The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article called, Glut of Capital and Labor Challenge Policy Makers: Global oversupply extends beyond commodities, elevating deflation risk. To me, this is a very serious issue, quite likely signaling that we are reaching what has been called Limits to Growth, a situation modeled in 1972 in a book by that name.
What happens is that economic growth eventually runs into limits. Many people have assumed that these limits would be marked by high prices and excessive demand for goods. In my view, the issue is precisely the opposite one: Limits to growth are instead marked by low prices and inadequate demand. Common workers can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that the economy produces, because of inadequate wage growth. The price of all commodities drops, because of lower demand by workers. Furthermore, investors can no longer find investments that provide an adequate return on capital, because prices for finished goods are pulled down by the low demand of workers with inadequate wages.
Evidence Regarding the Connection Between Energy Consumption and GDP Growth
We can see the close connection between world energy consumption and world GDP using historical data.
Figure 1. World GDP in 2010$ compared (from USDA) compared to World Consumption of Energy (from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014).
This chart gives a clue regarding what is wrong with the economy. The slope of the line implies that adding one percentage point of growth in energy usage tends to add less and less GDP growth over time, as I have shown in Figure 2. This means that if we want to have, for example, a constant 4% growth in world GDP for the period 1969 to 2013, we would need to gradually increase the rate of growth in energy consumption from about 1.8% = (4.0% – 2.2%) growth in energy consumption in 1969 to 2.8% = (4.0% – 1.2%) growth in energy consumption in 2013. This need for more and more growth in energy use to produce the same amount of economic growth is taking place despite all of our efforts toward efficiency, and despite all of our efforts toward becoming more of a “service” economy, using less energy products!
Figure 2. Expected change in GDP growth corresponding to 1% growth in total energy, based on Figure 1 fitted line.
To make matters worse, growth in world energy supply is generally trending downward as well. (This is not just oil supply whose growth is trending downward; this is oil plus everything else, including “renewables”.)
Figure 3. Three-year average percent change in world energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014 data.
There would be no problem, if economic growth were something that we could simply walk away from with no harmful consequences. Unfortunately, we live in a world where there are only two options–win or lose. We can win in our contest against other species (especially microbes), or we can lose. Winning looks like economic growth; losing looks like financial collapse with huge loss of human population, perhaps to epidemics, because we cannot maintain our current economic system.
The symptoms of losing the game are the symptoms we are seeing today–low commodity prices (temporarily higher, but nowhere nearly high enough to maintain production), not enough good paying jobs for common workers, and lack of investment opportunities, because workers cannot afford the high prices of goods that would be required to provide adequate return on investment.