Open Thread and a Few Observations on Japan

I am putting this post up to give commenters who would like to carry on conversations related to previous posts a place to comment, since comments on my last post have been cut off.

Also, my family and I recently returned from a two-week vacation to Japan. The combination of the time away and jet lag has given me less time to research and write a full article. Here are a few observations, based on my recent trip to Japan:

General

The scenery is beautiful, but it is clear that the Japanese people and agriculture are squeezed into the small amount of land that is not mountainous and forested.

The amount of land being used for agriculture has been steadily falling. Our tour guide remarked that if an older person wanted to leave agriculture, getting solar panels installed is an alternate way of obtaining income. We did see quite a few solar panels. But does this approach make sense, when the amount of land farmed is relatively small and falling year-by-year? The USDA says, “Based on total calories consumed, Japan imports about 60 percent of its food each year.”

Tokyo-Edo Museum Visit

When we first arrived in Tokyo, before our bus tour began, we visited the Tokyo-Edo museum. This is a photo of one of the exhibits from the museum.

In previous posts, I have talked about economies being dissipative structures–growing for a fairly long period, before collapsing or obtaining an infusion of cheap energy. I thought that it was interesting that the Edo Period lasted 265 years (1603 – 1868). This is about as long as a person might expect an economy to last in its role as a dissipative structure. In the latter part of the Edo Period, there seemed to be increasing wealth disparity and problems with the government collecting enough taxes. These are things that we would expect to happen, as resources per capita start to fall and complexity starts to increase.

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Why We Should Be Concerned About Low Oil Prices

Most people assume that oil prices, and for that matter other energy prices, will rise as we reach limits. This isn’t really the way the system works; oil prices can be expected to fall too low, as we reach limits. Thus, we should not be surprised if the OPEC/Russia agreement to limit oil extraction falls apart, and oil prices fall further. This is the way the “end” is reached, not through high prices.

I recently tried to explain how the energy-economy system works, including the strange way prices fall, rather than rise, as we reach limits, at a recent workshop in Brussels called “New Narratives of Energy and Sustainability.” The talk was part of an “Inspirational Workshop Series” sponsored by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission.

Figure 1. Empty Schuman room of the Berlaymont European Commission building, shortly after we arrived. Photo shows Mario Giampietro and Vaclav Smil, who were the other speakers at the Inspirational Workshop. Attendees started arriving a few minutes later.

My talk was titled, “Elephants in the Room Regarding Energy and the Economy.” (PDF) In this post, I show my slides and give a bit of commentary.

Slide 2

The question, of course, is how this growth comes to an end.

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The Economy Is Like a Circus

The economy is like a circus. It comes to town, and eventually it leaves town. We get paid in tickets to this circus. As long as the circus stays in town, we can use our tickets. Once the circus leaves town, we are pretty much out of luck.1

The reason the circus stays in town is because the economy stays in sufficient balance that the economy can go on. This is much like the way many other self-organized systems function. For example, our bodies continue to function as long as there are suitable balances in many different areas (oxygen, food, water, air pressure). Ecosystems continue to function as long as there is sufficient rain, adequate temperatures, and enough sunlight.

There are many different views as to what limits we reach in a finite world. Some people think we will “run out” of oil, or of energy products. Some think that the energy return will fall too low, as measured in some manner. I see the adequacy of the energy return as being very much tied to the financial system. Thus, the forecast by US Atlanta Fed GDPNow indicating that first quarter 2017 US GDP growth will only be 0.5% is likely to be a problem, assuming it is correct.

Our economy operates on economies of scale. Once we get too close to shrinking, or actually start shrinking, we reach a point where the economic circus starts to leave town. At some point, we will discover the circus is gone. The economy we thought we had, will have left us. If some people are survivors, they will need to pick up the pieces and start over with an entirely new system.

What the Economy Needs to Do to Keep Functioning

For our economy to continue functioning, a number of variables are important:

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Why Energy-Economy Models Produce Overly Optimistic Indications

I was asked to give a talk to a committee of actuaries who are concerned about modeling the financial future of programs, such as pension plans, given the energy problems that are often discussed. They (and the consultants that they hire) have been using an approach that puts problems far off into the future. I was trying to explain why the approach that they were using didn’t really make sense.

Below are the slides I used, and a little explanation. A PDF of my presentation can be downloaded at this link: The Mirror Image Problem.

Slide 1

FCAS stands for “Fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society”; MAAA stands for “Member of the American Academy of Actuaries.” Actuaries tend not to be interested in academic degrees.

Slide 2

I try to explain how a more complex situation can be hidden in plain sight.

Slide 3

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Raising Interest Rates Can’t End Well!

The Federal Reserve would like to raise target interest rates because of inflation concerns and concern that asset bubbles are forming. Part of their concern seems to arise indirectly from the rise in oil prices, relative to their low level in early 2016.

Figure 1. WSJ figure indicating likely reasons for rate hike.

A finite world does not behave the way most modelers expect. Interest rates that worked perfectly well in the past don’t necessarily work well now. Oil prices that worked perfectly well in the past don’t necessarily work well now. It seems to me that raising interest rates at this time is very ill advised. These are a few of the issues I see:

[1] The economy is now incredibly dependent upon rising debt to prop up its spending. The pattern of total debt to GDP for the United States is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. United States’ debt to GDP ratios based on Federal Reserve Z1 data and BEA GDP data. The red line represents the increase over the latest three years.

There was a huge increase in debt in the period leading up to the 2008 crash. Every year between 2001 and 2008, the increase in debt was greater than four times the increase in GDP. In fact, for some years in that period, more than $8 of debt were added for every dollar of GDP added.

We now seem to be starting a new run up in debt. In 2015, the amount of debt added was $2.5 trillion ($66.1 trillion minus $63.6 trillion), while the amount of GDP added was only $529 million. This indicates a ratio of over 4.7 for the single year of 2016. (Figure 2 shows only three-year averages, because of the volatility of amounts.) Continue reading

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