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Economic models are based on a world without limits

Wrong Economic Views

Economists have put together economic models based on a world without limits. A world without limits is the easy approach, because mathematical relationships are much simpler in a world without limits: a relationship which held in 1800 is expected to hold in 1970 or in 2050. A world without limits never offends politicians, because growth always seems to be possible, meaning a never-ending supply of jobs and of goods and services for constituents. A model without limits produces the simple relationships that we are accustomed to, such as “Inadequate supply will lead to a rise in price, and this in turn will tend to create greater supply or substitutes.” Unfortunately, these models omit many important variables and thus are inadequate representations of the world we live in today.

In a world with limits, there are feedback loops that cause high oil prices to lead to lower wages and more unemployment in oil importing countries. Thus “demand” can’t keep rising, because workers can’t afford the higher oil prices. Oil prices stagnate at a level that is too low to maintain adequate investment. High oil prices also feed back into slower economic growth and a need for ultra-low interest rates to raise demand for high-priced goods such as cars and homes.

When prices remain in the $100 barrel range, they are still high enough to damage the economy. Businesses are not much damaged, because they have ways they can work around higher oil prices, especially if interest rates are low. Most of the ways businesses can work around high oil prices involve reducing wages to US workers–for example, outsourcing production to a lower cost country, or cutting the pay of workers, or laying off workers to match lower demand for goods. (Lower demand for goods tends to occur when oil prices rise, and businesses raise their prices to reflect the higher oil costs.)

Workers are still affected by costs in the $100 barrel range, and so are governments. Governments must pay out higher benefits than in the past, to keep the economy afloat. They must also keep interest rates very low, to try to keep demand for homes and cars as high as possible. The situation becomes very unstable, however, because very low interest rates depend on Quantitative Easing, and it does not appear to be possible to continue Quantitative Easing forever. Thus, interest rates will need to rise. Such a rise in interest rates is likely to push the country back into recession, because taxes will need to be higher (to cover the government’s higher debt costs) and because monthly payments on homes and new car purchases will tend to rise. The limit on oil production then becomes something very remote from geology–something like, “How long can interest rates remain low?” or “How long can we make our current economy function?”

The Interconnected Nature of the Economy. In my last post, I talked about the economy being a complex adaptive system. It is built from many parts (many businesses, laws, consumers, traditions, built infrastructure). It can operate within a range of conditions, but beyond that range it is subject to collapse. An ecosystem is a complex adaptive system. So is a human being, or any other kind of animal. Animals die when their complex adaptive system moves out of its range.

It is this interconnectedness of the economy that leads to the strange situation where something very remote from the real problem (oil limits) can lead to a collapse. Thus, it can be a rise in interest rates or a political collapse that ultimately brings the system down. The path of the downslope can be very different from what a person might expect, based on the naive view that the problems will simply relate to reduced supply of oil.


We can’t know exactly what path our economy will follow in the future. I expect, though, that the path of the FSU and its trading partners is closer to the path we will be following than most forecasts we hear today. Most of us haven’t followed the FSU story closely, because we wrote off most of their problems to deficiencies of communism, without realizing that there was a major oil component as well.

The FSU situation may, in fact, be better that what the Industrialized West is facing in the next few years. The FSU had the rest of the world to support it, offering investment capital and new models for development. Oil production for Russia was able to rebound when oil prices rose again in the early 2000s. As situations around the world decline, it will be harder to “bootstrap.”

One of the things that hampered the recovery of the FSU was the fact that the communist economic model proved not to be competitive with the capitalistic model. In a way, the situation we are facing today is not all that different, except that our challenge this time is competition from Asian economies that we have not had to compete with until the early 2000s.

Asian economies have several cost advantages relative to the Industrialized West:

(1) Asian competitor countries are generally warmer than the industrialized West. Because of this, Asian workers can live more comfortably in flimsy homes. They also don’t need much salary to cover heating and can more easily commute by bicycle. It is often possible to produce two crops a year, making productivity of land and of farmers higher than it otherwise would be. In other words, Asian competitor countries have an energy subsidy from the sun that the Industrialized West does not.

(2) Asian competitors are often willing to ignore pollution problems, reducing their costs relative to the West.

(3) Asian competitors generally depend on coal to a greater extent than we do, keeping their costs down, relative to countries that use higher-priced fuels.

(4) Asian competitors are less generous with employee benefits such as health care and pensions, also holding costs down.

Economists, through their wholehearted endorsement of globalization, have pushed industrialized countries into a competitive situation which we are certain to lose. While oil prices tend to push wages down, competition with Asian countries makes the downward push on wages even greater. These lower wages are part of what are pushing us toward collapse.

To solve our problems, economists have proposed a shift toward renewable energy and the implementation of carbon taxes. Unless these changes are done in a way that actually reduces costs, these “solutions” are likely to make us even less competitive with low-cost competitors such as those in Asia. Thus, they are likely to push us toward collapse more quickly.

To support this position, economists point to climate change models based on the view that the burning of fossil fuels will increase greatly in the decades again. In fact, if collapse occurs in the next few years in the Industrialized West, carbon emissions are likely to fall quickly. Because of the interconnectedness of the world system, the rest of the world will likely also encounter collapse in not many more years, and their carbon emissions are likely to fall quickly, as well. Even the “Peak Oil” emissions that are used in climate change models are way too high, relative to what seems likely to be the case.

If I am right about collapse being a possibility for the Industrialized West, then our problem will be that we as nations become so poor that we can no longer find goods to trade with Asian countries. Most of our goods will not be competitive as exports, and we won’t be able to simply add more debt to rectify the situation. Thus, we will become unable to buy many goods we depend on, including computers and replacement parts for wind turbines.

Breakups of many types are possible. The European Union may cease to operate in the way it does today. The International Monetary Fund is likely to cease operating in the way it does today, because of the collapse of many of its members who provide funding. The US will be subject to strains of the type that lead to break up. If nothing else, oil producing states will want to withdraw, so that they are not, in effect, subsidizing the rest of the US economy.

It is unfortunate that economists are tied to their hopelessly out-of-date economic models. Part of the problem is that the story of “collapse around the corner” doesn’t sell well. The alternate story economists have come up with really isn’t right, but it is pleasing to the many who benefit from subsidies for renewables, and it makes politicians look like they are doing something. The specter of climate change in the distance gives an excuse to cut back oil use, among other things, so has at least some theoretical benefit.

It is unfortunate, however, that we cannot look at the real problem. Unless we can understand the problem as it really is, it is impossible to find solutions that might actually be helpful.

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