Archive for November, 2011

It’s de ja va all over again

November 4, 2011 4 comments

Ever since this financial crisis exploded in 2008 there have been commentators likening it to the 1930s. Steve Keen explains that private debt levels (never mind the sovereign debt sideshow) are higher than they were in the late 1920s. Paul Mason recently drew parallels with the 1930s in order to discuss various policy responses that might occur.

From an economic policy view, the 1930s crisis was often viewed as a problem of lack of demand. So demand stimulation came to the recue in various different guises. The diagnosis of the 1930s by Karl Polanyi viewed the crisis in terms of social reactions to the damage caused by un-fettered market economics. The blog post Wall of Illusions covers this viewpoint quite succinctly.

However, Polanyi may have missed an important aspect of world economic development. Perhaps the US New Deal, the rise of Fascism & state Communism were actually experiments in socioeconomic structures for optimising demand stimulation. The late 19th century and early 20th century bore witness to enormous increases in economic productive capabilities. The challenge for the economic policy maker was to indentify the best method for creating demand to satisfy this tsunami of supply. Naturally warfare is one method for achieving this.

The success of the Social Democratic mixed economies that emerged post World War II could be attributed to it establishing the least worst method for demand stimulation. Therefore, the debt-based demand growth model (whether by Gvt, business or private households) was the most socially acceptable method for ramping up the global economy to exploit the enormous energy and resource supply that was unearthed. The US and dollar reserve currency rode to the challenge of being the engineer and engine of a profitably expansionist global economy.

In the current crisis the enormous debt overhang threatens to constrain demand. Steve Keen’s exellent analysis of the debt burden, highlights how debt payments are prohibiting real economic growth.

But this is only part of the story.

As we actually reaching the peaking out of many natural resources, crucial for economic growth, the current crisis will be mired in insurmountable problems of supply.

This chart of G7 economic growth is showing a secular downward trend. From growth levels of about 3% p/a in the 1990s to stagnation in 2010 – 2015. This confirms a secular slowdown of -1% in growth every 5 years, which a major turning point happening about now.

The chart confirms that major developed economies are platauing in terms of economic productivity. If we link this plateau with the energy & resource constraints staring us in the face and you can only conclude that the world’s major economies are incapable of supplying the necessary cost-effective inputs to power economic production, regardless of fiscal and monetary stimulus. The capitalist economy’s acceleration addiction is getting an unwelcome dose of cold turkey.

The mainstream policy response will be two fold. Firstly, a desperate clinging to the high demand expectations, fully embeded in the zealotry surrounding the neccessity for creditors to be made whole on their expansionist lending practices. All efforts possible will made to maintain (or even grow) debts as the dogma suggests that only this can hope to create the neccessary demand stimulation.

As supply shocks also become apparent, we should also be wary that in a last gasp pique of laissez-faire de-regulation (of labour & environmental protections) will be imposed too. The migration of production capacity to large developing countries has only ever been to achieve the illusion of permanent supply growth. But this has already come at extreme social costs, such as mounting personsal debts, rising unemployment, declining social welfare. The desperation is only likely to push this further and further.

This is the legacy that predatory capitalism is delivering for the world. Energy and resource supply at any cost. Regardless of the impact on the environment, on people’s health or their quality of life.