Recently I had two meetings on the same day which resonated with each other in an interesting way. Both sessions were with academics, a dean and a professor. They expressed diametrically opposite views on economics and higher ed, and that expressed a dynamic I’ve been tracking.
To be clear, economics wasn’t the subject of either conversation. We met to discuss other topics. Yet how we arrange the economic world came up organically in both.
To explain: in our conversation, as we discussed institutional resilience and strategy, the dean expressed firm support for continued economic growth. This was in general, not just for their institution, but for the economy at large. Regular GDP gains, increases in corporate market caps, growing market sizes all benefited that campus in this view. The institution depended on GDP going up each quarter.
The professor, in contrast, detected and approved of an opposed way of thinking, both within higher ed and in the world at large. Zero growth, degrowth, circular, and donut economics were finding an expanding audience and that’s a fine thing, in their estimation. Some of the deepest problems our society experiences, notably income inequality and the climate crisis, stem from our current economic order of perpetual growth. Changing course, even reversing economic progress, was ethically the right thing to do, in this view.
I have a lot to say about each point. We can dive into economic modeling, consider industrialization’s ideologies, reach back to Malthus, and more. Today I just wanted to share that pairing and explain why it moved me. I’m curious what people think. I’d also like to plant this flag for later work.
It’s not a surprise to see professors and administrators on opposite sides of a question, of course, but I don’t think institutional politics are the main driver here. Instead, I think we’re seeing many people question present-day economics (call it neoliberalism, late capitalism, very late capitalism, democratic capitalism, or whatever you like). Partly this stems from the life experience of younger generations, who didn’t receive the anti-socialism Cold War era programming of their elders, and whose experience of capitalism has included some disasters, like the recessions of 2008 and 2020.
At the same time there’s a kind of escalating restlessness in much of the world, a sense that the present order is not only flawed, but is responsible for awful things and isn’t likely to change course on its own. We see that with antiracist activism, which changes various entities (states, businesses, populations) with racism in multiple forms, and calls for both past reckoning and present reform. We see it in the United States with rising labor activism, from an uptick in unionization after decades of decline, plus whatever the “Great Resignation” actually turns out to me – at the very least people not accepting jobs they deem low in compensations. Perhaps this plays a role in the current protests in Iran and China.
This kind of wide-ranging skepticism of the present order also appears within climate activism, the bounds of which far exceed what most people once viewed as “environmentalism.” I suspect more people are realizing just how extensive decarbonization is as a project. Depending on their situations and perspectives, they connect it not only with their electrical bill but also with diet, travel, work, entertainment, gender identity, political parties, generational feeling, and more. Recognizing the sheer, mind-boggling size and complexity of the topic lets us review and rethink these related topics… which unavoidably leads to the economy, among other things.
Back to higher education: this opposed pair of ideas is present within academia, beyond these two contacts, albeit not in a very public way. The dean I spoke with represents a fairly popular view in higher education, although one perhaps more often held without a lot of discussion. American colleges and universities are, broadly, privatized to various degrees, and therefore financially depend on a growing economy to pay for growing expenses. Further, as academia prepares students for careers, in a growing (for now!) population, and we want to elevate students’ economic status, the economy needs to grow. Additionally, unless we want to bank on downward mobility, the economy has to grow to make room for the upwards sort. Again, I don’t see professors and librarians eagerly celebrating quarterly GDP estimates, but this pro-growth idea seems to lurk beneath the surface of our debates and actions.
From the other side, I don’t hear much in the way of nogrowth or degrowth arguments in my conversations and readings of colleges and universities. I’ve found antecedents and allied ideas, like criticisms of consumerism for years. Increasingly, I’m also hearing criticisms of and objections to capitalism as a whole, especially among younger academics. There is academic research into anti-growth schools of thought; I don’t know how widespread this is in curricula.
How far will this opposition go within higher ed and the world at large? Perhaps campuses become sites of loud contestation between pro- and anti-growth movements, with repercussions in institutional strategy and our communities. Or maybe each will remain discussions within disciplines. I’m not sure now.
I’ve been noodling on a related book project about a closely related point, at a history of ideas/direction of civilization level. The emerging debate I’ve identified in this blog post may fit neatly into that. More on this later, if it develops.
What are you seeing in terms of pro-economic growth and its opposition in your slice of the academic world?