Dec 2011

Join up your thinking, Mr. McWilliams

Today I was reading an article (There is Another Way) on David McWilliams‘ website and I found myself mentally stumbling over a particular line. It’s about halfway through the piece… “economies grow because of the human capital of the societies”, he says.

Now, I like David McWilliams. He’s probably the most famous of Ireland’s celebrity economists, but don’t let that put you off. I certainly don’t agree with everything he has to say. And if, for example, we were to reduce things to the simplistic left/right dialectic that I generally try to avoid on this blog, then it’s safe to say that I’d be a good deal to the left of McWilliams. Beyond that, although he is one of the most vocal opponents of the current austerity orthodoxy, he still retains far too much of the dogma of mainstream free-market economic theory for my liking. Nonetheless, he was one of the very few economists to publicly warn of the financial crisis quite a while before it hit… a fact that – along with his likeable media persona – has garnered him the celebrity status he currently enjoys. He also organises the Kilkenomics Fesital which, although I’ve not been to it myself, sounds like a splendid idea (high-profile economists and well known stand-up comedians are invited to take part in performances, public interviews and conferences… a most appropriate combination of participants).

Earlier this year, at a conference called European Zeitgeist 2011, McWilliams was asked about the “bail-outs” that have been received by three (so far) EU members. His response succinctly sums up the sensible position on the subject…

However, regardless of his likeability and sensible views on the current financial crisis, David McWilliams still falls into the great trap that pretty much every economist of note succumbs to… to use the language of Systems Theory, he confuses the map with the territory. That is, he tends to see economic analysis as descriptive of the real world as opposed to merely being a model of it… and a flawed one at that. The distinction may be a subtle one, but it is massively important.

A couple of months ago, McWilliams hosted an online seminar (or “webinar” to use the parlance of our times) in which he gave a short lecture on the European crisis and then responded to questions from the disembodied audience. I put my question to him. Now, regular readers of this blog could probably guess what I asked with a fair degree of accuracy, but for the rest of you, it went something like this… “David, while acknowledging that the current financial and economic crisis is a real problem, what do you say to people who suggest it is but the tip of the iceberg; that a far more serious issue is that of resource depletion – in particular, but not limited to, peak oil – and that this will result in a near-term crisis that will make the current one look positively modest in comparison?”

To his credit (and my surprise), his response essentially acknowledged that there was a lot of truth in my suggestion and that the global economy may well experience very serious shocks as a result of resource depletion in the not too distant future. The reason for my surprise was not simply the fact that most economists fail to make that map / territory distinction and therefore completely forget that economics is no more than a conceptual model of a physical world and that economic laws and theories are only accurate insofar as they tally with the laws of physics. That they are essentially descriptions of past events and cease being at all relevant when the physical conditions of the world they describe change radically. No, I was also surprised because McWilliams makes little or no reference to the notion of resource depletion in anything he writes.

This is why I get frustrated when I read statements like “economies grow because of the human capital of the societies”. McWilliams is a very smart man and appears to acknowledge the near-term possibility of a radical change in the physical conditions within which human society – and therefore economics – must exist. The depletion of oil and other petroleum products is a complete game changer. And it makes statements such as the one about human capital completely redundant. While the statement may be (indeed, is) relevant in a world where the availability of cheap energy is a given, it is nonsense in a world of diminishing energy supply. In that world, economic growth is entirely dependent upon access to that diminishing supply of energy.

This is because an economy is – in very rough terms – the amount of work occurring within a society. Some would insist that should be restated as “the amount of productive work occurring within a society”, but that’s not the case because, in practice, many people are paid for unproductive work and that money is still part of the economy. But what is “work”? Well, a definition from a Business Studies course might claim that work is “paid employment at a job or a trade, occupation, or profession”. And that’s all well and good for passing your end of term exam, but if economies are built on physical systems (which in the final analysis, they are) then it’s really the physical definition of work that’s important. And while the most mathematical of definitions is the somewhat abstract “work is the product of a force times the distance through which it acts”, we only have to wander as far as the First Law of Thermodynamics to find work equated with energy. Indeed energy is defined as “the ability to do work”. Therefore, with decreasing energy resources comes decreasing work.

This is something that cannot be avoided and something we desperately need to start facing up to. Every available piece of data seems to point towards the fact that we have already passed peak oil (2006 seems to be the agreed year for a peak in conventional crude oil). Indeed, this is playing a not insignificant role in our current economic problems, and yet we are still at the very beginning of the resource depletion crisis. Each moment we continue to wilfully ignore this issue is a moment spent making the problem worse. Which is why people like David McWilliams; intelligent people with a public platform who are apparently aware of the looming crisis; should be talking about it. They should be shouting it from the rooftops until they’re hoarse.

What they shouldn’t be doing is insisting that despite the current downturn, despite the currency problems and despite the issue of unsustainable debt, the underlying structure of the world is the same as it ever was, and that a return to growth is just around the corner if we simply make better economic and financial decisions. Because ultimately that is what “economies grow because of the human capital of the societies” translates into. It is a statement that reflects a deep economic orthodoxy and that’s something we just can’t afford right now.

Disclaimer: I’m off down to Cork to spend the Yuletide with my family tomorrow but wanted to get this piece done while David McWilliams’ article was still relatively fresh. In truth it’s a bit of a haphazard blog entry. It’s a bit hurried and could definitely have done with gestating a while longer. But what can you do?

For those who don’t immediately see the link between oil depletion and a reduction in available energy, check out my most recent article on Peak Oil which may (or may not) explain things. See: Peak oil revisited (part 1).

Posted in: Opinion