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Thursday, June 3, 2010

A question of semantics

A friend of ours asked us an interesting question last night: Is it a "recession" if there's no hope of ever bouncing back?

Comments (13)

Right, just like bad gums.

Good question. Much like dealing with our long term debt and current Portland City Council.

Re: "Is it a 'recession' if there's no hope of ever bouncing back?"

It's called the new equilibrium. During the Depression of the Thirties, the neo-classical economists -- Marshall and his students in particular -- kept waiting for the new equilibrium -- unemployment, interest rate, etc -- to be established as economies plummeted. Eventually, increased reliance on fiscal policy -- including, in particular, military expenditures -- reversed the US economy's decline. But the Keynesians who overthrew their predecessors and provided the model for growth that served for several decades were tossed in the '80s by the Supply Siders and Monetarists. The new equilibrium is their contribution to our want of well-being. Mr Greenspan apologized.

Here's an interesting approach to collecting taxes during a recession (PA):


Some people here go bananas whenever someone mentions James H. Kunstler, but his title, "The Long Emergency" is probably the best concise description of our situation there is.

And here's an interesting comment mentioning Kunstler's book in the comment thread to a post questioning the value of higher ed, which is constantly sold as "The Path to Higher Lifetime Earnings" (without ever correcting for the higher earnings already in the mix for people who come from families that send their kids to higher ed):

# Posted by John Rawlins , Retired physicist, astronomy & energy instructor at Whatcom Community College, Wa. state on June 3, 2010 at 6:45pm EDT #

THE BIG additional factor that will dictate how higher ed fares in the future has nothing to do with anything anybody's mentioned in this thread so far - and it's hitting the first serious limit to growth - the end of cheap and easy oil. I've been in higher ed for half my career, at all levels from directing doctoral students down to the community college level. I always advocated for far more student independence when it came to course requirements and curriculum planning, but in 2004 when I came across the topic of Peak Oil (e.g., "The Party's Over" by Richard Heinberg, who was a college instructor at the time) my song changed, dramatically.

I began reading everything I could find on the subject and ultimately became a Peak Oil messenger in northwest Wa. state, both in the college and in the public sector. If you are engaging in this debate over the future of higher ed without doing your own homework on this topic, then I'm afraid you're completely wasting your time.

Every academician should know (but is it true?) that a growth economy can only exist in a world of increasing energy use, and that the economic health of a country depends nearly linearly on energy use. Additionally, world population depends on energy availability, especially oil - the correlation between increasing world oil production and population in the 20th century is almost one (100% correlation).

We have, by all accounts, reached and passed (2005) the peak of the cheap, easy-to-extract world oil, and are now into the desperation mode of extracting expensive, extremely challenging (meaning high-risk) oil to continue trying to prop up world economies. We are now near the tail end of a plateau for total oil & liquids production, with decline due to begin in this decade. The implication - Peak Everything (another title by Heinberg). The best general description of the implications for the world is, in my opinion, a book by James Howard Kunstler titled "The Long Emergency." The world "long" here means decades, until near the end of this century.

The concept really is quite simple - that peak energy means the end of total world economic growth (although some countries will be able to grow at the expense of others), and that economic decline will be the story of the 21st century - just the opposite of the 20th century story.

By 2005 I was teaching my Physics of Energy students that what they were learning in college would have little bearing on what they would be doing for most of the rest of their lives - doing something useful for oneself and for someone else (like growing food sustainably, the nearest term need). I lobbied other instructors with this message, along with ideas for offering a curriculum that amounted to a 2-year sequence of courses preparing students to engage in what one might call holistic permaculture - with an emphasis on the science of that subject (a subject that came to be known as Agroecology). My reward was experiencing primarily deaf ears, and I retired a few years later, without having left a real mark on the system. The most idiotic reaction came from traditional Economics instructors who still believed in the absurd concept of growth forever and infinite substitutability.

In the past couple of years, I've seen exactly what I was warning about actually begin - an economic downturn preceded by a record oil price spike (made much worse by financial sector follies), declining tax receipts at all levels of government, cutbacks in all levels of education, and a mad scramble to keep on educating in the same manner with fewer people. Economists & politicians inanely (for the most part) continue talking about return to growth, and nobody deals with the obvious future - more, more, and more of what we've witnessed the past 2 years, until little is left of what was only a few years ago a pretty decent overall education system, with all its warts and inflexbility.

By 2030, the U.S. could be down to one-fifth (20%) of the oil we use today (today about 20 million barrels/day - in 2030 about 5), our economy will look more like that of today's Brazilian economy - and much the same outlook exists for other industrialized countries (except perhaps Canada). The effects of a changing climate could also be pitching in to enhance the problems of dealing with this Long Emergency (duration = 50 years?).

As I see it, educators and administrators need to begin an entirely new discussion about developing a long-range plan based on this outlook - of ever-declining funding, fewer students who can even afford college, and a huge need to educate students for a rapidly de-industrializing world (basic skills instead of a strong intellectual curriculum). The focus in our future will necessarily be on learning to live at the local scale, eating locally grown food produced without fossil fuel, wearing locally grown clothes, in houses built of locally produced material, heated by locally available energy supplies, powered by locally generated electricity, transport via foot, bicycle, scooters (many with electrical power), and a host of other implications.

Dramatic changes will occur during this steady, long-term economic contraction, and the results promise to be far worse because we have so far done nearly zero planning for the real future - and this is at least as true in the intellectual (but highly isolated from the 'real') world of higher ed as it is in our manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

George, you realize of course your initials are a by-product of oil? :-)

What is a "recession" anyway but an arbitrarily-defined term?

At some point, various economists came up with benchmarks on what they would call a recession or not a recession, but given that economic theory isn't exactly something that's cut-and-dried, the only thing "recession" actually means is that the economy is or isn't in the state economists decided to call a recession. It doesn't describe any real change, as "boil" does for something turning from liquid into vapor.

For all practical purposes they could have called it a "bleen" and it would have had the same weight.

At this point, the only thing it does is give governments the ability to point at economists and say that they've been told the economy is out of the recession.

I sure hope we bounce back from this bleen.

Bouncing back is to re-inflate the bubble and many folks in DC are attempting to do just that with popping our seed corn.

Prepare as reality driven adjustments must be made and soon.

I actually liked what Kunstler had to say when we brought him here the first time, but he also hit on me, which made me lose some ability to respect his work...that how it often roles with us "girls".

My talents, experience and livelihood - my skills were listed in the O in the top ten list - two professions that will not return following this recession. It is what I have done for the last 37 years. PR(marketing, public involvement, media relations, outreach, advertising) and graphic design (including writing, printing, paste-up, design, logo development, photography, illustration). Doomed. I tell you, I'm doomed, unless there is a reinvention in my future.

"Peak Oil"? How 1980s!!!

Then it is called stagnation and hoplessness for the un- and under-employed, to eventually be followed by Stagflation and continued hopelessness.

Mary, if you really take anything Y2Kunstler says to heart, let it be the emphasis on filthy, old school water-based heavy shipping as the foundation or at least a major cornerstone of what a global economy should be based on. As it was for a few centuries before the automobile.

A stopped clock is right twice a day, and Y2Kunstler was right about that one.

I said it 5 years ago, and I stand by my words. One day, a fortune will be made in Portland, ripping out all those hideous, unwanted condo developments and rebuilding the pollution oozing shipyards. Which, as crazy as it may sound, are the very reason your town was built in the first place.

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