Macroeconomic Policy and Sustainability

Read this article for additional perspective about macroeconomic goals and the inherent conflict among them as they relate to a global environmental context.

Some Fundamental Issues of Macroeconomics and Sustainability

As the concept of sustainable development has been refined and developed, many new perspectives on economic theory and policy have been introduced. An overview of work on sustainable development recently published by the Global Development and Environment Institute includes significant contributions on the topics of: natural capital, current and inter-generational equity, "green" accounting, "green" tax reform, growth and the environmental kuznets curve debate, trade and structural adjustment, globalization, and international institutional reform. It seems evident that these multi-faceted theoretical and practical issues arising out of the overlap between environmental, social, and economic analysis should have major implications for macroeconomic policy. But there is as yet little work on reforming macroeconomic theory and policy to take account of sustainability.

There has been discussion of a variety of microeconomic policies which can promote environmental sustainability. But what is implied regarding macroeconomic policy? Since Herman Daly first called for an environmental macroeconomics a decade ago, there has been relatively little forward progress on this issue – certainly none that has penetrated the mainstream of macroeconomic theory, practice, and teaching. There have been new approaches to macroeconomic measurement, taking into account economic and social factors. A recent article by Anthony Heyes suggests a modification of macroeconomic IS-LM analysis to include environmental constraints (of which more later). This is a welcome response to Daly's call for environmental macroeconomics, but there have not been many other such responses.

The question is especially tantalizing since there are signs that this may be a moment of opportunity for influencing, and altering, mainstream macroeconomics. The field has strayed far from its Keynesian origins, and in doing so has become, like other areas of standard economics, highly abstract and mathematical. But at the same time there are some influential voices within the mainstream, such as former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz, decrying the decoupling of macroeconomic theory from real-world problems, and calling for a reorientation. Stiglitz' main concern is not environmental, but he does point to the social devastation wrought in many developing nations by the so-called "Washington consensus" on macroeconomic policy.

The long-term trend in mainstream economic thought about macroeconomic policy has been towards minimalism. In the optimistic Keynesian phase of the 1960's, it was assumed that both fiscal and monetary policy were effective tools for macroeconomic management. But the success of monetarist and New Classical critiques led to a gradual erosion of theoretical support for activist government policy. First fiscal policy fell by the wayside, perceived as too slow and possibly counterproductive in its impacts. The focus moved to central bank monetary policies as the only practical means of government intervention, with the limited goal of price stability. Then rational expectations and New Classical critiques suggested that even monetary policy was ineffective. Thus the role of government is reduced to a cautious effort not to make things worse – in effect a return to an economics of laissez-faire.

By contrast, the sustainability perspective implies that radical and proactive government policies are required to achieve economic development which is both socially just and ecologically sound. The path of laissez-faire leads to increasing inter- and intra-national inequality and increasing environmental destruction. To some extent the course of market economies can be steered through the use of sound microeconomic policies. But the fundamental redirection required for sustainable development cannot be achieved without reorienting macroeconomic policy also. Substantial changes in economic policy are needed in order to promote sustainability as well as more traditional economic goals of efficiency, increased consumption (in the sustainability perspective, for those who need it) and macroeconomic stability. In particular, environmental and social dimensions must be integrated into economic policy.

It is therefore worthwhile to return to the basic goals of macroeconomic policy, as set forth by Keynes, his contemporaries, and his immediate successors, and to ask the question whether some of the essential elements of macroeconomics have been lost in the last half-century of evolution of economic thought. "New occasions teach new duties": the appropriate macroeconomic goals for the twenty-first century are very different from those which confronted Keynes and his colleagues in the immediate post-World War II period. Yet there are similarities in the scope of problems on a global scale which suggest that the broader view taken at an earlier stage in economic thought may be relevant as we consider new issues unforeseen fifty years ago.