Category Archives: Post Growth

Charts du Jour, 10 April 2015: The IMF Grows Cautious on Growth

The potential for secular stagnation has been a consistent theme of this blog; in other words, we should entertain the idea of slow (or even zero growth) as a possible norm–and plan our lives so that we fully recognise this risk. Meanwhile, the discussion of permanently slower growth has migrated from ‘crankdom’ to mainstream in five short years, and now even the IMF is humming the same tune.

This week, the IMF pre-released a chapter from its flagship World Economic Outlook publication. The chapter is titled “Where Are We Headed? Perspectives on Potential Output“. It starts off by pointing out that in advanced economies growth was coming off even before the Great Recession hit in 2008 (on all charts, click for larger image):

Determinants of Potential Output Growth jpegAs the above chart shows, potential output growth can be divided into three components: 1) employment growth (more people or longer hours), 2) capital growth (more machines and computers) or 3) total factor productivity (better educated people plus innovation). The big decline was in the last category, which flies in the face of all the breathless cornucopian stories we here: tales of technology abolishing every human ill or want.

Furthermore, the IMF now increasingly recognises two stark realities. First, ageing societies will act as an increasing drag on growth in not only advanced but also emerging market economies and, second, total factor productivity gains are slowing in emerging economies as these countries get closer and closer to the innovation frontier of the advanced economies (moving from catch-up to caught-up). Continue reading

Chart du Jour, 8 April 2015: The Problem with Productivity

The UK is in the midst of a productivity panic. The country has exhibited a solid economic recovery measured in terms of GDP, but not one in terms of being able to do more with less. In short, the country is pumping out a larger amount of stuff and services because a) more people are working and b) those who are working are putting in longer hours.

Likewise, the US faces a similar productivity conundrum (if not quite so pronounced). Take this chart from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta (here, click for larger image):

Labour Productivity jpeg.

The US appears to be productivity-challenged as well. And productivity is the thing that is supposed to make us rich (sort of). What is going on? Well, we could surmise that we are suffering from the early symptoms of diminishing returns to technology, an idea advanced by the growth economist Robert Gordon (see here).

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Chart du Jour, 1 April 2015: Were the 1950s So Good?

Sometimes it is best just to pilfer other people’s work– any other action feels rather pointless. This from Andy Skuce’s blog Critical Angle (click for larger image):

CO2 Sources copy

Bang! Marty McFly goes back to 1955 to persuade Doc to save the world from fossil fuel emissions (one can but dream).

Then again can we ask ourselves whether the relatively low energy intensity economies of the 1950s had a higher level of well-being than those that exist now (of course development has widened and population has grown). I’ll let my readers have a think about that.

Anyway, check out the Critical Angle blog here.

Wantability, Well-Being and Risk

I’ve been mulling a name change for the blog for some time. The name the “The Rational Pessimist” was a riposte to Matt Ridley’s book “The Rational Optimist“. Ridley’s book is a paean to global free markets and human innovation–and in parts is correct. Since the industrial revolution commenced, technology coupled with capitalism has lifted the bulk of the world’s population out of a Hobbesian life that was “nasty, brutish and short”. But where I differ from Ridley is in believing that a 200-year data set of economic growth can fully capture all future risk.

Ridley’s book is Panglossian. He believes that every problem we face–from climate change to resource depletion–is relatively minor, just waiting to be solved by a technological fix. For him, price always trumps scarcity. Whenever something looks like it is running out, the magic of markets will  always lead to new discoveries or acceptable substitutes.

As an economist by training, I accept that the everlasting dance between supply, demand and price is something of beauty. But I also believe that it has its limitations. A backward-looking empirical observation that things haven’t run out is different from a forward-looking theoretical prediction that things won’t ever run out. North Sea oil is running out regardless of price, and a global supply of oil is not qualitatively different from a local one.

Of course, technology may provide a perfect, or dare I say it better, substitute for fossil fuels. But then again it may not. That is uncertainty, and the consequences of that uncertainty is the concept of risk.

Continue reading

Charts du Jour, 17 March 2015: Pump Baby Pump (but Don’t Drill)

I regularly report on the Energy Information Administration‘s monthly US oil production statistics, which show no slowdown in output as yet (see here for latest numbers). Bloomberg, however, has a series of multimedia offerings giving more colour as to what is going on.

First, a nice chart juxtaposing production and rig count numbers (source: here).

Active Oil Rigs jpeg

And for a great animated graphic showing rig count through time and space, this offering (again from Bloomberg) is superb. Below is my screen shot, but to get the full effect click this link here.

Watch Four Years jpeg

Finally, an animation explaining why the crashing rig count has yet to stop production rising. In Bloomberg‘s view, the divergence between rig count and production has many months to run.

National Geographic recently had an article titled “How Long Can the US Oil Boom Last?” which emphasises the longer view. They argue that the US fracking boom is a multi-year phenomenon not a multi-decade one.

But in the long term, the U.S. oil boom faces an even more serious constraint: Though daily production now rivals Saudi Arabia’s, it’s coming from underground reserves that are a small fraction of the ones in the Middle East.

Both the EIA and the International Energy Agency see US oil production peaking out by the end of the decade regardless of short-term oil price fluctuations. Nonetheless, both organisations have underestimated the upswing in tight oil production to date. Overall, it is very difficult to gauge where US production will be in five years time. This is a bigger story than the current spectacular rig count crash, and one I intend to return to in future posts.

Charts du Jour, 16 March 2015: The Direct Impact of Natural Disasters

If you have a taste for doomer porn, then Desdemona Despair is the ‘go to’ site for you. Looking at the succession of despoiled ecosystems and ravished environments, it is hard not to get depressed. Nonetheless, while our natural assets are being fed through the meat grinder, the numbers show that our bodies are yet to meet a similar fate.

In a fascinating study led by Ilan Noy, a new index is proposed that “converts all damage indicators, including mortality, morbidity, and other impacts on human lives (e.g. displacement) – as well as damage to infrastructure and housing – into an aggregate measure of human lifeyears lost.”

In their approach, they “calculate the total years lost as the sum of years lost due to death, injury/affected, and financial damage.”

Adopting this methodology, the following chart is produced (click for larger image):

Total Life Years Lost by Regions jpeg

Critically, the impact of climate change, or environmental destruction in general, is yet to be seen.

We find no trend in the calculated index, and additionally we observe that most of disaster impacts are experienced in Asia (East and South). This dominance is likely due both to the region’s high degree of exposure to a multitude of extreme events (especially wide-scale flooding) and to the high population density in exposed areas (the coasts along the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the major river systems).

Before I am accused of sounding too much like my doppelgänger The Rational Optimist, I should emphasise that this is a human-centric metric. Species extinction doesn’t show up. Just as important, the system may tip. At present, the United States can absorb a Hurricane Katrina with ease (not withstanding the devastation such an event causes at a personal level). But what happens when you throw two or three Katrinas at the system in quick succession.

Even worse, what happens when extreme weather events graduate from being acute events to those that are chronic. An economy is composed of flows (GDP) and stocks (wealth). Some wealth destruction actually stimulates GDP. But when wealth destruction become a quotidian event, flow (GDP) won’t be able to cope. We are not at such a state of affairs as yet. I am not confident that we never will reach such a state.


How Well Does the Climate Change Performance Index Perform?

In previous posts (here and here), I was rather rude about the World Economic Forum (WEF)‘s Global Competitiveness Index (GCI). To me, the method of compilation of the index appears dishonest. Most people understand ‘competitiveness’ to relate to some kind of competition. Yet the WEF defines competitiveness to mean prosperity, measured by GDP head. The word ‘competitiveness’ is used as just a hook.

Further, no evidence is given to suggest that maximising one’s GCI scores would later lead to higher prosperity. In short, we are implicitly encouraged to pursue WEF‘s political goals (basically neoliberalism), with the completely unsubstantiated promise that they will make us prosper.

This criticism notwithstanding, economic indexes have their uses if they are transparent and honest. The big daddy of them all is the United Nations Development Programme‘s Human Development Index (HDI). Now 25 years old, HDI was introduced to counter the shortcomings of GDP. Simplistically, a developing country may have a relatively high GDP per capita number (due perhaps to some large resource endowment like oil) but a low level of development. As the chart below shows, human development encompasses diverse dimensions that go beyond a decent standard of living (click for larger image).

Human Development Dimensions jpeg

The strength of the HDI itself is its simplicity. It is an equally weighted composite of only three factors: life expectancy, education (with two sub components of adult literacy and school enrolment) and GDP per capita. Nonetheless, it serves its purpose: to advertise to the world that politicians need to look at the capabilities of their populations, not just the level of wealth. Continue reading