The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as if the Future Matters

  • Published

The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as if the Future Matters by Diane Coyle. Princeton University Press, 2011, 346 pp.

While economics has often been viewed as the domain of academics, the last four years have propelled the subject to the forefront of the public consciousness. Crushing private debt, the Great Recession, the mortgage crisis, a financial and banking meltdown, and government stimulus efforts have dominated headlines and put traditional concerns like foreign policy on the backburner. Even within the military, the economic constraints of two recent wars, defense budget cutbacks, strategic shifts, and the painful, protracted fight over sequestration have given economics a front-and-center position at the debate.

Diane Coyle’s The Economics of Enough uses these crises as a launching pad to analyze what is wrong with the current economic system and what can be done to provide for long-term, sustainable recovery and growth. Dr. Coyle, a visiting professor at the University of Manchester, is a widely published economic authority in Britain, has been recognized for her work with the Order of the British Empire, and has written extensively on economic topics, including the new digital “weightless” economy. She holds a PhD from Harvard.

She begins Economics of Enough with a look at how basic components of human life and organization have been showing signs of stress. Using contemporary examples and highlights from a survey of the current literature, she details how the concepts of happiness, nature, posterity, fairness, and trust are all beginning to show wear and tear in today’s global economy, particularly nature and posterity. Current government policies and consumption activities are depleting natural resources at a rapid pace. The current generation is also expecting a wide array of government services and social programs while bequeathing the bills (immense ones, likely to go unpaid) to future generations

But the book is not a doom and gloom call for panic or retreat to the hills. Instead, Dr. Coyle systematically lays out the inherent obstacles in today’s economic and political systems that prevent us from fully redressing the grievances she presents. These obstacles are summarized as measurement, values, and institutions. She argues that the current methods of collecting data do not capture enough information to truly reflect social progress. After all, if happiness is a key component of human society, we need to have accurate methods of assessing whether or not the work of the government and private sector have been able to achieve it. She also drives home the point that current statistical measures, such as gross domestic product (GDP), do not reflect the current economy and have lagged behind in capturing all the value and less-tangible wealth that the new digital and “weightless” economy produces daily. Readers will come away from this section mulling over her very well-conceived points and reconsidering their assumptions regarding the use of statistical measures.

For Dr. Coyle, the needed changes in today’s economy are extensive and challenging. She lays out a roadmap for the future in the final part of her book: a section entitled “The Manifesto of Enough.” The title reflects the idea that current consumers and societies are right now in the pursuit of having enough but there also needs to be enough to pass on to future generations. In addition to the previously mentioned reevaluation of statistics, she advocates government action to help reshape the values of the capitalist markets. Excessive bonuses for bankers and financial sector workers should be taxed at a high rate to discourage that activity and dampen the spread of inequality. Western governments should enact policies that encourage saving and investment for the long term. But these governments themselves are in need of reform, so greater citizen engagement in the deliberative processes could help loosen the stranglehold of special interests and encourage the introduction of regulation and fiscal discipline needed for the benefit of future generations.

For a book on such controversial topics as climate change, long-term government debt, and political gridlock, it maintains a healthy, balanced point of view. While the subtitle about how to “run the economy” may sound like advocacy of central planning, that is not the message. Instead, Dr. Coyle presents the view that we are all integrally involved in running the economy and making crucial choices about the world we will pass on to future generations. She quotes and evaluates the thoughts of economists across the spectrum and does not simply repeat their ideological answers. Instead, she lays out both the pros and cons of each and places them within the context of what needs to be done to make the economy sustainable now and in the future.

For anyone interested in how today’s economy will impact the future, this is a worthwhile read. Particularly, anyone involved in long-term strategic and governmental initiatives would do well to heed some of the cautions she gives. Readers will find the work easy to navigate, as Dr. Coyle cogently lays out her arguments and systematically and effectively uses evidence to back up her positions. The first two parts of the book on the challenges and the obstacles are definitely the strongest because of their thorough analysis and effective argumentation. The book ends with a shorter section on what must be done to solve these problems, and that part disappoints. Readers are left wondering where the compelling force will come from to enact these needed changes to make the future sustainable. However, they will come away with a new framework for viewing the present and the future and begin to wonder how they can begin to do their part in making positive changes. And that, in the end, may be the force that will reshape our institutions and put our economy back on solid ground.

Jonathan Newell 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."