A new theory of energy and the economy – Part 1 – Generating economic growth

How does the economy really work? In my view, there are many erroneous theories in published literature. I have been investigating this topic and have come to the conclusion that both energy and debt play an extremely important role in an economic system. Once energy supply and other aspects of the economy start hitting diminishing returns, there is a serious chance that a debt implosion will bring the whole system down.

In this post, I will look at the first piece of this story, relating to how the economy is tied to energy, and how the leveraging impact of cheap energy creates economic growth. In order for economic growth to occur, the wages of workers need to go farther and farther in buying goods and services. Low-priced energy products are far more effective in producing this situation than high-priced energy products. Substituting high-priced energy products for low-priced energy products can be expected to lead to lower economic growth.

Trying to tackle this topic is a daunting task. The subject crosses many fields of study, including anthropology, ecology, systems analysis, economics, and physics of a thermodynamically open system. It also involves reaching limits in a finite world. Most researchers have tackled the subject without understanding the many issues involved. I hope my analysis can shed some light on the subject.

I plan to add related posts later.

An Overview of a Networked Economy

The economy is a networked system of customers, businesses, and governments. It is tied together by a financial system and by many laws and customs that have grown up over the years. I represent the economic network as a child’s toy made of sticks that connect together, but that can, if disturbed in the wrong way, collapse.

Figure 1. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks

Figure 1. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks

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How increased inefficiency explains falling oil prices

Since about 2001, several sectors of the economy have become increasingly inefficient, in the sense that it takes more resources to produce a given output, such as 1000 barrels of oil. I believe that this growing inefficiency explains both slowing world economic growth and the sharp recent drop in prices of many commodities, including oil.

The mechanism at work is what I would call the crowding out effect. As more resources are required for the increasingly inefficient sectors of the economy, fewer resources are available to the rest of the economy. As a result, wages stagnate or decline. Central banks find it necessary lower interest rates, to keep the economy going.

Unfortunately, with stagnant or lower wages, consumers find that goods from the increasingly inefficiently sectors are increasingly unaffordable, especially if prices rise to cover the resource requirements of these inefficient sectors. For most periods in the past, commodities prices have stayed close to the cost of production (at least for the “marginal producer”). What we seem to be seeing recently is a drop in price to what consumers can afford for some of these increasingly unaffordable sectors. Unless this situation can be turned around quickly, the whole system risks collapse.

Increasingly Inefficient Sectors of the Economy 

We can think of several increasingly inefficient sectors of the economy:

Oil. The problem with oil is that much of the easy (and thus, cheap) to extract oil is gone. There seems to be a great deal of expensive-to-extract oil available. Some of it is deep under the sea, even under salt layers. Some of it is very heavy and needs to be “steamed” out. Some of it requires “fracking.” The extra extraction steps require the use of more human labor and more physical resources (oil and gas, metal pipes, fresh water), but output rises by very little. Liquid extenders to oil, such as biofuels and coal-to-liquid operations, also tend to be heavy resource users, further exacerbating the problem of the rising cost of production for liquid fuels.

I have described the problem behind rising costs as increasing inefficiency of production. The technical name for our problem is diminishing returns. This situation occurs when increased investment offers ever-smaller returns. Diminishing returns tends to occur to some extent whenever resources of any kind are extracted from the ground. If the extent of diminishing returns is small enough, total costs can be kept flat with technological advances. Our problem now is that diminishing returns have grown to such an extent that technological advances are no longer keeping pace. As a result, the cost of producing many types of goods and services is growing faster than wages.

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WSJ Gets it Wrong on “Why Peak Oil Predictions Haven’t Come True”

On Monday, September 29, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published a story called “Why Peak Oil Predictions Haven’t Come True.” The story is written as if there are only two possible outcomes:

  1. The Peak Oil version of what to expect from oil limits is correct, or
  2. Diminishing Returns can and are being put off by technological progress–the view of the WSJ.

It seems to me, though, that a third outcome is not only possible, but is what is actually happening.

3. Diminishing returns from oil limits are already beginning to hit, but the impacts and the expected shape of the down slope are quite different from those forecast by most Peak Oilers.

Area of Confusion

In many people’s way of thinking, the economy is separate from resources and the extraction of those resources. If we believe economists, the economy can grow indefinitely, with or without the use of resources. Clearly, with this view, the price of these resources doesn’t matter very much. If one kind of resource becomes more expensive, we can substitute other resources, once the scarce resource becomes sufficiently high-priced that the alternative makes financial sense. Incomes can rise arbitrarily high–all it takes is for each of us to pay the other higher wages. And we can fix any problem with the financial system with more money printing and more debt.

This wrong version of how our economy works has been handed down through the academic world, through our system of peer review, with each academic researcher following in the tracks of previous academic researchers. As long as new researchers follow the same wrong thinking as previous researchers, their articles will be published. Economists were especially involved in putting together this wrong world-view, but politicians helped as well. They liked the outcomes of the models the economists produced, since it made it look like the politicians, with the help of economists, were all-powerful. All the politicians needed to do was tweak the financial system, and the world economy would grow forever. There was not even a need for resources!

Peak Oilers’ Involvement 

The Peak Oilers walked into a situation with this wrong world view, and started trying to fix pieces of it. One piece that was clearly wrong as the relationship between resources and the economy.  Resources, especially energy resources, are needed to make any of the goods and services we buy. If those resources started reaching diminishing returns, it would be harder for the economy to grow. The economy might even shrink. Dr. Charles Hall, recently retired professor from SUNY-ESF, came up with one measure of diminishing returns–falling Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI).

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