Overdrawn on the Future Account?
Thoughts consequent to the passage of the economic stimulus bill:
Once again, we have borrowed from the future to solve a problem of today and this may be thought of as transferring fitness1 from the future to today. That is a definition and purpose of debt: more today and less tomorrow, stealing from the next day. On the other hand, tomorrow may be brighter, and we more fit, because we built today something that is beneficial for tomorrow.
In those good old days of yore which may not have been so good, when our economy was subsistence and immediate, we lived almost entirely in the present. We carried what we could eat, ate what we carried, and traversed what territory was necessary to obtain food and other resources. Fitness was found.2
Some societies in especially favored ecologies became sedentary, largely dependent upon the resources of a small territory. These were mostly riverine, estuarine and coastal with year-round resources and of limited seasonality. They could live mostly in the present and in one place.
The immobility of agricultural civilizations in seasonal ecologies posed a new set of problems which were overcome by the development of storage technologies and redistribution societies. Anthropologists cite agricultural surpluses as the basis of agricultural civilization without inquiry into the sources of a putative surplus, as if early agriculture was as productive as modern farming. Early agriculture must have been rather limited. Jane Jacobs argued that new agricultural methods were developed by cities rather than by farmers, and that urban necessity drove research into improved yields by domestication, breeding and irrigation, followed by improved preservation and storage technologies. But the first source of agricultural surpluses was unequal exactions – taxes and forced labor – and unequal distribution – malnourishment of the lower classes and over-nourishment of the upper classes. Temple and palace economy economies flourished as elites, to their delight, discovered that their conquest of seasonality by agriculture and storage made social class possible. Taxation can be avoided by the collectors and stored resources can be manipulated in various ways to their advantage. Fitness is transferred from the bottom to the top in civilization.3 Fitness became expropriated, stored and unequally re-distributed.
Storage of food and water is borrowing from the past to solve the problems of today and transferring fitness from the past to today and from today into the future. This is limited by the ability to generate surplus yesterday which surely must have been relatively small in the beginning. With the development of money and debt, it became possible to borrow from the future, transferring fitness from the future to the present. This single invention made it possible to overcome the limitations of surplus accumulation and to do large scale improvements which generate, in the future, sufficient new resources and fitness to pay the debt, feed today, and increase fitness in that future.
In the previous Great Depression, a significant portion of the politico-economic elites were Keynesians and the New Deal was based upon the state borrowing from the future to solve the problems of today.4 In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a significant portion of those elites wanted to force a greater separation of economy and government. While the elites owned the economy, the government still had some controls on economic behavior which tended to limit the depredations of the elites. This was not acceptable and they gravitated to libertarian views which premised the sovereign individual without government controls and they triumphantly proclaimed “we are all Austrians now!” https://slate.com/business/2012/01/what-is-austrian-economics-and-why-is-ron-paul-keep-obsessed-with-it.html Funny thing happened. When their economy was threatened with collapse, they suddenly became Keynesians once again and voted for a government bailout, borrowing from the future.
What is unknown is whether this bailout will generate sufficient new future resources and fitness to service that debt. The extraordinary increase in unemployment will have to be funded from the future. Can it sustain the demands being placed upon it? He who rides a tiger dare not dismount. We have ridden the tiger of artificially stimulated demand and consumption for decades to generate wealth; and we have suddenly dismounted, turning a significant segment of the world wide economy off almost instantaneously without the slightest idea of the consequences.
Debt is a tiger. It is a powerful tool and a dangerous weapon. Have we made a borrow too far?5
This rant-mode essay is based upon my personal experience. I hold debt in the form of bonds and my retirement income is derived from financial instruments which I certainly do not understand. My first investment was purchased through a recommended investment advisor. I lost $15K within a coupla years in a downturn. The issuer of the debt went bankrupt and disappeared. I have no idea where my money went and there was no way of getting it back. So, I am sensitive to the possibility of money simply vanishing into the wind.
I made the assumption that the process of borrowing from the future via the stimulus would be similar. An agency would issue bonds which would be purchased by other agencies or individuals with something approximating real money, income surplus to immediate needs, that would be stored in the form of debt by loaning it out. If the issuing authority defaults, that money disappears from the lenders account but remains in the accounts of those to whom the money has been expended – typically vendors of one sort or another. Someone else has the money and there is no way of recovering it. Their gain is the lenders loss and fitness has been magically transferred from the lender to some unknown vendor.
This stimulus may not be achieved in this manner. I do not understand the process of simply inventing and ‘printing’ money and did not consider that for this essay. I suspect that the dangers of fiat money may be even greater than for debt money.
The Randians, the Austrians, the Chicago School of Economics, in their rejection of Keynesian economics, proudly piously pretend to promulgate profound principles of economic truth discovered at great intellectual effort and mathematical mastery. Instead they only propound their own narrow economic self-interest. Any body of ‘knowledge’ that has schools of thought can only pretend to truth for one of them.
There is another story to be told and I am not qualified to tell it, only to suggest it. My usage of ‘elites’ so far in this essay, is inadequate, misleading, and pejorative, and is heavily influenced by the perceptions of my social class. The conquest of seasonality, the construction of entirely novel forms of behavior, and behavior controls, and social structures and their control, was an immense and difficult job that has not yet been entirely or satisfactorily completed, and may never be. But it has been done reasonably well. I cite the work of Hans Rosling https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Rosling and Steven Pinker https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Better_Angels_of_Our_Nature for this assertion. These elites generate new sources and forms of fitness by long study, hard work, dedication, imagination and intelligence.
And there are other stories consequent to those successes. There are dissenting voices noting that the very success cited by Rosling and Pinker are based upon forced labor. They may have a bit more to eat but their working and living conditions don’t even begin to resemble that of these esteemed scholars and writers. Vast numbers of lives have been ‘thrown under the bus’ to achieve those successes.
Further, the problems of fixed civilization in seasonal ecologies have been solved by technical innovations. Joseph Tainter6 propounds that each innovation will eventually require a new and more difficult technical innovation. Invention becomes an un-dismountable tiger. Eventually the problems overwhelm the available innovation and civilizations collapse, eaten by their own tiger. I think his work should receive more attention: https://wtf.tw/ref/tainter.pdf Thomas Malthus has not been repealed as Rosling and Pinker appear to suggest, only deferred. Beware the tiger!
I use ‘fitness’ as a trope for economic resources and the efficient utilization of those resources, and in the process truncated its full evolutionary range of meaning. I hope that it transfers at least a similar meaning into your mind. ↩
This was almost literally hand to mouth, but current anthropological thought is that there was usually plenty at hand. If not, we went somewhere else. ↩
I chuckled as I finished that sentence, for I immediately thought of the revenge of the lower classes, a higher birth rate. But that is in the face of a greater need for additional hands and bodies for the acquisition of economic necessities, and the higher mortality and shorter lifespan of those assets. ↩
And both were accused of being anti-American and Communist. They had a point, some of the administrators of the New Deal were, in fact, Communists. The history of the attempts to reverse the existing inequal re-distribution to the elites is both difficult and interesting. This economic downturn will be a new and highly partisan chapter in that story. ↩
The allusion is to Cornelius Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Bridge_Too_Far_(book) ↩