Could an economic collapse be in our near future?

Climate scientists and others have in the past few years issued a steady stream of analyses showing that without immediate remedial actions, a disastrous future is headed our way. But is it a four-decade-old study that will prove prescient?

That study, issued in the 1972 book The Limits to Growth, forecast that industrial output would decline early in the 21st century, followed quickly by a rise in death rates due to reduced provision of services and food that would lead to a dramatic decline in world population. To be specific, per capita industrial output was forecast to decline “precipitously” starting in about 2015.

Well, here we are. Despite years of stagnation following the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, things have not gotten that bad. At least not yet. Although the original authors of The Limits to Growth, led by Donella Meadows, caution against tying their predictions too tightly to a specific year, the actual trends of the past four decades are not far off from the what was predicted by the study’s models. A recent paper examining the original 1972 study goes so far as to say that the study’s predictions are well on course to being borne out.

Sunset at a cement factory (photo by Stefan Wernli)

Sunset at a cement factory (photo by Stefan Wernli)

That research paper, prepared by a University of Melbourne scientist, Graham Turner, is unambiguously titled “Is Global Collapse Imminent?” As you might guess from the title, Dr. Turner is not terribly optimistic.

He is merely the latest researcher to sound alarm bells. Just last month, a revised paper by 19 climate scientists led by James Hansen demonstrates that continued greenhouse-gas emissions will lead to a sea-level rise of several meters in as few as 50 years, increasingly powerful storms and rapid cooling in Europe. Two other recent papers calculate that humanity has already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level and a separate group of 18 scientists demonstrated in their study that Earth is crossing multiple points of no return. All the while, governments cling to the idea that “green capitalism” will magically pull humanity out of the frying pan.

Four decades of ‘business as usual’

At least global warming is acknowledged today, even if the world’s governments prescriptions thus far are woefully inadequate. In 1972, the message of The Limits to Growth was far from welcome and widely ridiculed. Adjusting parameters to test various possibilities, the authors ran a dozen scenarios in a global model of the environment and economy, and found that “overshoot and collapse” was inevitable with continued “business as usual”; that is, without significant changes to economic activity. Needless to say, such changes have not occurred.

In the “business as usual” model, the capital needed to extract harder-to-reach resources becomes sufficiently high that other needs for investment are starved at the same time that resources begin to become depleted. Industrial output would begin to decline about 2015, but pollution would continue to increase and fewer inputs would be available for agriculture, resulting in declining food production. Coupled with declines in services such as health and education due to insufficient capital, the death rate begins to rise in 2020 and world population declines at a rate of about half a billion per decade from 2030. According to Dr. Turner:

“The World3 model simulated a stock of non-renewable as well as renewable resources. The function of renewable resources in World3, such as agricultural land and the trees, could erode as a result of economic activity, but they could also recover their function if deliberate action was taken or harmful activity reduced. The rate of recovery relative to rates of degradation affects when thresholds or limits are exceeded as well as the magnitude of any potential collapse.”

The World3 computer model simulated interactions within and between population, industrial capital, pollution, agricultural systems and non-renewable resources, set up to capture positive and negative feedback loops. Dr. Turner writes that changing parameters merely delays collapse. The current boom in fracking natural gas and the extraction of petroleum products from tar sands weren’t anticipated in the 1970s, but the expansion of new technologies to exploit resources pushes back the collapse “one to two decades” but “when it occurs the speed of decline is even greater.”

Turner collapse chartSo how much stock should we put in a study more than 40 years old? Dr. Turner asserts that actual environmental, economic and population measurements in the intervening years “aligns strongly” to what the Limits to Growth model expected from its “business as usual” run. He writes:

“[T]he observed industrial output per capita illustrates a slowing rate of growth that is consistent with the [business as usual scenario] reaching a peak. In this scenario, the industrial output per capita begins a substantial reversal and decline at about 2015. Observed food per capita is broadly in keeping with the [Limits to Growth business as usual scenario], with food supply increasing only marginally faster than population. Literacy rates show a saturating growth trend, while electricity generation per capita … grows more rapidly and in better agreement with the [Limits to Growth] model.”

Peak oil and difficult economics

Rising energy costs following global peak oil will make much of the remaining stock uneconomical to exploit. This is a critical forcing point in the collapse scenario. And as more energy is required to extract resources that are more difficult to exploit, the net energy from production continues to fall. John Michael Greer, a writer on peak oil, observes that, just as it takes more energy to produce a steel product than it did a century ago due to the lower quality of iron ore today, more energy is required to produce energy today.

Net energy from oil production has vastly shrunken over the years, Mr. Greer writes:

“[T]the sort of shallow wells that built the US oil industry has a net energy of anything up to 200 to 1: in other words, less than a quart out of each 42-gallon barrel of oil goes to paying off the energy cost of extraction, and the rest is pure profit. … As you slide down the grades of hydrocarbon goo, though, that pleasant equation gets replaced by figures considerably less genial. Your average barrel of oil from a conventional US oilfield today has a net energy around 30 to 1. … The surge of new petroleum that hit the oil market just in time to help drive the current crash of oil prices, though, didn’t come from 30-to-1 conventional oil wells. … What produced the surge this time was a mix of tar sands and hydrofractured shales, which are a very, very long way down the goo curve. …

“The real difficulty with the goo you get from tar sands and hydrofractured shales is that you have to put a lot more energy into getting each [barrel of oil equivalent] of energy out of the ground and into usable condition than you do with conventional crude oil. The exact figures are a matter of dispute, and factoring in every energy input is a fiendishly difficult process, but it’s certainly much less than 30 to 1—and credible estimates put the net energy of tar sands and hydrofractured shales well down into single digits. Now ask yourself this: where is the energy that has to be put into the extraction process coming from? The answer, of course, is that it’s coming out of the same global energy supply to which tar sands and hydrofractured shales are supposedly contributing.”

It is that declining energy availability and greater expense that is the tipping point, Dr. Turner argues:

“Contemporary research into the energy required to extract and supply a unit of energy from oil shows that the inputs have increased by almost an order of magnitude. It does not matter how big the resource stock is if it cannot be extracted fast enough or other scarce inputs needed elsewhere in the economy are consumed in the extraction. Oil and gas optimists note that extracting unconventional fuels is only economic above an oil price somewhere in the vicinity of US$70 per barrel. They readily acknowledge that the age of cheap oil is over, without apparently realising that expensive fuels are a sign of constraints on extraction rates and inputs needed. It is these constraints which lead to the collapse in the [Limits to Growth] modelling of the [business as usual] scenario.”

New oil is dirty oil

The current plunge in oil and gas prices will not be permanent. Speculation on why Saudi Arabia, by far the world’s biggest oil exporter, continues to furiously pump out oil as fast as it can despite the collapse in pricing frequently centers on speculation that the Saudis’ pumping costs are lower than elsewhere and thus can sustain low prices while driving out competitors who must operate in the red at such prices.

If this scenario pans out, a shortage of oil will eventually materialize, driving the price up again. But the difficult economics will not have disappeared; all the easy sources of petroleum have long since been tapped. And the sources for the recent boom — tar sands and fracking — are heavy contributors to global warming, another looming danger. The case for catastrophic climate disruption due to global warming is far better understood today than it was in 1972 — and we are already experiencing its effects.

Dr. Turner, noting with understatement that these gigantic global problems “have been met with considerable resistance from powerful societal forces,” concludes:

“A challenging lesson from the [Limits to Growth] scenarios is that global environmental issues are typically intertwined and should not be treated as isolated problems. Another lesson is the importance of taking pre-emptive action well ahead of problems becoming entrenched. Regrettably, the alignment of data trends with the [Limits to Growth] dynamics indicates that the early stages of collapse could occur within a decade, or might even be underway. This suggests, from a rational risk-based perspective, that we have squandered the past decades, and that preparing for a collapsing global system could be even more important than trying to avoid collapse.”

Sobering indeed. Left unsaid (and, as always, there is no criticism intended in noting a research paper not going outside its parameters) is why so little has been done to head off a looming global catastrophe. Free of constraints, it is not difficult to quantify those “powerful societal forces” as the biggest industrialists and financiers in the world capitalist system. As long as we have an economic system that allows private capital to accumulate without limit on a finite planet, and externalize the costs, in a system that requires endless growth, there is no real prospect of making the drastic changes necessary to head off a very painful future.

Just because a study was conducted decades in the past does not mean we can’t learn from it, even with a measure of skepticism toward peak-oil fast-collapse scenarios. If we reach still further back in time, Rosa Luxemburg’s words haunt us still: Socialism or barbarism.

More unemployment and less security

The bad news is that the world’s number of unemployed workers and those with precarious employment is expected to rise during 2016 and 2017. The worse news is that the true number of those in these categories are probably significantly undercounted.

The International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency that just issued its “World Employment Social Outlook,” predicts that 200 million people will be unemployed in 2016, three million more than last year. This will be most acute in middle-income and poor countries, where unemployment is forecast by the ILO to increase by 2.4 million with a slight decrease in unemployment in the most developed countries. Brazil and China alone are expected to add 1.5 million to the unemployment rolls in the next two years.

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

Not that having employment is necessarily a marker of stability. The ILO report says that nearly half of the world’s workers — 1.5 billion people — hold “vulnerable employment.” This total includes subsistence and informal workers, and unpaid family workers. This vast cohort (the “reserve army of labor” although the ILO never uses such direct terminology) will not be getting smaller in the foreseeable future. All these factors add up to more inequality. Nor is it limited to any one part of the world, the ILO report says:

“The improvement in the labour market situation in developed economies is limited and uneven, and in some countries the middle class has been shrinking, according to various measures. Income inequality, as measured by the Gini index, has risen significantly in most advanced G20 countries. Since the start of the global crisis, top incomes have continued to increase while the poorest 40 per cent of households have tended to fall behind.” [page 4]

In one-third of the world’s countries, the “precariat” constitutes at least two-thirds of the total workforce. The percentages of those with precarious employment is much higher in developing countries than in the advanced capitalist countries, but in all parts of the world the labor force participation rate — that is, the percentage of those of working age who are employed — is slowly shrinking and is forecast by the ILO to continue to do so through the rest of the decade. Here it is the developed countries that have the lowest participation rate (60.5 percent in 2015), more than two percentage points lower than the global average.

The massive size of the precariat

A gloomy picture, indeed. A picture, however, that does not fully capture the bleakness of stagnation. The number of precarious workers is likely higher than what the ILO calculates. In their book The Endless Crisis, John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney estimate that the true size of the precariat is actually significantly larger than those with regular employment. They write:

“If we take the categories of the unemployed, the vulnerably employed, and the economically inactive population in prime working ages (25-54) and add them together, we come up with what might be called the maximum size of the global reserve army in 2011: some 2.4 billion people, compared to 1.4 billion in the active labor army. It is the existence of a reserve army that in its maximum extent is more than 70 percent larger than the active labor army that serves to restrain wages globally, and particularly in the poorer countries.” [page 143]

Capitalism is unable to create sufficient employment, and thus considers such people to be “excess population.” Mass migrations from Latin America to the United States, or from Africa and the Middle East to Europe, are consequences. In the 19th century, industrializing European countries had a safety valve in massive emigration (not so good for Indigenous peoples in the target countries of course), but there are no longer large areas into which capitalism can expand. Professors Foster and McChesney put this in stark terms:

“While such mass emigration was a possibility for the early capitalist powers, which moved out to seize large parts of the planet, it is not possible for countries of the global South today. Consequently, the kind of reduction in peasant population currently pushed by the system points, if it were effected fully, to mass genocide. An unimaginable 7 percent annual rate of growth for fifty years across the entire global South, [economist Samir] Amin points out, could not absorb even a third of this vast surplus agricultural population. …

“Aside from the direct benefits of enormously high rates of exploitation, which feed the economic surplus flowing into the advanced capitalist counties, the introduction of low-cost imports from ‘feeder economies’ in Asia and other parts of the global South by multinational corporations has a deflationary effect. This protects the value of money, particularly the dollar as the hegemonic currency, and thus the financial assets of the capitalist class. The existence of an enormous global reserve army of labor thus forces income deflation on the world’s workers, beginning in the global South, but also affecting the workers of the global North, who are increasingly subject to neoliberal ‘labour market flexibility.’ ” [pages 147, 149]

These trends become more acute as high unemployment persists. The true level of unemployment is approximately double official numbers across North America, Europe and Australia. The reason for this is that all those countries do not include discouraged workers, those employed part time but not able to secure full-time work nor all persons marginally attached to the labor force (those who wish to work but have given up).

Less pay to go with less security

With all these factors working against them, wages for working people are stagnant while productivity continues to increase — the one percent is grabbing all the wealth created. This is a global phenomenon. Employees in the United States, Canada, Germany, France, Britain and Japan have seen their pay lag behind productivity gains and income inequality widen.

Thus it comes as no surprise that labor rights are under attack everywhere. How bad? In a 2014 study, the International Trade Union Confederation determined the degree to which five basic rights — fundamental civil liberties; the right to establish or join unions; trade union activities; the right to collective bargaining; and the right to strike — are upheld, and then assigned a numerical grade. Every country in the world had a ranking of below 50 percent. In other words, every country flunked when graded on respect for labor rights.

What to do about all this? The ILO offers these conclusions as part of its call for a “shift in economic and employment policies”:

“It is particularly important to strengthen labour market institutions and ensure that social protection systems are well designed, in order to prevent further increases in long-term unemployment, underemployment and working poverty. A rebalancing in reform efforts is also needed. In particular, financial reforms need to ensure that banks perform their role of channelling resources into the real economy and into investment for sustainable enterprise expansion and job creation.” [page 5]

We should be long past the time when it was possible to believe we could wag our fingers at bad policy-makers and expect they will see the light of day. The unceasing competition of capitalism, its relentless drive to enclose ever more human activity within its logic of profit at any cost, mandates the world we now live in. Drastic imbalances in power are inherent in capitalism; these can’t be legislated away. Thus the ILO’s prescriptions are meaningless. Reforms are possible with enough movement organization, but reforms are eventually taken back, as the past four decades has amply demonstrated.

Desires by industrialists and financiers to press their offensive against working people are behind “free trade” agreements that eliminate barriers to the movement of capital, encourage shifting of production to places with ever lower wages, and impose restrictions on the ability of governments to implement, or even maintain, laws safeguarding health, safety, labor rights and the environment. These are simply the expected outcomes under the logic of capitalism. No regulation can change that. Only a change of economic system can achieve that.

Capitalism in outer space

Would it be possible to circumvent Earth’s physical limitations with a rapid colonization of the solar system? Yet it would be a temporary panacea since humanity would still not have unlimited resources.

To put this another way: Could humanity pull a rabbit out of the hat by industrializing space and tapping the solar system’s abundant metal and gas resources to overcome the dwindling availability and environmental devastation of our home planet? Would we want to?

I’ve been stimulated to think about these questions since reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction novel 2312. Set three centuries into the future, around the year that is its title, the novel envisions a time when humans live comfortably on Mercury, Mars, the Moon, satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, the asteroid belt, and more than 19,000 hollowed-out asteroids engineered to create a staggering assortment of environments. Still more real estate is being opened up with the terraforming of Venus nearing completion.

Complex political, environmental and social problems nonetheless endure, with multiple political blocs stretching across the solar system: a still capitalist Earth struggling with vast environmental distress, including a 20-meter rise in sea level, with various off-Earth colonies still under control of major countries; a “Mondragon Accord” consisting of off-Earth localities working together within a cooperative economy modeled on the eponymous collective enterprise; a socialist Mars, now one of the solar system’s biggest powers; and an unknown number of those hollowed-out asteroids that comprise the “unaffiliated,” some of which exist in self-imposed isolation.

Mars before terraforming (Image created by NASA via Hubble Space Telescope)

Mars before terraforming (Image created by NASA via Hubble Space Telescope)

This imagined 24th century, for all its technological wonders and the copious free time of many off-Earth inhabitants, is a time of hideous inequality, particularly for Earth’s billions of desperately poor and billions more comprising a planetary precariat; these broad groups still comprise most of Earth’s population. Capitalism continues to do its work, centuries in the future, only now the divide is not North/South but rather Space/Earth.

Despite the social consciousness Mr. Robinson brings to his marvelous novels — I have been a fan of his since reading his Mars trilogy in the 1990s — this all seems rather too easy. His 2312, as with his earlier works, is outstanding literature that soars vastly above ordinary science fiction, wrestling with complex socio-economic problems and human relationships from a Left perspective through characters that are actually fully formed human beings. One of these is rare in the genre; having both puts him in very rarified company, with, for example, Ursula K. Le Guin.

Industrializing the solar system

There has frequently been an underlying pessimism in Mr. Robinson’s novels despite his creation of worlds with alternative social systems, dizzying technological advances, and racial, gender and sexual-orientation equality. That is, capitalism seems unmovable, continuing to grind down large sections of humanity and further degrading environments long past the point of any rational excuse and despite alternative socialist systems flourishing somewhere.

In light of this, let’s rephrase the opening questions I asked: Can capitalism be saved by industrializing the solar system? In the world of 2312, that is what has happened. Earth is in bad shape indeed, with 11 billion mostly precarious inhabitants, countless species wiped out and drowned cities. Food grown in and imported from hollowed-out asteroids devoted to agriculture, and access to natural resources mined across the solar system, are what keep it from complete collapse.

But, again, it seems too easy. Our present-day course continues through this century into the first decades of the 22nd century before a series of technology breakthroughs — including space elevators, artificial intelligence and automated self-replicating factories that convert raw materials into finished products — touch off a fantastic exodus into space; in less than a century the solar system out to Saturn is settled and thousands of asteroids are hollowed to create new, artificial worlds to inhabit.

Venus before the real estate rush (Image created by NASA and National Space Science Data Center via Pioneer 1 probe)

Venus before the real estate rush (Image created by NASA and National Space Science Data Center via Pioneer 1 probe)

I can’t help but think of Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. So it is here, with robotic machines creating the infrastructure both to make planets, moons and space rocks inhabitable and collecting and delivering vast amounts of raw materials from across the solar system. The terraforming of Mars is made possible by stripping the Saturnian moon Titan of half of its nitrogen. Venus’ terraforming requires the disassembly of another Saturnian moon and bombarding Venus with the ex-moon’s ice while Venus cools off behind a sunscreen that blocks the Sun, freezing out its carbon dioxide atmosphere.

A truly gargantuan amount of capital would be required to finance these projects! And surely there would be a pushback against such wholesale destruction. In the author’s Mars trilogy (a different universe and story), the Mars colonists, having effected a revolution to free themselves from the grip of Earth’s dominant corporations, are divided into those who wish to go no further than the pre-revolution partial terraforming already forced through by Earth and those who wish to make Mars fully Earth-like.

In 2312, however, environmentalism is strangely absent, although internally understandable as most of the action is off Earth and virtually every character of note is a “spacer” native to someplace else — their very existence is based on artificial environments, technology, the use of resources across the solar system and political alliances across space. In such a time and place, the vast engineering that makes space civilization work would appear as an inevitability; such environmental disputes that do exist are territorial.

The chicken and egg of space

Setting aside that any systematic attempt to exploit other worlds would surely be accompanied and critiqued by an environmental movement, the depicted 24th century civilization rests entirely on magic in the Clarkeian sense. The depicted mechanics of engineering are physically possible but would they be viable for an Earth destroying itself environmentally, economically and morally?

Although ever mounting inequality could conceivably pool enough capital to make early stages of space colonization financially possible, the countervailing factors of environmental destruction, global warming, depletion of natural resources and increasing unrest on a world scale as more billions are immiserated (and all the problems that flow from them) should give us pause. Were humanity to continue on its current course into the 22nd century, it would most likely be too late.

The metals, gases and water to be found throughout the solar system would greatly expand the natural resources available for humanity, surely providing enough to create the necessary early space-colony infrastructure, but we have a chicken-and-egg problem: The resources to establish a space presence exist, but can’t be reached until we are present in space.

A rational system geared for human need rather than private profit, in which a healed planet has reversed its gathering crises, seems better equipped. There would not be the concentrated capital that now exists, but with a planned, democratic economy it might be possible to slowly establish bases on the Moon, or perhaps Mars or nearby asteroids (presumably accompanied by an environmental movement), should humanity see it in its common interest and as a spur to useful technological development distributed in an egalitarian manner.

Under capitalism, it is inevitable that private enterprise will take the helm, with expectations of the highest possible profit. But space capitalists would have to be heavily subsidized by governments; already, the U.S. space agency NASA is shifting more of its budget to contracts with private companies to launch rockets for it. Should a space program become just another corporate subsidy? And as tempting as grabbing the solar system’s natural resources may be, limitations will assert themselves. Capitalism requires ceaseless expansion and growth and that is no more possible in a finite solar system than on a finite Earth.

A badly degraded Earth, saddled with massive poverty, environmental degradation and billions struggling to survive in the face of dwindling resources and global warming, is an unlikely candidate to, in the nick of time, develop a series of magical technologies that save the day. But even this outer space cornucopia, where spacers routinely travel billions of miles the way the more privileged among us take airplane trips, is dependent on the surplus value extracted from Earth’s inhabitants, both on Earth itself and on major projects, such as the Venusian terraforming. That is so even though Earth in turn is dependent on the food and raw materials continually sent to it by spacers.

None of this, I wish to stress, is meant as a criticism of Mr. Robinson. His novel 2312 does what the best literature does — stimulate thinking at the same time we enjoy well-crafted writing. As I was reading it last month while on vacation in Vermont, my partner asked me to read a bit of it out loud to her and just the first six pages, vivid descriptions of the Mercurian city moving along a planet-circling track while “sun walkers” walk the surface ahead of the deadly sunrise on excursions, matching the pace of the city, made her want to read it herself, so enraptured did she become. Me too.

Economists say solution to problems is more of the same

Neoliberalism is dead! Long live neoliberalism! Such is the contradictory message given by the OECD in its report on the global economy’s next 50 years.

Seemingly intent on providing yet more evidence that orthodox economics is a service for the one percent rather than a science, the report’s prescriptions are a mix of advocacy of more of the same policies that have brought the world to its present crisis with mild reforms that would be in direct opposition to the logical outcomes of those same policies and contradict the interests of the corporate beneficiaries of those policies.

The paper, “Policy Challenges for the Next 50 Years,” published by the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a club of the the world’s most developed countries along with a few large developing countries), carries the caveat that it does not necessarily reflect the view of OECD member countries, but as it is presented as a “synthesis” of several earlier OECD studies, it is fair to consider the paper an authoritative representation of elite thinking.

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

Those elites, evidently, see difficulties ahead but believe the adoption of the right policies will allow everything to be just fine as we march into the second half of the 21st century with the world capitalist system intact and robust.

Perhaps the biggest contradiction, or perhaps an unwillingness to think through the implications, is the paper’s prediction of a steady decline in world economic growth, from an overall 3.6 percent (but only 1.2 percent for OECD countries) in the 2010-2020 decade to 2.4 percent (0.5 percent for OECD countries) in the 2050-2060 decade. Although the “Policy Challenges” paper never uses the word, or so much as hints at it, that is a forecast of another half-century of stagnation.

The implications of that stagnation are a sputtering economy, more unemployment and more inequality because capitalism is a system that requires growth. A system based on endless growth can’t function without it — slow growth (all the more so no growth) means misery for working people as the recent years of “recovery” from the 2008 economic collapse has demonstrated. That is so even without the austerity policies advocated by the “Policy Challenges” paper, which would only accelerate dislocation.

A lot of austerity and a little wishful thinking

Among the prescriptions the paper calls for are:

  • More and bigger “free trade” agreements, supported by “policies that favour … worker mobility (e.g. pension portability).”
  • “Enact social insurance reforms to maintain labour supply in the face of rising longevity and an ageing workforce.”
  • Push more of the costs of a university education onto students.
  • International coordination of intellectual property rights, greenhouse-gas emissions and taxation.
  • Adoption of policies to encourage renewable energy.
  • Phasing in higher capital requirements for banks and continued “accommodative” monetary policies.
  • “Flexible” labor markets that are “pursued in a way that cushions their potentially negative impact on equality.”

At first glance, the above list appears to be a somewhat eclectic mix of austerity and, shall we say, Keynesian lite (albeit with the emphasis on austerity). But the austerity measures fit snugly into current economic policy while the ameliorative measures are directly in opposition to not only current policy but the advocated austerity measures.

It is disingenuous to advocate more corporate globalization through more and bigger “free trade” agreements while at the same arguing for harmonization of taxation and environmental rules so as to avoid a race to the bottom. The very point of corporate globalization and, especially, “free trade” agreements is to take advantage of lower wages and lesser environmental and labor standards among different countries. We already are in a race to the bottom, fueled by existing “free trade” agreements, which “harmonize” downward.

The accompanying call for “pension portability” is code for privatizing public-retirement systems. It also presupposes that working people have pensions connected to their jobs, but in the United States that is a relic of the past for the vast majority of employees. At best, a worker might have a “defined contribution” plan such as a 401(k) that mostly relies on the employee’s own contributions and shifts the risks from employer to employee. A public retirement system has no need for “portability”; only a privatized system free of employer responsibility and job security does.

Bullet point number two above, in parallel with “pension portability,” is a polite way of advocating people work more years before being eligible for retirement and receive less money on which to retire. Bizarrely, the OECD paper rests its labor prescriptions on “labor shortages in the OECD” countries! Huh? The unemployment rate for the European Union, which includes most of the OECD countries, is 10.3 percent. The official U.S. unemployment rate is 6.1 percent, but the real rate is 12.1 percent. (The “U-6” figure including part-time workers needing full-time work and discouraged workers.)

The paper forecasts “income convergence between OECD countries and developing countries” in the coming decades (although it does not address if that will be an upward or a downward convergence) that “may dampen work-related migration flows, exacerbating labour shortages in the OECD” [page 26]. Completely missing are future flows of migrants escaping environmental damage from global warming. The paper sees global warming as no big deal, despite predicting that greenhouse-gas emissions will double from 2010 to 2060.

Although the paper does state that “rising greenhouse gas concentrations pose the most comprehensively global risk to economic output,” [page 30] it projects that the cut to global gross domestic product will be only 0.7 to 2.5 percent.

Oh, that’s right, it’s the “magic of the market”

The rosy future of a benign world of international convergence in which income inequality is entirely the product of differentiated skill levels depicted by the OECD paper rests on the neoliberal belief in “free trade” agreements. The paper asserts:

“Openness to trade is associated with higher incomes and growth. These benefits are transmitted through several channels: shifting production from low to high productive locations; relocation of factors of production towards sectors and firms with high productivity; and rising incomes due to an increase in market size that supports more specialisation, faster technology diffusion and stronger incentives to invest in ‘non-rival’ assets.” [page 34, citation omitted]

Reality is far different from these neoliberal fairly tales. Production has been shifted to “high-productive locations” only if we define those as locations in which the maximum possible amount of profit is extracted through the lowest wages and harshest working conditions. That is “productive” — for the industrialists and financiers who extract and pocket these profits.

That “free trade” agreements fill the pockets of capitalists while immiserating working people certainly accounts for much of the reason for the persistent promotion of them as job-building exercises, but not all of it. Ideology also plays a part. The economic models are based on the “magic of the market” that assume, inter alia, that capital and labor instantaneously react to changing conditions but never cross national borders; that market mechanisms will ensure full use of all resources; and that flexible exchange rates will prevent lowered tariffs from causing changes in trade balances.

In his recent book, Capitalist Globalization: Consequences, Resistance, and Alternatives, non-orthodox economics professor Martin Hart-Landsberg dismantled these arguments. He wrote:

“[T]his kind of modeling assumes a world in which liberalization cannot, by assumption, cause or worsen unemployment, capital flight or trade imbalances. Thanks to these assumptions, if a country drops its trade restrictions, market forces will quickly and effortlessly lead capital and labor to shift into new, more productive uses. And since trade always remains in balance, this restructuring will generate a dollar’s worth of new exports for every dollar of new imports. Given these assumptions, it is no wonder that mainstream economic studies always produce results supporting ratification of free trade agreements.”

That is still the case as seen in the unrealistic, propagandized boosterism for deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and more subtle but similar assumptions imbedded in the OECD “Policy Challenges for the Next 50 Years” paper. The paper, despite its embrace of more reliance on market forces as the “solution” to human development, is seemingly oblivious to the consequences of markets.

Market forces will call the tune, not wishful thinking

Calls for international coordination of taxation and governmental regulations, and for higher capital requirements for banks, fly directly in the face of what has and and will occur as a result of market forces — a race to the bottom. Capitalist markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. “Free trade” agreements continually push rules more draconian, and facilitate monopolies on an international scale, because doing so benefits those interests. That is why these agreements are negotiated in secret, with full participation by corporate lobbyists while labor and environmental advocates are shut out.

To argue, as the final bullet point above does, that “flexible” labor markets should be “pursued in a way that cushions their potentially negative impact on equality” is oxymoronic. Just how are the falling wages and substitution of part-time work for full-time generated by labor “flexibility” not going to create a “negative impact” on equality?

(OECD projections of world economic growth. Graphic from "Policy Challenges for the Next 50 Years" paper, page 15, OECD)

(OECD projections of world economic growth. Graphic from “Policy Challenges for the Next 50 Years” paper, page 15, OECD)

The slowing growth forecast — in particular for the world’s mature capitalist countries, forecast to decline to 0.5 percent annually by mid-century and not average much above one percent per year during any other decade — contains serious implications. Again, that is a forecast of permanent stagnation. Under capitalism, gross domestic products must increase faster than the working population because of new machinery, computerization, work speedups and layoffs continually introduced by capitalists subject to relentless competitive pressures.

Economic growth of 2.5 percent is necessary simply to maintain the unemployment rate where it is and “substantially stronger growth than that” is necessary for a rapid decrease, according to a former White House Council of Economic Advisers chair, Christina Romer.

Capitalism already fails to produce jobs. Using International Labour Organisation figures as a starting point, professors John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney calculate that the “global reserve army” — workers who are underemployed, unemployed or “vulnerably employed” (including informal workers) totals 2.4 billion. In contrast, the world’s wage workers total only 1.4 billion!

The stimulus to the global economy from the Internet has likely already run its course; thus it would take a future unforeseen technological breakthrough to provide growth on the scale of what was seen during much of the 20th century. The economist Robert J. Gordon, in a 2012 paper forecasting dwindling future growth, argued that this most recent period of innovation from computers focused on entertainment and communication devices, while earlier periods of innovation brought a rapid series of inventions that took upwards of a century to be fully realized, fueling long periods of growths.

A major effect of the mass introduction of computers was simply to shift commerce to online merchants from traditional ones. By contrast, the taming of electricity and the inventions of steam engines and automobiles powered development for long periods of time.

An economic system designed to meet human needs, rather than private profit, would have no need to grow. But as capitalism is designed for private profit, and requires continual growth to maintain itself, harsher austerity (and the force that will be necessary to implement it) is what is on offer by the world’s elites.

Can a no-growth future and capitalism be compatible?

Is the era of economic growth over for advanced capitalist countries? If stagnation is what is on offer for the future, what does that portend?

The first question, although limited to the United States, is the subject of an interesting paper by the economist Robert J. Gordon, in which he makes a case that the era of high growth that has persisted for the past two centuries is drawing to a close and that, by the end of the 21st century, the annual growth in gross domestic product per capita may be as low as 0.2 percent — the estimated rate of growth prior to the 18th century.

The paper provides a useful starting point for discussion. A central idea that the paper rests on is that nearly all of the dramatic gains in standards of living, GDP growth and life expectancy that have occurred since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution had already occurred by the 1970s, and that those earlier inventions had vastly more impact than the Internet/computer/dot-com boom that arose in the mid-1990s.

To illustrate this point, Professor Gordon provides a graphic of past, present and projected future growth that assumes the shape of a steep bell curve. British economic growth is represented from 1300 to 1906, estimated by historians for the first four hundred years and by actual figures from 1700 because it was then the leading capitalist power. After 1906, actual United States growth in GDP per capita is used to the present day (because it became the leading capitalist power), followed by the author’s estimates out to 2100. The graph rises sharply starting at around 1870 until about 1950, peaking at 2.5 percent. It’s been downhill since, a trend that is forecast to continue until the growth rate declines to the Medieval rate.

If such a pattern does materialize — and Professor Gordon is far from alone in such pessimistic projections — what would that mean for an economic order, capitalism, that is based on endless growth? That is a question well outside the scope of his paper, and there is no intention here to imply a criticism of a paper for not discussing something beyond its scope. But as this blog attempts to tackle big questions, we are free to ask at a moment when stagnation is already upon us: Can capitalism survive an extended period of essentially no growth?

The Industrial Revolution and continued industrial innovation has brought fantastic changes to humanity, with the most dramatic changes coming in the 20th century. Professor Gordon posits three periods of major inventions: 1750 to 1830, 1870 to 1900 and the recent period of computer innovation. He argues that the first two periods brought a rapid series of inventions that took upwards of a century to be fully realized, fueling long periods of growth that lasted until the mid-20th century. Starting with the steam engine and the cotton gin, products resulting from the inventions of these periods include television, air conditioning and modern expressway systems.

Another example is indoor plumbing, which eliminated much manual labor, Professor Gordon writes:

“Every drop of water for laundry, cooking, and indoor chamber pots had to be hauled in by the housewife, and wastewater hauled out. The average North Carolina housewife in 1885 had to walk 148 miles per year while carrying 35 tonnes of water. Coal or wood for open-hearth fires had to be carried in and ashes had to be collected and carried out.” [pages 4-5]

Motorized vehicles also had a dramatic effect on productivity and standards of living:

“The average horse produced 20 to 50 pounds of manure and a gallon of urine daily, applied without restraint to stables and streets. … The low standard of living reflected not just the small amount that people could purchase but also the amount of effort at the workplace and at home where they had to expend to perform ordinary tasks. … To maintain a horse every year cost approximately the same as buying a horse. Imagine today that for your $30,000 car you had to spend $30,000 every year on fuel and repairs. That’s an interesting measure of how much efficiency was gained from replacing the horses. Gone was the need for unsanitary and repulsive jobs of people who had to remove horse waste.” [page 5]

After 1970, a slowdown in productivity growth (output per hour) began because the “one-time-only” benefits accruing from the earlier inventions and their spinoffs “had occurred and could not happen again.” The years from 1996 to 2004 brought an uptick in productivity and economic growth, but that had passed even before the economic downturn set in. The rapid development of online commerce lasted only a decade, and the innovations from the widespread adoption of the Internet have already occurred. Moreover, Professor Gordon argues, this most recent period of innovation did not focus on labor-saving measures but rather on entertainment and communication devices rather than replacing human labor with machines.

I would add that the primary economic effect of the Internet has been to shift commerce from one merchant to another, not altogether different from the mania of the past two decades in the U.S. to build new sports stadiums and casinos, which do nothing but shift consumer spending from one entertainment option to another with the additional expense of massive public subsidies. Professor Gordon illustrates his point most effectively when offering a thought experiment: You can keep all the inventions made in 2002 or earlier but none since, or you can have all the products of the past decade but none resulting from the two earlier periods of inventions.

“Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3 am on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose?

I have posed this imaginary choice to several audiences in speeches, and the usual reaction is a guffaw, a chuckle, because the preference for option A is so obvious. The audience realises that it has been trapped into recognition that just one of the many late 19th century inventions is more important than the portable electronic devices of the past decade on which they have become so dependent.” [page 5]

The author offers six “headwinds” that he believes will reduce the growth of U.S. GDP per capita to a snail’s pace: the mass of retiring baby boomers leaving the workforce will cause output per capita to grow more slowly than productivity; the decline in U.S. educational attainment and growth in higher-education costs; growing inequality; the outsourcing and wage pressure inherent in globalization; environmental damage; and debt and the reduction in growth that results from austerity imposed to reduce debt.

Other than the reference to globalization as one of the six “headwinds” that will increasingly buffet the U.S. economy, the paper too narrowly analyzes the U.S. economy as a closed system, a weakness perhaps unavoidable given its specific focus. It is in no way controversial to note that no country is immune from the problems of the rest of the world given the deeply interconnected state of the world capitalist economy.

The paper is valuable in that it provides a reminder that the era of rapid economic growth since the Industrial Revolution has been a unique period in human history, and that such a time might not continue. Capitalism is a system that requires constant growth, an often overlooked aspect that has asserted itself in dramatic form as the stagnation of recent years has inflicted so much economic misery in advanced capitalist countries, and elsewhere.

In previous posts on this blog, I have written that the Keynesian policies that fueled the long post-World War II boom in the U.S. economy rested on a pair of one-time occurrences that can’t be repeated because it depended on a strong industrial base and market expansion. A repeat of history isn’t possible because the industrial base of the advanced capitalist countries has been hollowed out, transferred to low-wage developing countries, and there is almost no place remaining to which to expand. Moreover, capitalists who are saved by Keynesian spending programs amass enough power to later impose their preferred neoliberal policies.

Those neoliberal polices are in the interests of the capitalists who impose them, but are not simply a “choice.” The competitive pressures of capitalism lead to globalization and austerity. Irresistible competitive pressures were foreseen by Karl Marx, who encapsulated some of these problems in his theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. In order to maintain profitability and compete successfully, a capitalist must reduce the costs of production. (This can be more or less stressed at different times; for instance, during the 1990s, there was a Wall Street mania in which industrial companies regularly made public pronouncements proclaiming their intent to become the “lowest-cost producer” in their industry in an attempt to curry favor with speculators.)

Corporate globalization is a natural consequence of the pressure to reduce costs; moving production to countries with far lower wages and few enforceable labor laws is an obvious response under the logic of capitalism. Mechanization is another response — machines make labor more efficient and require fewer workers be employed. But, Marx argued, more advanced methods of production are more capital-intensive, and thus higher efficiency is offset by diminishing returns on capital. The Marxist economist Anwar Shaikh summarized this concept this way:

“[T]he … pattern implies that the more advanced methods tend to achieve a lower unit production cost at the expense of a lower rate of profit. Competition, nonetheless, forces capitalists to adopt these methods, because the capitalist with the lower unit costs can lower his prices and expand at the expense of his competitors — thus offsetting his lower rate of profit by means of a larger share of the market.”*

One way of visualizing this phenomenon is to think of a construction company. Where many workers are necessary when equipped with shovels, far fewer are needed for the same job when the company buys a truck in which one driver can excavate many times the amount of dirt as a worker with a shovel. The company can buy newer and bigger trucks, but the amount of gained efficiency will never be nearly as dramatic as the purchase of the first truck. If we’d like to carry this example further, we might imagine that some of the displaced workers, after turning in their shovels, go to work on the assembly line building the trucks. But competitive pressures eventually cause the truck manufacturer to move the assembly line overseas.

Countervailing factors can frequently reverse this tendency; cuts to wages, work speedups, layoffs, downturns in the prices of natural resources and shuttering of facilities can each buoy profit margins. Nonetheless, some economists argue that it is precisely a falling rate of profit that has caused the ongoing global economic slump. Marxist economist Andrew Kliman perhaps is the most forceful in arguing that the rate of profit has been falling since the 1970s, leading to sluggish investment and economic growth and mounting debt problems despite the adoption of “free-market” policies.

He is not alone in arguing that, unless there is a transcending of capitalism, the only way within capitalism to restore profitability is through a full-scale destruction of the value of existing capital assets — a process not nearly complete despite the harsh austerity imposed around the world since 2008. (Such a destruction happened in the closures of the Great Depression and the physical damage of World War II.)

The various theories discussed here are not necessarily incompatible; capitalism is undergoing a deep structural crisis — not one of its recurring cyclical downturns. This crisis is the culmination of multiple factors that affect one another, and complex analyses are necessary to understand it. Professor Kliman directly declares that stagnation and a crisis-prone economy is the “new normal” while Professor Gordon describes his paper as “intentionally provocative.” But, coming from different perspectives, they envision stagnation as the capitalist future (although the latter discusses only U.S. prospects), as do other perspectives.

What does it mean for a capitalist economy that no longer can grow? The route out of past crises has been expansion to new areas, but infinite expansion on a finite planet is impossible. U.S. capitalists tolerated high wages for a time after World War II because they could expand into overseas markets and thereby increase profits. Once intensified competition from rebuilt Europe and Japan, and the relative maturity of markets, put pressure on profits, the rise of neoliberalism ensued.

In the absence of new markets, the only way to increase or even maintain profits is to reduce costs, and ultimately that means cutting wages and benefits. Doing so, however, leads to a new set of problems — consumer spending in advanced capitalist countries tends to account for 60 to 70 percent of economic activity. When working people don’t have enough money to spend, consumer spending declines and depresses the economy, further squeezing profits. More austerity simply means more economic contraction, as many Europeans are experiencing first-hand.

Capitalist businesses must grow or die, and capitalism functions only if it is expanding. When it doesn’t, or can’t, crisis is the result. If so much money is concentrated into so few hands, those wealthy hands can’t possibly buy enough to offset the deprivation of everyone else, nor should that be a desirable way to run an economy.

If stagnation is the “new normal” of capitalism, then deprivation, pain and worsening inequality is all that it can offer, save for the occasional temporary uptick — a never-ending race to the bottom. Is such a system really the best humanity can do?

* “Falling rate of profit” entry in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Tom Bottomore, editor) [Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1983], page 159