Thursday, September 25, 2014

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"In theory GDP growth could continue indefinitely – if it weren't linked to something real."

William Rees, who along with Mathis Wackernagel developed Ecological Footprint analysis, commented on Paul Krugman's flippant slur on "degrowth" as an odd bedfellow of "the prophets of climate despair." The bottom line for Rees is that it is not really a choice between growth or degrowth but between planned, orderly degrowth or painful, chaotic degrowth imposed by nature. Growth in GDP could, "in theory," go on indefinitely ONLY if it wasn't linked to the biophysical world, which historically and currently it is. With permission, I reproduce Bill's comments below:
One might like to think that 'de-growth' is a non-issue – that somehow the human enterprise can continue to expand – but this is not a realistic proposition. De-growth will happen probably in the next few decades; the relevant question is ‘by what means?’ 
Here’s why: 
First, any analysis of this type should be based on available data, not mere assertion of preferences or beliefs. "Show me the numbers" is the first commandment of sustainability assessment. 
Second, we should clarify what we are talking about and what we are not talking about. Here I am not talking about increases/decreases in income or GDP per se. Income growth or GDP/growth per capita is a money measure with no physical dimensions. Money is mere abstraction – in fact, most money today is mere 'number money' or electronic money that exists only in computers and whether the number is $1 or $1,000,000,000 makes no difference to the planet whatsoever. In theory, then, GDP growth could continue indefinitely – if it weren't linked to something real. 
But it is linked to something real, the biophysical world. People buy real wealth (food, clothing, shelter, autos, electronic toys, etc.) with money wealth and there has never been a period when increases in money income were not accompanied by increases in real energy and material consumption. At higher income levels the relationship begins to level out because of greater ‘factor productivity’ (efficiency) and as more discretionary income goes to purchasing services (economists call this ‘decoupling’), but: a) decoupling is, so far, a marginal trend even in rich countries and; b) most of the world’s people have not nearly satisfied their material needs, let alone wants. Consequently, global material and energy throughput is generally increasing in both per capita and gross terms. Remember too that, from a biophysical perspective, all economic production is mostly consumption—a vastly larger quantity of available energy/matter is processed or consumed than is contained in the products produced (and the ratio is deteriorating because of diminishing returns)

And herein lies the problem. Energy and material production and consumption has material consequences for ecosystems that are vital for sustainability, i.e., survival. Consider just one fact: all food and fibre flows through the economy are produced by ecosystems and all the wastes of both our bio-metabolism and industrial metabolism must be assimilated and neutralized by ecosystems.

These are measurable processes with measurable consequences. Ecological footprint analysis shows that to produce the bio-resources consumed, and to assimilate just the carbon wastes of the average European requires about five hectares of ecosystems of global average productivity (5 gha). Typical North Americans use the ecological services of 7-8 gha/capita. Meanwhile, people in the most impoverished African countries get by on the life support of perhaps half a gha. (As I said, there is a clear positive relationship between income and the consumption of ‘nature’.) By the way, these are underestimates because we use the more optimistic data where there are conflicts between sources, not all material/waste flows are included and because we assume sustainable land and water use which it is not the case.

The problem is that there are only 12 to 13 billion hectares of land and water ecosystems productive enough to support economic activity on Earth. That’s about 1.7 gha per capita (at the present population of 7.2 billion). This means that Europeans are using three times and North Americans five times their ‘fair Earthshares’. Put another way, we’d need several more Earth-like planets to support just the present world population at European or North American material standards with current technologies. (Poor people don’t get nearly their fair Earthshare because they don’t have enough money to compete in the marketplace.)

Now, the average human ecological footprint is about 2.7 gha so even at today’s average levels of material consumption, the human enterprise is in overshoot by about 50%. This means humans are consuming faster than ecosystems can regenerate and producing waste faster than ecosystems can assimilate. (Climate change is driven, in part, by carbon dioxide emissions. CO2 is the largest waste by weight of industrial economies so, in this sense, climate change is a waste-management problem.) Economic growth and accompanying increases in energy and material consumption today are based, in part, on the depletion of so-called ‘natural capital’ and on filling waste sinks to over-flowing. The continuation and expansion of these trends will precipitate significant changes in, or even the collapse of biophysical systems, including the climate system. Dependent human economies and societies will not be far behind (this constitutes unplanned de-growth).

This is not fantasy. Eco-failure is already happening regionally and, without global agreements leading to major reductions in human energy and material demand (i.e., planned de-growth), will happen globally. Indeed, globalization and trade ensure that that the next collapse will be global—many densely populated high-income countries have long since overshot their domestic carrying capacities and would long ago have collapsed without access to the resources/sinks of less developed regions. Globalization blinds citizens of nations in overshoot to the perils of over-population and over-consumption, since it eliminates any direct ‘negative feedback’ from their having exceeded national limits. (Japan, for example, despite its recent economic stall, still uses 5-7 times its domestic biocapacity, so far with impunity.) Keep in mind that that, absent access to distant sources, the destructive over-exploitation of regional ecosystems contributed to the collapse of many previous civilizations on all continents from Sumer to the Maya.

Summary and bottom line:

Historic and contemporary evidence suggests that global de-growth (meaning significant reductions in aggregate and per capita energy and material consumption and in the human population) is inevitable. If it is imposed by nature, it could be painful and chaotic; but a planned contraction of the human enterprise (both population and per capita consumption) to a sustainable steady-state could be relatively smooth and orderly. The plan might require accelerated de-growth in high-income consumer countries to accommodate greater consumption in poor regions for the sake of greater material equality.

Which form of de-growth would you prefer?

Which is the more likely to occur?

PS: Eco-footprint analysis is based on real data from the most reliable sources available for ecosystems productivity and for national production, consumption, and material trade. Some people do not like the results of such analyses, particularly the documentation of over-shoot and the support this provides for the notion of biophysical limits to growth and the need for material de-growth. Fair enough, but those who reject the findings on these grounds have an obligation to provide an alternative explanation and solution. The questions are: How can the human enterprise, as a fully-contained, dependent growing sub-system of the finite non-growing ecosphere (tip o' the hat to Herman Daly), continue to expand indefinitely? Once in severe overshoot, is a sustainable recovery possible without significant material de-growth?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

André Orléan on the Legitimacy Crisis in Economics

From the Introduction to The Empire of Value (2014)
The economics profession is presently experiencing a grave crisis of legitimacy. There was a time when it sought to provide sound guidance for democratic societies by improving the effectiveness of reasoned public policy. But now, through its own negligence, it has shown itself to be a source of confusion and error. It allowed a suicidal scheme of financial deregulation to be put into effect, without any prior attempt having been made to assess the scope of the risks involved or to devise appropriate precautions against them. Instead of awakening minds, economics has put them to sleep; instead of enlightening them, it has cast them into darkness. The disrepute in which the profession is held today stands in proportion to its own failure, which is extreme and without precedent. 
The reaction of economists to the scathing criticism that has been directed at them is striking above all for its lack of intellectual courage. Even if a majority is prepared to admit that very harmful mistakes have been made, most economists also persist in warning against throwing out the baby with the bathwater. To be sure, they say, undue reliance on a type of modeling that recklessly overrates the virtues of competition, together with a dogmatic insistence on the hyperrationality of economic actors, is indefensible. But these shortcomings give a distorted picture of the discipline. Economics is perfectly capable of correcting its excesses, by drawing upon new fields of research such as multiple equilibrium theory and experimental economics, even neuro-economics. So say the economists. And yet instruction at the university level remains the same as it was before the crisis; research likewise proceeds on the same assumptions as before, using the same methods as before. However many newspapers and magazines announce the return of Marx, Schumpeter, and Keynes, the fact of the matter is that nothing has really changed. 
None of this should come as a surprise. Science obeys its own rhythms. Economists are not like weathervanes, pointing this way or that with every shift in the winds; they cannot be expected today to teach the opposite of what they professed yesterday. Nor is economic theory a mere collection of recipes that can be sampled in response to changing tastes; it is a highly structured body of propositions built up from falsifiable hypotheses, rigorous methods of proof, and a vast archive of established results—what the historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn famously called a paradigm. Kuhn showed that it is in the very nature of paradigmatic inquiry to resist challenges to its view of the world. For a paradigm to be overturned at a moment of crisis, not only must a persistent series of anomalies have been observed, in contradiction of the accepted wisdom, but, no less importantly, there must be a new paradigm ready to take the place of the old one. Now, the fact that an economic crisis brings previously unsuspected problems to light does not mean that fresh solutions are available on demand. It is true that economists today quote Keynes, Minsky, and Kindleberger more often than they used to. But this ought not fool anyone. No matter that economists now find it convenient to distance themselves from the neoclassical assumption of efficient financial markets, the theoretical framework that organizes their thinking and their teaching remains unchanged. It has been kept in place exactly as it was. 
The present work proposes to make a new beginning. It proceeds from the conviction that the difficulties encountered by economic theory owe nothing to momentary circumstances, but are the consequence of a fundamentally mistaken conception of economic behavior.

“The economics profession is presently experiencing a grave crisis of legitimacy.”

I've just started reading The Empire of Value by André Orléan and I am very impressed. As was Jamie Galbraith in his blurb for the book:
“In lucid, accessible language, André Orléan resurrects and explores the vital (but neglected) problem of value, grappling along the way with some fundamental defects of conventional theory. Through his mimetic hypothesis, the role of money emerges in the central role that both classical political economy and neoclassical economics denied to it. The Empire of Value is a bold argument, and a deep rejection of the justification for reliance on markets, except as a device for obtaining consent.”
First sentence in the introduction to Empire of Value: “The economics profession is presently experiencing a grave crisis of legitimacy.” This proves to be understatement, not hyperbole.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

In the long run we are all Baroque

Terence Hutchinson concluded his appendix on "Some postulates of economic liberalism" in Significance and Basic Postulates of Economic Theory with the admonition, "It is high time to put these theories [laissez faire and equilibrium doctrines] firmly back in their place as Utopian constructions." He cited S. Bauer's 1931 article, "Origine utopique et métaphorique de la théorie du “laissez faire” et de l’équilibre naturel."

Prominent in Bauer's discussion is the role of the Spanish Baroque author, Baltasar Gracian's Oráculo Manual, which was translated into French by Amelot de la Houssaie in 1684, in popularizing both the notion and the term, laissez faire. Pierre le Pesant Boisguilbert is credited with introducing the term into political economic thought in a book published in 1707. It is conceivable that Keynes knew of the Gracian maxim because he used the image Gracian had used of tempestuous seas in his famous rejoinder about "the long run" being "a misleading guide to current affairs."

In his book Hutchinson noted that "several writers have argued that some such postulate as 'perfect expectations' is necessary for equilibrium theory." This observation lends a special note of irony to Gracian's coinage of laissez faire. In his discussion of Gracian's Oráculo, Jeremy Robbins highlighted the observation that:
Gracián’s prudence rests firmly on a belief that human nature is constant... In Gracián’s case, human nature is viewed as a constant in so far as he believes it to act consistently contrary to reason."
In fact, Robbin's chapter on Gracian is titled "The Exploitation of Ignorance." Gracian's maxims establish "a sharp distinction between the elite and the necios [that is, fools]." Assuming that most people are fools who act contrary to reason is obviously something quite different from assuming perfect expectations. For that matter, the prudence of a courtier seeking to gain power over others is something quite distinct the foresight required of a policy professional acting ostensively on behalf of the public welfare.

That metaphorical and Utopian notions of laissez faire and natural equilibrium have managed to persist and even prevail in economics -- impervious to Hutchinson's warning (or Keynes's) -- is testimony to the perceptiveness of Gracian's estimate of human nature.

John Maynard Keynes, A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923)
Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.
Baltasar Gracian, Oráculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia, Maxim 138 (1647), English translation: The Art of Prudence.
The Art to let things go as they can go, especially when the Sea is tempestuous. 
There are Tempests and Hurricanes in the life of man. It is Prudence to put into a Haven, to let them blow over. Most commonly the Remedies increase the Evil. When the Sea of humours is in agitation, let Nature work; if it be the Sea of Manners, leave it to Morality. There is as much skill required in a Physician, in not prescribing, as in prescribing; and sometimes the excellency of the Art consists in applying no Remedy. The way then to calm popular gusts, is to be quiet. Then to yield to the times, will get the victory afterwards. A Well will be troubled if it be in the least stirred, and its water becomes clear again, by ceasing to dabble in it. There is no better remedy for some disorders, than to let them alone. For at long run they stop of themselves.
Gracian,  Oráculo, French translation: « L'homme de cour »
L’art de laisser aller les choses comme elles peuventsurtout quand la mer est orageuse.
Il y a des tempêtes et des ouragans dans la vie humaine; c’est prudence de se retirer au port pour les laisser passer. Très souvent les remèdes font empirer les maux. Quand la mer des humeurs est agitée, laissez faire la nature ; si c’est la mer des mœurs, laissez faire la morale. Il faut autant d’habileté au médecin pour ne pas ordonner que pour ordonner ; et quelquefois la finesse de l’art consiste davantage à ne point appliquer de remède. Ce sera donc le moyen de calmer les bourrasques populaires, que de se tenir en repos ; céder alors au temps fera vaincre ensuite. Une fontaine devient trouble pour peu qu’on la remue, et son eau ne redevient claire qu’en cessant d’y toucher. Il n’y a point de meilleur remède à de certains désordres que de les laisser passer, car à la fin ils s’arrêtent d’eux-mêmes.
Gracian, Oráculo
Arte de dexar estar. 
Y más quando más rebuelta la común mar, o la familiar. Ai torbellinos en el humano trato, tempestades de voluntad; entonces es cordura retirarse al seguro puerto del dar vado. Muchas vezes empeoran los males con los remedios. Dexar hazer a la naturaleza allí, y aquí a la moralidad. Tanto ha de saber el sabio médico para recetar como para no recetar, y a vezes consiste el arte más en el no aplicar remedios. Sea  modo de sossegar vulgares torbellinos el alçar mano y dexar sossegar; ceder al tiempo aora será vencer después. Una fuente con poca inquietud se enturvia, ni se bolverá a serenar procurándolo, sino dexándola. No ai mejor remedio de los desconciertos que dexallos correr, que assí caen de sí proprios.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Don't Pay Any Attention -- Paul Krugman edition

"Don't pay any attention..." [correction: this is not a quote from Krugman but Mark Thoma's characterization (correct, in my view) of Krugman's argument]

This is advice from Paul Krugman in his column Errors and Emissions. Professor Krugman obviously hasn't paid any attention to the analysis underlying the critique of "growth".


teach this stuff at university. I pay a great deal of attention to arguments that the "strong measures to limit carbon emissions would have hardly any negative effect on economic growth, and might actually lead to faster growth."

Krugman says "This may sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. These are serious, careful analyses." If, as Krugman suggests you don't pay any attention to the critiques, you can just take his word for it that these are "serious careful analyses."

The fact is, though, that "serious careful analysis" would pay close attention to criticism. These too-good-to-be-true sounding arguments don't pay any attention to the criticism. They are not serious and careful analyses.

Don't pay any attention to what Roefie Hueting wrote about asymmetric accounting entries 20 years ago. Don't pay any attention to what Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen wrote about energy and materials 40 years ago. Don't pay any attention to what Simon Kuznets wrote about national income accounting 60 years ago. Don't pay any attention to what John Maurice Clark wrote about overhead cost shifting 90 years ago. Don't pay any attention to what Jevons wrote 150 years ago about fuel efficiency and consumption. Don't pay any attention to what Tim Jackson and the U.K.'s Sustainable Development Commission wrote about prosperity without growth 5 years ago.

Just don't pay any attention.

The corporate bureaucrats have your best interests at heart and have everything under control. Nothing can go wrong... go wrong... go wrong...

Move along, now. Nothing to see here.

Update: David Nemerson of Baltimore, MD posted the following comment to Krugman's column. It has received 67 "recommends", so far (don't pay any attention to David or to what Bobby Kennedy said 46 years ago):
Until we break the fetish of growth, we are in for a very bumpy ride indeed. Bobby Kennedy's critique of GDP stated it beautifully in 1968: 
"It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. 
Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.
It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."

Rest of the quote here.