Enlightened Economics

Economics for an Enlightened Age

Posts Tagged ‘depression’

• Short Term Gain, Long Term Pain

Posted by Ron Robins on April 12, 2011

By Ron Robins. First published March 31, 2011, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

Unacknowledged as key causes of most developed countries’ growing and unsustainable debt is their citizens’ lack of happiness and well being. This induces people to seek immediate comfort in material goods, drugs, and activities and lifestyles that eventually cause them, and their societies, great harm, ill health, and massive debt!

After decades of study, Robert E. Lane, the Eugene Meyer Professor Emeritus of Political Science, at Yale University in the US, found that it is a lack of happiness and well being that is eating away the moral fibre of the populations in advanced market democracies. In Professor Lane’s seminal book, Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, he writes, “amidst the satisfaction people feel with their material progress, there is a spirit of unhappiness and depression haunting advanced market democracies throughout the world, a spirit that mocks the idea that markets maximise well-being and the eighteenth-century promise of a right to the pursuit of happiness under benign governments of peoples choosing.”

Continuing, “the haunting spirit is manifold: a postwar decline in the United States in people who report themselves happy, a rising tide in all advanced societies of clinical depression and dysphoria [anxiety, malaise], especially among the young; increasing distrust of each other and of political and other institutions, declining belief that the lot of the average man is getting better, a tragic erosion of family solidarity and community integration together with an apparent decline in warm, intimate relations among friends.”

It is these conditions which Professor Lane observes that give rise to individuals seeking immediate comfort anyway they can. Hence, most developed countries’ populations gravitate to instant solutions that might ameliorate their lack of happiness and anxieties. This, no matter the long term monetary, psychological, or physical consequences and costs to themselves or society. Professor Lane believes it is imperative for western democracies to give the highest priority to improving the happiness and well being of its individuals. And this means their focus should be on human psychological health and relationships—not about income levels.

By looking for hedonistic joys in the present, many developed countries’ individuals seek excessive material consumption which then creates unsustainable levels of consumer debt. In the US, though to a lesser degree in other developed countries, consumer debt has grown far faster than individual earnings gains over the past several decades. Despite a respite in consumer debt growth during the past two years, signs are emerging that US consumer debt might well begin to outpace actual earnings gains again in 2011, thereby creating conditions for yet another future financial crisis.

Also, and again much ignored in the debate concerning debt, are other individual behaviours that induce it. For example, to provide a modicum of happiness and to make life more bearable, people in America (and in many developed countries) consume drugs (legally and illegally) in extraordinary amounts. These drugs—alcoholic beverages, marijuana, cocaine, cigarettes, prescribed and non-prescribed medications, etc.—often create dependencies that impair health, brain and psychological functioning. These dependencies then lead to greater crime to support drug habits, increase prison populations and criminal/legal costs, raise the number of accidents everywhere, and encourage unhealthy lifestyles that in turn produce epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and all manner of health problems.

Americans spend more on healthcare, by far, than anyone else. In 2009, according to the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services, Americans spent $8,086 per person on healthcare, equal to 17.6 per cent of their economic output or gross domestic product (GDP). And such expenditures continue spiralling 4 to 10 per cent a year, far faster than GDP itself. Thereby they add inexorably to future unfunded US federal government medical liabilities that Boston University’s Professor Laurence Kotlikoff believes is about $125 trillion over an infinite timeframe. To fund that liability would require every man, woman and child in America to pay about $407,000 to the US federal treasury!

And among public companies a short term focus on near term profits that potentially create longer term costs and debt has been endemic. Consider this 2001 quote by Maryann Keller on the US automobile industry. In Forbes magazine, she said, “[That] Chrysler, GM and Ford spent billions of dollars to buy their stock in the open market… It was always obvious that product spending [developing new autos] was being sacrificed to provide trading liquidity [ease of selling stock] for big investors while boosting earnings per share. GM, Ford and the Chrysler Group today [in 2001] find themselves with growing gaps in their product portfolios as they lose market share…”

Thus, the US automobile industry preferred to spend profits on supporting their near term stock prices rather than developing new products for longer term profits. By 2009 all but Ford were bankrupt. After losing tens of thousands of jobs and engaging in a massive automobile industry restructuring program, the US government bailed out the industry (for now?) at a cost of about $85 billion. (Canadian governments also supported GM and Chrysler to the tune of $13.5bn CAD.)

Total societal US debt (private, corporate and government) is now likely to continue moving higher again as consumers are forever encouraged to spend now while saving is discouraged due to artificially mandated low rates. Increasing employment, though welcome, is not likely the answer to mounting unsustainable societal debt. In fact, it might well exacerbate it if former long term trends of debt growth outpacing income gains continue.

The US, like most other developed countries, is on a path to increased human suffering and tragic financial circumstances unless it deals with the fundamental issue: enabling individuals and families to become intrinsically happier and experience feelings of greater well being. Only then can the compulsion towards short term thinking and gratification—which builds huge unsustainable long term debt—be stopped.

Copyright alrroya.com

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Posted in Consciousness/Psychology, Economics, Labour Issues, Spiritual | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

• The Coming 21st Century Global Trade War?

Posted by Ron Robins on December 9, 2010

By Ron Robins. First published August 6, 2010, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

A ‘long depression’ is starting in the US unless massive new stimulus measures are taken to increase consumption and China forced to mark up its currency. This is what renowned Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman believes. Since any new massive stimulus action is unlikely soon, and if we are to believe what Mr Krugman is saying, then with a depression occurring the ranks of American unemployed could swell by millions more. They, together with the uproar of US unions and politicians, will blame China and others for their woes.

The US Congress would then enact trade tariffs and restrictions beginning round one of the 21st Century Global Trade War!

But have we not learned from the 1930s that a trade war can lead to a depression? Mr Krugman disputes that finding. In a July 10 New York Times post he says that it was not the trade restrictions of the Smoot-Hawley bill that created the depression. The depression had already started and, “protectionism led to falling exports! Indeed. Also falling imports. It’s not at all clear what effect all this had on overall demand. Insofar as it did, it was because tariffs were a form of tax increase — but in that case you should be focusing on the whole range of fiscal actions, not just the tariff hikes.”

As indicated, currently there is little likelihood of Mr. Krugman’s proposal of enacting massive new stimulus measures—he mentions around $1 trillion—as well as for China marking up its currency significantly against the dollar. However, he may still get his way if unemployment or economic stagnation—or worse—takes hold.

If the stimulus is enacted it is highly debatable if it would work any better than previous ones in firing up consumption and investment. Already over the past two years or so, the US government and the Federal Reserve have poured about $4.5 trillion into the American economy. In rough figures, this comprises about $3 trillion in US government deficits and over $1.5 trillion from the Federal Reserve as it bought bonds and other assets to increase cash in the financial system and promote lending. Then there are of course the trillions more in guarantees to various financial and industrial entities such AIG, GM etc.

However, the Federal Reserve also says it stands ready to act should the economy weaken further. Would it spend another $1, 2 or 3 trillion? If the trillions spent so far by it and the US government have not worked, how much more will be needed?

Furthermore, the additional government deficits and Federal Reserve actions might alarm holders of US dollar denominated assets about America’s solvency, encouraging them to sell such assets. In fact, China’s new debt rating agency Dagong says the US government is already insolvent.

So, additional stimulus actions might also crash the US dollar. If that were to happen, it would cause dramatically rising prices for oil and other goods. A significant increase in living costs amidst high or growing unemployment will promote social unrest and add further impetus to growing calls for protectionism.

A dollar crash would create conditions for ‘competitive currency devaluations.’ In 2009, when the euro was trading as high as $1.50, Europeans became alarmed. Henri Guaino, right-hand man of President Nicolas Sarkozy remarked, “the euro at $1.50 is a disaster for the European economy and industry… ”

Would Europe stand idly by and see their euro go into the stratosphere as the dollar crashed against it? Would the European Union then enter into a currency war with the US? Would Japan be silent seeing its currency rise substantially against the dollar? Of course Japan is famous for intervening in currency markets to lower the yen’s value against the dollar in previous difficult times. Unfortunately, competitive currency devaluations would add fuel to a trade war.

Already Global Trade Alert counts 650 protectionist measures implemented between the advent of the financial crises in 2008 and the June 2010 G20 Toronto meeting.

According to the International Business Times, the G20 communiqué “included a ritual promise to ‘refrain from raising barriers or imposing new barriers to investment or trade in goods and services.’ But missing from the final declaration… was a sentence reportedly included in an earlier draft of the communiqué: ‘Where any protectionist measures have been enacted in the context of the economic crisis, we agree that these should be lifted.’ Somehow that sentence, pledging a rollback of protectionist trade barriers erected during the Great Recession [2008 to today], disappeared sometime between when the draft declaration was leaked to the media by Greenpeace and when the final declaration was released to the press with solemn summit fanfare.”

Furthermore, the G20 in Toronto took off its agenda setting a further date for completing the vital Doha round of global trade talks that have been stuck in neutral for several years. Perhaps the US already staked out its real position – remember the ‘buy American only’ clause in its $787 billion stimulus package.

The woes of the US stem from failing to see its years of over consumption were a problem. Now, economists like Mr Krugman want even more money from their financiers like China, so they can further increase consumption, while blaming China for their overconsumption.

Unfortunately, an extended double dip down recession-depression is increasingly probable and with it rising unemployment. In a few weeks or months, the pressure for more action to stem the economic decline could impel the US government and the Federal Reserve to spend more, much more—and to what effect? The alarm of all this might cause holders of dollar assets to sell, culminating in a dollar crash—and further incite a 21st century global trade war.

Copyright alrroya.com

Posted in Labour Issues | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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