By Tim Morgan: In Pursuit of Safety

This is an appropriate follow-up to my post on Trump being a symptom rather than a cause.

Tim Morgan does a very nice job here of explaining why citizens have good reason to be angry, and why our leaders do not understand and are surprised by the anger.

Morgan concludes the essay by saying the best path forward would be for the elites to break through their inherited denial of reality, except he is probably not aware of Varki’s theory and therefore does not use these terms.

A key point made here is that the economy is a great deal weaker than conventional data suggests, which in turn makes public dissatisfaction that much more understandable.

Though other issues are involved, the main cause of public dissatisfaction is widespread economic hardship, set alongside the conspicuous flaunting of wealth and power by a privileged minority. Economists who seem baffled by the weak performance of the world economy would be even more baffled if they were aware of what is really happening behind the published numbers.

Over the decade to 2015, official figures imply a 1.8% rate of compound growth, a figure which includes the post-2008 downturn and which, the consensus says, is likely to rise to an annual growth rate of between 3% and 4% going forward. Both of these readings are fallacious, because they take as reality GDP numbers inflated by the spending of borrowed money.

Given that almost $4 has been borrowed for each $1 of growth, you could be forgiven for supposing that, over an extended period, there has been no “real” growth at all. This is likely to be an exaggeration, but not much of one. Stripped of debt-fuelled consumption, growth in world GDP between 2005 and 2015 was probably about $7.6tn (rather than the reported $20tn), and trend growth may have been as low as 0.5% over that period as a whole. This, of course, includes the post-2008 recession, and current underlying growth is probably about 1.5%.

On this basis, world GDP in 2015 was probably nearer $94tn than the reported $114tn, which would make the global debt-to-GDP ratio about 280%, rather than the published 216%.

All of this, of course, is before adjustment for the trend cost of energy (ECoE) to define what Surplus Energy Economics terms “the real economy” (as opposed to “the financial economy”). In 2015, underlying output was $87tn on this basis, and ongoing growth in “real”, ex-ECoE terms is about 1.0%. That is still a positive number, but it is dwarfed by the rate at which debt continues to be accumulated.

This deterioration can be expressed in per capita terms, but it shows up in the day-to-day lives of the public in two distinct ways. The first is that the rise in the cost of household essentials continues to out-strip growth in nominal incomes. This is happening, primarily, because these essentials are highly leveraged to energy prices, and to commodities which are traded on world markets. Economists tend to assume that such commodities are priced in the same way as internally-consumed services, but the reality is that there is a huge difference between local and global pricing pressures.

As well as the cost of essentials, the other way in which economic deterioration is showing up in the lives of the public is in deteriorating provision for the future. Ultra-low interest rate policies, adopted to enable the world economy to co-exist with its debt mountain, are keeping borrowing cheap (and asset prices inflated) whilst destroying returns on capital. This is becoming glaringly obvious in pension fund deficits, but is also showing up in the continued escalation of debt.

The elites’ fervent hope, which is that popular discontent dies down, looks increasingly like a pipe-dream. As we have seen, the public is suffering in ways which are very real, but are not readily apparent in the data used by policymakers. This is leading those who take the key decisions into a position of genuine bewilderment – the data at their disposal simply does not tally with the popular mood, leading them to the false assumption that it is the public (rather than the data) which are wrong.

Marie Antoinette’s famous remark – that, if people are without bread, “let them eat brioche” – is probably apocryphal. But the point of the anecdote is that she was wholly ignorant of the circumstances of ordinary people, and this does seem to have been the case.

Today’s policymakers seem to be being lulled into similar complacency by economic data flattered out of all reality by the practice of mortgaging the future in order to inflate the present.

If the public are not going to back down, and the elites are determined to hang on to all of their power, wealth and privileges, the odds on social unrest may be pretty high.

The only way of averting unrest may be for the elites to awaken to the causes of popular discontent, and implement far-reaching reforms. This is not going to happen unless their complacency over the economy can be punctured. If that happens, then they might switch from denouncing “populism” and turn instead to tackling the root causes of popular discontent.

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