On the one hand, we have the “real” economy of energy, resources, labour, goods and services. On the other, there is the “financial” economy of money and debt. Money, of course, has no intrinsic worth, so any value that money possesses derives from its role as a claim on the output of the real economy. Together, money and debt constitute a quantity of “claims” on the real economy of today and tomorrow. That’s fine if – and only if – we do not create claims that exceed the value capabilities of the real economy.
Ultimately, the real economy is an energy equation. The economy began when the discovery of agriculture freed up a small proportion of the population for non-subsistence tasks. It took a huge step forward when the invention of the heat-engine enabled us to use fossil fuels to apply vast leverage to the very limited capabilities of human labour. Energy is vital, not just for warmth, cooking and transport, but for every other economic essential as well. Modern agriculture is hugely energy-dependent. Without abundant energy, we could not possibly extract one tonne of copper from 500 tonnes of rock. Hydrocarbons provide plastics as well as a gamut of chemical products. And so on.
But accessing energy comes at a price, and that price is the energy that is consumed in the access process. Picture, for instance, a gas well, an oil platform, a pipeline or a refinery, and you will appreciate the scale of the materials (such as steel) and the work (both mechanical and human) that the energy-delivering infrastructure embodies. What really matters to the economy is net energy – the relationship between the energy that we access and the energy consumed in the process…
The critical measure here is EROEI (the Energy Return On Energy Invested). The days of 100:1 energy returns are long gone. The ratio for new oil projects has declined from 30:1 to barely 10:1 since the 1970s. For global energy overall, the EROEI has declined from about 37:1 in 1990 to less than 14:1 now…In blithe ignorance of this increasing levy, we have continued to grow the claims value of the financial system on the assumption of perpetual growth. These “excess claims” show up as unsustainable debt, undeliverable welfare commitments, and unrealisable expectations for returns on investment.
…Globally, it is visible in “energy sprawl”, as the energy-delivering infrastructure expands (both in scale and in cost) in response to the weakening in efficiency resulting from a deteriorating EROEI. As well as crimping disposable incomes and destroying returns on investment, this process is curbing our ability to invest in other things.
The essential point is that the economy is not a monetary system governed by the theoretical “laws” of economics, but an energy dynamic determined by the all-too-real laws of thermodynamics. Once we understand this, the squeeze on household prosperity becomes far less of a mystery.
Tim Morgan on the real costs of energy on the global economy
NYTimes article on a long-term rehab facility in Italy, at which former addicts commit to four years of treatment (and may train for marathons). And amazingly, it’s free. Wonder who is funding it.
“We are broken vases that have been glued together again,” Floriddia said. “But if we can work and live in a healthy environment, we won’t break again.”
Tucked in the northern hills of Italy, San Patrignano is not a typical training ground for marathoners. It has 1,300 residents at its main facility, which doubles as a small farming community. The addicts submit to a four-year rehabilitation program in which they must cultivate their food, clean their rooms and undertake tasks like making cheese, raising pigs and cows, and producing wine.
…San Patrignano, which was founded in 1979 and has two smaller branches in Italy, is not like many drug rehabilitation centers. It is free, for one. Unless the newcomers need to scale down their use of methadone, residents are not given substitution medicines. They can see a therapist but are not compelled to. Social workers and former drug addicts who have seniority in the program assist those who have just arrived. If necessary, the seniors “crowd around you and talk you off the cliff,” as an American resident put it.
Economics is a study of human behaviour – above all, the allocation of scarce resources between competing ends. It requires the analysis of economic, commercial and financial life in all its institutional richness, or it is nothing. A solid grounding in theory and numeracy is essential but so, too, are broad dashes of politics, history, sociology and common sense.
Recent “Nobel” recipients have been rewarded, instead, for work that claims to have established “certainties”, made “findings” and discovered “relationships” – all of which, when it comes to economics, is bunkum.
– Liam Halligan, on why economics is not a science. He further offers some valid critique on this year’s award to Fama.
Comments section also offers some gems:
“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
– F.A. von Hayek
“The reason so many Americans get Nobel prizes for economics is that they are the only people who treat the subject seriously. Everyone else treats it as the non subject it is.”
– tempus (commenter)
The great thing about the market is that it’s usually very direct. The market is like that guy, sitting in his basement, watching sports on his 50-inch TV. He responds to direct inputs: food, touchdowns, homers, fumbles. To him, the long term goes as far as mourning if his favorite player is injured, because then the player can’t be in games anymore. He does think about “fundamentals” like whether his team has the right lineup. But he doesn’t often think really long term: it’s nearly impossible for him to get distracted by worries about, say, whether steroid use is compromising the integrity of baseball or whether sports still represents the same values it once did. He is not introspective. The market is not capable of introspection. It is only capable of action: up, down or sideways. It doesn’t go inward.
Heidi Moore for The Guardian, examining causes of the gold crash in April