Sunday, June 30, 2024

"The Advanced Economies are headed for a downfall" (plus Vaclav Smil does a drive-by)

But you knew that.

The proprietor of the Our Finite World blog, Gail Tverberg, is an actuary, so a rather gimlet-eyed, no-nonsense approach to energy and numbers. Compare that to the cheerleaders of the American economy who can rattle off a dozen ways the economy is better than it looks, yet never mention that this is because the government is running deficits at the rate of 6.8% of GDP, a huge stimulus and also, in a conceptual sense, somewhat akin to a maturity transformation with all the risks that bit of financial legerdemain entails.

From Our Finite World, June 22:

It may be pleasant to think that the economies that are “on top” now will stay on top forever, but it is doubtful that this is the way the economy of the world works.

Figure 1. Three-year average GDP growth rates for Advanced Economies based on data published by the World Bank, with a linear trend line. GDP growth is net of inflation.

Figure 1 shows that, for the Advanced Economies viewed as a group (that is, members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)), GDP has been trending downward since the early 1960s; this is concerning. It makes it look as if within only a few years, the Advanced Economies might be in permanent shrinkage. In 2022, the expected annual GDP growth rate for the group seems to be only 1%.

What is even more concerning is the fact that the indications in the graph are based on a period when the debt of the Advanced Economies was growing. This growing debt acted as an economic stimulus; it helped the industries manufacturing goods and services as well as the citizens buying the goods and services. Without this stimulus, GDP growth would no doubt appear to be falling even faster than shown.

In this post, I will look at underlying factors that relate to this downward trend, including oil consumption growth and changes in interest rate policies. I will also discuss the Maximum Power Principle of biology. Based on this principle, the world economy seems to be headed for a major reorganization. In this reorganization, the Advanced Countries seem likely to lose their status as world leaders. Such a downfall could happen through a loss at war, or it could happen in other ways.

[1] The major factor in the downward trend in GDP growth seems to be the loss of growth of oil supply.

In the 1940 to 1970 period, the price of oil was very low (less than $20 per barrel at today’s prices), and oil supply growth was 7% to 8% per year, which is very rapid. The US was the dominant user of oil in this era, allowing the US to become the world’s leading country both in a military way (hegemony), and in a financial way, as the holder of the “reserve currency.”

Data on year-by-year oil consumption growth is not available for the earliest years, but we can view the trend over 10-year periods (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Smil estimates are based on estimates at 10-year intervals by Vaclav Smil in Appendix A of Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects. Energy Institute estimates are based on amounts in 2023 Statistical Review of World Energy.

With the rapid growth in the world oil supply in the 1940 to 1970 timeframe, the US was able to help Europe and Japan rebuild their infrastructure after World War II. The US also did a great deal of building at home, including adding electricity transmission lines, oil and gas pipelines, and interstate highways. It also added a Medicare program to provide healthcare for the elderly. The emphasis at this time was on building for the future.

In the 1960s, the Green Revolution was started, aimed at increasing the quantity of food produced. This revolution involved greater mechanization of farming, the use of hybrid seeds that required more fertilizer, the use of genetically modified seeds, and the use of herbicides and pesticides. With these changes, farming became increasingly dependent on oil and other fossil fuels. The green revolution led to lower inflation-adjusted prices for food, as well as greater supply.

The 1970s was a time of adaptation to spiking oil prices and declining growth in oil supplies. At the same time, wages were increasing, and more women were entering the workforce, making the rise in oil prices more tolerable. There were also advances in computerization, changing the nature of many kinds of work.

The 1980s marked a shift to an emphasis on how to get costs down for the consumer. There was more emphasis on competition and leverage (the euphemism for borrowing). Instead of building for the future, the emphasis was on using previously built infrastructure for as long as possible.

Also in the 1980s, the Advanced Economies started to shift toward becoming service economies. To do this, a significant share of manufacturing and mining was moved to lower-wage countries. Transferring a significant share of industry abroad had the additional benefit of holding down prices for the consumer....