Off the keyboard of James Howard Kuntsler
Published on Clusterfuck Nation on May 20, 2013
Discuss this article at the Favorite Dishes Smorgasbord inside the Diner
The collective state of mind in the USA these days may be even more peculiar than what went on in Germany in the early 1930s, when the Nazis were freely elected to lead the country and reconstructed the battered national psyche into a superman cult that soon beat a path to mass death and ruin. America has its own way of going crazy. We don’t goose-step to tragedy; we coalesce into an insane clown posse and stumble into it by pratfall — juggaloes dancing backwards off the cliff edge.
From the Keyboard of Surly1
Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on May 19, 2013
Discuss this article here in the Diner Forum.
In which we walk around the weekly cultural signifiers that indicate that we are, week by week, proudly and confidently approaching the zero point with the same cheery sense of self-assurance with which lemmings are said to approach a cliff. The Week That Was In Doom, might otherwise be known “as things that make you want to guzzle antifreeze,” with apologies and a tip o’ the Surly Crown of Thorns to Charlie Pierce. Pass the Prestone, hold the ice. And see what the rest of the crew will have, will ya barkeep?
”Violence is as American as cherry pie.” –H. “Rap” Brown
We started out the week by celebrating Mother’s Day in traditional American fashion, meaning blowing the shit out of a bunch of people with guns.
Nineteen people have been wounded in a shooting at a Mother’s Day parade in the US city of New Orleans, police say. The victims included two children who were grazed by bullets. Police say most injuries are not life-threatening. It is unclear what sparked the shooting in the city’s 7th Ward on Sunday afternoon. Police say three suspects were seen fleeing the area. The incident happened at about 14:00 (19:00 GMT) at the intersection of Frenchmen and Villere streets. “Shots were fired with different guns,” a police statement said. “Immediately after the shooting our officers saw three suspects running from the scene.” The statement said 10 men, seven women, a 10-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl were wounded by gunfire. FBI spokeswoman Mary Beth Romig said they had “no reason to believe it was an act of terror, just street violence”.
For my money, Rising Hegemon’s rising snark sums up the whole proceedings just fine.
What could be more American
It is unclear what sparked the shooting, which happened in the city’s 7th Ward on Sunday afternoon. Police say two or three suspects were seen fleeing the area. Police said that, as well as the 12 people with gunshot wounds, one person was injured in the ensuing panic.
By the end of the week, two brothers with gang ties and a history of drug offenses had been arrested for the deed, the narrative in place, the crime scene tape pulled up, so everything is hunky-dory again, right?
Two brothers with a history of drug arrests and suspected ties to a neighborhood gang each face 20 counts of attempted second-degree murder in a shooting spree that brought a sudden bloody end to a neighborhood Mother’s Day parade.
Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.~ F. Scott Fitzgerald
How really depraved are we? Really? (h/t Joe P.) Earlier in the week I found myself arguing that the story could not possibly be true, but I discoved that the only problem here is my own paucity of imagination.
Rich Manhattan moms hire
handicapped tour guides so kids can
cut lines at Disney World
The “black-market Disney guides” run $130 an hour, or $1,040 for an eight-hour day. “My daughter waited one minute to get on ‘It’s a Small World’ — the other kids had to wait 2 1/2 hours,” crowed one mom, who hired a disabled guide through Dream Tours Florida.“You can’t go to Disney without a tour concierge,’’ she sniffed. “This is how the 1 percent does Disney.”
The woman said she hired a Dream Tours guide to escort her, her husband and their 1-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter through the park in a motorized scooter with a “handicapped” sign on it. The group was sent straight to an auxiliary entrance at the front of each attraction.
Someone on Facebook observed that at least this gave some occasional employment to the handicapped. Sometimes we are left without words. And sometimes the news comes pre-loaded with its own layer of snark.
Those paying attention to continued congressional treason and the incompetence and misfeasance of the Obama administration were treated to The Benghazi Dumb Show and Obama’s IRS shooting itself in the foot. Charlie Pierce’s take:
Obama’s IRS answer probably won’t satisfy Republicans demanding a public apology from the president and insisting the story indicates Obama’s White House is run like Nixon’s. But the president put himself on the same page with elected officials of all political stripes Monday who demanded to know more about what happened at the IRS and the firing of those responsible for any malfeasance. No. It won’t satisfy them. He could have climbed up on a cross and driven nails into his own palms and that wouldn’t have satisfied them. Why is that the point? The media has no affirmative obligation to decide that a “political circus” has broken out and that it has no job left except to write play-by-play on what the monkeys are doing. Obama’s White House is not like Nixon’s any more than it is like the court of Robert The Bruce. Because some Republicans are still carrying old Watergate grudges around like goiters in their consciences is no reason for smart people to play along with it. Nixon’s IRS did not call out its own mistakes. Nixon’s IRS did not apologize. Nixon did not call a press conference and denounce the IRS for what it did, and this was because Nixon ordered the IRS to do what it did, and not even Nixon was a rancid enough bag of old sins to do something like that. So what is the purpose of throwing his name in there at all? Because the Republicans used it? That’s not good enough. In 2004, the NAACP actually got audited in the wake of its having been critical of the then-reigning Avignon Presidency. Remember how that dominated the Sunday Showz for months and led to endless hearings in both houses of Congress?
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative’s top executive called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organizations gather the news. The records obtained by the Justice Department listed outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP. It was not clear if the records also included incoming calls or the duration of the calls.
This is what got people sent to jail in the mid-1970s. This is the Plumbers, all over again, except slightly more formal this time, and laundered, disgracefully, even more directly through the Department Of Justice. And of course, this is not nearly good enough. And even if you point out, as you should, that the AP is hyping this story a little — The government “secretly” obtained the records? Doesn’t that imply that nobody knew the records had been seized? Wasn’t there a subpoena? The phone companies knew. — the ignoble clumsiness of this more than obviates those particular quibbles.
No Charlie, no subpoena, thanks to the quick work of our friends at Verizon Wireless.
When the feds came knocking for AP journalists’ call records last year, Verizon apparently turned the data over with no questions asked. The New York Times, citing an AP employee,reported Tuesday that at least two of the reporters’ personal cellphone records “were provided to the government by Verizon Wireless without any attempt to obtain permission to tell them so the reporters could ask a court to quash the subpoena.”
Customers of Verizon Wireless, take comfort in the knowledge that your company passed AP reporters’ phone records to the feds. Remember, muppets, “It’s The Network™.”
In other news, we learn that many of the troglodyte members of the House of Representatives, the mouth-breathing consensus who yearn so dearly for the opportunity to lay a dollop of tar on presumed 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton with the Benghazi flap as the tar-laden cudgel, can’t even locate Benghazi on a map. Hilarity ensues.
And in less amusing news, the results of the preliminary investigation into the explosion of the fertilizer plant in West, Texas came in. Or not.
Robert Champion, the ATF special agent in charge, said investigators have ruled out the possibility of an earlier fire, spontaneous ignition, smoking, weather or a 480 volt electrical system. He said investigators have not ruled foul play, or a problem with a 120 volt electrical system. The officials would not discuss the arrest of Bryce Reed, a volunteer paramedic and one of the first on the scene, who was arrested last week for possession of bomb making materials. The Insurance Council of Texas estimates the damage to surrounding homes and businesses will exceed $100 million.
Clearly, Texas investigators have also not ruled out attack by the Tsarniev Brothers, an alien energy death ray from a UFO, an attack by Al Qaeda, the Symbionese Liberation Army, or the work of a secret, “self-radicalizing” terrorist cabal led by Jimmy Hoffa and Judge Crater. But never fear, the usual gaggle of self-righteous hypocrites are showing up for the cameras, squatting down and pinching off the expected pieties:
Gov. Rick Perry issued a statement Thursday evening expressing his appreciation to the investigators. ”While the cause of the fire remains undetermined and the investigation continues, this tragedy has shown the world the definition of compassion, from volunteer firefighters across the state rushing to help their colleagues at the scene, to friends, neighbors and Texans stepping in to help those who lost so much in the blast,” he said. Texas U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz issued a joint statement thanking the investigators. ”Our prayers remain with those struggling to recover and mourning the loss of loved ones. While the cause remains undetermined, it is our sincere hope that at the end of the investigation, the residents of West can find closure and begin to heal,” they said.
Thanks, investigolators, for the camera opportunity to flog a continued regime of deregulation. en, the Grey Lady herself took note in the NY Times. Texas don’t need no stinking regulations:
Asked about the disaster, Mr. Perry responded that more government intervention and increased spending on safety inspections would not have prevented what has become one of the nation’s worst industrial accidents in decades.
“Through their elected officials,” he said, Texans “clearly send the message of their comfort with the amount of oversight.”
This antipathy toward regulations is shared by many residents here. Politicians and economists credit the stance with helping attract jobs and investment to Texas, which has one of the fastest-growing economies in the country, and with winning the state a year-after-year ranking as the nation’s most business friendly.
Raymond J. Snokhous, a retired lawyer in West who lost two cousins — brothers who were volunteer firefighters — in the explosion, said, “There has been nobody saying anything about more regulations.”
Texas has always prided itself on its free-market posture. It is the only state that does not require companies to contribute to workers’ compensation coverage. It boasts the largest city in the country, Houston, with no zoning laws. It does not have a state fire code, and it prohibits smaller counties from having such codes. Some Texas counties even cite the lack of local fire codes as a reason for companies to move there.
But Texas has also had the nation’s highest number of workplace fatalities — more than 400 annually — for much of the past decade. Fires and explosions at Texas’ more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012.
Have a good look at what deregulation looks like. The explosion in April of a fertilizer plant near West, Tex., was so powerful that it registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake. McLennan, the county that includes West, has no fire code. Res ipsa loquitor. Awaiting the results earlier in the week, Pierce had it thus:
Whatever the investigators announce, the explosion will be linked to four decades of conservative-inspired deregulation, four decades of conservative-inspired corporate triumphalism, the deregulatory enthusiasm of every damn possible contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, and Rick Perry’s entire political career are pretty damn long, I’m guessing. But give up the e-mails, Holder! Ten more people died here than died in Benghazi.
In a development will be very satisfying to many readers of this page, particularly those who find room for cautious optimism in the growth of renewable energy and alternative fuels (thinking of you, AG), the nuclear industry had what by any measure has to be described is a pretty bad week.
Once touted as a successor, or at least a competitor, to carbon-based power, the nuclear sector has taken a beating as the momentum behind new projects stalls and enthusiasm for domestic fossil fuel production grows. Across the country, plans to build nuclear plants have hit roadblocks recently—a sharp turn for a sector that just a few years ago was looking forward to a renaissance. *** In recent weeks, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled against a proposed partnership between NRC Energy and Toshiba, citing a law that prohibits control of a U.S. plant by a foreign corporation. Elsewhere, Duke Energy scuttled plans to construct two nuclear reactors in North Carolina, while California officials warned that two damaged reactors could be shut down permanently if the NRC doesn’t take action to get the plants back online. The change in nuclear’s fortunes is staggering, given that the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power …. “Starting about four years ago, the industry felt it was in the middle of a renaissance” with applications for many new plants pending with the NRC, said Peter Bradford, a law professor and a former member of the commission. “They’ve gone from that high-water mark to a point at which … we’re actually seeing the closing of a few operating plants,which was unthinkable even a few years ago.”
Of course none of this may make much difference if the sun has its way with us. We are told that a large solar flare may be a prelude to an entire year of heavy sunspot/solar storm activity.
The Sun erupted with a large solar flare in the direction of Earth early Friday morning, causing potential disruption to radio signals in the coming days and serving as a prelude to a period of heavy solar activity. The mid-level flare, classified as an M6.5 solar flare, “was associated with an Earth-direction coronal mass ejection (CME), a solar phenomenon that can send billions of tons of solar particles into space and can reach our planet days later,”according to Science World Report. While X-class solar flares are 10 times more powerful than Friday’s eruption, the radiation burst was the largest on record in 2013 and “caused an R2 radio blackout that has since subsided,” the site reported. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration classifies radio blackouts caused by space weather on a scale from R1 to R5, with R5 being the strongest. Scientists expect more such solar flares this year, because the Sun’s 11-year activity cycle is approaching its peak, expected to arrive in the closing months of 2013, Science World Report noted.
And now were told that NASA is warning that solar storms are possible. The implications of such an event are difficult to fathom. Current sunspots are said to be the diameter of 6 Earths, and some sunspot activity can lead to significant eruptions of radiation.
The Sun is currently reaching the peak of its 11-year solar cycle. The Solar Dynamics Observatory was launched by NASA in 2010. The observatory spacecraft is just one of many alerting NASA to signs of solar flares, or coronal mass ejections. One of the biggest concerns surrounding solar flares is the ability the storms have to take down our antiquated power grid. If a massive solar flare is directed at Earth, the fiscal destruction could be legendary. Both NASA and NOAA experts estimate the potential damage of such a direct hit would be in the trillions. The last major solar flare to directly impact Earth was in 1859, the Carrington Event. Telegraph wires reportedly snapped in half and caused multiple blazes. The folks of the 1800s were far less impacted by the solar flare than we would be today. Due to the computerized equipment inside vehicles built after the 1950s, nearly anything on four wheels (or two) would come to a screeching halt.
Just let the implications of that one sink in for a moment. Imagine a Carrington-type of event on top of the current economic and social dislocations we have. The mind reels. We could be facing “a world made by hand” sooner than even Kunstler imagines.
According to Annalee Newitz, We may be in for a disaster or set of disasters so profound they could kick off a series of mass extinctions. Of people this time, in contrast to the mass extinctions that Homo sapiens has already caused for other species. Ms. new it’s has written a book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, that insists that human evolution has prepared us to survive future disasters.
Are we in the first act of a mass extinction that will end in the death of millions of plant and animal species across the planet, including us?
That’s what proponents of the “sixth extinction” theory believe. As the term suggests, our planet has been through five mass extinctions before. The dinosaur extinction was the most recent but hardly the most deadly: 65 million years ago, dinosaurs were among the 76 percent of all species on Earth that were extinguished after a series of natural disasters. But
185 million years before that, there was a mass extinction so devastating that paleontologists have nicknamed it the Great Dying. At that time, 95 percent of all species on the planet were wiped out over a span of roughly 100,000 years—most likely from megavolcanoes that erupted for centuries in Siberia, slowly turning the atmosphere to poison. And three more mass extinctions, some dating back over 400 million years, were caused by ice ages, invasive species, and radiation bombardment from space.
During the last million years of our evolution as a species, humans narrowly avoided extinction more than once. We lived through harsh conditions while another human group, the Neanderthals, did not. This isn’t just because we are lucky. It’s because as a species, we are extremely cunning when it comes to survival. If we want to survive for another million years, we should look to our history to find strategies that already worked. The title of this book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, is a distillation of these strategies. But it’s also a call to implement them in the future, by actively taking on the project of human survival as a social and scientific challenge.
So what promises to be another work of techno-optimism. Perhaps we will be smart enough, unselfish enough, and astute enough to employ strategies that will be necessary to save the bulk of humanity. Indeed, part of the mission statement of the Diner is to “Save as Many as you Can.” However my money is on the illuminati bunkering up and leaving a combination of disease, solar storms, acid rain and widespread dislocation to scour the Muppets from their earth. Or so they think.
And Just so you know, the truth about lemmings has nothing to do with them committing suicide en masse by leaping off cliffs. it turns out that a Disney film, “White Wilderness,” used selectively shot and staged scenes that showed lemmings leaping off a cliff into water, and from there swimming out to the ocean to their Doom. (The film is still available on YouTube, for the curious.) Turns out that the demise of lemmings, a voracious little Arctic vole, has much more to do with stoats, fox, owls and other predators. Far more so than cliffs.
And here, in all the news that doesn’t fit for this week are some other links gathered liking gleanings from the field, and for which I lack the time and attention to comment. You may find it of interest. One thing is reasonably sure: next week will bring even more.
Brandon Smith on terror, circular logic and the debasement of language in the quest for power: http://www.alt-market.com/articles/1501-lions-and-tigers-and-terrorists-oh-my
GO’s article on vectors of human extinction
Personal extinction: Suicide rates in middle aged Americans- Mercola http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/05/16/suicide-rate.aspx?e_cid=20130516_DNL_ProdTest2_art_1&utm_source=dnl&utm_medium=email&utm_content=art1&utm_campaign=20130516ProdTest2
America’s first climate refugees– with a tip o’ the Surly Crown o’Thorns to JoeP: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/interactive/2013/may/13/newtok-alaska-climate-change-refugees
Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg
Published on Our Finite World on April 30, 2013
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Table inside the Diner
I have written in recent posts that oil limits are more complex than what many have imagined. They aren’t just a lack of a liquid fuel; they are inability to compete in a global economy that is based on use of cheaper fuel (coal) and a lower standard of living. Oil prices that are too low for oil exporting nations are a problem, just as oil prices that are too high are a problem for oil importing nations.
Debt limits are also closely tied to oil supply limits. It is actually debt limits, such as those we seem to be reaching right now, that may bring the whole system to a screeching stop. (See my posts How Resource Limits Lead to Financial Collapse, How Oil Exporters Reach Financial Collapse, Peak Oil Demand is Already a Huge Problem, and Low Oil Prices Lead to Economic Peak Oil.)
We have many Main Street Media (MSM) paradigms that mischaracterize our current predicament. But we also have what I would call Green paradigms, that aren’t really right either, because they don’t recognize the true state of our predicament. What we need now is new set of paradigms. Let’s look at a few common beliefs.
Inadequate Oil Supply Paradigm
As I stated above, indications that oil supply is a problem are confusing. MSM seems to believe, “If the US can be oil independent, our oil supply problems are solved.” If a person believes the goofy models our economists have put together, this is perhaps true, but this is not true in the real world.
Without a huge, huge increase in US oil production (far more than is being proposed), being “oil independent” simply means that we are unable to compete in the world market for buying oil exports. US oil consumption ends up dropping, and we end up on the edge of recession, or actually in recession. Oil exports instead go to the countries that have lower manufacturing costs (that is, use oil more sparingly). See Figure 1 below. In fact, even some of the oil products that are created by US refineries end up going to users in other countries, because it is businesses in other countries that are making many of today’s goods, and it is these businesses and the workers they hire who can afford to buy products like gasoline for their cars or diesel for their irrigation pumps.
Figure 1. Oil consumption by part of the world, based on EIA data. 2012 world consumption data estimated based on world “all liquids” production amounts.
The Green version of this paradigm seems to be, “If world oil supply is rising, everything is fine.” This is related to the idea that our problem is “peak oil” production caused by geological depletion, and if we haven’t hit peak oil production, everything is more or less OK. In fact, the limit we are reaching is an economic limit, that comes far before world oil supply begins to decline for geological reasons. See my post, Low Oil Prices Lead to Economic Peak Oil.
The real paradigm is, “Limited oil supply leads to financial collapse.” This is true for both oil exporters and for oil importer. For oil importers, the problem occurs because they cannot import enough oil, and oil is needed for critical parts of the economy. The belief by economists that substitution will take place is not happening in the quantity and at the price level (very low) that it needs to happen at, to keep the economy expanding as it has in the past.
Limited oil supply first leads to high oil prices, as it did in the 2004 to 2008 period; then it leads to government financial distress, as governments try to deal with less employment and lower tax revenue. By the time oil prices start falling because of the poor condition of oil importers, we are well on our way down the slippery slope to financial collapse.
The MSM version of this paradigm is, “Growth can be expected to continue forever.” A corollary to this is, “The economy can be expected to return to robust growth, soon.”
In a finite world, this paradigm is obviously untrue. At some point, we start reaching limits of various kinds, such as fresh water limits and the inability to extract an adequate supply of oil cheaply.
Economists base their models on the assumption that the economy only needs labor and capital; it doesn’t need specific resources such as fresh water and energy of the proper type. Unfortunately, substitutability among resources is not very good, and price is all-important. In the real world, growth slows as resources become more expensive to extract.
The Green version of the growth paradigm seems to be, “We can have a steady state economy forever.” Unfortunately, this is just as untrue as the “Growth can be expected to continue to forever.” Even to maintain a steady state economy requires far more cheap-to-extract oil resources than the earth really has. (US shale oil resources, which are the new hope for oil growth, can only grow if oil prices are sufficiently high.)
We are very dependent on fossil fuels for making our food supply possible and for our ability to make metals in reasonable quantity. Fossil fuels are also necessary for making concrete and glass in reasonable quantities, and for making modern renewable energy, such as hydroelectric dams, wind turbines, and PV panels. We cannot keep 7 billion people alive without fossil fuels. Perhaps the quantity of fossil fuels consumed can be temporarily reduced from current levels, but with continued population growth, any savings will be quickly offset by additional mouths to feed and by the desire of the poorest segment of the population to have the living standards of the richest.
Unfortunately, the correct version of the paradigm seems to be, “Overshoot and collapse is to be expected.” This is what happens in nature, whenever any species discovers a way to way to increase its energy (food) supply. Yeast, when added to grape juice will multiply, until the yeast have consumed the available sugars and turned them to alcohol. They then die.
The same pattern has happened over and over with historical civilizations. They learned to use a new approach that allowed them to increase food supply (such as clearing land of trees and farming the land, or adding irrigation to an area), but eventually population caught up. Research shows that before collapse, they reached financial limits much as we are reaching now. The symptoms, both then and now, were increasingly great wage disparity between the rich and the working class, and governments that needed ever-higher taxes to fund their operations.
Eventually a Crisis period hit these historical civilizations, typically lasting 20 to 50 years. Workers rebelled against the higher taxes, and more government changes took place. Governments fought wars to get more resources, with many killed in battle. Epidemics became more of a problem, because of the weakened condition of workers who could no longer afford an adequate diet. Eventually the population was greatly reduced, sometimes to zero. A new civilization did not rise again for many years.
Figure 2. One possible future path of future real (that is, inflation-adjusted) GDP, under an overshoot and collapse scenario.
It seems to me that unfortunately overshoot and collapse is the model to expect. It is not a model anyone would like to have happen, so there is great opposition when the idea is suggested. Overshoot and collapse is very similar to the model described in the 1972 book Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and others.
Role of Economics, Science, and Technology Paradigm
The MSM paradigm seems to be, “Economics and the businesses that make up the economy can solve all problems.” Growth will continue. New technology will solve all problems. We don’t need religion any more, because we now understand what makes people happy: More stuff! As long as the economy can give people more stuff, people will be satisfied and happy. Economics even can allow us to find “green” solutions that will solve environmental problems with win-win solutions (assuming you believe MSM).
The Green version of the paradigm seems to be, “Science and technology can solve all problems, and can properly alert us to future problems.” Again, we don’t need religion, because here we can put our faith in science to solve all of our problems.
I am not sure the Green version of the paradigm is any more accurate than the MSM media version. Science is not good at figuring out turning points. It is very easy to miss interactions that are outside the realm of science, and more in the realm of economics–for example, the fact high-priced oil is not an adequate substitute for cheap-to-extract oil, and it is the lack of cheap oil that is causing a major portion of today’s problem.
It is also very easy to put together climate change models that are based on far too high assumptions of the amount of fossil fuels that will be burned in the future, because economic interactions are missed. If debt collapse brings down the economy, it will bring down all fossil fuels at once, meaning that the vast majority of what we think of as reserves today will stay in the ground forever. A debt collapse will also affect renewables, by cutting off production of new renewables, and by making maintenance of existing systems more difficult.
The real paradigm should be, “Neither science and technology, nor economics can solve the problems of humans. We have instincts similar to those of other species to reproduce in far greater numbers than needed for survival, and to utilize all resources available to us. This leads us toward overshoot and collapse scenarios, even though we have great knowledge.“
Because of our propensity toward overshoot and collapse scenarios, humans have a real need for a “moral compass” to tell us what is right and wrong. If there is no longer enough food to go around, how do we decide which family members should get it? Is it OK to start a civil war, if there are not enough resources to go around? There is also a need to deal with our many personal disappointments, such as finding that the advanced degrees we worked so hard on will have little use in the future, and that life expectancies are much lower. Perhaps there is still a need for religion, even though many have abandoned the idea. The “story line” of religions may not sound exactly reasonable, but if a particular religion can provide reasonable guidance on how to handle today’s problems, it may still be helpful.
Climate Change Paradigm
The MSM view of climate change seems to vary with the country. In the US, the view seems to be that it is not too important, and that it can be adapted to. Perhaps the models are not right. In Europe, there is more belief that the models are right, and that local cutbacks in fossil fuel consumption will reduce world CO2 production.
The Green view of climate change seems to be, “Of course climate change models are 100% right. We should rationally be able to solve the problem.” There is only the minor detail that humans (like other species) have a basic instinct to use energy resources at their disposal to allow more of their offspring to live and to allow themselves personally to live longer.
Unfortunately, a more realistic view is that climate change may indeed be happening, and may indeed by caused by human actions, but (1) we are already on the edge of collapse. Moving collapse ahead by a few months will not solve the climate change problem, and (2) collapse itself is an even worse problem than climate change to deal with. By the time rising ocean levels become a problem, population is likely to be low enough that the remaining population can move to higher ground, and agriculture can move to where the climate is more hospitable.
Climate change may indeed cause population to drop even more than it would if our only problem were overshoot and collapse. But because the cause is related to human instincts (having more offspring than needed to replace oneself and the drive to use energy supplies that are available), changing the underlying behavior is extremely difficult.
Over the eons, the earth has been cycling from one climate state to another, with one species after another being the dominant species. Perhaps natural balances are such that the time has now come that humans’ turn as the dominant species is over. The earth is now ready to cycle to a state where some other species is dominant, perhaps a type of plant that can use high carbon dioxide levels. If this is the case, this is another disappointment that we will need to deal with.
Nature of Our Problem Paradigm
The MSM’s paradigm seems to be, “Our problem is getting the economy back to growth.” Or, perhaps, “Our problem is preventing climate change.“
In a way, the MSM paradigm of “Our problem is getting the economy back to growth,” has some truth to it. We are slipping into financial collapse, and in a sense, getting the economy back to growth would be a solution to the problem.
The underlying problem, however, is that oil supply is getting more and more expensive to extract. This means that an increasing share of resources must be devoted to oil extraction, and to other necessary activities (such as desalinating water because we are reaching fresh water limits as well). As a result, the rest of the world’s economy is getting squeezed back. See my post Our Investment Sinkhole Problem. Squeezing the world’s economy creates great problems for all of the debt outstanding. The likely outcome is widespread debt defaults, and collapse of the world economy as we know it.
The Green paradigm seems to be, “We have a liquid fuel supply problem.“ If we can solve this with other liquid fuels, or with electricity, we will be fine. Many Greens also emphasize the climate change problem, so their big issue is finding electric solutions for the liquid fuel supply problems. There is also an emphasis on local food production, especially with respect to perishable foods.
Unfortunately, the real problem seems to be, “We are facing a financial collapse scenario that is likely to wreak havoc on all energy sources at once.” Using less oil products may be helpful for a while, but in the long term, we are dealing with an issue of major system collapses. Using less of a particular product “works” as long as the supply chain for that product is still intact, including the existence of all of the factories needed to make the product, and the existence of trained workers to operate the factories. Banks also need to remain open. World trade needs to continue as well, if we are to keep our supply chains operating. The real danger is that supply chains for many essential services, including fresh water, sewage disposal, medicines, grain production, road repair, and electricity transmission repair will be interrupted. As a result, we will need to find local solutions for all of them.
The situation we are facing is not at all good. While we can do a little, it will be very challenging to build a new system that does not use fossil fuels. In the past, when the world did not use fossil fuels, the population was much lower than today–one billion or less.
Also, in the past, we started simple, and gradually added complexity to solve the problems that arose. This time around, we need to do the reverse. We already have very complex systems, that are too difficult to maintain for the long term. What we need instead is simpler systems that can be maintained with local materials. This is not a direction in which science and technology is used to working.
Creating new systems that require only local resources (and a few other resources, if transport can be arranged) will be a real challenge. Areas of the world that have never adopted modern technology would seem to have the bast chance of making such a change.
Importance of Tomorrow Paradigm
MSM seems to assume that we can save and plan for tomorrow. Greens have a similar view.
Perhaps, given the changes that are happening, we need to change our focus more toward to day, and less toward tomorrow. How can we make today the best day possible? What are the good things we can appreciate about today? Are there simple things we can enjoy today, like sunshine, and fresh air, and our children?
We have come to believe that we can and will fix all of the problems of tomorrow. Perhaps we can; but perhaps we cannot. Maybe we need to simply take each day as it comes, and solve that day’s problems as best as we can. That may be all we can reasonably accomplish.
Off the keyboard of Steve from Virginia
Published on Economic Undertow on April 3, 2013
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner
What is underway in this world right now is more of the same. It’s a song: ‘La la-la- la-la … more of the same!
There is more of the same thievery on the part of the establishment, everywhere in the world. There is more of the same poverty, there is more of the same denial … There is more of the same advertising for unlimited resources, more of the same consumer sales, more of the same real estate rebounds, more of the same freeway lane-miles added to more of the same freeways …
More of the same hollow, pointless ‘progress’.
More of the same, the management systems the world has relied upon since the end of World War Two are breaking down but more applications of the same failed management approaches are underway. To support more of the same failures there is more of the same moral hazard, more of the same credit provision, more of the same propaganda and lies. There is more of the same breakages with more of the same exponentially increasing consequences. There is more of the same corruption, more of the same outright pillage and bullying.
There more of the same indifference and refusal to face reality. There is more of the same flight out of banking deposits into risky currency traps even as there is more of the same flight into banking deposits! There is more of the same sense of foreboding, that there is no way out of the traps that we have built for ourselves, that the end of the ‘good old days’ is right around the corner. At the same time, there is more of the same begging/wishing for more of the same ‘good old days’.
With more of the same taking place right now, less of the same will certainly be a whole lot worse. Pray thee Lord for more of the same.
More or the same makes life easy for the analyst even as it makes it more difficult. More of the same becomes very hard to become outraged about. More of the same evil: how do Alex Jones or Yves Smith remain enraged at the highest pitch day after day about more of the same perfidy? The government will be just as conniving next year as it was ten years ago, the big Wall Street banks will still shove more of the same blood funnels seeking more of the same easy payoffs and more of the same bonuses. Who really cares?
The market can offer more of the same a lot longer than you can remain solvent!
At the same time, more of the same analysis becomes very simple: readers can turn to older articles to see how the same really was when it first emerged. It’s more of the same now! It can’t get any easier!
Singularity = self-writing analytical articles!
Unknown photographer: Dr. Edward Chapotin house and his medical practice next door in 1915, on Woodward Avenue @ Woodbridge Street, from the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library- University of Michigan. Note the streetcar tracks on Woodward. This business/residence was located within a few blocks of the Detroit River.
More of the same lurks on both sides of the political divide from Richard Alford by way of Yves Smith, (Naked Capitalism):
Richard Alford: Fed Policy – (more of the same) Old Wine in New Bottles
Yves here. This is an important post, in that it describes how the Fed, despite the unconventional look of some of its measures, is using more extreme variants of traditional policy approaches, and why that is not such a hot idea.One place where I quibble with Alford is in attributing the way Greenspan dropped short term rates dramatically in the early 1990s recession as driven by unemployment policy. At the time, there was considerable concern about the health and stability of banks in the US. It wasn’t just savings and loans that were hemorrhaging losses. Citibank nearly went under. Some major commercial banks in Texas and the Southwest had lent heavily to spec commercial real estate projects at just the wrong time. And although it was mainly foreign banks that hoovered up participations in LBO financings, like Campeau, that came a cropper, US financial firms had exposures as well. Greenspan’s driving short term rates to the floor created an extremely large spread between short and long term interest rates, enabling wounded banks to borrow short and lend long, and rebuild their capital bases out of artificially high profits.
Another quibble is at the very end, where Alford is correctly concerned about our sustained trade deficits, but also is unduly exercised about our fiscal deficits. They are in fact necessary and desirable as long as the business sector keeps net saving, which it did even in the years immediately preceding the crisis. If capitalists refuse to play their proper role and loot rather than dedicate resources to future growth, government has to step in. But as we are seeing now, what is unsustainable about this arrangement is the politics much more than the economics.
But Have We Seen It All Before?
For all their differences in perspective and emphasis, most of the opposing evaluations of the merits of Fed policy have one element in common: They all appear to be largely prisoners of a Phillips Curve mentality. Policy is set based only on the current levels of unemployment and inflation. Policymakers, economists and pundits do not look beyond near-term changes in unemployment and inflation when evaluate the risks and returns of alternative policy responses.
However, there may be a more troublesome risk attached to current monetary policy. The risk is that the current policy stance – low interest rates as well as QE- is reducing the probability of a return to self–sustaining economic growth … “
Alford is a very bright guy and he’s paid his dues within the money management ‘racket’. Yves = ditto. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to take either one seriously. What does ‘sustainable’ mean? More of the same tract houses? More of the same auto sales? More of the same insurance and finance? More of the same strip malls and Pizza Huts? More of the same F-35 fighter jets? More of the same coal mines, gas pipelines, VLCCs … how about more of the same airports? What is sustainable about any of this? How about those tens- of thousands of tombstone-like concrete towers in China? How many more-of-the-same vacant apartments are needed before the Chinese get to sustainability heaven?
How does everyone get there? There are seven billion of us meat-bags right now on Planet ‘E’ and only 15% have automobiles. Do we ‘arrive’ when 30% become automotive? How about 50%? Where do we put the 800 million or so extra cars? Where do we get the fuel for them? Does the US build another 55,000 mile interstate highway system to go along with the 55,000 mile system we already have? We cannot afford to fix our roads now! How is more of the same sustainable again?
‘Sustainable’ is gross abuse of the language. In order to ‘have’ our desired industrial goodies we must borrow. Our machines do not pay their own way. If they did there would be no debts as deploying machines would retire them. That they do not do so is self-evident. With thousands of millions of machines there is an exponential increase in debt required to assemble them and provide them with fuel. This is debt that even the entire world’s bloated finance establishment cannot provide.
Credit is a resource in the sense that it is a means to allocate other resources: with less of these other resources to allocate, adding credit becomes pointless and unaffordable. US recessions from 1970- onward were the result of fuel shortages- and price shocks including the current version. Even the modest credit demands of the earlier time periods … were breaking. Today’s high real credit requirements are destructive in and of themselves without the added blows of high fuel prices.
People must understand: the Glory Days are gone and never coming back … ! Santa Claus is not going to come down the chimney with some kind of industry … to take the human race by the hand and lead it into the Promised Land. Our collective future is binary: we are either joint-and severally destroyed by shortages and inability to adjust to them … or we escape destruction by the skin on our noses.
Watch what the plutocrats are doing right now! They know what’s going on because they can afford ‘intelligence’ and are ruthless enough to take advantage! They use the time remaining … to steal … then leave the rest of us to Mad Max.
It will take every single inner resource the human race possesses … clarity, honor, courage, perseverance, helpfulness, strength, wisdom … the willingness to endure tremendous suffering and hardship for decades and perhaps centuries … what is absent in popular culture particularly among finance analysts … it will take all of these things and more to escape our self-constructed annihilation.
Right now, this isn’t happening. There is too much fantasy thinking and denial about redistribution … what is there to redistribute, exactly? Deck chairs on the Titanic?
Here is another variation on the theme … from Bill Buckler @ ZeroHedge:
The Puppet Master – Government For hundreds if not thousands of years of human history, the vast majority were all too well aware that the government “lives” on the backs of the people. Today, that long-held knowledge has been astonishingly, successfully reversed. Today, the perceived “wisdom” is that the people live on the back of the government. In the realm of the history of ideas, it took many centuries to bring forward the idea that a life might be lived without constant kowtowing to government. It has only taken one century – the time since World War One – to all but totally submerge that legacy in a new wave of government dependency.The old and tired phrase – “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you” – is met by as much derision as it has ever been when people bemoan the impositions of their rulers. But those same people rely on the government to insulate them from the consequences of any action they may choose to undertake.
The great myth is that our industrial economy is ‘productive’, that it is saddled temporarily by parasitic governments (fascists) or bankers (socialists). Get rid of one or the other and the industrial economy will spread its wings and fly off to consumer good paradise, taking the American Worker along with it.
This is false: the product of industrial economies is waste. Because waste is not a good there are no organic returns for industrial activities. Instead, the cost of the activities must be met with credit. To provide the needed credit there are bankers, to service the debts there are governments.
That this is so is self-evident: if industry was productive — if there was any product at all other than waste — there would be no crisis and no debts. Any shortfalls would be met by deploying additional machines, which would pay for themselves, thereby retiring their own debts … and ours besides.
The intersection of Woodward Avenue and Woodbridge Street is long-gone, so are Doctor Chapotin’s restrained yet whimsical houses. All of them are replaced by the urban equivalent of the place-mat, the concrete pad and grassy area(s). Note the occasional tree.
Forsaken and bleak … the backdrop for a homicide, here is the adjacent 1 Civic Center Plaza. Perhaps Chernobyl is more soulless, then again … perhaps not.
Today, there are more and more machines, these do not pay anything. Instead these machines must be subsidized by robbing from savers, retirees, workers and business customers. Meanwhile, the world’s economies are burdened by hundreds of trillions of dollars worth of non-repayable debt … taken on to build and run the machines.
Without credit, there is no industry. Meanwhile, our precious fleet of machines strip-mines the world of credit along with resources. This stripping process is underway right now in Europe and elsewhere … coming soon to your town! (It’s already happened if you live in Detroit.)
The underlying cause is centuries’ long destruction of resource capital. The consequence is diminishing resource throughput, diminished capital with a large and increasing scarcity premium attached to it. There is simply no more (of the same) capital to waste affordably. What capital remains is too valuable: the cost of retiring debts is greater than the worth of debts themselves. Whether the managers admit it or not, the markets right now are pricing the true costs of waste beyond the reach of today’s wasters … also tomorrow’s.
Because ‘more of the same waste’ is a physical process, it doesn’t matter who manages it, Austrian or Marxist, neo-Liberal or Friedmanite, salt-water or fresh-water. All of them will fail. Regardless of who is in charge there will always be less.
Don’t let the common sense baffle you! It’s not that hard to figure out. If prosperity = waste, nobody can promise prosperity any longer.
The ONLY solution is stringent energy- and resource conservation. There is no other solution, only evasions: to do nothing or to attempt more of the same waste means conservation will occur ‘by other means’. See ‘Cyprus’ as the latest example.
Off the keyboard of Steve from Virginia
Published on Economic Undertow on March 24, 2013
Discuss this article at the Economics Table inside the Diner
The world’s economic enterprise is a tightly-coupled, massively complexarray of interlocking establishments, each highly complex in their own right. The failure of one component effects all the others. The analog is removing a pinwheel from a watch: the watch will still appear to be a watch but it won’t keep time.
The relative scale of the European economic enterprise compared to Cyprus is the same as the gigantic balloon relative to the tiny pin … any hole the pin might cause has consequences to the balloon wildly out of proportion to its size.
The Russians can simply refuse to accept euros, they will accept only dollars, instead!
The David Whitney house in winter, 1955, on Woodward and Canfield Street in Detroit, Michigan, from the Burton Historical collection, Detroit Public Library, University of Michigan. In our shiny new zero-sum post-petroleum world, some places succeed because other places are disposable. Detroit is the way Detroit is because New York City is the way New York City is.
Germany is the way Germany is because Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece — and Cyprus — are they way they are. The worse it is for them, the better it is for Germany.
On the Circus in Europe
I’m flabbergasted that Cyprus is the cause of the circus in Europe. Cyprus was an avoidable problem in my opinion. That view is supported by the fact that all of the words, actions (and threats) by the deciders in Northern Europe have been decidedly negative. There was no “Can Do” talk. All I heard was, “We won’t do” or “Here is a deadline” – “Here’s a gun to your head”.
Two possibilities – Either this was a completely bungled effort in Brussels. Or this this was a deliberate effort to weed out the weak members of the EU. If the intent was the latter, this will not stop with little Cyprus.
Next week there will some broad confusion following the resolution in Cyprus. Either Cyprus is out of the Euro zone by Wednesday, or the +E100k depositors are going to get whacked big. There is no soft landing potential any longer. If the folks in Brussels and Berlin who are pulling the strings are really serious about stabilizing the Euro zone they will respond with a series of “positive” measures next week. Things that might be considered to ring-fence Cyprus include:
- Doubling the deposit guaranty to E200.
- Creating a Transaction Account Guarantee. This would insure all accounts that were related to the settlement of goods and trade. (protect the economy)
- Financial measures – From some minor stimulus stuff, to monetary measures like LTRO or a cut in % rates.
These would be “calming” steps. They would be proactive in that the intent would be to get ahead of any contagion. We could also see “nothing” from Brussels. That silence would be a “tell” that “they” don’t want to resist gravity any longer. The most significant sign would be if capital controls were established more broadly in Europe over the next few weeks. These will scare the crap out of folks, especially those in Spain and Italy.
If the EU was serious about managing the currency/credit flows there would be some discussion of the foregoing already. In fact there would have been discussions along these lines long before last weekend.
Instead there is noise about confiscating deposits in Italy and Europe-wide capital controls. In a currency union, capital controls are a death sentence. The ‘natural’ form of control is different currencies for each state. Under the condition of currency controls there are de-facto independent ‘euros’ with different prices for each. The next step — toward independent currencies — is a very small one.
What is underway is beyond the reach of language to adequately describe. Not only have best practices for deposit banking for 200 years been undone but so has long-standing management policy of money-capital flows across national boundaries. It can be inferred that every euro sent to Russia since 2000 has been a fraudulent instrument. Why would Russia sell more fuels to Europe under current uncertain circumstances? If the Russians do not accept euros, why would Saudi Arabia or any other oil producer?
Apoplectic Steve Keen says the Russians can cut off European natural gas supply.
Steve from Virginia says the Russians can simply refuse to accept euros, they will accept only dollars, instead! How retro! How … 1990!
Why would the Russians accept euros when they are subject to confiscation? Why would they accept French francs or Spanish pesetas? It’s the same bunch of thieves … the same bankrupt national economies!
The entire euro-as-energy-hedge is undone in an instant. By stiffing bank depositors, the EU has defaulted. There are no two ways around it.
The Chinese bosses are reaching for those Maalox bottles right now. China holds a trillion in euro-denominated debt instruments, so does Japan. Germany appears not to have thought this through. Regardless of what happens in/with the eurozone, Germany is on the hook for the overseas euro-trillions. Germany is the only EU country with money: it is responsible for all those Target 2 liabilities as well — this is another trillion euros. If not Germany, who picks up the tab?
Germany is declaring that overseas holders of euro currency are going to pick it up — starting with the Russians! Off the hook is the euro-establishment itself and its pet tycoons. High-level finance acumen is not necessary to understand how outrageous and destabilizing such an arbitrary action is: head-loppage was never part of the euro sales pitch! The euro was to be a ‘better, sounder’ dollar, always ‘good as gold’. Now, its fairy money, worthless in the hands of ‘not-quite-special friends’ who only discover they are so after the fact.
Exposure to currency derivatives presently denominated in euros is another liability. According to the Bank for International Settlements, the current derivative exposure including options and futures is twenty-four trillion euros. Who is on the hook for that? If the answer is ‘nobody’ then the entire edifice comes crashing down.
From here is looks like a lot of agony to come around the world: if Germany doesn’t default it is ruined by its ‘share’ of EU liabilities. If Germany defaults then China’s finance system is bankrupted along with Japan’s.
Don’t be surprised to see the European ‘bank run’ materialize over the next few weeks in the foreign exchange markets as countries seek to offload their euro risk onto suckers and market fools as quickly as possible. Unlike the bond and equities markets, F/X markets are difficult to manipulate. One reason is because they are too large: trillions of dollars and other currencies are exchanged every day. Who would volunteer to be the sucker? Not even the Fed is large enough — or dumb enough — to take over China’s or Japan’s massive euro positions.
Who is going to take over these positions? If the answer is nobody China and Japan — along with Russia — are left with with massive, instant F/X risk.
One outcome of this risk would be an increase in interest rates! Such a rate increase in the US and elsewhere would be very unpleasant: there would be instant hits to government spending as borrowing would become less affordable. Government bond holders would face immense losses. Eventually, the governments would be forced to bail out their bond markets simply to function!
Sacre Bleu! Capital flight to support the dollar and bond prices would only last as long as the euro was a viable currency. If the euro fails there is no readily available substitute for it. If Germany made good euro liabilities with d-marks … it would be for show only. The European euro-liabilities are simply too enormous. The end-game would be Germany refusing all non-German liabilities and restricting d-mark circulation to native Germans within Germany. Euro-credit everywhere would be re-denominated into (worthless) local currencies. There would be intense competition for international dollars, a massive deflationary contraction as these dollars vanish from circulation.
Believe it or not the Fed cannot ‘print money’. It can only make loans against ‘good’ collateral. The demand for US dollar currency would become overwhelming … Congress would have to act … in the highly complex, interconnected finance universe, the smallest perturbation effects everything else.
All of this could take place next
month week! Look to the world’s money authorities to start leaning on the eurozone to put the genie back into the bottle. Matters could spiral rapidly out of control.
The motive behind this nonsense is presumably ‘bailout fatigue’: to spare the Germans the minuscule cost of keeping Cyprus banks functioning until after the German elections in September. There is no reason why the ECB could not continue to fund these banks by way of ELA and use the time to craft a solution that leaves depositors intact.
Export of petroleum consumption is the real reason behind the onrushing European default. When countries fail their allotment of petroleum is exportable. There is no substantial difference between the thievery underway in Cyprus and that in Libya or Egypt. Ultimately, all of Europe’s petroleum consumption is exportable leaving the various citizens in distress. The hope is to default on the small scale and hive Cyprus’ petroleum consumption and divert it toward the rest of Europe. The hope is that the default is contained and that the loss in Cyprus can be offset by more affordable fuel for the rest of Europe.
Cyprus is a test case. If the Cypriots can be jettisoned from the EU energy hedge then other countries can be safely ejected such as Spain and Italy. These countries can fend for themselves in the fuel-for-dollar market while the ‘core’ uses the hard euro to gain that fuel price discount and a guaranteed supply.
Europe’s strategy can only work if the euro-establishment is able to convince the Russians there are currency gains to offset depositor losses. The problem is that deflation follows its own rules: harder currencies cut into consumption which in turn presses the fuel suppliers. When customers hoard hard currency they do not buy fuel, the fuel suppliers go out of business. This is the reason why fuel prices have been declining since February.
Figure 1: Brent spot crude from yCharts (click on for big). Along with consumption export is the recent rise in fuel price to near $120 per barrel on Brent market. $120 is the new $147: the fuel price is too high, there are the ugliest of all possible noises coming out of Europe …
Cyprus imports 95% of its fossil fuel energy. The euro- and euro denominated credit have been the means by which Cyprus could afford fuel and the thousands of cars needed to waste it. Cyprus earned exactly nothing by driving those cars: nothing remains to retire the multi-billion-euro debts taken on to facilitate the waste. Meanwhile, the country fashioned itself into a mercantile (banking) state so as to arbitrage fuel like Japan. Its banking products have now been deemed redundant and expendable to the European mercantilists. Cyprus’ arbitrage has been devoured by the greater European version. Cyprus was a poor relative to the rest prior to the euro, it is on the way to becoming a poor relative again.
What is occurring in Cyprus is destruction of purchasing power by administrative fiat: this is, conservation by other means. Cyprus’ consumption is exported, its citizens will drive less because they will have less money, what money remains will be hoarded. Fuel not purchased in Cyprus will be available elsewhere so that others can drive in the Cypriots’ place.
Right now it is clear that the establishment will sacrifice anything — good relations with other countries and peoples, economic stability and predictability and best financial practices — to be able to continue to drive automobiles.
– One casualty of default is the media-promoted pseudo-recovery in America and elsewhere. This farce is now a child’s fantasy that can be safely dumped into the trash. Economies that required more easy credit last month now require human sacrifices. Today Cyprus gets the Black Spot, next month’s fall guy is France. Who’s next?
– Bernanke could come up with the ten-billion-or-so euros needed by the EU and end the panic. If he was smart he would do so — very publicly — tomorrow morning. This would buy some time and allow a chance for a comprehensive … etc. round of can kicking.
– If there is an EU ‘handshake’ with Russia => Panic in Southern Europe => contagion and derivatives implosion. This does not have to happen, but avoiding it will require extraordinary efforts, that will cost much more than anything gained at Cyprus’ — and Russia’s — expense.
– If there is no handshake — which seems likely as the European establishment is incompetent — Default in Cyprus is part of generalized euro default => failure of the euro, contagion in China and Japan => severe worldwide recession => collapse of fuel prices and physical shortages.
– Right now, Europeans are busy, opening new bank accounts in Norway, UK, Miami, Panama City and even Switzerland … It takes time to set up yr bank run, there has to be a place to run to.
– The Cypriots are trying to figure out how to evade the capital controls sure to come. Russians are trying to figure out how to remove their funds … Greeks are figuring out how to emulate the Cypriots who in turn are reading about the Icelanders. There is a lot of scheming — and fretting — going on right now.
– Nobody on Planet Earth wants a Greater Depression, everyone knows the score, this is the ‘Big One’ and people have their game face on. If a crisis can be avoided with a small payment most people will make the payment and not complain. It is the analysts who are upset about the consequences of the past few days. Most of the analysts are wrong about which consequences matter the most. They are wrong b/c they ignore the big energy story right under their noses.
– Citizens generally aren’t libertarians and they don’t take ideological positions, they are flexible. Right now the system does not appear to be ruined. That it is indeed ruined has to be proven by events.
The David Whitney house in Detroit in 2013. Out of the current wreckage some fragments will survive.
The only possible exit from currency death by energy strangulation is stringent conservation. Europe needs to cut its fuel bill in half right now. So does the rest of the world. This word ‘conservation’ is never mentioned, the conservationist is excluded from the management dialog. The conservationist offers options that are unhappy for the capital wasters. What the system managers refuse to understand is this: if nothing is done to conserve voluntarily there will be conservation by other, ongoing, extremely unpleasant means.
Off the keyboard of Monsta666
Discuss this article at the Economics Table inside the Diner
When talking about collapse issues one of the most prominent yet most commonly misunderstood areas comes with our basic understanding of what wealth and money really is. Both are seemingly simple matters yet upon closer inspection we find that are many nuances and subtleties in this story that people often miss. This misconception can even be extended to economists or people in finance that are well versed in money matters.
Indeed it is the complexity of money and all the financial products that derive from it with things such as bonds, stocks or other investment vehicles that can make us easily forget what wealth is really about. In fact it is this distraction through complexity that makes us commonly believe that wealth and money are one of the same things. It is useful to really grasp what wealth is lest we fall into a trap that many people, including the iluminati, who base much of their wealth in abstract financial instruments.
To understand wealth first we must realise that money only acts as a medium of exchange and by itself is not wealth. In addition to being a medium of exchange, money also acts as a means of measuring the relative value between various goods and services. This means of relative valuation while somewhat abstract is essential in any economy as the means of measuring relative values between goods/services becomes too complex without the use of money (for more information on this topic please refer to the Energy-Money Equilibrium series). These issues of valuation only become more prominent in international trade. Despite these obvious advantages all forms of money from fiat to even gold based currencies do not hold any intrinsic value by themselves. In other words we only place value in money because we can exchange items of value for it. In essence the value of money comes largely from the trust and faith that we have placed in it. This is even truer for fiat based currencies that cannot be redeemed for gold. If money cannot be exchanged for goods or services then any notional value money they have will disappear. For example if one was placed with a $1,000,000 and 1000 gold bars in a desert those forms of money would be of little use. You could not eat, drink or keep cool with this money and so without trade money would be utterly worthless perhaps even a burden and liability due to its weight and the danger it would pose against thieves by simply possessing them. From this simple example we can see that money has no value by itself and therefore cannot be counted as actual wealth. While this example may seem a bit silly the mechanics of money becoming worthless through hyperinflation work in the same dynamics.
However as noted money derives its value by the fact it can be exchanged for items of value so what we can say about money is that it is a claim on wealth. If we extend this claim concept a little bit further we can say that since debt is a claim on future income (money) then what debt really is a claim to a claim to wealth. That maybe a bit of convoluted way of expressing debt but if we wish to distil this last expression we can simply say that debt and money are both claims on the underlying wealth of an economy.
This all sounds nice and rather straightforward but it begs the question of what wealth actually is? Wealth can simply be expressed as the actual assets that a person owns for example a house, SUV, iPhone or other tangible items are all forms of wealth. As a side-note wealth is a measure of stock while money or income is measure of flow. This point while seemingly innocuous now will be an important concept to grasp as we progress further in this topic. As you see these tangible items – the items that society values – is the true wealth of an economy and the only role that money plays (which intrinsically has no value by itself) is it allows and facilitates the transfer of wealth between various agents in an economic system.
The other role money does play is it acts as a store of wealth so if we wish to store money then the money should be able to be exchanged at a later date for the same amount of wealth as if traded that day. At least this is what “sound money” should do. As we know due to the effects of inflation this proves not to be the case. However it is this issue of money acting as a store of wealth which leads to the first source of confusion between money and wealth. The means of wealth storage via money results in wealth being measured in monetary terms. The issue of measuring wealth through monetary values then leads to the point of determining how things are valued in the first place.
In modern economics the value or utility of any given item comes from the exchange value it has in a market. In other words the wealth of any item is only determined or realised once it has a value in the market which it can be sold for. While this may not seem like an issue, at least on first glance, this issue of exchange value does pose a problem. This is because there is a difference between exchange value (the value an item gets in the market) and use value (the value an item has to an individual or society). To illustrate the difference and problems posed by these differences of worth it is best to consider the age old concept of the diamond and water paradox. While water is a requirement for life and therefore has a high use value to people its exchange value is very low while a diamond; which is not needed at all for life and therefore has no or little use value has a high exchange value.
This is a curious development that comes from how our economic system places value on items. So what accounts for the difference? The reasons are actually quite easy to explain: water while highly useful has generally been abundant and easy to extract so even though its use value is high its exchange value has been low due to its abundance and easy extraction. Since the opposite is true for diamonds (it is rare and harder to extract) its exchange value has been high even though its actual use value is considerably lower.
The large discrepancy between use and exchange values generally occurs for many vital commodities such as food, air and most significantly energy resources. These differences in values have become more pronounced in recent years due to the abundances of energy in the last 200 years of the industrial revolution that have made not only energy cheap (from an exchange value standpoint) but have also made other resources such as food and water cheap as energy acts as an enabler of all other resources. For this reason energy can be regarded as the master resource. As a result of this phenomena it is likely we have grossly underestimated the wealth we have accumulated or perhaps in other cases (such as in fossil fuel depletion) we have grossly underestimated the wealth we have liquidated by only focussing on the exchange value of items and not their use value.
While this point may still seem to be of only academic interest it should be noted these very issues do tend to crop up in times of deprivation and economic dislocation when items in high demand are not bought as people do not have the means to pay the exchange or “going” rates. As a result while the use value of items such as food are still high; perhaps even higher in desperate times (people are more malnourished during these times) since people do not have the means to pay for the goods the exchange value will tend to be lower than in normal times. This leads to the paradoxical situation where the farmer produces a “surplus” of food even though there are millions of people malnourished or even starving. As a result of this “surplus” less food is produced (to cut losses from “overproduction”) which only further exacerbates the situation as there is even less food to go around. These issues can be extended to modern day equivalents when many lands in Africa maybe very fertile yet the amount of wealth is not as high as one would first believe as the exchange value or income ultimately determines the value and wealth of the land. It does not matter how much the people want food, the only thing that matters economically is what people are able to pay for the said food. On the other hand due to the flaws of this exchange value mechanism it can observed that an overweight person from a developed country will gain more utility (in a pure economic sense) from this food than a starving person because they can pay the exchange value and so wealth will transfer to this person as it delivers the greatest amount of utility from an economic standpoint even though the use value is obviously less. This issue is clearly not the best outcome from a social or moral standpoint and this example is a chief reminder of the flaws of the value system used in modern economics.
On this topic of land, the other important point can be made about wealth. That is fundamentally all wealth that we see in the planet comes from either the ecosystem of the Earth or the energy from the sun. Normally from a purely economic perspective we consider wealth as items such as factories, cars, roads or other items that have economic value. While such statements are indeed valid and can be correctly deemed as forms of wealth it is important to note that all these sources of wealth ultimately come from the Earth as they all require resource inputs such as oil, metals etc. to be formed. Therefore from this we can say the economic system that we live in today is actually part of the larger ecosystem and all the wealth we accumulate in the economy derives from the underlying ecosystem we live in.
As a result of this we can easily deduce that for the overall wealth of the human economy to grow it must come at the expense of the natural ecosystems wealth. Since all wealth comes from the Earth or the products from the sun’s energy (which is applicable to many forms of agriculture) it is not technically correct to say man creates wealth rather he merely extracts it from existing resources in the ecosystem.
This relationship between resource extraction and wealth extraction is quite obvious to see in the primary economy when resources are extracted directly from the ecosystems to provide goods of economic value but it can seem even with this wealth extraction concept recognised one may still envision the possibility of wealth creation through the transformation of a resource. To offer an example of this possible wealth creation let us consider the information sector which at its base claims to create wealth by using cheap resource inputs from metals and transforms these input into high value products such as computers and smart phones. While this process does appear to create extra wealth – at least on first glance – it should be noted that the process of manufacturing these products is highly energy intensive. First to build a typical computer or smart phone requires the resources that are scattered across the globe and as result requires large energy inputs to make these long supply lines viable as the video below clearly suggests:
Furthermore the energy use in manufacturing the product in the factory is also very energy intensive and requires very precise conditions (such as dust free rooms) to be maintained. In fact on a weight to weight basis computer manufacturing is around 10 times more energy intensive than the manufacturing or a car.This high energy consumption all stems from the second law of thermodynamics (to read more information on this topic please refer to the Energy: Part II article). In addition to these facts another general pattern can be observed; that is the more complex any given technology becomes the larger the amount of supporting infrastructure is required to build and maintain the technology. This support infrastructure does not just come from physical items such as longer supplier chains or more sophisticated factories but also in the form of higher education and training required for the workers to operate in these environments. These embodied energy costs while not directly related to the construction of the item itself are considerable and will pose a larger energy cost to society in general. This will be an even bigger issue in a declining net energy environment which is likely to be the case in the coming decades.
As noted earlier the exchange value of vital resources such as energy do not capture the true use value of this resource. To understand why this is the case for energy we need to consider how much energy is embodied in the various forms of fossil fuel energy. For example the energy extracted from one barrel of oil is equivalent to around 7 years of labourwhile the burning of one short ton of coal delivers around three times the amount of energy as a barrel of oil all at a lower cost.While the exchange value in these cases is around $108.50 for the barrel and around $64.96 for coal (at the time of writing) the amount of use value in terms economic output far exceeds their exchange value It is this arbitrage between exchange and use value that has been main reason for the explosive amount of economic growth we have seen in the last two centuries during the industrial age.
If the true use value of these fossil fuels plus the associated external costs (due to pollution) were accounted for then it is likely the amount of wealth created through this process would be considerably less. Furthermore as noted earlier all this wealth creation comes at the expense of fossil fuel depletion which is really the destruction of stocks of wealth. If we subtract the true losses of wealth from fossil fuel depletion coupled with the smaller addition of wealth created by capturing the true costs then it is likely no wealth has actually been created in this process. It is also important to note that once these resources are burned they are gone so it really a onetime deal and these stocks act like an endowment from nature.
As a result of this it is actually not appropriate to count the burning of fossil fuels as a form of income because really the burning of fossil fuels is a liquidation of stocks of wealth which is a one time deal. To give an analogy it would be like selling your home and then counting the proceeds as part of your yearly income. Such a thought sounds silly but if we consider how many nations count the burning/selling of this resource as part of their GDP (which is a measure of income) it becomes apparent how flawed our accounting system for measuring income and wealth is.
In any case what we can say with a good degree of confidence is that any wealth generated from this endeavour will come at the expense of a reduction in wealth in the natural ecosystem. For wealth to be created in the economy either resources or energy inputs must be consumed from the ecosystem. Now this is not to say this wealth extraction process is always unsustainable because in many instances, at least theoretically, it can be sustainable. This sustainability can arise because our ecosystem is not a completely closed system as it receives energy from the sun. As a result of this solar energy land can regenerate and create new wealth in the ecosystem. Indeed for much of human history wealth primarily came from the solar energy of the sun and wealth was obtained into the economy on a “pay-as-you-go” basis from wealth created from photosynthesis. It is only in the last 250 years that significant sources of energy came from the drawdown of fossil fuels and it is this drawdown that was responsible for the large amount of economic growth in the industrial age.
While it is possible in some circumstances for the human economy to grow for a time it should be noted that growth is only really sustainable if the resources extracted from the ecosystem do not exceed the capacity of the Earth to regenerate new resources and empty various sinks of pollution. Unfortunately in the world we live in today our current rates of consumption of resources exceed the world’s regenerative capacity and as a result many vital resources such as topsoil, water tables, fish stocks and animals are all experiencing declines.In addition the amount of pollution emitted exceeds the capacity of the Earth’s sinks to absorb these waste products and as result the pH in oceans are altering which has an adverse effect on various ocean fauna.In addition oceans accumulate increasing concentrations of pollutants and the atmosphere grows warmer due to C02 emissions. And this is all occurring at current rates of consumption; if we wish to pursue more economic growth and increase the wealth of the human economy even further then it must come at the cost of further degradation of the environment. If continued then it is likely these set of actions will lead to resource collapse (ecosystem bankruptcy?) and uncontrolled climate change.
Another important aspect to consider in this wealth story is that of profit. The normal definition for profit is that the supplier of a good or service must sell at a higher price than they took to produce the good/service. If we consider this from a wealth prospective then this means the cost of procuring the resource must be less than what the transformed resource will sell at the market. In other words the costs of the good/service should be less than the exchange value that it will sell for. However since we are only dealing with the exchange value and do not account for the use value then it is likely the actual profit from wealth standpoint is less than what we would get from an exchange or monetary standpoint. What’s more if all external costs such as pollution and environmental degradation (environmental costs should include the costs for removal of fossil fuels) are fully accounted for then it is likely that there would be no profit at all in various economic transactions (in certain cases it could be even a negative profit). In fact to obtain a real profit it is likely that a combination of three things must happen. Either the external costs are omitted or resources and/or labour must be exploited. By exploitation the price paid to procure these resources or labour must be below their true use value for wealth to accumulate. It is my personal belief that it is a combination of exploitation and unaccounted costs that allows nearly all economic transactions to produce a profit on paper.
Wealth and money are two fundamentally different concepts and the confusion between the two terms mainly arises from the fact we use money as a store of wealth. As a result of this all wealth is measured in monetary terms. However as money has no actual intrinsic value by itself then its value only comes from the fact it can be exchanged for items of value. It is this fact that means all items of wealth is only measured by their exchange value and not their use value. As a result of this money cannot capture the true value of wealth as not all values are accounted for.
As a result we cannot accurately account for the loss of wealth due to depletion of various resources and this issue is only compounded by the fact all external costs are rarely accounted for. If all these factors were factored in then it is likely the amount of profit or actual real wealth accumulated through our economy is a lot less than we imagined and could even be negative considering the declining quality of resources that we are now extracting.
Finally it should be noted that since money is only a claim on wealth and is not a source of wealth by itself then it follows that if the money supply increases faster than the underlying wealth in the economy then the result will be inflation (if the opposite occurs then we get deflation). It is this dynamic of changing money supply relative to overall wealth that will be explored in the next part of this money and wealth primer.
 = The monster footprint of digital technology (Low-tech Magazine)
 = What is a Human Being Worth (in Terms of Energy)? (The Oil Drum: Europe)
 = What is the average heat (Btu) content of U.S. coal? (EIA)
 = BBC News Market Data: Commodities (BBC)
 = Coal News and Markets (EIA)
 = What If the World’s Soil Runs Out? (TIME Magazine)
 = Chapter 3: Emerging Water Shortages: Falling Water Tables (Earth Policy Institute)
 = World fish stocks declining faster than feared (Financial Times: google title name for link)
 = THE EXTINCTION CRISIS (Biological Diversity)
 = How will ocean acidification affect marine life? (Ocean Acidification)
Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg
Published on Our Finite World on March11,2013
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A friend asked me to put together a presentation on our energy predicament. I am not certain all of the charts in this post will go into it, but I thought others might be interested in a not-so-difficult version of the story of the energy predicament we are reaching.
My friend also asked what characteristics a new fuel would need to have to solve our energy predicament. Because of this, I have included a section at the end on this subject, rather than the traditional, “How do we respond?” section. Given the timing involved, and the combination of limits we are reaching, it is not clear that a fuel suitable for mitigation is really feasible, however.
Energy makes the world go around
Energy literally makes the world turn on its axis and rotate around the sun.
Energy is what allows us to transform a set of raw materials into a finished product.
Energy is also what allows an us to transport goods (or ourselves) from one location to another. Services of any type require energy–for example, energy to light an office building, energy to create a computer, and human energy to make the computer operate. Without energy of many types, we wouldn’t have an economy.
Increased energy use is associated with increasing prosperity.
Energy use and oil use have risen more or less in tandem with GDP increases. Oil is expensive and in short supply, so its increases have tended to be somewhat smaller than total energy increases. This happens because businesses are constantly seeking ways to substitute away from oil use.
China is an example of a country with very high growth in energy use. China’s energy use started growing rapidly immediately after it joined the World Trade Organization in December 2001. China’s energy use is mostly coal.
European countries with bank bailouts show declining oil consumption.
Increased fuel use is also associated with rising population growth.
On Figure 6 above, the fuel use and population growth rise very rapidly, after fossil fuels were added about 1800. In fact, the lines overlay each other, so it is not possible to see both. Adding fossil fuels allowed much better food supply, sanitation, and medical care, all leading to huge population growth.
World population is still growing rapidly, especially outside of the developed countries. The countries with the most population growth (blue) are only now beginning to obtain goods and services that the developed world takes for granted, like better medical services, cars, and electricity for every home. Their fuel use is growing rapidly.
There are huge differences in kinds of energy.
This chart illustrates a few of the kinds of energy available. Each has its particular uses. Businesses will substitute a cheaper source of energy whenever they can. Businesses especially seek ways to substitute away from human energy, since it is the most expensive type. One approach is automation. This substitutes machines (running on electricity or oil) for human labor. Another approach is outsourcing the manufacturing of goods to countries that have lower-cost labor.
One factor that limits fuel switching from oil to electricity is the amount of machinery currently using oil. Robert Hirsch says
Worldwide machinery operating on oil is valued at $50 to $100 trillion (Automobiles, airplanes, tractors, trucks, ships, buses, etc.)
There is also a huge investment in roads, bridges, refineries, and pipelines. Past transitions have taken more than 30 years, because it usually makes economic sense to wait for current machinery to reach the end of its economic life before replacing it.
LIMITS WE ARE REACHING
Unfortunately, we live in a finite world. At some point we start reaching limits.
One limit we are reaching is how many people the world will support, without unduly affecting other species. There are now over 7 billion humans on earth, compared to fewer than 200,000 gorillas and chimpanzees, which are also primates.
The natural order is set up so that each species–including humans–reproduces in far greater numbers than is needed to replace itself. Natural selection chooses which of the many organisms will survive. With the benefit of fossil fuel energy, humans (as well as their cows, pigs, goats, chickens, dogs and cats) have been able to survive in far greater numbers than other species. In fact, paleobiologists tell us that the Sixth Mass Extinction has begun, thanks to humans. At some point, interdependencies are disturbed, and we can expect more population collapses.
Another limit is pollution of many types. This image is of air pollution, but there is also water pollution and CO2 pollution. Even what we think of as renewable energy often poses pollution challenges. For example, battery recycling/disposal can pose pollution challenges. Mining of rare earth minerals, used in electric cars, wind turbines, and many high tech devices is often cited as being very polluting in China.
Another limit is declining soil quality. In the natural order, soil is not disturbed by plowing, and the nutrients animals use are recycled back into the soil, after they use them.
As we disturb this natural order, we find erosion reduces top-soil depth. The amount of organic matter in the soil is reduced, making crops less drought-resistant. Nutrients such as phosphorous and potassium are often depleted, and need to be added as soil amendments, requiring fossil fuel transport. Soils often suffer from salinity related to irrigation. Nitrogen levels also become depleted.
It is possible to mitigate these problems using fossil fuels. However, we discover that our ability to feed 7 billion people becomes increasingly dependent on continued fossil fuel use. If we increase biofuel production, this tends to make the situation worse. Techniques such as regrading of hills to improve rainwater absorption can help the situation, but this too requires energy.
Another limit is imposed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy happens. Things fall apart. All of the “stuff” humans have produced (including roads, bridges, pipelines, electricity transmission equipment, cars, and computers) keeps degrading, and eventually needs to be replaced. If we intend to continue to have roads, we need to keep repairing them and building new ones. Using current technology, this requires an increasing amount of fossil fuel energy.
Another limit arises because we extract the cheapest, easiest to extract resources first. (Figure 11) As a result, at some point, the cost of extraction rises, because the cheap resources have already been depleted. Outside observers don’t necessarily notice a difference as the quality of resources drops over time; it always looks as if there is an increasing quantity of reserves available as we move down the resource triangle.
Unfortunately, the apparently increased resources are not really comparable to what was already extracted. The resources lower down in the resource triangle, such as oil and gas that requires “fracking” to extract, require the use of increased energy resources. The speed of extraction is often remarkably slower–light oil flows like milk, while heavy oil can be the consistency of peanut butter. Extracting oil using fracking has been compared to getting oil from the pores of a concrete driveway.
Another example is fresh water. Initially we take it from a local stream, or from a shallow well, where little energy (and cost) is required to obtain it. As this resource depletes, we seek other sources–deeper wells, or water piped from afar, or desalination. All of these approaches use much more energy. If the world’s total energy supply is not growing rapidly, using more energy for water supply is likely to mean less energy is available for other uses. I discuss this issue in Our Investment Sinkhole Problem.
An example of how resource depletion can work is illustrated with US oil supply. US oil production (blue) suddenly began to decline in 1970, despite the oil industry’s best efforts to extract more. By scrambling around quickly, it was possible to add more oil production from Alaska (red), but this soon declined as well.
It wasn’t until oil prices rose in the late 2000s that it made economic sense to use technology which had been developed much earlier to extract tight oil. Tight oil is expensive oil to extract. How much production will rise from current levels depends to a significant extent on how much oil prices are able to increase in the future. The higher that oil prices rise, the greater the recessionary impact that can be expected, but the more oil that can be produced.
World oil supply is now about level, except for the small increase added by US and Canadian oil supply. (Figure 13) One concern with world oil supply as flat as it is, is that at some point, world oil supply will suddenly take a nosedive, just as US oil production did.
Another concern is that the developing world will get the majority of the world oil supply, leaving little for historically large users (Figure 13). US, Europe, and Japan experienced severe recession in the 2007-2009 period, and still are seeing economic headwinds, at the same time that countries that were able to obtain the oil continued to experience economic growth.
I think of our current situation as being like that of a host who gives a party for 10 people. There is enough food to go around, but just barely. The host decides to invite another 50 people to the party. Surprise! Suddenly there is a shortfall. Globalization has its downside!
A third concern is that oil prices will disrupt economies of oil importing nations. Oil prices rose sharply after US oil production dropped in the 1970s. They began rising rapidly again about 2003, as the world became more globalized. In addition, oil resources became increasingly expensive to extract. There is little possibility now that oil prices can decline for long without a drop in oil production.
Oil price spikes lead to recession. Economist James Hamilton has shown that ten out of the most recent 11 US recession were associated with oil price spikes. When oil prices rise, food prices tend to rise at the same time. Consumers cut back on discretionary spending, because fuel for commuting and the price of food are necessities. This cutback in spending leads to layoffs in the discretionary sector and recession.
High oil prices also seem to lead to depressed wages. (Figure 15. Here, I am dividing total wages for all non-government employees or by the total US population, and then taking this average wage, and adjusting if for inflation.) This is the effect we would expect, if the major substitution caused by high oil prices is a loss of human employment. This shift tends to occur because human energy is very expensive, and because wages tend to be a big share of a company’s costs.
Figure 16 shows an illustration of the effect that happens. If oil prices rise, the cost of making goods and transporting them to their destination rises. If the sales prices of goods doesn’t rise, a business’ profits will shrink. (Before and after the oil price rise shown in black box). The company will consider low profits unacceptable.
The company has several ways of fixing its lower profit. Wages tend to be one of the company’s largest costs, so these are a likely target. One approach is automation. This may slightly raise electricity costs, but it will lower wage costs, and raise profits. Another approach is outsourcing production to a low-cost country like China. This will lower wage costs and probably other costs, leading to higher profit for the company.
A third approach is what I call “making a smaller batch.” It involves closing unprofitable offices, or flying fewer jets, so that the quantity produced matches the new lower demand for the product, given the higher required sales’ price, now that the oil price is higher. Any of these approaches reduces the amount of wages paid to US employees.
HOW DOES THIS CONCLUDE?
A person could argue that any of the limits could eventually bring the system down. The pressure on wages is particularly a problem, since a further rise in oil prices would seem likely to lead to more job loss, and further pressure on wages of those who keep their jobs. The large amount of debt outstanding is another issue of concern.
My personal view is that the most likely scenario is that the various limits will work together to produce secondary effects, and it is the secondary effects that are likely to bring society down. These secondary effects are Financial (wealth disparity, debt defaults, inability to collect enough taxes), Political (not enough taxes, uprising by the lower classes, government collapse) and Disease Susceptibility (inadequate food, medicine, and sanitation due to inadequate wages and government cutbacks).
These effects are similar to ones experienced in the past when economies started reaching resource limits, based on the research of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov reported in the book Secular Cycles. In the past, societies seemed to go through about 300 year cycles. The first was Growth, lasting over 100 years. The second was Stagflation, lasting perhaps 50 or 60 years. This third was Crisis, with population decline, lasting up to 50 years (but perhaps a much shorter time). The fourth was Depression/ Intercycle.
If we estimate that today’s complete cycle started in 1800 with the use of coal, and the Stagflation period started about 1970 with the decline in US oil production, then we now seem to be nearing the Crisis stage. Of course, each situation is different. This is the first time we are reaching resource limits on a world-wide basis.
There is considerable evidence that we are already reaching the situation where governments are encountering financial distress of the type shown in Figure 17. With wages being depressing in recent years (Figure 15), it is difficult to collect as much taxes as required. At the same time, expenses are elevated to handle the many issues that arise (such as payments to the unemployed, subsidies for alternative energy, and the higher costs of road repairs due to higher asphalt costs). The big gap between revenue and expense makes it hard to fix our current financial predicament, and increases the likelihood of political problems.
REQUIREMENTS FOR A FUEL TO FIX OUR CURRENT PREDICAMENT
Is it possible to fix our current situation? To really fix the situation, we would need to reproduce the situation we had in the post-World War II period–when energy was cheap, and growing very rapidly. Economists have observed that historically, the cost of energy was very low. Given the importance of energy, its low price was an important feature, not a bug. It is what allowed society to have plenty of energy for growth, at minimal cost.
In order for a new alternative fuel to truly fix our current predicament, it would need the following characteristics:
- Abundant – Available in huge quantities, to meet society’s ever-growing needs.
- Direct match for current oil or electricity – Needed to avoid the huge cost of building new infrastructure. Electricity needs to be non-intermittent, to avoid the cost of mitigating intermittency. We also need an oil substitute. This oil substitute theoretically might be generated using electricity to combine carbon dioxide and water to create a liquid fuel. Such substitution would require time and investment, however.
- Non-polluting – No carbon dioxide or air and water pollution.
- Inexpensive – Ideally no more than $20 or $30 barrel for oil equivalent; 4 cents/kWh electricity. Figure 15 shows wage growth has historically occurred primarily below when oil was below $30 barrel.
- Big energy gain in the process, since it is additional energy that society really needs – This generally goes with low price.
- Uses resources very sparingly, since these are depleting.
- Available now or very soon
- Self-financing – Ideally through boot-strapping–that is, generating its own cash flow for future investment because of very favorable economics.
It is interesting that when M. King Hubbert originally made his forecast of the decline of fossil fuels, he made his forecast as if an alternative fuel would become available in huge quantity, by the time of the decline. His original idea (in 1956) was that the new fuel would be nuclear. By 1976, his view was that the new fuel needed to be some version of solar energy.
What kind of solar energy might this be? Solar panels PV located on the ground are heavy users of resources, because they have a low capacity factor (percentage of the time they are actually collecting sunlight), and because they need to be fairly sturdy, to withstand wind, rain, and hail. Space solar theoretically would be much better, because it is much more sparing in its use of resources–it would have over a 99% capacity factor, and the PV film could be much thinner. Timing for space solar would be a big issue, however, assuming financial issues can be worked out.
Also, even if space solar or some other fuel should provide the fuel characteristics we need, we still need to address the population issue. As long as world population keeps rising, humans are an increasing strain on earth’s resources.
Off the keyboard of Steve from Virginia
Published on Economic Undertow on March 7, 2013
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It’s hard to miss the Big Idea that the wheels are coming off the grand twentieth-century capitalist experiment; waste for its own sake, or waste for the sake of moving all-important ‘economic indicators’, waste for the purpose of enriching the even-more-important ‘entrepreneurs’ and ‘innovators’. The list of falling wheels would have to include China, Japan and Europe, but there are many more on a long list. It’s hard to think of a country in this world that doesn’t have major problems, the countries are interconnected by trade, treaty or finance so all are infected with each others’ problems in addition to their own: (Washington Post):
CDC says ‘nightmare bacteria’ a growing threat
Lena H. Sun
Federal officials warned Tuesday that “nightmare bacteria” — including the deadly superbug that struck a National Institutes of Health facility two years ago — are increasingly resistant to even the strongest antibiotics, posing a growing threat to hospitals and nursing homes nationwide.
Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a news conference: “It’s not often that our scientists come to me and say we have a very serious problem and we need to sound an alarm. But that’s exactly what we are doing today.”
He called on doctors, hospital leaders and health officials to work together to stop the spread of the infections. “Our strongest antibiotics don’t work, and patients are left with potentially untreatable infections,” he said.
Just like the finance economy, the biosphere, the political economy; there are “potentially untreatable … infections”. The treatments remaining in the pharmacy are the same treatments that spawned the problems in the first place: repeat applications of MORE, everywhere in the world. If MORE cannot be had immediately there are earnest promises of MORE to come … tomorrow!
A ‘Big Idea’ that is making the rounds has the various countries engaged in a currency war. Nations actively depreciate their own currencies so that they might gain export trade advantage at the expense of others.
Instead, the nations are engaged in a war for petroleum that is being waged with currency. As in all wars there are the winners who will gain fuel imports, the losers will have limited access to petroleum, their domestic fuel consumption will be exported to the winners.
In this war all the countries are engaged, to do otherwise would be to give up claims on petroleum in the future. To have a seat at the table or have any chance of winning, the countries must waste as much- as fast as possible, as waste is the collateral for the needed (depreciated) currency. The advantage lies with the United States, not only does it waste more than the others, but it produces as a consequence much of the world’s credit. The waste of other countries such as China is collateral for American credit, that is, collateral for even more American waste.
Figure 1: China crude oil imports vs. exports from Mazama Science (click on for big). So far, China is winning, it must waste or be left behind: China currency is tethered to the dollar, its fate is intertwined with ours. To run in place the Chinese must waste more than the Americans, adding to both countries’ prodigious waste- costs.
As in America, China’s waste is promoted to the citizens as ‘progress’. These ‘improvements’ never acknowledge China’s multi-thousand-year traditions or even meet any real human needs. Instead, grandiose follies are heaped upon monstrous excesses … the process serves to rationalize the excesses’ so-called ‘value’. As with the other developed countries, sunk capital has the country by the neck. China’s vast waste is collateral for China’s vast debts, to service the debts it must add to collateral. The country devours energy today so that it might devour even more tomorrow. It’s always tomorrow, good or ill, China must devour otherwise the hated Americans will do so in its place.
The bravado of the xenophobic industrialism rings hollow, to win this war over resources is to lose: permanent smog, water pollution, desertification, land theft, an out of control loan-shark economy and high level capital flight. China growth is gained by constructing buildings rather than using them: ‘growth’ is thousands upon thousands of gigantic
stone heads concrete towers.
Credit-driven speculation in apartments and office towers in China is intended to be a hedge against rising energy costs, just like recent credit-speculation in tract houses in the US and Tokyo office buildings twenty years ago. The Big Idea is that building prices will rise faster than the credit-inflated fuel prices. By this way of thinking, fuel is always affordable because what sets the price — credit — is the means to meet the price — credit driven momentum-chasing in asset markets. Fuel is simply another asset, rationed by access to credit.
These kinds of hedges arbitrage stupidity, they live in the hedgers’ minds and nowhere else. On Planet Earth fuel is either plentiful or not: what sets the price of fuel is the credit-cost to pull it from the ground plus a supply-and-demand driven scarcity premium. The real cost of fuel increases relentlessly over time because of depletion, meanwhile, the internal costs of the hedges increase as well. Even when fuel costs remain low, as they were from the mid-eighties to the end of the millennium, the hedges become unprofitable and collapse.
For hedgers to gain their fuel, the asset(s) must be sold to others more effectively greedy than the hedger. Whether they sell to actual customers or take out loans against their investment doesn’t matter. The selling reduces the number of potential customers: sooner or later they run out, even in populous China! That is the end of the hedge.
The Chinese who buy these buildings are unwitting conscripts in the great global currency war over petroleum. Millions of relatively prosperous Chinese have invested the life-savings of generations in future energy waste. In a world with diminishing energy supplies, the investments are stranded. The Chinese cannot afford to make use of all the currently empty buildings and the cities that contain them, otherwise they would be doing so! The Chinese would have been much better served to invest in conservation, instead they have invested in ‘conservation by other means’.
Another reason for the Chinese building frenzy is to literally set in concrete the claims of developers and urbanites over prior occupants of China’s countryside. This Big Idea is no different from Anglo-American claims that were perfected on native lands in the 19th century with farms and mines, railroads, towns and barbed wire cattle fences. There are certainly less costly ways that are equally effective and more equitable than the Big Stone Head approach.
Keep in mind, when the Chinese property bubble unravels like all the others, the banking system will be ruined. So too if one of the major currencies such as the euro, sterling or yen fails … that is, if China wins the currency war. China holds hundreds of billions- or trillions of these currencies as reserves, its positions are far too large to unwind. A currency failure, a run out of banks or a bond market hiccup would bankrupt China finance … which in turn would bankrupt the rest of the world’s finance.
Mercantilism is another Big Idea energy hedge. A country obtains petroleum at a price and uses some of it to make high-worth goods such as (fake) Gucci handbags or Lexuses which are sold to customers overseas. The gains from the sale pay for the country’s fuel plus profits to the manufacturers.
The mercantile country and its firms borrow against the overseas trading partners’ accounts. Exporter’s fuel consumption grows larger than what it ordinarily would be without the trade. This is the presumed intent of today’s currency combatants, for each become successful mercantilists and have ‘others’ subsidize their fuel waste.
Figure 2: Japan is going broke because its fuel imports are too costly to be met by export of its goods to increasingly broke customers. The reason the customers are broke is high fuel prices! They cannot find any countries to subsidize their own fuel waste.
If Japan doesn’t depreciate its currency it cannot export or win the petroleum war. At the same time, if it depreciates any gains from exports will offset by increased fuel cost. If the yen is sufficiently beaten down the world’s fuel suppliers will not accept it and demand dollars instead.
Japan has large foreign currency reserves but these are collateral for domestic debt. Like China, Japan has few options to free up its collateral: whatever collateral it can access is over-committed.
Japan is orbiting the drain, the recent trade deficit is the last straw, the country has too many obligations to meet … all of them coming due at once. The inflow of overseas funds into Japan and the carry trade have been the means by which the country has endured deflation without the associated depression. Japan now needs more waste — growth — or a return to the inflow of overseas funds.
Depreciating the yen is a symptom of Japan’s “potentially untreatable infection” — its past success is now killing the country. Japan is beyond desperate: on deck is nominal GDP (NGDP) targeting. This is the Bank of Japan making unsecured loans (because the Japanese private sector finance is not making any).
Sadly, the Japanese establishment does not understand why the private finance does not lend … they are in denial like the rest of the industrialized world. The private sector is bankrupt, it cannot borrow! So are Japan’s overseas customers, they just aren’t announcing it. Instead, they pretend and hope nobody is paying attention.
Deflation feeds on remedies designed to defeat it. All avenues here lead to entropy: if the private sector delevers, the government itself becomes insolvent. If Japan’s central bank leverages itself, it too becomes insolvent and there is no lender of last resort. The result is a run on Japanese banks and out of yen.
Around the world, various finance markets are pressurized, the Big Idea is to wring out volatility and create a Potemkin market that can pass as the real thing; ditto commodities, particularly gold, copper, foodstuffs and petroleum.
Time marches on and costs of volatility suppression are added to other ex-market costs, volatility emerges where the suppression forces are weakest. Right now, this is the currency markets. Switzerland can peg its currency to the euro at an affordable cost, just like the Chinese can peg its currency to dollars. Today’s question is where and how does Japan fit in particularly with its new trade deficit?
Japan has its own currency, unlike Europe, its treasury can issue yen to retire debt, extinguishing the self-created currency along with the debt. However, this remedy is likely too late to apply b/c the Japanese banking system is insolvent. An issue of government notes sufficient to effect Japan’s debt market would cause the banks to collapse.
Meanwhile, the Big Idea in Europe is the purposeful absence of any ideas at all! The technocrats are disappearing leaving a vacuum, to be filled by demagogues.
Figure 3: Europe produces about twenty-percent of its own petroleum fuel from rapidly depleting native sources, the rest must be imported. The mercantile states Germany and Italy export energy waste to others to meet their expenses, however, these customers cannot use the exporters’ waste to meet theirs. Like Japan, Europe is bankrupt.
The big difference between Europe and Japan the euro non-currency. Factionalism suggests Europe is set to lose the currency war and have its petroleum consumption shifted to others such as China and the United States. In other words, Europe cannot afford the euro, any currencies it can afford are nut suitable for the petroleum import trade. Because the euro is the currency of none of Europe’s states, there is no real issuer nor any lender of last resort, only a pretender.
Europe’s approach to the euro has been typical of the humans’ approach to everything else: to grasp what is immediately wanted then ignore life-cycle consequences. Europe wanted the euro as an energy hedge: it gave smaller countries the means to import waste from both Germany and OPEC. Now, these small countries cannot pay for the imports and the currency does not allow for the transfer of these costs to ‘others’. The waste — of course — is worthless, it cannot be ‘repossessed’.
The outcome is a Europe frozen on the spot. If it tries to pay for the expensive euro the entire continent will be ruined and unable to afford petroleum. This is the ‘austerity’ dynamic in force currently. If any country abandons the euro, the entire enterprise falls apart and there is nothing left to the Europeans with which to gain fuel. It is hardly likely that any petroleum supplier will accept a national currency from a bankrupt nation if the same nation’s bankruptcy has fatally undermined the euro! Of course, if the euro fails so will China finance, which holds massive amounts of euro-denominated debt as reserves, far too many to be readily rid of … without precipitating the disaster that it so desperately seeks to avoid.
Like so many other countries, Europe has an unraveling property bubble/energy hedge that also failed.
Meanwhile, the exit of the technocrat is the last step in post-petroleum down escalator toward chaos. After the technocrat comes zero-government, factionalism or abdication of governing authority. This is not to say that political and administrative reform is not possible; without new resources or an ‘upside down’ approach that husbands capital there is no foundation for reforms. The factions all promise MORE and a return to waste: the broken government is able to export fuel consumption elsewhere more efficiently and with less cost than do the factions, technocrats or ineffective government.
The problem in Europe and elsewhere is at the end of the everyone’s driveway. Every single day the Europeans must import twelve million barrels of crude oil at staggering cost, they must borrow from New York and London financiers to do so, as they have for ever day since the end of World War Two. Europe’s pathetic car industries cannot pay their own way much less the wasteful continent’s gigantic fuel bill. Europe is beyond insolvent, beyond broke, by rights it should never borrow again, ever, from this point in time until the sun consumes itself and balloons to fill the solar system. Europe’s bosses believe with this bit- or that bit of beautifully embellished central bank promises it can claim a good that is vanishingly rare and valuable … so that this good might be burned up for time-wasting entertainment purposes and economists’ reputations only.
This is the real Big Idea, it has not materialized in the imagination of the modern world … yet. It emerges from a concrete Big Reality that the modern human works hard to ignore. Modernity is intrinsically dysfunctional, its products are entropy and ruin. Its managers defend their right to waste as they please at the expense of the rest, the non-managers demand the right to waste along with the managers: this is madness! That a war might be waged with competitive waste as a tactic speaks to the inherent moral and physical bankruptcy of the ‘modern’ idea: it has hollowed itself out. At the end of the day the competitors are all smashed, together. There can realistically be no other outcome.
The next Big Idea must be an economy that rewards conservation and the husbandry of capital by every and all means, that treats all of capital as precious, rather than a substitutable ‘input’. It isn’t such a hard idea to grasp, its application is becoming a desperate necessity. Stewardship is less difficult than competitive depreciation financed by increased resource waste. In a well-functioning conservation economy shepherds of capital become rich and by so doing the others would become rich along with them. There is still entropy, but not the Hammer of Thor.
Time is running out … we adapt or else.
Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg
Published on Our Finite World on March 1, 2013
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner
If an economy is growing, it is easy to add debt. The additional growth in future years provides money both to pay back the debt and to cover the additional interest. Promotions are common and layoffs are few, so a debt such as a mortgage can easily be repaid.
The situation is fairly different if the economy is contracting. It is hard to find sufficient money for repaying the debt itself, not to mention the additional interest. Layoffs and business closings make repaying loans much more difficult.
If an economy is in a steady state, with no growth, debt still causes a problem. While there is theoretically enough money to repay the debt, interest costs are a drag on the economy. Interest payments tend to move money from debtors (who tend to be less wealthy) to creditors (who tend to be more wealthy). If the economy is growing, growth provides at least some additional funds offset to this loss of funds to debtors. Without growth, interest payments (or fees instead of interest) are a drain on debtors. Changing from interest payments to fees does not materially affect the outcome.
Recently, the growth of most types of US debt has stalled (Figure 3, below). The major exception is governmental debt, which is still growing rapidly. The purpose of sequestration is to slightly slow this growth in US debt.
The growth in government debt occurs because of a mismatch between income and expenditures. There is a cutback in government revenue because high oil prices make some goods using oil unaffordable, causing a cutback in production, and hence employment. The government is affected because unemployed workers don’t pay much in taxes. Government expenditures are still high because many unemployed workers are still collecting benefits.
What can we expect going forward? Will the debt situation get even worse?
I think we can expect that from here, the debt situation will deteriorate. One issue is rising oil prices. While there seems to be a large supply of oil available, it is at ever-higher cost of extraction, because of diminishing returns. (This is even true of tight oil, such as from the Bakken.) Furthermore, I recently showed that not only do high oil prices adversely affect government finances, they also adversely affect wages.1
Figure 4. US per capita non-governmental wages, in 2012 dollars. Non-governmental wages and population from Bureau of Economic Analysis; Adjusted to 2012 cost level using CPI-Urban from Bureau of Labor Statistics
If wages are low, the temptation is for governments to try to create more “spendable income” by increasing debt. This can’t really fix the situation, however. The real issue is increasingly high oil prices, which adversely affect both government finances and wages. Adding debt adds yet more interest payments, adding a further burden to wage earners, and creating a need for payback in the future, when wages are even lower.
Ultimately (which may not be very long from now), the debt system appears likely to collapse. The Quantitative Easing (QE) which a number of governments are now using to hold down interest rates and make more funds available to lend cannot continue forever. While there are claims that QE is a bridge to “when growth returns,” it is seriously doubtful that economic growth will ever return. Inexpensive oil is simply too essential to today’s economy. As oil prices rise, wages fall, and demand for oil is further constrained. Falling wages also reduce demand for debt, as payback becomes more difficult.
How Household Debt Adds to Spendable Income
One thing readers may have not thought about is that it is the increase in debt that adds to a person’s (or company’s) spendable income. For example, taking out a car loan allows a person to buy a car. Paying back the loan over a period of years tends to reduce spendable income. If, in the aggregate, the amount of debt outstanding starts decreasing each year, spendable income is actually reduced below the level of wages, because in total, the balance is being reduced.
If we add the increase in household debt (mortgages, credit cards, student loans, car loans, etc.) to wages, this is the pattern we see historically. (The increase has been adjusted for inflation using CPI-Urban):
Figure 5. Per capita wages (excluding government wages) similar to Figure 5. Also, the sum of per capita wages and the increase in household debt, also on a per-capita basis, and also increased to 2012$ level using the CPI-Urban. Amounts from US BEA Table 2.1 and Federal Reserve Z1 Report. *2012 estimated based on partial year data.
The pattern is very much what we would expect, given what we know about recent debt patterns. The amount of debt rose rapidly in the early 2000s, when interest rates were lowered and lending standards relaxed. Some people bought new homes. Home prices escalated, with the higher demand. Many homeowners were able to refinance at lower interest rates. In the process, homeowners were able to “pull out” funds that they could use for any purpose they liked–fixing up the house, buying a new car, or going on a vacation.
By 2008, the party was over. In fact, the amount that was added through debt started decreasing in 2006 and 2007, after the Fed Reserve raised interest rates, in an attempt to choke back inflation caused by high oil prices. I talk about this in Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis, available here or here.
Increased Government Debt Can Also Add to Spendable Income
In Figure 5, we added the increase in household debt to wages, to get an estimate of spendable income, adjusted for debt. Theoretically, at least part of the increase in government debt might also be added to spendable income, since it is often used (in leu of increased taxes) for programs that benefit citizens. (Some of the increased debt is used for things like bailing out banks, which is of questionable value in raising the spendable income of individuals, so perhaps not all of the increase in government debt should be added in estimating spendable income. Also, increased interest costs related to higher debt amounts would tend to have a dampening effect on spending, if interest rates are not continually dropping, as they have been under QE.)
If we add the increase in government debt (all kinds, including state and local) to the amounts shown in Figure 5, this is what we get:
Figure 6. Amounts shown in Figure 5, plus change in government debt added to the sum of (wages plus increase in household debt). Non-Government debt from Federal Reserve Z1 report, with changes adjusted to 2012 cost levels using CPI Urban. *2012 amounts estimated based on partial year values.
How much did citizens really spend? The Bureau of Economic Analysis tells us that as well, as an item called Personal Consumption Expenditures. We sometimes hear that in the United States, personal consumption of goods and services makes up more than 70% of GDP. In fact, this percentage has been growing since about 1950.
Figure 7. Wages (excluding government wages) as a percentage of GDP and personal consumption as a percentage of GDP, both based on data of the US Bureau of Economic Analysis. *2012 estimated based on partial year data.
Strangely enough, wages excluding governmental wages have been falling as a percentage of GDP during the same period. How can wages be falling at the same time personal consumption is rising? I think that a large part of the answer may very well be “increasing debt.”
If we compare wages to personal consumption expenditures, we find that wages were about 2/3 of personal consumption expenditures at the beginning of the period graphed, but gradually fell to a lower and lower share of Personal Consumption Expenditures.3 If we add a line to Figure 6 showing 2/3 of personal consumption expenditures, the line comes out very close to where we might guess it would, if all of household debt increases, and part of government debt increases were acting to increase personal spending (Figure 8).
Figure 8. Same data shown on Figure 6, plus a line equal to 2/3 of Personal Consumption as shown on BEA Report 2.4.5. also adjusted to a per capita and 2012 cost basis using CPI-Urban.
While there are too many variables to make this comparison exact, it does indicate that the increases in debt levels are of the right order of magnitude to explain what would otherwise be a very strange anomaly.
I might mention, too, that part of the reason that Personal Consumption Expenditures can be rising as a percentage of GDP is the fact that investment has been falling, as businesses move their manufacturing offshore, and as other changes take place. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, we are allowing bridges, roads, and dams to deteriorate, and not adequately maintaining electrical transmission infrastructure. We are reaching limits on how far we can allow investment to drop, however. In fact, the time is coming when we will need to increase investment, or face loss of some of the infrastructure we take for granted.
Figure 9. United States domestic investment compared to consumption of assets, as percentage of National Income. Based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis Table 5.1.
Where Do Debt Limits Put Us
Even if all debt limits were to do is erase the beneficial impact of debt increases, based on Figure 8, it appears that spendable income (or Personal Consumption Expenditures) would decrease by about 23%, to bring it back to might be expected based on wages.
In fact, reaching debt limits is likely be a messy affair, with some type of change (such as increasing rising interest rates as QE fails, or the US dollar losing its reserve currency status, or huge changes in the Eurozone) leading to changes that affect governments and currencies around the world. It seems likely that trade might be disrupted. Some governments might be replaced, and the debt of prior governments repudiated by the new governments. It is not clear what would happen to personal and corporate debt. In many countries, reform governments have redistributed land and other property. In such a circumstance, neither prior land ownership nor prior debt would have much meaning.
In our current circumstances, we are reaching debt limits because of a specific resource limit — lack of inexpensive oil. Oil is used almost exclusively as a transportation fuel and in many other applications as well (such as construction, farming, pharmaceutical manufacturing, and synthetic fabrics). Expensive oil is not really a substitute, and neither is intermittent electricity. We are reaching other limits as well. Perhaps the most pressing of these is availability of fresh water. Fresh water can be obtained by desalination, but expensive water is not really a substitute for cheap water, for the same reason that expensive oil is not really a substitute for cheap oil. See my post, Our Investment Sinkhole Problem.
The situation of reaching debt limits because of resource limits is a worrisome one, because it is hard to see a way to fix the situation. People often say that our debt problem arises because we have a financial system in which money is loaned into existence, and as a result, requires growth to pay back debt with interest. I am not sure that this is really the problem.
We have been used to a financial system that “works” in a growing economy. In such a system, it makes sense to take out loans on new business ventures. In such a system, money is also a store of value. In a shrinking economy, relationships change. Some loans will still “make sense,” but such loans will be a shrinking proportion of current loans, with long-term loans being especially vulnerable. Money will either need to “expire,” or a high rate of inflation will need to be expected, making interest rates on loans very high. In a shrinking economy, businesses will fail much more often, and workers will more often lose their (fossil fuel supported) jobs.
Some have suggested that new local currencies will fix our problems. I am doubtful this will be the case. The problem may well be that all currencies start being more local in nature. What we may lose is interchangeability based on trust.
 As background for those who have not read my post The Connection of Depressed Wages to High Oil Prices and Limits to Growth, wages recently have been depressed, in part because fewer people are working. Figure 4 above, showing “Per Capita Non-Government Wages,” provides a measure of how wages have changed. This is calculated by taking wages for all US residents, subtracting wages of government workers, and dividing by the total US population (not just the number working). The average wage calculated in this manner is than adjusted to the 2012 price level based on the CPI-Urban price index. Government workers have been omitted because I am trying to get at the base from which other funding comes. Government wages are ultimately paid by taxes on workers in private companies.
The thing that is striking about Figure 4 is that a similar pattern occurs in the 1973 to 1983 period as the 2002 to 2012 period. Oil prices were high in both periods. (Figure 10, below). In fact, the vast majority of wage growth has occurred when oil prices were $30 or less in 2012$.
Figure 10. Per capita non-government wages, calculated by dividing non-government wages from the Bureau of Economic Analysis by the US population, and then bringing to 2012$ using CPI-Urban price index, together with historical oil prices in 2012$, based on BP 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data, updated with 2012 EIA Brent oil price data.
There are several reasons why rising oil prices can be expected to reduce the number of people working, or the hours they work:
(a) Discretionary sector layoffs. Consumers find that the price of food (which uses oil in its production and transport) and of commuting is rising. Prices of other goods are also rising. This forces consumers to cut back on discretionary spending. Employees in discretionary sectors get laid off, because of these impacts.
(b) General layoffs. Even outside discretionary sectors, employees may be laid off, if the cost of goods rises indirectly because of a rise in oil price. Often this will be because of higher transport cost, but it could because of another use of oil, such as by construction equipment, or as a raw material. With higher costs of delivered products, companies find that demand falls, if they raise prices sufficiently to maintain profit margins. (This falling demand occurs because some consumers can no longer afford their products.) Businesses find it necessary to scale back the size of their operations–lay off workers and close stores or other facilities. Alternatively, businesses can move operations to China or another low cost site of operation, to reduce costs, but this also leads to layoffs of US employees.
(c) Government layoffs. Eventually the government tax base is reduced, because of a smaller proportion of the population paying taxes. Governments also find a need to pay our more in direct costs–such as more for unemployment insurance, and more for asphalt (an oil product) for paving roads. Governments also find themselves laying off workers.
The effects outlined above can be mitigated to some extent by changes such as moving closer to work and more fuel efficient cars. But experience seems to suggest that even more what happens is that the effects shift from sector to sector over time, as businesses “fix” their problems, leaving them to with wage-earners and governments.
The high price oil situation was mostly resolved in the early 1980s, because other relatively inexpensive oil was available to drill, bringing the price down again. (The new price, at $30 barrel, was still 50% higher than the $20 barrel price prior to the crisis, though.) The availability of new low-priced supplies seems much less likely now, because we extracted the inexpensive-to-extract oil first. We are now reaching diminishing returns. While there seems to be plenty of oil available, it is high-priced oil. This is even true of the new “tight oil” supplies in the Bakken and several other areas.
 Government debt in this post refers to all types of government debt combined, including state and local debt. Within this debt, only debt classified as “Marketable” is included. As such, it does not include debt owed to the Social Security system (because contributions that were collected by the Social Security system were spent on something else, and are not available to pay Social Security recipients) or to other pre-funded government agencies. Such debt is a future liability, not affecting today’s spending, so I didn’t add it in. (The Federal Reserve Z1 report also does not include it.) There are, in fact, a huge number of government obligations that are not reflected, such as promises to bail out pension programs and FDIC coverage of bank accounts, because they are contingent in nature. Such programs can be expected to add to the problems we would have, if our debt system should fail.
 We would not expect non-government wages to equal Personal Consumption Expenditures, since for one thing, wages of non-government employees leave out expenditures by government employees. They also leave out various derivative amounts, such as expenditures by entrepreneurs, and expenditures of amounts that would be classified as rents and dividends. Changes in savings rates would also play a role.
Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg
Published on Our Finite World on February 22, 2013
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner
Globalization seems to be looked on as an unmitigated “good” by economists. Unfortunately, economists seem to be guided by their badly flawed models; they miss real-world problems. In particular, they miss the point that the world is finite. We don’t have infinite resources, or unlimited ability to handle excess pollution. So we are setting up a “solution” that is at best temporary.
Economists also tend to look at results too narrowly–from the point of view of a business that can expand, or a worker who has plenty of money, even though these users are not typical. In real life, the business are facing increased competition, and the worker may be laid off because of greater competition.
The following is a list of reasons why globalization is not living up to what was promised, and is, in fact, a very major problem.
1. Globalization uses up finite resources more quickly. As an example, China joined the world trade organization in December 2001. In 2002, its coal use began rising rapidly (Figure 1, below).
In fact, there is also a huge increase in world coal consumption (Figure 2, below). India’s consumption is increasing as well, but from a smaller base.
2. Globalization increases world carbon dioxide emissions. If the world burns its coal more quickly, and does not cut back on other fossil fuel use, carbon dioxide emissions increase. Figure 3 shows how carbon dioxide emissions have increased, relative to what might have been expected, based on the trend line for the years prior to when the Kyoto protocol was adopted in 1997.
3. Globalization makes it virtually impossible for regulators in one country to foresee the worldwide implications of their actions. Actions which would seem to reduce emissions for an individual country may indirectly encourage world trade, ramp up manufacturing in coal-producing areas, and increase emissions over all. See my post Climate Change: Why Standard Fixes Don’t Work.
4. Globalization acts to increase world oil prices.
The world has undergone two sets of oil price spikes. The first one, in the 1973 to 1983 period, occurred after US oil supply began to decline in 1970 (Figure 4, above and Figure 5 below).
After 1983, it was possible to bring oil prices back to the $30 to $40 barrel range (in 2012$), compared to the $20 barrel price (in 2012$) available prior to 1970. This was partly done partly by ramping up oil production in the North Sea, Alaska and Mexico (sources which were already known), and partly by reducing consumption. The reduction in consumption was accomplished by cutting back oil use for electricity, and by encouraging the use of more fuel-efficient cars.
Now, since 2005, we have high oil prices back, but we have a much worse problem. The reason the problem is worse now is partly because oil supply is not growing very much, due to limits we are reaching, and partly because demand is exploding due to globalization.
If we look at world oil supply, it is virtually flat. The United States and Canada together provide the slight increase in world oil supply that has occurred since 2005. Otherwise, supply has been flat since 2005 (Figure 6, below). What looks like a huge increase in US oil production in 2012 in Figure 5 looks much less impressive, when viewed in the context of world oil production in Figure 6.
Part of our problem now is that with globalization, world oil demand is rising very rapidly. Chinese buyers purchased more cars in 2012 than did European buyers. Rapidly rising world demand, together with oil supply which is barely rising, pushes world prices upward. This time, there also is no possibility of a dip in world oil demand of the type that occurred in the early 1980s. Even if the West drops its oil consumption greatly, the East has sufficient pent-up demand that it will make use of any oil that is made available to the market.
Adding to our problem is the fact that we have already extracted most of the inexpensive to extract oil because the “easy” (and cheap) to extract oil was extracted first. Because of this, oil prices cannot decrease very much, without world supply dropping off. Instead, because of diminishing returns, needed price keeps ratcheting upward. The new “tight” oil that is acting to increase US supply is an example of expensive to produce oil–it can’t bring needed price relief.
5. Globalization transfers consumption of limited oil supply from developed countries to developing countries. If world oil supply isn’t growing by very much, and demand is growing rapidly in developing countries, oil to meet this rising demand must come from somewhere. The way this transfer takes place is through the mechanism of high oil prices. High oil prices are particularly a problem for major oil importing countries, such as the United States, many European countries, and Japan. Because oil is used in growing food and for commuting, a rise in oil price tends to lead to a cutback in discretionary spending, recession, and lower oil use in these countries. See my academic article, “Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis,” available here or here.
Developing countries are better able to use higher-priced oil than developed countries. In some cases (particularly in oil-producing countries) subsidies play a role. In addition, the shift of manufacturing to less developed countries increases the number of workers who can afford a motorcycle or car. Job loss plays a role in the loss of oil consumption from developed countries–see my post, Why is US Oil Consumption Lower? Better Gasoline Mileage? The real issue isn’t better mileage; one major issue is loss of jobs.
6. Globalization transfers jobs from developed countries to less developed countries. Globalization levels the playing field, in a way that makes it hard for developed countries to compete. A country with a lower cost structure (lower wages and benefits for workers, more inexpensive coal in its energy mix, and more lenient rules on pollution) is able to out-compete a typical OECD country. In the United States, the percentage of US citizen with jobs started dropping about the time China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.
7. Globalization transfers investment spending from developed countries to less developed countries. If an investor has a chance to choose between a country with a competitive advantage and a country with a competitive disadvantage, which will the investor choose? A shift in investment shouldn’t be too surprising.
In the US, domestic investment was fairly steady as a percentage of National Income until the mid-1980s (Figure 9). In recent years, it has dropped off and is now close to consumption of assets (similar to depreciation, but includes other removal from service). The assets in question include all types of capital assets, including government-owned assets (schools, roads), business owned assets (factories, stores), and individual homes. A similar pattern applies to business investment viewed separately.
Part of the shift in the balance between investment and consumption of assets is rising consumption of assets. This would include early retirement of factories, among other things.
Even very low interest rates in recent years have not brought US investment back to earlier levels.
8. With the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, globalization leads to huge US balance of trade deficits and other imbalances.
With increased globalization and the rising price of oil since 2002, the US trade deficit has soared (Figure 10). Adding together amounts from Figure 10, the cumulative US deficit for the period 1980 through 2011 is $8.6 trillion. By the end of 2012, the cumulative deficit since 1980 is probably a little over 9 trillion.
A major reason for the large US trade deficit is the fact that the US dollar is the world’s “reserve currency.” While the mechanism is too complicated to explain here, the result is that the US can run deficits year after year, and the rest of the world will take their surpluses, and use it to buy US debt. With this arrangement, the rest of the world funds the United States’ continued overspending. It is fairly clear the system was not put together with the thought that it would work in a fully globalized world–it simply leads to too great an advantage for the United States relative to other countries. Erik Townsend recently wrote an article called Why Peak Oil Threatens the International Monetary System, in which he talks about the possibility of high oil prices bringing an end to the current arrangement.
At this point, high oil prices together with globalization have led to huge US deficit spending since 2008. This has occurred partly because a smaller portion of the population is working (and thus paying taxes), and partly because US spending for unemployment benefits and stimulus has risen. The result is a mismatch between government income and spending (Figure 11, below).
Thanks to the mismatch described in the last paragraph, the federal deficit in recent years has been far greater than the balance of payment deficit. As a result, some other source of funding for the additional US debt has been needed, in addition to what is provided by the reserve currency arrangement. The Federal Reserve has been using Quantitative Easing to buy up federal debt since late 2008. This has provided a buyer for additional debt and also keeps US interest rates low (hoping to attract some investment back to the US, and keeping US debt payments affordable). The current situation is unsustainable, however. Continued overspending and printing money to pay debt is not a long-term solution to huge imbalances among countries and lack of cheap oil–situations that do not “go away” by themselves.
9. Globalization tends to move taxation away from corporations, and onto individual citizens. Corporations have the ability to move to locations where the tax rate is lowest. Individual citizens have much less ability to make such a change. Also, with today’s lack of jobs, each community competes with other communities with respect to how many tax breaks it can give to prospective employers. When we look at the breakdown of US tax receipts (federal, state, and local combined) this is what we find:
The only portion that is entirely from corporations is corporate income taxes, shown in red. This has clearly shrunk by more than half. Part of the green layer (excise, sales, and property tax) is also from corporations, since truckers also pay excise tax on fuel they purchase, and businesses usually pay property taxes. It is clear, though, that the portion of revenue coming from personal income taxes and Social Security and Medicare funding (blue) has been rising.
I showed that high oil prices seem to lead to depressed US wages in my post, The Connection of Depressed Wages to High Oil Prices and Limits to Growth. If wages are low at the same time that wage-earners are being asked to shoulder an increasing share of rising government costs, this creates a mismatch that wage-earners are not really able to handle.
10. Globalization sets up a currency “race to the bottom,” with each country trying to get an export advantage by dropping the value of its currency.
Because of the competitive nature of the world economy, each country needs to sell its goods and services at as low a price as possible. This can be done in various ways–pay its workers lower wages; allow more pollution; use cheaper more polluting fuels; or debase the currency by Quantitative Easing (also known as “printing money,”) in the hope that this will produce inflation and lower the value of the currency relative to other currencies.
There is no way this race to the bottom can end well. Prices of imports become very high in a debased currency–this becomes a problem. In addition, the supply of money is increasingly out of balance with real goods and services. This produces asset bubbles, such as artificially high stock market prices, and artificially high bond prices (because the interest rates on bonds are so low). These assets bubbles lead to investment crashes. Also, if the printing ever stops (and perhaps even if it doesn’t), interest rates will rise, greatly raising cost to governments, corporations, and individual citizens.
11. Globalization encourages dependence on other countries for essential goods and services. With globalization, goods can often be obtained cheaply from elsewhere. A country may come to believe that there is no point in producing its own food or clothing. It becomes easy to depend on imports and specialize in something like financial services or high-priced medical care–services that are not as oil-dependent.
As long as the system stays together, this arrangement works, more or less. However, if the built-in instabilities in the system become too great, and the system stops working, there is suddenly a very large problem. Even if the dependence is not on food, but is instead on computers and replacement parts for machinery, there can still be a big problem if imports are interrupted.
12. Globalization ties countries together, so that if one country collapses, the collapse is likely to ripple through the system, pulling many other countries with it.
History includes many examples of civilizations that started from a small base, gradually grew to over-utilize their resource base, and then collapsed. We are now dealing with a world situation which is not too different. The big difference this time is that a large number of countries is involved, and these countries are increasingly interdependent. In my post 2013: Beginning of Long-Term Recession, I showed that there are significant parallels between financial dislocations now happening in the United States and the types of changes which happened in other societies, prior to collapse. My analysis was based on the model of collapse developed in the book Secular Cycles by Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov.
It is not just the United States that is in perilous financial condition. Many European countries and Japan are in similarly poor condition. The failure of one country has the potential to pull many others down, and with it much of the system. The only countries that remain safe are the ones that have not grown to depend on globalization–which is probably not many today–perhaps landlocked countries of Africa.
In the past, when one area collapsed, there was less interdependence. When one area collapsed, it was possible to let cropland “rest” and deforested areas regrow. With regeneration, and perhaps new technology, it was possible for a new civilization to grow in the same area later. If we are dealing with a world-wide collapse, it will be much more difficult to follow this model.
Off the keyboard of Steve from Virginia
Published on Economic Undertow on February 19, 2012
You Know You’re In Trouble When ..
… the President lies on TV about energy:
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According to the president, the country has 100 years’ supply of natural gas … everyone knows this, even the president who is a square, the last to know everything. Right?
When a president mentions energy in any speech is a big red flag. The word energy from the president always has ‘problem’ lurking somewhere in the background: remember Jimmy Carter. The president suggests our problem is a matter of perception: this must be ‘the audacity of something-or-other’ that the ‘frantic urgency of nothing in particlar’ that have become part of the national conversation as a consequence of Mr. Obama’s presidency.
Frantic urgency to waste: keep in mind at all times that every single word and phrase of the president’s State of the Union Address is scrutinized and measured by flotillas of lawyers and professionals … and algorithms. The president does not write the speech, highly paid national security specialists … and algorithms … write the speech. Every word in the speech is there for a specific purpose. The president just didn’t blurt out by accident that the country has 100 years supply of natural gas: this misstatement was calibrated … by an algorithm.
The algorithm conveniently overlooked proven reserves or the rate of consumption, whether that rate would increase or decrease. For example, if we use no gas we have hundreds of thousands of years of supply. If the US had the same proven reserves as Saudi Arabia — or a bit better – we would have 13 years at the current rates of consumption.
Wiki — and the US EIA — gives the US about 9 trillion cubic meters of proven reserves.
At the current US rate of consumption, Russia, with six-times US reserves, would give us 80 years supply. Perhaps the president’s statement signals the upcoming invasion of Russia! The only way the US would get 100 years out of Russia’s massive reserves would be with stringent conservation! It would also mean no gas at all for Europe, the Baltic states, Belarus or Ukraine … or Russia itself.
Notice the map @ the right. Surprisingly out of focus on the high-definition TV, the map is overlapped with suggestive continent-sized giant, gassy bubbles. The map itself is made up of pink blobs giving the impression that America is bulging with natural gas … that a pin pricking the ground anywhere will cause the gas to flow. There are only a few areas in the country that are gas deposit free: the Eastern Seaboard, Minnesota, Nevada and the Pacific Northwest.
Notice the gas- and oil bearing formations. The map is misleading because there are only a few high-output hot spots within each mauvey-pink play. Other areas are not productive or deplete very rapidly. Once production is underway, the hoped-for vast resources generally turn out to be overstated. Gas or oil that cannot be retrieved may as well not exist.
The productivity of gas or oil wells follows a curve: for every hot spot a larger number of wells must be drilled that produce an average amount then rapidly deplete. There are also large numbers of dry holes. The technology that everyone raves about doesn’t make individual wells more productive but rather cuts the number of (costly) dry holes … technology such as ’3D seismic’ (reflection seismology).
The president never mentions cost: gaining gas from shale formations requires companies to drill far more wells than were required to extract from conventional hydrocarbon-bearing formations. He never mentions the customers ability to pay for the wells, nor does he mention the effects of drilling and hydrofracking everywhere in the country on the nation’s drinking water supply. He never mentions whether the water we have is enough … to extract the promised oil and gas.
It is the fact of the lie that is more important than the content or nature of the lie. It insists that within this government, nothing is true until it is officially denied.
You know you are in trouble when the president is not lying when he is lying.
The US actually is bubbling with natural gas, the president is right! The problem is the gas is dispersed and flows are intermittent and irretrievable. Methane gas leaks out of landfills, from marshes, from undersea clathrates, from melting permafrost, leaking around fracked wells and coal mines, it emerges from animal waste, from peat bogs … none of these are useful ‘reserves’ for the natural gas industry or its customers. Instead, the gas circles the globe in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Millions of cubic feet of gas are simply flared:
(TRC Solutions) Flaring natural gas from Bakken oil well. Funds are always available to lavish on waste, proper husbandry of capital and gaining the maximum return is unaffordable. Here is the perverse waste-based US energy policy made manifest: citizens and firms are given every incentive to burn through non-renewable natural resources as fast as possible. Flaring suggests that the world will come to an end if the associated oil is kept in the ground for a few more months until gas transmission infrastructure can be installed.
It also suggests there isn’t enough oil or gas to worry about, not enough to pay the bills.
You know you’re in trouble when corruption and influence peddling becomes so commonplace as to be invisible, the background noise behind ordinary business-as-usual.
Comes now another billionaire … to take his rightful place in the leadership cadre, as potential boss of the Department of Energy, (Washington Post):
Billionaire has unique role in official Washington: climate change radical
When Thomas Steyer — a San Francisco billionaire and major Democratic donor — discusses climate change, he feels as if one of two things is true: What he’s saying is blindingly obvious, or insane.
“I feel like the guy in the movie who goes into the diner and says, ‘There are zombies in the woods and they’re eating our children,’ ” Steyer said during a recent breakfast at the Georgetown Four Seasons, his first appointment in a day that included meetings with a senator, a White House confidant and other D.C. luminaries.
It’s a somewhat shocking statement for someone who’s in the running to succeed the cerebral Steven Chu as energy secretary. Granted, he’s a long shot — the leading contender is MIT professor Ernest Moniz, who served as the department’s undersecretary during the Clinton administration …
Unsurprising that leading nominee Moniz is a Clinton retread and nuclear industry whore. Recycled insiders from previous regimes has been a characteristic of the Obama administration … bet the rent on Moniz (Reuters).
Moniz, who was undersecretary at the Energy Department during the Clinton administration, is a familiar figure on Capitol Hill, where he has often talked to lawmakers about how abundant supplies of U.S. natural gas will gradually replace coal as a source of electricity. Moniz is director of MIT’s Energy Initiative, a research group that gets funding from industry heavyweights including BP, Chevron, and Saudi Aramco for academic work on projects aimed at reducing climate-changing greenhouse gases. (Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Jeff Mason; Editing by Paul Simao)
While Moniz is a tycoon enabler, Steyer is an actual tycoon. He offers more upside to Obama than the technocrat Moniz. With Steyer’s connections, Obama could wind up being somebody after he’s finished with his probationary period as president … Steyer might even capitalize an Obama hedge fund!
Steyer is taking on a more prominent public role. On Sunday, he spoke to a crowd that organizers estimated at 35,000, gathered on the Mall to call for a stronger national climate policy.“I’m not the first person you’d expect to be here today. I’m not a college professor and I don’t run an environmental organization,” he said. “For the last 30 years I’ve been a professional investor and I’ve been looking at billion-dollar investments for decades and I’m here to tell you one thing: The Keystone pipeline is not a good investment.” The move stems from an uncomfortable conclusion Steyer has reached: The incremental political victories he and others have been celebrating fall well short of what’s needed to avert catastrophic global warming. “If we can win every single battle and lose the war, then we’re doing something wrong,” he said, moments after consuming two mochas on the table before him.The simultaneous mocha-drinking is understandable: Steyer had arrived just hours before on the red-eye, which he chooses over a private jet to reduce his carbon footprint. He may have built one of the nation’s most successful hedge funds — Farallon Capital Management, named after the waters off San Francisco Bay teeming with great white sharks — but he’s not flashy.
It’s good to know billionaires are ordinary folks just like you and me … while at the same time inhabitants of the rarefied precincts of sacred money. As a consequence, star-struck Eilperin avoids shining any light into the dark corners of Steyer’s fund, (Wikipedia):
Tom Steyer founded Farallon in January 1986 with $15 million in seed capital. Previously, Steyer worked for San Francisco-based private equity firm Hellman & Friedman, as a risk arbitrage trader, under Robert Rubin, at Goldman Sachs and in Morgan Stanley’s corporate mergers and acquisitions department.
Rubin … Goldman-Sachs … take it back: Steyer is certainly equally qualified- if not more so than ‘Brand X’ candidate Moniz. In Washington, DC, where money talks, Steyer carries his own lobbyist around in his wallet.
Steyer knows coal because Farallon once owned the 2d largest coal-fired power plant in Indonesia! The following is from a report criticizing Steyer’s handling of university endowment funds (Amanda Ciafone, Working Group on Globalization and Culture, Yale University):
(Un)Fa(i)rallon in the Endowment:
Tracking Yale’s Global Capitalism In 2002, when Farallon purchased a 51% stake of Indonesia’s Bank Central Asia for $520 million dollars the fund could not avoid the high visibility of mainstream media attention. Bank Central Asia was the “crown jewel” of Indonesia’s banking sector with approximately $10 billion in assets and eight million customer accounts. In 1998, when the Asian financial crisis brought on by foreign investment and currency speculation brought Indonesia’s banks “to the brink of ruin,” the Indonesian government nationalized the bank, bailing it out and taking on its debtors by replacing unpaid loans with government bonds.In line with demands from the IMF, the sale of Bank Central Asia was seen as crucial to the overall success of the government’s privatization program: “international lenders and the IMF placed great emphasis on BCA’s divestment as a yardstick of economic reform, threatening to withhold financial aid if it was not completed.” Private investors could now buy an Asian bank on the cheap. Although it offered 25 rupiah a share less and has never run a bank, Farallon was chosen over other bidders. In fact, Farallon had won a huge asset for Yale and its other investors; for the $520 million it paid, it bought a bank predicted to earn $650 million in government interest payments a year for the next few years. In actuality, the Indonesian government was paying Farallon interest on its own bonds originally issued to save the bank that Farallon now owns.
Ciafone questions how non-Indonesian Farallon could buy the bank with both the lower bid and zero-experience in running a financial institution? It emerged that Farallon was well connected in Indonesia and could leverage its friends in high places (IMF) better than the other financiers.
Some of Farallon’s (Yale’s) money was invested in Paiton I, Indonesia’s first private power venture and “one of the most expensive power deals of the decade.” As the first private power project in the country the huge Paiton I coal burning power plant set the tone for subsequent private power ventures which “cut overpriced, politically influenced deals that undermined the Indonesian economy.” Although little is known about Farallon’s connection to the Paiton project, the financial press revealed that Farallon held a “controlling position in the $180 million [bond] issue” of Indonesia’s Paiton I plant. But much is known about the nature of the Paiton I project; three Wall Street Journal investigative articles detail the crony capitalism, price gauging, and environmental risks surrounding the plant in Indonesia.
It’s hard to say who would be worse as DOE Boss: captive insider Moniz or finance criminal Steyer. Both are creatures of the money-establishment: the end result is more of the current status-quo: lies and continuing incentives to waste, more theft from the citizens by tycoons. Regardless who whomever becomes DOE Boss, don’t expect any real change as to do so might adversely effect tycoons’ two-fisted lifestyles.
Meanwhile, you know you are in trouble when the Federal Reserve is lending $85 billion dollars to the Federal Government and the mortgage business every month.
It is both worrisome and suggestive that the central bank is such a large lender to the government. Are there no other lenders? This is a tremendous red flag: this sort of direct monetization suggests the government is a credit risk.
Is is also worrisome and suggestive when the Fed is lending billions every day to the mortgage industry. If the industry was solvent it would not need a continuing $40 billion-per-month bailout! At the same time, it is worrisome that the Fed is guaranteeing bank deposits. When the Fed accepts securities as collateral during open market operations such as ongoing Quantitative Easing (QE) it credits the banks with ‘excess’ reserves. These reserves are never deployed (into circulation) unless the banks’ balance sheets are collapsing … as when there are runs on the banks.
Does the Fed know something about the banks we should worry about?
You know you are in trouble when the inflation/deflation argument is still with us.
Deflation tends to be described as a change in prices for goods, a fall in the general price level or a contraction of credit and available money. Rather, deflation is where the cost of repayment of any debt is greater in real terms than the worth of the debt.
Current deflation is meaningless out of context of debt and energy. The world is running out of energy and has taken on $640 trillion$ in debt in order to run out of energy.
There is debt deflation when the cost of repaying a debt increases as the debt is repaid, because the act of repayment extinguishes currency. The scarcity premium of currency increases faster than the rate at which the debt(s) can be retired. In fact, debt repayments by 3d parties has the effect of rendering all debts unaffordably costly to repay. Read Irving Fisher’s paper on ‘Debt Deflation’ (1933).
Energy deflation occurs when energy becomes scarce and more expensive in real terms, there is a scarcity premium added to fuel that the customers cannot afford … fuel becomes too valuable to waste by driving tens of millions of useless cars in circles from gas station(s) to gas station(s).
Fuel is hoarded or unaffordable, so is money used to buy fuel. If currency is more useful to gain fuel than credit, there is no credit. The cycle is broken only when there is no fuel or no demand for it.
Economists are blind to the distinction between ledger loans (amounts noted on spreadsheets as due and payable) and circulating money.
Central banks offer ledger loans as do private sector lenders. The latter offer unsecured loans to customers. Ledger loans are credits made to borrowers’ accounts, funds thereto are simply ‘invented’. As the name implies, circulating money is loans that have changed hands to 3d (or more) parties in the marketplace where their worth is determined.
Banks’ offering unsecured loans is called ‘inflation’, demanding circulating money as repayment for unsecured loans is called ‘deflation’. Since most repayment is made by taking out greater loans, inflation tends to be a background condition. Unsecured loans represent economic ‘growth’ as their tally makes up the components of GDP.
Private sector lenders demand repayment in circulating money which is always in limited/finite supply. Borrowers cannot offer ledger repayments! They must earn, borrow or steal the funds demanded for repayment from others who then do not have the funds. Repayment reduces the amount of money in circulation which reduces GDP. When repayment demands exceed the amount of new loans there is a recession.
Clearly, offering more ledger credit — which costs very little — and gaining circulating money in return — which costs everything — is good business for lenders. Everyone is robbed whether they borrow or not because of the increased scarcity and cost of needed circulating money!
Central banks cannot make unsecured loans (loans in excess of collateral) therefor there is no such thing as central bank ‘money printing’. Because reserve banks have no capital structure — they are reserve banks after all — they cannot extend unsecured credit. Any central bank that offers unsecured loans is instantly and permanently insolvent!
This is not an Economic Undertow supposition but a condition like gravity. If ordinary commercial or depository banks are rendered insolvent by excess leverage and bad loans, a central bank which leverages itself while taking on the bad loans of its clients is ruined just the same as the other banks, for the same reason!
Under such circumstances, there is no effective lender of last resort, the only real collateral for all loans is currency on deposit. There are bank runs to redeem as much as possible … (as are underway in Europe and commencing in Japan).
The outcome of the discussion is delay in implementing reforms. Meanwhile, there is ongoing energy- and resource waste.
You know you are in trouble when your world burns 88.8 million barrels of petroleum per day … and is fantastically in debt by trillions of dollars!
That petroleum is gone forever. Another 88.8 million barrels will flush down the toilet tomorrow and another 88.8 million the day after … day after day after day!
and the day after that. What do we get in return for 88.8 million barrels per day? People laugh at the Medievals but they left behind some nice towns and useful buildings. What do we have to show … for the million barrels … burned up for nothing every single day for decades?
We have some used cars, some potholed ‘infrastructure’, millions of ugly buildings … we’re bankrupt.
In order to burn the 88.8 million barrels we’ve had to borrow billions of dollars from bankers and finance every day, as well, The total amount we owe to the financiers is $640 TRILLION dollars (Bank for International Settlements, PDF warning)!
Don’t listen to the soothing bromides of the analysts. Each swap noted on BIS ledgers cost someone real money, they hedge something real, the total system credit including that derived by way of foreign exchange.
We burn instead of holding onto our oil until someone can figure out something better to do with it. We rush to burn as much as possible as fast as possible. We want to burn it faster so that we can change some ‘indicators’ and allow tycoons, ‘entrepreneurs’ and ‘innovators’ to borrow some more.
We are like a family that has inherited a palace: we have burned all the furniture in order to keep warm now the furniture is gone we must burn the house. Well-dressed salesmen knock on the door offering efficient saws and furnaces to cut the house apart and burn it.
Madness … whatever is happening to us we deserve it.
Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg
Published on Our Finite World on February 8, 2013
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We are used to expecting that more investment will yield more output, but in the real world, things don’t always work out that way.
In Figure 1, we see that for several groupings, the increase (or decrease) in oil consumption tends to correlate with the increase (or decrease) in GDP. The usual pattern is that GDP growth is a little greater than oil consumption growth. This happens because of changes of various sorts: (a) Increasing substitution of other energy sources for oil, (b) Increased efficiency in using oil, and (c) A changing GDP mix away from producing goods, and toward producing services, leading to a proportionately lower need for oil and other energy products.
The situation is strikingly different for Saudi Arabia, however. A huge increase in oil consumption (Figure 1), and in fact in total energy consumption (Figure 2, below), does not seem to result in a corresponding rise in GDP.
At least part of problem is that Saudi Arabia is reaching limits of various types. One of them is inadequate water for a rising population. Adding desalination plants adds huge costs and huge energy usage, but does not increase the standards of living of citizens. Instead, adding desalination plants simply allows the country to pump less water from its depleting aquifers.
To some extent, the same situation occurs in oil and gas fields. Expensive investment is required, but it is doubtful that there is an increase in capacity that is proportional to its cost. To a significant extent, new investment simply offsets a decline in production elsewhere, so maintains the status quo. It is expensive, but adds little to what gets measured as GDP.
The world outside of Saudi Arabia is now running into an investment sinkhole issue as well. This takes several forms: water limits that require deeper wells or desalination plants; oil and gas limits that require more expensive forms of extraction; and pollution limits requiring expensive adjustments to automobiles or to power plants.
These higher investment costs lead to higher end product costs of goods using these resources. These higher costs eventually transfer to other products that most of us consider essential: food because it uses much oil in growing and transport; electricity because it is associated with pollution controls; and metals for basic manufacturing, because they also use oil in extraction and transport.
Ultimately, these investment sinkholes seem likely to cause huge problems. In some sense, they mean the economy is becoming less efficient, rather than more efficient. From an investment point of view, they can expect to crowd out other types of investment. From a consumer’s point of view, they lead to a rising cost of essential products that can be expected to squeeze out other purchases.
Why Investment Sinkholes Go Unrecognized
From the point of view of an individual investor, all that matters is whether he will get an adequate return on the investment he makes. If a city government decides to install a desalination plant, the investor’s primary concern is that someone (the government or those buying water) will pay enough money that he can make an adequate return on his investment over time. Citizens clearly need water. The only question is whether citizens can afford the desalinated water from their discretionary income. Obviously, if citizens spend more on desalinated water, the amount of discretionary income available for other goods will be reduced.
The same issue arises with pollution control equipment installed by a utility, or by an auto maker. The need for pollution control equipment arises because of limits we are reaching–too many people in too small a space, and too many waste products for the environment to handle. The utility or auto makers adds what is mandated, since clearly, buyers of electricity or of an automobile will recognize the need for clean air, and will be willing to use some of their discretionary income for pollution control equipment. Mandated renewable energy requirements are another way that governments attempt to compensate for limits we are reaching. These, too, tend to impose higher costs, and indirectly reduce consumers’ discretionary income.
All types of mineral extraction, but particularly oil, eventually reach the situation where it takes an increasing amount of investment (money, energy products, and often water) to extract a given amount of resource. This situation arises because companies extract the cheapest to extract resources first, and move on to the more expensive to extract resources later. As consumers, we recognize the situation through rising commodity prices. There is generally a real issue behind the rising prices–not enough resource available in readily accessible locations, so we need to dig deeper, or apply more “high tech” solutions. These high tech solutions indirectly require more investment and more energy, as well.
While we don’t stop to think about what is happening, the reality is that increasingly less oil (or other product such as natural gas, coal, gold, or copper) is being produced, for the same investment dollar. As long as the price of the product keeps rising sufficiently to cover the higher cost of extraction, the investor is happy, even if the cost of the resource is becoming unbearably high for consumers.
The catch with energy products is that consumers really need the products extracted–the oil to grow the food they eat and for commuting, for example. We also know that in general, energy of some sort is required to manufacture every kind of product that is made, and is needed to enable nearly every kind of service. Oil is the most portable of the world’s energy sources, and because of this, is used in powering most types of vehicles and much portable equipment. It is also used as a raw material in many products. As a result, limits on oil supply are likely to have an adverse impact on the economy as a whole, and on economic growth.
The Oil and Gas Part of the Problem
A major issue today is that oil supply is already constrained–it is not rising very quickly on a world basis, no matter how much investment is made (Figure 3).
As noted above, the easy-to-extract oil and gas was extracted first. New development is increasingly occurring in expensive-to-extract locations, such as deep water, Canadian oil sands, arctic oil, and “tight oil” that requires fracking to extract. This oil requires more energy to produce, and more inputs of other sorts, such as water for fracking. Because of rising costs, the price of oil has tripled in the last 10 years.
Investment costs also continue to soar because of rising costs associated with exploration and production. Worldwide, oil and gas exploration and production spending increased by 19% in 2011 and 11% in 2012, according to Barclays Capital. Such spending produced only a modest increase in output–about 0.1% increase in crude oil production in 2011, and 2.2% increase in the first 10 months of 2012, based on EIA data. Natural gas production increased by 3.1% in 2011, according to BP. Estimates for 2012 are not yet available.
If we want to “grow” oil and gas production at all, businesses will need to keep investing increasing amounts of money (and energy) into oil and gas extraction. For this to happen, prices paid by consumers for oil and gas will need to continue to rise. In the US, there is a particular problem, because the selling price of natural gas is now far below what it costs shale gas producers to produce it–a price estimated to be $8 by Steve Kopits of Douglas Westwood. The Henry Hub spot natural gas price is now only $3.38.
The question now is whether oil and gas investment will keep rising fast enough to keep production rising. Barclays is forecasting only a 7% increase in worldwide oil and gas investment in 2013. According to the forecast, virtually none of the investment growth will come from North America, apparently because oil and gas prices are not currently high enough to justify the high-priced projects needed. The flat investment forecast by Barclays suggests a major disconnect between what the IEA is saying–that North America is on its way to becoming an energy exporter–and the actual actions of oil and gas companies based on current price levels. Of course, if oil and gas prices would go higher, more investment might be made–a point I made when writing about the IEA analysis.
What will the ultimate impact be on the economy?
I would argue that for most of the developed (OECD) countries, the ultimate impact will be a long-term contraction of the economy, similar to that illustrated in Scenario 2 of Figure 4.
What happens is that as we increasingly reach limits, more and more investment capital (and physical use of oil) is allocated toward the investment sinkholes. This has a double effect:
(1) The prices paid for resources that are subject in investment sinkholes need to continue to rise, in order to continue to attract enough investment capital. This is true both for goods that directly come from investment sinkholes (oil, gas and water) and from products that have a less direct connection, but depend on rising-cost inputs (such as food and electricity).
(2) Products outside of essential goods and services will increasingly be starved of investment capital and physical resources. This happens partly because of the greater investment needs in the sinkhole areas. Also, as consumers pay increasing amounts for essential goods and service because of (1), they cut back on the purchase of discretionary items, reducing demand for non-essentials.
In some real sense, because of the sinkhole investment phenomenon, we are getting less and less back for every dollar invested (and every barrel of oil invested). This phenomenon as applied to energy resources is sometimes referred to as declining Energy Return on Energy Invested.
As discussed above, world oil supply in recent years is quite close to flat (Figure 3). The flat supply of oil is further reduced by the additional oil investment required by sinkhole projects, such as the ones Saudi Arabia is undertaking. Also, there is a tendency for the developing world to attract a disproportionate share of the oil supply that is available, because they can leverage its use to a greater extent. Both of these phenomena lead to a shrinking oil supply for OECD countries.
The combination of shrinking OECD oil supply, together with the need for oil for many functions necessary for economic growth, leads to a tendency for the economies of OECD nations to shrink. It is hard to see an end to this shrinkage, because there really is no end to the limits we are reaching. No one has invented a substitute for water, or for unpolluted air. People talk about inventing a substitute for oil, but biofuels and intermittent electricity are very poor substitutes. Often substitutes have even higher costs, adding to the investment sinkhole problem, rather than solving it.
Where we are now
When resource prices rise, the impact is felt almost immediately. Salaries don’t rise at the same time oil prices rise, so consumers have to cut back on some purchases of discretionary goods and services. The initial impact is layoffs in discretionary sectors of the economy. Within a few years, however, the layoff problems are transformed into central government debt problems. This happens because governments need to pay benefits to laid-off workers at the same time they are collecting less in taxes.
The most recent time we experienced the full impact of rising commodity prices was in 2008-2009, but we are not yet over these problems. The US government now has a severe debt problem. As the government attempts to extricate itself from the high level of debt it has gotten itself into, citizens are again likely to see their budgets squeezed because of higher taxes, lay-offs of government workers, and reduced government benefits. As a result, consumers will have less to spend on discretionary goods and service. Layoffs will occur in discretionary sectors of the economy, eventually leading to more recession.
Over time, we can expect the investment sinkhole problem to get worse. In time, the impact is likely to look like long-term contraction, as illustrated in Scenario 2 of Figure 4.
Is there an End to the Contraction?
It is hard to see a favorable outcome to the continued contraction. Our current financial system depends on long-term growth. The impact on it is likely to be huge stress on the financial system and a large number of debt defaults. It is even possible we will see a collapse of the financial system, or of some governments.
In a way, what we are talking about is the Limits to Growth problem modeled in the 1972 book by that name. It is the fact that we are reaching limits in many ways simultaneously that is causing our problem. There are theoretical ways around individual limits, but putting them together makes the cost impossibly high for the consumer, and places huge financial stress on governments.
Off the keyboard of Steve fromVirginia
Published on Economic Undertow on February 10, 2013
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The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources made a presentation to native peoples’ tribal leaders in the state last fall regarding oil and gas production in the Bakken area, (PDF alert). It’s a comprehensive report and worth the time to examine it. This jumped out:
Figure 1: the cost of Brent crude vs. the ability of crude customers to pay for it made graphic, from TFC Charts. What the chart can’t say is that the industrial world is impoverished by the high cost of crude in a vicious cycle. What it also doesn’t show is that real fuel prices will increase relative to other costs, even when nominal prices decline. Funds must be diverted toward obtaining fuel away from the purchase of non-fuel goods and services. When the drillers gain credit the customers are deprived of it … the alternative is less fuel.
Little has changed over the past two weeks except that Brent prices are a little higher due to war fears in the Middle East, moral hazard by central banks and nonsense bullish frenzy that has overtaken asset speculators. Right now, customers are borrowing at the expense of drillers. If the prices climb high enough, listen for ugly noises from the euro-zone or Japan as the higher prices bite hard … and businesses (banks) start to fail. That will be the end of the bullishness.
Keep in mind if the economy starts deleveraging (again), there is little the establishment and central banks can do but stand aside and wring their hands. Everything has been committed already: interest rates are at near zero, governments are at the borrowing limit, there is little in the way of collateral remaining for central banks to take on as security for new loans.
Speculators don’t realize conditions are fundamentally different this time … nations, regions, individuals and firms have experienced temporary shortages of fuel, credit and other resources in the past due to wars, droughts and other disruptions: the world in its entirety has never run out of energy before, which is what is underway right now.
|Crude Oil (WTI)||USD/bbl.||95.72||-0.11||-0.11%||Mar 13||17:15:00|
|Crude Oil (Brent)||USD/bbl.||118.90||+1.66||+1.42%||Mar 13||18:00:00|
|RBOB Gasoline||USd/gal.||305.88||+5.89||+1.96%||Mar 13||17:15:00|
Is $118 the new $147? Here is another look from Stuart Staniford:
Figure 2: Brent and WTI performing together on the same stage (click on for big). The lower West Texas Intermediate price is good for refiners who can sell products outside the Midwest at the world price. This is a burden for drillers as Bakken formation supports the most expensive, fastest depleting wells on Earth. Landlocked wells put the squeeze on drillers: if the Bakken oil field was near the Gulf coast, drillers could sell their crude at the Brent price, putting the squeeze on refiners instead.
– Drillers have to keep pace with depletion in the Bakken and similar tight fields so large numbers of wells have to be drilled continuously.
– Drillers also have to keep pace with depletion in conventional formations which is occurring at a rate + 4% per year.
– Drillers in the US face an inhospitable environment: oil-field labor shortages, skeptical regulators, anti-fracking activists and the price squeeze.
Rune Likvern (Oil Drum) called keeping up with Bakken depletion rates ‘Running With the Red Queen’ Drillers need to punch holes in the ground at ever-increasing rates just to maintain current rates of output. Any slacking in efforts and flows of product decline sharply, says Likvern:
In reality, it was the growth in the oil price to an apparent structurally higher level that secured commercial support for crude oil production from shales. In that respect it was the oil price that was the true game changer and unleashed the “shale/tight oil revolution”. There is a saying that goes like; “Do not listen to what they say (technology). Look at what they are doing! (spending borrowed money)”. This may as well go for the Bakken formation. The oil service giant Baker Hughes recently expressed concerns about slowing activity levels in shale plays if oil prices moved below $80/Bbl. Further the oil companies Marathon and Occidental recently cut back on their activities in the Bakken formation. Oil and gas companies still care about the colors of the numbers at the bottom line for their projects.
Figure 3: Running with the Ace of Spades: by the time the transportation mess is straightened out the Bakken fields will be depleted.
Coastal refiners must pay world prices for crude while selling high cost products. As a result of the squeeze, coastal refiners are going out of business. Here is a clip from Stillwater Associates:
US East Coast Refinery for Sale: Who’s Buying? Earlier in September, Sunoco had announced plans to sell its Marcus Hook and Philadelphia, PA refineries, noting that the refineries had been profitable for only two of the last 10 quarters, and stating that both refineries would be idled in July 2012 if buyers have not been found. However, in an early November conference call with analyst, Lynn Elsenhans, Sunoco’s CEO and Chairman, stated that “…if at any point we believe it’s in the best interest of the shareholders to either stop operating (Marcus Hook and Philadelphia) or change their utilization rate, up or down, even if that’s before July, 2012, we would take the appropriate action.” Sunoco Refining and Supply reported a $17 million pretax loss for 3Q 2011, the ninth quarter out of the last 11 for which Sunoco Refining and Supply lost money.When ConocoPhillips announced that it was seeking a buyer for the Trainer refinery, Willie Chiang, then ConocoPhillips’ Senior Vice President of Refining, Marketing, Transportation and Commercial, noted that their decision to sell, like Sunoco’s, was based on unfavorable economics caused by a competitive and difficult market environment characterized by “…product imports, weakness in motor fuel demand, and costly regulatory requirements.”So, who will buy these refineries?
Valero has been mentioned by some as a possible buyer, but Valero exited the refining business on the US East Coast when it sold its Paulsboro, NJ and Delaware City, DE refineries in 2010. Valero has said it plans to move gasoline from its recently acquired Pembroke, UK refinery, which can process heavier sour crude, to the US East Coast.
Keep in mind, the transport bottleneck is the reason for so much gas flaring in tight oil formations. Gas does not command a price high enough to support a crash program to build out distribution infrastructure. Meanwhile, enough gas to heat a big city like Minneapolis is wasted.
Keith Schaefer @ Oil and Gas Investment Bulletin says:
A vertical well into a conventional oil field costs something like $1 million. The Bakken’s horizontal, multi-stage frack wells cost an average of $9 million, according to the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. That’s a huge upfront cost. Each well produces approximately 615,000 barrels of oil, meaning the breakeven price for each Bakken well ends up in the $70-$90/barrel range, once taxes, royalties, and expenses are included. If oil prices slump below that level, a lot of people say Bakken wells aren’t worth the cost.
A lot of people like grade school arithmetic teachers. Because businesses cannot lose money perpetually, low prices keep crude in the ground … conservation by other means.
As the wells in the Bakken grow closer together, initial production rates are sliding. According to some sets of data, average first year well output climbed steadily from 2005 to a peak in mid-2010, then declined almost 25% over the following 12 months. With more wells tapping into the same resources, there is simply less oil pressure available to each well. And when initial well output starts to fall, an accelerating number of new wells must be brought online to sustain overall production volumes.Such is the heart of the pessimist argument: that sliding initial flow rates will tag-team with the Bakken’s high decline rates to mean that, no matter how many new wells are drilled, production will stagnate.
One thing to keep in mind is when oil-bearing rock is fractured, it is turned into gravel, the stones held apart by propants: sand or ceramic grains. Once rock is fractured, it cannot be fractured a second time. Fracking is ‘one and done’.
Of course, the real problems are on the consumption side, not the production. Consumption is waste, it does not and cannot pay for itself. What does the heavy lifting is debt and lots of it. We’ve had debt around for so long we’ve gotten used to it. What we are starting to realize is the monumental cost alongside the impossible debt dynamic. The debts are too large to repay only refinance with new debts. Meanwhile, costs including repayment obligations compound exponentially. We ‘fix’ debt problems by taking on new debts, falling deeper into a hole with each round of debt.
The outlines of our condition are becoming more defined, the clock is ticking … Numerian says (Economic Populist) HT Usman:
Even if another credit blow-out occurred, we all know how that would end – very badly, as in 2008 credit crisis all over again. Unfortunately, without another credit splurge the results are the same. When the credit stops flowing, income is hit hard, because most of the growth in income in the economy is produced by debt, and it is not organic growth that would result from a normal recovery generated through capital investment, wage and benefit increases, revenue advances, and expanded global trade. This is precisely what the Fed understands, and why it is expanding its balance sheet ceaselessly, and enabling the Congress and Administration to build up debt at the tune of a trillion dollars a year. All this credit is the lifeblood of the economy, allowing the government to make Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid payments, feed 48 million people through food stamps, fight wars in multiple hot spots around the world, pay interest on the debt to keep bondholders happy, and shift unemployment money to the states. The problem for the Fed is that the unraveling is already beginning. The stock market may be testing its highs, and 50 out of 50 economists may be anticipating a solid economic recovery, but without new sources of credit that is going to be impossible to achieve. Credit has already dried up in the real economy, which is why you hear so many retailers say “nobody has any money” …
“Nobody has any money …” should be familiar: What the chart can’t say is that the industrial world is impoverished by the high cost of crude in a vicious cycle.
When credit stops flowing, income is hit hard because ALL of the growth in income in the economy is produced by debt … without it there is no industry!
What we are experiencing are two interrelated phenomena: an energy shortage due to our wonderful economic ‘success’ over a period of 400 years and the consequences of exponential growth of loans needed to ‘buy’ this success..
Debt is taken on to capitalize industries and their customers. More debt is taken on later to fill the pockets of the industrialists and roll over the first rounds of debt. Finally, debt is taken on the service the previous rounds and nothing more, the economy is saturated with debt.
The first round of debt gains the industrialist tools to produce goods and provides customers with purchasing power. The second round gives the industrialist his fortune and repays the venture capitalist: during this round fewer tools are gained and less in the way of goods are produced. The third round pays the moneylenders’ interest and nothing more, customers and industries are bankrupted by their debts.which are unproductive. Eventually, the moneylenders also fail.
‘Moneylenders’ here must also include the central banks.
Our economy is in the third stage and has been here for awhile, perhaps since 1980 and the ‘Reagan Revolution’.
Added to this is the ongoing shortage of liquid fuels which results in higher prices which must be met with debt. The cost of new fuel rises past what customers can borrow using fuel waste … as collateral. Waste of the fuel does not provide an organic return so all returns must be borrowed adding to the demand for debt… during a period when productivity of debt is diminished.
More about central bank-n-market head-fakery and wishful thinking, (Naked Capitalism):
Is the Euro Crisis Over? By Robert Guttmann, Professor of Economics at Hofstra University and a visiting Professor at University of Paris, Nord. Cross posted from Triple Crisis.A strange calm has settled over Europe. Following Mr. Draghi’s July 2012 promise “to do whatever it takes” to save the euro, which the head of the European Central Bank followed shortly thereafter with a new program of potentially unlimited bond buying known as “outright monetary transactions,” the market panic evaporated. Since then super-high bond yields have come down to more reasonable levels, allowing fiscally and financially stressed debtor countries in the euro-zone to (re)finance their public-sector borrowing needs a lot more easily than before. Even Greece has been able to borrow in the single-digits for the first time in three years.This calming of once-panicky debt markets has led to optimistic assessments that the worst of the crisis has passed. Draghi himself declared at the beginning of the new year that the euro-zone economy would start recovering during the second half of 2013. He talked of a “positive contagion” taking root whereby the mutually reinforcing combination of falling bond yields, rising stock markets and historically low volatility would set the positive market environment for a resumption of economic growth across the euro zone. Christine Lagarde, as the head of the IMF part of the “troika” (i.e. ECB, IMF, and European Commission) managing the euro-zone crisis, declared at the World Economic Forum in Davos a few weeks ago that collapse had been avoided, making 2013 a “make-or-break year.”
Here is conventional economic analysis that never gets around to mentioning energy.
– A strange calm has settled over Europe … following Mr. Draghi’s July 2012 promise “to do whatever it takes” to save the euro,
Draghi didn’t actually do anything, he talked about it.
– the market panic evaporated.
That’s an assumption. The more likely is credit strangulation eased a bit.
– This calming of once-panicky debt markets has led to optimistic assessments that the worst of the crisis has passed.
Not by a long shot, the crisis is the cost of energy and the inability of the Europeans to earn anything by wasting it.
– we can see that Ireland, Spain, Portugal or even Greece have been able to lower their current-account deficits substantially,
Automobile sales in these countries along with France have collapsed, petroleum use has significantly declined. Consequently, there is less fuel being imported by these countries. Keep in mind, their fuel use will decline to zero if they do not effect conservation measures. What is underway is not a rehearsal, it is the effects of entropy being felt along with diminishing supply of fuel overall. Fuel is being rationed, conservation by other means.
– renewed turmoil in the sovereign-bond markets will be just a matter of time. Most troubling in this context is the doom-loop dynamic of persistent fiscal austerity across the continent.
Withholding credit is a way to compel the export of European fuel consumption to credit issuers such as the US. Any fuel not burned in Italy or Spain is available to be burned in Los Angeles. America’s energy ‘surplus’ is by way of theft from Europe and elsewhere, not fracking. The problem with the professor is he is not cynical enough!
– This dialectic centers above all on the euro’s trade-adjusted exchange rate.
Not in the sense that the professor implies: the more deflation-priced euro gives those who hold it the means to buy fuel at a bit of a discount … and an incentive to keep the euro. Any replacement currency would be depreciated violently, there would be small likelihood of any petroleum exporter accepting any replacement currency other than d-marks.
– will undermine the competitiveness of the euro-zone’s economies,
The assumption is that countries like Greece or Portugal are industrial countries with factories filled with overpaid proletarian workers like China. Instead, they are senior centers filled with retirees. Peoples’ pensions are being looted, this is called ‘competitiveness’, stealing on a grand scale is what is showing up on the ‘stats’.
– But the euro-zone cannot afford this stop-go pattern of policy-making in the face of a systemic crisis. It will have to undertake far-reaching reform on several fronts beyond what Europe’s leading politicians have been willing to entertain.
Europe is being de-carred by pauperizing the populations. The necessary reform is for governments to take charge of this dynamic and decar the continent on purpose while sparing the citizens. Europe can stand to jettison its useless cars and the fuel waste these things represent. It is the waste that has undermined the European — and world — economies, not trivial real interest rate movements or currency exchange rates. These last are abstractions, petroleum waste is permanent: when the fuel is gone baby, it’s gone, forever.
Off the keyboard of RE
Published originally on The Burning Platform on Novemeber 17, 2010
Discuss this article at the Frostbite Falls Daily Rant inside the Diner
My father rode a camel, I drive a car, my son flys a jet plane, his son will
ride a camel. -Old Saudi Saying
A recent thread here brought up Richard Duncan’s Olduvai Theory, which basically states that with decreasing per capita energy availability, we are eventually destined to return to the Stone Age in terms of our technology, with a fairly precipitous decline which began sometime in the late 1970s, and should put us back in the 1930s era by 2030 or so. Whenever I bring up this possibility, I get the same Kneejerk Rections, that the possibility that Homo Sapiens is destined to be using Stone Knives and dressed in Bearskins is Science Fiction on a par with ET landing in Elliot’s Garage and Phoning Home. I’d like to try to examine the ideas for how valid they might or might not be, along with what the actual timeline might be for a technological retracement
First off, as far as my own knowledge of this theory, I only found out about it quite some time after I joined the Peak Oil message board writing my own take on how our civilization would be affected by the disappearance of easily accessible fossil fuels. My general conclusion was (and for the most part still remains) that we will eventually drop back down to about a 1750s era level of technology, utilizing Sail Power for shipping and animal and human labor for over land transportation and food production. However, I can see some justification for the hypothesis that over a really long term of a millennia or more that we could end up going all the way back to a Neolithic paradigm. This assuming of course we don’t end up going completely extinct either through natural causes like a Supervolcano, or through a Man Made self-extinction through Nuclear War and/or poisoning the planet through further ecological disasters like the Deepwater Horizon in the GOM.
What would the justification be for this? Well, if you assume steadily increasing population here for as long as there is some sort of fossil fuels to access, more people will continue to use up more resources ever faster, even while per capita usage drops. This is reflected in the idea that China with 1.3B people will put as many cars out on the road as we did for the last 50 years, so even if we conserved the fuel would get burned up anyhow. Then we go through the Coal and NG reserves, until in the end the only fuel left to burn is that which grows each year fed by Solar Energy. A Pay as you Go paradigm from that point forward.
Duncan is assuming a few things here which may or may not be true. First one would be that we don’t at least partially replace the lost fossil fuel energy source with Nuke and Renewables. Second and even more important is that he is assuming a pretty steady population increase to keep the fossil fuels consumption up, and thus drop us off the fairly steep curve he draws downward to 2030 or so.
While its not a very pleasant scenario to contemplate, if through War, Pestilence or Famine sometime between now and 2030 we cut World Population in Half, per Capita we could roughly double energy usage with the remaining resource, or raise it 50% while halving the decline rate. If at the same time we make a concerted effort at developing alternative energy resource, we could extend it out further than that. Over a fairly long period of time, the population might shrink down to 1/10th what it is now, or even 1/100th. As long as that shrinkage is not also accompanied by ever increasing energy usage by the smaller population, in theory you REALLY could extend out the timeline of a such a technological society, although no matter how long and with how small a population you work with, eventually you would reach the point where fossil fuels were completely unavailable to use. However, with such a long timeline and such a reduced population, you might be able to Pay as You Go turning Sedge Grass into liquid fuel using enzymatic processes, or some variant of this with Algae or some other rapidly growing organism. Making these assumptions, which are not all that unrealistic, Duncan’s Olduvai Theory doesn’t play out that well.
GIFSoupHowever, that decline of Population commensurate with maintaining current infrastructure and production levels falls apart when you consider the real results of what the competition for the remaining resource will be, which is ever increasing War. For as long as it is possible to get enough Oil to run a Mechanized Army, societies will build such a War Machine, with the specific purpose of taking control of the Oil fields necessary to run that machine. The FIGHT for the remaining Oil is what will use it up faster, along with destroying the infrastructure used to pump up what oil remains and then refine it. This brings about a crash in population and technology that is FASTER than our possible ability to replace it with alternative energy resource. Under this scenario, Duncan’s Olduvai Theory is more justifiable.
Fossil Fuels aren’t the ONLY thing necessary to stay above the Stone Age though, long before we accessed the thermodynamic energy of Oil to run the civilization of Homo Industrialis, we jumped up from Stone Tools to using Metal ones. To smelt and refine those metals though, entire Forests were burned down, along with also Coal being used, but in this projected future there wouldn’t be any Coal left to burn, so in terms of burning stuff to create the heat necessary to create all those metal tools, you would need another heat source. This of course could be provided by Nuke Energy, but again you have to remember that the Fight for the Oil resource probably would ALSO end up destroying any Nuke Reactors. Even if they all were not destroyed, just maintaining them and keeping them operational takes Oil, and they only have around a 50 year lifespan anyhow before they need to be decommissioned or all their internal parts replaced due to constant exposure to high energy radiation.
Taking all this into consideration, Duncan’s Olduvai Theory seems to me to be possible over a pretty long timeline, but its NOT a return to the Stone Age in a Century. In under a Century, at the very least you still have plenty of already mined up and refined metals to work with to create tools and build or rebuild with. In under that timeline, you still have a good deal of Coal left to run Forges with and reuse all that metal. Metal by itself forgetting the advantages we get from more complex machines was a HUGE step up the ladder from the Stone Age. Metal Knives, Farm Implements, Tools like Crosscut Saws hell just NAILS to bang together a housing structure or boat made of wood is a big advantage over just using a Stone Hand Axe to roughly hew out some wood and put it together with mortice and tenet joints and lashings. As big a Doomer as I am, I don’t see any scenario likely in even half a millennia where we wouldn’t have NAILS to use. If you backtrack in time 500 years to 1500 or so, they certainly were not living in the Stone Age. So if Duncan’s Olduvai Theory is correct, its going to take a pretty long time to Reverse Engineer our way back there, probably pretty close to the 5000 years or so it took to work our way OUT of the Neolithic lifestyle to begin with.
Most people aren’t too concerned about what the long term fate of Homo Sapiens is here, really they are about 60% concerned with how things are going to play out in their own lifetime, and the other 40% in what will happen to their Kids. If they have Grandkids already born, they have somewhat less concern over their own lives (mostly over already), and transfer that concern to the Grandkids, for something like maybe 30% your own life, 30% your kids lives and 40% your grandkids or something like that. So the max timeline anyone really cares to consider here usually is the next 50-100 years. What might that look like here under the most plausible scenario I can conjure up?
Well first off like MANY other Doomers on the net, I see a major War for Resources (Oil, Water and arable Land mainly) coming down the pipe here. It probably will have both a Civil (local) component as well as a Global component. Whenever the Global portion of this does really take off, I doubt it would take more than 5 years for all the good Military Hardware to be at the bottom of Davey Jones Locker and most of the Oil production infrastructure to be irretrievably destroyed. I don’t forsee Global Thermonuclear War of the Wargames Scenario with the WOPRs pitching out 100s of MIRVs and sending us into a Nuclear Winter. Rather I see Tactical Nukes being used on the battlefield, Dirty Bombs being used in some cases for Terrorism purposes, and certainly from all sides involved the effort to diminish the war making capability of the other side by destroying their Oil infrastructure of Refineries. The outcome of this is so Devastating and Incalculable that by itself its usually the point at which most folks stop considering how it will all play out. The Big Shitties all starved of Oil to run the water pumping stations and sewage treatment plants turns ALL of them into a virtual Mirror Image of what is going on in Port Au Prince in Haiti right now. No fancy Flu Virus concocted in an Illuminati Lab necessary, good old fashioned CHOLERA will bloom in all these Cesspools waiting to happen.
Once the Conduits begin to fail in earnest resulting from Global destruction of the Conduits, Local Populations everywhere will be left on their own to first off try to Protect and Defend their locales from an OCEAN of Refugees (aka Zombies), which has these areas mostly become Feudalized mini-states run by Warlords. Next, they will have to make themselves Sustainable in just what they produce within their borders. This will be a major challenge for most of these neighborhoods. Without any Oil Product to run any of the machines, without the ability to pump water up from aquifers to irrigate the land, without high energy fertilizers to increase yields, without pesticides to keep crop losses minimal, and at least at the beginning without a whole lotta Draft Animals to help do the physical work necessary, they will be producing a whole heck of a lot less off their local landscape than they do now, even if it IS good land for growing. Cross your fingers for each of these areas they have a local Permaculture Expert who will instruct them on how to get fabulous yields organically with Heirloom Seeds which will Breed True and conserve and save the seeds to grow another generation of crops the following season.
In effect here, due to extreme dislocation which results from WAR causing a very rapid removal of the Oil resource from the current population dependent on it, I just do not think it will take very long at ALL for a ST Matthews Island Deer depopulation to take place in many places. It’s a cascade failure of systems. 5-10 years from the time the Technological War of Mechanized Armies really gets going in the Resource War before it consumes the Resources necessary to feed such an army, 10-50 years after that for the remaining local populations to decrease in size themselves to a level sustainable on their local resources. In 50-100 years, you will have a MUCH reduced population size, but you STILL will not be Stone Age. There will still be TONS of copper wire to Scavenge, tons of Steel and even still mega Tons of coal available to mine up and use in your forges. The resultant Technological level at this time is nowhere near so low as Stone Age. Its 1750 all over again, the main difference being that what went down before did a seriously good job with depleting many good Ag areas of nutrients now washed out to sea and a fairly well poisoned Fisherie in most of the good fishing grounds along with much coral reef destruction that will prevent the fisherie from rapidly returning to its former levels of fecundity. All these factors will make scraping a living out of the ground a lot harder than it was on the way up the ladder, which leads to a still further undershoot of the Homo Sapiens population possible on the planet even on a pay as you go paradigm.
If you ran this one Logarithmically, factor down 10 fold in the initial loss resulting from Conduit Failure in the Big Shitties from the Techno War; factor down another 10 fold resulting from the inability of the surviving population to produce as much food from their local area as before TSHTF; and factor down another 10 fold from overall depletion and destruction of environmental resources that produce food, you get a 1000:1 population reduction over a timespan of about a Century. So an Initial Population prior to the Die Off of Homo Industrialis starts out TODAY at around 6.3B, in about a Century it drops down to 6.3M. This is MASSIVE Undershoot, because even in around 1500 there were 500M people living on Earth. So this might be an overestimate either in how fast the die off takes place or what percentage loss there is in any phase. Still, barring a miracle here, I can’t see how we will not drop down to a max of 1B people over the next century, so for most of your current progeny, best case scenario is they got a 50-50 shot at making it through the next 50 years. You can console yourself though with the knowledge that if they do in fact survive, they most probably will not be living in Duncan’s Neo-Stone Age, but rather on a Techno level something closer to 1750’s era technology.
We still have a few questions to answer though. Even if you assume all the above as plausible, does even a destruction of the current population on the planet down to 6M Human Souls, or even a FURTHER destruction below that down to just 10, 000 Human Souls as happened after the Toba Bottleneck mean that Homo Sapiens will NEVER be so technologically advanced as he is today? Hell no, in 75,000 years Homo Sapiens might well develop sustainable Pay as you Go methods of harvesting energy, just it is wholly unlikely we would ever again have such an enormous footprint on the planet in terms of numbers. I also do not think that even had we been the most careful stewards possible of our Energy Resources that we would ever get off the Planet to go populating the Stars in Interstellar Spacecraft. Sending some Rockets around the Solar System was about as much as we could manage, and the other planets aren’t suited for life as we know it. Creating and building spacecraft that could negotiate interstellar distances and having the energy resource necessary for such travel is about as far beyond our abilities as it is for an Ant to build and fly a Drone Aircraft to bomb Afghani Ants. We aren’t destined to populate the Stars, our corporeal existence is fixed to this Planet, and always will be for as long as Homo Sapiens avoids an Extinction event on the planet. If you accept that to be true, then why AT ALL is it necessary to aspire to ever higher levels of technological advancement in the first place?
This is REALLY where I diverge from Richard Duncan. The subtext of his argument is that our foolishness with wasting the one time gift we got of the Fossil Fuel resource “condemns” Humanity to a “primitive” life with Stone Age technology. As I perceive it, life was a whole lot BETTER when people lived with Stone Age technology than they do now. Yes I realize how parochial such a viewpoint is, since I don’t live that way and likely never would be able to the way I was brought up in the Age of Oil. Still, knowing what we know NOW, did acquiring Agriculture and then Metal Working and then Industrialization REALLY make life BETTER? Its OUTCOME was a thoroughly Polluted Ecosystem, huge unsustainable Big Shitties, endless Wars for Resources and Control, a horiffically stratified society of Haves and Have Nots which in the end can only succeed in consuming itself with its own GREED. How can anyone see this as a good result?
You do not need I-phones or Computers or Plasma TVs to lead an introspective life examining existence. Galileo and Copernicus and Newton were at least as good mathematicians as any Hedge Fund Manager today sitting at his Bloomberg Terminal. You do not need Space Ships to Explore the Universe. 1000 years ago with Stone Age Technology, Polynesian Navigators without a GPS and without even a magnetic compass used their observations of the Heavens and the rhythm of the Sea to successfully Navigate between Hawaii and the Society Islands. Thousands of years ago, great writers observed the Human Condition and told the Stories later written down to be collective Human Wisdom in the Bible. All of their lives were RICH in thought and exploration. There are NO LIMITS to the Human Mind, and in fact it is the dependence on the crutch of technology that most limits us today, and which looks to be the Achilles Heel of our Civilization. We have been CONSUMED by an obsession with the physical world, money over spirit. True GROWTH of the Human Mind is LIMITLESS in the world of the Spirit. Perhaps when all this is said and done with, whomsoever is left standing will grasp this, and a greater and better form of Homo Sapiens will emerge in the long distant future. Hopefully BEFORE Yellowstone throws 5000 cu km of Ejecta into the atmosphere and wipes the spark of sentience we have off the face of the Earth forever more.
Of course getting from here to there is going to be a BITCH, and it’s the short term stuff most folks are concerned with not the eventual fate of sentience on Earth. So we ground ourselves mostly in the day to day spin down of our economic system. Will it end in a new Stone Age? Unlikely in the near term. Will it result in a whole lot of Dead People. Quite a bit more likely. Meantime I will just try to avoid being one of those dead people too soon.
See You on the Other Side.
Off the keyboard of RE
Published originally on the Doomstead Diner
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Table inside the Diner
My good friend and Cross Posting Blogger here on the Diner Steve from Virginia published an article this week called Watch the Banks…. on his Blog Economic Undertow. It’s one of Steve’s trademarks to title many posts with three Periods after them….LOL. I cross posted the article here on the Diner yesterday. It touches on many themes explored here on the Diner with respect to the Creation of Money, and how Biznesses function in this economy, both Large & Small.
Indeed, watching the Banks is the KEY element in following the progress of the collapse. The “System of the World” as Neal Stephenson put it, the Monetary system we all depend on is run by a few Large Banking Houses, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs et al, and the Central Banks they control like the ECB, the BoJ, the BoE, the PBoC and of course Da Fed as well. All coordinated through the Bank for International Settlements Headquartered in Basel, Switzerland. The BEST way to follow the Collapse in Progress is to watch the machinations and currency manipulations being undertaken to keep this very large and complex stucture floating another day.
One of the Key Points Steve touches on in his article relates to the primacy of “Small Bizness” as an Economic Driver, in a sense making the postulate that Small Biz preceeds Big Biz in the development of an Economy. Does it REALLY though? As I see it, perhaps in the Dawn of History for Homo Sapiens Small Biz preceeded Big Biz, but since the development of large scale Agiculture around 8000 years ago, the opposite has been true, and the main economic drivers for this period were the large scale generally Slave Driven Ag enterprises and the War Machine they support and which supports it in a synergistic relationship.
Steve and I have already gone a few rounds in debating how this economy develops on Economic Undertow, I will include these posts as a preface to better grasp the global issues.
I don’t think any “small bizness” earns any “organic returns”, at least not while all biznesses operate under a failing currency structure.
Small Biz is essentially Parasitical off of Big Biz. If Big Biz borrows Capital to put up say a GM Auto Plant in Janesville, Doctors, Dentists, Property Sellers, Retailers and Restaraunters all open up small biz that sieve off the central source of money.
When the Big Factory shuts down, all the Small Bizmen go Broke too, even if they took out no Loans to grow the Biz. Customers with MONEY are no longer in the neighborhood buying their goods or bidding up the price of housing. Just the monthly overhead of the Restaraunt makes them insolvent.
Without Large Public Works feeding money at great scale out into the economy, the ancillary small biz all goes broke too. I wrote about this on the Diner in the Large Public Works Project series.
For the recent Generation in the Age of Oil, the BIG LPWP was the Interstate, and then the Shopping Malls and McMansions that built up around the Ring Roads.
Without such LPWPs, there is no way to distribute out centrally created “money” which has any value. There is nothing for Small Biz to sieve off.
It is unlikely we will create any new LPWP to replace the one built courtesy of the thermodynamic energy of fossil fuels over the last 3 centuries or so. In the absence, Money on the Grand Scale of International Finance will irretrievably FAIL.
Whether any more Local forms of Money can be substituted remains an Open Question.
RE, there is a big information gap before industrialization.
The Middle Ages were as prosperous as Roman period and succeeding modern periods, not for all at all times but the same can be said of the present. Americans live better than Kenyans, Venetians lived better than Saxons in England after William arrived. What mattered most in Europe was tide of war.
Post-Constantine, the wealth of the Western Roman Empire was directed toward the church and away from government and the private sector: this was a big reason for the decline then collapse of the empire. The church made itself the beneficiary of all estates without heirs or issue, over centuries it absorbed vast amounts of property from extinct estates. It became property recorder and mediator of disputes great and small, which gained it fees. The Western Roman government became unable to compete with the church as a business enterprise.
The militaristic Franks eventually absorbed and reorganzed Roman activities in Western Europe, trade was continuous from Asia to Spain, trade centers such as Genoa, Siena, Venice, Constantinople became rich.
The traders in the 8th century were wealthy and successful … as any number of ‘entrepreneurs’ today. They borrowed their fortunes and hived to costs onto their trading partners!
The Romans understood steam power but not plate glass or railroads. Franks understood printing but not moveable type or firearms. The Chinese understood rocketry but not airfoils. Information was hard to come by, in the West the church had a monopoly on education as well as on books. It took moveable type — and a series of bloody wars — to break the church’s information cartel.
The war periods inform the public imagination of European life, up until the rise of publicly available information in 15th century.
This is also when looted gold from the Western Hemisphere began to arrive on European shores by the shipload:
– It financed the renaissance,
– it triggered the largest, longest-duration bout of hyperinflation in history, over 100 years, over America, Europe and Asia,
– it financed the industrial revolution,
– it financed the rise of Netherlands and UK as naval powers to rival Spain,
– it also financed the 13 British colonies,
– it financed 2 centuries of religious wars in Europe which ended with the collapse of the papacy’s temporal power.
Spain ended up bankrupt, Portugal and Netherlands were severed from Spain, both France and Italy expelled entrenched foreign influences to become powerful nation-states, the Holy Roman Empire dissipated to reformulate itself over time as modern Germany … Ireland became a slave state of England, which itself endured a violent revolution and civil war to become a military power … the English civil war extended overseas to North America ending with the American Revolution, then a revolution against the French monarchy. Afterwards came Bonaparte. All of this and much more besides was paid for with Peruvian and Mexican gold (some Eastern European silver, too).
Between wars and recoveries there was a lot of room for enterprise. Both Europe, China and South Asia were wealthy, during the Middle Ages there was strong demand for consumer goods such as sumptuous clothing, carriages, villas and town houses, exotic foods, private botanical gardens and arboretums, paintings and sculpture, illuminated books, lavish public entertainments, theater productions, permanent installations such as public parks, fountains, bridges, stone-paved roads, elaborate structures such as enclosed markets and forums for public gatherings, gigantic cathedrals (filled in places with Roman articles), private galleys, teams of horses, livestock, etc. A common complaint was that people could not determine who was wealthy or a noble and who was not because the commoners wore the same or better clothing. All of these things were made by more or less small-scale craft level workshops, lots of them.
Any town would have stone-and brick masons, a quarry, a brick maker, a foundry, a tannery, a carpenter, a blacksmith, a tinker (make pots and pans), silver- and gold smiths, embroidery shops, tapestry weavers, yarn spinners, shoe-and boot makers, stable hands, street pavers, armorers, arborists, vintners and brewers, gardeners, window makers, musical instrument makers, cabinet makers, roofers, livestock tenders, butchers, barbers, etc. Regardless of ones’ station there was always something to do. Most did not have to toil incessantly, there were many holidays and feasts. The grim peasants in rags … Monty Python or Lord of the Rings.
Most towns in America or Europe do not have any of these things at all: we are dependent upon welfare and television … the poorest medieval town was more prosperous than any of our towns today!
Steve, you won’t get an argument from me that Medieval Towns were more self-sufficient than modern cities, of course they were. From an economic standpoint though, all those Craftsmen you revere so much STILL were parasites off the Big Biz of the era, which was mainly Ag and Warfare.
First off, the fact most goods and services were produced locally meant that commoners used little money at all, they bartered. If you needed the services of the local Quack to Bleed you due to contacting Plague, you paid him 2 chickens. If you Tanned nice skins, you traded them for a bushel of potatoes. etc.
The main way money got into the economy was from Soldiering and Plundering. The local Lord would conscript up promising to Pay in Silver, after they got back from stealing the silver from the next county over. Eventually of course they consolidated up to Kingships and incipient Nation-States of course, then went about ripping off Gold wholesale from the New World, leading to the inflationary period you spoke of. VERY Big Bizness there!
The other way money got distributed out was through the Holy Roman Catholic Chuch (the Mega-Corp of the Era) in the building of Cathedrals, the Large Public Works Projects of the era. This of course provided lots of work for Stone Masons, Carpenters, Stain Glass Window artists, etc. If your Community could get the HRCC to build a Cathedral in your nabe, it was a thriving little Metropolis. No Cathedral, you were a dirt poor backwater town.
As it further evolved, the Big Biz of Plundering via Tall Ships equipped with Cannon led to those next Massive Corps, the Brit and Dutch East India Companies. Said Big Biz of course provided tons of work for Shipwrights, Carpenters, Sail Makers, yadda yadda not to mention the guys forging the 20 pounder Cannon, which was NOT done in a small Blacksmith’s shop.
In the background of all of this of course were the Financiers, floating Stock Issues in Amsterdam and London, and in fact in 1692 when the BoE was chartered, they were pretty much Fresh Out of Gold, as the Spanish had nailed down the best Gold Theft locations and they got stuck with North America, which until the Railoads got built into the interior did not offer up much gold. They got their money for financing up their colonial adventures courtesy of Master of the Mint Sir Isaac Newton, and began to do well providing Letters of Marque to Pirates who would hit on the Spanish Cargo ships on the High Seas. Their Big Biz controlling the Sea Lanes with the Brit Navy brought in the money that all those local craftsmen used fo commerce.
In all cases going right back to Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, It was the Big Biz of Ag centrally controlled which got the Money going, and the Big Biz of Warfare which brought in the PMs to use for coinage. Large Public Works projects such as the Great Wall(s) of China, the Pyramids, Cathedrals et al were symbols of successful cultures running the Ag-War Economy. All the small craftsmen and small biz expanded to sieve off this economy. They don’t exist independent of it.
Various non-industrial employments in the 18th century:
A Treatise On Indigence: Exhibiting A General View Of The National Resources …
By Patrick Colquhoun
Professional soldiery was a tremendous burden to the state prior to Spanish gold which meant most militaries fielded militias, irregulars or mercenaries. Governments offered letters of marque to privateers to augment their navies.
Another list of medieval (pre-industrial) employments which saves me the effort of making one:
There was another list over on Guy McPherson’s web site but I can’t find it …
To the east of Bethnal Green (London) lies Globe Town, established from 1800 to provide for the expanding population of weavers around Bethnal Green attracted by improving prospects in silk weaving. The population of Bethnal Green trebled between 1801 and 1831, operating 20,000 looms in their own homes. By 1824, with restrictions on importation of French silks relaxed, up to half these looms became idle and prices were driven down. With many importing warehouses already established in the district, the abundance of cheap labor was turned to boot, furniture and clothing manufacture. Globe Town continued its expansion into the 1860s, long after the decline of the silk industry.
The 20,000 looms supported 20,000 households and employed at least that many along with suppliers to the trade, the makers of looms and the houses, the merchants and peddlers of silk goods. This was during periods when population in England was relatively small. Beside Bethnal Green there were other districts in London and in other cities and countries weaving all kinds of cloths … this took place over long periods of time … the citizens always require things to wear. The customers of a country’s goods were often overseas and there was a money trade in even the old Byzantine, Frankish and Roman issues. Before 1520 funds flowed from the East as the Venetians and other Italians traded with the Chinese, the Caliphates, the Turks and Mongols. Afterward the flow was from the West and there was no outbound trade: there was quickly too much money and nothing flowing out to balance it.
The customers of distributed production were pilfered by manufacturers with credit and steam-driven machines, ‘low prices’ and uniformity, the distributed producers working in their houses became little more than serfs.
“Professional soldiery was a tremendous burden to the state prior to Spanish gold which meant most militaries fielded militias, irregulars or mercenaries. Governments offered letters of marque to privateers to augment their navies. “-Steve
The great expense of the non-stop warfare in Europe didn’t prevent it from occurring and driving big bizness. It certainly bankrupted a few treasuries and indebted these Kings to the Banksters also.
The Medieval towns you talk about all grew up around Feudal Estates owned by the Nobility, the Pigmen of their time. Ag was the Energy Driver of this economy, and was Big Monopolized Bizness. War was the other Big Bizness, and there is a good reason those medieval castles had 5 foot thick stone walls around them with Moats, Drawbridges and Porticullises. The townees hadda run there every time some neighboring warlord needed to replenish the Treasury. They didn’t build those castles just for show.
“To the east of Bethnal Green (London) lies Globe Town, established from 1800 to provide for the expanding population of weavers around Bethnal Green attracted by improving prospects in silk weaving. The population of Bethnal Green trebled between 1801 and 1831, operating 20,000 looms in their own homes. ”
Steve,from 1803-1815 the Brits were fighting the Frogs in the Napoleonic Wars!! I’m sure the women were doing fine at home on the loom, but a whole lotta poor limeys were being Bayonetted in the French countryside.
If they weren’t conscripted to fight on French soil, they were being Press Ganged to serve as Gunners on the Frigates of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, consisting mainly of Privateers aka Pirates, a VERY Big Bizness indeed.
Anyhow, I am all for distributed production over Industrial production, but said societies STILL were Central Control Ag-War societies, and the individual craftsmen sieved off of the surplus created by that society.
Anyhow, more tonight, I am just about done with a response article “Small Bizness in the Sea of Irredeemable Debt ” I’ll publish later tonight.
While just about everyone Loves to Hate Big Biz and Corporations, at least in the Heart of most Americans is a Reverance and Respect for the Small Bizman. The Plucky Guy who started with nothing, works for himself Independently and makes a Good Living, even if not getting Rich off of it.
There is the notion that the Small Bizman is the “Backbone of Amerika”, Small Bizmen “Built this Country” etc. Although this is a popular meme and one promulgated in the History Books and the MSM, and even on the pages of numerous Blogs, it is not the TRUTH by any stretch of the imagination.
In any country which runs a Centrally Controlled Monetary System, the plucky Small Bizman is just engaged in the process of trying to accumulate the Accepted Currency of the Nation-State. To Sell at a price higher than he buys at, to pay workers less than the total Value Added to the product so that there is some PROFIT to be made in the extant Currency, against which ALL things, both labor and resource are measured.
Where does this MONEY come from though? If you look at the Dollar for instance, prior to the end of the Revolutionay War separating the Colonies from Jolly Old England, there were ZERO Dollars in existence. War is finished, Founding Fathers get their OWN Printing Press, now Dollars EXIST!
In order to have REAL value of course, these Dollars have to Buy stuff in the real economy. The stuff is the products of the land, through farming, mining and logging to begin with. It gets more complicated as time goes by and more things are created, but even by itself this is enough to understand what goes on here in Money Creation. It is essentially coming from the total resources available to the Political Construct of the Nation-State that Rules over those resources. The Nation-State operates in Synergy with the Money Masters, Banking Houses established long ago which control all Trade and Valuation of any Currency a given Nation-State will create. This is done through Privatization of the Resource Base for any given country, as well as Privatization of the Industrial Infrastructure since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
The newly created dollars get valued against already extant currencies circulating in Europe, Brit “Sterling”, Frog Franks, Kraut Marks, whatever.
The main constraint any given country has in how much currency it can create depends on how the International market will value said currency. When just based on Resources it isn’t horrifically complicated, but once you factor in labor and trade of manufactured goods it gets VERY complicated.
Anyhow, what were only a few Dollars created in 1789 at the end of the Continental CONgress has morphed over the last 200+ years into TRILLIONS of them, and that is just what is listed on the Balance Sheet of Da Fed. Thing is, not JUST Da Fed can create new Dollars, anybody with a Big Enough Bank can do it too! They do it by creating Paper Contracts which have some Notional Worth attached, say a contract to pay off $1M if some company or Nation-State goes BK. These contacts are called Credit Default Swaps, or CDS. Said contract is now traded about as though it is worth $1M, or some fraction of that. It is more “Money” flowing around the notional economy of traders, though it never shows up in the real economy until somebody goes Belly Up, somebody ELSE has to Pay Off on that and then since they can’t because they don’t REALLY have enough to pay off it gets tacked onto the Taxpayer Balance Sheet. IOW, the way this shows up in the real economy in the end is as a LOSS, a BIG ONE.
To return here to our Friend & Hero the Small Bizman, the money this fellow is using to conduct Bizness is all subject to the grand pressures created in the International Money Markets. At any time if/when confidence is lost in a given currency, even the most Prudent Small Bizman can go OUTTA BIZ in an INSTANT.
Let’s take the example of our friends the Nipponese, who make their living converting Oil into Carz and Electronic Gadgets. Because the Demand is falling oveseas for their products, in order to remain “competitive” in the market the Nips want to Devalue their currency. Except if they do that, it will make the Oil Import necessary for production MORE expensive, so no matter how Efficient he is or How Low he can Go on Salaries or how many Robots he can substitute for Homo Sapiens Workers, he STILL will LOSE MONEY!
Every Small Bizman is going to be subject to the FACT that money on the Grand Scale is NOT being loaned out into the general economy. Why not? Because it no longer makes any SENSE for the folks in CONTROL of the resources to do so! The game NOW is to CUT OFF access to the resources, which occurs either by the currency not being distributed (deflation), or excessive currency being distributed (inflation). Either way, the Small Bizman is OUTTA BIZ.
The ONLY folks with access to the Money to keep on going here with this paradigm at the moment are those at the very TOP, closest to the Center of Money Creation. Since the Industrial Age began, this Center began in Venice under the Medici Banking Family, moved to Amsterdam and London, then to Wall Street and after that to Hong Kong, Singapore and Beijing. In the end of course, it will all collapse. The resources are no longer there to back it up. The debt cannot be collected anymore. It is IRREDEEMABLE Debt.
To try to simplify this, imagine the entire World Economy as the Big Island of Hawaii right after the first Catamaran rigged Sailing Canoe made it there from the Marquesa Islands around a Millenia Ago. The Island is the WHOLE ECONOMY, which the smart Navigator who piloted the Canoe claims as HIS OWN. The way he Distributes out HIS resources to everybody elso is to LOAN them Money to buy said resource. Which he does, with an Interest Charge attached of course, so that a percentage of the exploited resource he controls always flows back to him, keeping him (and his heirs) wealthy in perpetuity. The more of the resources that get exploited, the larger the population gets, the RICHER he gets!
He keeps floating out MORE credit endlessly so he can sell the resources of Hawaii to other Hawaiians and it works JUST GREAT until Hawaii is Chock FULL of People and FRESH OUT of resources. They have fished out the local waters and the Lagoons are stinking sewers filled up with Human Waste.
This of course did not occur in Hawaii because it was not a closed system, but something similar did occur on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), populated by the same extraordinary Polynesian Navigators who found the Big Island of Hawaii a good 500 years before Cook found it.
The entire Earth though IS a closed system, so no matter how much Credit you issue, if you no longer have resource to sell, the Credit is worthless. Creating more Dollars does not make more Cheap easy to pump up Oil available, and it doesn’t replenish the Ogalala aquifer either. When you are Out, you are OUT, nothing left to sell here.
In fact we are not COMPLETELY out of Oil or Water, but relative to the size of the population that ballooned up here through Rapid Exploitation of these resources, they are becoming scarce and so the Credit necessary to buy them is being Triaged off, most obviously in places like Greece and Spain, but really occuring everywhere now. It shows up here in the FSoA as 50M people on Food Stamps and an ever decreasing percentage of people participating in the Workforce, because just about ALL jobs are not productive of ANYTHING! You waste more energy getting to work each day in your SUV or even on the Subway than any “value” you add to the economy in ANY job in the Industrial Economy. All you do by participating in it is waste the energy of fossil fuels a bit faster.
In such an environment, the Small Bizman is the Individual Version of the Small Country like Greece. You get Triaged Off the Credit Bandwagon first here. You can’t make a profit, first because your customers ALSO are outta credit to buy your stuff; second because some TBTF Big Bizness still DOES have access to credit, so they can dump products on the market cheaper than it costs you the Small Bizman to make them and drive you outta biz! This of course has been the meme of Capitalism since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution at least, though it really does go back to the Dawn of Agriculture and Money.
At NO TIME in the last 8000 years or so has Small Biz been the Driver of Economics, only a Passenger in the Back Seat. The driver during the Ag Era was Big Ag utilizing Slave Labor and in the Industrial Era, Factories burning copious quantities of Fossil Fuels. Through BOTH eras, the Banksters controlling the flow of credit directed it in such a way to bring the maximum Benefits to themselves at the expense of everybody else, and Mother Earth as well.
Nothing lasts forever of course in a world of Finite Resources, and this paradigm is coming to a close. The only question remaning here is how long the Triaging of the Small Bizman and the Small Countries can go on before Billions of People with Nothing Left to Lose get very, VERY angry.
Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg
Published on Our Finite World on January 24, 2013
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner
There is ample evidence that spikes in oil prices leads to recession, at least in the US, which is an oil-importing nation. James Hamilton has shown that 10 out of the last 11 US recessions were associated with oil price spikes. How does this happen? An analogy can perhaps help explain the situation. This analogy also sheds light on a number of related economic mysteries:
- How can oil have a far greater impact on the world economy than its share of the world GDP would suggest? After all, BP’s World Energy Outlook to 2030 shows the world cost of oil is only a little over 4% of world GDP.
- How can high oil prices continue to act as a “drag” on the economy, long after the initial spike is past?
- Why isn’t a service economy insulated from the problems of high oil prices? After all, its energy use is relatively low.
The Oil Analogy
An oil product, such as jet fuel, is in some ways analogous to a specialized employee, with skills different from what human employees have. Let’s think of an airline. It has human employees–pilots, copilots, flight attendants, baggage workers, mechanics, and airport check-in personnel. None of these human employees can actually provide the energy to make the jet fly, however. It takes jet fuel to do that.
What happens if the price of jet fuel triples? Jet fuel is now more that than triple the price (near $3.00 gallon) it was in the late 1990s (under $1.00 gallon, at today’s prices).
The high cost of jet fuel is analogous to the jet fuel employees’ union demanding triple the wages they were paid previously. So what is the airline to do? With very high aviation fuel prices, many tourists who might buy airline tickets will be “priced out” of the market for long distance travel. The airline can sell some airline tickets at higher prices, but not as many.
One thing airlines can do is to cut the number of flights, taking the least fuel-efficient planes out of service and reducing flights on routes with the most unfilled seats. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, airlines spend 34% of revenue on fuel. With such a high fuel cost, even with these changes, airline ticket prices will remain high. But perhaps with fewer flights, the airline can make a profit.
If an airline cuts its number of flight, this leads to an “across the board” cut in the goods and services the airline buys. The airline will use less jet fuel (and thus use fewer “jet fuel employees”). If it is able to retire quite a few fuel-inefficient jets, “jet fuel employees” will be cut to a greater extent than human employees. It will use fewer human workers, at all levels: pilots, copilots, flight attendants, and ground workers of all types. The airline will reduce its electricity usage because it needs fewer gates in airports for its operations. The airline will also need less gasoline because it will operate fewer baggage-transport vehicles and other ground vehicles.
In many ways, the airline is simply shrinking in size to reflect reduced demand for its high-priced services. When this happens in multiple industries, the result looks very much like recession. I described this situation earlier in a post called How is an oil shortage like a missing cup of flour?. In that post, I said that if oil supplies are short, the situation is not too different from a baker who does not have enough flour to make a full batch of cookies. If he still wants to make cookies, he needs to make a smaller batch, and so needs to cut back on all of the other ingredients as well.
Other Changes an Airline Can Make to Fix Profitability
Apart from cutting back on the number of flights and retiring inefficient jets in the process, there are other things an airline can do to offset the higher “wages” demanded by the jet fuel employees union. One is to reduce the wages of human workers. For example, wages and pension plans of pilots can be cut back, or hours lengthened. Wages of other workers can be frozen or cut back.
Another approach is a merger with another airline, so that “redundant” employees can be eliminated, and flights can perhaps be cut back further. Of course, these layoffs and cutbacks in wages will add to recessionary impacts, because these workers will have less discretionary income.
A third approach to restoring profitability is to automate some of the functions previously handled by human employees. In this case, electricity is used to substitute for human workers. We can think of this automation as substituting new “electrical employees” (analogous to the “jet fuel employees”) for human employees. Relative to the amount of physical work (pushing buttons, moving luggage, etc.) humans can do, humans are far higher paid than either “oil employees” or “electricity employees”. If we assume that the energy of humans is similar to that used by a 100 watt light bulb, at $20,000 a year, humans are paid roughly 1,500 times as much as “oil employees” and 3,500 times as much as “electricity” employees, to do equivalent physical work. So if automation is an option, it almost always saves money.
A fourth way an airline can reduce costs is by purchasing lighter, more fuel-efficient jets. Making a transition of this type takes a long time. Boeing’s Dreamliner 787 is an attempt in this direction, with a 20% fuel savings anticipated. Boeing has over 800 jets of this type on order, but the 50 already in use have been grounded until battery problems are resolved. Quite a few changes have been made in the new jet, so there is a possibility of additional problems also needing to be ironed out, before production ramps up as planned.
Another Example: Asphalt
Asphalt is another product whose consumption has dropped in recent years.
The amount of asphalt produced in 2012 was only about 70% as much as was produced in 1994. The reason for the shortfall in asphalt is partly because at current high oil prices, refineries can make more profit by selling high-valued products like gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel than they can make by selling asphalt. A recent EIA article titled, Hydrocracking is an important source of diesel and jet fuel, makes the statement, “A refinery’s ability to upgrade low-value products into high-value products and convert high-sulfur material to low-sulfur material with a secondary unit like a hydrocracker plays a key role in determining its economic fate.”
State budgets are tight for a variety of reasons, including inadequate gasoline taxes to cover the cost of maintaining roads. While part of the need for asphalt can be obtained from recycling, many governments are finding that today’s asphalt costs are so high that concrete roads would be cheaper in the long run. Many states have found it necessary to go back to gravel on some of the smaller roads, because of the high cost of paving today. State and local budgets are likely to be stretched even farther if the US government solves its budget woes by sending programs back to the states, and lets the states work out the funding.
What happens when a state decides move some roads from asphalt back to gravel? For one thing, jobs lost in the road paving business. Also, the new gravel roads have an uneven surface, providing more rolling resistance, so automobile and truck mileage is poorer. In addition, roads tend to degrade more quickly, keeping long-term maintenance costs high. If budgets are tight and roads are not maintained, there is a chance gravel roads will become unusable.
If local governments continue to use asphalt for paving (or switch to concrete, which has even higher initial costs, but lasts longer), they find a need to cut back on other types of services they provide, if they are to avoid a tax increase. This leads to services such as library hours being cut. Cutting back on services reduces both wages and energy costs (lighting and heating/cooling costs). The effect is not all that different from what happens in the airline industry: cuts are made that affect both wages and energy usage of many types. Employee wages seem to be especially affected because changes in employee hours can be made more easily than, say, closing a building or running fewer school buses.
The More General Problem
It is not just airlines and users of asphalt that cut back because of high oil prices. The story plays out in different ways in many industries. Clearly any restaurant is at risk if high oil prices cause consumers to cut back on discretionary purchases, because reducing the frequency of eating out is an easy way of reducing discretionary expenditures. If restaurants have fewer customers, some restaurants will close and are not replaced. This is the restaurant industry’s way of “making a smaller batch”. The result is fewer jobs, less oil use, and less use of resources in general.
Another type of discretionary purchase that gets cut when oil prices are high is the purchase of a new car. A recent article by the New York Times says that the recovery of auto sales since the recent recession has been very slow, with charts for several countries. Reduced car sales is yet another example of making a “smaller batch.” The result is fewer jobs, less use of oil, and less use of many other types of resources.
A similar story can be told about new home sales. These dropped in the recent recession, and have been slow to recover. The drop-off is frequently attributed to the housing bubble bursting, but rising oil prices played an important role as well. When oil prices increased in the 2004-2005 period, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates, trying to cut oil prices. Instead, the higher interest rates together with lower discretionary income from high oil prices led to lower housing prices, starting in 2006. (See my article from the journal Energy, here or here.)
The Economic Implications of High Oil Prices
Our economy is all about “adding value”. But where does this value added come from? To a significant extent, this value comes from adding external energy of some sort. It is really the “energy employees” I mentioned earlier that add this value. Human workers are needed as well, but with automation, the number of human workers required tends to decline.
The ability of external energy to add value is what causes the link between GDP, energy consumption, and oil consumption. Oil plays a special role, because it is easily transported, and can be used in many situation where electricity or some other form of energy (such as human energy, wind energy, or natural gas) would not work.
If we look at a graph of changes GDP compared to changes in world oil and energy usage, (Figure 3, below), we see that all three tend to rise and fall together. In fact, changes in oil and energy usage appear to slightly precede GDP changes. This is the pattern we would expect, if economics are causing a “smaller batch” to be made when oil prices are high.
Part of this change may simply reflect a transfer of energy use from less efficient industries (ones using more high-priced oil in their fuel mix) to more efficient industries (ones using less high-priced oil in their fuel mix). If could also reflect a shift in oil and energy distribution to more less efficient countries (ones using more high-priced oil in their fuel mix) to more efficient countries (ones using less high-priced oil in their fuel mix). For example, Greece (which specializes in vacation tourism, and which uses much oil in its energy mix) would be expected to be an oil/energy loser (Figure 4, below).
China (which uses much coal in its energy mix and thus keeps costs low, and specializes in inexpensive manufacturing) would be expected to be an oil/energy gainer (Figure 5, below). See my posts, Energy Leveraging: An Explanation for China’s Success and the World’s Unemployment and Why Coal Consumption Keeps Rising, for discussion of this issue.
High prices work together with a number of other factors (including increased automation and increased competition from countries with lower wages) to force wages of humans down, and to reduce the number with jobs. The proportion of US citizens with jobs started declining about the year 2000 and accelerated with the recent recession:
If we look at the ratio of wages (broadly defined, including proprietors’ income and taxes paid on behalf of employees by employers, but not including transfer payments, such as Social Security payments and Unemployment Insurance) to GDP in Figure 7, below, we see that the ratio of wages to GDP has been dropping since 2000–another indication that human wages are not keeping up with the rest of the economy.
If “Energy Employees” Are Really Doing Most of the Work
If it is really the “energy employees” doing most of the work, then the models used by many economists today are not really correct, and some of the standard beliefs based on these model aren’t right either. For example:
1. The idea that the value of oil or other energy to the economy is proportional to its price doesn’t hold. This can be seen from the examples provided. In fact, if oil or another needed energy product is removed, very close to no work gets done. Humans can provide a little energy, but compared to the energy of oil or electricity, our efforts are puny, and very high-priced. Without external energy, humans’ efforts are limited to tasks like digging with a stick in the ground, or making baskets with reeds that they have gathered.
2. One type of energy doesn’t necessarily substitute easily for another type of energy. Just as one type of employee (mechanic, airline pilot, or flight attendant) can’t necessarily be substituted for another, one type of energy cannot necessarily be substituted for another. Dreamliner’s battery problems illustrate that even trying to substitute a little more electrical energy for oil energy can provide a technological challenge.
3. Somewhat surprisingly, high oil prices remain a drag on the economy permanently, because the high wages of the “oil employees” remain. Output isn’t any higher with these higher wages, so there is not a proportional benefit to society from these higher oil wages. More human workers may be hired in the oil extraction process (often in another country). But even if more workers are hired in the same country, their output does not replace the entirely different kind of output that is provided by the (now-unaffordable to many) high-priced oil.
Another factor in the slow uptake of high oil prices is the fact that governments can temporarily hide some of the effects of high-priced oil through unemployment benefits and stimulus programs. This temporary cover-up cannot continue for long, though, because governments (such as the US and other oil importers) soon run into problems with high deficits (as is happening now). When governments raise taxes or reduce benefits to solve their financial problems, the deferred high-priced oil problems return, showing that the problem never really left.
4. An economy which is mostly services, is not insulated from the problem of high oil prices. Both the airline and asphalt examples illustrate how high oil costs can circulate through the economy and disrupt discretionary spending, even in the US. (Also see Ten Reasons Why High Oil Prices are a Problem.)
Services tend to be the “fluff” of society because for the most part, because we could live without them, at least temporarily. For now, we have a temporary respite from oil-price impacts because of high deficit spending by governments. If governments are forced to balance their budgets, cutbacks seem likely in many areas of services, including medicine for the elderly, higher education, and government-sponsored research programs. If cutbacks occur in areas such as these, we can expect that GDP will shrink faster than savings in oil and energy use–a reversal of what has happened in the past, and a reversal of what many economists have come to expect in the future.
Also, contrary to popular belief, we cannot increase the economy very much by simply selling services that do not require energy to one another. It really takes “energy employees” to play their role as well. Without external energy, we can dig in each others’ back yards with sticks, but this activity doesn’t add much to the economy. We need “energy employees” playing their role as well, if we are to have computers, and metal scissors, and the many other tools we expect, even in a service economy.
Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg
Published on Our Finite World on January 17, 2013
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A person might think from looking at news reports that our oil problems are gone, but oil prices are still high.
In fact, the new “tight oil” sources of oil which are supposed to grow in supply are still expensive to extract. If we expect to have more tight oil and more oil from other unconventional sources, we need to expect to continue to have high oil prices. The new oil may help supply somewhat, but the high cost of extraction is not likely to go away.
Why are high oil prices a problem?
1. It is not just oil prices that rise. The cost of food rises as well, partly because oil is used in many ways in growing and transporting food and partly because of the competition from biofuels for land, sending land prices up. The cost of shipping goods of all types rises, since oil is used in nearly all methods of transports. The cost of materials that are made from oil, such as asphalt and chemical products, also rises.
If the cost of oil rises, it tends to raise the cost of other fossil fuels. The cost of natural gas extraction tends to rises, since oil is used in natural gas drilling and in transporting water for fracking. Because of an over-supply of natural gas in the US, its sales price is temporarily less than the cost of production. This is not a sustainable situation. Higher oil costs also tend to raise the cost of transporting coal to the destination where it is used.
Figure 2 shows total energy costs as a percentage of two different bases: GDP and Wages.1 These costs are still near their high point in 2008, relative to these bases. Because oil is the largest source of energy, and the highest priced, it represents the majority of energy costs. GDP is the usual base of comparison, but I have chosen to show a comparison to wages as well. I do this because even if an increase in costs takes place in the government or business sector of the economy, most of the higher costs will eventually have to be paid for by individuals, through higher taxes or higher prices on goods or services.
2. High oil prices don’t go away, except in recession.
We extracted the easiest (and cheapest) to extract oil first. Even oil company executives say, “The easy oil is gone.” The oil that is available now tends to be expensive to extract because it is deep under the sea, or near the North Pole, or needs to be “fracked,” or is thick like paste, and needs to be melted. We haven’t discovered cheaper substitutes, either, even though we have been looking for years.
In fact, there is good reason to believe that the cost of oil extraction will continue to rise faster than the rate of inflation, because we are hitting a situation of “diminishing returns”. There is evidence that world oil production costs are increasing at about 9% per year (7% after backing about the effect of inflation). Oil prices paid by consumers will need to keep pace, if we expect increased extraction to take place. There is even evidence that sweet sports are extracted first in Bakken tight oil, causing the cost of this extraction to rise as well.
3. Salaries don’t increase to offset rising oil prices.
Most of us know from personal experience that salaries don’t rise with rising oil prices.
In fact, as oil prices have risen since 2000, wage growth has increasingly lagged GDP growth. Figure 3 shows the ratio of wages (using the same definition as in Figure 2) to GDP.
If salaries don’t rise, and prices of many types of goods and services do, something has to “give”. This disparity seems to be the reason for the continuing economic discomfort experienced in the past several years. For many consumers, the only solution is a long-term cut back in discretionary spending.
4. Spikes in oil prices tend to be associated with recessions.
Economist James Hamilton has shown that 10 out of the last 11 US recessions were associated with oil price spikes.
When oil prices rise, consumers tend to cut back on discretionary spending, so as to have enough money for basics, such as food and gasoline for commuting. These cut-backs in spending lead to lay-offs in discretionary sectors of the economy, such as vacation travel and visits to restaurants. The lay-offs in these sectors lead to more cutbacks in spending, and to more debt defaults.
5. High oil prices don’t “recycle” well through the economy.
Theoretically, high oil prices might lead to more employment in the oil sector, and more purchases by these employees. In practice, this provides only a very partial offset to higher price. The oil sector is not a big employer, although with rising oil extraction costs and more US drilling, it is getting to be a larger employer. Oil importing countries find that much of their expenditures must go abroad. Even if these expenditures are recycled back as more US debt, this is not the same as more US salaries. Also, the United States government is reaching debt limits.
Even within oil exporting countries, high oil prices don’t necessarily recycle to other citizens well. A recent study shows that 2011 food price spikes helped trigger the Arab Spring. Since higher food prices are closely related to higher oil prices (and occurred at the same time), this is an example of poor recycling. As populations rise, the need to keep big populations properly fed and otherwise cared for gets to be more of an issue. Countries with high populations relative to exports, such as Iran, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, and Venezuela would seem to have the most difficulty in providing needed goods to citizens.
6. Housing prices are adversely affected by high oil prices.
If a person is required to pay more for oil, food, and delivered goods of all sorts, less will be left over for discretionary spending. Buying a new home is one such type of discretionary expenditure.
US housing prices started to drop in mid 2006, according to data of the S&P Case Shiller home price index. This timing fits in well with when oil prices began to rise, based on Figure 1.
7. Business profitability is adversely affected by high oil prices.
Some businesses in discretionary sectors may close their doors completely. Others may lay off workers to get supply and demand back into balance.
8. The impact of high oil prices doesn’t “go away”.
Citizens’ discretionary income is permanently lower. Businesses that close when oil prices rise generally don’t re-open. In some cases, businesses that close may be replaced by companies in China or India, with lower operating costs. These lower operating costs indirectly reflect the fact that the companies use less oil, and the fact that their workers can be paid less, because the workers use less oil. This is a part of the reason why US employment levels remain low, and why we don’t see a big bounce-back in growth after the Great Recession. Figure 4 below shows the big shifts in oil consumption that have taken place.
A major part of the “fix” for high oil prices that does takes place is provided by the government. This takes the place in the form of unemployment benefits, stimulus programs, and artificially low interest rates.
Efficiency changes may provide some mitigation, as older less fuel-efficient cars are replaced with more fuel-efficient cars. Of course, if the more fuel-efficient cars are more expensive, part of the savings to consumers will be lost because of higher monthly payments for the replacement vehicles.
9. Government finances are especially affected by high oil prices.
With higher unemployment rates, governments are faced with paying more unemployment benefits and making more stimulus payments. If there have been many debt defaults (because of more unemployment or because of falling home prices), the government may also need to bail out banks. At the same time, taxes collected from citizens are lower, because of lower employment. A major reason (but not the only reason) for today’s debt problems of the governments of large oil importers, such as US, Japan, and much of Europe, is high oil prices.
Governments are also affected by the high cost of replacing infrastructure that was built when oil prices were much lower. For example, the cost of replacing asphalt roads is much higher. So is the cost of replacing bridges and buried underground pipelines. The only way these costs can be reduced is by doing less–going back to gravel roads, for example.
10. Higher oil prices reflect a need to focus a disproportionate share of investment and resource use inside the oil sector. This makes it increasingly difficult maintain growth within the oil sector, and acts to reduce growth rates outside the oil sector.
There is a close tie between energy consumption and economic activity because nearly all economic activity requires the use of some type of energy besides human labor. Oil is the single largest source of energy, and the most expensive. When we look at GDP growth for the world, it is closely aligned with growth in oil consumption and growth in energy consumption in general. In fact, changes in oil and energy growth seem to precede GDP growth, as might be expected if oil and energy use are a cause of world economic growth.
The current situation of needing increasing amounts of resources to extract oil is sometimes referred to one of declining Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI). Multiple problems are associated with declining EROEI, when cost levels are already high:
(a) It becomes increasingly difficult to keep scaling up oil industry investment because of limits on debt availability, when heavy investment is made up front, and returns are many years away. As an example, Petrobas in Brazil is running into this limit. Some US oil and gas producers are reaching debt limits as well.
(b) Greater use of oil within the industry leaves less for other sectors of the economy. Oil production has not been rising very quickly in recent years (Figure 6 below), so even a small increase by the industry can reduce net availability of oil to society. Some of this additional oil use is difficult to avoid. For example, if oil is located in a remote area, employees frequently need to live at great distance from the site and commute using oil-based means of transport.
(c) Declining EROEI puts pressure on other limited resources as well. For example, there can be water limits, when fracking is used, leading to conflicts with other use, such as agricultural use of water. Pollution can become an increasingly large problem as well.
(d) High oil investment cost can be expected to slow down new investment, and keep oil supply from rising as fast world demand rises. To the extent that oil is necessary for economic growth, this slowdown will tend to constrain growth in other economic sectors.
Airline Industry as an Example of Impacts on Discretionary Industries
High oil prices can be expected to cause discretionary sectors to shrink back in size. In many respects, the airline industry is the “canary in the coal mine,” showing how discretionary sectors can be forced to shrink.
In the case of commercial air lines, when oil prices are high, consumers have less money to spend on vacation travel, so demand for airline tickets falls. At the same time, the price of fuel to operate airplanes rises, making the cost of operating airplanes higher. Business travel is less affected, but still is affected to some extent, because some long-distance business travel is discretionary.
Airlines respond by consolidating and cutting back in whatever ways they can. Salaries of pilots and stewardesses are reduced. Pension plans are scaled back. New more fuel-efficient aircraft are purchased, and less fuel-efficient aircraft are phased out. Less profitable routes are closed. The industry still experiences bankruptcy after bankruptcy, and merger after merger. If oil prices stabilize for a while, this process stabilizes a bit, but doesn’t really stop. Eventually, the commercial airline industry may shrink to such an extent that necessary business flights become difficult.
There are many discretionary sectors besides the airline industry waiting in the wings to shrink. While oil prices have been high for several years, their effects have not yet been fully incorporated into discretionary sectors. This is the case because governments have been able to use deficit spending and artificially low interest rates to shield consumers from the “real” impacts of high-priced oil.
Governments are now finding that debt cannot be ramped up indefinitely. As taxes need to be raised and benefits decreased, and as interest rates are forced higher, consumers will again see discretionary income squeezed. New cutbacks are likely to hit additional discretionary sectors, such as restaurants, the “arts,” higher education, and medicine for the elderly.
It would be very helpful if new unconventional oil developments would fix the problem of high-cost oil, but it is difficult to see how they will. They are high-cost to develop and slow to ramp up. Governments are in such poor financial condition that they need taxes from wherever they can get them–revenue of oil and gas operators is a likely target. To the extent that unconventional oil and gas production does ramp up, my expectation is that it will be too little, too late, and too high-priced.
 Wages include private and government wages, proprietors’ income, and taxes paid by employers on behalf of employees. They do not include transfer payments, such as Social Security.
Off the keyboard of Monsta666
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Much of the mainstream media in the US bills shale gas as the next revolution that will push the country towards energy independence but the facts do not support these claims. Furthermore due to the high costs of extracting shale gas it is not economical to produce at current market prices. The effect of these low prices are already being felt from producers as drilling activity has decreased significantly throughout 2012 which has resulted in production levels plateauing.
It is likely that the US will peak in total natural gas production in the coming two years as peak production of conventional gas has already been reached and the high decline rates of shale gas make it very difficult to sustain even existing levels of production for a prolonged period of time due to the high levels of investment required to maintain exponential growth of drilling.
While the European region may have more reserves than the US and ultimately the problems will not be as acute the region is heavily dependent on Russia for its gas and will become increasingly dependent due to increasing consumption and reduced production in the EU region. As a result Europe will need to make some difficult decisions on how it procures its gas either from Russia or the Middle East which is rich in natural gas. Gaining access to the Middle East gas may prove to be difficult however due to the need for large investments in pipelines or LNG terminals. In addition to these financial (and possibly political) barriers there is likely to be strong competition from Asia and most particularly China for these natural gas resources as those economies grow faster than European countries.
Natural gas can come in various forms and this list should offer you a glance of the grades of natural gas available in the market:
|Conventional Gas – Consists primarily of methane but also contains other gases such as ethane, propane, other hydrocarbons, hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen.Although natural gas emits less C02 than other fossil fuels when burned it should be noted that methane itself is 72 times more potent than C02 as a greenhouse gas so any natural gas leakages in pipelines/LNG terminals will mean its advertised environmental advantages will be significantly reduced.|
|Condensate – Gases often found in oil wells and some gas wells. The gas found in these “wet” wells contain heavier hydrocarbons (such as pentane) which are found as a gas upon extraction but then condense to form liquids when reaching room temperature hence the term condensate.|
|Coal-bed Methane – Natural gas extracted from coal beds. This form of natural gas lacks hydrogen sulphide and is often called “sweet gas” because of this property. Coal-bed methane also contains less ethane and propane and none of the heavier condensate hydrocarbons.|
|Shale Gas – Natural gas found in shale rock. This form of natural gas has a slightly different composition to standard natural gas which can result in higher processing costs.  |
The importance of a global peak production of natural gas is somewhat less relevant than its peak coal or peak oil counterparts. This is because unlike coal or oil natural gas is not exported in large quantities. This is particularly true for the North American market as the costs of exporting natural gas over the Atlanta and Pacific oceans are excessively high. This makes the market for gas far less open and the closed nature of these markets is reflected in the huge differences in spot prices:
Natural gas prices obtained from BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2012.
As a result of these closed markets it becomes more relevant to examine the time when natural gas will peak in each region. If we divide the world’s natural gas production into its respective continents we find the top three largest markets are the Europe, America and Asia Pacific.
|North America||Europe + Russia||Asia Pacific||Middle East||South America|
|2011 Total Consumption||863.8 billion cubic metres||1101.1 billion cubic metres||590.6 billion cubic metres||403.1 billion cubic metres||154.5 billion cubic metres|
|2011 Total reserves||10.8 trillion cubic metres||78.7 trillion cubic metres||16.8 trillion cubic metres||80.0 trillion cubic metres||7.6 trillion cubic metres|
|2011 % of world reserves||5.2%||37.8%||8.0%||38.4%||3.6%|
|2011 Production||864.2 billion cubic metres||1036.4 billion cubic metres||479.1 billion cubic metres||526.1 billion cubic metres||167.7 billion cubic metres|
|Year reserves are depleted||2023||2086||2046||2163||2056|
Data obtained from BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2012.
|PROVEN RESERVES (1P) = Reserves that have a 90% or greater probability of being present, the term is often shortened to 1P.
PROBABLE RESERVES (2P) = Reserves that have a 50% chance of being present. 2P represents proven + probable reserves.
POSSIBLE RESERVES (3P) = Reserves that have only a 10% chance of being present. 3P represents proven + probable + possible reserves.
This figure of an 8% depletion rate equating to a 12.5 year supply is certainly a contentious and alarming point to make. It should be noted that other reputable sources such as the EIA arrive at similar figures claiming the US has a 13.7 year supply if taken on a R/P basis (R/P = Reserves/Production rate). In the case of the EIA it does stress however that discoveries currently exceed production rates. Still, this is quite different to the picture painted out by the media and even Obama who claimed that the US has enough natural gas to meet current needs for 100 years. This discrepancy over how long these reserves will last mainly stem from the fact that Obama included proven, probable, possible, speculative AND coal-bed methane reserves when applying the R/P ratio. It should also be noted that even adding all those reserves the total still only accounts for 95 years (it would appear the papers simply rounded of for the final five years). In the case of BP and EIA the supply time was calculated only using proven reserves.
In any case it is best to breakdown natural gas into its different grades to gain a greater understanding of the overall situation of natural gas production:
Natural Gas Production data obtained from EIA.
Note: Since January 2012 the EIA has only published aggregate totals for natural gas production.
From this graph we see that while natural gas production has risen slowly but steadily peak production of conventional natural gas was reached in December 2006 when 1.56 trillion cubic feet of gas was extracted that month. Since then production of conventional natural gas has declined by 35.5% for the period of December 2006 to December 2011. These declines in conventional gas have been masked by steep increases in shale gas production; in fact these large gains in shale gas have been the main reason why total natural gas extraction has risen in recent years. This large increase in shale gas is reflected in that fact that until 2007 there was negligible amounts of shale gas being produced but as of December 2011 shale gas makes up 33% of total natural gas production.
With conventional gas already reaching a peak it would seem that the US’s future in gas production lies firmly in shale gas production. Unfortunately the cost of producing shale gas is higher than conventional gas as it requires the use of more expensive horizontal drilling not to mention hydraulic fracturing (informally known as fracking) which on average the fracturing operation alone cost $6-7 million per well. This $6-7 million cost may not even cover the entire expenses imposed on society as hydraulic fracturing is a very water intensive activity with each operation requiring the use of 1.2-3.5 million gallons of water. Each well (of which there are currently thousands in operation) requires hydraulic fracturing and in some cases multiple fracturing operations are performed on the same well. Furthermore there is on-going controversy over the fact that the chemicals used in fracturing can result in water contamination on a chemical and even possibly radioactive level. It is also speculated that these drilling activities can result in minor earthquakes.
(10 minute extended trailer it is recommend you watch the entire movie for more information)
Other issues with shale gas come from its composition as shale gas is slightly different to conventional natural gas as it contains higher concentrations of ethane, propane, hexane and even diluents such as C02 and nitrogen;  this view is also supported by Dmitry Orlov. This means that the processing costs as well as drilling costs will be higher than conventional natural gas. To cover such costs it often stated that shale oil has to be priced at least $4 per thousand cubic feet but the figure is more likely to be $6 or even higher. Considering current natural gas prices are $3.19 per thousand cubic feet at the time of writing it means the vast majority of shale gas is being produced at a loss. As a result it should be expected that the number of rigs that drill for gas will be declining and upon inspection of drilling rigs that does appear to be the case:
US Active rigs engaged in oil/gas drilling, according to Baker Hughes.
The period between December 29th 2011 and December 28th 2012 saw the rig count for natural gas decline from 809 to 431 rigs a 46.7% decline in just one year! It is this decline in drilling that has resulted in total production for most of 2012 to stagnate. To make matters even worse is the fact that shale gas plays have high decline rates of around 65%-85%. As a result of these two factors it seems only a matter of time before shale gas and by extension total natural gas production in the US to decline. Indeed many shale gas producing regions such as the Barnett Shale, Haynesville Shale and Fayetteville have seen production rates plateau while The Eagle Ford and Woodford Shale have already began to experience declines. The only shale gas region that still appears to exhibit exponential growth in rates of production is the Marcellus Shale. However even with strong growth in this region it seems highly likely that production will hit a peak within the next two years due to the fact that annual decline rates for the US now totals 32% or 22 billion cubic feet per day and these decline rates will continue to increase even further as a larger percentage of gas wells are devoted to shale gas production.
Europe + Eurasia
While on the surface the European situation may not seem as acute as that of the US it should be noted that European natural gas production is dominated by Russian production with the country producing 58.6% of the gas in the entire region. Furthermore the United Kingdom; which was the third largest producer in the region as recently as 2008, is now experiencing major declines with the latest decline figures for 2011 being 20.8%. This on-going decline means as time goes on the Western European nations can no longer depend on Britain for exports and will become increasingly dependent on exports from further regions, the most obvious being Russian exports but this will also include other former Soviet countries such as Turkmenistan or Azerbaijan.
Natural gas production data obtained from BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2012.
These issues of dependence will be further compounded if Germany follows through with its plan to phase out nuclear energy as natural gas will be the favoured fossil fuel to replace nuclear energy due to its lower C02 emissions. Indeed this move towards natural gas is a pattern repeated by many European nations as many strive to meet the EU quotas of reducing 20% of their 1990 C02 emissions by 2020. If we look at the energy mix of Europe we find that the amount of energy obtained from natural gas has consistently been increasing in the last 20 years:
Natural gas production data obtained from BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2012.
It is this increased demand that means Europe will have to look elsewhere for gas to meet internal demand. Another candidate apart from the former Soviet states is the Middle-East most notably Qatar but also possibly Algeria. Qatar has the third largest reserves in the world and has trebled its exporting capacity since 2006 through the installation of numerous Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminals. However such terminals are expensive and to be economically viable require the use of long-term contracts. Moreover Europe will face strong competition from Asia countries who are not only long-term customers to this exported gas but their economies are expected to grow faster than Europe.
Another avenue being pursued is that of shale gas however it is still early days to make any educated judgement on what will transpire here as most EU nations have opted to take a cautious stance to shale gas and wish to seek a rigorous regulatory framework being formed before pursuing this issue further. However the United Kingdom and Poland have been more aggressive in their pursuit of shale gas with both nations giving the green light to drilling. 
Regardless of what happens with shale gas in Europe the situation will not massively change. The simple fact of the matter is if we exclude Russia and other former Soviet nations the main EU block has already peaked in 2004 with a production of 327.5 billion cubic metres and since then production has declined by 15%. Seeing as the current trend is for natural gas consumption to increase then it means Europe must build extra infrastructure to accommodate more natural gas imports from either Russia or the Middle East but each option has its own set of problems. If Europe relies heavily on Russia they will have a monopoly and will gain an increasingly strong foothold on the energy market and the chances of a large scale disruption such as the disputes in 2006 and 2009 in Ukraine is likely to become more common place. This is a particular issue because 80% of all European gas imports from Russia flow via Ukraine pipelines. The probability of such disruptions occurring will only increase if numerous European countries experience recessions and struggle to pay their debt obligations as this was the chief cause for Russia shutting its pipelines to Ukraine.
If on the other hand Europe decides trade with the Middle East then it must invest heavily in either pipelines or LNG terminals to gain access to Middle Eastern gas but even then Europe will likely face the prospect of stiff competition from Asia for this resource and likely higher prices which will harm economic growth.
As we go forward it seems quite likely that supplies of natural gas will become increasingly strained. This will be particularly true in the west as production in Europe has already passed its peak and the growth of Asian economies will mean most of the excess supply from the Middle East and former Soviet bloc will largely be diverted to them. Moreover it is likely that the Asian economies will be able to tolerate higher prices natural gas prices (as is the case with oil) which will stand them in good stead in the future when it is reasonable to assume natural gas prices will rise (this will happen because of demand rising faster than supply).
The reason the Asian economies will be able to tolerate higher gas prices better is because of a concept known as energy leveraging. That is, when an economy faces high prices it will leverage these high energy costs against cheaper energy sources. In the case of Asia they have cheaper sources such as coal and even cheaper labour (which is less the case in Europe). This means any expensive energy sources can be diverted into economic activities that are more productive for example an Asian country will use this natural gas to provide electricity for a corporation which is a more economically productive use of this energy than if it were used to heat a domestic home in a European country. To learn more about energy leveraging please refer to this article. This dynamic will become even more prominent should there be a shortage of coal as suggested in my previous article.
These issues of constrained natural gas supply will be further compounded if the US reaches its own peak in the near future. While we cannot be certain this will be the case I believe this will peak will occur soon because of the high decline rates of shale gas. These high decline rates mean a high level of investment (which must increase on an exponential basis) needs to be sustained for production to continue rising or even to maintain a plateau. However since current market prices are below production costs these investments cannot be supported and as a result drilling activity will decline (this has already happened).
This sudden reduction in investment by itself would not necessarily result in production peaking even with high decline rates. For example if prices were to rise quickly then investments would return to normal levels fairly quickly. However I do not believe this will be the case. This is because due to the on-going recession in the US and the milder winters demand for natural gas has not kept up with supply. As a result the amount of gas held in storage has increased over the last few years:
As we see from the diagram storage capacity is near five year highs, indeed storage capacity has been close to the point of overcapacity. As a result it will take a considerable length time of time before storage levels get low enough for the price of natural gas to rise sufficiently to induce large scale investments. What is more if prices of natural gas rise above $4 per thousand cubic feet then that will mean it will become more economical to mine coal reducing demand for gas even further.
If this period of low gas prices carries on for a considerable length of time then producers will lose even more money and this is likely to make investors more cautious in reinvesting in the future after the shale gas bubble bursts. In the after mass of such an event it is likely any investors still interested in investing will scrutinise the economics more deeply and according to analysis from Arthur E. Berman and Lynn F. Pittinger (warning their detailed analysis is not for the faint of heart!) the shale gas plays are only marginally profitable even under the best of circumstances. This view is further supported by Richard Heinberg who suggests that the EROEI of shale gas can be as low as 6:1. With a ratio this low it is likely that these plays can only be supported if subsidised with higher EROEI energy sources. Therefore as time goes on and there are less cheap energy resources available it is very possible that shale gas production will largely cease as it would no longer prove economical from a financial and energetic basis to drill.
 = BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2012 (BP as .pdf file)
 = U.S. Crude Oil, Natural Gas, and NG Liquids Proved Reserves (EIA)
 = The Math Behind the 100-Year, Natural-Gas Supply Debate (CNBC)
 = What the Frack? (Slate)
 = Natural Gas Gross Withdrawals and Production (EIA)
 = Landscape with well (The Economist)
 = Unconventional Gas Shales: Development, Technology, and Policy Issues (Congressional Research Service as .pdf file see pg. 11)
 = Shale Gas Measurement And Associated Issues (Pipeline & Gas Journal)
 = Shale Gas: The View from Russia (ClubOrlov)
 = Economics of Shale Gas (energybiz)
 = The murky future of U.S. shale gas (smartplanet – Chris Nelder)
 = Rotary Rig Count (Baker Hughes)
 = U.S. marketed natural gas production levels off in the first half of 2012 (EIA)
 = Barnett Report (Pickering Energy Inc. as doc file see pg. 19)
 = Chesapeake Energy – Haynesville Shale Decline Curve (Haynesville Shale)
 = After The Gold Rush: A Perspective on Future U.S. Natural Gas Supply and Price (The Oil Drum)
 = What is the EU doing about climate change? (European Commission)
 = The Cold Facts About a Hot Commodity: LNG (The Oil Drum)
 = Fracking for shale gas gets green light in UK (the guardian)
 = Poland Moves Ahead With Shale Gas Production (Arkansas Business)
 = Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC as .pdf file see pg. 212)
 = Natural gas storage capacity up 3.3 pct: EIA (REUTERS)
 = Headwinds for Rally in Natural Gas (Wall Street Journal)
= Gas Bubble Leaking, About to Burst (Energy Bulletin)
Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg
Published on Our Finite World on January 6, 2013
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasboard inside the Diner
We have been hearing a lot about escaping the fiscal cliff, but our problem isn’t solved. The fixes to date have been partial and temporary. There are many painful decisions ahead. Based on what I can see, the most likely outcome is that the US economy will enter a severe recession by the end of 2013.
My expectation is that credit markets are likely see increased defaults, as workers find their wages squeezed by higher Social Security taxes, and as government programs are cut back. Credit is likely to decrease in availability and become higher-priced. It is quite possible that credit problems will adversely affect the international trade system. Stock markets will tend to perform poorly. The Federal Reserve will try to intervene in credit markets, but if the US government is one of the defaulters (at least temporarily), it may not be able to completely fix the situation.
Less credit will tend to hold down prices of goods and services. Fewer people will be working, though, so even at reduced prices, many people will find discretionary items such as larger homes, new cars, and restaurant meals to be unaffordable. Thus, once the recession is in force, car sales are likely to drop, and prices of resale homes will again decline.
Oil prices may temporarily drop. This price decrease, together with a drop in credit availability, is likely to lead to a reduction in drilling in high-priced locations, such as US oil shale (tight oil) plays.
Other energy sources are also likely to be affected. Demand for electricity is likely to drop. Renewable energy investment is likely to decline because of less electricity demand and less credit availability. By 2014 and 2015, less government funding may also play a role.
This recession is likely be very long term. In fact, based on my view of the reasons for the recession, it may never be possible to exit from it completely.
I base the foregoing views on several observations:
1. High oil prices are a major cause of the United States Federal Government’s current financial problems. The financial difficulties occur because high oil prices tend to lead to unemployment, and high unemployment tends to lead to higher government expenditures and lower government revenue. This is especially true for oil importers.
2. The United States and world’s oil problems have not been solved. While there are new sources of oil, they tend to be sources of expensive oil, so they don’t solve the problem of high-priced oil. Furthermore, if our real economic problem is high-priced oil, and we have no way of permanently reducing oil prices, high oil prices can be expected to cause a long-term drag on economic growth.
3. A cutback in discretionary spending is likely. US workers are already struggling with wages that are not rising as fast as GDP (Figure 2). Starting in January, 2013, US workers have the additional problem of rising Social Security taxes, and later this year, a likely cutback in government expenditures. The combination is likely to lead to a cutback in discretionary spending.
4. The size of our current financial problems, both in terms of US government income/outgo imbalance and debt level, is extremely large. If high oil prices present a permanent drag on the economy, we cannot expect economic growth to resume in a way that would fix these problems.
5. The financial symptoms that the US and many other oil importers are experiencing bear striking similarities to the problems that many civilizations experienced prior to collapse, based on my reading of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov’s book Secular Cycles. According to this analysis of eight collapses over the last 2000 years, the collapses did not take place overnight. Instead, economies moved from an Expansion Phase, to a Stagflation Phase, to a Crisis Phase, to a Depression/Intercycle Phase. Timing varies, but typically totals around 300 years for the four phases combined.
It appears to me that the corresponding secular cycle for the US began in roughly 1800, with the ramp up of coal use. Later other modern fuels, including oil, were added. Since the 1970s, the US has mostly been experiencing the Stagflation Phase. The Crisis Phase appears to be not far away.
The Turkin analysis started with a model. This model was verified based on the experiences of eight agricultural civilizations (beginning dates between 350 BCE and 1620 CE). While the situation is different today, there may be lessons that can be learned.
Below the fold, I discuss these observations further.
Issue 1. High oil prices tend to lead to government financial problems.
Food prices tend to rise at the same time as oil prices, partly because oil is used in the production of food (for example, plowing, irrigation, herbicides and insecticides, harvesting, transport to market). Also, because oil is in short supply, corn is now being grown for use as ethanol to be used as a gasoline-extender. Growing additional corn puts pressure on food prices, because it drives up the price of land and encourages farmers to put more land into corn production, and less into other crops.
The reason governments are affected by high oil and food prices is as follows. When oil and food prices rise, buyers cut back in discretionary spending, so as to have enough for “basics,” including food and commuting expenses. Workers are laid off in discretionary industries, such as vacation travel and restaurants. These laid off-workers pay less taxes, and sometimes default on loans. Governments are quickly drawn into these problems, for two reasons:
- Their tax revenue is lower, because of layoffs in discretionary sectors.
- Their expenditures are higher, because of the need to pay more unemployment benefits, provide economic stimulus, and bail out banks.
Oil importers are especially affected, because they are also paying out funds to oil exporters. The countries with well-publicized financial problems (including several European countries, the United States, and Japan) tend to be major oil importers.
Oil exporters are not adversely affected to the same extent, because they have additional revenue from higher prices on oil they are exporting. They may still be somewhat affected because of rising food prices, and the fact that higher oil revenues do not necessarily go to those buying food. A recent study shows that food shortages helped trigger the Arab Spring protests.
Part of the reason that the impact of high oil prices is as severe as it is, is because there are many follow-on effects. For example, if oil prices rise, the price of shipping goods of all types rises. If businesses are able to pass through these higher costs, discretionary income of buyers for other goods falls. If not, businesses find that their higher costs lead to lower profits. To bring profit margins back up to an acceptable level, businesses may lay off workers.
As another example, prices of homes are likely to be adversely affected by high oil prices, because a family with inadequate discretionary income will forgo moving to a larger home, and may even default on a mortgage.
It should be noted that the impact of high oil prices doesn’t completely go away unless oil prices go down and stay down. Businesses can partly mitigate the impact of high oil prices by laying off workers in discretionary segments. Some businesses will fail completely, however. Replacement may be by an overseas company, with a lower cost structure that uses less oil. See my post on energy leveraging.
Workers generally must permanently adjust their budgets to higher food and oil prices. This is often difficult to do. The lack of jobs is a particular problem–something that workers cannot fix by themselves. Government programs can mitigate the job shortfall, by paying benefits to unemployed workers and by reducing interest rates, so that businesses can more easily make investments that will lead to more employment. These programs are costly, though, and are a major cause of the current mismatch between government income and expense.
Issue 2. World oil problems have not been solved.
There have been a number of reports this years, such as one by the International Energy Agency, seeming to suggest that the world oil problem has been solved. These analyses are incomplete. They do not recognize that our real problem is a financial problem. Our economy (everything from interstate highways to electric transmission to Social Security programs) was put in place using cheap ($10 or $20 barrel) oil. Shifting to today’s high cost of oil (up near $100 barrel) causes severe economic dislocations. There is no more cheap oil to be found, however, because oil companies extracted the cheapest to extract oil first and now the “easy oil” is gone.
The impression one gets from reading the papers is that US oil production is having a huge impact on world oil production. If a person looks at the numbers, world oil production is close to flat. Rising US production makes up for falling European production, but doesn’t do a whole lot more.
The rise in United States oil production is indeed somewhat helpful, but we are still many years away from being “energy independent” and even farther from becoming “oil independent.” The real issue is high oil prices, and these are not being fixed.
Our financial problems are here and now, in 2013. Promises of hoped-for higher oil production in several years at a still very high price don’t fix today’s financial problems. In fact, they will likely continue to contribute to financial problems in the future.
Issue 3. Declining wages and increased taxes can be expected to lead to a decline in discretionary spending.
As indicated at the beginning of the post, wages (including earnings of businesses owners considered as “proprietors,” but not including “transfer payments” such as Social Security and unemployment insurance) have not been growing as fast as GDP since 2000. Below is a repeat of Figure 2 shown at top of post.
There seem to be several reasons behind this decline. One reason, already mentioned, is high oil prices leading to US layoffs, because of decreased discretionary expenditures.
Another reason for the decline is increased automation. Electricity can often be substituted for human labor, reducing costs, but also reducing jobs. Economists seem to term this change higher labor productivity. They also seem to believe that new jobs will appear from somewhere, but in practice, this is not happening. Instead, lack of jobs is part of what is leading to recessionary influences.
Another reason for the decline is increased competition from countries with lower labor costs and lower fuel costs. China joined the World Trade Organization in December 2001, and its manufacturing (and thus use of fuels) increased dramatically shortly thereafter.
Another reason is demographic. Baby boomers are reaching retirement age. This has already begun affecting the number of individuals who retire each year. In the future, the number of retirees can be expected to increase further.
In total, we see a very large drop in the percentage of US citizens with jobs, starting about 2000 (Figure 6). This is very close to the time that China ramped up its growth (Figure 5).
In calendar years 2011 and 2012, workers’ contributions for Social Security funding were temporarily reduced by 2% of wages, as a way of stimulating the economy. As of January 1, 2013, this temporary reduction was removed. For a couple with combined wages of $100,000, take-home pay is thus being decreased by $2,000 per year. With less disposable income, workers can be expected to cut back somewhere–buying a larger home, buying a new car, or going out to eat.
So far, only a small amount of other tax increases have been put in place, and only a few cuts have been made. More tax increases or benefit cuts will be needed later this year to bring revenue and expense into better alignment. Any such change will tend to have a recessionary impact, because citizens’ discretionary incomes will be affected.
Issue 4. The spending gap and the amount of debt look too big to be fixable without excellent economic growth.
As noted above, wages have not been keeping up with GDP. The majority of federal taxes are based on wages, so in my comparisons, I use wages, rather than GDP, as a base.
If we use the wage base from Figure 2, the amount of government outgo vs income (all levels, not just federal) is as follows:
Based on Figure 7, the issue in recent years has been primarily rising expenditures. These higher expenditures would seem to be partly because of high-priced oil, but also because of other influences noted above that are leading to declining employment. The amount of the gap is close to 15% of wages–something that is very hard to fix. Even the current increase in Social Security taxes (“only” 2% of wages) will exert downward pressure on discretionary spending.
A related issue is that compared to wages (using the same wage base as in Figure 2), debt of all kinds is extremely high.
Government debt is in now more than household debt of all kinds, including mortgage, credit card, auto, and student loans. It is close to two times the wage base used in this analysis.
One issue with paying down debt is that during the pay-down period, the government (or individual) reducing the debt “feels poorer,” because funds available for spending on goods and services needed today is lower. This happens because some current tax revenue, or some current wages, must be used to pay down debt, and thus is not available for today’s spending. This is a turn-around from the increasing debt situation experienced many times in the past. For example, part of the reason times seemed good in the 2002-2006 period was because people were able to refinance their homes and use the funds to buy a new car or add on a family room. If we are forced to pay down debt, we have the reverse effect.
Issue 5. Similarity to “Secular Cycles” of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov.
Throughout the ages, many economies that have experienced long-term expansion. Eventually, they reached limits of some sort and collapsed. The book Secular Cycles by Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov takes an analytical approach to looking such past cycle. They developed a fairly complex model of what they would expect over time, in terms of trends in wages, prices, population, income inequality, and other variables. They then examine historical records (relating to eight civilizations in four countries, with “start dates” between 350 BCE and 1620 CE) to see whether this predicted pattern was born out in practice. In general, the authors found good agreement with the predicted model.
Typically, civilizations analyzed were reaching upper limits in population growth because of limits on food availability, but sometimes limits on water or fuel also were important. The model predicted four phases (expansion, stagflation, crisis, and depression/ intercycle). The typical length of the entire cycle was 300 years. The length of the various segments was fairly variable. The stagflation stage often lasted 50 or 60 years. The crisis stage tended to be shorter, more often in the 20 to 50 year range. There often was overlap between phases, with a civilization seeming to cycle back and forth between, say, expansion and stagflation.
In the model, there are various feedback loops. For example, as the number of workers rises relative to the amount of land, the price of land and food tends to rise. Jobs outside of agriculture do not rise proportionately, so wages of common workers tend to fall in inflation adjusted terms. With lower wages for common workers, nutrition declines. Eventually, the population becomes weakened, and population declines. There are also other players–the elite and the state itself.
Some characteristics of the four phases are as follows:
- Expansion phase (growth) – Increasing population, relatively low taxes, political stability, low grain prices, and high real (inflation-adjusted) wages.
- Stagflation phase (compression) – Slowing population growth, much heavier taxes needed to support a growing elite class, low but increasing political instability, rising grain prices, declining real wages for most workers, increasing indebtedness, and increasing urbanization.
- Crisis phase (state breakdown) – Population declining from the peak (typically by disease or by deaths from warfare), high income inequality, political instability increasing to a peak, high but very variable grain prices, high urbanization, tax system in a state of crisis, peasant uprisings.
- Depression/intercycle – Low population, attempts to restore state, declining economic inequality, grain prices decreasing but variable.
It seems to me that the United States and much of the world are going through a cycle much as described by Turchin. The Growth Phase of our current cycle seems to have begun around 1800, with the rise of coal use. Stagflation in the United States seems to have started with the drop in US oil production in 1970. All of the government budget and debt problems now seem to suggest that we are reaching the Crisis Phase.
Obviously, there are differences from the civilizations modeled, because we now live in a much more integrated world. Furthermore, earlier societies did not depend on oil and other modern fuels the way we do today. We do not know how the current situation will play out, but the comparison is concerning.