In a September 15 speech to the New York Economic Club laying out his economic policy agenda, then-candidate Donald Trump mentioned growth 16 times and jobs 44 times. The words inequality, needs, climate, environment, and automation were never uttered. Yet those missing words represent the real economic challenges before us.
Trump is a master of the Great Growth Con, in which the wealthy beneficiaries of free market economic policies gain the confidence and political support of those who will bear the costs. The con promises that economic growth—measured by gross domestic product—will benefit everyone, rich and poor alike. Whatever serves growth, serves all. And what (according to this story) will serve growth? Rolling back government regulations, cutting taxes on the rich and their corporations, and privatizing public services and assets.
The success of the con depends on cultivating the illusion that money is wealth and whatever grows financial assets creates wealth. They assure us that although the rich may get richer, we will all be better off.
So long as we are caught up in the illusion, we are easy marks for the con artists. They divert our attention from the reality that money is only a claim on real wealth and that maximizing financial returns to people who already have money grows only the claims of the already rich. The illusion becomes increasingly vulnerable to exposure as the actual consequences play out: the decimation of the middle class, the environment, and democracy—and the resulting anger that Trump so skillfully exploits.
While many of Trump’s policies are either opaque or constantly changing, his economic views seem quite consistent. They remain credible; however, only so long as public attention is diverted from three fundamental realities:
1. We live on a finite living Earth with a finite capacity to support life. The human burden on Earth’s generative systems is now estimated to be 1.6 times what Earth can sustain. Any excess over 1.0 depletes those systems and risks their future collapse. Bringing our consumption into balance with Earth must be the prime test of economic policy.
2. Equality is essential to democracy and to individual and societal health. Democracy itself is a sham in a country where the wealth of the 20 richest individuals equals that of the poorest 152 million. Research demonstrates that more equal societies are healthier societies on most every measure—including democracy. Humans did not create Earth’s living systems and no human is entitled to monopolize their gifts at the expense of the ability of others to live.
3. Automation is destroying many traditional jobs while crucial needs go unmet. Many factory and office jobs have already disappeared. Jobs driving commercial and for-hire vehicles are now threatened. At the same time, many essential needs go unmet. Trump mentions infrastructure repair. Other essential needs include retrofitting for energy conservation, habitat restoration, education, and care for children, the elderly, and the sick and disabled. These unmet needs could provide job opportunities for many millions of the currently unemployed desperate for a job.
Action in the public interest is required on each of these points to align our economic institutions with current realities. Profit-driven free market institutions have no constructive response. Trump’s consistent silence on all three assures us that his administration will not address them. Constructive leadership must come from other levels of government and from civil society.
Trump is now preparing to use the Great Growth Con to roll back decades of social and environmental progress. Especially ominous is his agenda to privatize public programs and assets, including public and indigenous land, schools, health care, social security, and infrastructure. In the short term, such policies may grow GDP and might even lower budget deficits. In the long term, they will further devastate the environment, create budgetary havoc, and grow the already grotesque gap between rich and poor.
It is not enough to fight the individual items on Trump’s economic policy agenda one by one. We must confront and expose the fallacies of the Great Growth Con and come to terms with the fact that we humans are part of an interconnected web of life—dependent for our well-being upon one another and the living Earth.
David Korten is co-founder of YES! Media, president of the Living Economies Forum, a member of the Club of Rome, and the author of influential books, including “When Corporations Rule the World” and “Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth.” His work builds on lessons from the 21 years he and his wife, Fran, lived and worked in Africa, Asia, and Latin America on a quest to end global poverty.