- By Randy Brich -
The following is an exclusive Nuclear Street interview with British journalist and author Daniel Ben-Ami. Ben-Ami is the author of "Ferraris For All: In Defence of Economic Progress." Ben-Ami currently writes and debates on economics – an esoteric topic that many people do not fully understand nor appreciate. Ben-Ami recently agreed to this email interview.
(Read the Nuclear Street book review of "Ferraris for All")
Raw, uncut and uncensored, Nuclear Street proudly presents this interview with economic contrarian Daniel Ben-Ami. But, before we begin the interview, we must first define a term that Ben-Ami uses profusely: growth skeptic.
Ben-Ami defines growth skepticism thusly (with conservative strictly defined in the historical sense):
"Overall growth scepticism is a key expression of contemporary social pessimism. It is a malaise that embodies a deep fear of social change and particularly anything presented as progress. Although it presents itself as humanistic, radical and even anti-capitalist, it is a deeply conservative force. To the extent that it is anti-capitalist it is romantic and backward looking. Growth scepticism expresses a fear of the future and ultimately, a loathing of humanity."
In "Ferraris For All" Ben-Ami rebuts the argument of the growth skeptics by using a wide range of examples from many different countries. He asserts that enhanced affluence benefits all of society, not just the rich. As such, he further argues that instead of limiting prosperity, action needs to be taken to promote ingenuity and development thereby eliminating the many real problems associated with poverty.
Nuclear Street: I'd like to know your opinion on how Americans can learn from the European experience regarding growth skeptics? Your thoughts on what stage Europe currently is in and what stage America is entering, or, given the most recent mid-term elections, resisting entering, would be most valuable. Also, if you could say something about nuclear energy that would satisfy my readers.
Daniel Ben-Ami: On Europe and America it seems to me that there are lots of misconceptions on both sides of the Atlantic in relation to this subject. Many Europeans seem to assume that growth scepticism has little purchase in America while a lot of Americans seem to link European growth skeptic ideas with socialism. I think both views are misleading.
In my view green / growth sceptic ideas have long been mainstream in America among conservatives as well as liberals. To take a couple of examples the first Earth Day was back in 1970 and the Environment Protection Agency, an initiative by Richard Nixon, started in the same year. Presidents from both main parties have also taken on board principles such as sustainability which embody the notion of limits and caution.
This is not to say there are no differences between Democrats and Republicans. But the main divide seems to be on how best to impose environmental or other limits – e.g. through a more market-based approach or a more state-based regulatory approach. The underlying acceptance of the idea of limits is rarely challenged.
In relation to Europe the meaning of the discussion partly depends on your definition of "socialism". It is certainly true that there is a highly bureaucratic and undemocratic apparatus enforcing a culture of limits. The European Union (EU), which apart from anything else has the precautionary principle as a key tenet in its legal system, plays a central role in this. It should be remembered that EU law is embodied in the law of member states so the national trend to the bureaucratic imposition of limits is strongly reinforced.
However, this is not "socialism" in the sense of attempting to promote some kind of transformation to a better and more prosperous society. It is best seen as a peculiar form of conservatism whose impulse is to hold back progress as much as possible.
Nuclear energy provides a good example of the dangers of this culture of precaution and limits. As I understand it (please correct me if I am wrong) no nuclear power stations have been built in the US since the late 1970s because of grossly overblown fears about their potential dangers. In Britain the situation is similar. The government has not allowed the construction of nuclear power stations for a long time. Although the previous government proclaimed an ambitious-sounding programme for building nuclear power stations in reality it is not nearly as impressive as the headlines suggest and may end up coming to nothing (James Woudhuysen, a friend of mine, has written about the subject here: http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/7692/ ). As I understand it the main exception to this trend in Europe is France which does have an extensive nuclear programme
PS - Clearly all the terminology here – e.g. liberal / conservative, socialist, etc. - is problematic. The same terms are often used to mean different things.
NS: Noting "Ferraris'" ranking on Amazon today I am wondering if you were expecting it to do better or is this pretty much normal for this type of book?
Ben-Ami: The book has had more publicity than I expected, at least in Britain, but probably fewer sales. I should say it has sold better in the UK than America but I think that's simply because it is easier for me to publicise it where I am based. I think the fundamental problem is that the book goes so much against conventional wisdom that it has not had the profile or distribution I would have liked it to have; especially on the American side of the Atlantic. Before I reached an agreement with my present publisher I was in fairly advanced negotiations with a well-known American publisher but they pulled out when my proposal went up the corporate hierarchy for approval. Last summer I also wrote two features to promote the book for fairly high profile American publications but neither article has been published. In one case one of the editors told me off-the-record that his colleagues were uncomfortable with my arguments. Having said that I should commend Policy Press, a small mainly academic British publisher, for having the courage to publish a book which was likely to provoke so much hostility.
NS: Regarding the importance of inexpensive energy in creating the type of world "Ferraris" wishes would exist could you speculate on the future of energy costs both in Britain and the US?
Ben-Ami: Cheap and plentiful energy is clearly central to rising prosperity worldwide. I would like to see heavy investment in the energy sector, including in the development of new technology, to make cheaper energy all pervasive. However, I fear at the moment the trend is in the opposite direction. Insufficient investment combined with various forms of energy taxes are likely to push energy costs up.
NS: What do you make of the current democracy revolutions occurring worldwide?
Ben-Ami: I used to write about the Middle East so I have been following recent developments there with a particular interest. On the whole, I see the pro-democracy protests in the region as extremely positive. It shows the aspiration for freedom is a universal human desire. It is certainly not confined to the West. To the extent there is a problem I think it is that the old autocratic regimes could retain their grip on power once their geriatric figureheads have been removed.
NS: Have you any opinion on the current situation in Wisconsin where the Democrat Senators walked out to avoid a vote? Would something like this ever happen in Britain?
Ben-Ami: I don't know enough about what is happening in Wisconsin to comment in any detail. I do try to follow the American media but in recent weeks, when I've had spare time, I've tried to focus on the Middle East. However, I would say that in principle I support the right of workers to fight for higher living standards. And the focus of economic policy should be on promoting economic dynamism rather than curbing consumption.
NS: What do you perceive to be the average Brits' view of the US?
Ben-Ami: I think Brits, probably like most people around the world, have a deeply ambivalent view of America. On the one hand, they envy American prosperity and are avid consumers of American culture. Hollywood movies, American television programmes and US music are all popular. On the other hand, many people would accept the green argument that American "overconsumption" is putting an extreme strain on the planet. There is also a snobbish view, particularly among the intellectual elite, that they are much more sophisticated than Americans. I do recognise that a lot of these perceptions are contradictory but, as I suggested at the start, Brits have a strange love-hate relationship with the US.
NS: What is the last book you read?
Ben-Ami: Matt Taibbi's "Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America." One of the worst books I have every read. The author seems to think that using lots of coarse language makes him a cutting edge writer. In reality his views are boringly conventional.
NS: What book are you currently reading?
Ben-Ami: Dan Senor and Saul Singer's "Start Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle." I am reading this because I am writing an article on the subject. The book is well-written and well-informed but too uncritical of its subject matter.
NS: What's the next book on your reading list?
Ben-Ami: I have a tall pile of books I should read but the next one will probably be Charles Kenny's "Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding--And How We Can Improve the World Even More." It looks like it should be a good account of the beneficial effects of prosperity worldwide.
NS: Given the course that civilization is presently heading toward what do you think it will take to change it and how much of a role will the internet play in changing the course?
Ben-Ami: I think the Internet is a fantastic technology and it clearly played an important role in facilitating communication in recent protests in the Middle East. However, its role is being exaggerated by many commentators. To my knowledge the American Revolution succeeded in winning freedom from Britain without any help from Twitter. And I have not come across any reports of the use of Facebook in the French Revolution of 1789.
At present I think the priority for those seeking social change should be to build an intellectual alternative to mainstream views. For example, it is not possible to effectively resist austerity unless you can put a convincing case why prosperity is desirable. Accepting the conventional assumptions hobbles those who are seeking to create a better society.
NS: Being a non-scientist what is your opinion on the manmade climate question and the proposed solutions including the role of nuclear power?
Ben-Ami: The way you pose the question is important. It is too often forgotten that the political and scientific questions, though related, should be kept separate.
As I am not a scientist I tend to assume that the core assumptions in the mainstream scientific discussion are probably correct. That is the earth is warming and economic activity is playing a significant part in the process. However, it is a fundamental error to assume that the only conclusion to be drawn is that consumption must be constrained and personal behaviour modified. On the contrary, we need to boost economic growth and develop technology to find solutions to the problem. In broad terms there are three sets of solutions: decarbonising the energy supply by investing in non-carbon emitting sources (including nuclear); adapting through such measures as building higher sea walls or breeding drought resistant crops; and high technology “geo-engineering” solutions such as perhaps building machines to directly suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
The point is that the engineering solutions needed to tackle climate change cost money. That is why we need more economic growth to enable us to afford them.
It is also important to recognise that, irrespective of climate change, we need to substantially boost the energy supply in any case. To achieve global prosperity we will need plentiful, cheap energy for everyone. I am sure that nuclear fission can play a key role, maybe including thorium reactors, in realising this objective. Further into the future it would be fantastic if we could finally overcome the technological challenges of harnessing nuclear fusion as a source of unlimited energy.
NS: When's your next debate?
Ben-Ami: I have done a couple of debates a month since the summer but it looks like things might quieten down for a while now. I will probably speak at the annual Battle of Ideas festival in London at the end of October.
NS: I thought your last debate was rather telling in that the vote and the comments were diametrically opposed.
Ben-Ami: Yes, the Economist debate was telling in the difference between the votes and the arguments being put for both sides. Essentially I think what was going on was that I was criticising the elite for holding back progress whereas most of the voters attacked it from the opposite perspective: that the elite is bringing too much progress. For example, I want to see production increased to make everyone more prosperous whereas some of the comments referred to overconsumption.
NS: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions and good luck at the Battle of Ideas Festival.
Ben-Ami: You’re welcome and everyone is welcome to visit my website: www.danielbenami.com.
Daniel Ben-Ami Bio:
Daniel Ben-Ami has worked as a journalist for over 20 years contributing to numerous national and specialist publications. "Ferraris For All," his book defending economic progress, was published in July. His book on global finance, "Cowardly Capitalism" (Wiley, 2001), was recommended by the Baker Library of Harvard Business School. His blog posts are also fed through to Twitter. His day job is to edit "Fund Strategy," a specialist weekly magazine on investment funds and financial markets.
He is a regular contributor to Spiked and his work has appeared in many other newspapers and magazines including the Australian, Economist.com, Financial Times, the Guardian, the Independent, Novo (Germany), Prospect, the Sunday Telegraph and the Sunday Times. He has appeared on numerous radio stations including Australia’s ABC Radio National (Counterpoint programme), Air America Radio (Al Franken Show), BBC Radio 2 (Jeremy Vine Show), BBC Radio 4 (In Business, the Moral Maze, Thinking Allowed and the Today programme), BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC World Service (Global Business), Ireland’s Newstalk and Hungarian public radio. His television appearances include Al Jazeera English language television, BBC News 24, BBC World, Bloomberg TV, CNBC, CNN and Sky News.
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I wonder what will people like me do to act on various issues, especially with regards to the so-called "growth skepticism" - and why does U.K.-based economics journalist, Daniel Ben-Ami, argue about these, really?
With regards to the current situation in the Middle East and its effects on the global economy, I personally regard the crisis as messy as what I call "the reign of ideological terror and deceit" - that is, excessive politicking gone mad not just in Egypt since last February, but also the whole Middle Eastern and North African region, and the rest of the world, too! It is too bad that Mr. Ben-Ami never really understood the pros and cons of not just the "French Enlightenment" but also the "American Enlightenment", etc., etc., etc.
Prove me wrong, but I will never give up - not until various issues that affect economic and social progress and stability, environmental conservation & protection, public governance & safety, scientific and technological improvement & progress, improvements in energy, communications & transportation and other important things are addressed properly. Welcome to reality, ladies and gentlemen - and there is no turning back from it!
Time to take action - and GET GOING, right now!
Ben-Ami is not correct about the construction of nuclear power plants in the US (i.e., that " no nuclear power stations have been built in the US since the late 1970s"). While no new orders have been placed since the 1970s, construction of new plants continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s, and completion of Unit 2 at the Watts Bar plant is going on today.
Omission: It is important to look closely at the words "scientific & technological improvements and progress", not "scientific and technological improvement & progress" without the letter "s". Sorry for the misspelling.