Compassionate economics

Are the words compassion and economics compatible?

Absolutely. If we were to exchange goods and services without interference from legislation which restricts competition we would have an economy with a high degree of equality, fairness, environmental sustainability, peace and compassion.


Major evidence for this comes from the hunters and gatherers who used to inhabit this planet and especially the bushmen of the Kalihari Desert who lived a peaceful and sustainable lifestyle for close to 200,000 years


This writer has come to this conclusion after a lifetime of interest in current affairs and relationships, through a first class degree in economics from the University of British Columbia and lots of informal reading in economics, economic history, history, ancient history and anthropology.


That I feel it necessary to start this book with this question indicates how poorly so many people, including economists, understand economics and money. At least since Marx many people have equated economics with the evils of the current economic system and shut off whenever the word economics is used. This is sad because economics is about the relationships involved in the exchange of goods and services and most of us have to exchange with at least a few people. Money is a tool to facilitate this exchange. Both economics and money involve a lot of distortions of the truth which makes it easy for some people to exploit the rest of us.


team-spirit-2447163_1920As we work through compassionate economics the issue of the resource base hangs over us and makes life difficult for all of us.

Economics professors often start their lectures by drawing a simple x graph on the black board. One line represents the physical side of the economy and the other line represents the financial side of the economy. This is a very important distinction as ignoring it diverts our attention from the reality of economics.

As we mostly discuss economic problems in terms of money we ignore the physical side of the problem. For example, pensions are very important for most of us but we always talk about saving enough money rather than having enough energy and mineral resources. Two things could and probably will happen to most of the money people save for their retirement – inflation or bankruptcy. Our standard of living in retirement will depend upon the quantity of goods and services we are capable of producing relative to the number people making demands on that production. A key factor in this ratio will be the energy and mineral resources we have. There are still lots of these on the surface of our planet but we have consumed the most easily accessable.Those that are left will require a lot of energy to extract and may not be feasible.


The cost of solar energy has recently been falling quickly and has some potential. I also like that solar has the potential for each of us to make decisions about adopting it. It is great that individuals can make these decisions instead of bankers. The down side is that most of our money supply is based on debt and will disappear if a lot of loans have to be written off. I fear a lot of our money is based on loans made to support petroleum.


We need to exchange goods and services because we are social creatures. It may be this is what distinguishes us from animals. In some circumstances it may be possible for an individual to live alone but for most of us we must live with at least one other person and this means living in a relationship. On the Canadian Prairies the early explorers found they needed a female partner for survival because the division of labour was too much for one person. Later the settlers found that during harvest labour requirements were such that they needed to help each other and took turns at several farms. Now, with modern equipment one person can seed, fertilize and harvest up to 7,000 acres. But he still needs a huge support staff of suppliers. These he pays in cash rather than return labour. Economics is about how we exchange goods and services and the relationships which are a part of these exchanges.


Decision making is an important part of compassionate economics. When we make decisions for others we can and often do make those decisions by what is best for us rather than them. As there is no place for exploitation in compassionate economics we should as much as possible exchange goods and services so that individuals can make decisions for themselves. In capitalism bankers and government make decisions about what and how much is to be produced. In socialism bureaucrats in the form of central planners make those decisions. The only way I know to allow individuals to make economic decisions is the perfect competition model upon which the formal study of economics based.

At least since Marx economics has been defined as either capitalist or socialist. Both of these are very vague terms which is good for people who want to control or exploit others but meaningless for those of us who want to understand how we exchange goods and services. The main feature of capitalism as we know it is that governments pass legislation which restricts competition and we call it a market economy. The main feature of socialism is a matrix known as central planning and they say it is “by the people and for the people”. Both concepts are the idealogical equivalent of the stuff through which one would walk if one visited a cattle feed lot.

For four years this guy lived on a British Columbia coastal Indian reserve. One evening a old timer told us about the time consuming process his people used to make themselves a sweet treat,

“Do you still do this,?” I asked?

“No,” he replied. “It is a lot easier to go to Dairy Queen.”

These people did most of their hunting at the local supermarket but they still fished and they still had a few of their old traditions. One of these traditions was the sharing of fish and we had a lot of salmon, halibut, crab and oolichans (a very small, oily and smelly fish.)

It appears that in a lot of hunting gathering cultures sharing mostly with family or clan members was the predominant way of exchange. This is a major difference from our culture where it is assumed the exchange of goods and services should yield a profit. I would like us to plagiarize the hunters and gathers and make sharing the key concept in our economy. This is somewhat radical and would open the door to some major changes in our economy – a guaranteed income policy, a new way of creating money and a zero growth economy. All of these are important for resource and environmental concerns. All of these are important if we are to have a compassionate economy.

One of the major issues we have to deal with is the incompatibility of economic growth and environmental issues such as global warming, pollution, mono culture agriculture, health and overpopulation. The need for economic growth is sold as a fix for unemployment although its main purpose may be to further increase the wealth of the one percent. As compassionate economics is based on sharing rather than profits there is no need for further economic growth. With a guaranteed income scheme people will not need jobs to survive and we can deal with environmental concerns. We will also no longer need to support the greatest of all make work schemes, the arms industry. Lets opt for peace and sharing with all peoples. The goal of compassionate economics is to get the population to a sustainable level and live in peace.

Compassionate economics will allow us to replace our commitment to the work ethic with a commitment to a leisure ethic. In future we should get our self identity from the leisure activities in which we engage whether they be acting in a play, writing a book or even drinking beer.It is relatively easy for me to sit here in a comfortable chair and a nice view out the window and think out solutions to economic problems. But economics involves people with emotions and special interests. A lot of people will find it difficult to see the need for changes and those with special interests will be very vocal in protecting themselves. However I believe the future of most of us is seriousl

It is a pity that so many people shut off when they hear the word “economics.” A few years ago I read a book on green economics which promoted small businesses. I laughed and cried because economic theory is based on the concept of small businesses. One of the key assumptions of economics is that no firm is large enough to influence prices by restricting production and by restricting the quantity purchased.

A key feature of a true market economy as described by economic theory is that there are no profits. If there are profits to be made in an industry new firms will enter until prices drop to the point where there are no more profits. Firms can make wages and a return on investment (maybe) but there will be no profits. Thus a perfect market economy with competition is what is needed for a compassionate economy. A lot of people need to be studying formal economics.

It is relatively easy for me to sit here in a comfortable chair and a nice view out the window and think out solutions to economic problems. But economics involves people with emotions and special interests. A lot of people will find it difficult to see the need for changes and those with special interests will be very vocal in protecting themselves. However I believe the future of most of us is seriously threatened and we must at least try for compassionate economics.

 

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Fake promises in the next presidential election

It appears the next American presidential election will be a battle of fake promises as Donald Trump and a left-wing democrat appeal to American emotions.

Trump will almost certainly bases his campaign on the formula that worked last time; vague general promises (make America great again) and some easy to keep promises that appeal to his core supporters (move embassy to Jerusalem.). Most of his promises will be appeals to emotions.

White House Flag Democrates RepublicanThe democrats will base their campaign on a promise of full employment as reported in this recent article in The Economist. Full employment has been an American policy goal for a long time, If it were possible it would have been attained a long time ago. To promote it now is an emotional appeal to counter Trump’s emotional promises. And it is destined to failure and will probably destroy the economic future of a lot of Americans.

One could probably predict that both Trump and the democrat will come out of the election with DBS degrees. (The D stands for doctor and the rest all English speakers should know).

The main issue, which will not be acknowledged during the campaign, is the size of the resource base for future economic activity. This blogger believes there are loads of energy and mineral resources left on the planet. However, we have cherry picked those which are readily available. Those which are left are so difficult to extract they are for the most part useless for future economic development.

If this analysis is correct then promises of full employment will be impossible to keep. Attempting to keep them will accelerate the use of the remaining energy and mineral resources and bring forward a major economic collapse.

Another factor when employment is an issue is our commitment to the work ethic. Some people believe their salvation depends upon their working hard and others worry that some people will receive benefits which they have not earned or to which they are not entitled. Everyone must do their share.

This blogger believes the material standard of living to which we have become accustomed is based on the agricultural surplus which allows a few people to produce enough food for everyone. As this surplus is the result of several millenia of technological development it should be a part of our inheritance. All of us should be entitled to a standard of living equal to everyone else regardless of what we do with our time.

With our standard of living dependent upon jobs and with our psychological well-being also dependent up on our having a job, promises of full employment will have a very strong appeal to many Americans. The success of the promise depends upon the ability of the economy for even more growth. This blogger has serious doubts about that. I am old enough to remember when people were saying we will just have to get used to an unemployment rate of three per cent.

The economic challenges facing the people of this world are overwhelming. Solutions will required a major rethinking of values about work and economic growth. An American presidential election would be an ideal time for a serious debate about the economic future.

The toughest part of this issue is how to deal with it. In the past I have voted for candidates with the least chance of winning because they have been the most honest. I have also deliberately spoiled by ballots. Both of these seem like a cop-out. I do not have the personality nor the skills to be a candidate let alone convince people of my economic policies. I do not even have the skills to go to election meetings and challenge the candidates. I also believe any candidate who tried to be honest would be nailed to the cross by fake election promises and appeals to emotions.

 

 

 

 

 

Why we need free range kids and free range education

There is an ancient wisdom saying that happiness is the result of right action. Therefore, if one wants to be happy one should be careful in chosing one’s actions. This blogger would also say we should choose our actions ourselves rather than letting others do it for us.

These thoughts were prompted by an article in The Economist about educating bright children so that they can contribute the most to society. The issue is who decides what is “the most”.

Student Character Holding Big Pencil ClipartMy concern is that The Economist is evaluating education by the incomes and the numbers of patents that people produce in their careers. This is from a magazine whose writers are dedicated to continued economic growth at a time when further growth may be difficult. It may be that in the future success will go to those capable of coping without a lot of material things.

As this post is mostly about values I should state I value highly individual thought and decision making. People should be encouraged to have different life and educational experiences. Children should be raised “free range” and education should cover a variety of topics including cross discipline. One of my concerns about educational trends as reported by The Economist is that the goal is to have every body thinking the same – with a common devotion to economic growth. If we are to cope with negative growth we must have people educated to think outside the box represented by The Economist.

How do we define success? How do we measure success? Is economic success the responsibility of schools? For some people success is living a long time, or ending life with lots of money and/or toys, or having done lots of travel, having done lots of things or having had lots of sex. Each of us should define success for ourselves rather than going with another person’s definition.

Economics is about relationships and economic success should be about good relationships rather than resource exploitation. One of the fundamentals of good relationships is that there should be a more or less equal exchange between those involved.

Sometimes it feels as if a lot of people are prepared to sacrifice ethics for profits. Corporate culture appears to encourage this. That some major Canadian corporation (banks and telecommunications) encourage their sales people to use exploitive techniques is an indication that our economy is not based on good relationships

When the economy is on a down trend education is so young people can get good marks on exams. Some people spend large sums of money hoping to give their children a slight edge. If we were not so competitive we might find a greater happiness in co-operation.

The future is going to be difficult because we do not have the energy and mineral resources to support continued economic growth and even more people. To survive we need to educate children to think outside the economic box; we need free range children and free range education. We need people who will not accept the status quo and who will think independently of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, both of whom are dedicated to conning us into buying more stuff – or voting for candidates of their choice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Economic growth, sustainability and degrowth

A lot of people realize there are problems with the economy but few if any understand what is happening. Therefore we have varied reactions. Many people cling to faith in economic growth, some are exploring the concept of sustainability and a few are looking at “degrowth”. This blogger thinks of the three approaches as points on the ray of a matrix.

Predicting the future is difficult although the shorter the term the easier it is. Economists are little help because most are paid directly by business people or indirectly through government. Very few people get away with telling the whole truth to the people who pay them. Most economists find it expedient to say what their employers want to hear and that is mostly that the economy will continue to grow and that there will be continuing profits.

Nor can we expect the truth from political leaders as their positions depend on maintaining the support of the people. It is hard to think of any government leader telling us we will have to tighten our belts and remaining in power. Are citizens mature enough to listen to that? It would be interesting to see a political leader try.

trafficOur recent economic memory is based on a tremendous use of energy and mineral resources. Not only have we fought two world wars we have also had the resources for an incredible standard a living in which the rich have grown richer and the rest of us have done okay. The result is we have a strong committment to economic growth and a belief that it will continue forever.

Many economists are fond of regression analysis because it assumes constant economic growth. It is a mathematical formula which takes a series of data points and calculates the best fitting straight line through them. It is generally assumed this line will angle up.

This guy thinks we would get a more truthful picture of what happens in the economy if we were to use fractal analysis. Fractals are series of ups and downs each with a subseries of ups and downs within them. The sea coasts are often used as examples. The mathematics of fractals is not as clear as regression analysis but there are some useful concepts. I am fairly certain those people who do “black box” analysis of stock markets are using fractal analysis. They are apparently having some success. The concept of fractal dimension can be calculated (two minus the Hurst exponent) and changes indicate a change in direction.

If we were to apply fractal analysis to economics it would be easier to see and accept ups and downs in the economy and easier to develop mechanisms to deal with them.

The word “sustainable” as applied to economic growth is a buzzword in some circles but I find it challenging as its meaning is not clear. I suspect it is mostly a cover for continued economic growth.

To the extent that some people use fewer energy and mineral resources it is good but I suspect that sustainable development maintains a committment to economic growth. Sustainable to me means going on forever and that is what a lot of people believe about economic growth.

The reality is that the quantity of goods and services we can produce and exchange depends upon the quantity of energy and mineral  resources we have and can retrieve with a reasonable expenditure of energy. The concept of sustainable development is probably 100 years too late.

Our committment to economic growth is so strong I am not aware of any career economist having thought about what happens when the economy goes into decline. This is unfortunate as the economy regularly goes into recession and this time it may be extended.

This blogger figures current economic problems are because we have used up the most accessible energy and mineral resources. Sure, there are lots left but they require massive amounts of energy to retrieve them. Solar may help but not yet. I fear that we will be forced into degrowth.

If so the challenge will be to figure out how do distribute fairly the goods and services we have, how to cope with leisure, how to create money that will not disappear during a crisis and how to not fight over the available resources.

Money will be a special problem as fractional reserve banking works only in times of economic growth. When growth stops and banks stop making loans  the money supply goes down and because it is fractional reserve the money supply goes down with a multiplier effect. Ouch. A super big ouch.

There are lots of anecdotal evidence from around the world that we are going into a down economy. This could easily be an explanation for a lot of the negative news, both economic and non-economic, to which we are becoming accustomed.

If we could get away from our committment to economic growth we could focus instead on happiness. This concept is impossible to measure although there is some evidence that people do not need a lot of material things to be happy.

What ever happens and wherever humanity ends up it looks as if we will experience a lot of human suffering. I would like for us to minimize the suffering and maximize the happiness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recycling is not enough

In this corner of the world recycling is almost universal.  Plastics, glass, metals, compost and drink containers are separated from the rest of the garbage.  Some people also take their own shopping bags to the supermarket.  The exceptions are that we have not mastered the technology of recycling energy and most of us continue to drive a lot

Unfortunately we are still experiencing environmental degradation, inflation and unemployment.  Recycling is not enough.  Its main function is to allow us to feel we are doing something. It allows us to ignore the real issues –  population levels and values.

I believe the most important way in to protect the environment is to reduce the number of people trying to live on this planet.  There are just too many people and I do not like the idea of saying some people should not have the same standard of living as others.  Who is to decide who gets shorted?

I also recognize it is a near impossibility as we cannot tell people not to have sex and not to have children.  What are the consequences of not taking action to reduce the population?  When the Europeans came to North America they brought with them some new diseases and close to 90 per cent of the native population died.  I understand there is some archaeological evidence that there was a similar population reduction in the Mediterranean some millenia ago.  If these precedents hold for us, then there is likely to be one hell of a stench.

We also need to get over our fear of death as so much energy and resources go into prolonging life.  Quite a few years ago The Economist reported that 80 per cent of health care spending is in the last six months of life.  I do not want to go into the 80 per cent and I hope that when my time comes I and those close to me will be able to accept it gracefully.

The other big challenge to protect  the environment deals with values many of which are a part of our committment to economic growth.

According to anthropologist James Suzman who recently published the book Affluence without Abundance, the most successful and long-lasting civilization was that of the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert.  These hunters and gatherers “worked” only ten to 15 hours a week.  As they relocated up to ten times a year they had little interest in material things and their society had high equality.  We cannot all go back to being hunters and gathers but we can choose some of their values and apply them to our daily lives.

If we really want to protect the environment then we should have fewer children, live in place, live a healthy lifestyle, have fewer and smaller toys, drive less, go easy on the travel and work as little as possible.  Recycling may make us feel we are doing something but it is not enough.

 

 

Brexit: the unilateral free trade option

 

As the British and the Europeans renegotiate the European Union following a British referendum a number of options are being considered.  What will not be considered is the option which would in the long term give the best standard of living – unilateral free trade.

For a long time this blogger has believed the best way to do free trade is for a country to do it on its own by removing all barriers to imports.  “Free trade” agreements are not free trade, they are negotiated trade.  To get the full benefits of the law of comparative advantage there must be no barriers to imports. There should be no import duties, no quotas and health and safety restrictions should be genuine rather than to restrict imports.

Unilateral free trade could easily be done by any country as each country has the right to control its imports.  This will leave them open to “dumping” or subsidies by trading partners.  If another country wants to subsidize our standard of living, then we should say, “Thank you very much”.

The case for free trade is based on the law of comparative advantage which says that two countries will be better off if they specialize in their most efficient production and trade even if one of the countries is more efficient in all trading items.  With our background we generally think of better off as meaning more economic growth but it could also mean more leisure time.  The law still applies.

There are two major problems with unilateral free traded – our  commitment to economic growth and the difficulty in making employment changes.

This blogger believes there will be little if any future economic growth because we have used up the easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  There are lots left on the surface of this planet but they are so difficult to extract they are mostly useless.  I also believe many people are aware of this economic uncertainty even if they do not understand what is happening.  This is probably behind the British vote for Brexit, the United States election of Donald Trump,  the increasing popularity of extreme left and right wing politicians and the rise of dictatorships around the world and a lot of other unpleasant developments.

The fear of losing one’s job is highly emotional and this is the second big problem with free trade.  Free trade means changes in production and this means some people will lose their jobs and have to find new employment.  The other side of this problem is that economic changes are a fact of life and will happen regardless of free trade.  We try to deal with changing market conditions with subsidies, import quotas, health and safety restrictions on imports and other trade restrictions. In the long term market forces usually win.

Under current economic conditions a lot of people are likely to lose their employment and a lot of people are going to suffer.  The challenge should be to facilitate the changes and reduce the suffering.  Most people are going to have to accept a lower standard of living.  This blogger believes the best way to adjust is to introduce a basic income plan.  For more discussion of this please see the rest of this weblog and my book Funny Money: Adapting to a Down Economy.

This guy believes the British and the Europeans would benefit if the British were to use the referendum as an opportunity for unilateral free trade.  I also would not want to be a part of the negotiating team as there is unlikely to be a consensus as to what degree of trade to negotiate.  There is so much fear, so many emotions and so many conflicting interests that it will be difficult to come up with something most people will be able to accept.  There is likely to be a lot of turmoil.

 

 

Solar energy – excitement and challenges

The most exciting, and challenging, economic news of recent days has been that in some parts of the world solar is now lower cost than other forms of energy and that is without subsidies. (One, two, three.) This is exciting because so much of what we call civilization is dependent upon cheap energy.  There are indications that the cost of solar energy will decrease even further and that it will become  available to most of us.

This is also challenging because of the economic changes which will have to be made including the writing off of a lot existing infrastructure.

We must start this discussion by noting that energy is only one input into economic growth.  A shortage of other minerals, agricultural land and over population may make a return to economic growth difficult.

A major problem in adapting to lower electricity costs will be the existing infrastructure. The price of an item is equal to the marginal cost of producing the last unit.  This means that if solar energy can be produced cheaper than other forms of electricity the producers of that energy will have to lower their prices or go out of business.  It may take time to work out but we can anticipate a lot of infrastructure will become obsolete.  Do not be surprised if there are demands for subsidies to protect firms from unfair competition.

The falling marginal cost may be a problem for the production of solar energy.  With fossil fuels we have been used to rising marginal costs which means the owners of cheaper oil have been reaping windfall profits as the price of oil has gone up.  This writer is not aware that much economic thought has been put into dealing with falling marginal costs on this scale but some people will have more expensive solar energy than others or will have to write off their initial investment.

Another interesting feature of solar energy is it is unlikely any corporation will get an exclusive license to use it.  With costs falling to the point where most people will be able afford their own solar collector(s) decision making power will be transferred to individuals.  No longer will bankers and governments be making decisions for us.

I am skeptical that cheap solar energy is going to mean a return to economic growth and the way our economy is currently organized requires growth for most of us to live in comfort.  Changing our economic organization will be far more difficult that introducing solar technology.

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