Another View of the US Economy: Observations on Exergy, GDP & Median Incomes

The standard view of the American economy is one of exponential growth: even if interrupted by a recession once a decade and a Depression once every two generations (the 1890’s, the 1930’s, the 2010’s?), the engines of industry would always come back roaring again. Output per American could always be expected to increase as it has from 1790 until the present day. There has never been a decade, even during America’s two Depressions, when US GDP was lower at the end than at the beginning.

However, another point of view on the US economy can be developed by drawing on observations of factors such as median income, energy consumption and inequality. Broadly speaking, this picture is one relative stagnation from 1890-1940, and again from 1973-today, punctuated by the truly remarkable “miracle economy” of the post-war boom. Furthermore, the US is now about to transition to a new phase: economic stagnation and anarchic stasis, to be followed by oligarchic Caesarism. This first post will be, for now, just a series of observations that I believe to be inextricably linked, but lack the theoretical foundations to put on a sound footing. Feel free to skip it, as it might be hard to follow and I’m mostly writing it to get greater understanding for myself. More polished version(s) to follow.

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Reconsidering Parshev

In most Russian bookstores, there is a bookshelf or two dedicated to so-called “patriotic literature” – reappraisals of Stalin against “liberal revisionism”, overviews of Russia’s secret super-weapons, the exploits of its special forces and Russian theo-philosophy. Much of it is (apparent) nonsense, but the economic crisis has forced me to reconsider one particular “patriotic” thesis – Andrei Parshev’s Why Russia is not America.

His big idea, an elaboration and tying together of earlier work, is that Russia’s economy is structurally uncompetitive on the world stage, and that integrating with the global economy will lead to catastrophe. This is because of his counter-intuitive observation that Russia is overpopulated. Though its population density is low on paper, the cold climate, huge landmass and poor riverine connections means that the carrying capacity of north Eurasia is nowhere near as high as that of the world’s other centers of economic and political power – the US, China, and Europe. Because manufacturing is inherently loss-making on the Eurasian plains, it is much more economically “efficient” to just ship out Russia’s mineral resources to fuel manufacturing in warmer, coastal regions such as the Pearl River Delta or the Great Lakes. No more than 20mn Russians are needed to service the pipelines and grow fat from the proceeds; the other 120mn are free to eke out a subsistence living on Russia’s marginal lands, or die out (as indeed many did during the era of neo-liberal reforms). He recommended a return to sovereignty, autarky and sobornost as the solution to these woes.

I agreed with Parshev’s analysis upon my first reading of his book in 2002, a time when I still thought Putin was no more than a better-dressed, sober gangster in Yeltsin’s mold and the country showed little signs of real recovery. Yet as evidence mounted that Russia really was prospering by the mid-2000’s and I became influenced by Krugman’s criticisms of competitiveness, I increasingly came to reject his ideas (e.g. see this comment). However, since then increasing awareness of the vital role played by protectionism in “catch-up” industrial development, the reality of peak oil and above all the economic crisis forced me into reconsidering Parshev.

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Oily Origins of the Economic Crisis

In an article some months ago I suggested that “perhaps this crisis is simply an unconscious recognition of this inconvenient truth?” – namely, the peaking of oil extraction and all that it implies for the continued survival of a financial system built on assumptions of continuous economic growth. In other words, the fashionable approach of focusing on exotic financial instruments, regulatory failures, etc, if a case of mistaking the forest for the trees.

The Oil Drum had a nice graphical summary. According to the author, Gail the Actuary, the chain of causation runs thus: rising oil prices -> inflated asset values -> booming phantom wealth -> high energy costs undermine real economy -> more and more bubbles pricked -> banking crisis -> credit crisis -> cascaded economic failure -> oil demand destruction -> oil prices plummet -> so do ever costlier long-term investments in oil extraction -> economic recovery at lower level -> rising oil prices. Cycle repeats itself to oblivion.

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