The evidence for a long-term economic decline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some other indicators:

Unemployment

High public debt

The rise of radical left and radical right political movements

High interest rates

Non-performing loads held by banks

Falling standards of living – however one defines them

Expensive education

High crime rates

Crowded public transportation

Homeless people

People are losing confidence in their banks

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some other indicators:

Unemployment

High public debt

The rise of radical left and radical right political movements

High interest rates

Non-performing loands held by banks

Falling standars of living – however one defines them

Expensive education

High crime rates

Crowded public transportation

Homeless people

People are losing confidence in their banks

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Self-driving cars: promises and some problems

Self-driving cars will be an incremental but disruptive step into science fiction in that we will be abandoning a major part of the economy and replacing it with something different. Science fiction will become a reality. Do we really want to go there? Probably we have no choice but to drive down this road.

A recent special report in The Economist discusses some of the technology and outlines the promises of autonomous vehicles. There are also some economic problems of which we should be aware – the resource base, marginal cost and potential disruption in the money supply.

driving-clipart-45The promises are mostly based on a continuation of the North American growth economy. We will be continuing to use machines to move individuals or small groups mostly to places of employment. Probably self-driving vehicles will be used in combination with mass transit, especially if vehicle sharing comes into its own. Great benefits will accrue to a lot of people in the form of greater inexpensive mobility which will also allow us to contradict Facebook with more direct social activity.

Self-driving vehicles may add to the over population problem if there are fewer accidents and fewer fatalities.

One of the problems will be the availability of resources. This blogger figures the economy is currently on a down trend because we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources. Sure, there are lots left in the crust of this planet but the amount of energy required to retrieve them makes them mostly useless.

The exception is solar energy, the cost of which has been dropping and will probably continue to drop. This could mean a major change in economic power as it appears solar will become cheap enough for individuals to make their own decisions about using it. No longer will bankers and governments be deciding which power provision projects go ahead and by whom.

The replacement of the current fleet of internal combustion vehicles with electric and driverless vehicles will probably mean a lot of the current infrastructure will need to be replaced. This will require large quantities of mineral resources which may be very expensive. Henry Ford realized that in order to sell automobiles they had to be inexpensive enough for working people to buy them. Since then we have extracted a lot of the most easily accessible mineral resources. It is not clear we will able to retrieve or recycle enough resources for the transition.

The economic concept of marginal cost creates a couple of problems for the introduction of self-driving vehicles. This states the price of an item is equal to the marginal cost of producing the last item. As the cost of solar energy is falling and is likely to continue falling at some point solar will determine the price of electricity. When that happens all those firms currently producing electricity from hydro, gas or oil will find their facilities and investments worthless. Not good news for bankers or for the rest of us when all that debt has to be written off.

Recycling may be another source of problems. Most of us accept that recycling is a civil responsibility and believe that doing so will help to save the environment and the economy. However we may find marginal cost interferes with some things. Suppose a pound of copper can be recycled for half the cost mining new stuff. Does this mean manufacturers will be able to purchase recycled copper for half the cost and their customers will benefit from the cheaper prices? Not likely. Copper prices will be set by the last pound mined and the recycler will make a windfall. So the benefits of recycling will likely go to the recyclers rather than the rest of us. This is what happened in the oil industry as prices rose. We all paid higher prices and those producers who could extract the stuff at lower cost did very well. Recycling may be a joke on us.

Most of us know how to manage our money but few understand how money is created in our economy. Most of the money we use to exchange goods and services is based on the debt created when bankers make loans. This works so long as the economy is growing and bankers make more and more loans.

Economists seldom if ever talk about what happens when the economy stops growing and loans have to be written off. Loans are being written off all the time but so long as the economy is growing they are replaced with even more loans. However, when large amounts have to be written off such as the recent mortgage crisis the money supply goes down and without money it becomes difficult to exchange goods and services and lots of people lose their savings and their employment. Because of the fractional reserve system we use the money supply goes down with a multiplier effect.

I do not know how much of the current money supply is based on debt to the automotive and energy firms. The introduction of self-driving electric vehicles could hit the banks and us with a double whammy if firms in both industries cannot repay their debts. We could lose a lot of the money supply as well as a lot of people losing their savings and pensions.

A lot of changes are likely to be forced upon us. Some of those changes we may not appreciate.

Through the millenia of history when there have been major economic upheavals up to 90 percent of populations have died. If something like that happens in the near future, the technology of self-driving electric cars will not be lost and the promises may be available to the survivors.

Solar energy – excitement and challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economic salvation from shale gas?

A lot of people believe economic salvation depends upon economic growth and some people believe that salvation will come as a result of shale gas.

It could be true.

However, in a previous reincarnation I was a charter member of the skeptics club.  A more likely scenario is that shale gas may give us a temporary reprieve.  There are environmental and economic concerns.

The environmental concerns relate to global warming and earthquakes.  Also the current availability of cheap shale gas is interfering with the development or renewable energies such as wind and solar.

The economic concern relates to marginal cost.  (Marginal cost is the cost of extracting the last unit sold.)  If shale gas is going to be our salvation, then the marginal cost of extracting it will have to decrease as more gas is taken.  If the marginal cost increases, then it will only slow down the rate of economic decline.

The exploitation of shale gas is the result of high oil prices and the development of new and expensive technology.  It takes a lot of energy to get it out of the ground.  Certainly the gas currently being extracted is the easiest and cheapest.  There is some probability that future extractions will be more difficult and expensive.

Another concern about the potential for a return to economic growth is what is happening to the marginal cost of other minerals and resources such as topsoil and copper.

Rather than seeking a return to economic growth we might be better off to adapt our lives and our economy to zero or negative growth.  For some ideas about how to do that please see my essay: LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis.

Here are links to three articles on shale gas. One, two, three.

 

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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