ENERGY AND THE DISMAL SCIENCE


The man on the Clapham omnibus is unlikely to have heard of Tullett Prebon.  Tullett Prebon is an inter-dealer broker in the wholesale financial markets; Tullett Prebon acts as a link between firms to enable them to trade with each other anonymously; its brokers are the fast-talking middlemen who match buyers and sellers of complex financial products.

Tullett Prebon’s Global Head of Research, Dr Tim Morgan, has just published a substantial (84-page) report (link below) entitled, ‘Perfect Storm: Energy, Finance and the End of Growth’.  The report concludes that “the economy as we know it is facing a lethal confluence of 4 critical factors: the fall-out from the biggest debt bubble in history; a disastrous experiment with globalisation; the massaging of data to the point where economic trends are obscured; and, most important of all, the approach of an energy-returns cliff-edge” heralding the end of economic growth as we have come to know and love it this past 200 years or so.

Reports like Dr Morgan’s rarely if ever make headline news, if they make the news at all.  Did you know the report was published?  What intrigues me, however, is that for the past 5 years since the start of the global-financial-crisis-that-never-was – because insolvent banks are being and will continue to be propped up by taxpaying citizens of this generation and the next – the talk of the town has been ‘economic growth’; the subject is rarely out of the news these days.  Indeed, the quest for economic growth in the ‘developed world’ has become ever more desperate since it sunk without trace about 5 years ago, not least here in the UK.

Now just hold this thought for a moment: our complex society, indeed any modern complex society doesn’t work – it just doesn’t work – unless the economy grows consistently and reliably at around 3% per year.  This rate of growth, give or take a fraction of a percent, has been the case in the UK for many decades, and has been pretty much the average rate of economic growth around the world since about 1820.  OK, there have been ups and downs and the occasional shocks to the system (most notably the oil price shocks of the 1970s), but by and large for almost 200 years all we’ve known is compound economic growth.  Incidentally, over the same period the global population has grown about 7-fold, only slightly lagging the rate of economic growth; we’ll come back to that in later posts.

So, all of the assumptions about how the British government (well any democratic government actually) funds (through taxation and borrowing) hundreds of billions of pounds of expenditure year on year on year, are predicated on there being more money available next year, than there was this year, and that this year’s money is more than last year’s.  Economic growth is the sine qua non of how a government functions, of how we live our lives in a complex society.  When all’s said and done, politicians get voted in to office and power on the basis that they’ll spend more and more – of our money and borrowed money (they never make those latter points) – on all of the things that we’ve come to take for granted: defence, law and order, health, social services, welfare benefits etc.  However, here’s the rub: without economic growth the system starts to implode, and pretty quickly at that; honest.

You would think, wouldn’t you therefore, that when somebody like Dr Morgan (and many others like him recently) publish well-researched studies in to the deteriorating prospects for economic growth now and in to the future, there would be rather more mainstream interest in what these people have to say; but, there isn’t.

Whilst we get headline after headline declaring “shock” and “surprise” at the latest set of economic growth figures – figures which in fact scream economic contraction at worst, and at best economic stagnation – mainstream media organisations generally fail to latch on to the availability of explanations as to what is really going on.  Explanations like those provided by Dr Tim Morgan and others (about whom more in later posts, but for now let’s roll call Colin Campbell, Richard Heinberg, Chris Martenson, Gail Tverberg, Jeff Rubin, Michael C Ruppert, Jeremy Leggett et al).

Even if the mainstream press does pick up on a report like Tim Morgan’s, the report tends to be little short of ridiculed.  Institutional economics orthodoxy kicks in and the implication tends to be that either the author is an imposter (no formal training in economics, say) or the author is a swivel-eyed fruitcake.

Take for example an article in the Daily Telegraph earlier this week (link below) on Dr Morgan’s report.  Jeremy Warner is assistant editor at the Daily Telegraph and – according to his employer – “one of Britain’s leading business and economics commentators.”  Mr Warner is a fine and principled journalist by any measure.  Mr Warner has seen the Tullett Prebon report (I’m doubtful as to whether he read it from cover to cover) and concluded that it is “nonsense.  In fact, it’s not proper economics at all, but economics as a morality play in which, rather in the manner of Sodom and Gomorrah, we are condemned to prolonged punishment, nay, death and destruction, for the indulgence of the past.”  Mr Warner goes on to state that he is “not trying to belittle the very serious nature of today’s economic adjustment, still less claim that it is essentially over, but [Tullett Prebon’s report] is proselytising [in a way] that owes more to the pulpit than to the world of serious economic discourse.”

In essence, Mr Warner dismisses Tullett Prebon’s report as so much tosh.  Now, if this isn’t a shame, or unbecoming of “one of Britain’s leading business and economics commentators”, it’s a dangerous attitude to the growing challenge to economics orthodoxy emanating from various quarters these days.  After all, unlike the physical sciences, economics – the ‘dismal science’ – is a pseudo-science.  As Jeremy Warner’s erstwhile colleague Edmund Conway himself states, “the dirty little secret of economics is that it’s not really complicated at all – why should it be?  It is the study of humanity, and as such its ideas are little more than common sense.”

It seems strange then that Jeremy Warner should see fit to imply that Tim Morgan is not a proper economist, and that Dr Morgan’s contribution to the economic growth debate is not serious economic discourse.  How does Mr Warner justify his rather vacuous assault on what is an extremely well-researched and tightly argued report?    Clearly, Jeremy Warner considers that his common sense is superior to Tim Morgan’s.

What we seem to be witnessing these days is the orthodox economics community, of which Mr Warner is a member, coming under pressure from what I tend to think of as alternative economists; people like Tim Morgan and those folk whose names I listed earlier (and there are more).

The alternative economists are pointing out to the orthodox economists that perhaps the assumptions that the orthodoxy has held precious for 200 years merit an audit.  After all, the study of economics per se is a relatively recent feature of mankind’s interest in his surroundings, arguably since Adam Smith commenced proceedings in 1776 when he published ‘The Wealth of Nations’.

For the purpose of this post, I’ll leave you with an extract from Dr Morgan’s report and you can decide for yourself whether the report is likely to be adding nothing to serious economic discourse:

The economy is a surplus energy equation, not a monetary one, and growth in output (and in the global population) since the Industrial Revolution has resulted from the harnessing of ever-greater quantities of energy.  But the critical relationship between energy production and the energy cost of extraction is now deteriorating so rapidly that the economy as we have known it for more than two centuries is beginning to unravel.”

Link to Dr Morgan’s Report: http://tinyurl.com/32gvpnl

Link to Jeremy Warner’s Article: http://tinyurl.com/d5gonh9

This article also appears on ‘The Renegade Economist’ website: http://tinyurl.com/ajfku3a

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12 comments

  1. Negative population ‘growth’: the only (and ultimate) solution.

  2. Suggestion to generate more exposure/traffic.

    Contact Zero Hedge and guest post on that site. Also swap links with them and other financial blog sites.

    This blog has content as good if not better than most others.

    Might also try to cooperate with contributors and have their content posted here.

    Zero Hedge is good but the comment section has the taint of ‘crazy’ and puts me off (I seldom read their comments section)

    IIf you could get good contributors to add to your own articles while controlling the comments, this could be the new and (far better) ‘Zero Hedge’.

    1. moraymint · ·

      Paul

      Thanks for your suggestions. I have a link to Zero Hedge on the ‘Blogs I Follow’ section of this site, and I do indeed follow Tyler Durden’s excellent posts and guest posts. I can see that people have in the past linked my own comments in to the Zero Hedge site. I’ll give some thought to approaching Tyler Durden about guest posting. I’m already a ‘Renegade Correspondent’ over at the ‘Renegade Economist’ blog, and I have a connection to ‘The Needle’ blog (but I’ve not been in touch with gojam lately; he runs that site). I used to comment frequently on the Daily Telegraph site, but got fed up being ‘moderated’ to the point of instant censorship that I tend not to comment there too much these days. Sometimes I’m compelled to comment (!!) in which I case I always throw in a link to this site! Stay in touch …

  3. Actually Jeff Rubin, unlike the others mention, came directly out of the mainstream – he was chief economist for CIBC (a major Canadian bank). Quite amazing that he has come to the end of growth conclusion in light of his background.

    Of course for most economists it is difficult to buy in – not so different to those scientists who believe the earth was flat at one point.

    1. moraymint · ·

      Thanks Paul and, yes, I’m familiar with the thoughts and works of Jeff Rubin.

  4. Good post, MM. An inability and/or unwillingness to confront the uncomfortable facts, to think the unthinkable, is surely at the heart of much of the denial, yet at the same time how many of the cheerleaders out there really do see the writing on the wall but have every interest in keeping it buried for as long as possible?

    1. moraymint · ·

      Yes, I have a suspicion that our predicament is well known to TPTB!

  5. Great piece of writing Moray. I do agree with Daniel Hood, that you should return to posting on the DT. People need to understand what’s going on around them and they won’t find anything worthwhile in the mainstream, so it falls upon people like yourself to educate. Just my opinion anyway.

  6. Tim Boyle · ·

    JW is no idiot, but I’ve never read such a cheerleader’s defense of the status quo. TM’s report is bang on. The shit really is heading for the fan.

  7. PrestonPark · ·

    It’s very revealing & illustrative of your and Dr Morgan’s argument that even with the lowest IRs (+ money printing) over the longest period since the founding of the BoE, that the ‘tradtional’ economic levers & prescriptions aren’t producing anything other than nominal (non-inflation adjusted) upticks in growth rates & subsequent stabilizing of sovereign debt growth.
    Indeed, the cat in now poking its nose out of the bag with talk from the incoming BoE chief, Mr Carney, that nominal growth will become, officially, a satisfactory end & outcome.
    I don’t believe they’re worse central bankers now, nor worse politicians (in terms of skill/competence), the big difference is how much cheap energy can be thrown at this – to which the answer is very little, or none. With cheap energy, everything gets cheaper & more ‘efficient’
    or rather, inefficiency doesn’t drag so much in a cheap energy world.
    TPTB must know this too & this isn’t so much an economic problem as a news management/propaganda one.

  8. Daniel Hood · ·

    Hi MM great site and great article! I’m with you every step of the way. I’ve noticed that anyone who becomes “influential” gets moderated and you more than most on the DT. I’ll certainly support you here but we do have a duty to keep the fight on the DT forums and in the public domain.

    In relation to JWs rebuttal of Dr TM’s cracking report. It’s to be expected when someone’s inner core beliefs are shattered or threatened. We have to deal and prepare for the psychological fall out of many people not willing to let go of the status quo. This is all they know.

    I’m tired of sitting back and keeping quiet. For the record I’m now involved in some Clean-Tech projects designed to help with the coming transition. Something I feel proud of but I’m limited in what I can do alone. We need to find investors for Green/Clean-Tech projects. Maybe you can help or advise. Like I said we have to decide what kind of men we want to be. I want to help people with the transition, to educate, to support, to advise.

    Regards
    Dan

    We need to start doing and acting.

    1. moraymint · ·

      Thanks for your comment Dan. If you’ve not done so already you can email me separately … address is at the bottom of the ‘About’ page.

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