Retirement, the future and The Economist

The editors and writers of The Economist news magazine must be ageing and not seeing things too clearly.  That is my conclusion after reading their recent special report on the future of elderly people.  Another option is that my view of the future is incorrect.  The Economist is much more optimistic than I am, I hope they are correct.

I disagree with them on three issues – the future of the economy, the work ethic and financial issues.

Most of their readers probably have a vested interest in continued economic growth and to prosper the magazine needs to support this. And they do.

This blogger figures the current economic problems are related to energy and mineral resources.  We have used up the most accessible of these and those which are left take so much energy to extract they are worthless.  If this is correct the outlook for the future is rather grim.  We can anticipate a lot of human suffering as we have to adapt to a down economy.  So far retirees have largely been exempt from this but our time may be coming. Trump, Brexit, Saunders, Corbyn and Macron could all be symptoms of this problem.  Lots of people recognize something is not right but do not know what it is.

In recent years The Economist has come up with a number of cute cures for the economic crisis.  This time we are going to save ourselves by getting people to work further into old age.  This commitment to the work ethic may be good for those whose fortunes and status depend upon getting other people to work for them but if the above analysis is correct increasing economic activity will use up more energy and resources and bring forward the timing of a complete economic collapse.  Rather than promoting the work ethic we need to be pushing a leisure ethic  in which people get their self identity from doing non economic things such as music, theatre, art or writing a weblog on economics. The Economist talks about a longevity dividend.  Should this dividend be more work or more leisure?

One of the features of money is that it gives a person control over resources.  Financial obligations left over from the era of prosperity mean some older people have a greater  command over current resources than the young.  Older people are going on luxury cruises in which a waiter from a third world country puts the pepper on their food while their grandchildren are struggling to find jobs and homes.  When the crisis hits pensions and other savings the cruise ship operators will be lobbying for the release from prison of a famous Italian captain so they can put him back to work.

This blogger tends to be pessimistic about the economic future.  I figure I was very lucky in the time and place in which I was born and have lived most of my life (1941 and western Canada).

Guaranteed work or guaranteed income?

As an alternative to a basic income scheme a commentator on Medium is proposing universal guaranteed work.  This writer has put a lot of thought into his proposal and deserves to have it given some consideration.  I have a strong commitment to a guaranteed income scheme and I have some heavy-duty concerns about his work plan.

My first concern is a belief that we do not have enough energy and mineral resources to provide employment for all the people who inhabit this planet.  There are still lots of resources but we have cherry picked the most accessible and those which are left will require lots of inexpensive energy to extract.  Even if the cost of solar energy continues to drop there may not be enough other resources to maintain the economic growth required to provide work for everyone. Topsoil is a major resource which may deteriorate and restrict growth.

The proposal for guaranteed work is probably based on a belief in economic growth and a long tradition that people must “do their share” and work to support themselves.  It may be that some people see a basic income scheme as a way of distributing goods and services rather than as an economic necessity.

Technology has been changing our economy at least since an ancient farmer discovered he could increase his production by using a horse with a collar instead of an ox with harnesses.  This development and all those that  followed allowed fewer people to work the land and more people to do other things such as fight and prey.  (In medieval times there were three classes of people – those who prayed, those who fought and those who worked to support the first two.)  My professor of European economic history spent a lot of time talking about agricultural developments which increased productivity.

Modern technology is an extension of this trend releasing more people to do things other than work to provide food and shelter.  A major question is what is this free time going to be used for.  There are many choices beyond preying and fighting including making more electronic gadgets and performing or listening to music.  Another question is who is going to make the decision about what to do with this time.  I believe individuals should be able to make the decisions for themselves.

My third concern is that a guaranteed work scheme is a continuation of the work ethic which allows a few people to tell the rest of us what to do.  We should consider the agricultural surplus and the benefits of technology an inheritance for all of us rather than a right which can be expropriated by a few.  We should be able to decide for ourselves what we want to do with the free time we have inherited from our ancestors.  That could be drinking beer or creating great works of art.  Who is to say one activity is better than another? We need a leisure ethic rather than a work ethic.

Sadly there are some people who feel they should be able to tell others how to live their lives.  A universal guaranteed work scheme is an open invitation to these people to practice this dark business.

Our civilization has to deal with some serious economic problems.  I fear the work program as proposed would make a lot of those problems even worse.  A guaranteed income program would not be enough to solve all the problems but it would be a start and needs a lot more thought.

 

 

Pricing solar energy – the marginal cost factor

 The costs of solar energy are falling quickly and will probably soon be cheaper than more conventional sources.  Does this mean we will once again have large quantities of cheap energy and a return to economic growth?  Maybe and maybe not.

There may not be an immediate drop in the consumer price of power.

The maybe is because of the economic principle that price is equal to the marginal cost of the last unit produced and sold.This means solar will not influence the grid price until the whole current power infrastructure has been replaced. Until then the price will be set by whatever is the most expensive conventional power still being produced.  

It also means firms producing solar power for the grid  will be able to reap some windfall  profits as their costs of production will be lower and falling. Given the current corporate culture that firms have an obligation to maximize their profits regardless we have to anticipate most firms will take full advantage of the windfall. We observe that lots of oil reserves can be extracted at costs much lower than the current marginal cost for more expensive oil. This means some firms and/or governments are reaping windfall profits

The bright spot will be if and when the cost of solar falls enough for small units to be economical and for consumers to be able to afford them.

A further complication is the debt factor.  How much of the debt used to build the current infrastructure is outstanding?  If a large amount has to be written off, it will probably come out of what is called high power money.  If this declines rapidly  it could affect the money supply and cause some economic decline.

As the price of solar falls no doubt lots of large companies will get involved but sadly most if benefits may go to the one per cent in profits and the rest of us will be left out in the cold.  Expect turmoil rather than growth.

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.

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.

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Why we have financial crises

I believe the root cause of financial crises is in the fractional reserve system of creating money.  Therefore the way to avoid future crises is to change how we create money.

Dear Reader,  This post requires you to understand how money is created by the banks.  I’m feeling too lazy to write that up now so if you don’t already know I encourage you to figure it out.  Google “fractional reserve money”  or look at my essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the financial crisis” or these other posts on this weblog.  It may appear complicated and overwhelming but if you think it out it should be easy to understand.  I think very few people understand this process which is unfortunate because we can not reform something people don’t understand.  There is a lot of emotion when dealing with money.

There are two aspects to the economy – the physical and the financial.  It’s a distinction which is easily forgotten because we measure the physical side in financial terms.    Both of these can cause economic crises and solutions probably require knowing where the problem originates.  A complication is that a physical problem can and usually does trigger a financial problem.  I believe our current economic problems are largely physical in that we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  There are lots of resources left but they are becoming more and more difficult to extract.

The big problem with fractional reserve money is that  interest is charged on the money created by the banks.  But the process does not create money to cover the interest.  So long as the economy and the money supply continues to grow there is no problem.  However, when growth ceases and the money supply contracts there just isn’t enough money in the economy to repay all the loans with interest.  It’s sort of like a Ponzi scheme.

Fractional reserve banking is about increasing the money supply but to the best of my knowledge not much thought has been given to when the process unfolds.  Just as money can be created out of thin air it can just as easily disappear into thin air.  This is a problem because money is essential in our economy for the exchange of goods and services.  Even a small reduction in our money supply can cause severe economic hardship because losses on bank loans come out of the reserves.  Thus losses are high powered money or leverage in reverse.  A run on the bank would also be a loss of reserves if the money is put under some mattresses.  If the money is transferred to another bank then there would be no loss of money supply to the economy although it would take some time for the adjustments to work through the system.

During the crisis of 2008 I figure the losses to the banks reduced the money supply forcing a slowdown in the physical side of the economy.  During the crisis people talked about a shortage of credit and the need for banks to start lending.  As our money supply is based on loans this is the same as saying we didn’t have enough money to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.

The U.S. officials dealing with the crisis were aware of the danger to the economy. They were also aware that a large part of the economy was sound and that the banks had to be saved so as to not have a complete collapse.  They were in a bind because saving the banks appeared to be saving people who did not deserve to be saved.  To have let the banks fail would have hurt all of us.  That is the power of the banks.  They are too important to fail.

The financial intermediation industry is focused on the double  R – risk and rewards.  The great  profits and bonuses of the industry are based on maximizing the rewards and passing the risk on to others.  As a general rule the higher the risks the greater the rewards.  In an ideal world the rewards would go to the people taking the risks but bankers have ways of grabbing the rewards while leaving the risks with the depositors.

The first thing they do is that their  marketing focuses on expected returns.  The risks involved are seldom mentioned so that customers don’t demand the rewards to go with the risk they are taking.  Governments try to protect savers with deposit insurance schemes although the real reason is to prevent runs on the bank.

The second trick is leverage.  If you did your homework you know that banks are required to keep a fraction of deposits on reserve for people who want to withdraw their deposits.  The smaller this reserve requirement the greater the leverage and the more money they can create and the larger the profits.  Regulated banks are told how much they must keep on reserve.  Unregulated financial institutions can get away with greater leverage – until things go wrong and they cannot repay their depositors.

The third profit-making stunt is to finance long-term loans with short-term deposits.  As short-term interest rates are generally lower than long-term interest rates this increases the spread/margin for the banks.  Some people claim this conversion of short-term deposits into long-term loans is a great accomplished of the financial system.  In fact it is a very dangerous practice and through the centuries many bankers have lost their businesses, if not their shirts. (But the profits were great while they lasted.) This is because when there is a crisis people will refuse to roll over their short-term deposits.  With no way to call in their loans the banks become bankrupt even though most of their outstanding loans are good.

If banks were to match the terms of their deposits with the terms of their loans their business would be financial intermediation rather than speculation and the risk would go to depositors  who are carrying the risk in any case.

I hope you can see from these notes that there are serious problems within the financial industry and the fractional reserve way of creating money.  Money is such an emotional issue and the interests of the financial industry are so strong that I believe it will be impossible to make reforms.  

 

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What will be left for our grandchildren?

Should we feel sorry for our grandchildren who will have to repay the massive debts we have been building up?  Probably not but we should feel sorry for our grandchildren who will have to survive on mineral and energy resources which are difficult to extract.

Debts can suffer fatalities from three causes: bankruptcy, inflation or government haircuts.  Considering current economic conditions  there is some possibility the current debt load will be written off before our grandchildren even understand the word.  If and when this happens there will be considerable  economic turmoil.

I believe economies should be analysed first and mostly in physical terms rather than money terms.  This way we can see some underlying trends and problems which can easily be hidden behind financial terms.

Currently we are probably dealing with problems in both sides of the economy.  We have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources and the marginal cost of accessing what is left is going up.  At the same time the fraction reserve way of creating money in which interest is charged on the money supply is a Ponzi scheme which frequently breaks down.  Financial crises have long been a  feature of our economy.

If one analyses the economy only in phyiscal terms we are not living beyond our means as we produce everything we consume.  In this respect there can be no borrowing from the future.  What we are doing is using resources which won’t be available to our grandchildren at a reasonable cost.

A major financial collapse will have a devastating effect on our exchange of goods and services.  It is quite likely our grandchildren will have to pick up the pieces from a financial collapse.  What is more certain is that they will have to cope with our having used up the most easily accessibe energy and mineral resources.  There will be lots left for them but these resources will require a lot of energy to extract.  That will be enough of a burden to impose upon them.

 

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.

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