Wednesday, November 11, 2009

JMG, A Gesture from the Invisible Hand

The arrival of geological limits to increasing fossil fuel production places a burden on the economy, because the cost in energy, labor, and materials (rather than money) to extract fossil fuels does not depend on market forces. On average, it goes up over time, as easily accessible reserves are depleted and have to be replaced by those more difficult and costly to extract. Improved efficiencies and new technologies can counter that to a limited extent, but both these face the familiar problem of diminishing returns as the laws of thermodynamics, and other physical laws, come into play.

As a society nears the geological limits to production, in other words, a steadily growing fraction of its total supply of energy, resources, and labor have to be devoted to the task of bringing in the energy that keeps the entire economy moving. This percentage may be small at first, but it's effectively a tax in kind on every productive economic activity, and as it grows it makes productive economic activity less profitable. The process by which money produces more money consumes next to no energy, by contrast, and so financial investments don't lose ground due to rising energy costs.

This makes financial investments, on average, relatively more profitable than investing in the kinds of economic activity that use energy to produce nonfinancial goods and services. The higher the burden imposed by energy costs, the more sweeping the disparity becomes; the result, of course, is that individuals trying to maximize their own economic gains move their money out of investments in the productive economy of goods and services, and into the paper economy of finance.

Ironically, this happens just as a perpetually expanding money supply driven by mass borrowing at interest has become an anachronism unsuited to the new economic reality of energy contraction. It also guarantees that any attempt to limit the financial sphere of the economy will face mass opposition, not only from financiers, but from millions of ordinary citizens whose dream of a comfortable retirement depends on the hope that financial investments will outperform the faltering economy of goods and services. Meanwhile, just as the economy most needs massive reinvestment in productive capacity to retool itself for the very different world defined by contracting energy supplies, investment money seeking higher returns flees the productive economy for the realm of abstract paper wealth.

Nor will this effect be countered, as suggested by the well-intentioned people mentioned toward the beginning of this essay, by a flood of investment money going into energy production and bringing the cost of energy back down. Producing energy takes energy, and thus is just as subject to rising energy costs as any other productive activity; even as the price of oil goes up, the costs of extracting it or making some substitute for it rise in tandem and make investments in oil production or replacement no more lucrative than any other part of the productive economy. Oil that has already been extracted from the ground may be a good investment, and financial paper speculating on the future price of oil will likely be an excellent one, but neither of these help increase the supply of oil, or any oil substitute, flowing into the economy.

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