Tag Archives: Joseph tainter

Lack of Growth Economics

Various individuals have been writing about ‘no growth’ or ‘negative growth’ economics in recent years: Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute springs to mind; or for those who like to ski off piste, James Kunstler at Clusterfuck Nation or Nicole Foss at Automatic Earth. But don’t expect to find any hypertext links to Heinberg et al’s writings at Economist’s Viewthe highest profile aggregator of economic commentary collated by economics professor Mark Thoma—since the CVs of all three can best be described as lacking gravitas in the area of formal economics.

Then something strange happened back in September 2012. Heinberg, Foss and Kunstler unknowingly recruited the most unlikely of allies.

The doyen of growth economists Robert Gordon wrote a short commentary for the Centre for Economic Policy Research suggesting that the glory days of economic growth in the U.S. were gone for good. Gordon’s “Is US Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Head Winds” is still an important read and can be found here. In the paper, Gordon  suggested that the last 250 years of high growth could be considered an exception rather than the rule:

Since Solow’s seminal work in the 1950s, economic growth has been regarded as a continuous process that will persist forever. But there was virtually no economic growth before 1750, suggesting that the rapid progress made over the past 250 years could well be a unique episode in human history rather than a guarantee of endless future advance at the same rate.

The unique nature of recent growth can be put in perspective by looking at the following chart from Gordon’s paper that splices together a times series from the U.S. and England (obviously data doesn’t go as far back as 1300 for the U.S.):

Growth in Real GDP per Capita jpeg

Gordon then went on to make what he calls a “fantasy forecast”, under which growth in GDP per head declines to the rate of 0.2% per annum by the end of the century.

Real GDP Fantasy Forecast jpeg

By fantasy, he meant a hypothetical growth rate that would be consistent with the six headwinds to growth that he identified, albeit accepting a degree of uncertainty in the chosen variables. The six head winds are as follows:

  1. Poor demographics
  2. Faltering educational attainment
  3. Rising inequality
  4. Globalisation
  5. Energy depletion and environmental degradation
  6. The burden of household and government debt

Each headwind is given a rough value that subtracts from the 1.8% average GDP per head growth rate that was sustained for the two decades up until the credit crisis of 2007.

Growth Subtraction Gordon jpeg

For some additional colour on his thinking, you can find a TED talk of Gordon’s here.

Eighteen months on and Gordon is back with a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) called “The Demise of U.S. Economic Growth: Restatement, Rebuttal, and Reflections”. It’s behind a paywall (here), although you can buy a copy for $5, but I will pluck out a few charts and the main points. First, this critical chart:

Disposable Real Income Growth jpeg

At first glance, it looks similar to Figure 6 from the original commentary that I reproduced above, but actually there are some substantive differences.

First, our starting point is the average GDP growth rate from 1891 until 2007, encompassing the entire Second Industrial Revolution (to use Gordon’s terminology) and its aftermath;  the growth figure (GDP per head) he gives for this period is 2.0% per annum. We then subtract bad demographics (-0.3%), the stagnation in education attainment (-0.2%), rising inequality for the bottom 99% of the income distribution (-0.5%) and debt transfers (-0.2%).

The last bar is critical since it captures faltering innovation (-0.6%), which Gordon sees as a central concern for all advanced economies. He contrasts the three general purpose technologies—electricity, the internal combustion engine and remote communications by telegraph and then telephone—developed during the Second Industrial Revolution with the lesser value information technologies of the so called Third Industrial Revolution currently taking place.

Gordon is lukewarm with respect to the degree to which the current information and communication technology revolution have contributed to human welfare. Here are the main fruits of the so called IR3 as he sees them (click for larger image):

Third Industrial Revolution

Yet, despite these innovations, productivity has already slowed substantially:

Annualised Growth Rates of Output per Hour jpeg

Gordon is at pains to stress that he is not forecasting a new slowdown in productivity, just extrapolating one that has already taken place:

There is no need to predict any faltering or slowdown in the rate of innovation over the next 40 years. My baseline productivity growth forecast (for the total economy) of 1.30 percent per year starts from the realised growth rate over 1972-2012 of 1.59% and subtracts Jorgenson’s 0.27% precent for the likely effect of the slower advance of education attainment.

He is also highly skeptical of those techno-optimists like Brynjolfsson and McAfee who see a technical nirvana.

They remind us Moore’s Law that predicts endless exponential growth of the performance capability of computer chips, without recognising that the translation from Moore’s Law to the performance-price behaviour of ICT equipment peaked in 1998 and has declined ever since.

Moreover, all those new technologies beloved by newspaper columnists receive short shrift including small robots, AI, 3-D printing, gene-based medicine, Big Data and driverless cars. In Gordon’s view, most of these are merely refinements of existing technologies that date back decades. Further, although there was a short-lived jump in technology led productivity during the tech boom of 1996-2004, such gains have since slumped. So why should the future be any different?

Lastly, and critically, the new paper leaves out two head winds to growth from his older analysis: globalisation and energy/environment. If you add these into the new new forecast, then it is easy to take future growth into negative territory.

Factor in some geopolitical instability, and a low level class war as the 99% bite back, and things could get even worse. And this is without any consideration of Joseph Tainter-style fragilities. Our complex societies have been built on the assumption of ever-lasting growth. Reverse growth and our socio-economic institutions look weak—just look at the challenges facing health provision and pensions in the West.

In total, it may not all add up to Kunstler’s dystopian vision of the future chronicled in his “Made by Hand” series of novels, where society cannot even maintain the necessary technology to sustain transport by bicycle, but it could certainly be a very different world from the one which we inhabit today.

Should We All Give Up?

The frustration within the sustainability and resilience blogosphere is palpable. Oftentimes it is expressed in terms such as this: “Why even bother communicating with the mainstream, when the mainstream has no intention of listening?”

But ideas have a life of their own, and many are gradually infecting the mainstream, without the mainstream even being aware of their origin. For example, take the chart below titled “Costly Quest” taken from a Wall Street Journal article published on 28 January (behind paywall here, click for larger image):

Majors Oil Production jpeg

This is a classic case of the Red Queen syndrome, under which Big Oil has to run ever faster purely in order to stand still; that is, ever more investment for the same level of production. (A previous post dealt with the Red Queen and shale gas here.)

The Red Queen can also be described another way: a decline in the energy return on investment (EROI), under which you have to put ever more energy into an extraction and production process just to get the same amount of energy out.

EROI was first conceived of by the systems ecologist Charles Hall who later developed it more deeply into the discipline called biophysical economics, the best exposition of which can be found  in the book “Energy and the Wealth of Nations” by Hall and co-author Kent Klitgaard.

You can listen to a recent 19 January 2014 podcast by Hall talking about EROI and biophysical economics at Progressive Radio Network at the link below. Don’t get put off by the weird bird noises at the beginning. The podcast starts one minute in and Hall gets on to fossil fuel depletion issues about 25 minutes into the podcast. The first 25 minutes are still interesting as they explain how Hall got involved in biological energy systems when studying migrating salmon.


At the height of the credit crisis, the revolutionary ideas espoused by advocates of biophysical economics chimed with the times and even got an airing in the mainstream media, as, for example, in this article in The New York Times in 2009.

Five years on and this intellectual strand of thought remains marginalised, as Joseph Tainter, one of the movements most high profile supporters predicted back then:

“Of course I’m trying to send a message,” said Joseph Tainter, chairman of Utah State University’s Department of Environment and Society. “I just don’t expect there’s anyone out there to receive it.”

And many who tried to get the message out have given up, the demise of The Oil Drum being, perhaps, the most famous example. Similarly, we got a post from the blogger Question Everything yesterday making a very definitive statement:

What follows is actually something that has been brewing for a while. I started writing this a little over a year ago. A recent e-mail list exchange with some other people who have been blogging, mostly about things like climate change, energy depletion, and the collapse of civilization, reminded me of my own evolution in thinking. Several well-known luminaries in the blog and book-writing world have begun to voice a kind of remorse that their voices have been ignored. Meanwhile the world has careened toward the consequences they have warned us of. And now they are realizing that they have been tilting at windmills. Somewhere along the line I did too…..

…..In any case I plan to no longer concern myself with warning of imminent collapse or a bottleneck. In all likelihood I may, from time to time, simply mention another signpost along the way, like the current draught problems in California as indications that climate change is having its effects much sooner than expected. But I won’t dwell on how it could have been different if only people would have listened to the warnings and taken heed. I won’t complain about those in governments being so incredibly stupid and foolish. I’ve said quite enough about it already. Think of this as a kind of retirement from the role of a Cassandra.

My own position is somewhat less gloomy. Why should we be so surprised that a well-financed climate skeptic lobby would have emerged after Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  “Fourth Assessment Report” in 2007? Or surprised that, with an oil price spiralling above $100 per barrel, the fossil fuel industrial complex would throw more cash and technology at getting marginal barrels of oil out of the ground?

My optimism rests on the fact that our problems cannot be permanently ignored: the planet will continue to warm and energy prices will continue to rise. In The New York Times article back in 2009, Hall was quoted thus:

“It isn’t that there’s no technology,” Hall said. “The question is, technology is in a race with depletion, and that’s a whole different concept. And we think that we can show empirically that depletion is winning, because the energy return on investment keeps dropping for gas and oil.”

This is basically the core idea behind The Wall Street Journal article I commenced the post with.

So should we all give up? I think my answer is “no”: every idea has its time and biophysical economics is an idea whose time is just arriving. From the heretical to the mainstream in tiny incremental steps. Indeed, in the not too distant future, even The Wall Street Journal will believe in the idea of peak oil and dangerous anthropogenic climate change. You may call me stupid and naive; I prefer to see myself as patient.

Technology: Singularity or Collapse? (Part 3: Something Going on Around Here)

Apologies for a an absence of blogging for around two months. My father passed away in March, and for some time I couldn’t summon the concentration that blogging requires. The world, however, moves on and we do certainly appear to be living in ‘interesting times’ (the Chinese curse of living in ‘interesting times’ again appears to be something of a myth, but Wikipedia suggests here that it may actually come from the rather wonderful proverb  “It’s better to be a dog in a peaceful time than be a man in a chaotic period”).

The ‘interesting time’ that we are witnessing in Europe is the unstitching of postwar political and economic institutions in the face of austerity. And actually it is not ‘austerity’ per se that is the problem in Europe, but rather a structural lack of growth. A libertarian would argue that this death of growth in Europe is the result of the continent’s over-regulation, excessive taxation and sclerotic labour markets. Unfortunately, this argument appears lacking since the downward trajectory in economic growth seems an OECD phenomenon; for example, while the US is no Italy, it currently appears incapable of growing enough to absorb the natural rate of increase in its labour force, and its GDP is expanding at a far slower rate than in previous decades.

True, global growth as measured by the IMF is still humming along at a handsome pace. If we ignore the 2009 credit crisis aberration, then GDP expansion has recently been above the post-War long term average and is projected to push up above 4% over the next few years (here). However, just as OECD growth appeared to be have been artificially propped by the accumulation of debt in the 2000s, it is an open question as to whether the developing market behemoths of China, India and Brazil have also been binging on mal-investment post the credit crisis to keep their economic miracles on track. As countries as diverse as the Soviet Union and Japan show, this particular type of industrial policy has a tendency to suddenly come up against a brick wall with the passage of time (read Michael Pettis on China for this sort of critique). Continue reading

Greece as the Canary in the Coal Mine for Collapse?

Much of the western media appears to view Greece as a morality play: hubris coming before a fall. But many of the elements that have brought Greece down have parallels in the larger economies: an ageing population, increased integration into the global economy, hollowing out of traditional industries, reliance on debt to sustain growth, dependence on increasing social transfers to offset inequality brought about by technological change and a widening energy import bill.

Greece joined the EU in 1981 and the eurozone in 2001 (with the  drachma abolished in 2002). This chart of Greece’s GDP growth rates from eurostat shows  the sharp reverse in the country’s fortunes (note that the forecast rates for 2012 and 2013 currently look hopelessly optimistic). Moreover, latest data for 2011, suggest the final figure will come in at around minus 7%.

Continue reading