction between the classical definition of happiness such as that stated in the American Declaration of Independence (1793) where the pursuit of happiness is stated as a civil right and is very much linked to the enlightenment aspiration for social progress. In contrast, the contemporary definition of happiness, as advocated by the Happiness Movement proposes that being happy with what you have got and finding happiness in yourself should be an objective of more prescient value. This is happiness of a therapeutic nature where you are encouraged to be content with what you have rather than always wanting more. The logical conclusion of this reasoning is a loss of agency in shaping one’s own destiny to being a passive observer in life, accepting your lot, which is the antithesis humanist thinking.
On equality, Daniel Ben-Ami has concerns that the idea of economic growth is regarded by some economic thinkers, as contributing to an ever widening gap between the rich and poor of the world. Whilst it is generally understood that economic growth will have benefits for all of society, it is recognised that some will gain substantially more than others. The concern Daniel has is of the call for a levelling down of wealth with the rich making sacrifices, instead of increasing the wealth of the poor up for all round greater prosperity. He sees that this is an indirect attack on growth and is linked with the concept of TINA (Margaret Thatcher’s ‘there is no alternative’ to the market system) as a barrier to social transformation of society. It is a phrase of a mindset that is resolved to there being no better way of organising society. It is devoid of ideas, imagination with a total lack of belief in the human project to transform society and is one which betrays an elitist defence of privilege.
Daniel Ben-Ami then concludes his book by setting down a list of 10 fundamental principles for a dynamic economy in order for everybody in the world to achieve a prosperous life well beyond what they require to survive. The stated aim of the book is to rejuvenate the idea of progress in order to avoid the potential tragedy of contemporary anxieties preventing human beings from achieving their enormous potential. It is a highly readable and challenging book on a potentially technical, philosophical and sociological subject matter to make a robust claim for social progress and a claim for a renewed faith in human potential and ingenuity.
Whether you accept Daniel Ben-Ami’s argument or economic progress and growth or adopt the popular understanding of the need for limits and restrained growth, the gauntlet has been laid down to either respond or support. This is a critical read for anyone who is interested in how society moves forward in the 21st century.