Reading The News On America Should Scare Everyone, Every Day… But It Doesn’t

22 07 2017

Whilst this is Amero-centric, make no mistake, it also applies to Australia in bucket loads…….

Authored by Raul Ilargi Meijer via The Automatic Earth blog,

Reading the news on America should scare everyone, and every day, but it doesn’t. We’re immune, largely. Take this morning. The US Republican party can’t get its healthcare plan through the Senate. And they apparently don’t want to be seen working with the Democrats on a plan either. Or is that the other way around? You’d think if these people realize they were elected to represent the interests of their voters, they could get together and hammer out a single payer plan that is cheaper than anything they’ve managed so far. But they’re all in the pockets of so many sponsors and lobbyists they can’t really move anymore, or risk growing a conscience. Or a pair.

What we’re witnessing is the demise of the American political system, in real time. We just don’t know it. Actually, we’re witnessing the downfall of the entire western system. And it turns out the media are an integral part of that system. The reason we’re seeing it happen now is that although the narratives and memes emanating from both politics and the press point to economic recovery and a future full of hope and technological solutions to all our problems, people are not buying the memes anymore. And the people are right.

Tyler Durden ran a Credit Suisse graph overnight that should give everyone a heart attack, or something in that order. It shows that nobody’s buying stocks anymore, other than the companies who issue them. They use ultra-cheap leveraged loans to make it look like they’re doing fine. Instead of using the money/credit to invest in, well, anything, really. You can be a successful US/European company these days just by purchasing your own shares. How long for, you ask?

There Has Been Just One Buyer Of Stocks Since The Financial Crisis

 As CS’ strategist Andrew Garthwaite writes, “one of the major features of the US equity market since the low in 2009 is that the US corporate sector has bought 18% of market cap, while institutions have sold 7% of market cap.” What this means is that since the financial crisis, there has been only one buyer of stock: the companies themselves, who have engaged in the greatest debt-funded buyback spree in history.

 

 Why this rush by companies to buyback their own stock, and in the process artificially boost their Earning per Share? There is one very simple reason: as Reuters explained some time ago, “Stock buybacks enrich the bosses even when business sags.” And since bond investor are rushing over themselves to fund these buyback plans with “yielding” paper at a time when central banks have eliminated risk, who is to fault them.

More concerning than the unprecedented coordinated buybacks, however, is not only the relentless selling by institutions, but the persistent unwillingness by “households” to put any new money into the market which suggests that the financial crisis has left an entire generation of investors scarred with “crash” PTSD, and no matter what the market does, they will simply not put any further capital at risk.

So that’s your stock markets. Let’s call it bubble no.1. Another effect of ultra low rates has been the surge in housing bubbles across the western world and into China. But not everything looks as rosy as the voices claim who wish to insist there is no bubble in [inject favorite location] because of [inject rich Chinese]. You’d better get lots of those Chinese swimming in monopoly money over to your location, because your own younger people will not be buying. Says none other than the New York Fed.

Student Debt Is a Major Reason Millennials Aren’t Buying Homes

 College tuition hikes and the resulting increase in student debt burdens in recent years have caused a significant drop in homeownership among young Americans, according to new research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The study is the first to quantify the impact of the recent and significant rise in college-related borrowing—student debt has doubled since 2009 to more than $1.4 trillion—on the decline in homeownership among Americans ages 28 to 30. The news has negative implications for local economies where debt loads have swelled and workers’ paychecks aren’t big enough to counter the impact. Homebuying typically leads to additional spending—on furniture, and gardening equipment, and repairs—so the drop is likely affecting the economy in other ways.

As much as 35% of the decline in young American homeownership from 2007 to 2015 is due to higher student debt loads, the researchers estimate. The study looked at all 28- to 30-year-olds, regardless of whether they pursued higher education, suggesting that the fall in homeownership among college-goers is likely even greater (close to half of young Americans never attend college). Had tuition stayed at 2001 levels, the New York Fed paper suggests, about 360,000 additional young Americans would’ve owned a home in 2015, bringing the total to roughly 2.9 million 28- to 30-year-old homeowners. The estimate doesn’t include younger or older millennials, who presumably have also been affected by rising tuition and greater student debt levels.

Young Americans -and Brits, Dutch etc.- get out of school with much higher debt levels than previous generations, but land in jobs that pay them much less. Ergo, at current price levels they can’t afford anything other than perhaps a tiny house. Which is fine in and of itself, but who’s going to buy the existent McMansions? Nobody but the Chinese. How many of them would you like to move in? And that’s not all. Another fine report from Lance Roberts, with more excellent graphs, puts the finger where it hurts, and then twists it around in the wound a bit more:

People Buy Payments –Not Houses- & Why Rates Can’t Rise

 Over the last 30-years, a big driver of home prices has been the unabated decline of interest rates. When declining interest rates were combined with lax lending standards – home prices soared off the chart. No money down, ultra low interest rates and easy qualification gave individuals the ability to buy much more home for their money. The problem, however, is shown below. There is a LIMIT to how much the monthly payment can consume of a families disposable personal income.

 

 In 1968 the average American family maintained a mortgage payment, as a percent of real disposable personal income (DPI), of about 7%. Back then, in order to buy a home, you were required to have skin in the game with a 20% down payment. Today, assuming that an individual puts down 20% for a house, their mortgage payment would consume more than 23% of real DPI. In reality, since many of the mortgages done over the last decade required little or no money down, that number is actually substantially higher. You get the point. With real disposable incomes stagnant, a rise in interest rates and inflation makes that 23% of the budget much harder to sustain.

 

 

In 1968 Americans paid 7% of their disposable income for a house. Today that’s 23%. That’s as scary as that first graph above on the stock markets. It’s hard to say where the eventual peak will be, but it should be clear that it can’t be too far off. And Yellen and Draghi and Carney are talking about raising those rates.

What Lance is warning for, as should be obvious, is that if rates would go up at this particular point in time, even a lot less people could afford a home. If you ask me, that would not be so bad, since they grossly overpay right now, they pay full-throttle bubble prices, but the effect could be monstrous. Because not only would a lot of people be left with a lot of mortgage debt, and we’d go through the whole jingle mail circus again, yada yada, but the economy’s main source of ‘money’ would come under great pressure.

Let’s not forget that by far most of our ‘money’ is created when private banks issue loans to their customers with nothing but thin air and keyboard strokes. Mortgages are the largest of these loans. Sink the housing industry and what do you think will happen to the money supply? And since inflation is money velocity x money supply, what would become of central banks’ inflation targets? May I make a bold suggestion? Get someone a lot smarter than Janet Yellen into the Fed, on the double. Or, alternatively, audit and close the whole house of shame.

We’ve had bubbles 1, 2 and 3. Stocks, student debt and housing. Which, it turns out, interact, and a lot.

An interaction that leads seamlessly to bubble 4: subprime car loans. Mind you, don’t stare too much at the size of the bubbles, of course stocks and housing are much bigger issues, but focus instead on how they work together. As for the subprime car loans, and the subprime used car loans, it’s the similarity to the subprime housing that stands out. Like we learned nothing. Like the US has no regulators at all.

Fears Mount Over a New US Subprime Boom – Cars

It’s classic subprime: hasty loans, rapid defaults, and, at times, outright fraud. Only this isn’t the U.S. housing market circa 2007. It’s the U.S. auto industry circa 2017. A decade after the mortgage debacle, the financial industry has embraced another type of subprime debt: auto loans. And, like last time, the risks are spreading as they’re bundled into securities for investors worldwide. Subprime car loans have been around for ages, and no one is suggesting they’ll unleash the next crisis.

 But since the Great Recession, business has exploded. In 2009, $2.5 billion of new subprime auto bonds were sold. In 2016, $26 billion were, topping average pre-crisis levels, according to Wells Fargo. Few things capture this phenomenon like the partnership between Fiat Chrysler and Banco Santander. [..] Santander recently vetted incomes on fewer than one out of every 10 loans packaged into $1 billion of bonds, according to Moody’s.

If it’s alright with you, we’ll deal with the other main bubble, no.5 if you will, another time. Yeah, that would be bonds. Sovereign, corporate, junk, you name it.

The 4 bubbles we’ve seen so far are more than enough to create a huge crisis in America. Don’t want to scare you too much all at once. Just you read the news again tomorrow. There’ll be more. And the US Senate is not going to do a thing about it. They’re too busy not getting enough votes for other things.





The green car myth

28 06 2017

How government subsidies make the white elephant on your driveway look sustainable

And this comes on top of this article that describes how just making electric cars’ battery packs is equivalent to eight years worth of driving conventional happy motoring.

I have written before about the problems with bright green environmentalism. Bright greens suggest that various technological innovations will serve to reduce carbon dioxide emissions enough to avoid catastrophic global warming and other environmental problems. There are a variety of practical problems that I outlined there, including the fact that most of our economic activities are hitting physical limits to energy efficiency.

The solution lies in accepting that we can not continue to expand our economies indefinitely, without catastrophic consequences. In fact, catastrophic consequences are in all likelihood already unavoidable, if we believe the warnings of prominent climatologists who claim that a two degree temperature increase is sufficient to cause significant global problems.

It’s easy to be deceived however and assume that we are in the process of a transition towards sustainable green technologies. The problem with most green technologies is that although their implementation on a limited scale is affordable, they have insufficient scalability to enable a transition away from fossil fuels.

Part of the reason for this limited scalability is because users of “green” technology receive subsidies and do not pay certain costs which users of “grey” technology have to shoulder as a result. As an example, the Netherlands, Norway and many other nations waive a variety of taxes for green cars, taxes that are used to maintain the network of roads that these cars use. As the share of green cars rises, grey cars will be forced to shoulder increasingly higher costs to pay for the maintenance of road networks.

It’s inevitable that these subsidies will be phased out. The idea of course is that after providing an initial gentle push, the transition towards more green driving will have reached critical mass and prove itself sustainable without any further government subsidies. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to occur. We’ve seen a case study of what happens when subsidies for green technologies are phased out in Germany. After 2011, the exponential growth in solar capacity rapidly came to a stop, as new installs started to drop. By 2014, solar capacity in Germany had effectively stabilized.1 Peak capacity of solar is now impressively high, but the amount of solar energy produced varies significantly from day to day. On bad days, solar and wind hardly contribute anything to the electricity grid.

Which brings us to the subject of today’s essay: The green car. The green car has managed to hide its enormous price tag behind a variety of subsidies, dodged taxes and externalities it has imposed upon the rest of society. Let us start with the externalities. Plug-in cars put significant strain on the electrical grid. These are costs that owners of such cars don’t pay themselves. Rather, power companies become forced to make costs to improve their grid, to avoid the risk of blackouts, costs that are then passed on to all of us.

When it comes to the subsidies that companies receive to develop green cars, it’s important not just to look at the companies that are around today. This is what is called survivorship bias. We focus on people who have succeeded and decide that their actions were a good decision to take. Everyone knows about the man who became a billionare by developing Minecraft. As a result, there are droves of indie developers out there hoping to produce the next big game. In reality, most of them earn less than $500 a year from sales.2

Everyone has heard of Tesla or of Toyota’s Prius. Nobody hears of the manufacturers who failed and went bankrupt. They had to make costs too, costs that were often passed on to investors or to governments. Who remembers Vehicle Production Group, or Fisker automotive? These are companies that were handed 193 million and 50 million dollar in loans respectively by the US Federal government, money the government won’t see again because the companies went bankrupt.3 This brings the total of surviving car manufacturers who received loans from the government to three.

To make matters worse, we don’t just subsidize green car manufacturers. We subsidize just about the entire production chain that ultimately leads to a green car on your driveway. Part of the reason Fisker automotive got in trouble was because its battery manufacturer, A123 Systems, declared bankruptcy. A123 Systems went bankrupt in 2012, but not before raising 380 million dollar from investors in 2009 and receiving a 249 million dollar grant from the U. S. department of energy back in 2010.

Which brings us to a de facto subsidy that affects not just green cars, but other unsustainable projects as well: Central bank policies. When interest rates are low, investors have to start searching for yield. They tend to find themselves investing in risky ventures, that may or may not pay off. Examples are the many shale companies that are on the edge of bankruptcy today. This could have been anticipated, but the current financial climate leaves investors with little choice but to invest in such risky ventures. This doesn’t just enable the growth of a phenomenon like the shale oil industry affects green car companies as well. Would investors have poured their money into A123 Systems, if it weren’t for central bank policies? Many might have looked at safer alternatives.

One company that has benefited enormously from these policies is Tesla. In 2008, Tesla applied for a 465 million dollar loan from the Federal government. This allowed Tesla to produce its car, which then allows Tesla to raise 226 million in an IPO in June 2010, where Tesla receives cash from investors willing to invest in risky ventures as a result of central bank policies. A $7,500 tax credit then encourages sales of Tesla’s Model S, which in combination with the money raised from the IPO allows Tesla to pay off its loan early.

In 2013, Tesla then announces that it has made an 11 million dollar profit. Stock prices go through the roof, as apparently they have succeeded at the task of the daunting task of making green cars economically viable. In reality, Tesla made 68 million dollar that year selling its emission credits to other car companies, without which, Tesla would have made a loss.

Tesla in fact receives $35,000 dollar in clean air credits for every Model S that it sells to customers, which in total was estimated to amount to 250 million dollar in 2013.4 To put these numbers in perspective, buying a Model S can cost anywhere around $70,000, so if the 35,000 dollar cost was passed on to the customer, prices would rise by about 50%, not including whatever sales tax applies when purchasing a car.

We can add to all of this the 1.2 billion of subsidy in the form of tax exemptions and reduced electricity rates that Tesla receives for its battery factory in Nevada.5 The story gets even better when we arrive at green cars sold to Europe, where we find the practice of “subsidy stacking”. The Netherlands exempts green cars from a variety of taxes normally paid upon purchase. These cars are then exported to countries like Norway, where green cars don’t have to pay toll and are allowed to drive on bus lanes.6

For freelancers in the Netherlands, subsidies for electrical cars have reached an extraordinarily high level. Without the various subsidies the Dutch government created to increase the incentive to drive an electrical car, a Tesla S would cost 94.010 Euro. This is a figure that would be even higher of course, if Dutch consumers had to pay for the various subsidies that Tesla receives in the United States. After the various subsidies provided by the Dutch government for freelance workers, Dutch consumers can acquire a Tesla S at a price of just 25,059 Euro.7

The various subsidies our governments provide are subsidies we all end up paying for in one form or another. What’s clear from all these numbers however is that an electric car is currently nowhere near a state where it could compete with a gasoline powered car in a free unregulated market, on the basis of its own merit.

The image that emerges here is not one of a technology that receives a gentle nudge to help it replace the outdated but culturally entrenched technology we currently use, but rather, of a number of private companies that compete for a variety of subsidies handed out by governments who seek to plan in advance how future technology will have to look, willfully ignorant of whatever effect physical limits might have on determining which technologies are economically viable to sustain and which aren’t.

After all, if government were willing to throw enough subsidies at it, we could see NGO’s attempt to solve world hunger using caviar and truffles. It wouldn’t be sustainable in the long run, but in the short term, it would prove to be a viable solution to hunger for a significant minority of the world’s poorest. There are no physical laws that render such a solution impossible on a small scale, rather, there are economic laws related to scalability that render it impossible.

Similarly, inventing an electrical car was never the problem. In 1900, 38% of American cars ran on electricity. The reason the electrical car died out back then was because it could not compete with gasoline. Today the problem consists of how to render it economically viable and able to replace our fossil fuel based transportation system, without detrimentally affecting our standard of living.

This brings us to the other elephant, the one in our room rather than our driveway. The real problem here is that we wish to sustain a standard of living that was built with cheap natural resources that are no longer here today. Coping with looming oil shortages will mean having to take a step back. The era where every middle class family could afford to have a car is over. Governments would be better off investing in public transport and safe bicycle lanes.

The problem America faces however, is that there are cultural factors that prohibit such a transition. Ownership of a car is seen as a marker of adulthood and the type of car tells us something about a man’s social status. This is an image car manufacturers are of course all too happy to reinforce through advertising. Hence, we find a tragic example of a society that wastes its remaining resources on false solutions to the crisis it faces.


1 – http://www.ise.fraunhofer.de/en/publications/veroeffentlichungen-pdf-dateien-en/studien-und-konzeptpapiere/recent-facts-about-photovoltaics-in-germany.pdf Page 12

2 – http://www.gameskinny.com/364n3/report-most-indie-game-devs-made-less-than-500-in-game-sales-in-2013

3 – http://www.forbes.com/sites/joannmuller/2013/05/11/the-real-reason-tesla-is-still-alive-and-other-green-car-companies-arent/

4 – http://evworld.com/news.cfm?newsid=30195

5 – http://www.rgj.com/story/news/2014/09/04/nevada-strikes-billion-tax-break-deal-tesla/15096777/

6 – http://www.elsevier.nl/Economie/achtergrond/2015/4/-1742131W/

7 – https://www.cda.nl/mensen/omtzigt/blog/toon/auto-rijden-op-subsidie/





Peak Morons……..

27 05 2017

As someone not the least bit interested in investing into anything except the continuing development of the Fanny Farm, I read articles on the blogosphere such as the one below more as a form of amusement than anything else…… I really can’t be bothered doing the research to truly understand what is going on, I don’t need to; I know it’s a ponzi scheme, I know it’s unsustainable, I really don’t care anymore about all the suckers who will be bitten on the arse by their continuing stupidity.

What does amaze me though is how few people ‘get it’……. there really must be millions of morons out there, and according to Ponzi World, their numbers are, like everything else, reaching a crescendo, a peak of their own……  Pictures can tell a thousand words they say. Enjoy..!

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An IQ test for who could be conned three times in a row by the exact same psychopaths, while worshipping the false idol of competitive consumption…

The DotCom bubble was based upon the monetization of the internet. The Housing Bubble was as an experiment in using homes as ATM machines. This is the moron bubble, based upon the ubiquitous belief that printing money is the secret to effortless wealth…

Post-2008, EconoDunces knew they couldn’t reflate the real economy since it was being arbitraged away for corporate profit, so instead of inflating the economy, they inflated asset valuations instead. Therefore even as the underlying economy was losing value, the prices paid for it would be gaining value via the fake wealth effect. This may sound like a good idea in theory, but it comes with some problematic after-effects. For those who already owned financial assets this was great, since it allowed them to cash out at higher valuations, assuming they were smart enough to realize this was their last chance to do so. Unfortunately for anyone who spent their hard earned money buying stocks in the meantime, they were paying prices that bear no relation to reality. The bagholder effect.



RepubliCons have amply proved for the historical record that they are the party of dedicated morons. This is not a political statement it’s merely a statement of inconvenient fact.


“Democrats expect a recession and Republicans expect strong growth”

Doesn’t Faux News warn these people that they’re being conned?


 Stock market cap / GDP:



Wilshire total cap index / U.S. Federal debt



Those with top-heavy fears might worry about the underperformance of one gauge linked to the S&P that gives more weight to smaller stocks, he adds. But it’s “not really a big deal” as the equal-weight S&P is up 6.2% this year, not that far behind the regular index’s 7.9% rise, he says.





“Once Trump gets out of jail, he will cut taxes. He said he would…”


Second loans, such as home equity lines of credit (HELOC), are booming. HELOC originations were up 10 percent year over year in 2016, hitting an eight-year high, according to Black Knight Financial Services, and they continue to rise.

Ironically, the new boom comes just as the pain of the last home equity line boom is ending. 




Good news, our mega bubble is intact, but the U.S. is imploding:

“The weakness in BMO’s Q2 results was largely a Made In The USA issue, led by a big jump in commercial loan loss provisions, but also impacted by a dramatic slowdown in commercial loan growth”


FP: Repeat After Me, There’s No Systemic Risk From Home Capital Group


 

 
Fed:
“We call this threading the needle”




Wall Street:
“Don’t worry, we found a new way to make money, betting that Central Banks got this rate normalization exactly right…”


“…and betting that OPEC’s output cut is working…”

 

 





The EVERYTHING bubble…..

21 05 2017

I’m no financial guru.  Since studying Nicole Foss’ and Chris Martenson’s work, I have a reasonable understanding of how the economy works, enough to know it’s completely unsustainable and will eventually crash. I’m only interested in when it crashes because I worry it will all turn to dust before our new house is finished, and that could make my life difficult…. so I have to rely on proper gurus. I’d never heard of Mike Maloney until I heard him interviewed by Chris Martenson in a podcast, and my gut feeling is that he knows what he’s talking about.

We don’t have stocks and shares or gold and silver, because I believe that the real investment needed is farm land, and a shelter that doesn’t need to be connected to the rest of a collapsing world, which is why I don’t really follow all this stuff. But this turned up in my newsfeed, and it’s rattled me a bit……  so glad I’ve started building! it might even be time to pull money out of the bank and stash it under the mattress….

This is lifted from srsroccoreport.com, and I hope it’s useful to someone following this humble blog……

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The U.S. economy and markets are now the BIGGEST BUBBLES in history.  In 2000, we experienced  the Tech Bubble.  In 2008, we suffered both a Stock Market and Housing Bubble.  However, today… we are in the “EVERYTHING BUBBLE.”

This is an excellent video presentation by Mike Maloney at GoldSilver.com.  Mike puts together some of the best quality videos in the precious metals industry.  This one is a MUST SEE.  If you are frustrated with the performance of gold and silver since 2012, this video shows just how insane the markets have become.

In the video, Mike provides charts showing how the economic and market indicators are peaking, even much higher than what took place in 2008.  For example, Mike shows a chart on “Margin debt” in the stock market and how it is the highest ever:

The indicators and charts in Mike’s video presentation provides evidence that the market is now one GIANT BUBBLE ready to POP.  While the insanity could continue a bit longer, the indicators are now a BLINKING RED LIGHT that something is seriously wrong.

I highly recommend my readers to watch this video and please feel free to share it with others who are still gambling in the broader markets.  Maybe it might WAKE THEM UP before it’s too late.

You can also find this video presentation here: THE EVERYTHING BUBBLE: Code Red





How Do You Degrow an Economy, Without Causing Chaos?

16 05 2017

An article written by a Facebook friend of mine, Jonathan Rutherford, who is Coordinator of the New International Bookshop and a ‘Simpler Way’ activist. Originally published at the Resillience website.  The real challenge for those in charge is not ‘jobs and growth’, it is how to best manage the looming contraction……

‘Houston, we have a problem’. On the one hand, there is growing acceptance among environmentally conscious people that rich nations and affluent regions of the global economy must dramatically reduce overall resource and energy consumption levels – that is, undergo a process of ‘degrowth’ – if humanity is to bring about a sustainable world order. On the other hand, we have a growth economy that cannot go two steps in this direction without causing huge economic and social problems.

If you doubt the first part of this statement (i.e. the need for ‘degrowth’), consider just one metric – the material footprint (MF) indicator. This measures consumption of all natural resources (biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and minerals) extracted from the environment. Humanity’s current MF is about 70 billion tonnes – a figure that has more than trebled since the 1970s. As we know, already this rate of consumption is generating waste, pollution and land-use change that are driving environmental problems such as global warming and species extinction. But now consider the fact that the per capita rich nation (i.e OECD) MF is about 30 tonnes. If the 9+ billion humans expected to be living on earth by 2050 rose to this level, we would need 270 billion tonnes per annum – that is, four times the present rate, which is unsustainable. Using similar figures in the 1990s Friedrich Schmidt Bleek estimated that rich nations need to make ‘factor 10’ reductions in overall resource use (renewable and non-renewable), if we are to move down to a globally fair share and at sustainable levels. And that estimate, it should be noted, does not factor in the likely increase in MF that, recent history suggests, will inevitably result from the continuous pursuit of economic growth by all nations, included the wealthiest.

Many people hope that we can make ‘factor 10’ reductions via technological advance and efficiency gains alone, without having to make cut overall rates of production, consumption (i.e. GDP). But, as argued in a recent peer reviewed article by Giorgos Kallis there are strong reasons to think that this will not be viable. Few want to admit it, but the kind of radical reductions we need to make will require GDP contraction i.e. de-growth.

But if we in the rich world need to degrow the economy, as it appears we do, how is that done without causing utter social chaos and breakdown?  The problem was recently illustrated in a series of articles run by the ABC. The first article highlighted the trend among some young Australians to adopt relatively frugal lifestyles of reduced income expenditure and increased savings. A follow up article, however, asked: what would happen to the economy if everyone did this? The answers were revealing, and implicitly revealed fundamental flaws in our existing economic system.

The article cited data which suggest every year Australians spend $955 billion on all forms of consumption. Of this about $416 billion (44%) is made up items such as ‘food, clothing, housing, utilities, health, transport, insurance’ which the article defined as ‘necessities’ (note: one, of course, may question whether i.e. all clothes consumption are truly ‘necessities’!). The other $523 billion was made up what the article defined as discretionary items. Economist, Saul Eslake pointed out that, even if we exclude from this discretionary figure the $100+ billion worth of imported goods & services, if  all Australian households ceased all the remaining discretionary spending, GDP would be immediately reduced by 25 per cent. But, as Eslake pointed out, the impact on the economy would eventually be far greater than this, due to knock-on effects. The reduced spending, for example, would result in firm bankruptcy and thus laid off workers which, in turn, would further reduce aggregate demand in a cycle of downward depression familiar to students of economic history.

But while all this is entirely correct, reducing societal consumption – degrowing the economy – need not necessarily result in chaotic economic breakdown, as the ABC article implicitly assumed. This is indeed an inevitable outcome within our present economic system, but possibly not others.

Our present system – both in Australia and now most of the world – is, of course, the capitalist market economy. This 500-year-old system has certain defining features that mark it out as unique compared to other economic systems humans have devised.  It is a system in which a) most (if not all) the major means of production are privately (these days corporately) owned by a small minority of the population; and b) where the fundamental economic problems (what, how, and for whom to produce) are solved “automatically”, through the price mechanism, rather than through conscious social decisions.

Importantly, for this discussion, the system is characterised by a growth compulsion. Due to competition, all firms – particularly large shareholder firms – are under constant pressure to invest in new techniques, methods of production and products, to improve competitiveness and their sales figures. If they fail to do this, they not only risk profits margins but also eventually being taken-over by other firms, or made bankrupt. Since no firm wants to perish, and since all must expand if they want to continue to exist, a general growth compulsion arises, not just for individual firms, but for the macro economy as whole. So, while almost everyone wants growth, it is also true that the system needs growth for its basic functioning.

In fact, the system cannot possibly tolerate even a slow-down in the rate of growth, let alone a contraction. Richard Smith points out that even when capitalism approaches a ‘steady state’ of zero GDP growth, such as what happened in the USA in the wake of the GFC, the outcome for society at large is ugly. The situation is characterised by “capital destruction, mass unemployment, devastated communities, growing poverty, foreclosures, homelessness and environmental considerations shunted aside in the all-out effort to restore growth.” Obviously, nobody wants this, including advocates of degrowth.

What then would be required to contract the economy, in an orderly and fair way? The influential ‘Steady-State’ theorist Herman Daly argues that we can do so, while retaining a basically capitalist system, on the condition that the state steps in to play a far more active regulatory role than at present. Among other policy suggestions, Daly proposes that the state impose escalating resource depletion quotes, that can be traded in a market, while retaining private enterprise and the market system.

An emerging school of eco-socialists argue, however, that this will not work. Saral Sarkar points out three flaws with Daly’s plan.

“1) The contraction of the economies of the world must occur in an orderly way. Otherwise there will be unbearable breakdowns of whole societies. An orderly contraction can only take place in a planned economy, not in a capitalist market economy. 2) Only a socialist political order can achieve, by means of egalitarian distribution of the costs and benefits, a broad acceptance of the necessary contraction, 3) Only in a planned socialist economy can the problem of unemployment be solved, which would otherwise become more and more acute in a contracting economy. To this end, a planned economy can consciously use labor-intensive technologies and methods, which, in addition, result in less use of resources.” (Sarkar, 2012, 325)

Let me just briefly elaborate on the first reason given by Sarkar (for greater detail see Sarkar 1999) – the idea that contracting the economy within a capitalist market system would result in chaotic breakdown. Sarkar points out that the famed ‘efficiency’ of the market system only works well (if at all) when there is a buyers’ market, leading to strong competition between suppliers to meet customer demand. But in a contractionary scenario, most markets would be ‘suppliers’ markets, as there would be, in general, a shortage of supply relative to demand. This would mean even poorly run, high cost firms would be able to survive. And, as with any market economy, you would still have a situation where increasingly scarce resources were tended to be allocated to meeting the money backed demands of the already wealthy, rather than to meeting the vital needs for all – a recipe for social chaos in a context of heightened scarcity.

For these reasons, and as unfashionable as it is today, Sarkar argues that a socialist economic framework will be necessary if we are to contract the economy in an orderly, peaceful and socially just way. This would involve a process in which the state nationalises and/or shuts down most large-scale firms in the economy and actively plans the process of contraction via mechanisms such as quantitative controls, price controls, a quota system etc. But what about smaller firms and co-ops, operating at the local level? Here, it is plausible that a quasi-market economy – albeit operating within a very different no-growth culture and firmly under social control –  would be viable. Another eco-socialist Richard Smith elaborates:

“In arguing for large-scale industrial planning, I’m not saying that we should nationalize family farms, farmers’ markets, artisans, groceries, bakeries, local restaurants, repair shops, workers’ cooperatives, and so on. Small producers aren’t destroying the world. But large-scale corporations are. If we want to save the planet, the corporations would have to be nationalized, socialized, and completely reorganized. Many will need to be closed down, others scaled back, others repurposed. But I don’t see any reason why small-scale, local, independent producers cannot carry on more or less as they are, within the framework of a larger planned economy.”

Eventually the goal will be to move to a situation in which most (if not all) people live and work within highly localised economies, using local resources to meet local needs. As Ted Trainer argues, this is not optional if we want to reduce our ecological footprint to sustainable one planet levels that all can share. Gladly, there is a case that the quality of life could be very high within such communities.

But herein lies a problem for the eco-socialist, and wider degrowth movement. Trainer points out that these new local communities will not work well unless they are based on the active participation and cooperation of most, if not all, ordinary citizens in the locality. This will be necessary to ensure that all are provided for and the economy works within local eco-system limits. Active and inclusive participation by all (or at least most), Trainer argues, is ‘the crucial prerequisite… that will be needed if ordinary citizens are to eventually run highly self-sufficient local communities well.’ Widespread civic participation and cooperation simply cannot be imposed ‘top-down’ via states, even if they wanted to. In any case, Trainer argues, only if movements for localism and simpler living emerge first, is there any chance of building the eventual political will that will make a process of societal degrowth at the national and global levels possible.

For this reason, we ‘Simpler Way’ advocates tend to see the eco-socialist state directed process described above as ‘only’ a final, albeit necessary, step in a long multi phased transition towards sustainability. The first (and hardest) phase of the revolution happens when ordinary citizens, not states or corporations, take it upon themselves to start building today, even in small ways, the new self-reliant economies in the towns and suburbs where they live.

Having said that, the above sets a parallel challenge for participants within existing localist movements such as Transition Towns, eco-village, permaculture, simpler living etc. For it is equally true that we will not make a successful transition to sustainability – and the new local communities and economies will not function well – unless participants within these movements become aware of, and begin advocating for, the eventual need for an orderly process of ‘de-growth’ – a process that, for reasons mentioned briefly above, is only likely to go well within an eco-socialist framework. Ultimately, unless both these local and national-global processors occur, will not make a successful transition to a sustainable society.

Of course, today, across the world we are miles away from the necessary political and cultural awareness needed for such a transition. It is likely that the coming oil crunch and global financial contraction will aid our cause and encourage more people to see the sense in localism and de-growth – but, until then, activists must doggedly go on raising awareness wherever they can. Even if it does not feel like it, every conversation counts!

Reference:

Saral Sarkar, Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? – A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices. London: Zed Books. 1999.





Blindspots and Superheroes

14 05 2017

I haven’t heard much from Nate Hagens in recent times, but when he does come out of the woodwork, his communications skills certainly come through….. We who follow the collapse of the world as we know it probably know most of what’s in this admirable presentation, but it is absolutely captivating, and you will learn something new, or see it in a different perspective. It’s an hour and twenty minutes long (I actually drove down town to use the library’s free wi-fi to download it, my mobile phone data allowance won’t stretch to a quarter Gig for one video!), so make yourself a cup of your favourite poison, and enjoy the show……

Nathan John Hagens is a former Wall Street analyst, turned college professor and systems-science advocate. Nate has an MBA with Honors from the University of Chicago and a PhD in Natural Resources/Energy from the University of Vermont. He is on the Boards of Post Carbon Institute, Institute for Integrated Economic Research, and Institute for the Study of Energy and our Future. He teaches a class at the University of Minnesota called “Reality 101 – A Survey of the Human Predicament”.

Nate, partnering with environmental strategist DJ White, has created the “Bottleneck Foundation”, a nonprofit initiative designed to help steer towards better human and ecological futures than would otherwise be attained. The “Bottlenecks” are the cultural, biological, and technological challenges which will arise as energy and terrestrial biomass begin their long fall back toward sustainable-flow baselines this century. The “Foundation” part of the name is a tip of the hat to Asimov’s “Foundation” series of novels, about an organization designed to mitigate the negative effects of societal simplification. BF is dedicated to making “synthesis science” accessible to a new generation of engaged people, through educational materials and projects which demonstrate that reality is a lot different from our culture currently thinks it is.





It’s simple. If we can’t change our economic system, our number’s up

30 04 2017

I occasionally publish articles by George monbiot. At times I have labelled them ‘Monbiot at his best’, even if I disagreed with bits of it….. but this time, he utterly nails it. There’s very little regulars to this site will learn from this, but it is a good piece of writing, and it needs to be shared far and wide, because we truly need this revolution. It’s two years old, but even more relevant now than when he wrote it.

Found on the Guardian’s website…..

'The mother narrative to all this is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots.'
‘The mother narrative to all this is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots.’ Photograph: Alamy

Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham.

Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.

To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created. Ignore if you must climate change, biodiversity collapse, the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even if all these issues miraculously vanished, the mathematics of compound growth make continuity impossible.

Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth.

It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, with the accessible reserves exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition.

On Friday, a few days after scientists announced that the collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet is now inevitable, the Ecuadorean government decided toallow oil drilling in the heart of the Yasuni national park. It had made an offer to other governments: if they gave it half the value of the oil in that part of the park, it would leave the stuff in the ground. You could see this as either blackmail or fair trade. Ecuador is poor, its oil deposits are rich. Why, the government argued, should it leave them untouched without compensation when everyone else is drilling down to the inner circle of hell? It asked for $3.6bn and received $13m. The result is that Petroamazonas, a company with a colourful record of destruction and spills, will now enter one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, in which a hectare of rainforest is said to contain more species than exist in the entire continent of North America.

Almost 45% of the Yasuni national park is overlapped by oil concessions.
Yasuni national park. Murray Cooper/Minden Pictures/Corbis

The UK oil firm Soco is now hoping to penetrate Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo; one of the last strongholds of the mountain gorilla and the okapi, of chimpanzees and forest elephants. In Britain, where a possible 4.4 billion barrels of shale oil has just been identified in the south-east, the government fantasises about turning the leafy suburbs into a new Niger delta. To this end it’s changing the trespass laws to enable drilling without consent and offering lavish bribes to local people. These new reserves solve nothing. They do not end our hunger for resources; they exacerbate it.

Look at the lives of the super-rich, who set the pace for global consumption. Are their yachts getting smaller? Their houses? Their artworks? Their purchase of rare woods, rare fish, rare stone? Those with the means buy ever bigger houses to store the growing stash of stuff they will not live long enough to use. By unremarked accretions, ever more of the surface of the planet is used to extract, manufacture and store things we don’t need. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that fantasies about colonising space – which tell us we can export our problems instead of solving them – have resurfaced.

As the philosopher Michael Rowan points out, the inevitabilities of compound growth mean that if last year’s predicted global growth rate for 2014 (3.1%) is sustained, even if we miraculously reduced the consumption of raw materials by 90%, we delay the inevitable by just 75 years. Efficiency solves nothing while growth continues.

The inescapable failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence. As a result, they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st century’s great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours. We live as if trapped inside a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion and the three dreary staples of middle-class conversation: recipes, renovations and resorts. Anything but the topic that demands our attention.

Statements of the bleeding obvious, the outcomes of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unpardonable distractions, while the impossible proposition by which we live is regarded as so sane and normal and unremarkable that it isn’t worthy of mention. That’s how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.