Two Australian research organizations recently released a review of the economic assessments of Australian coal projects and found that the proponent-generated reviews greatly overstated the benefits and understated the costs of the projects. …
Brian Lee Crowley’s latest column shows he’s a glass-half-full kinda guy. We shouldn’t be worried about unemployment because a) it’s old-fashioned, b) Boomers had it worse (and now they’re getting old) c) we’re doing better than the U.S., and d) it’s really only young people and immigrants that are unemployed. This is a relief. So I [...]
Below is the summary for our latest Climate Justice Project report, Closing the Loop: Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Creating Green Jobs through Zero Waste in BC (I recommend checking the much prettier full paper, stand-alone summary, and awesome infographic by Sam Bradd on the website). Closing the Loop was a complex and challenging project that made my head spin, [...]
The Nova Scotia provincial government is set to introduce its promised balanced budget this year. The Nova Scotia Alternative Budget, released today, proposes some concrete choices rooted in Nova Scotia communities. Rather than pay down debt, the NS-APB prioritizes balancing the social debt threatening Nova Scotia. Can a budget really be considered balanced when unemployment [...]
In my view, wages are the backbone an economy. If workers have difficulty finding a job, or have difficulty earning sufficient wages, the lack of wages will be a problem, not just for the workers, but for governments and businesses. Governments will have a hard time collecting enough taxes, and businesses will have a hard time finding enough customers. There can be business-to-business transactions, but ultimately somewhere “downstream,” businesses need wage-earning customers who can afford to pay for goods and services. Even if a business produces a resource that is in very high demand, such as oil, it still needs wage-earning customers either to buy the resource directly (for example, as gasoline), or to buy the resource indirectly (for example, as food which uses oil in production and transport).
It is not just any wages that are important. It is the wages paid by private companies (rather than governments) that are important, as the backbone to the economy. Governments tend to get their revenues from private citizens and from businesses, both of which are dependent on wages of private citizens. There are a few pieces outside of this loop, such as taxes on imports from foreign countries. With the advent of free international trade, this source is disappearing. Another piece outside the US wage-loop is taxes on resource extraction, if these resources are exported.
Instead of using the analogy of a backbone, perhaps I should say that wages are the base that ultimately determines the quantity of goods and services an economy can afford.
Obviously there are other kinds of income, such as “rents,” but these, too, ultimately come from wage earners. Furthermore, businesses cannot earn money to pay dividends unless some consumer, somewhere, can afford to buy the goods and services their business is selling.
I have written recently about how the proportion of Americans with jobs rose to a peak, and since has been declining.
Figure 2. US Number Employed / Population, where US Number Employed is Total Non_Farm Workers from Current Employment Statistics of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Population is US Resident Population from the US Census. 2012 is partial year estimate.
I decided in this post to look at the dollars these workers are earning. In particular, I decided to look at wages, other than government wages, adjusted to today’s cost level using the “CPI- Urban,” cost index of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I discovered that these wages are doing very poorly. I also discovered a disturbing connection between high oil prices and flattening or declining wages. Putting all of these pieces together suggests a connection to “Limits to Growth.”
Per Capita Non-Government Wages
If we take inflation-adjusted non-government wages, and divide by the total US population (not just employed workers), we get a measure of the extent to which wages have been growing or shrinking. Some of this growth will be from a second wage-earner in a family joining the workforce. Some of this growth will be from families in recent years having fewer children, so that adults make up a larger portion of the population. If some jobs move overseas and are not replaced, this will act to reduce wages.
Figure 3. US per capita non-governmental wages, in 2012 dollars. Non-governmental wages and population from Bureau of Economic Analysis; Adjusted to 2012 cost level using CPI-Urban from Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Comparing Figure 2 and Figure 3, we can see that they follow generally the same shape. A major portion of the increase in wages in Figure 3 is thus driven by a higher proportion of the population having jobs, at least up until the year 2000.
Figure 3 emphasizes how poorly wages have performed since the year 2000. Average wages on a Figure 3 basis hit a high point of $$19,112 in 2000. They then dropped back to $18,145 in 2003. In 2007, they briefly surpassed the year 2000 high point, hitting $19,573. More recently they dipped again and (with government deficit spending) have recovered a bit, rising to $18,053 in 2012. This is very low by historical standards; it is between the level they were in 1998 and 1999.
Looking at Figure 3, the other time when wages were flat was the period between 1973 and 1983. The thing that is striking is that both the current period and the previous “flat” period took place during periods of high oil prices (Figure 4, below). The vast majority of the rise in non-government per capita wages that has taken place has happened when the inflation-adjusted price of oil was less than $30 barrel.
Figure 4. Per capita non-government wages, as in Figure 3, together with historical oil prices in 2012$, based on BP 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data, updated with 2012 IEA Brent oil price data.
We have discussed previously why high oil prices can be expected to have an adverse impact on wages. There are multiple ways this can happen. For example, oil plays a very direct role in growing and transporting food and in making gasoline. Thus, the cost of food and of commuting increases. This causes people to cut back on discretionary expenditures, leading to layoffs in discretionary sectors. Lay-offs in discretionary sectors means fewer jobs.
Another thing that happens is a change in the competitive situation that indirectly leads to layoffs. Oil is used in transporting many types of goods, and is used in producing a wide variety of products, such as asphalt shingles and synthetic cloth. Wages don’t rise at the same time as oil prices rise. The result is a mismatch between what citizens can afford, and the cost to manufacture and transport products. Some customers are “priced out” of the market. Businesses find that they must scale back the size of their operations to produce only the amount customers can afford. For example, a delivery service will operate fewer vehicles, if demand is lower, laying off workers.
Also playing a role in reduced employment is increased competition from China, India, and other low wage countries. These countries typically use a lot of coal in their energy mix, so are less affected by high oil prices. As a result, their prices become more competitive as oil prices rise.
Changes in trade agreements can also be expected to play a role in the competitive situation. China started growing rapidly immediately after it joined the World Trade Organization in December, 2001. The big drop-off in US employment coincides very closely in time to the time China started growing quickly.
Another factor in reduced wages is increased automation, in an attempt to compete with low-wage countries. An employer may replace several workers with a single worker, using a new high-tech machine. The worker with the new machine may earn more, but the others are left to find jobs elsewhere.
Going forward, increased retirement of “baby boomers” is likely to add further challenges. Retirees will need to be fed and cared for, mostly from taxes on current workers. In theory, the retirement of baby boomers should leave more jobs for unemployed young people, but this will depend on whether such jobs are really available.
One important point is that the impact of high oil prices on wages doesn’t “go away” to any significant extent over time. This is clear from Figure 4, and is a point I have made previously. Increased fuel efficiency helps a bit, as do adaptations like finding a job closer to where a person lives. But high oil prices continue to make goods that are made using oil less competitive on a world market. High oil prices also continue to make increased automation attractive, and continue to keep the cost of transport of high. Individuals find they need to permanently cut back on discretionary spending to balance their budgets.
Oil prices are likely to remain high, and in fact, rise in the future. When we started extracting oil, we began with the easy (and cheap) to extract oil first. Now, the inexpensive to extract oil is mostly gone; what is left is high-priced oil. Over time, the price becomes even higher, as diminishing returns set in. The recent publicity about the possibility of more tight oil in the United States doesn’t change this dynamic. What the press releases don’t say is that this oil will only be available if it is sufficiently high-priced. A recent survey by Barclays indicates that North American oil and gas companies are anticipating less than a one per cent increase in “exploration and production” expenses in 2013; current North American oil and gas prices are not high enough to justify much increase in investment.
Per Capita Real GDP
In recent years, the economy as a whole has tended to fare better than wage earners. This happens partly because deficit spending is being used to provide income to the many unemployed people, and partly because businesses are able to “bounce back” from an earnings point of view better than wage-earners, because they can cut back the size of their operations to keep profits high. Sometimes they can even substitute low overseas labor costs, or automation.
If we compare per capita real (that is, inflation-adjusted) GDP with oil prices (both in 2012$), this is what we see:
There is some stalling in the rise of real GDP per capita, with high oil prices, but it is not nearly as pronounced as the stalling of wage growth. Nevertheless, Economist James Hamilton found that 10 out of the last 11 US recessions were associated with oil price spikes.
On a per capita basis, real GDP per capita in 2012 is between the 2005 and the 2006 level. This is far better than the situation with non-government wages. In Figure 4, we saw that in 2012, non-government wages were only between the 1998 to 1999 level. Ouch!
Hitting “Limits to Growth?”
I wonder if the situation we are reaching now isn’t “Limits to Growth,” as described by the book by that name by Meadows et al. written in 1972. The way we seem to be reaching Limits to Growth is through high oil prices, and the impacts these high oil prices have both on wages and on competitiveness with other countries. I explained some of these issues earlier in this post. There are also impacts on governments:
Over the last several thousand years, many civilizations have grown up, reached limits of one sort or another, and eventually collapsed. Based on the work of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov in the book Secular Cycles, there were financial issues not too different from the ones we are seeing now involved in these collapses. I showed in my post 2013: Beginning of Long-Term Recession? that there seem to be significant parallels to our current situation. These collapses often took 20 years or more, but the situation is still concerning.
While the situation we are looking at is unpleasant, if we understand the source of our problems, we can at least look at our situation a bit more rationally. We may not be able to find solutions, but we can at least eliminate some approaches as being unrealistic. We may be able to find partial solutions, such as making survival possible for a subset of humanity, if not everyone. If we don’t understand our predicament, there is no way we can rationally address it.
This post originally appeared on Our Finite World.
Globalization seems to be looked on as an unmitigated “good” by economists. Unfortunately, economists seem to be guided by their badly flawed models; they miss real-world problems. In particular, they miss the point that the world is finite. We don’t have infinite resources, or unlimited ability to handle excess pollution. So we are setting up a “solution” that is at best temporary.
Economists also tend to look at results too narrowly–from the point of view of a business that can expand, or a worker who has plenty of money, even though these users are not typical. In real life, the business are facing increased competition, and the worker may be laid off because of greater competition.
The following is a list of reasons why globalization is not living up to what was promised, and is, in fact, a very major problem.
1. Globalization uses up finite resources more quickly. As an example, China joined the world trade organization in December 2001. In 2002, its coal use began rising rapidly (Figure 1, below).
In fact, there is also a huge increase in world coal consumption (Figure 2, below). India’s consumption is increasing as well, but from a smaller base.
2. Globalization increases world carbon dioxide emissions. If the world burns its coal more quickly, and does not cut back on other fossil fuel use, carbon dioxide emissions increase. Figure 3 shows how carbon dioxide emissions have increased, relative to what might have been expected, based on the trend line for the years prior to when the Kyoto protocol was adopted in 1997.
Figure 3. Actual world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, as shown in BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Fitted line is expected trend in emissions, based on actual trend in emissions from 1987-1997, equal to about 1.0% per year.
3. Globalization makes it virtually impossible for regulators in one country to foresee the worldwide implications of their actions. Actions which would seem to reduce emissions for an individual country may indirectly encourage world trade, ramp up manufacturing in coal-producing areas, and increase emissions over all. See my post Climate Change: Why Standard Fixes Don’t Work.
4. Globalization acts to increase world oil prices.
The world has undergone two sets of oil price spikes. The first one, in the 1973 to 1983 period, occurred after US oil supply began to decline in 1970 (Figure 4, above and Figure 5 below).
After 1983, it was possible to bring oil prices back to the $30 to $40 barrel range (in 2012$), compared to the $20 barrel price (in 2012$) available prior to 1970. This was partly done partly by ramping up oil production in the North Sea, Alaska and Mexico (sources which were already known), and partly by reducing consumption. The reduction in consumption was accomplished by cutting back oil use for electricity, and by encouraging the use of more fuel-efficient cars.
Now, since 2005, we have high oil prices back, but we have a much worse problem. The reason the problem is worse now is partly because oil supply is not growing very much, due to limits we are reaching, and partly because demand is exploding due to globalization.
If we look at world oil supply, it is virtually flat. The United States and Canada together provide the slight increase in world oil supply that has occurred since 2005. Otherwise, supply has been flat since 2005 (Figure 6, below). What looks like a huge increase in US oil production in 2012 in Figure 5 looks much less impressive, when viewed in the context of world oil production in Figure 6.
Part of our problem now is that with globalization, world oil demand is rising very rapidly. Chinese buyers purchased more cars in 2012 than did European buyers. Rapidly rising world demand, together with oil supply which is barely rising, pushes world prices upward. This time, there also is no possibility of a dip in world oil demand of the type that occurred in the early 1980s. Even if the West drops its oil consumption greatly, the East has sufficient pent-up demand that it will make use of any oil that is made available to the market.
Adding to our problem is the fact that we have already extracted most of the inexpensive to extract oil because the “easy” (and cheap) to extract oil was extracted first. Because of this, oil prices cannot decrease very much, without world supply dropping off. Instead, because of diminishing returns, needed price keeps ratcheting upward. The new “tight” oil that is acting to increase US supply is an example of expensive to produce oil–it can’t bring needed price relief.
5. Globalization transfers consumption of limited oil supply from developed countries to developing countries. If world oil supply isn’t growing by very much, and demand is growing rapidly in developing countries, oil to meet this rising demand must come from somewhere. The way this transfer takes place is through the mechanism of high oil prices. High oil prices are particularly a problem for major oil importing countries, such as the United States, many European countries, and Japan. Because oil is used in growing food and for commuting, a rise in oil price tends to lead to a cutback in discretionary spending, recession, and lower oil use in these countries. See my academic article, “Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis,” available here or here.
Developing countries are better able to use higher-priced oil than developed countries. In some cases (particularly in oil-producing countries) subsidies play a role. In addition, the shift of manufacturing to less developed countries increases the number of workers who can afford a motorcycle or car. Job loss plays a role in the loss of oil consumption from developed countries–see my post, Why is US Oil Consumption Lower? Better Gasoline Mileage? The real issue isn’t better mileage; one major issue is loss of jobs.
6. Globalization transfers jobs from developed countries to less developed countries. Globalization levels the playing field, in a way that makes it hard for developed countries to compete. A country with a lower cost structure (lower wages and benefits for workers, more inexpensive coal in its energy mix, and more lenient rules on pollution) is able to out-compete a typical OECD country. In the United States, the percentage of US citizen with jobs started dropping about the time China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.
Figure 8. US Number Employed / Population, where US Number Employed is Total Non_Farm Workers from Current Employment Statistics of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Population is US Resident Population from the US Census. 2012 is partial year estimate.
7. Globalization transfers investment spending from developed countries to less developed countries. If an investor has a chance to choose between a country with a competitive advantage and a country with a competitive disadvantage, which will the investor choose? A shift in investment shouldn’t be too surprising.
In the US, domestic investment was fairly steady as a percentage of National Income until the mid-1980s (Figure 9). In recent years, it has dropped off and is now close to consumption of assets (similar to depreciation, but includes other removal from service). The assets in question include all types of capital assets, including government-owned assets (schools, roads), business owned assets (factories, stores), and individual homes. A similar pattern applies to business investment viewed separately.
Figure 9. United States domestic investment compared to consumption of assets, as percentage of National Income. Based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis data from Table 5.1, Savings and Investment by Sector.
Part of the shift in the balance between investment and consumption of assets is rising consumption of assets. This would include early retirement of factories, among other things.
Even very low interest rates in recent years have not brought US investment back to earlier levels.
8. With the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, globalization leads to huge US balance of trade deficits and other imbalances.
With increased globalization and the rising price of oil since 2002, the US trade deficit has soared (Figure 10). Adding together amounts from Figure 10, the cumulative US deficit for the period 1980 through 2011 is $8.6 trillion. By the end of 2012, the cumulative deficit since 1980 is probably a little over 9 trillion.
A major reason for the large US trade deficit is the fact that the US dollar is the world’s “reserve currency.” While the mechanism is too complicated to explain here, the result is that the US can run deficits year after year, and the rest of the world will take their surpluses, and use it to buy US debt. With this arrangement, the rest of the world funds the United States’ continued overspending. It is fairly clear the system was not put together with the thought that it would work in a fully globalized world–it simply leads to too great an advantage for the United States relative to other countries. Erik Townsend recently wrote an article called Why Peak Oil Threatens the International Monetary System, in which he talks about the possibility of high oil prices bringing an end to the current arrangement.
At this point, high oil prices together with globalization have led to huge US deficit spending since 2008. This has occurred partly because a smaller portion of the population is working (and thus paying taxes), and partly because US spending for unemployment benefits and stimulus has risen. The result is a mismatch between government income and spending (Figure 11, below).
Thanks to the mismatch described in the last paragraph, the federal deficit in recent years has been far greater than the balance of payment deficit. As a result, some other source of funding for the additional US debt has been needed, in addition to what is provided by the reserve currency arrangement. The Federal Reserve has been using Quantitative Easing to buy up federal debt since late 2008. This has provided a buyer for additional debt and also keeps US interest rates low (hoping to attract some investment back to the US, and keeping US debt payments affordable). The current situation is unsustainable, however. Continued overspending and printing money to pay debt is not a long-term solution to huge imbalances among countries and lack of cheap oil–situations that do not “go away” by themselves.
9. Globalization tends to move taxation away from corporations, and onto individual citizens. Corporations have the ability to move to locations where the tax rate is lowest. Individual citizens have much less ability to make such a change. Also, with today’s lack of jobs, each community competes with other communities with respect to how many tax breaks it can give to prospective employers. When we look at the breakdown of US tax receipts (federal, state, and local combined) this is what we find:
The only portion that is entirely from corporations is corporate income taxes, shown in red. This has clearly shrunk by more than half. Part of the green layer (excise, sales, and property tax) is also from corporations, since truckers also pay excise tax on fuel they purchase, and businesses usually pay property taxes. It is clear, though, that the portion of revenue coming from personal income taxes and Social Security and Medicare funding (blue) has been rising.
I showed that high oil prices seem to lead to depressed US wages in my post, The Connection of Depressed Wages to High Oil Prices and Limits to Growth. If wages are low at the same time that wage-earners are being asked to shoulder an increasing share of rising government costs, this creates a mismatch that wage-earners are not really able to handle.
10. Globalization sets up a currency “race to the bottom,” with each country trying to get an export advantage by dropping the value of its currency.
Because of the competitive nature of the world economy, each country needs to sell its goods and services at as low a price as possible. This can be done in various ways–pay its workers lower wages; allow more pollution; use cheaper more polluting fuels; or debase the currency by Quantitative Easing (also known as “printing money,”) in the hope that this will produce inflation and lower the value of the currency relative to other currencies.
There is no way this race to the bottom can end well. Prices of imports become very high in a debased currency–this becomes a problem. In addition, the supply of money is increasingly out of balance with real goods and services. This produces asset bubbles, such as artificially high stock market prices, and artificially high bond prices (because the interest rates on bonds are so low). These assets bubbles lead to investment crashes. Also, if the printing ever stops (and perhaps even if it doesn’t), interest rates will rise, greatly raising cost to governments, corporations, and individual citizens.
11. Globalization encourages dependence on other countries for essential goods and services. With globalization, goods can often be obtained cheaply from elsewhere. A country may come to believe that there is no point in producing its own food or clothing. It becomes easy to depend on imports and specialize in something like financial services or high-priced medical care–services that are not as oil-dependent.
As long as the system stays together, this arrangement works, more or less. However, if the built-in instabilities in the system become too great, and the system stops working, there is suddenly a very large problem. Even if the dependence is not on food, but is instead on computers and replacement parts for machinery, there can still be a big problem if imports are interrupted.
12. Globalization ties countries together, so that if one country collapses, the collapse is likely to ripple through the system, pulling many other countries with it.
History includes many examples of civilizations that started from a small base, gradually grew to over-utilize their resource base, and then collapsed. We are now dealing with a world situation which is not too different. The big difference this time is that a large number of countries is involved, and these countries are increasingly interdependent. In my post 2013: Beginning of Long-Term Recession, I showed that there are significant parallels between financial dislocations now happening in the United States and the types of changes which happened in other societies, prior to collapse. My analysis was based on the model of collapse developed in the book Secular Cycles by Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov.
It is not just the United States that is in perilous financial condition. Many European countries and Japan are in similarly poor condition. The failure of one country has the potential to pull many others down, and with it much of the system. The only countries that remain safe are the ones that have not grown to depend on globalization–which is probably not many today–perhaps landlocked countries of Africa.
In the past, when one area collapsed, there was less interdependence. When one area collapsed, it was possible to let cropland “rest” and deforested areas regrow. With regeneration, and perhaps new technology, it was possible for a new civilization to grow in the same area later. If we are dealing with a world-wide collapse, it will be much more difficult to follow this model.
This post originally appeared on Our Finite World.
What not to say in an interview if you’re on EI, and other nightmares The latest detail to emerge about the recent changes to EI is from the Digest of Benefit Entitlement Principles. The Digest is a guide to enforcing Employment Insurance, with definitions of key terms, and elaborates on expectations of EI claimants and [...]
Stephen Gordon reviews the evidence on the minimum wage
The glaring contrast between employment numbers, and the unemployment rate, was highlighted by today’s labour force numbers from Statistics Canada (capably dissected elsewhere on this blog by Angella MacEwan). Paid employment (ie. employees) declined by 46,000. Total employment (including self-employment) fell by 22,000. Yet the unemployment rate fell to 7% — its lowest level since [...]
After five months of job gains, the job market turned dismal in January. Officially, the unemployment rate fell from 7.1% to 7.0%, the lowest it’s been since December 2008. This is despite a loss of 45,800 jobs (not counting self-employment). The explanation is an out flux of discouraged workers from the labour market, which caused the ‘real’ [...]
Job creation slowed in January
January 29, 2013
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