A mountain lake in British Columbia

economics102

Food, glorious food

For some of us it is very easy to be complacent about food supply.  All his life this blogger has lived near an unlimited supply of food.  He now lives 20 minutes out-of-town and within an hour of at least a dozen supermarkets, all of which are always fully stocked with an excellent variety of foods.

I wish this were true for all the people on this planet and I hope it will remain true for the rest of time.  There are some reasons to be concerned.  Even with all this food available there are people here who rely on the local food bank to eat.  If our food factories were to break down a lot more people would go hungry.

Food is so important at least some people should be monitoring what is happening in the agriculture industry.  It is too important to leave to farmers who have interests that conflict with those of their customers.

Here are a few concerns about food production.

The industry is heavily subsidized, probably in so many ways nobody knows for certain the extent of the subsidies.  People living in rural areas sometimes have  disproportionate voting power and farm lobbies tend to be very powerful.  In any case most governments want a cheap food policy to avoid bread riots.  All the subsidies distort prices so that we make irrational buying decisions.  Last night this blogger probably would not have eaten fresh green beans from California or South America if we had to pay the full costs of growing and transporting them.  If agricultural subsidies were to be abolished food production would be more rational and efficient and some of us would make drastic changes to our diets

Another concern is that very few people know much about the sustainability of agricultural technology and those who do know are not always reassuring.  We know there is a lot of monoculture and a high use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides.  What would happen to our food supply if a financial breakdown were to mean farmers were not able to purchase their chemicals?   What is the true condition of the topsoil around the world?

Weather and climate change always has been and always will be an issue in agriculture.

From time to time somebody makes an issue of North American food waste with a claim that we waste enough food to reduce hunger around the world.  This could be true but there is the problem of getting the food to where it is needed.   Collection and transport would be expensive and trade works best when both parties have items of equal value to each other.

It is in the interests of all of us that agriculture be a viable and sustainable industry.  But there is an economic problem relating to the elasticity of the demand curve.  When the first hand-held calculators came out they were terribly expensive.   As the price came down more and more people were able to afford them  and manufacturers were able to make a profit with a small markup on lots of sales.  This is not true for agriculture.  Most of us eat the same amount of food regardless of the price.    So, if there is a bumper crop the price will go down even though sales will not go up.  Sometimes farmers are better off with a poor crop so that prices go up and their total income increases.

I’m not sure there is an answer to this problem that does not involve government interference in markets.  My preferred solution would be a universal income scheme which would include agricultural workers.  For a suggestion of how such a scheme might work I refer you to the essay “LETS go to market:  Dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog.

As food is such an essential part of our lives we have a responsibility to ourselves to take an interest in the agriculture industry and monitor what is happening.

Independent contractors and falling living standards

This blogger disagrees with economist Robert Reich when he says the rise of “independent contractors” in the American labor force is a legal trend.  It is an economic trend in which incomes are trending down because of problems in the energy and resource base.

Our economy has recently been through some golden  years of prosperity which have come to an end, probably because we have used up the most easily accessible of the energy and mineral resources.  There are lots left but the difficulty of extracting them is reducing the potential for continued economic growth and maybe even going to force upon us some negative growth. 

One of the consequences is that living standards are falling – at least for some people.  As  wages are sticky and people protest when asked to take a cut in wages employers try to find other ways to accomplish the same thing.  One way is to contract out work and another is to assign the work to independent contractors.  The jobs get done at a lower cost to the employers and some workers have jobs even if at less income.   In some cases the work may be done by different employees. 

This is hardly a trend to make people happy.  If it were up to me everyone would have the same incomes, working conditions and benefits as most government employees.  But economic realities will not allow that.

If there has to be a reduction in living standards then it would be fairer to share it among most people.  One way to do this would be with a universal income scheme.

Pensions and dreams

Many people like to dream about the things they will do in retirement and count on their pensions and savings to make the dreams come true.  For lots of current seniors this has been true but younger people may not get beyond the dream.  All the uncertainties of the economic future come to the fore when one starts thinking about pensions.

One hears two major concerns about pensions:  most  people are not saving enough and too many pensions are based on unfunded liabilities.

The one certainty about retirement futures is that well-being and standard of living will depend upon the quantity of goods and services we are capable of producing and the number of people with whom those goods and services must be shared.  Inflation or bankruptcies could easily wipe out  pensions and savings. In any case an increasing population and people living longer into retirement will put pressure on pensions.

There are two ways we can try to ensure our futures into retirement – we can work our butts off in an attempt to return to economic growth or we can reduce our expectations so that we don’t need so need so many goods and services.  It is possible the second option will be forced upon us.  That may not be all bad.  This blogger knows from experience that canoe camping is a lot cheaper and more enjoyable than the large cruise ships..   I also have to recognize that camping would be a lot less fun if we had to share the lake with 2,000 people at a time.

Most  of us are subject to a lot of media hype about the importance of pensions and saving for retirement.  We should keep in mind that we are in for the long-term while the people selling investments are more interested in their next pay cheque.  What is good for them may not be good for their customers and by the time you find out you may not even remember their name.

Some people are worried about government pensions and see private investments as the answer.  I figure the whole financial system is at risk of either inflation or bankruptcy.

In planning for the future we have to evaluate the potential for a return to economic growth.  If one believes we are going to return to growth then it might  be okay to put a lot of effort into a pension.  .  Personally, I think the best long-term investment at this time is a market garden.

 

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

The future of money: inflation, deflation or disappearance into thin air

The future of money has been getting a little attention lately.  It could go one of three ways – inflation, deflation or part of it could disappear into thin air.  Concerns about money probably reflect concerns and uncertainty about where the economy is going.  Frequently behind these concerns lurk people who want a fixed money supply such as gold or bit coin.

This blogger figures money should be defined as a tool to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  I do not like definitions that make it a store of wealth or a measure of value because these give money an intrinsic value which it does or should not have.  Money should only have value as a tool. 

One of the most important features of money should be the amount available  in the economy needs to be flexible.  It should be able go to up or down  with changes in the quantity of goods and services we want to exchange.  If the money supply is not flexible then as we change the quantity of goods and services then either prices must go up or down or the velocity, the rate at which money changes hands will change.  It is dangerous to assume there will be only growth.

Inflation happens when the money supply increases faster than the rate of economic growth and deflation happens when the money supply goes not keep up with the rate of growth.    Inflation is good for borrowers as the can repay their loans with money which has less real value.  This is one reason governments and their agents want to see mild inflation.  Deflation is good for lenders as they will be repaid with money which has more value.  The ideal should be price stability so nobody loses.

Our understanding of inflation and deflation has been distorted by the long period of economic growth we have just experienced. Most inflation has happened along with growth and most deflation has resulted from banking authorities trying to restrict the amount of money available.  This happened in the 1930s and todays central bankers have sworn to never again let that happen.

There is some evidence that our time of economic growth has terminated.  It is unclear how this will affect prices.  Quantitative easing which is an attempt to increase the money supply has not led to high inflation.  Past hyperinflations have occurred when governments have increased to money supply faster than the economy was capable of growing.  It appears the money created by quantitative easing has led to inflation in the financial markets rather than consumer markets.

Economists generally understand how fractional reserve banking works to increase the money supply but I am not aware of anyone who has thought out the opposite process.  Money that can be created out of thin air can just as easily disappear into thin air.

In fractional reserve banking banks are required to keep a portion of their deposits as reserves for protection against runs. The rest is loaned out and redeposited with the new deposits subject to the same fractional reserve.  The result is that a large proportion of our money supply is  somewhat precarious.  This blogger and many other people on the internet have explained the process.  Just search “fractional reserve banking.”

Central banks can add money to the system by purchasing financial instruments or by changing the reserve requirements.  The could also reduce the money supply by selling financial instruments or by changing the money supply although it is unlikely they will do either under current conditions.

Another way the money supply could be reduced is if the banks suffer large losses.  Any loans the banks have to write off will directly decrease their available reserves.  (The technical term is high powered money.)  This means they will have to decrease their outstanding loans with the same multiplier effect as the money supply was increased.  We will hear about it as a contraction of credit.

So if the banks experience unusually large losses there could be a drastic decrease in the money supply which could have dire consequences.  ( I have read that a number of Canadian and British banks are highly exposed to the energy industry with unsecured loans.)

If a large part of the money supply were to disappear into thin air in the short term a lot of economic activity would come to a screeching halt.  People have in the past used playing cards or candies as a substitute for money.  In the long term the level of activity would depend upon the physical resources available.

People who talk up monetary reform often want a return to a gold standard or facsimile (bit coin).  It is not clear that either of these would correct the problems inherent in the fractional reserve way of creating money.  Nor would they provide the flexibility that is needed in the total amount of money available.

We all think we know everything there is to know about money.  That is a part of what our parents teach us. However, it is a complex subject which few people understand and there are a lot of unknowns, especially if we have to deal with an extended period of low or negative growth.

Paying the piper/economist and making economic decisions

He who pays the piper calls the tune. This applies to economists as well as musicians and explains why economists have so much difficulty coming to terms with the ideological aspects of their field.

This post was prompted by an article about whether economists are biased towards the free market or towards regulation.  This blogger would prefer to evaluate economies according to who makes decisions.

I get suspicious when I hear economists talk about the “free market”  because they usually mean something different to what I understand is a free market economy.  To me a free market economy is one based on the perfect competition model.  What we actually have is an economy where governments pass legislation to restrict competition.  Copyright, patents, licensing, tariffs, health and safety regulations all work to restrict competition and allow some people to make profits they would not get in a competitive economy.

Sometimes the profit making gets out of control and the way to deal with this is to introduce  regulations  rather than to return to more competition.  Therefore I figure the debate in this article is irrelevant.

What is relevant is who makes economic decisions.  If we had perfect competition most if not all decisions would be made by consumers who would vote with their spending decisions.  Unfortunately there are too many people in this world who like to make decisions for others.

One of the big things which influences decision making is the fractional reserve way of creating money.  In this process money is created when bankers make loans and as they get to decide who gets loans they have a say over what economic activity is  going to take place.  If we had a national exchange trading system as proposed in the essay “LETS to market: Dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog money would be created via payments to individuals who would then make decisions in their purchases or investments.

The fractional reserve system  also limits decision making in that many people, especially during their working years, carry a large debt load.  As most of us have to work to repay our debts, we are forced to support another person’s decisions.  And the work ethic adds a lot of support.

Governments also interfere with decision making by passing legislation which restricts competition and by accessing large amounts of created money.  This of course allows them to make economic decisions according to their values which don’t always agree with their citizens.

My view of how the economy works is less than consistent with conventional economic wisdom.  Readers will decide for themselves which view  they want to accept but I will point out that economists who don’t promote the conventional view probably don’t stand much chance of holding important high paying jobs.  People in power, industry or government, want to feel they are doing good and it is the role of economists to say what their employers want to hear and most economists are paid directly or indirectly by business or government.

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

 

 

Compassionate austerity to deal with the economic crisis

To cope with the economic crisis we need austerity with compassion.  Stimulus as a policy will likely make things worse more quickly and austerity as currently practiced is mean and hurting victims.  Those people voting for politicians urging austerity may regret their votes when they too get caught in the crisis.

Compassionate austerity would recognize we are dealing with events beyond our control and would therefore not blame the victims.  It would include some sort of income support for people caught in the crisis

How one wants to deal with the economic crisis depends upon how strongly one believes in economic growth.  If one believes this is just a temporary setback, then one probably wants either stimulus to keep things going or some austerity until the economy corrects itself and growth returns.  This blogger figures the crisis results from problems in the resource base and it is unlikely we will again see the golden  years of prosperity which we have experienced in recent decades.

If this is the case, then austerity is something which will be forced upon us and we should try to cope with it with as little human suffering as possible.

I figure the basic economic problem is that while we have lots of energy and mineral resources left in and on the surface of the planet we have used up the most easily accessible.  Those that are left take so much energy to extract it is becoming less feasible to do so.  Suppose that during the age of prosperity we were able to build an automobile with 1,000 units of energy and labour and suppose it now takes 2,000 units to build the same car.  Not only is this going to double the real cost of building a car it will probably limit the number of cars that can be built.  It will certainly limit the number of people who will be able to afford them.

If this is a correct analysis of the problem, then clearly we need to make some revolutionary changes in the way in which we organize ourselves to produce and exchange goods and services.  I predict there is little likelihood of the revolution starting until the economic crisis hits pensioners.  For the time being it is mostly young people who are hurting.

There is a need to rethink our commitment to economic growth and rearrange our economy so we take advantage of modern technology so that most of us can live comfortably without having a job.

What disturbs me about austerity is that the people who promote it have so little compassion and understanding for those who have been caught by the crisis.  Many of those who vote for politicians pushing austerity need to rethink their votes as it could be only a matter of time before they too will find their comfortable lifestyle being challenged,

Austerity with compassion should include some sort of income support.  This blogger would like to see  a guaranteed annual income scheme combined with changes in the way in which we create money.  However, the need is so great I will say we need anything that will provide everyone with a more or less equal share of the goods and services we are capable of producing.

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

 

 

A guaranteed income – another impossible dream

I believe the arguments in favor of a universal income scheme are overwhelming.  The problem is this belief is not shared by everyone.  I would go even further than an income scheme and say there is an urgent need to reform the way in which we create money and the two reforms should be combined.

Our survival and our enjoyment of life depends upon our being able to provide ourselves with food, shelter, clothing and smart phones.  The way in which we do this involves a lot of complex relationships with people we do not know.   As, for the most part,  we do not understand how these relationships work,  any attempt to change them will be a threat and arouse a lot of fierce emotions.  On top of that a lot of people have a vested interest in the current way of exchanging goods and services and will resist change.

It may be impossible to overcome these problems, but is that a good reason to not discuss them and to not try?  With current economic trends it could be that changes will be forced upon us and maybe we should try to influence them rather than just let them happen.

The essay “LETS go to market; Dealing with the economic crisis”  on this weblog deals with a proposal for a guarantee income scheme and how it could be combined with a different way of creating money.  Do have a look at it.

A major question around an income scheme is how much work needs to be done.  Modern technology has reduced the amount of labor needed for survival.  I think we are at the point where a lot of work is just for the sake of working to satisfy the work ethic.  The work ethic allows a lot of people to build empires to fulfill their own ambitions.  The work ethic is unnecessary and makes a lot of people into slaves.

A guaranteed income scheme would be a major transfer of decision-making power to individuals because having money allows people to make decisions.    No longer would people be dependent upon an employer for their total income.  No longer would we be slaves to employers.  We would be able to decide what we want to do with our time.

An income scheme would deal with problems of poverty, inequality and economic inefficiencies.  With an income scheme there would no longer be a case for subsidies to producers and this would remove a lot of price distortions from the economy.  The result would be a more efficient economy.

Value is determined by supply and demand.  As all of us have a limited lifespan time should be the most valuable thing we have.  Therefore we should by trying to use modern technology to give us more time in which to do the things we most enjoy.  Instead it seems modern technology is mostly being used to sell us more smart phones which are used to sell us more junk.  That’s stupid.

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