Role of Wages of the Common Worker in Oil Prices, Collapse

In their book Secular Cycles, Peter Turchin and Surgey Nefedov point out the important role falling wages of the common workers played in early collapses. I got to thinking that this might be an issue with our current situation as well, including the low level of oil prices.

I explain this in two presentations. The first one is called “Overview of a Networked Economy“. The second one is called, “Economic Growth and Diminishing Returns.”

A couple of (amateurish) slides that need explanation are the following ones:

Standard definition of economic growth

The cloud above my representation of the economy is supposed to represent the cloud of goods and services that the economy makes. Many people would like us to believe that as long as this cloud is growing, everything is fine.

What Peter Turchin discovered is that there is a smaller cloud that really needs to be growing, as well.

This cloud is the after-tax income of the common worker. If this isn’t growing, then it is hard to collect enough taxes. The ultimate downfall comes from government downfall, because of the problems of the common worker.

Wages of Common Worker

The above slide is an attempt to show the after-tax income of common workers as a subset within the GDP cloud. (It probably should be much smaller.)

Common workers are ones who will tend to buy mostly goods and not too many services. In fact, the goods that they buy are not necessarily even high tech goods. If these workers cut back on goods that use a lot of commodities in their production, this cutback could contribute to all of the other pressures we are now seeing toward lower commodity prices, and make it much harder for oil prices to rise again.

If we want common workers to do better, it looks to me like we need an increasing supply of cheap-to-extract oil (low priced would help as well).

To see the full story, you will need to click on the links above.

I will be leaving on March 13 to spend four weeks lecturing and traveling in China. (My family will not be coming along, so I won’t be leaving an empty house here.) Hopefully I will have a chance to write a “regular” post between now and then–the two presentations are from this series. I don’t expect to be able to write posts while I am in China because China does not allow access to the WordPress site where I write my posts.

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About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.

332 thoughts on “Role of Wages of the Common Worker in Oil Prices, Collapse

  1. Dear Gail and All
    You may find this article about Exxon-Mobil being quite aggressive with Arctic leases in the Russian zone.

    I have to assume that Exxon thinks that the price of oil may hit 125 dollars or more, that the world will not collapse as a result, that the shale boom will soon fade, that legacy fields will continue to decline, that the Middle East will not get fixed and unleash a flood of cheap oil, that the politicians will bluster but, at the end of the day, everyone needs oil and it might as well come from Exxon operating in Russia.

    I read the new European Energy Strategy yesterday and I must admit I continue to find the European strategy very strange. They talk about building pipelines everywhere except to Turkey, where they are going to have to take delivery of the Gazprom gas that currently transits through Ukraine. It seems that they are unwilling to admit that they have created a disaster and are going to have to live with the consequences. Not surprising for politicians…but the time is getting short. (Maybe some Europeans can show me how all this makes sense).

    I find the Bloomberg comments about European dedication to the sanctity of national borders to be also strange. As near as I can tell, the Europeans have got themselves into very deep holes in terms of sovereign debt, and the breakup of the sovereigns would destroy the value of the notes. I will agree that the politicians are always willing to sacrifice the will of the people (Crimea, East Ukraine, etc.) to preserve paper wealth, but I rather doubt that their strategy will succeed. We are a long way from the United Nations charter which guaranteed the right of people to choose their government. Now, we believe that you must continue to serve out your indenture.

    Finally, I find it rather strange that most of the people in the Peak Oil blogosphere continue to refer to oil from the Arctic in Russia, or off Alaska, as ‘Russian’ or ‘American’ oil. It is actually Exxon’s oil or Shell’s oil. It’s like saying that the Eagle Ford oil somehow belongs to Texas, and the Bakken oil belongs to North Dakota. Those states get some benefits and some costs from the production of the oil, but it certainly doesn’t belong to the states. Saudi Aramco oil, on the other hand, does belong to the King of Saudi Arabia.

    Don Stewart

    • Don, there have always been people predicting that the world will end. What is new is people showing up saying, “Here is the data that shows why we’re screwed.” A normalcy bias is going to kick in and people will, at best, scramble towards faux-fixes. Often they’ll call you crazy and ignore you. Some of them will get fabulously wealthy with their faux-fixes in the meantime while calling you crazy.

  2. A few more thoughts about DEBT, all 4 coming from Olivier Berruyer’s Review of Intl Press of 01 March (

    – FINANCIALIZATION OF THE ECONOMY by the Big Banks. – “What that means is that they are converting the entirety of the economic surplus to paying interest on debt. They are draining the economy of all vitality! There is nothing left for the expansion of consumer demand, business investment and old age pensions. It expropriates the economic surplus that is created beyond the maintenance of the current living standard into interest on debt.”
    Paul Craig Roberts as Gordon T.Long’s guest:

    – “This Is The Biggest Problem Facing The World Today: 9 Countries Have Debt-To-GDP Over 300%”. Interesting charts with breakdown per country.
    Tyler Durden / Zero Hedge:

    – “Most Americans spend their lives working for others, paying off debts to others and performing tasks that others tell them that they “must” do. These days, we don’t like to think of ourselves as “servants” or “slaves”, but that is what the vast majority of us are. It is just that the mechanisms of our enslavement have become much more sophisticated over time. It has been said that the borrower is the servant of the lender, and most of us start going into debt very early into our adult years. In fact, those that go to college to “get an education” are likely to enter the “real world” with a staggering amount of debt. And of course that is just the beginning of the debt accumulation.”
    Michael Snyder:

    – “And then, finally, clearly, demand has run smack up against peak debt — I think that’s the right word for it. We had a tremendous study come out in the last week or so from McKinsey, who do a pretty good job of trying to calculate, track and total up the amount of credit outstanding, public and private, in the world. We’re now at the $200 Trillion threshold. That’s up from only about $140 Trillion at the time of the crisis. So we’ve had a $60 Trillion expansion worldwide of debt just since 2008. During that same period, though, the GDP of the world saw a little more than $15 trillion.(…)
    {in 2008 China} had $5 Trillion worth of GDP. It’s now $10. So they’ve gained $5 Trillion of GDP. Their debt at the time of the crisis was $7 Trillion, now it’s $28. So the debt is up more than $20 Trillion while the GDP is up just $5 Trillion. These are extreme unsustainable deformations ”
    David Stockman as Chris Martenson’s guest:

  3. Dear Gail and All
    Tagging on to my note about Exxon/ Mobil’s leases in the Russian Arctic. Chris Martenson writes today:

    ‘Within a year, possibly a little longer but not much, I think the price of oil is going to double from its current per barrel price of $50 US/$60 Brent.

    The main reason is that it costs $80-$100 per barrel to get oil out of the ground. Oil cannot stay below its marginal cost of production for long. We’re already seeing a massive loss of drilling rigs in the US and my prediction is that, by July, we’ll see US production fall off as a consequence. Why will it take that long? Because of the number of already-drilled wells that are awaiting completion coupled to the fact that oil companies drill holes in the ground (that’s what they do) and many of them are simply carrying on despite losing money.

    The longer term reason is that 2014 turned out to be a gigantic bust in terms of global oil discoveries. Don’t forget, for pretty much all of 2013 (when 2014’s capital budgets were being set inside the oil companies’ boardrooms) and much of 2014 oil was priced over $100 on the world stage, so oil companies had plenty of incentives to try and find it.

    They just didn’t.’

    We can, first, note that Chris and Exxon are not in the Tverberg/ Hill’s Group camp which says that people can’t afford 125 dollar oil. Chris and Exxon think that we will pay what we have to, because there is no alternative.

    The Exxon article does note the fact that Exxon’s capital expenditures have not been returning anything in the form of increased oil production. Chris applies that notion to the entire industry…with a footnote for US shale. So there are reasons why Exxon is going to the Russian Arctic (as they did in 2013/4 with their partner Rosneft) and why Shell is going back to the Alaskan Arctic this summer. Both companies desperately need very large finds. Exxon and Rosneft made a very large find last summer, but production costs will be high. The president of Rosneft said that he wasn’t worried, that the price of oil was headed toward 200 dollars over the next few years. From the articles I read after the Exxon/ Rosneft find, there is probably a lot of oil in the Russian Arctic, but it is going to be expensive. For example, the well had a fleet of ice-breakers assigned to it.

    Don Stewart

    • Chris and Exxon have listened to economists too much, and not thought through how this has to work. If Russia is recession, someone has to make up for its oil demand. Similarly for all of the other oil exporters. Some oil was invested in new production (in the US and Canada, as well as the rest of the world), and this oil too is disappearing from demand. The wages associated with this investment are disappearing as well.

      I wonder whether Chris and Exxon have thought through whether rising prices are going to happen to all commodities, or just to oil. It is not just oil that is having a problem. It is metals of many kinds, and other energy products, even food. The price of ethanol is down as well. I imagine farmers will cut down on acres plowed, and those mining metals will cut back on mining activity. Somehow, this lost activity needs to be made up for in demand as well.

      I am wondering whether they have thought about falling median wages and falling percentages of the population working. I am wondering if they are looking at debt saturation levels of governments, and needed increases in taxes to keep up with baby boomers retiring. All of these things hold down spending.

      How is the amount of debt going to go up, to make all this increased demand “happen”?

    • The marginal cost of the 50 largest oil and gas producers globally increased to US$92/bbl in 2011, an increase of 11% y-o-y and in-line with historical average CAGR growth.

      Sanford C. Bernstein, the Wall Street research company, calls the rapid increase in production costs “the dark side of the golden age of shale”. In a recent analysis, it estimates that non-Opec marginal cost of production rose last year to $104.5 a barrel, up more than 13 per cent from $92.3 a barrel in 2011.

      Steven Kopits from Douglas-Westwood said the productivity of new capital spending has fallen by a factor of five since 2000. “The vast majority of public oil and gas companies require oil prices of over $100 to achieve positive free cash flow under current capex and dividend programmes. Nearly half of the industry needs more than $120,” he said

  4. Dear Gail and All
    The failure of the bank in Austria, with the subsequent ‘bail in’ required of the bond-holders, should ring some bells among the historically minded crowd.

    From Wikipedia: ‘Creditanstalt had to declare bankruptcy on 11 May 1931. This event resulted in a global financial crisis and ultimately the bank failures of the Great Depression.[2]:2–3 [3][4] ‘

    Will history rhyme this time around?

    Don Stewart

  5. Dear Gail and All
    This will relate to several topics which have been discussed here recently:

    Note that fire has a number of positive outcomes: more productivity from the vegetation and animals; more carbon sequestration which makes the land more resilient in the face of drought, and the creation of a park like landscape which is easily navigated. (If you have been in a cane-break, you can appreciate the value of ‘easy navigation’.)

    Note that while the early Australians definitely did kill many of the big herbivores, they also used practices which promoted the abundance of many other animals and plants. That is somewhat similar to modern gardeners who plant pollinator strips and provide amphibian houses, but kill deer.

    Note that the aboriginal people in Australia once set the fires on foot. Now the officials feel compelled to use helicopters. This is a function of the very high value we now place on human labor…which is a function of cheap fossil fuels. If the fossil fuels go away, we should still set the fires, but just revert back to setting them on foot. Everyone will be poorer and won’t be able to afford the helicopters, but there will be food to eat. And we won’t need gym memberships.

    Note the desertification of former rangelands in Africa. I don’t know whether the fire management methods which were historically used are better, worse, or just different than those used by Alan Savory. It may be that fire works better in some places while holistic grazing works better in others. What we do know is that industrial grazing does not work.

    Don Stewart

    • Don,

      If you haven’t noticed, I like to hunt. I get to places that most locals don’t even know exist, and that means that I get to see how ranchers graze their cattle. I went with a friend on an Oryx hunt (they were imported in the 1960s or thereabouts,) on the West side (off range) of the White Sands Missile Range. You can look down the fence line and see the difference between where cattle are and where cattle aren’t. The difference was there a couple of years before during my hunt, but the cattle were in a different area. On my friend’s hunt, I got to see how they grazed. Due to the plethora of cattle tracks everywhere, we started calling the cows “stampy mother*******” due to the fact that you could not find oryx tracks amongst the cattle tracks. They were spread out all over the place. This fits with what I’ve seen elsewhere. It seems that we’re just now figuring out that bunching grazing animals up, letting them heavily graze an area for a short period of time, then moving them on works a lot better. It’s kind of like how herd animals graze in nature without human intervention.

      We’re not as smart as we think we are.

      • “It’s kind of like how herd animals graze in nature without human intervention.”

        But only when a top predator keeps them moving!

        In Yellowstone National Park, stream health improved significantly with the re-introduction of the wolf, because ungulates were no longer standing in one place on the stream bank, chewing vegetation right to the ground, causing silty run-off.

        Having extirpated the top predators, it is our duty to fill that ecological niche. See also Alan Savory, although he’s been pilloried by the militant vegans.

        Or better yet, bring back the top predators! Unfortunately, some were driven by us to extinction some 14,000 years ago.

        • Of course. Part of modern cattle ranching is killing predators. That’s part of the human intervention. That’s not working too well with the coyotes, but other predators have been hammered. Another case of reintroducing predators that hasn’t gone so well is down in Catron County, NM, with the Lobos. The problem isn’t that they reintroduced them, the problem is that when they did, they went in and told the residents how the residents were going to do things. If you know anything about the people down there, you convince them, you don’t order them, else they’ll make opportunities to get in your way. They’ve been getting in the way alright.

  6. Dear Gail and All
    See this post and shortonoil’s comment.

    Scores of trillions of dollars of stranded assets as oil dies. It is not clear to me whether shortonoil foresees stranded assets because wind and solar become cheaper, or whether he sees stranded assets because oil becomes too expensive. He says that depletion is the problem, so I suspect the latter. In either event, I find his numbers on the stranded assets to be interesting.

    Most of us today make a living because we are able to manipulate the infrastructure which shortonoil thinks will become a stranded asset. And most of our wealth is tied up in what the market is willing to pay for promises to pay with production from the stranded assets, or direct ownership of the stranded assets. Should the markets become convinced that shortonoil is not a lunatic, then financial values will collapse.

    Don Stewart

    • Practically everything becomes stranded assets, as we go through this bottle neck. Various oil companies already are writing down the value of land that they carried on their books, with the idea of developing. Many sites that looked like they had potential, no longer do. Some oil companies are more aggressive than other in this write down.

      But it is not just oil that becomes stranded assets. A 20th floor condominium in the city becomes a stranded asset, if there are no jobs, no food, no water, and probably no electricity in the city. Many types of mines become stranded assets, if there is no longer demand for lithium for car batteries for example. Virtually every commodity has stranded assets. Electric cars that no longer have electricity to run them become stranded assets. So do gasoline-powered cars that have no gasoline to run them.

      The issue with oil is that the cost of extraction becomes too high. This is quite different from the sales price becomes too high. What happens is the sales price becomes too low to justify extraction, because wages don’t go up at the same time. In fact, more and more workers are used in increasingly inefficient sectors, like oil extraction, coal extraction, and making desalination plants for water. This leaves fewer workers for other sectors.

      The real issue is wages that do not keep up with rising cost of extraction oil and creating other commodities. Prices have to drop, regardless of the rising cost of extraction.

      Wind and solar are non-solutions. They have nothing to do with this, except to push us toward collapse more quickly. They will be among the stranded assets–certainly anything permanently connected to the electric grid will become a stranded asset.

      • Gail
        I should have said ‘too expensive to extract and use’. BW Hill has always made that very clear. It just wasn’t clear in my note.

        Don Stewart

      • The really rich do have retreats in out of reach places, manned by locals whose livelihoods depend upon the rich.

        They will have enough fuel for the one-way trip to their retreat farms where they can manor over their serfs for a very long time.

      • “Wind and solar are non-solutions.”
        I tend to disagree. It depends on your definition of the problem. My best guess id that city centres will have electricity 24/7 for some time to come. Solar pv would likely be cost-effective for daytime peaks. Similarly, wind power was in use before electricity arrived. As for 20th floor accomodation, there was none before the electric lift, but I’d have to look at maintnence costs to see if these would still be viable. Some probably would, some probably would not.

        • I have no problem with the wind power that was in use before solar was used. It was made very simply, often pumped water, and was certainly off grid.

          The idea of adding huge wind turbines to the electric grid doesn’t work, though. It certainly doesn’t make the grid last any longer. It is only if a person believes that our problem is “running out” of natural gas that it allows electricity to last longer by allowing the system to burn a little less natural gas. Our problem is affordability. The question is whether the wind reduces the overall cost of the system.

          • I’ll agree that electricity and oil are solutions to different problems, but there is some overlap, particularly if costs can be reduced. Even so the viewpoints in the following link seem optimistic in places (I added a precis)
            “In South Africa in 2008, for example, power cuts caused some of the country’s biggest gold and platinum mines to close, leading to a rise in global commodity prices, not to mention huge disruption to the lives of millions. Such unreliable power grids also hamper foreign investment.”
            “Top 10 countries by energy storage capacity”
            “According to Julia Hertin at the German Advisory Council on the Environment, cost is still a barrier. “At the moment, this is more of an emotional decision than an economic one – people like the idea of being energy self-sufficient,” she says. “There could be a point when [storage] becomes a game changer, but we’re not there yet.” But costs will come down. As Ben Warren at consultancy EY points out, solar panels cost 80% less than they did just five years ago. “The storage market looks and smells just like the solar PV market did [then],” he says. “Over the next three to five years, energy storage will become very affordable, very quickly.” Indeed forecasts suggest the market could be worth anything between $30bn and $400bn in the next five to seven years. The Spanish island of El Hierro is using hydro energy storage to become self-sufficient in renewable energy”
            “This raises important questions about who will pay for grid maintenance – initially at least only the more wealthy will be able to afford renewables and storage, leaving those who can’t afford them to pick up the bill.”
            “But it’s the utilities that will be hit hardest by a fundamental shift away from centralised energy production. As Andrew Jones at S&C Electric says: “You can’t compete with someone who has no fuel costs.””
            “Demand for central power generation and distribution will fall with the take-up of energy storage, experts say. As a result, the bank downgraded its credit rating on all US electricity utilities. The threat is so grave, in fact, Citibank has estimated that “in their current form” utilities in developed economies could see the size of their market shrink by more than 50%.”

            • We can’t run our economy without the electric grid. Everything collapses–your bank can’t operate without electricity.

              The solar PV ideas are just plain crazy. Who wants to live on a local island of PV, when everything else around them is collapsing? The island will soon collapse as well, without any jobs, any water to your home, any food availability (other than what you grow and defend). There won’t be replacement parts for much of anything, so it won’t be long before your inverter fails, or your batteries. I don’t see this as any kind of long-term solution.

    • Potholes further down the road …
      “And Wells Fargo’s subprime cap of 10% of loan volume is setting the tone for the rest of the industry, where the national average has been 27.4%.”
      “Megabanks like Wells Fargo might see their earnings get dented, but the amounts aren’t big enough to topple them. Smaller lenders that have specialized in subprime might not be so lucky. But the auto loan subprime bubble, when it implodes, won’t sink the US financial system as a whole; it’s just not big enough.”
      “Subprime lending funded about 8 million new and used vehicle sales in 2014, in a universe of 16.4 million new and 42 million used vehicle sales. It has been a powerful force. It has driven auto sales to levels that have made the industry drool. But when that force buckles, it will impact automakers, their suppliers, dealers, railroads, trucking companies, and other sectors. It will ripple through finance companies and insurers. It will hit employment. And it will show up in retail sales.”

      • I wonder whether other banks will really cut back on their sub-prime auto loans. It is probably a sizable share of some banks’ revenue.

    • Looks like potholes further down the road …
      “And Wells Fargo’s subprime cap of 10% of loan volume is setting the tone for the rest of the industry, where the national average has been 27.4%.”
      “Megabanks like Wells Fargo might see their earnings get dented, but the amounts aren’t big enough to topple them. Smaller lenders that have specialized in subprime might not be so lucky. But the auto loan subprime bubble, when it implodes, won’t sink the US financial system as a whole; it’s just not big enough.”
      “Subprime lending funded about 8 million new and used vehicle sales in 2014, in a universe of 16.4 million new and 42 million used vehicle sales. It has been a powerful force. It has driven auto sales to levels that have made the industry drool. But when that force buckles, it will impact automakers, their suppliers, dealers, railroads, trucking companies, and other sectors. It will ripple through finance companies and insurers. It will hit employment. And it will show up in retail sales.”
      That could hit consumption just as the shale oil peaks later this year.

  7. Crisis, What Crisis?
    I’m just a “Poor Boy” and “Some Win and I Lose”….

    Yep, hoping BAU lasts, and lasts and lasts

  8. I read an article that says the US is producing and importing one million barrels per day more than it consumes. That it is running out of storage. That when storage is full it will drive the price down to $20/barrel. Any comments?

    • I expect prices will go down, to $20 a barrel or lower. Current prices are unsustainable.

      Not all oil is substitutable for other oil. The very light oil from shale formations doesn’t substitute for heavier oil used in most Gulf of Mexico refineries. We had more refineries for very light oil, but some of them have closed because refined products made from heavier oil were cheaper (because the heavier oil sells at a discount to light oil). Also, the very light oil from shale formations doesn’t provide a range of oil products–it mostly provides gasoline and even lighter products than gasoline. For gasoline, we already have biofuels acting as an extender. I haven’t looked into how this all works out, but I am not surprised that we are importing heavy oil, when we have a surplus of very light oil.

      • I’m thinking that $20bbl oil could be a close run thing. The MSM is selling growth in India while the crazies in the west are busy rattling sabres and raising risk and decreasing investment. It still looks like US production will not fall fast enough to allow growth to outrun the limited physical storage capacity. In a sane world, people would sit around a table and agree production limits. That’s just common sense.

  9. Air pollution in China

    “China’s ‘Inconvenient Truth’ Yields Environment Billionaires
    (…)China’s annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, which begins March 5 in the capital, is expected to set government policies for the year on issues such as pollution. “Under the Dome,” a Chinese film investigating the fallout of the country’s poor air quality, drew millions of viewers over the weekend, putting a renewed spotlight on the issue ahead of the gathering of lawmakers.”

    The full length version of “Under the Dome” is available on Youtube (1:43:56 sort of long TED-talk), but English subtitles don’t seem to be finished yet. However, several parts with subtitles can be played as separate videos. As an example, here are subtitled parts noted as 1, 2, 3 (resp.5:57+16:40+2:26 minutes):

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