The Afghanistan Fiasco (and Today’s High Level of Conflict) Reflect an Energy Problem

There is a saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” The fiasco in Afghanistan is no exception to this rule. Even though it is not obvious, the United States is up against energy limits. It needed to pull back from Afghanistan to try to have enough energy to continue in its other roles, such as providing benefits for its growing army of retirees, and building infrastructure to mitigate the COVID-19 downturn.

The fundamental problem is that governments can add debt and other indirect promises of resources that create goods and services, but they cannot actually create the low-cost energy, water and mineral resources needed to fulfill those promises.

The way energy limits play out is not at all intuitive. Most people assume that we will run out of oil, leading to a spike in oil prices. We will then transition to renewables. As I see it, this understanding is completely wrong. Limited energy supply first leads to a need for simplification: Stepping back from Afghanistan would be one such type of simplification. It would save energy supplies and reduce the need for greater tax revenue or added debt.

In this post, I will try to explain some pieces of the problem.

[1] Afghanistan was, and continues to be, in some sense, a “handicapped country.”

Everyone knows that the way a country can succeed in the world market is by providing needed goods or services to other economies at low cost. Afghanistan is a landlocked country. It also doesn’t have any big rivers it can use to transport goods out of the country. It isn’t a member of a trade alliance such as the EU to allow smooth transport of goods out of the country. The difficulty of transit into and out of the country adds a layer of costs that tends to make the country uncompetitive in the world market. No matter how much investment any country makes in Afghanistan, this handicap will still persist.

Also, Afghanistan has too high a population relative to its resources. We know that most wars are resource wars. The fact that Afghanistan has been involved in wars for many years hints at this problem. According to UN 2019 estimates, Afghanistan’s population was 7.8 million in 1950, 21.6 million in 2001, and 38.9 million in 2020, which is about five times the 1950 population. Water needs, in particular, tend to escalate as population rises.

[2] The US doesn’t know how to fight a guerrilla war.

The weapons developed by the US are too complex to be used in a guerrilla war. They tend to break down and require replacement parts. Needless to say, these parts are not available in Afghanistan. Even if Afghan soldiers are trained to use these weapons, they may not be available or suitable when needed.

George W. Bush should have known from the outcome of the 20-year Vietnam conflict (1955-1975) that any guerrilla war was likely to have a bad ending. In Afghanistan, the plan was to train Afghan soldiers, thus keeping US citizens out of the battlefield. This strategy kept the Afghan conflict off the front page of US newspapers, but the overall result seems to be similar.

[3] When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he seems to have had access to more funds than he knew what to do with. Starting a war in Afghanistan probably seemed like a good use for these funds. He could perhaps build military bases, and perhaps raise the standard of living of the people there.

The price of oil was especially low in the 1998 to 2001 period. This allowed tax revenue to “go farther” in providing benefits to the economy, allowing a temporary budget surplus. With such a surplus, getting funds appropriated for any purpose would likely have been easy.

Figure 1. US Budget Deficits and Surpluses by Year. Chart by Steve Benen. Source.

Even more importantly, with a fairly young population, the Social Security system had been collecting funds in advance of when they were needed, with the plan of building up the plan’s Trust Fund for use when a bulge in retirements was expected, starting about 2010. Figure 2 shows one chart that roughly illustrates the overfunding and planned use for the funds. Unfortunately, Figure 2 doesn’t treat investment income in the way it is actually collected; it leaves out past investment income and uses discounted cash flow assumptions for the future, so a person cannot readily estimate net contributions to the Trust Fund balance by year from this chart.

Figure 2. Forecast of Social Security surpluses and deficits. Chart by Peter G. Peterson Foundation, based on Social Security Administration, The 2020 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Trust Funds. Source.

Figure 2 indicates that there was considerable overfunding starting in the late 1980s. The thing that actuaries (and others) didn’t consider is the fact that there is a real difference between debt and the physical resources that will be needed when these older people retire. Retirees will need food, water and energy to heat their homes. They will need medicine and long term care institutions. They should also be able to provide their share of the upkeep of roads and electricity transmission networks.

Debt is a promise of future funds to purchase goods and services, but it doesn’t make the resources required to create these goods and services materialize out of “thin air.” To keep these promises, oil needs to be extracted, refined, and delivered to farmers. There needs to be enough fresh water available to irrigate adequate farmland to produce the required food. There need to be supply lines that are working to deliver the required food. There need to be enough young people who are willing to work on farms and in care centers for the aged. The wages for these young workers need to be high enough so that they too can have food, shelter and other things that we consider necessities.

When the extra Social Security funds were collected, the officials who collected them figured out that as a practical matter, there was little that they could do with them besides spend them at the time they were collected. They couldn’t set up warehouses with food, clothing, building materials and energy resources to keep on hand for 30 or 40 years. If they invested the money in the stock market, the money would simply cause a bubble in stock prices. If they built new factories or nursing homes, they would be unfairly competing with existing businesses.

I am not sure that there is any good record of how these extra funds were spent. My understanding is that they provided a very large slush fund that allowed expanded military activities among other things. From an accounting point of view, non-marketable government debt was substituted for the funds that were spent. Thus, when an actuary looks at the Trust Fund, it is fully funded. It is just that it is funded with more US government debt.

The catch is that the non-marketable US government debt doesn’t actually correspond to any resources. Any food used in 2022 (or 2050) will need to be grown in that year, using resources available in that year. Most clothing used in a given year will need to be produced with resources available at that time. Putting together a model that assumes business as usual forever tends to give a rosy picture because it leaves out this detail.

The 2020 OSDAI Trustees Report provides actual income, outgo, and interest income through 2019. From this report, it can be concluded that the extra Social Security slush fund is rapidly disappearing. In fact, it seems to be turning to a hidden source of required year-by-year funding starting as soon as 2020 or 2021.

In some sense, the “real economy” operates on a “cash basis,” rather than an “accrual basis.” This has not been recognized in our accounting or our models. Ignoring the way the system really works likely leads to a hidden crunch, starting about 2021. We know that retirements were high in 2020, adding to the potential problem. I am certain that President Biden and his advisors are aware of this issue, even though it is never reported on the front pages of newspapers.

[4] There is really a two-sided energy price problem. Consumers can afford only low energy prices but, as the result of depletion and population growth in oil exporting countries, producers need high oil prices.

Figure 3 is a chart I prepared a few years ago. In it, there is a pattern of rapidly rising wages when oil prices were very low. Workers became more productive with new factory equipment and vehicles, produced with oil, and operated using oil products. As a result, their wages rose.

Figure 3. Average wages in 2017$ compared to Brent oil price, also in 2017$. Oil prices in 2017$ are from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018. Average wages are total wages based on BEA data adjusted by the GDP price deflator, divided by total population. Thus, they reflect changes in the proportion of the population employed as well as changes in wage levels.

On the other hand, when oil prices spiked, the prices of many goods, including food, airline tickets, and the fuel used for commuting to work, rose. People cut back on discretionary income, such as eating in restaurants and vacation travel. Businesses with fewer customers laid off workers. The workers who could find jobs often found lower-paid or part time jobs. The result was a dip in average wages, both in the 1970s and at the time of the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

We now live in a world with depleted resources. The oil and other types of energy that are available are high in cost, but the prices tend to stay too low for producers when all costs are included. Oil resources from the Middle East and Venezuela, especially, need a higher oil price because the governments of these countries need very high taxes on oil revenue to support their large populations. Even shale oil from the United States needs a higher price than is available today.

If we want OPEC to supply the rest of the world with more oil, the price will need to rise much higher than today’s Brent oil price of about $73. It likely will need to rise to at least $100 per barrel and show that it can stay at this high level. Otherwise, the supposed reserves of OPEC will mostly stay in the ground.

Even the US needs a higher oil price. Its oil, gas and coal production fell during the pandemic in 2020. Through May 2021 (and even later using weekly data, not shown), oil and natural gas production has not rebounded to the 2019 level.

Figure 4. US fossil fuel average daily production by month through May 2021, based on data from the US Energy Information Administration. NGPL means natural gas plant liquids. NGPL are extracted with natural gas but condensed out and sold as liquids.

Note that oil and gas production also dipped in 2016. Figure 3 shows that oil prices were also low then. If prices are too low, would-be producers leave them in the ground.

Adding in nuclear and renewables (hydroelectric, ethanol, wood, wind, solar and geothermal) still leaves a large dip in recent production.

Figure 5. US average daily production by type based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.

President Biden is no doubt aware of the fact that the US’s production of energy products, especially crude oil, is now low. In fact, earlier in August he asked OPEC and its allies to increase their oil production to try to keep prices from rising too much. Why would OPEC want to increase its production, if the US can’t increase its own production at the current price level? All of the producers need a higher price level; it is consumers who cannot afford the higher price level.

[5] The world seems to have already begun shifting to a falling energy consumption per capita situation.

The amount of energy required tends to rise with population because all of the people require food, housing and transportation. Energy, especially oil and coal, are needed for these.

Figure 6. Energy consumption per capita for all energy sources combined based on data from BP’s Statistical Review of Energy 2021.

Many countries, including the United States, have been able to hold down their internal energy consumption per capita by moving much of their industry to China and India.

Figure 7. US energy consumption per capita, divided between industrial and other, based on information of the US Energy Information Administration. Energy consumption includes both electricity and fuels such as oil, coal, natural gas, ethanol and wood burned for heat. All transportation fuels are in the “Ex. Industrial” portion.

Figure 7 shows that US industrial production reached its peak in 1973, which was shortly after US oil production started to turn down in 1971. This partly reflects auto manufacturing moving to Japan and Europe, where smaller, more fuel-efficient cars were already being sold. Home heating and electricity generation also shifted away from oil to other fuels.

The issue now is that “Ex. Industrial” consumption has been falling since the Great Recession. In some sense, the economy has been losing strength since 2008 and continues to lose strength. Fewer and fewer people can feel like they are really getting ahead. They are saddled with low wage jobs and too much debt.

Figure 8 shows similar patterns for the European Union and Japan. Energy consumption per capita was rising until a few years before the Great Recession, and then it plateaued. It has been declining since.

Figure 8. Energy consumption per capita for the European Union and Japan from BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy.

The pattern shown on Figure 8 suggests that energy prices are still too high for consumers, even though they are, at the same time, too low for producers. Travel restrictions imposed by governments may also be contributing to this pattern.

GDP data indications are prepared on an accrual basis. In other words, they reflect the impact of added debt. If missing energy can be replaced with a promise of debt to pay for more goods and services in the future, made with future energy, then perhaps all will be well. The quantity of debt that is required, relative to the GDP impact, keeps rising, suggesting this substitution is not working very well.

Figure 9. Dollars of additional debt required to add $1 dollar of GDP growth (including inflation), based on data of the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

With the addition of growing amounts of debt, GDP increases are reported to be much larger than expected growth, based only on the growth in energy consumption.

Figure 10. Average annual increase in energy consumption for the period shown based on EIA data versus average increase in real (inflation-adjusted) GDP for the period shown, based on data of the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

[6] We now seem to be reaching the end of the line with respect to what can be done with added debt to make the economy seem like it is performing adequately well.

Interest rates show a very distinct pattern. They rise until about 1981, and then they decline.

Figure 11. US 10-year and 3-month interest rates through July 2021, in a chart prepared by FRED.

When the US economy was growing rapidly, it could withstand high and rising interest rates. Since 1981, the general pattern has been one of falling interest rates, making a larger quantity of debt affordable. Indirectly, these falling interest rates also helped prop up asset prices, such as those of homes and shares of stock. In recent years, interest rates have fallen about as far as they can go. To some extent, these lower rates were made possible by Quantitative Easing (QE). But at some point, QE needs to be stopped.

Today, interest rates are approximately at the level they were during the Great Depression of the 1930s. This makes sense; interest rates to some extent reflect the return an investor can expect to make. Right now, without a lot of government support programs, “Main Street” businesses around the world are struggling. This indicates that the economy is doing very poorly. There are too many people who cannot afford even basic goods and services. Indirectly, this feeds back to commodity prices that are not high enough for producers of energy products.

Recently, governments of many countries have tried a different approach. Instead of loans, they are providing something closer to giveaways. Renters are allowed to stay rent-free in their apartments. Or, checks are given to all citizens earning below some specified amount. What we seem to be finding is that these giveaways produce inflation in the price of goods that poor people buy most frequently, such as food and used cars.

The giveaways don’t actually produce more of the required goods and services, however. Instead, would-be workers decide that they really don’t want to take a low-paid job if the giveaways provide nearly as much income. The loss of workers then acts to reduce production. With lower production of goods and services, a smaller quantity of oil is required, so the oil price tends to fall. The price certainly does not rise to the level needed by oil producers.

[7] In a finite world, longer-term models need to take into account the fact that resources deplete and the population keeps rising.

Any modeler who tries to take into account the fact that resources deplete and the overall population keeps rising will quickly come to the conclusion that, at some point, every economy will have to collapse. This has been known for a very long time. Back in 1957, Admiral Hyman Rickover of the US Navy said,

Surplus energy provides the material foundation for civilized living – a comfortable and tasteful home instead of a bare shelter; attractive clothing instead of mere covering to keep warm; appetizing food instead of anything that suffices to appease hunger. . .

For it is an unpleasant fact that according to our best estimates, total fossil fuel reserves recoverable at not over twice today’s unit cost, are likely to run out at some time between the years 2000 and 2050, if present standards of living and population growth rates are taken into account.

Now, in 2021, it looks as if this problem is starting to hit us. But no one (since Jimmy Carter, who was not re-elected) has dared tell the general public. Instead, accrual accounting with more and more debt is used in financial statements, including GDP statements. Actuaries put together Social Security funding estimates as if the resources to provide the promised benefits will really be there. Climate change models are prepared as if business as usual can go on for the next hundred years. Everything published by the mainstream media is based on the underlying assumption that we will have no problems other than climate change for the next 100 years.

[8] About all that can be done now is to start cutting back on the less necessary parts of the economy.

President Biden’s abrupt pullout from Afghanistan reflects a reality that increasingly has to take place in the world. The US needs to start pulling back because there are too many people and not enough inexpensive to extract resources to fulfill all of the commitments that the US has made. As mentioned earlier, there are a number of obstacles to success in Afghanistan. Thus, it is a good place to start.

With the need to pull back, there is a much higher level of conflict, both within and between countries. The big issue becomes who, or what, is going to be “voted off the island” next. Is it the elderly or the poor; the military or the oversized US medical establishment; university education for a large share of students or classroom teaching for young children?

We don’t seem to have a good way out of our current predicament. This seems to be what is behind all of the recent internet censorship. Renewables and nuclear require fossil fuel energy for their production and maintenance. The powers that be don’t want anyone to know that nearly all of the “happily ever after using renewables” stories we hear are based on wishful thinking.

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.
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3,032 Responses to The Afghanistan Fiasco (and Today’s High Level of Conflict) Reflect an Energy Problem

  1. Xabier says:

    Supply-chain news from chatting to the owner of a bike shop here:

    1/ Still getting parts and bikes, but delivery dates can never be confirmed, so occasionally running out of items.

    2/ The importer of kids’ bikes for the Xmas market says they will only be getting 3,000 from China, instead of the 6,000 ordered.

    3/ Importer of the helmets he sells said the cost of a container had gone from $3k to $30k.

    Prices I paid for spare tyres, tubes and brakes were no higher than 2019.

    So, major disruption, but still functioning more or less…..

  2. Yoshua says:

    The first peer reviewed paper on Sars-Cov-2 being a lab leak after gain of function research.

    By Sirotkin & Sirotkin (Harvard2TBH)

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7435492/

  3. Fast Eddy says:

    42.6% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
    5.82 billion doses have been administered globally, and 29.6 million are now administered each day.

    Only 1.9% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.

    https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations

    This doesn’t add up

  4. Student says:

    It was already anticipated yesterday by Azure Kingfisher (thanks), but now it is confirmed.
    Starting from 15th of October, Italian government wants to oblige people to have covid pass for every kind of work.
    From private workers, passing through public employees and arriving to eletricians and plumbers or whatever.
    With ‘leaking vaccines’ it is clear to everybody that covid pass which asks only to not-vaccinated to check for positivity to the virus, it is not a way to create safe environments, because also vaccinated can be positive and spread the virus.
    Therefore, this is clearly a way to reduce the number of workers in the system and try to exclude a segment of people from Society.
    Because a segment of people could not afford to make tests every 2 days or will not want to do it and will not want to make a jab that could have adverse events or even death and doesn’t protect other people (virus can be spread anyway), but also has efficacy only for 5/6 months.
    In that way the government gives permission to fire people which would have been difficult to fire with the ‘old way’.
    But people inside covid pass should fear to enter in this system too.
    Government will link all kind of permissions to Covid pass and it will be easy to exclude a person from Society for whatever reason.
    A person will be switched off from Society in a second.
    If people do not come together and understand that we all will be in danger, we will all perish.
    It is a terrible nightmare.

    https://www.byoblu.com/2021/09/16/bozza-decreto-pass-lavoro/

    • Yorchichan says:

      What will you do?

      Same question to Marco.

    • Xabier says:

      Yes, Student it’s now very clear what they intend: either die outside the cage, or enter, and be a 24+7 monitored slave, dying later – at their discretion…..

      ‘You will be nothing: and we will be happy!’

  5. Harry McGibbs says:

    “Despite its ambitious green energy targets, Europe could be forced to burn more coal this winter if natural gas stockpiles are not adequately replenished amid record-high gas prices, an expert on the EU energy market told Russian news agency TASS on Thursday.”

    https://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/Europe-Could-Turn-To-More-Coal-If-Gas-Crunch-Persists.html

    • Lastcall says:

      Funeral director who saw no unusual business until almost the exact day the Injections started; along with all others in his industry. Delta ‘deaths are vaccine deaths.
      The lead up to Injections even saw him deal with a motor accident death labelled as Covid.

      The UK Govt statistics even show that 2020 was just a normal flu year.

  6. Harry McGibbs says:

    “South Korea Presidential Hopeful Warns of Housing Market Crash.

    “South Korea’s leading opposition candidate warned of a potential collapse in the housing market and a spike in bankruptcies as interest rates rise, blaming President Moon Jae-in for letting debt levels hit a record through expansionary spending.”

    https://finance.yahoo.com/news/south-korea-presidential-hopeful-warns-064926057.html

  7. Harry McGibbs says:

    “PBOC Injects $14 Billion as Evergrande Debt Woes Roil Market.

    “China boosted its injection of short-term cash into the financial system in a sign the authorities are seeking to soothe market nerves frayed by concern over quarter-end funding needs and China Evergrande Group’s debt crisis.”

    https://finance.yahoo.com/news/pboc-injects-13-9-billion-031442743.html

  8. Harry McGibbs says:

    “Demand for uranium has seen a surge overnight with prices sitting at a nine-year high.

    “Shortages in supply for uranium saw its price rise from US$30 a pound just a month ago to US$48 a pound on Thursday with the share prices of Australian companies up by 70 per cent over the last couple of weeks.”

    https://www.skynews.com.au/business/markets/uranium-prices-surge-amid-shortages-in-supply/video/55ddf4087f79a1245efa971ada06a649

  9. Fast Eddy says:

    Just how badly did vaccine failure surprise Fauci?

    This badly: on May 20 (May!) he said the US might be able to eliminate Sars-Cov-2 entirely. Three months later he was begging for boosters double-quick. True story.

    https://alexberenson.substack.com/p/just-how-badly-did-vaccine-failure

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