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

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?

Comments (5) | |

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.

Comments (0) | |

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.

Comments (4) | |

“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

Comments (3) | |

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.

Comments (0) | |

The Political Economy of the Working Class

The Political Economy of the Working Class

The political economy of the working class is pluralist.

The political economy of the working class is pragmatic.

The political economy of the working class is critical.

Karl Marx chronicled and contributed to the political economy of the working class. He did not invent, conclude or supersede it. In  his Inaugural Address to the International Working Men’s Association, Marx celebrated the first victory of the political economy of the working class, the passage, in 1847, of the Ten Hours’ Bill:

This struggle about the legal restriction of the hours of labor raged the more fiercely since, apart from frightened avarice, it told indeed upon the great contest between the blind rule of the supply and demand laws which form the political economy of the middle class, and social production controlled by social foresight, which forms the political economy of the working class. Hence the Ten Hours’ Bill was not only a great practical success; it was the victory of a principle; it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class.

This passage tells us what we most need to know about the political economy of the working class. It is founded upon “social production controlled by social foresight” in opposition to “the blind rule of supply and demand laws.” The “most notorious organs of science” had predicted and “proved” that “any legal restriction of the hours of labor must sound the death knell of British industry” and, of course, they were subsequently proved absolutely wrong. Not ‘merely’ wrong, but the exact opposite of apposite.

Comments (2) | |

The IPCC 1.5° C Report and the Ten-Hour Week

I read the IPCC summary for policy makers so you don’t have to. You may have heard that CO2 emissions have to fall by 45% by 2030 to avoid the possibility of overshooting 1.5°C global warming. Actually emissions must decline by 45% from 2010 levels, which are already substantially lower than 2018 levels. The strategies for reducing emissions by that amount are quite complex and depend on hundreds of governments adopting scores of policies that they have no intention of adopting.

So, burn in climate catastrophe Hell, grandchildren!

But wait! Didn’t Keynes write something long ago about the economic possibilities for our (their) grandchildren? “What can we reasonably expect the level of our economic life to be a hundred years hence?” Keynes asked that in 1930 — which just happens to be a hundred years before the IPCC 2030 target date! What about the ecological survival possibilities for our grandchildren?

I have translated the IPCC report into terms compatible with Keynes’s prognostications. Remember his prediction of a 15-hour week being “quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us”? How rapidly and how steeply would we have to reduce workweeks to achieve the 45% reduction in emissions by 2030, assuming no other changes in technology (or population)?

I’ve taken quite a few short-cuts to calculate these estimates. For starters, I only look at the twenty top emitters of CO2 from 2015. I assumed that emissions reductions targets for each country should be allocated on the basis of convergence toward a uniform emissions per capita standard, which would be 45% below average emissions per capita in 2010 (for the 20 countries).

Several countries among the top twenty currently emit fewer tons per capita of carbon dioxide than the hypothetical 2030 standard. These include Brazil, India and Indonesia. Mexico is currently emitting close to what its 2030 quota would be. So my estimates are concerned only with the remaining 16 countries.

To achieve emissions reduction through hours and population limitations alone would require annual reductions in working time of between one percent for Turkey and twelve percent for Saudi Arabia. Also near the top end are the U.S., Canada and Australia at around an eleven percent per annum reduction. With considerable rounding and a generous allowance for holidays and vacations, these reductions in annual hours would indicate a workweek in 2030 of around ten hours.

In the middle range, France and the U.K. could look forward to workweeks of around 20 hours a week. China, currently the world’s largest emitter of CO2 would see its workweek cut to somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 hours per week.

Of course some of these reductions in working time could be reversed by de-industrialization — that is the substitution of less energy intensive but more labor intensive methods of production. Hours reduction could also be moderated by transition to solar and wind energy, by energy conserving technological advances and by the introduction of carbon-capture technologies, including large-scale reforestation.

This hours reduction exercise is only meant to give a simplified view of the scale of transition required. But it also alludes to an earlier transition that consolidated the central place of fossil fuels in an expanding industrial economy.

In 1847, after decades of struggle by factory workers, the U.K. parliament passed the Ten Hours Bill. In response, manufacturers turned to the high-pressure steam engines to compensate for the loss of factory working time with faster, more powerful, more fuel efficient machinery that could do more work in less time. By the end of the 1850s, steam power had decisively eclipsed water power and high-pressure steam had surpassed the low-pressure Watt steam engine.

It was not the intention of the ten-hour legislation in the mid-19th century to deliver the “coup de grâce,” to water power, as Andreas Malm termed it, but that was its effect. Might not a working time policy designed and intended to enforce a transition away from fossil fuels be worthy of serious consideration?

Comments (12) | |

I Believe Kellyanne Conway

In an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN’s State of the Union, Kellyanne Conway said, “I’m a victim of sexual assault, I don’t expect Judge Kavanaugh or Jake Tapper or Jeff Flake or anybody to be held responsible for that. You have to be accountable for your own conduct.”

 I believe Conway because she spoke about this before, in October 2016, in an interview with Chris Matthews, right after the Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” came out.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: I would talk to some of the members of Congress out there when I was younger and prettier, them rubbing up against girls, sticking their tongues down women’s throats who – uninvited, who didn’t like it.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Yes.

CONWAY: Yes, you’re saying yes because you know it’s true. They used to –

MATTHEWS: No, I’m hearing it – I’ve heard the accounts, of course, but I want to ask you –

CONWAY: They did – no, absolutely. And some of them, by the way, on the list of people who won’t support Donald Trump because they all ride around on their high horse.

Conor Friedersdorf summed up that exchange at the time: “the GOP nominee’s campaign manager declared on national television that multiple prominent Republicans –– some who oppose Trump, and others, apparently, who support him –– perpetrated sexual assaults, and she knows their names.”
The headline on that story was, “Trump Tries to Intimidate Republicans Into Sticking With Him” and the subhead was, “His campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, warned that she knows of GOP congressmen who perpetrated sexual assaults.”

Comments (3) | |

Is the Ecological Salvation of the Human Species at Hand?

Is the Ecological Salvation of the Human Species at Hand?

In “De-growth vs a Green New Deal,” Robert Pollin relies on the same blurring of distinctions that Robert Solow employed 46 years earlier in his condemnation of The Limits to Growth as “bad science.” Nicholaus Georgescu-Roegen pointed out Solow’s obfuscation in the article that inspired the term “degrowth.” That historical context is vital for understanding why Pollin’s “blueprint for ecological salvation” is no advance over Solow’s.

In “Is theEnd of the World at Hand” Solow scolded the “bad science” of The Limits to Growth report on the grounds that its authors’ model assumed “that there are no built-in mechanisms by which approaching exhaustion [of resources] tends to turn off consumption gradually and in advance.”[1] Solow cited increases in the productivity of natural resources to illustrate the importance of the price system as the built-in mechanism of capitalism for “registering and reacting to relative scarcity.”

According to Solow, between 1950 and 1970, consumption of iron in the U.S. increased by 20 percent while the GNP roughly doubled. Consumption of manganese rose by 30 percent. Copper consumption increased by one-third, as did lead and zinc consumption. These increases represented productivity gains ranging from 2 percent per annum for copper, lead and zinc to 2.5 percent for iron. Meanwhile, productivity of bituminous coal rose by 3 percent a year during the same period.

There were, Solow conceded, some “important exceptions, and unimportant exceptions.” Among the more important ones was petroleum, “GNP per barrel of oil was about the same in 1970 as in 1951: no productivity increase there.” Nevertheless, Solow was confident that “no one can doubt that we will run out of oil… [s]ooner or later, the productivity of oil will rise out of sight, because the production and consumption of oil will eventually dwindle toward zero, but real GNP will not.”

Comments (1) | |