The evidence for a long-term economic decline

This blogger thinks the economy is into a long-term down trend. It could be that not everyone sees this; it may depend upon the color of hat you wear. If you are retired with a good defined benefit pension it may be more difficult to see a down trend than if you are a young person trying to find an unskilled job that pays enough to cover rent, food, entertainment and a little saving to get married and buy a house.

Some of the evidence relates to the resource base. There are lots of energy and mineral resources left on the planet. The problem is that we have used up the easiest accessible resources and what is left is difficult to extract and will take so much energy they are useless. Another type of evidence is geographic and long-term in nature. This includes famine, epidemic, uncontrolled migration, state failure and climate change.

dog-3277416_1920One of the difficulties is that we are used to seeing the economy as a straight line going up. Economics students learn about regression analysis which takes a number of data points and calculates the best straight line that indicates their direction. Using the slope of this line one can project the trend into the future. It is assumed the trend is up.

Another approach about which I did not learn until after I had completed my formal study of economics is fractal analysis. Fractals are lines that go up and down with a series of ups an downs within each. Like a seashore. Fractal analysis tries to identify major turning points in the ups and downs. The mathematics is not well-known. It involves the concept of fractal dimension which can be calculated by the formula two minus the Hurst exponent. If economists used this approach it would be much easier to accept the possibility our economy is going into a long-term down trend and their forecasts would be more accurate but not always what most people want to hear.

What then is the evidence for the long-term future?

In economic theory changes in prices are signals to producers to increase or decrease production. Increasing prices also indicate a shortage of a good and we have been experiencing a lot high prices for some basic goods. It may be that we need more information about prices relative to each other. Maybe our economic data collection has been to support our views on economic growth and is not sufficient to give us a clear picture of relative prices.

In recent discussions about energy a lot has been said about peak oil and solar. Maybe we do not have to worry about oil shortages because the cost of solar has been coming down and will soon be able to replace oil. This may well happen and it may have an interesting effect on economic decision-making. We as individuals will be able to make the basic decisions about solar use in place of bankers who now decide what oil projects go ahead and who gets to do them. The down side of this is that if a lot of oil infrastructure becomes obsolete and has to be written off a lot of the money supply will disappear and the lack of money will cause a lot of suffering to a lot of people.

In spite of all the talk about a service economy we still need lots of minerals for food, shelter and transportation. High prices indicate we have used up the most easily available mineral resources. The future may depend upon recycling and here the picture is cloudy. Recycling takes a lot of energy and the high cost may force us to reduce our use of minerals. Water is another issue. There are parts of the world where water shortages are becoming a serious problem.

Another indication of a declining economy is the trend to tiny houses, shared accommodation, young people continuing to live with their parents and even homelessness. It used to be that non-union working people could expect to live in a detached house with a front and back garden.

Most of the evidence for a down economy identified in the first part of this post has to do with the availability of energy and mineral resources. There are also some long-term geographic trends which could also cause mankind some serious problems.

The guideline here comes from a book by historian Ian Morris called Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future.

Morris’s book is a good summary of the long-term history of the world. Using evidence from a number of disciplines he shows how geography has influenced the rise and decline of civilizations. His perspective is much longer than most of us are familiar with.

He identifies what he calls the five horsemen of the apocalypse – famine, epidemic, uncontrolled migration, state failure and climate change and shows how these have combined to produce disastrous, centuries-long collapses and dark ages. Are we exempt from the consequences of these problems?

We are already familiar with these trends. The question is are they strong enough to cause us problems or are they gaining strength?  For me, a retired person living in Canada, they are mostly academic but for many people around the world they are very real and very serious.

Some people argue this planet is capable of providing enough food for the current population, especially if we reduce waste. Even so the situation is rather precarious and we should be paying a lot more attention to what is happening in agriculture. Monoculture, factory farming of animals and the use of pesticides could easily threaten our food supply.

The threat of epidemics is always with us and the more people are crowded onto this planet, the greater is the threat. We are lucky public health practitioners have been able to quickly control recent outbreaks.

Migration has been a big problem for Asia, Africa and Europe. It is also an enough of an issue for some Americans to want to build a fence and take children from their parents.

Climate change was a major issue until we realized how many plastic straws we are using. Stopping the use of plastic straws will be a lot easier than dealing with climate change but will not stop the changes from taking place. At least people will be doing something.

This blogger has found the concept of state failure difficult, fascinating and intriguing. It is a complex issue because justice is one of the most important functions of government. At the same time many people demand of government legislation that is exploitive because it restricts competition. This is a conflict of government responsibilities in which the exploiters tend to win. The balance between the two is by degrees and changes through time.

You will notice I said justice rather than law and order. I believe one of the indicators of state failure is that so many people, including The Economist and the Supreme Court of Canada, talk of law and order rather than justice. Law and order is easier to define and enforce. If some government were to pass legislation saying police are required to kill a thousand people at random each year, would we still be supporting law and order. The president of the United States has been quoted as encouraging police brutality and to me this sounds like encouraging them to kill at random. Maybe Trump is an indicator of American state failure.

There are lots of laws that are not just. Anything that tries to force the values, morals or religion of one group on everyone has to be unjust. There are lots of laws that are not written but which are enforced ruthlessly by the public, the media and the courts. For example, men are evil and any expression of male sexuality should be punished. Fathers are expected to walk away from their children without emotions. Men should not be emotional under any circumstances.

Governments like to reward their supporters and to purchase votes and/or support. It is easy to get governments to pass exploitive economic legislation and to get them to provide handouts to protect people from natural disasters and their own stupidity. A lot of government is supporting and encouraging special interests, often at the expense of everyone. Some people want minimum government but want their own interests protected,

As the economy goes more and more into decline it will be more and more difficult to provide handouts and this will be seen as state breakdown. Governments around the world are facing riots as fuel and food subsidies become difficult to maintain.

This conflict between justice and the exploitive demands of special interest may be pushing all governments into a state of failure.

In this post we have looked at a number of resource based and geographic indicators that the economy is on a down trend.

Here are some other indicators:

Unemployment

High public debt

The rise of radical left and radical right political movements

High interest rates

Non-performing loads held by banks

Falling standards of living – however one defines them

Expensive education

High crime rates

Crowded public transportation

Homeless people

People are losing confidence in their banks

Business people are will to exploit their customers for the sake of profit

Every time I read a news report at least one item supports the idea that the whole world is going into a long-term down trend. There are loads of problems with the resource base and if we go short we will not be able to sustain the standard of living to which we have become accustomed.

There are always positives and negatives. In terms of economic growth the negatives appear overwhelming. This guy has read about hunters and gatherers and believes it is possible for people to arrange their production of goods and services for long-term sustainability. It will require a major rethink of values. It will be a challenge.

 

 

 

 

This blogger thinks the economy is into a long-term down trend. It could be that not everyone sees this; it may depend upon the color of hat you wear. If you are retired with a good defined benefit pension it may be more difficult to see a downtrend than if you are a young person trying to find an unskilled job that pays enough to cover rent, food, entertainment and a little saving to get married and buy a house.

Some of the evidence relates to the resource base. There are lots of energy and mineral resources left on the planet. The problem is that we have used up the easiest accessible resources and what is left is difficult to extract and will take so much energy they are useless. Another type of evidence is geographic and long-term in nature. This includes famine, epidemic, uncontrolled migration, state failure and climate change.

One of the difficulties is that we are used to seeing the economy as a straight line going up. Economics students learn about regression analysis which takes a number of data points and calculates the best straight line that indicates their direction. Using the slope of this line one can project the trend into the future. It is assumed the trend is up.

Another approach about which I did not learn until after I had completed my formal study of economics is fractal analysis. Fractals are lines that go up and down with a series of ups an downs within each. Like a seashore. Fractal analysis tries to identify major turning points in the ups and downs. The mathematics is not well-known. It involves the concept of fractal dimension which can be calculated by the formula two minus the Hurst exponent. If economists used this approach it would be much easier to accept the possibility our economy is going into a long-term down trend and their forecasts would be more accurate but not always what most people want to hear.

What then is the evidence for the long-term future?

In economic theory changes in prices are signals to producers to increase or decrease production. Increasing prices also indicate a shortage of a good and we have been experieincing a lot high prices for some basic goods. It may be that we need more informtation about prices relative to each other. Maybe our economimc data colllection has been to support our views on economic growth and is not sufficient to giive us a clear picture of relative prices.

In recent discussions about energy a lot has been said about peak oil and solar. Maybe we do not have to worry about oil shortages because the cost of solar has been coming down and will soon be able to replace oil. This may well happen and it may have an interesting effect on economic decision making. We as indiivuduals will be able to make the basic decisons about solar use in place of bankers who now decide what oil projects go ahead and who gets to do them. The down side of this is that if a lot of oil infrastructure becomes obsolete and has to be written off a lot of the money supply will disappear and the lack of money will cause a lot of suffering to a lot of people.

In spite of all the talk about a service economy we still need lots of minerals for food, shelter and transporttation. High prices indicate we have used up the most easily available mineral resources. The future may depend upon recycling and here the picture is cloudy. Recycling takes a lot of energy and the high cost may force us to reduce our use of minerals. Water is another issu. There are parts of the world where water shortages are becoming a serious problem.

Another indication of a decling economy is the trend to tiny houses, shared accommodation, young people continuing to live with their parents and even homelessness. It used to be that non-union working people could expect to live in a detached house with a front and back garden.

Most of the evidence for a down economy identified in the first part of this post has to do with the availability of energy and mineral resources. There are also some long-term geographic trends which could also cause mankind some serious problems.

The guideline here comes from a book by historian Ian Morris called Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future.

Morris’s book is a good summary of the long-term history of the world. Using evidence from a number of disciplines he shows how geography has influenced the rise and decline of civilizations. His perspective is much longer than most of us are familiar with.

He identifies what he calls the five horsemen of the apocalypse – famine, epidemic, uncontrolled migration, state failure and climate change and shows how these have combined to produce disastrous, centuries-long collapses and dark ages. Are we exempt from the consequences of these problems?

We are already familiar with these trends. The question is are they strong enough to cause us problems or are they gaining strenth? For me, a retired person living in Canada, they are mostly academic but for many people around the world they are very real and very serious.

Some people argue this planet is capable of providing enough food for the current population, especially if we reduce waste. Even so the situation is rather precarious and we should be paying a lot more attention to what is happening in agriculture. Monoculture, factory farming of animals and the use of pesticides could easily threaten our food supply.

The threat of epidemics is always with us and the more people are crowded onto this planet, the greater is the threat. We are lucky public health practitioners have been able to quickly control recent outbreaks.

Migration has been a big problem for Asia, Africa and Europe. It is also an enough of an issue for some Americans to want to build a fence and take children from their parents.

Climate change was a major issue until we realized how many plastic straws we are using. Stopping the use of plastic straws will be a lot easier than dealing with climate change but will not stop the changes from taking place. At least people will be doing something.

This blogger has found the concept of state failure difficult, fascinating and intriguing. It is a complex issue because justice is one of the most important functions of government. At the same time many people demand of government legislation that is exploitive because it restricts competition. This is a conflict of governement responsibilities in which the exploiters tend to win. The balance between the two is by degrees and changes through time.

You will notice I said justice rather than law and order. I believe one of the indicators of state failure is that so many people, including The Economist and the Supreme Court of Canada, talk of law and order rather than justice. Law and order is easier to define and enforce. If some government were to pass legislation saying police are required to kill a thousand people at random each year, would we still be supporting law and order. The president of the United States has been quoted as encouraging police brutality and to me this sounds like encouraging them to kill at random. Maybe Trump is an indicator of American state failure.

There are lots of laws that are not just. Anything that tries to force the values, morals or religion of one group on everyone has to be unjust. There are lots of laws that are not written but which are enforced ruthlessly by the public, the media and the courts. For example, men are evil and any expression of male sexuality should be punished. Fathers are expected to walk away from their children without emotions. Men should not be emotional under any circumstances.

Governments like to reward their supporers and to purchase votes and/or support. It is easy to get govenrments to pass exploitive economic legislation and to get them to provide handouts to protect people from natural disasters and their own stupidity. A lot of government is supporting and encouraging special interests, often at the expense of everyone. Some people want minimum government but want their own interests protected,

As the economy goes more and more into decline it will be more and more difficult to provide handouts and this will be seen as state breakdown. Governments around the world are facing riots as fuel and food subidies become dificult to maintain.

This conflict between justice and the exploitive demands of special interest may pushing all governments into a state of failure.

In this post we have looked at a number of resource based and geographic indicators that the economy is on a down trend.

Here are some other indicators:

Unemployment

High public debt

The rise of radical left and radical right political movements

High interest rates

Non-performing loands held by banks

Falling standars of living – however one defines them

Expensive education

High crime rates

Crowded public transportation

Homeless people

People are losing confidence in their banks

Business people are will to exploit their customers for the sake of profit

Everytime I read a news report at least one item supports the idea that the whole world is going into a long-term down trend. There are loads of problems with the resource base and if we go short we will not be able to sustain the standard of living to which we have become accustomed.

There are always positives and negatives. In terms of economic growth the negatives appear overwhelming. This guy has read about hunters and gatherers and believes it is possible for people to arrange their production of goods and services for long-term sustainability. It will require a major rethink of values. It will be a challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Who is afraid of nuclear war?

The Economist recently published a series of articles about the potential for a nuclear war between great powers.  A nuclear war is a major threat to the existence of mankind on this planet but it is only one of several threats and some of the others may be greater, in part because they are less well understood.

Other threats  include famine, climate change, overpopulation, uncontrolled migration and disease.  All of these have been a part of human history.  The most intriguing threat comes from the potential for an electromagnetic pulse which could wipe out all of the computer chips in the area it hits.  This could come from a solar flare or from the discharge of a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere above the target.  For more on this  read the novel One Second After by William R. Forstchen .

nuclearProbably the greatest risk of nuclear war is that some lunatic will push the button.  My sense is that the current occupant of the White House is more interested in saying things that will please the people who voted for him and are likely to vote for him again and doing things, like opening parks for development, that will please his business friends.  Unfortunately there are other lunatics in this world with different interests.

This writer is not terribly worried about a nuclear war between the United States and Russia because I can not see either country gaining anything.  Both countries have used up their most easily accessible resources and modern technology is such that slaves are redundant.  A few people might get some enjoyment from bullying, terrorizing or raping the losers but would probably not get away with it for long.  In any case there are adequate opportunities at home.  Both countries have considerable social problems and I doubt any leader would want to take on the others problems as well as his own.

Since the end of the Second World War there have been no wars between great powers.  There have been lots of internal and regional conflicts and there will probably be enough more to keep the threat alive and allow the generals to test their toys.

The main benefit of war is in the preparation. A lot of people have well-paying jobs supplying military kit.  Not many politicians will vote to reduce arms spending in their constituencies.
The world economy is on a down trend and lots of spending agencies are competing for funding – education, health, transportation and military.  The military can makes a very strong case with the threat of nuclear annihilation.  It is sad that Canadians and other people around the world are going hungry and sleeping rough so that generals can play games.

Nuclear war is very much a possibility but it is just one of several things that could destroy the world as we know it.  The danger in focusing on any one threat is that another one may sneak up on us.  We need to be watching all of them and seeking ways to protect ourselves.

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.

Fossil fuel reserves

An article in this week’s The Economist talks about reserves of fossil fuels and points out existing reserves exceed what can be burned if governments stick to plans for controlling climate change.  It seems many people in the business don’t expect governments to hold the line.

regelatwork_Oil_rigAnother factor which may limit the value of these deposits is the marginal cost of extracting them. As we extract the most easily accessible of resources the cost of extracting the remaining resources increases.  Perhaps we should calculate the costs in terms of energy.  How many units of energy does it take to extract 100 units of energy?  As this figure goes up it is going to reduce the energy available for other economic activity and is certain the have a negative influence on economic growth.

Those who have a religious-like faith in economics will say innovation and technology will save the day and we are bound to return to economic growth.  They could be right, or partially right, but it might be wise be a little skeptical.

The costs of extracting fossil fuel reserves should be considered in determining their value and evaluating their potential contribution to the economy

There are still lots of energy resources in the crust of this planet and the energy companies will probably identify more of them.  What isn’t so clear is that these resources will be available either because of government policy on climate change or the economics of extracting them.

Pandemics and other risks

This is an interesting article analyzing the many economic risks of a pandemic.  I liked the line which says “Wall Street never encountered a disaster it couldn’t profit from, and pandemics are no exception.”

This article may be an understatement of the risks and it is not clear that even Wall Street could survive.  I say this remembering a book I read some time ago: Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future by Ian Morris.

Anonymous_U_shaped_arrow_set_5Morris’s book is a good summary history of the world. Using evidence from a number of disciplines he shows how geography has influenced the rise and decline of civilizations.

He identifies what he calls the five horsemen of the apocalypse – famine, epidemic, uncontrolled migration, state failure and climate change and shows how these have combined to produce disastrous, centuries-long collapses and dark ages.

II would like to go into denial and  believe that our civilization is exempt from any of these threats.  However, any one of them, or all of them at once, could become problems for us.  There are also some new threats such as nuclear war, energy resource depletion or an electromagnetic pulse which has the potential to wipe out large chunks of the power grid.

I wish I knew how we could protect ourselves but sometimes there is no answer.  There’s a song:  The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

Prices and running out of resources

When one takes an unconventional position it is comforting to find somebody who takes a similar stand.  Here’s an article by someone who is also concerned that we are running out of resources.

I like the following paragraph because it show that resource prices declined during a period of growth and then started to increase when growth slowed.  I think it  supports my claim that to have economic growth marginal cost has to be falling.  When marginal costs start rising new resource discoveries only slow the rate of decline.

The price index of 33 important commodities declined by 70% over the 100 years up to 2002 — an enormous help to industrialized countries in getting rich. Only one commodity, oil, had been flat until 1972 and then, with the advent of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, it began to rise. But since 2002, prices of almost all the other commodities, plus oil, tripled in six years; all without a world war and without much comment. Even if prices fell tomorrow by 20% they would still on average have doubled in 10 years, the equivalent of a 7% annual rise.

This writer also points out there are threats to our food supply from climate change and the depletion of two non-renewable fertilizers – phosphorus (phosphate) and potassium (potash).   Agriculture is so important we need to be aware of what is happening on the farm or rather the factory farms.

 

 

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.

Are evironmental and economic problems interconnected?

I always thought we lived in a highly interconnected world but when it comes to environmental problems and economics few people appear to make a connection.

For example, the fifth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-5) report from The U.N. Environment Programme.  It was released two weeks before a big environmental conference in Brazil.

This report identifies the key drivers behind climate change as population growth and urbanization, fossil fuel-based energy consumption and globalization.

It seems to me that all of these will have a steadily increasing negative impact on our economy.  It could well be that they are behind the current economic crisis.

However, the report says the annual economic damage from climate change is estimated at 1-2 percent of world GDP by 2100, if temperatures increase by 2.5 degrees Celsius.

I fear this report is overly optimistic and unless we get some more realistic assessments we will not change our behaviors in time to prevent a major catastrophe.

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