Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

“I’m not sure I follow the arithmetic here.”

“I’m not sure I follow the arithmetic here.”

“Unless productivity goes up by at least 25% to compensate, everyone will be worse off.”

“Dropping hours from 5 days a week to 4 means that the work that would have been done in 5 days now needs to be done in 4, which means each day needs a 25% increase in productivity. Where on earth do you think such an increase is going to come from?”

“OK, but to arrive at the same output in 4 days rather than 5 means that people have to become 25% more productive than they are today. That’s an awfully big jump in productivity. I’m not convinced that people today are that unproductive. Certainly when I think of my past workplaces, I don’t think my colleagues were that sub-optimal. A 10% increase in productivity seems more reasonable.”

Following up on yesterday’s post about comments in the Guardian, here are some thoughts about “where on earth” a productivity increase of 25 percent might come from:

Let’s start from a 40-hour week in which the rate of output declines somewhat toward the end of the day when workers are beginning to tire. Let\s assume the least productive eight hours of work produce only 75 percent of the output of the most productive 32 hours of work. Call the average output of the most productive 32 hours “one unit” of output. Total output for 40 hours work is 38 units.

Now, reduce the weekly hours to 32. Better rested, more motivated workers result in a “reasonable” 6.25 percent increase in average hourly productivity above and beyond the productivity gain from eliminating the least productive hours. Total output in 32 hours is now 34 units compared with 38 units previously produced in 40 hours.

 

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“Just doesn’t add up'”

“Just doesn’t add up'”

  • “I’m not sure I follow the arithmetic here.”
  • “It’s all down to the numbers – something the article avoids and so is just pie-in-the-sky.”
  • “That clearly does not add up.”
  • “If you produce X in 30 hours you will produce > X in 40 – unless you are just sitting on your arse for the extra 10 hours.”
  • “If you work 40 hours your total output will be higher than if you work 30 hours – unless you are actually destroying output in those extra 10 hours.”
The U.K. think tank Autonomy has published a report on working time, “The Shorter Working Week: A Radical And Pragmatic Proposal.” Autonomy’s co-director, Will Stronge, wrote an Op-Ed for the Guardian on Friday that outlines some of the proposal’s main points. The Guardian piece received over 600 comments, around a quarter of which were opposed to the proposal. I am always fascinated with why people are hostile toward seemingly good things so I downloaded the comments and sorted and coded them.
Twenty-eight percent of the negative comments included gratuitous disparaging remarks about the article and its author. “Riiiiight. …whoever dreamed up this silly notion hasn’t got a clue about the realities of life.” “This drivel is always coming from some useless twit who sits on their backside…” “Yes, the article is nothing but pie-in-the-sky.” “Really?  It’s all a bit if a pipe dream isn’t it?” “Comrades , rejoice!  Tractor production will still be up 130%.” “Along with flying cars and pet unicorns for all, presumably.” “Following the columnist’s logic, why not a three day week? Or a two day week?” “better still just pay me full time but I don’t want to turn up at all.”

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Not Accurate

Not Accurate

BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate. — Office of the Special Counsel.

If this is the first story the special counsel has felt compelled to dispute, does that mean he had no objection to all the others that have come out before now? — Peter Baker, New York Times.

These things cannot both be true:

  • The Mueller investigation is a witch hunt fomented by a Mueller-Comey-Strzok cabal of Trump haters.
  • The statement from the Office of the Special Counsel calling BuzzFeed’s “description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office” “not accurate” definitively refutes the two-year long fake news crusade against Trump by the media.
Parsing the special counsel’s statement, it seems to refer to the “description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office.” Period. Note the repetition of the word “office.” The evidence may or may not exist. The office of the special counsel may or may not be in possession of it. They do not confirm or deny that they are not confirming or denying.
But “BuzzFeed’s description” is “not accurate.” Where does the crucial word “office” appear in the BuzzFeed description?

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Is the “Green New Deal” a Marxist Plot?

At the CEPR blog, Beat the Press, Dean Baker and Jason Hickel are debating degrowth. Dean makes the excellent point that “claims about growth” from oil companies and politicians who oppose policies to restrict greenhouse gas emissions, “are just window dressing.” I also agree, however, with the first comment in response to Dean’s post that his point about window dressing could be taken much further.

I would add that economic growth is window dressing for what used to be referred to much more aggressively as “man’s triumph over nature” or the “control of nature.” Climate change deniers are more forthright about this connection between aggression and so-called growth: “Is “Strive on — the control of nature is won, not given” a controversial statement? What does it mean for science if it is?” asks Linnea Lueken at the Heartland Institute website.

Scattered throughout his writings, Donald Winnicott made fleeting but intense criticisms of “sentimentality.” “Sentimentality is useless for parents,” he remarked in a 1949 article on the analysis of psychotic patients, “as it contains a denial of hate, and sentimentality in a mother is no good at all from the infant’s point of view.” The inference he drew from this observation was that “a psychotic patient in analysis cannot be expected to tolerate his hate of the analyst unless the analyst can hate him.”
In a 1946 article on the treatment of juvenile delinquents, he warned against “one of the biggest threats” to the use of psychological methods in the management of young offenders was “the adoption of a sentimental attitude towards crime:

If advances seem to come but are based on sentimentality, they are valueless; reaction must surely set in, and the advances had better never have been made. In sentimentality there is repressed or unconscious hate, and this repression is unhealthy. Sooner or later the hate turns up.

The most thorough discussion by Winnicott of his aversion to sentimentality is probably his 1939 article, “Aggression and its roots.” As it is only three paragraphs, I quote it in its entirety:

Finally, all aggression that is not denied, and for which personal responsibility can be accepted, is available to give strength to the work of reparation and restitution. At the back of all play, work, and art, is unconscious remorse about harm done in unconscious fantasy, and an unconscious desire to start putting things right.

Sentimentality contains an unconscious denial of the destructiveness underlying construction. It is withering to the developing child, and eventually it can make him need to show in direct form destructiveness which, in a less sentimental milieu, he could have conveyed indirectly by showing a desire to construct.

It is partly false to state that we ‘should provide opportunity for creative expression if we are to counter children’s destructive urges’. What is needed is an unsentimental attitude towards all productions, which means the appreciation not so much of talent as of the struggle behind all achievement, however small. For, apart from sensual love, no human manifestation of love is felt to be valuable that does not imply aggression acknowledged and harnessed.

He might well have added, “And I’m not so sure about sensual love.”
This all may sound somewhat arbitrary and speculative but actually it is a very compressed and jargon-free application of Melanie Klein’s developmental theory of the self. What Klein referred to as the depressive position involves an infant’s feeling of “guilt” — or in Winnicott’s less extravagant terminology, “concern” — about its aggressive fantasies toward its mother. In Klein’s rather lurid account of the infant’s aggressive fantasy:

The phantasied attacks on the mother follow two main lines: one is the predominantly oral impulse to suck dry, bite up, scoop out, and rob the mother’s body of its good contents.… The other line of attack derives from the anal and urethral impulses and implies expelling dangerous substances (excrements) out of the self and into the mother.… These excrements and bad parts of the self are meant not only to injure the object but also to control it and take possession of it.

Whether or not the infant has such unconscious aggressive fantasies about the mother’s body, Rex Tillerson, when he was CEO of Exxon, expressed similar, fully-conscious ones, “My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do…” Robert White-Stevens, the corporate-designated nemesis of Rachel Carson following the publication of Silent Spring, exemplified the “control of nature” faction of science:

Miss Carson maintains that the balance of nature is a major force in the survival of man, whereas the modern chemist, the modern biologist and scientist, believes that man is steadily controlling nature.

White-Stevens’s vision of a “feeble creature” penetrating “every corner of the planet,”  and “contest[ing] the very laws and powers of Nature, herself,” could have been written as a Kleinian parody of the of the infantile arrogance of scientistic triumphalism:

Within the past 100 years, man has emerged from a feeble creature, virtually at the mercy of Nature and his environment, to become the only being which can penetrate every corner of the planet, communicate instantly to anywhere on earth, produce all the food, fiber, and shelter he needs, wherever he may need it, change the topography of his lands, the sea and the universe and prepare his voyage through the very arch of heaven into space itself.

This is the stuff that science is made of, and man has learned to use it. He cannot now go back; he has crossed his Rubicon and must advance into the future armed with the reason and the tools of his sciences, and in so doing will doubtless have to contest the very laws and powers of Nature herself. He has done this already by expanding his numbers far beyond her tolerance and by interrupting her laws of inheritance and survival. Now, he must go all the way, for he cannot but partially contest Nature. He has chosen to lead the way; he must take the responsibility upon himself.

But I digress. What does all this have to do with economic growth? Again, as Winnicott explained, “aggression that is not denied, and for which personal responsibility can be accepted, is available to give strength to the work of reparation and restitution.” However, “[i]n sentimentality there is repressed or unconscious hate, and this repression is unhealthy. Sooner or later the hate turns up.” Indeed, the hate does turn up at the Heartland Institute, where the “Green New Deal” is exposed as the “Old Socialist Despotism.”If it fails to acknowledge the primitive aggression of “man’s triumph over nature” that lies beneath the reparation of adopting environmentally-friendly policies, the debate between degrowth and green growth risks descending into sentimental bickering about the window dressing in the hotel on the edge of the abyss.

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A Vicious Place

The world according to Trump — notice a trend here?

Reporter: “Who should be held accountable?” [for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder]

Trump: “Maybe the world should be held accountable because the world is a vicious place. The world is a very, very vicious place.” — November 22, 2018.

The world is a vicious and brutal place. We think we’re civilized. In truth, it’s a cruel world and people are ruthless. They act nice to your face, but underneath they’re out to kill you.” Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and in Life, Donald Trump & Bill Zanker, 2007, p. 71.

“Life is not easy. The world is a vicious, brutal place. It’s a place where people are looking to kill you, if not physically, then mentally. In the world that we live in every day it is usually the mental kill. People are looking to put you down, especially if you are on top. When I watched Westerns as a kid, I noticed the cowboys were always trying to kill the fastest gun. As a kid, I never understood it. Why would anyone want to go after the fastest gun?

“This is the way it is in real life. Everyone wants to kill the fastest gun. In real estate, I am the fastest gun, and everyone wants to kill me. You have to know how to defend yourself. People will be nasty and try to kill you just for sport. Even your friends are out to get you!” Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and in Life, Donald Trump & Bill Zanker, 2007, p. 139.

“Well, not all people. But it’s a vicious place. The world is a vicious place. You know, the lions and tigers, they hunt for food, we hunt for sport. So, it can be a very vicious place. You turn on the television and you look at what’s happening.” Interview with John Barton, Golf Digest, October 13, 2014.

This is the most deceptive, vicious world. It is vicious, it’s full of lies, deceit and deception. You make a deal with somebody and it’s like making a deal with– that table.” Interview with Lesley Stahl, CBS 60 Minutes, October 15, 2018.

“This is a r– this is a vicious place. Washington DC is a vicious, vicious place. The attacks, the– the bad mouthing, the speaking behind your back. –but– you know, and in my way, I feel very comfortable here.”
Interview with Lesley Stahl, CBS 60 Minutes, October 15, 2018.

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Some Questions about the Ten-Hour Week

Three weeks ago, in response to the IPCC report warning that CO2 emissions had to be reduced to 45% of their 2010 levels by 2030 to avoid the possibility of global temperature rising above 1.5°C, I posted “The IPCC 1.5° C Report and the Ten-Hour Week,” (also posted at Angry Bear) which offered the sketch of a plan for how to do that. I have no illusions that the IPCC or any other prestigious organization will latch on to this idea and seek to flesh it out with concrete policy proposals. In some respects, I offered the Ten-Hour Week more as a thought experiment, a way of thinking about the scope and scale of effort required.

I still think it is a damn good way to think about the problem and actually would be worthy of elaboration if only it wasn’t “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Several of my subsequent EconoSpeak posts — “The Political Economy of the Working Class” “Absolute Decoupling and Relative Surplus Value: Rectification of Names” “Business As Usual: Running on Empty” and “Scratch That” — have in fact been elaborations on the Ten-Hour Week thought experiment and the issues it raises.

I also posted it to the sustainable consumption discussion list, SCORAI, where it got some very perceptive questions from participants. With permission, I am posting the questions and answers below. Thanks for questions, comments and permission to Thomas Love, Professor of Anthropology, Linfield College, Oregon; John de Graaf, film maker and co-author of Affluenza, Seattle, Washington; Anna Berka, Research Fellow, Energy Centre, University of Auckland Business School, New Zealand; and William Rees, Professor Emeritus Faculty of Applied Science School of Community of Regional Planning, UBC, Vancouver, BC.

Tom Love:

Thanks Tom Walker for a compelling thought experiment.  Interestingly compatible with the analysis David Graeber takes in his recent Bullshit Jobs, wondering about the nature of work in late capitalism and why we work so hard, even when over a third of people in the UK and the Netherlands report that their work (for which they are sometimes well remunerated) makes no difference in the world.  The work week could be drastically shrunk with little apparent effect on overall economic performance.

But I’m missing a step in your thinking here.  The kinds of bullshit jobs Graeber documents are almost all white collar bureaucratic positions, whether private or public.  So even taking all your simplifying assumptions into account, why would emissions reduce by a rate corresponding to hours worked?  Presumably agricultural and industrial labor would proceed pretty much as is, in current quantities, no?

John de Graff:

I hope Tom [Walker] won’t mind my jumping in here.  The bureaucratic jobs you mention pay better than many of the production jobs and the people who have them then spend on all sorts of consumer products, travel etc.  It’s the total compensation/spending (eg. per capita GDP) that has the strongest connection to carbon footprint since there is no absolute de-coupling at all, and with relative decoupling, ecological and carbon footprints continue to rise (albeit more slowly) as GDP increases. The spending of the white collar workers drives the increases in production of the agricultural and industrial laborers.  It may not be a 1:1 effect, but Tom is absolutely right here.  A cut in these bullshit jobs will render much overproduction untenable, forcing shorter working hours in the ag and industrial sectors to prevent massive unemployment.  Am I getting this right, Tom?

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Scratch That

I made a mistake. And it’s a good thing.

Following up on my Running on Empty post, I wanted to give a more finely-grained analysis of climate costs relative to GDP growth, so I returned to my sources to see who their sources were and how they did their calculations. Watson et al., compiled their estimate from National Centers for Environmental Information, “U.S. Billion Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters” and Paulina Jaramillo and Nicholas Muller, “Air pollution emissions and damages from energy production in the U.S. 2002-2011.”

Jacobson, Delucchi et al. presented their estimates in two tables, broken down by country. I had taken what I thought was 15% of their global climate cost estimate but it turns out that my number was roughly double theirs. I may have taken their high estimate instead of the mean. Anyway their actual estimate was around $4 trillion in 2013 dollars. But that is not the mistake I am concerned with here.

The mistake came to light after I had all the carefully checked numbers, recalculated in 2012 dollars and I compared annual GDP growth to annual health and climate costs. Climate costs exceeded growth in 13 of the 28 years from 1990 to 2017. Over the entire period those costs offset 95% of reported real GDP growth. Or so the numbers claimed.

Then I tried a different tack. I subtracted estimated annual climate costs from GDP and then calculated annual growth. To my surprise the resulting annual growth was only somewhat lower. O.K., I thought, I’m starting from a much lower total in the base year and the year-to-year number reflects only the the annual increase in climate costs and not the annual cost.

So which calculation, then, is the “right” one? Year-to-year growth minus annual cost or Year-to-year growth of (GDP minus climate cost)? Neither! Both calculations rely on double counting of the sort that Irving Fisher warned about 112 years ago.

The problem is also illustrated by the relationship between GDP and Net Domestic Product. Annual growth of Net Domestic Product and Gross Domestic Product track each other pretty closely:

Meanwhile, look at what has happened to depreciation. It has nearly doubled as a percentage of GDP, from around 9% in the late 1940s to almost 17% in recent years.

Something that doesn’t show up too well in the graph above is that most of the growth in depreciation relative to GDP has occurred in the last 48 years. So, doubling every half century we could have an economy in 125 years that runs entirely on depreciation! But that would be O.K. because GDP would be so much BIGGER then. Isn’t that right, Professor Nordhaus? Professor Solow? Professor Krugman?

I don’t have the solution to this computational problem, other than to point out that it is the inevitable consequence of a poorly-conceived metaphor for the “measurement” of heterogeneous good and services. The monetary yardstick is made of a highly elastic material and correction for changes in the cost of a basket of consumer goods (CPI) does not begin to address the real issue. GDP and GDP growth has become the increasingly opaque lens through which we view society and “the economy.” It is a cracked, scratched, smudged, distorting lens that may not even enable us to tell whether what we view through it is upside up or upside down.

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Business As Usual: Running on Empty

A little over a year ago, Robert Watson, former chair of the IPCC, and two co-authors published a report titled “The Economic Case for Climate Action in the United States.” Based on trends over the past few decades, the authors estimated the current total annual cost in the U.S. of losses from weather events intensified by climate change and health damage from fossil fuel pollution to be $240 billion, which they described as “about 40 percent of current economic growth of the United States economy.”

At around the same time, Mark Jacobson, Mark Delucchi and a carload of co-authors published an article in which they projected damages to health and property in the U.S. from climate change and pollution under “business as usual” to be around eight trillion dollars in 2050. A simple linear extrapolation between the two estimates suggests that the annual cost of climate change is increasing at around an 11 percent annual rate. Based on that extrapolation, the health and property damage cost of climate change can be projected to exceed annual GDP growth by 2026.

But wait. Watson’s 40 percent figure compares average annual damage with some of the better recent years of growth. Even excluding years of recession and stagnation, in which growth was less than $240 billion, the remaining eight of the last 12 years averaged only around $430 billion a year in real GDP growth. Counting the recession and stagnation years, it’s virtually break even.

But there’s more. Part of that economic growth simply reflects expansion of the population. Real economic growth per capita in the U.S. has been even more anemic in the 21st century. Of course this means the cost of damage can be spread more thinly as well but the crucial point is still what happens to per capita income relative to the damage.

The future is hard to predict, so I tried a number of scenarios. First, if per capita growth continues at the rate it has since 2009, the U.S. has already entered the red zone where the cost of climate change exceeds growth by an increasing amount each year. If real per capita growth accelerates to 1.5 percent per annum that fateful point won’t be reached until the year after next. A growth rate of 2 percent would postpone the day of reckoning until 2024, six years before the IPCC deadline for achieving net zero carbon emissions. To make it to 2030 without crossing permanently into the red would require a sustained rate of real per capita growth that hasn’t been achieved since 1960-1970.

One more thing. As Andreas Malm wrote, the global warming effects of fossil fuel consumption are “seriously backloaded” and “substantially deferred.” This year’s climate damage is a consequence of actions taken decades ago and the greenhouse gases emitted today will not have their full impact until decades from now. How does one estimate, then, the contribution to intermediate consumption of the deferred cost of current emissions? How much should GDP be deflated to account for the artificial inflation of nominal value added by waste gases whose cost is off the balance sheet?

Let’s assume that emissions in a given year contribute to 4 percent of climate change costs each year for the next 25 years. Why 25 years and why a constant percentage? Because it is better than attributing all of this year’s cost to this year’s emissions. Who knows? It probably makes more sense that choosing a “market-based” consumption discount rate of 4.3 percent. At any rate, considering the deferred nature of the climate costs moves the year in which GDP growth vanishes back. The 4 percent for 25 years scenario moves it back to 2007. The economy has literally been running on fumes for over a decade. Talk about “degrowth”!

It/s here. It’s not going away. It only gets worse. The question isn’t whether or not one “advocates” degrowth but whether or not one faces the stark reality and acknowledges the expiry of GDP growth and consequently the irrelevance — and, frankly, mischief — of the growth paradigm.

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“The Opportunity Cost of Socialism”

“The Opportunity Cost of Socialism”

Why is the Council of Economic Advisers producing party political propaganda for the GOP? As many folks have pointed out, the “report” is rather bizarre. My favorite part is Figure 1, which summarizes Milton Friedman’s argument that people spending “their own money” are “more careful how much to spend and on what the money is spent.” This, of course begs the question of how that money came to be defined as “their own.”

Let’s complicate that story, though, with a couple more matrices: First, Prisoner’s Dilemma:

 

Figure 2: Prisoner’s Dilemma

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Absolute Decoupling and Relative Surplus Value: Rectification of Names

Jargon is a heck of a drug:

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.

The discourse of global warming/climate change is lousy with jargon. This rampant obfuscation gives science deniers rhetorical leverage and induces hallucinations about “Green New Deals” and “Environmental Kuznets Curves.” “Decoupling,” “rebound effects” and “externalities” are three terms that invite systematic incomprehension. The first two are dead metaphors and the third is an outright fraud — there is nothing “external” about an externality.

A little reflection on what these terms actually refer to can help clarify what can and cannot be done about carbon dioxide emissions. From the perspective of shameless self-promotion, it can also help show why my policy proposal makes sense and others don’t.

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