Thought Control in Economics

Kenneth Boulding

"Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist."

Kenneth Boulding was an economist known for having a way with words and refusing to mince them. His most biting criticisms were reserved for the myopia of his own discipline: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist” and “Mathematics brought rigor to economics. Unfortunately it also brought mortis.”

Boulding earned the right to speak his mind by serving as president of the American Economic Association and authoring Economic Analysis, the authoritative textbook of neoclassical-Keynesian economic synthesis. Viewing his credentials as license to dissent, Boulding said, “Economic Analysis established my respectability so I have been able to be disreputable ever since.” He was a poet, philosopher and peace activist who argued that desirable economic outcomes should be determined with ethical, religious and ecological concerns in mind. For a time he was a card-carrying Republican, but was driven away from the party by Reagan’s radicalism. He was put off by the president’s supply-side economics and unbridled military spending. Boulding advocated a less hawkish stance toward the Soviet Union and mocked Reagan’s communist paranoia.

Beyond his work for peace, Boulding was an environmentalist who argued that economics needed to show a greater reverence for nature. In 1958 he asked, “Are we to regard the world of nature simply as a storehouse to be robbed for the immediate benefit of man? … Does man have any responsibility for the preservation of a decent balance in nature, for the preservation of rare species, or even for the indefinite continuance of his race?” He dubbed the growth model a “cowboy economy,” which treats nature as inexhaustible and rewards “reckless exploitative, romantic and violent behavior.” Boulding proposed an alternative paradigm: a “spaceman economy” that likened the Earth to a self-contained spaceship. With limited resources, members of a spaceman economy have a decided incentive to save rather than consume. Above all, Boulding sought truth in economics. He wanted to construct just, sustainable models that reflected the complex interconnectedness of the world. The conclusion of his poem A Ballad of Ecological Awareness, puts it this way: So cost-benefit analysis is nearly always sure, / To justify the building of a solid concrete fact, / While the Ecologic Truth is left behind in the Abstract.