Our economy is a mystery to almost everyone, including economists. Let me explain the way I see the situation:
(1) The big thing that pulls the economy forward is the time-shifting nature of debt and debt-like instruments.
If we want any kind of specialization, we need some sort of long-term obligation that will make that specialization worthwhile. If one hunter-gatherer specializes in finding flints that will start fires, that hunter-gatherer needs some sort of guarantee that others, who are finding food, will share some of their food with him, so that the group, as a whole, can prosper. Others, who specialize in gathering firewood, or in childcare, also need some kind of guarantee that their efforts will be rewarded.
At first, these obligations were enforced by social norms such as, “If you don’t follow the rules of the group, we will throw you out.” Gradually, reciprocal obligations became more formalized, and included more time shifting, “If you will work for me, I will pay you at the end of the month.” Or, “If you will pay my transportation costs to a land of more opportunity, I will repay you with 10% of my wages for the first five years.” Or, “I will sell you this piece of land, if you will pay me x amount per month for y years.”
In some cases, the loan (or loan-like agreements) takes the form of stock ownership of an enterprise. In this case, the promise is for future dividends, and the possibility of growth in the value of the stock, in return for the use of funds. Even though we generally refer to one type of loan-like agreement as “equity ownership” and the other as “debt,” they have a great deal of similarity. Funds are being provided to the enterprise, with the expectation of greater return in the future.
As another example, governments make promises for future benefits, such as Social Security, healthcare, and payments to the unemployed. These payments are not guaranteed, so are not considered debt. Even without a guarantee, they act in many ways like debt. Citizens plan their lives around these payments, even though they may be reduced or eliminated.
Surprisingly, even “cash” is debt. It is similar to a bond that pays zero interest and has no redemption date; this type of bond can also be easily transferred from person to person. Since cash can be hidden under mattresses, it too can be used as a device for time-shifting.
(2) The big thing that goes wrong in this time-shifting approach to operating the economy is the loss of what I would call an “opportunity gradient.”
As long as the future looks better than the past, it makes sense to make these debt-like obligations. But as soon as the future looks worse than in the present, the whole model falls apart. Even if the future looks exactly the same as the present, there is a problem, because taking on these long-term obligations has some overhead costs, such as administrative costs and a margin to cover the possibility of defaults on loans. These overhead costs need to be paid in some way. Because of this, there needs to be enough of an upward gradient to cover the necessary costs of the loans or the loan-like agreements. (This is part of what makes a Steady State Economy, advocated by many, an absurd idea.)
Once the opportunity gradient becomes negative, it becomes very difficult to get anyone to borrow money and to use the resulting debt to lead the economy forward. When the opportunity gradient becomes negative, young people are less inclined to get married, and tend to have fewer children. International organizations of countries (such as the European Union) have a harder time staying connected. The whole model of cooperation working better than “every country for itself” starts falling apart.
Just as human bodies often go downhill before dying, an economy that finds itself on a downward slope may very well be near collapse.
(3) The loss of an opportunity gradient comes from diminishing returns in many areas, including:
- Rising energy extraction costs
- Rising costs of mitigating pollution, as increasing resources are extracted and used; these pollution mitigation costs are really part of total extraction costs
- Reduced quantity of arable land per person
- Reduced fresh water per person, without high-cost treatment such as desalination
- Fewer investment opportunities that allow for true growth, such as providing tractors to farmers who previously used draft animals, or adding a new road that permits fast transit across a country for the first time
- Many more required “investments” that are simply for the purpose of offsetting deterioration in previously built infrastructure