Wed Apr 25 07:48:40 EDT 2012
looking ahead to our glorious future
The youth vote still supports Obama, but in a chastened, conditional way. In hindsight, Obama's 2008 campaign looks like an indulgent fantasy in which the major conflicts in life simply don't exist. There may be no white America and no black America, no blue-state America and no red-state America, but one thing is clear: There is a young America and there is an old America, and they don't form a community of interest. One takes from the other. The federal government spends $480 billion on Medicare and $68 billion on education. Prescription drugs: $62 billion. Head Start: $8 billion. Across the board, the money flows not to helping the young grow up, but helping the old die comfortably. According to a 2009 Brookings Institution study, "The United States spends 2.4 times as much on the elderly as on children, measured on a per capita basis, with the ratio rising to 7 to 1 if looking just at the federal budget."
Cynicism rises to fill the emptied space of exaggerated and failed hope. It's all simple math. If you follow the money rather than the blather, it's clear that the American system is a bipartisan fusion of economic models broken down along generational lines: unaffordable Greek-style socialism for the old, virulently purified capitalism for the young. Both political parties have agreed to this arrangement: The Boomers and older will be taken care of. Everybody younger will be on their own. The German philosopher Hermann Lotze wrote in the 1870s: "One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future." It is exactly that envy toward the future that is new in our own time.
And we will not talk about any of it. We will keep mum. We will hold our tongues lest we seem ageist, lest we seem bitter, lest we seem out of touch, lest we seem pessimistic, lest we seem divisive.
A generation now means an economic cohort — a moment in the cycle of rising and (mostly) falling economic data. The UK has 21.8 percent youth unemployment, France 22.8 percent, Hungary 26.1 percent, Italy 28.2 percent, Spain 47.8 percent. Around the world, young people are beginning to be defined by their unemployment: the mileuristas of Spain, "those who earn less than a thousand euros"; the NEETs of England, "not in employment, education, or training"; the hittistes of Tunisia, "those who lean against the wall." Revolutions or unmanageable riots have inevitably followed the rise of masses of bored, underemployed young people.
(Don't forget Connor Kilpatrick's list of objections over at The Exiled.)
We are in a depression, but not because we don’t know how to remedy the problem. We are in a depression because it is our revealed preference, as a polity, not to remedy the problem. We are choosing continued depression because we prefer it to the alternatives.
Usually, economists are admirably catholic about the preferences of the objects they study. They infer desire by observing behavior, listening to what people do more than to what they say. But with respect to national polities, macroeconomists presume the existence of an overwhelming preference for GDP growth and full employment that simply does not exist. They act as though any other set of preferences would be unreasonable, unthinkable.
But the preferences of developed, aging polities — first Japan, now the United States and Europe — are obvious to a dispassionate observer. Their overwhelming priority is to protect the purchasing power of incumbent creditors. That’s it. That’s everything. All other considerations are secondary. These preferences are reflected in what the polities do, how they behave. They swoop in with incredible speed and force to bail out the financial sectors in which creditors are invested, trampling over prior norms and laws as necessary. The same preferences are reflected in what the polities omit to do. They do not pursue monetary policy with sufficient force to ensure expenditure growth even at risk of inflation. They do not purse fiscal policy with sufficient force to ensure employment even at risk of inflation. They remain forever vigilant that neither monetary ease nor fiscal profligacy engender inflation. The tepid policy experiments that are occasionally embarked upon they sabotage at the very first hint of inflation. The purchasing power of holders of nominal debt must not be put at risk. That is the overriding preference, in context of which observed behavior is rational.
Affluent retirees depend heavily on asset wealth; Social Security cannot cover the lifestyles to which they’ve grown accustomed, and the expenses and commitments they’ve accumulated.
Affluent older Americans hold a large proportion of their wealth in bonds and cash-like instruments (bank CDs, money market accounts). They also maintain significant positions in stock funds that might “do better when the economy does better”. But, unsurprisingly, retirees keep the wealth they most depend upon in safer, fixed income vehicles. The proportion they keep in stock funds tends to increase with wealth.  Since they can’t clip coupons, retirees rely upon asset sales and redemptions for income. They try to manage the pace of sales so they don’t outlive their capacity to maintain their lifestyles.
Retirees living on asset wealth are very exposed to inflation. It’s an error, a fallacy of composition, to assume that the existence of hedges and “sophisticated vehicles” means that somehow everybody can be protected. Every debt contract imposes inflation risk that some party must bear. Stock markets get the press, but most financial claims on capital are structured as debt, all of which must be held, directly or indirectly, by some human (usually an old or rich human).
So people who intend to live off their nest eggs rely first and foremost on the “safety” of bonds. Expansionary policy is a hazard for them.
Many Do the Math posts have touched on the inevitable cessation of growth and on the challenge we will face in developing a replacement energy infrastructure once our fossil fuel inheritance is spent. The focus has been on long-term physical constraints, and not on the messy details of our response in the short-term. But our reaction to a diminishing flow of fossil fuel energy in the short-term will determine whether we transition to a sustainable but technological existence or allow ourselves to collapse. One stumbling block in particular has me worried. I call it The Energy Trap.
In brief, the idea is that once we enter a decline phase in fossil fuel availability—first in petroleum—our growth-based economic system will struggle to cope with a contraction of its very lifeblood. Fuel prices will skyrocket, some individuals and exporting nations will react by hoarding, and energy scarcity will quickly become the new norm. The invisible hand of the market will slap us silly demanding a new energy infrastructure based on non-fossil solutions. But here’s the rub. The construction of that shiny new infrastructure requires not just money, but…energy. And that’s the very commodity in short supply. Will we really be willing to sacrifice additional energy in the short term—effectively steepening the decline—for a long-term energy plan? It’s a trap!