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Where economics fails

It’s occurred to me more than once that we might be wise to set aside an annual weekend to mourn the death of Osiris or Persephone or Bladud the wind-god or some other divinity, as our pagan ancestors did, or as those Christians who still take the narratives of their faith seriously do each year on Good Friday. It might at least put a merciful end to the media’s frantic and macabre efforts to bestow a belated sainthood on each new member of the dead celebrities’ club, no matter how far from sanctity the trajectory of their lives might have been.

Thus you’d be correct in guessing that I didn’t put much time this past weekend into paying attention to the media furore over the death of Michael Jackson. I was, instead, busy with my usual research. While tens of millions of people spent the weekend glued to their TVs reviewing the catastrophic fall from grace of an undeniably brilliant cultural phenomenon that achieved unparalleled success, and then was brought down by a supertanker-sized load of unresolved inner conflicts heated to crisis by a disastrous mismatch between an extravagant lifestyle and faltering income – well, I suppose that’s a fair description of what I was doing, too.

Still, the decline and fall of industrial civilization, that troubled and dysfunctional superstar still wobbling across the historical stage, can’t be tracked that effectively by taking in music videos or soundbite interviews. Instead, I spent the weekend reading through economics textbooks. “Thriller” is not exactly the word I’d use to describe these hefty tomes, but I’d recommend that anyone concerned with the future of our society ought to read at least one. This is not because current economic textbooks offer useful guidance to the challenges of our time. Quite the contrary; the world they describe is as imaginary as Oz, and rather less relevant to contemporary life. What makes them important is precisely that so many of the decision makers of our time treat this fantasy as reality.

Understand current economic thought and you understand most of the mistakes that are dragging industrial civilization down to ruin. The Energy Information Administration (EIA), a branch of the US government, has become infamous in the peak oil scene over the last decade or so for publishing estimates of future petroleum production that have no relationship to geological reality. Their methodology, as described in EIA publications, was simply to estimate probable increases in demand, and then to assume that increased demand would automatically be met with a corresponding increase in supply. Quite a few peak oil writers have suggested some dark conspiracy behind this blithe disregard for the limits of a finite planet, but it takes only a few minutes’ worth of reading to identify the real culprit as the standard notion of the law of supply and demand taught in every first-year economics textbook today.

According to this model of the world, the amount of any commodity available in a free market is controlled by the demand for that commodity. When consumers want more of a commodity than is available on the market, and are willing to pay more for it, the price of the commodity goes up; this provides an economic incentive for producers to produce more of the commodity, and so the amount of the commodity on the market goes up. Increased production sets an upper limit on price increases, since producers competing against one another will cut prices to gain market share, and the willingness of consumers to pay rising prices is also limited. Thus, in theory, the production and price of a commodity are set by a shifting balance between the desire of consumers to buy it and the desire of producers to make a profit from producing it.

What makes the theory so seductive is that within certain limits, and in certain circumstances, it works tolerably well. The problem creeps in when economists lose track of the existence of those limits and circumstances, and this, to a remarkable degree, is exactly what they have done. To be fair, they had good reason to do so, because during the three-hundred-year boom that created the industrial world following the successful harnessing of fossil fuels, the limits rarely applied and the circumstances were far more often present than not. Among the most important roots of the current crisis, in turn, are the hard facts that the limits have begun to come into play, and the circumstances no longer exist.

Let’s start with the obvious. Imagine that a plane full of investment bankers makes a forced landing in the Pacific close to a desert island. The island has no food, no water, and no shelter; it’s just a bare lump of rock and sand with a few salt-tolerant grasses on it. As the bankers struggle ashore from the sinking plane, the need for food, water, and shelter on that island is going to be considerable, but even if each of the bankers have a suitcase full of $134 billion dollars in bearer bonds – like those guys who were caught trying to enter Switzerland a little while back – that need is going to go unfilled, until and unless a ship arrives from somewhere else. The lesson here is simple: economics doesn’t trump physical reality.

More generally, the theoretical relationship between supply and demand functions only when supply is not constrained by factors outside the economic sphere. The constraints in question can be physical: no matter how much money you’re willing to pay for a perpetual motion machine, for instance, you can’t have one, because the laws of thermodynamics don’t take bribes. They may be political: Nazi Germany had a large demand for oil from 1943 to 1945, for example, and the Allies had plenty of oil to sell, but anyone who assumed on that basis that a deal would be cut was in for a big disappointment. They may be technical: no matter how much you spend on health care, for instance, sooner or later it’s going to fail, because nobody’s yet been able to develop an effective treatment for death. Economists have come up with various workarounds to deal with external factors of this sort, some more convincing than others.

Another set of factors that can crumple up the law of supply and demand and toss it into the wastebasket, though, has received far less attention. These are constraints that we might as well call “ecological,” and they unfold from the awkward fact that human economic activity is far less independent of the natural world than economists often try to pretend. The scale of this dependence is as rarely recognized as it is hard to overstate. One of the few attempts to quantify it, an attempt to work out the replacement costs for natural services carried out a few years back by a team headed by heretical economist Robert Costanza, came up with a midrange figure equal to around three times the gross domestic product of all human economic activity on earth.

Out of every dollar of value circulating in the world’s economy, in other words, something like 75 cents were provided by natural processes rather than human labor. What’s more, most if not all of that 75 cents of value had to be there in advance in order for the production of the other 25 cents to be possible at all. Before you can begin farming, for example, you need to have arable soil, water, and an adequate growing season, as well as more specialized natural services such as pollination. These are nonnegotiable requirements; if you don’t have them, you can’t farm. The same is true of every other kind of productive work in the human economy: nature’s contribution comes first, and generally determines how much the human economy can produce.

It’s for this reason that E.F. Schumacher, the maverick economist whose ideas are the launching pad for this series of posts, drew a hard distinction between what he called primary goods and secondary goods. Secondary goods are the goods and services provided by human labor, the ordinary subject of economic theory. Primary goods are the goods and services provided by nature, and they make the production of secondary goods possible. The difference between the two is very much like the difference between income and profit in a business: you have to have income in order to have profit, and if you neglect income while maximizing your profit, sooner or later you go bust.

A failure to distinguish between primary and secondary goods is at the root of a great deal of current economic nonsense. It’s usually possible, for example, to substitute one secondary good for another if the supply runs short or the price gets too high, and for this reason it’s a standard assumption of economics – and one of the foundations of the law of supply and demand – that consumers can meet their needs equally well with many different goods. Yet this assumption does not apply to natural goods. In the world of nature, a different rule – Liebig’s law of the minimum – applies instead: production is limited by the scarcest necessary resource. Thus if you have a farm and can’t get water for your crops, it doesn’t matter if you have excellent soil and all the other requisites of farming; you can’t grow anything.

In certain limited situations, to be sure, it’s possible to substitute one primary good for another – for instance, to use low-grade iron ores such as taconite when the high-grade ores have been exhausted. Even when this can be done, though, a law of diminishing returns always applies. You can get iron out of low-grade ore, but the extraction process is less efficient and takes much larger inputs of energy. When energy is cheap, you can ignore this – and this is exactly what happened over the course of the 20th century, as the iron industry retooled itself to use steadily lower grades of ore and steadily larger inputs of energy – but that in itself simply passes costs onto the future, since the fossil fuels that provided the energy inputs are themselves subject to depletion, and to a law of diminishing returns. One way or another, the substitution imposes additional costs without providing any additional economic benefit.

This same rule also applies to every other natural good. Consider the valuable service provided to the world’s economies by the honeybees that pollinate most nongrain food crops. If we succeed in adding the honeybee to the already long list of the world’s extinct life forms, it would doubtless be possible to replace their pollination services by other means, whether that took the form of huge pollinating machines rumbling across the fields or the simpler and probably more economical approach of migrant workers using little brushes to wipe pollen from a bag onto the stamen of every single flower. Note, though, that no farmer in his or her right mind would hire a thousand laborers with brushes instead of calling up the local beekeeper and arranging for a few hives to be left in the fields; substituting some other pollination method for bees would add a huge additional cost to farming, without yielding any additional benefit.

I’ve come to think that the unrecognized difference between secondary goods, which can be readily replaced by other goods without additional cost, and primary goods, which cannot, is among the most important forces driving our current crisis. For the last three centuries, the industrial economies of the world have been using up every primary good that can be converted into secondary goods at extravagant and steadily increasing rates. Think of any good or service provided by nature – from topsoil to oceanic fish stocks, from the pollution-absorbing capacities of rivers to the storm-buffering properties of wetlands, from breathable air and drinkable water to the mineral stocks and fossil fuel reserves that keep the entire system running – and you’ve just identified something that’s being used up rapidly by industrial societies, with no thought of the potential costs of substituting something else for it, much less of the hard fact that nothing we can possibly do can provide a substitute for some of them once they’re gone.

The mismatch between this hopelessly shortsighted approach and the unforgiving limits of nature is imposing a rising toll of substitution costs on industrial economies around the world. Of course there are other factors involved. Still, as I hope to show in a future post, the best explanation for the “stagflation” that beset economies and baffled economists in the 1970s was the unrecognized burden of substitution costs for a range of natural goods depleted or damaged during the previous decades. Equally, the economic dysfunctions that led central banks around 2002 to flood financial markets with cheap credit – a disastrous decision that ended up powering the boom and bust that landed us in the current Great Recession – were driven by mounting substitution costs for another range of natural goods that had been depleted or overused in the previous decades of prosperity. As peak oil adds a new round of substitution costs to those already in play, this same process is likely to have even more dramatic impacts on the future.

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