11/11/2013 12:01 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Economic Growth as a Form of Moral Evasion

Many observers have pointed out the incoherence of 'growth' as a perpetual economic goal. They're right, of course; on a finite planet, growth has to end sometime.

The question then becomes, why the persistence of such nonsense? Perhaps because the "rising tide lifts all boats" logic makes it easy to avoid hard choices about justice and fairness. Kennedy's phrase was meant to be inspiring, but even a brief pause over his wording brings some revealing truths to the surface. What does the "rising tide" refer to? Why, overall economic growth, of course. It elides the possibility that the tide is already high enough -- that there's plenty for everyone to go around, if we only care to share more.

But there's more at work. Not only does the pursuit of perpetual growth make it easy to avoid thinking about how much we care about our fellow human beings, then -- they'll get theirs as soon as we grow this economy a little more -- it makes it easy to avoid thinking about goals at all. We may feel anxious about fluctuations in the stock market or momentary dips in GDP, but our preoccupation is also a source of relief. Amidst all this urgency, we tell ourselves, we don't have time to worry about the deeper questions. It provides us a perfect excuse for stuffing our deepest forms of compassion in a can and kicking them down the road.

[This essay originally appeared at The Wheat and Chaff.]