On baking a bigger pie

This week at the Conservative party conference, Prime Minister Liz Truss declared that she had “three priorities for our economy: growth, growth and growth”. Then she turned to a familiar metaphor to describe what matters. “For too long,” she told her audience, “the political debate has been dominated by the argument about how we distribute a limited economic pie. Instead, we need to grow the pie so that everyone gets a bigger slice.”

There are a number of problems with this metaphor. First of all, some people already have more pie than they can eat and don’t need a bigger slice. Others have crumbs. Baking a bigger pie isn’t the obvious solution to this inequality.

Neither is it possible to disregard the way the pie is cut. Just because the pie is bigger doesn’t mean your portion is going to be any larger. You still have to carve up a bigger pie, and there’s no escaping questions of distribution.

As my friend Katherine Trebeck says, maybe your particular problem isn’t to do with the pie itself at all. Maybe, to extend our metaphor, what you need from the waiter is a knife and fork. There’s pie there, but you don’t have the tools to get stuck in. In more practical terms, perhaps there are jobs available but you don’t have the right skills. Or all the jobs are in a different region, and you’re unable to relocate. Growth in itself is meaningless if people aren’t able to join in. We have to talk about inclusion.

Then there’s the matter of limits. Andrew Simms, in his book Cancel the Apocalypse, puts it this way:

In a physically limited system where growth is ultimately constrained, simple logic dictates that to increase the material standards of living of the poor must require better, more equal distribution. If you cannot bake a bigger pie, you must get better at sharing what you have, otherwise you either condemn the poor to go without or crash the ecosystems that livelihoods depend on through overburdening them.

Of course, the economic think tanks would be quick to tell us that this isn’t a zero-sum game – one person having more doesn’t necessarily require someone else to have less. But this is to take a lesson from financial wealth and wrongly apply it to natural wealth. Fresh water, land, fossil fuels, the atmosphere, these are all finite. To dismiss questions of distribution is to deny that there are limits.

None of this makes economic growth a bad thing in itself. When people don’t have enough, growth is good. But we should be more specific about what we want – more for those that need it, within environmental limits. And that’s what Joy in Enough is all about.

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