Free trade; not trade wars or negotiated trade

With a lot of Americans fearful for their jobs and their president saying he can protect jobs with tariffs, international trade has become a big emotional issue.

Trade is such an emotional issue because our economy is organized such that our physical and psychological well-being requires us to have steady employment. At the same time economic changes require employment flexibility. One way to deal with this conflict would be to have a guaranteed income scheme so that individuals can cope with changes. My committment to such a scheme stands behind the rest of this post and indeed all the posts on this weblog. If people can survive comfortably without employment then this fear should no longer be a factor.

We should also analyse economic issues in physical or real terms rather than financial terms. Trade is the exchange of goods and services, not money which is a tool to facilitate the exchanges. It is very easy to get a distorted picture of the economy when people analyse economic problems in financial terms.

For all merchant-pull-1398066_1920we talk about the market economy and our devotion to competition, we have a long tradition of restricting competition. One of the ways we do that is by imposing tariffs on imports from other countries. Other ways we restrict competition with subsidies and legislation.

The economics law of comparative advantage says countries are better off to specialize and trade, even if one country is more efficient in the production of all items. This is attractive to people who want economic growth. This blogger also likes the idea of efficiency so that we can have more time for leisure activities.

I also believe the best way to do free trade is unilaterally. To do free trade and get the full benefits Canada should abolish all tariffs and restrictions on foreign goods and services coming into the country regardless of what other countries do. If other countries want to subsidize our lifestyle, then that is up to them. If they do not want to buy from us, then that is saving our resource base for the benefit of our children.

The free trade agreements of which governments are so fond are in reality negotiated trade agreements. They are negotiated for the sake of special interests of producers. These are the same interests as those who want legislation to restrict competition – patents, copyright, licensing – and who want subsidies for their firms. To get a feel for the complexity of these negotiations look at this article in The Economist. Trying to negotiate to satisfy the special interests of multiple countries must be an impossible challenge.

International trade is not such an important issue for Americans because the United States is one large free trade zone and they are or have benefited from the law of comparative advantage.

Economics is a social activity and like all relationships, to be satisfying for all parties there needs to be a more or less equal exchange. Those Americans who promote trade wars are being anti social. To me that sounds un-American.

Lots of politicians and commentators worry about the dire consequences of American tariffs and the resulting trade wars. Yes. we are headed into some even more serious economic problems but they will not be caused by tariffs and trade wars. The basic problem is that we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources. Increased efficiency from free trade will help us cope with this issue but will not solve it.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daydreaming reform: basic income, money and work ethic

To say we face an economic crisis is hardly controversial but the crisis is so severe that the reforms needed make Karl Marx look a part of the establishment.   The changes needed are radical beyond the comprehension of many people as they require more than just tweaking what we already have.

The basic problem is that we have used up most of the easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  Those that are left require so much energy to extract that they are almost useless.  There have been other times in economic history when humans have had to cope with resource shortages but these were temporary as more resources were waiting to be discovered.  This time the problem is not knowing where the resources are located but the cost/energy required to extract them.

The three basic changes are a basic universal income, the way in which we create money and overcoming the work ethic.  To accomplish anything all three reforms will be needed at the same time.  As there are so many conflicting vested interests this will be an impossibility.  Prove me wrong.  While these appear to be radical ideas, this writer did a degree in conventional economics at the University of British Columbia and has a strong commitment to a market economy.   The radical comes from wanting a market economy when a major feature of the current economy is that competition is restricted by government legislation.

The basis for an income scheme is the agricultural surplus resulting from all the technology which has developed at least since a farmer discovered he could produce more by using a collar on a horse rather than a harness on an ox.  Through the centuries the elite have confiscated most of the surplus with the use of force. Since the industrial revolution psychological tactics such as legal restrictions on competition,patents, copyright and the work ethic have been less messy.  The need for labour to man the empires has allowed workers to claim a share of the surplus.  As robots replace workers it will be interesting to see what happens to the agricultural surplus – and workers.

This writer would like to see the agricultural surplus treated as an inheritance to be shared equally by all the people of the world.  The way to distribute this inheritance is with a basic income scheme.  Some ideas as to how to do this are in the free e-book, Funny Money: Adapting to a Down economy, available from this weblog.

One of the advantages of an income scheme is that individuals would be able to take action on social and environmental issues related to their employment.  Workers would no longer have to work for exploitive employers and people who disagreed with a firm’s social or environmental policies would not have to bite their tongues for the sake of a pay check.

There is an old saying that money is the root of all evil.  When I studied the economics of money and banking I decided it was the lack of money that is the root of all evil.  I now think the way in which we create money is the root of all evil.

In most of the world’s economies money is created when the banks  make loans and because banks are generally required to keep a fraction of their deposits on reserve most loans become additional deposits in the banking system.  This is called fractional reserve money.  It is a problem because loans that have to be written off reduce the amount of money available, with a multiplier, and because interest is charged on the loans.  A sudden reduction in the money supply is the most difficult of all economic crises.   If all the loans outstanding had to be repaid at the same time there would not be enough money to repay the principle and the interest.  We would recognize the problem as a financial crisis.  This is why I titled my book Funny Money.  I encourage you to get a free copy from Smashwords for an explanation of this problem.

Money is useful because it is a tool which facilitates the exchange of goods and services especially when a lot of our exchanges are with strangers.  We have traditionally used gold or other material items as a basis for money.  Some people still talk about the gold standard although fractional reserve money is based on faith rather than gold.

A few small groups around the world have established what they call Local Exchange Trading Systems.  These people base their exchanges on credits.  You get a credit when you sell a good or service to another member and use credits when you purchase something.  I like this system because the credits are a form of money without the problems of fractional reserve and interest.  In my book I propose we adopt a national exchange trading system and combine it with credits from a guaranteed income scheme.  This would be using money as a tool rather than a commodity.  See the book for more details.

Adopting this system would be revolutionary because it would be a transfer of decision making power from bankers to individuals.  Under fractional reserve bankers get to make decisions about what projects get funded and who gets to do them.  A National Exchange Trading System would allow individuals to make these decisions as they decided what to do with their share of the agricultural surplus.  Some of us would use our share to vote for zero economic growth and more leisure activities.

Many people feel guilty if they do not work continuously.  The work ethic and a distribution of the agricultural surplus via employment are the main motivators that keep our economy going. But the truth is that we do not need everyone to work full-time to provide foods, shelter and entertainment to everyone.  Most of the work people do is work for the sake of work and to maintain the empires of the one per cent.

The bushmen of the Kalahari desert in Africa are/were known for not being interested in material things and for not working hard.  But as hunters and gatherers they had no need to store food.  Any day of the year they could go out and collect the food they needed for that day.  When our ancestors moved to agricultural pursuits, they had to store food and this meant working at least at some times of the year.  We have now taken this need to an extreme.

One of the reasons work is so important is that most of us get our self-identity from our employment.  To save our resource base and to preserve the environment we will have to get our self-identity from other activities.  How about a leisure ethic which encourages people to perform operas, write poetry, write economic weblogs or many other useless things.

This blogger keeps by his computer a little statue of the Laughing Buddha to remind him not to take life too seriously.  Most of the time it works but when thinking about the current economic outlook it is hard to laugh.  Most of us think and act in our own short-term interests as opposed to the long-term in interests of our selves or our communities.  So long as that holds true the outlook is for a lot of human suffering.  But  what does it matter.  To quote a famous economist, in the long term we will all be dead.

 

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.

 

 

Why the joke should not be impeached

The biggest problem now facing Americans is the emotional fears of those of them who elected the joke currently occupying the oval office.  Getting rid of Donald Trump by impeachment or otherwise will solve nothing and may be even worse.

We have to give Trump credit for having the brains to get himself elected.  He identified some of the emotional issues which are giving Americans nightmares and promised to deal with those issues. Emotional fears are  difficult to deal with and it is probable that his proposed solutions will not solve anything.  But at least he is trying and people appreciate that.

This blogger thinks the fears are legitimate.  I believe the current economic turmoil is because we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  We are going to have to adapt to life without the abundance to which we have grown accustomed.  Most of us realize something not good is happening but we do not know what.  Many people are afraid.

One of the ways to deal with fear is to blame other people, especially people who are different.  Lots of people around the world, including Americans and Canadians, are doing this.  It is unfair and morally wrong but it is also natural to blame others for our problems. It is not only right-wing people who are afraid.  Bernie Saunders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain have also attracted a lot of support with emotional appeals.

The best way to deal with these fears is to deal with the source problem.  However the problem is so serious and so difficult there is probably no solution.  We might be able to relieve things a little by changing our values, the way we create money and introducing a basic income plan.  These things would have to all be done at once and that is expecting a lot of human beings.

Another alternative might be to attack emotions with emotions and try to point out how people will themselves be hurt by blaming others.  Fighting fear with more fear could be dangerous.

Americans have very clear rules for replacing a president whose term is incomplete.  Whoever replaces him will be looking for support from the same people with the same emotions.  It might be better to have a joke in the Whitehouse rather than a serious far-right conservative.

The best way to deal with Donald Trump is to ignore him.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

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.  

 

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.

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.

Are small-scale economies the answer?

Some people see small, local economies as the answer to current problems.  Currently the catch word is Transition as in the Transition Town network as reported in The Guardian.

Generally speaking, the Transition vision is of a move towards self-sufficiency at the local level, in food, energy and much else, but the specifics of what “getting it right” might look like were never handed down from above, says the article.

 

It could work for a few small groups but as a solution to the world economic problem I have to be skeptical.  This world has had lots of experience with local, small-scale production.  In fact economic theory starts with firms that are too small to influence prices with their purchasing or selling decisions.

lalolalo_Running_pigOne of the problems with this approach is the dynamics of small communities.   Some people think of small communities as being utopia where everybody is friends, cooperates and decisions are made by consensus.  

Those of us who live or have lived in small communities know this a long way from reality.  People have disagreements which never get resolved, even if one party leaves the community.  Us guys lived on a British Columbia coastal Indian reservation for four years.  Here where it was very difficult to leave, lots of people did not speak to each other.  They had a long tradition of feasts and large family dinners but they would have up to three or four hundred people eating  in the recreation center and one could almost hear a pin drop because it so quiet from people not speaking to each other.  Some of their leaders described the reservation as a prison camp.

We now live in a small rural community of mostly white people.  This is not so bad but there are still many people who don’t speak to some others.

I figure economics is about relationship as expressed in the exchange of goods and services.  When you try to go local you are cutting yourself off from lots of people who thanks to modern transportation are within visiting and trading range.  No small community is going to have all the resources it requires to maintain itself.  The local natives in our area needed arrows for hunting.  There was some usable stone in their area, now on a major highway.    Better stone was several days away and the best, obsidian, was found in what is now the United States.  Trying to go local limits your range of consumption.

The important thing to ask with this type proposal is will it solve the overall problem and that depends upon what the problem is.  I think the problem is that we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  While there may be lots of resources left it will take a lot of energy to retrieve them.  It may be there are some small deposits of energy or minerals which can easily be mined in which case some small economic communities  could fare reasonably well.  Another question:  would small-scale agriculture provide enough food for seven billion people?

This world has had several millenia of experience with local economics.  Since  the industrial revolution most of us have enjoyed the products and social interaction of dealing with people around the world.   I’m not sure I would want to lose that and I am not worried.

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.

Why stimulus spending is a bad idea

Sadly, stimulus spending as an economic cure may make things even worse than they are.   It probably will not provide the results its promoters want although it will likely lead to a more egalitarian but poorer economy because there is a possibility it would lead to some heavy-duty inflation.

The ideal way to deal with the economic crisis requires  a major change in economic thinking and values starting with the way in which money is created.  Some ideas are in my essay “LETS go to market: dealing with the economic crisis.”  Of course this is not a realistic proposal. Its implementation would require a dictator with a strong and loyal military and this is contrary to my belief that decision-making should be made by individuals.

chovynz_Money_Bag_IconThat leaves austerity or stimulus.

The basic problem is that we have used up a big chunk of the easily accessible resource base.  There may be lots of energy and minerals left in  the surface  of the planet but they are so difficult and expensive to extract we cannot expect continued economic growth.

If this is a correct analysis then austerity will be forced upon us regardless of what we do.  The real challenge is to cope with austerity with a minimum of human suffering.   The problem with austerity as it is being promoted is the selfishness and meanness of those promoting it on the backs of people who are less fortunate.

But what about stimulus?  At least since Keynes, many economists have and continue to believe the way to get economic growth going is via government stimulus.

There is some evidence the depression of the 1930s was made worse because the banking authorities restricted the amount of money in the economy.   Once governments started spending (works and war) and the money supply was allowed to increase the depression came to an end.  This time  central  banks have been trying to stimulate the economy by creating more money to facilitate more economic activity.  It isn’t working  because the resource base won’t support more economic growth  although only a few people see that as the reason.

So what is likely to happen if the Keynesians get a turn at trying to solve the crisis.

There are two difficulties.

The first is that stimulus will be a transfer of purchasing power from those who now have it to others because the debts incurred will eventually be written off either by default or by inflation.  Cyprus isn’t the only country whose savers are likely to be hit.

The puzzle is why with all the quantitative easing and no matching growth in output we haven’t had inflation.  The answer:  there is anecdotal evidence that the banks and corporations are sitting on piles of cash presumably because they don’t  see profit opportunities.

Governments don’t worry about profits so if the money goes instead to governments for stimulus, it will be spent.  There will be more money chasing the same quantities of goods and services and prices are bound to go up.    Inflation provides an indiscriminate haircut to everyone with monetary savings or investments.  If it gets out of control a lot of people will lose their pensions or their fortunes.  It will solve the inequality about which many people have been worrying.  It would also be a neat revenge against those people who want austerity on the backs of poor people although a lot of innocent people would be hurt.

The second problem with stimulus is that if it succeeds in increasing the output of goods and services it will also use up more of the remaining mineral and energy resources and bring forward the timing of a major crash of civilization.  I would like the goal of economic policy to be to minimize overall  human suffering rather than to increase it.

I am not worried about an economic collapse for my own sake, but I do have six young grandchildren.   Perhaps we should post a job opening for a benevolent dictator.

Why stimulus is not working

At least since Keynes conventional economic wisdom has been that the cure for an economic depression is government stimulus spending – even if it means increasing the government debt.  Recently, some people, especially  those who will lose their savings from inflation or if debt has to be written off, have been fighting plans for stimulus spending.

There are other reasons to be leery of stimulus spending.  It isn’t working and it could bring forward an even more serious economic collapse.

To explain this we have to go to the blackboard of an economics classroom where the professor draws an x-shaped graph.  One line represents the financial side of the economy and the other line represents the physical aspect.  The problem is that we measure the physical side in financial terms and tend to forget this distinction as soon as we get away from the blackboard.

polettix_stone_age_wheel_1For stimulus to work there has to be adequate energy and mineral resources to support the increased economic activity.  When Roosevelt implemented the New Deal and when we undertook the Second World War there were still loads of resources.  Now we have used up the most easily accessible energy and minerals.   What’s left requires a lot more work and energy to extract.  Putting more energy into extracting resources is taking away from the standard of living most of us want.

The other problem with stimulus spending is that it will use up even more of the existing resources and make the economic crisis even worse.

If stimulus is going to make things worse, what do we do?  After all people are suffering from the crisis. I think the answer is to drop our commitment to economic growth and the consumer society.  The economic task should be to see that everyone has adequate food, shelter. clothing,  hobbies and entertainment.  It is important to be able to communicate but I’m not certain it is necessary for everyone to have a micro cell phone.

Poverty, economic growth and unconventional thinking

With the economic crisis there has been increasing inequality and increasing poverty.  Poverty is something we should be addressing.   I believe we should have a collective responsibility to ensure everyone has the opportunity to have a reasonably comfortable life – the same level as most other people.

Conventional thinking says we need economic growth to provide jobs and relieve poverty. This article is an example.

It may be poverty is now being caused by a situation we have not experienced in our collective memory and that unconventional thinking is required.

johnny_automatic_startled_bearsThe probable cause of the economic crisis is that we have used up most of the easily accessible energy, mineral and topsoil resources.  As it takes more work and energy to harvest the remaining resources further economic growth is difficult if not impossible.  We may even have to cope with negative growth.   Trying to force economic growth will only consume more resources and make things even worse.

Even if the resources for growth are available we have so much technology there really is not the need for everyone to be producing more.  Back in the Middle Ages there were three classes of people – those who prayed, those who fought and those who worked to support the first two.  These days it only takes a few people to produce the food to support those who fight and those who consume.

Therefore demanding that governments provide more jobs is not reasonable.  We have to find some other way of ensuring that everyone  has a comfortable life.  One proposal for doing this is in the essay “LETS go to market:: Dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog.

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