Dear Kate Raworth,
On the front cover of my copy of your book, Doughnut Economics, reviewer George Monbiot calls you “The John Maynard Keynes of the 21st Century”. While I’m sure that glowing endorsement helped you to sell more books, it made me cringe inside a little.
It goes without saying that you are not the next John Maynard Keynes. But I don’t mean that in an ill-meaning way. You are Kate Raworth. And the world is in short supply of Raworth-like economists. So I do not see a need to piggyback on the coattails of past trailblazers.
My pedanticism aside, I am glad I read Doughnut Economics. It resonates a lot with me because I am not unlike the student Yuan Yang in your book. After finishing my undergraduate studies in economics and finance, I began with aspirations of a PhD. But the more I studied, the more disenchanted I became.
I remember reading a student research paper that won some economics prize in the year before me. Page upon page of proofs, theorems, and derivations. The mathematical techniques were certainly impressive. But isn’t this economics? The paper was beyond comprehension in any practical real-world sense. In short, it didn’t teach me anything.
Much of my further studies began to feel that way — esoteric and out of touch. And I disliked the snobbery emanating from some of my teachers and colleagues. They wrongly believe themselves to be Masters of the Universe.
So, like Yuan Yang, I dropped out after one semester and began my career as a management consultant instead. That’s when my real education in economics, business, and society began (consulting has its own set of perverse problems, of course, but let’s not get into that here).
There are many ideas in Doughnut Economics that I like. Your mental mapping between economic growth and planetary boundaries, for example, is simple yet effective. (And I’m a little embarrassed that I did not think of such visuals for communication in my own line of work.)
There are, however, a few items that I disagree with. For another nitpick, you say that economics does not teach about power. But I don’t believe that’s quite right. From pricing decisions in competition strategy to negotiation tactics in military conflict, bargaining power is a big issue in game theory and microeconomics.
Moreover, I disagree with your sentiment that growth-addiction is a modern concoction. Indeed, measures like gross domestic product have simplified the narrative and fuelled the obsession. But empires, armies, and industries have long been preoccupied with size and accumulation. Nations and businesses under the current paradigm are forever striving for growth because size confers advantage. And advantage confers survival. That’s why the transition “from growth addicted to growth agnostic”, as you recommend, is so difficult.
Are you comfortable living in a world where the United States and European Union pursue a growth agnostic strategy while China and Russia continue to expand their economic, military, and technology base?
Escaping this quasi arms race is near impossible, I think, without global reforms to the microstructures that motivates everyone. Nations and enterprises will continue to teeter at the edge of our planetary boundaries if it allows them to preserve their relative economic, military, or technological interests.
You mention this issue of political and economic lock-in briefly in your final chapters. But this topic, in my opinion, deserves an entire chapter or book of its own. I don’t have any solutions or radical proposals myself (not yet at least). But I am excited to see how economics, political science, and game theory might advance on this issue.
Perhaps you have had some views on this lock-in matter since writing your book?