This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts where I talk about Debate and Economics. In this issue, I discuss dedevelopment economics, sustainability, and a few applications to debate.
The past few blog posts have focused mostly on “conventional” macroeconomics; that is, growth, monetary policy, some public finance, etc. In this post, I want to transition to one of my favorite arguments in debate – dedevelopment, or “Dedev.” A school of thought that has spread recently in European academic circles, it is an empirical/policy-oriented response to unfettered growth that I like to think of as the “economists’ cap k.” Specifically, I want to talk about where I think the literature is now and where it will go in the coming years.
Dedev has recently gained a lot more traction, moving from a fringe idea to a much more “mainstream” school of thought (albeit in a somewhat watered-down way). The reason why may be obvious: we’re in a period of worsening ecological overshoot, amid a global pandemic whose scope can at least be partially attributed to globalization, as wealth inequality has gotten worse year after year. This has led to a lot of literature discussing the viability and sustainability of the current financial order, with warrants as varied as derivative futures and speculatory foreign exchange rates to the impact honeybee extinction would have on biodiversity (lovingly dubbed “beedev”).
Dedev is, also, surprisingly flexible as a literature base and an argument that I think is worth learning (even if you don’t often go for impact turns!) The reason is two-fold. First, there is an abundance of economics-based arguments; understanding even the defensive parts of dedev well can be invaluable for any debater who wishes to substantially engage case. Second, dedev’s arguments can often be paired with the cap k (transition arguments for alt solvency, sustainability and impact arguments paired with the impact/framing, etc.), and amalgamating the two gets one both the flexibility and wide berth of the cap k and the deductive, quantitative rigour that many of the dedev arguments employ – essentially, the best of both worlds.
Finally, I’ll end this section discussing two of my favorite neat arguments in dedev. First, on sustainability, the heat engines argument. This one is quite niche, but I think it’s a great example of how physical limitations interact with economic models. Specifically, this argument considers the second law of thermodynamics (entropy), and concludes that, given heat engines can, at best, asymptotically approach 1 (efficiency) in infinite time, there are not only limits on consumption and growth, but also, that growth itself should slow down (we should experience diminishing marginal returns over time). This implicates many of the consumption and exponential growth arguments, and is one that is somewhat harder to get out of. Second, on the impact level, I am particularly fond of the inequality arguments. Specifically, there is good evidence that suggests that poorer people have higher marginal propensities to consume. Should this be true, it would imply that high Gini coefficients actually slow growth (there is some empirical evidence to suggest this) by decreasing the average multiplier effect on an economy. I like this argument for two reasons; first, it is an endemic argument of modern capitalism (what with its decreasing regulation, uneven enforcement of antitrust law, etc.), positing that the very things that cause growth will eventually lead to it slowing down, and second, because it requires familiarity with the same macro models that I argued in a previous post would be important in various debate contexts (hence, it serves as a good example for that previous contention).
As convinced by the dominant modern macroeconomic models as I am, I still think that dedev raises important questions about current schools of thought that we need to answer. After all, the real world isn’t debate—and saying “transition fails and collapse is worse” over and over again won’t make the very real sustainability and impact problems that have currently been identified suddenly go away. Even if dedev isn’t up your alley in terms of argumentation, it is something that will be important to consider as humanity enters the next few decades.