Are Gilets Jaunes the new guillotine?

8 12 2018

POPULAR UNREST IN AN AGE OF FALLING PROSPERITY

Between my French origins and the opinions expressed within this little blog, I have taken more than a passing interest in the events happening in France, especially when it’s fuelled by passionate and restless wwoofers who come from there too! As you will or should know, I believe the real economy runs on energy, not money, and surplus energy in particular…… as a result, I have been following Tim Morgan’s Surplus Energy Economics blog for a while, which I would encourage you all to follow too. This is Tim’s latest gem, which proves that when you do the math…….  the truth comes out!

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This weekend, the authorities plan to field 89,000 police officers across France in response to anticipated further mass protests by the ‘gilets jaunes’. In the capital, the Eiffel Tower will be closed and armoured cars deployed, whilst restaurateurs and shopkeepers are being urged to close their businesses at one of the most important times of their trading year.

Though the government has climbed down on the original cause célèbre – the rises in fuel taxes planned for next year – there seems to be no reduction in the worst protests experienced in the country since the 1960s. Reports suggest that as many as 70% of French citizens support the protestors, and that the movement may be spreading to Belgium and the Netherlands.

For the outside observer, the most striking features of the protests in France have been the anger clearly on display, and the rapid broadening of the campaign from fuel prices to a wider range of issues including wages, the cost of living and taxation.

The disturbances in France should be seen in a larger context. In France itself, Emmanuel Macron was elected president only after voters had repudiated all established political parties. Italians have entrusted their government to an insurgent coalition which is on a clear collision-course with the European Union over budgetary matters. The British have voted to leave the EU, and Americans have elected to the White House a man dismissed by ‘experts’ as a “joke candidate” throughout his campaign.

Obviously, something very important is going on – why?

Does economics explain popular anger?

There are, essentially, two different ways in which the events in France and beyond can be interpreted, and how you look at them depends a great deal on how you see the economic situation.

If you subscribe to the conventional and consensus interpretation, economic issues would seem to play only a supporting role in the wave of popular unrest sweeping much of the West. You would concede that the seemingly preferential treatment of a tiny minority of the very rich has angered the majority, and that some economic tendencies – amongst them, diminishing security of employment – have helped fuel popular unrest.

Beyond this, though, you would note that economies are continuing to grow, and this would force you to look for explanations outside the purely economic sphere. From this, you might conclude that ‘agitators’, from the right or left of the political spectrum, might be playing a part analogous to the role of “populist” politicians in fomenting public dissatisfaction with the status quo.

If, on the other hand, you subscribe to the surplus energy interpretation of the economy professed here, your view of the situation would concentrate firmly on economic issues.

Though GDP per capita may be continuing to improve, the same cannot be said of prosperity. According to SEEDS (the Surplus Energy Economics Data System), personal prosperity in France has deteriorated by 7% since 2000, a trend starkly at variance with the growth (of 12%) in reported GDP over the same period.

Not only is the average French person poorer now than he or she was back in 2000, but each person’s share of the aggregate of household, business and government debt has increased by almost 70% since 2000. These findings are summarised in the following table, sourced from SEEDS.

France prosperity snapshot

Two main factors explain the divergence between the conventional and the surplus energy interpretations of the economy. One of these is the pouring of enormous quantities of cheap debt and cheap money into the system, a process which boosts recorded GDP without improving prosperity (for the obvious reason that you can’t become more prosperous just by spending borrowed money). The other is the exponential rise in the energy cost of energy (ECoE), a process which impacts prosperity by reducing the share of output which can be used for all purposes other than the supply of energy itself.

In France, and with all sums expressed in euros at constant 2017 values, GDP grew by 23% between 2000 and 2017. But this growth, whilst adding €433bn to GDP, was accompanied by a €3.07tn increase in aggregate debt. This means that each €1 of reported growth in the French economy has come at a cost of more than €7 in net new debt. Put another way, whilst French GDP is growing at between 1.5% and 2.0%, annual borrowing is running at about 9.5% of GDP.

Cutting to the chase here, SEEDS concludes that very little (about €100bn) of the reported €433bn rise in GDP since 2000 has been sustainable and organic, with the rest being a simple function of the spending of borrowed money. Shorn of this credit effect, underlying or clean GDP per capita is lower now (at €29,550) than it was in 2000 (€30,777).

Meanwhile, trend ECoE in France is put at 7.8%. Though by no means the worst amongst comparable economies, this nevertheless represents a relentless increase, rising from 4.6% back in 2000. At the individual or household level, rising ECoE is experienced primarily in higher costs of household essentials. In the aggregate, ECoE acts as an economic rentdeduction from clean GDP.

Between 2000 and 2017, clean GDP itself increased by only 5.7%, and the rise in ECoE left French aggregate prosperity only marginally (2.2%) higher in 2017 than it was back in 2000. Over that same period, population numbers increased by 10%, meaning that prosperity per person is 7.1% lowernow than it was at the millennium.

In France, as elsewhere, the use of credit and monetary adventurism in an effort to deliver “growth” has added markedly to the aggregate debt burden, which is €3.1tn (86%) higher now than it was in 2000. The per capita equivalent has climbed by 69%, making the average person €41,800 (69%) more indebted than he or she was back in 2000.

The prosperity powder-keg

Gilets Jaunes Acte 3 – Samedi 1er Décembre – Perpignan

To summarise, then, we can state the economic circumstances of the average French citizen as follows.

First, and despite a rise in official GDP per capita, his or her personal prosperity is 7.1% (€2,095) lower now than it was as long ago as 2000.

Second, he or she has per capita debt of €102,200, up from €60,400 back in 2000.

Third, the deterioration in prosperity has been experienced most obviously in costs of household essentials, which have outpaced both wages and headline CPI inflation over an extended period.

This is the context in which we need to place changes in the workplace, and a perceived widening in inequality.

On this latter point, part of the explanation for the anger manifested in France can be grasped from this chart, published by the Institut des Politiques Publiques.

In the current budget, policy changes hurt the disposable incomes of the poorest 10% or so (on the left of the scale), but ought to be welcomed by most of the rest – and perhaps might be, were it not for the huge handouts seemingly being given to the very wealthiest. Moreover, these benefits aren’t being conferred on a large swathe of “the rich”, but accrue only to the wealthiest percentile.

French budget 2

This is part of a pattern visible throughout much of the West. Unfortunately, perceptions of hand-outs to a tiny minority of the super-rich have arisen in tandem with a deteriorating sense of security. Security is a multi-faceted concept, which extends beyond security of employment to embrace prosperity, wages, living costs and public services.

Even in the euphoric period immediately following his election, it seemed surprising that French voters would back as president a man committed to ‘reform’ of French labour laws, a process likely to reduce workers’ security of employment. Add in further deterioration in prosperity, and an apparent favouring of the super-rich, and the ingredients for disaffection become pretty obvious.

Where next?

The interpretation set out here strongly indicates that protests are unlikely to die down just because the government has made some concessions over fuel taxes – the ‘gilet jaunes’ movement might have found its catalyst in diesel prices, but now embraces much wider sources of discontent.

Given the context of deteriorating prosperity, it’s hard to see how the government can respond effectively. Even the imposition of swingeing new taxes on the super-rich – a wildly unlikely initiative in any case – might not suffice to assuage popular anger. It seems likelier that the authorities will ramp up law enforcement efforts in a bid to portray the demonstrators as extremists. The scale of apparent support for the movement – if not for some of its wilder excesses – suggests that such an approach is unlikely to succeed.

Of course, it cannot be stressed too strongly that the French predicament is by no means unique. Deteriorating prosperity, a sense of reduced security and resentment about the perceived favouring of the super-rich are pan-European trends.

In the longer term, trends both in prosperity and in politics suggest that the West’s incumbent elites are fighting a rear-guard action. The credibility of their market economics mantra suffered severe damage in 2008, when market forces were not allowed to run to their logical conclusions, the result being a widespread perception that the authorities responded to the global financial crisis with rescues for “the rich” and “austerity” for everyone else.

This problem is exacerbated by the quirks of the euro system. In times past, a country like Italy would have responded to hardship by devaluation, which would have protected employment at the cost of gradual increases in the cost of living. Denied this option, weaker Euro Area countries – meaning most of them – have been forced into a process of internal devaluation, which in practice means reducing costs (and, principally, wages) in a way popularly labelled “austerity”. The combination of a single monetary policy with a multiplicity of sovereign budget processes was always an exercise in economic illiteracy, and the lack of automatic stabilisers within the euro system is a further grave disadvantage.

Finally, the challenge posed by deteriorating prosperity is made much worse by governments’ lack of understanding of what is really happening to the economy. If you were to believe that rising GDP per capita equates to improving prosperity – and if you further believed that ultra-low rates mean that elevated debt is nothing to worry about – you might really fail to understand what millions of ordinary people are so upset about.

After all, as somebody might once have said, they can always eat brioche.





The end of the Middle East

14 03 2017

I have to say, I am seriously chuffed that Nafeez Ahmed is calling it, as I have been for years now…. In a lengthy but well worth reading article in the Middle East Eye, Nafeez explains the convoluted reasons why we have the current turmoil in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. He doesn’t mention Egypt – yet – but to be fair, the article’s focus in on Mosul and the implications of the disaster unfolding there……

It never ceases to amaze me how Egypt has managed to stay off the news radar. Maybe the populace is too starved to revolt again….

After oil, rice and medicines, sugar has run out in Egypt, as the country has announced a devaluation of 48% of its currency. In Egypt, about 68 million of the total 92 million people receive food subsidized by the State through small consumer stores run by the Ministry of supply and internal trade. After shortages of oil, rice and milk, and even medicines, now sugar scarcity has hit the country. Nearly three quarters of the population completely rely on the government stores for their basic needs.

Egypt produces 2 million tons of sugar a year but has to import 3 million to face domestic demand. However imports have become too expensive.  The country is expected to receive a loan of 12 billion dollars (11 billion euros) from the International monetary Fund (IMF) to tackle its food scarcity. The price for sugar in supermarkets and black markets are skyrocketing as well, with a kilogram costing around 15 pounds. If available, one could get sugar from subsidized government stores for 0.50 euros per kilo.

Nafeez goes into great and interesting detail re the dismaying shenanigans going on in nafeezIraq and Syria at the moment. I’ll leave it to you to go through what he wrote on the Middle East Eye site on those issues, but what struck me as relevant to what this blog is about is how well they correlate with my own thoughts here…..:

Among my findings is that IS was born in the crucible of a long-term process of ecological crisis. Iraq and Syria are both experiencing worsening water scarcity. A string of scientific studies has shown that a decade-long drought cycle in Syria, dramatically intensified by climate change, caused hundreds and thousands of mostly Sunni farmers in the south to lose their livelihoods as crops failed. They moved into the coastal cities, and the capital, dominated by Assad’s Alawite clan. 

Meanwhile, Syrian state revenues were in terminal decline because the country’s conventional oil production peaked in 1996. Net oil exports gradually declined, and with them so did the clout of the Syrian treasury. In the years before the 2011 uprising, Assad slashed domestic subsidies for food and fuel.

While Iraqi oil production has much better prospects, since 2001 production levels have consistently remained well below even the lower-range projections of the industry, mostly because of geopolitical and economic complications. This weakened economic growth, and consequently, weakened the state’s capacity to meet the needs of ordinary Iraqis.

Drought conditions in both Iraq and Syria became entrenched, exacerbating agricultural failures and eroding the living standards of farmers. Sectarian tensions simmered. Globally, a series of climate disasters in major food basket regions drove global price spikes. The combination made life economically intolerable for large swathes of the Iraqi and Syrian populations.

Outside powers – the US, Russia, the Gulf states, Turkey and Iran – all saw the escalating Syrian crisis as a potential opportunity for themselves. As the ensuing Syrian uprising erupted into a full-blown clash between the Assad regime and the people, the interference of these powers radicalised the conflict, hijacked Sunni and Shia groups on the ground, and accelerated the de-facto collapse of Syria as we once knew it.  

AND…..

Meanwhile, across the porous border in Iraq, drought conditions were also worsening. As I write in Failing States, Collapsing Systems, there has been a surprising correlation between the rapid territorial expansion of IS, and the exacerbation of local drought conditions. And these conditions of deepening water scarcity are projected to intensify in coming years and decades.

An Iraqi man walks past a canoe siting on dry, cracked earth in the Chibayish marshes near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah in 2015 (AFP)

The discernable pattern here forms the basis of my model: biophysical processes generate interconnected environmental, energy, economic and food crises – what I call earth system disruption (ESD). ESD, in turn, undermines the capacity of regional states like Iraq and Syria to deliver basic goods and services to their populations. I call this human system destabilisation (HSD).

As states like Iraq and Syria begin to fail as HSD accelerates, those responding – whether they be the Iraqi and Syrian governments, outside powers, militant groups or civil society actors – don’t understand that the breakdowns happening at the levels of state and infrastructure are being driven by deeper systemic ESD processes. Instead, the focus is always on the symptom: and therefore the reaction almost always fails entirely to even begin to address earth system sisruption.

So Bashar al-Assad, rather than recognising the uprising against his regime as a signifier of a deeper systemic shift – symptomatic of a point-of-no-return driven by bigger environmental and energy crises – chose to crackdown on his narrow conception of the problem: angry people.

Even more importantly, Nafeez also agrees with my predictions regarding Saudi Arabia…

The Gulf states are next in line. Collectively, the major oil producers might have far less oil than they claim on their books. Oil analysts at Lux Research estimate that OPEC oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 70 percent. The upshot is that major producers like Saudi Arabia could begin facing serious challenges in sustaining the high levels of production they are used to within the next decade.

Another clear example of exaggeration is in natural gas reserves. Griffiths argues that “resource abundance is not equivalent to an abundance of exploitable energy”.

While the region holds substantial amounts of natural gas, underinvestment due to subsidies, unattractive investment terms, and “challenging extraction conditions” have meant that Middle East producers are “not only unable to monetise their reserves for export, but more fundamentally unable to utilise their reserves to meet domestic energy demands”. 

Starting to sound familiar..? We are doing the exact same thing here in Australia…. It’s becoming ever more clear that Limits to Growth equates to scraping the bottom of the barrel, and the scraping sounds are getting louder by the day.

And oil depletion is only one dimension of the ESD processes at stake. The other is the environmental consequence of exploiting oil.

Over the next three decades, even if climate change is stabilised at an average rise of 2 degrees Celsius, the Max Planck Institute forecasts that the Middle East and North Africa will still face prolonged heatwaves and dust storms that could render much of the region “uninhabitable”. These processes could destroy much of the region’s agricultural potential.

Nafeez finishes with a somewhat hopeful few paragraphs.

Broken models

While some of these climate processes are locked in, their impacts on human systems are not. The old order in the Middle East is, unmistakably, breaking down. It will never return.

But it is not – yet – too late for East and West to see what is actually happening and act now to transition into the inevitable future after fossil fuels.

The battle for Mosul cannot defeat the insurgency, because it is part of a process of human system destabilisation. That process offers no fundamental way of addressing the processes of earth system disruption chipping away at the ground beneath our feet.

The only way to respond meaningfully is to begin to see the crisis for what it is, to look beyond the dynamics of the symptoms of the crisis – the sectarianism, the insurgency, the fighting – and to address the deeper issues. That requires thinking about the world differently, reorienting our mental models of security and prosperity in a way that captures the way human societies are embedded in environmental systems – and responding accordingly.

At that point, perhaps, we might realise that we’re fighting the wrong war, and that as a result, no one is capable of winning.

The way the current crop of morons in charge is behaving, I feel far less hopeful that someone will see the light. There aren’t even worthwhile alternatives to vote for at the moment…  If anything, they are all getting worse at ‘leading the world’ (I of course use the term loosely..), not better. Nor is the media helping, focusing on politics rather than the biophysical issues discussed here.

 





Global unrest going exponential

25 08 2013

I recently came across an article titled “We Are Now One Year Away From Global Riots, Complex Systems Theorists Say”.

What’s the number one reason we riot? The plausible, justifiable motivations of trampled-upon humanfolk to fight back are many—poverty, oppression, disenfranchisement, etc—but the big one is more primal than any of the above. It’s hunger, plain and simple. If there’s a single factor that reliably sparks social unrest, it’s food becoming too scarce or too expensive. So argues a group of complex systems theorists in Cambridge, and it makes sense.

How close to collapse are we getting now…?  The idiots who run TEPCO in Japan are apparently about to attempt shifting unspent fuel rods at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, wait for it, by hand…….  Now what could go wrong?  They apparently have no choice, the cranes that normally do this work are destroyed, the pool they currently sit in is above ground (now that was clever design..) and may collapse some time soon.

No one knows how bad it can get, but independent consultants Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt said recently in their World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013: “Full release from the Unit-4 spent fuel pool, without any containment or control, could cause by far the most serious radiological disaster to date.”

And Arnie Gunderson talked about a few ways that sort of release could happen.An aerial view shows Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture (Reuters / Kyodo)

“There is a risk of an inadvertent criticality if the bundles are distorted and get too close to each other,” Gundersen said.

He was referring to an atomic chain reaction that left unchecked could result in a large release of radiation and heat that the fuel pool cooling system isn’t designed to absorb.

“The problem with a fuel pool criticality is that you can’t stop it. There are no control rods to control it,” Gundersen said. “The spent fuel pool cooling system is designed only to remove decay heat, not heat from an ongoing nuclear reaction.”

The rods are also vulnerable to fire should they be exposed to air, Gundersen said.

Based on U.S. Energy Department data, a total of 11,138 spent fuel assemblies are being stored at the Dai-Ichi site, nearly all of which are in pools. They contain roughly 336 million curies (~1.2 E+19 Bq) of long-lived radioactivity.  About 134 million curies is Cesium-137 – roughly 85 times the amount of Cs-137 released at the Chernobyl accident as estimated by the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection (NCRP)

And this from RT…..

Even the tiniest mistake during an operation to extract over 1,300 fuel rods at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan could lead to a series of cascading failures with an apocalyptic outcome, fallout researcher Christina Consolo told RT.

Fukushima operator TEPCO wants to extract 400 tons worth of spent fuel rods stored in a pool at the plant’s damaged Reactor No. 4. The removal would have to be done manually from the top store of the damaged building in the radiation-contaminated environment.

In the worst-case scenario, a mishandled rod may go critical, resulting in an above-ground meltdown releasing radioactive fallout with no way to stop it, said Consolo, who is the founder and host of Nuked Radio. But leaving the things as they are is not an option, because statistical risk of a similarly bad outcome increases every day, she said.

And now look at this…….

These are screenshots from

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/08/22/mapped_what_every_protest_in_the_last_34_years_looks_like

This first one shows ‘protest density’ in 1980

protestfirst

This second one shows unrest as of last year

protestlast

But to get the full effect, go to the animation at the link above……  it’s quite extraordinary.  We can now add one more exponential phenomenon to the list….