The Wealth of Nature - John Michael Greer

This is a dense book, with interesting thoughts throughout. It's not often a book has 5 stars for average review on Amazon and this book doesn't disappoint. One notable quirk is that the author is a self-described druid, not a journalist, scientist or writer. He also comments in a conversation with Chris Martenson, on his Peak Prosperity podcast, that he earnt his beard and ponytail by living on a commune for some period of time!

According to Greer, Ernst Schumacher, born in Bonn, 1911, layed the foundation for incorporating energy into economics. 

Renewable resources, he proposed, form the equivalent of income in the primary economy, while nonreneweable resources are the equivelent of capital...

He argued that energy  cannot be treated as one commity among many without reducing economcis to gibberish, because energy is the gateway resource that gives access to all other resources.

Greer goes on to list a few ecologically sane economists since Schumacher: Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Kenneth Boulding, Herman Daly and Robert Costanza. He somewhat pre-emptively points out Adam Smith did not have a degree in economics. 

Economics suffers from premature mathematization - paraphrasing here, economics involves so many variables taht the only way to control them all is to impose conditions so arbirary that the results have only the most distant relation to the real world. Greer concludes the only logical way out of the trap is to concentrate on economic history. note a set of conditions in the past that consistently lead to a common result, e.g. house bubble (p17).

Have you noticed that the guys who run macroeconomics based hedge funds are all trained in the humanities and have a keen interest in history? For example, Kyle Bass predicting that there may be war on the horizon.

Social critics have commented on the ease with which neoclassical economics ignores the interface between economic wealth and power... This is a pervasive problem in most human socities, and it's worth noting that those socities that survive over the long term tend to be the ones that work out ways to keep too much wealth from piling up uselessly in the hands of those with more power than others.

.. those nations that got through the last Great Depression intact did so by imposing sensisble checks and balances on concentrated wealth.

I recall a marginal income tax rates of 98% at some point. Need to find a reference here. And isn't it at this point in time which anti-trust law is enacted? There was a large correction towards protecting the ordinary in society after the destruction wrought by the Great Depression.

When wealth is widely distributed, more of it circulates in the productive economy of wages and consumer purchases; when wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, more of it moves into the investment economy where the well-to-do keep thie wealth and the buildup of capital in the investment economy is one of the necessary preconditions for a speculative binge (p20).

This is echoed by Nick Hanauer, the friend of Bezos, who manufactures pillows and says that he only needs one pillow despite his wealth [1].

There's a rich irony here, in that the market economy portrayed by textbooks.. is a form of commons, and a great many people who claim to be advocates of free market have spent years arguing that commons should be eliminated wholesale in favor of private ownership.

All common systems, as Garrett Hardin pointed out in his famous essay, have to be managed in ways that prevent individuals from exploiting the commons for their own private benefit; otherwise they fail.  

Paraphrasing again, Elinor Olstrom demonstrated that it's entirely possible to manage a commons so that Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons doesn't happen (p27).

Energy, as E.F. Schumacher pointed out, is not simply one commodity among others; it is the ur-commodity, the foundation for all economic activity (p30).

a world that has nearly seven billion people on it anda  dwindling supply of fossial fuels can do without the assumption that putting people out of work and replacing them with machines by fossil fuels is hte way to prosperity (p39).

Liebig's law of the minimum: production is limited by the scarcest necessary resource

  • Around 75 cents of every dollar circulating was provided by natural processes rather than human labour - Costanza, Robert, p54.

The difference between the supply-limited goods of the primary and secondary economy and the demand-limited goods of the tertiary economy, among other things, a difference between kinds of feedback.... in a market economy all secondary goods are subject to negative feedback. ... Negative feedback loops of a very similar kind control the production of primary goods by the Earth's natural systems...It's when we get to the tertiary economy of financial goods that things change because the feedback loops governing tertiary goods are not negative but positive (p69).

Eventually the supply of buyers runs out, because everyone who is willing to plunge into the bubble has already done so. ...prices began to sink, and once again positive feedback came into play as the adothermostat shifted from heating an overheated house to cooling an overchilled one. p71

financial investments don't suffer from rising energy costs so individuals move their investments from the productive economy of goods and services to the paper economy of finance. Ironically, this is happening just as perpetually expanding money supply driven by mass borrowing at interest has become an anachronism unsuited to the new economic reality of energy contraction. p75

  • The Mayans responded to their agricultural criss by accelerating building programs, p.80.
  • Vico attempts to document the course nations run with classical Greece and Rome.
  • three-century-long beinge with finite supplies of cheap abundant energy spawned a second bubble of money and finance, abstract representations of wealth, p105.
  • stagflation from oil shocks in 1970s. Rising prices and wages struggling to keep pace with diminished economic activity.
  • second law of thermodynamics: energy moves from higher to lower concentrations.
  • notes the distinction between quantity of energy and concentration of energy, where the latter is more important. Diffuse energy - it doesn't take concentrated energy to heat a tank full of water. It can be done efficiently by diffuse energy sources such as sunlight, p138.

 the amount of work you get out of an energy source depends, not on the amount of energy contained by the source, but on the difference in energy concentration between the energy source and the environment.

  • Points out that Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded is correct in stating that we're facing global wierding, a worsening of conditions, unexpected and disruptive weather events.
  • Economics of contraction. Description of Easter Island and deforestation leading to the implosion of society. p160.


Additional Thoughts

The ongoing depletion of natural resources is a case of a potential tragedy of the commons. Individuals or companies have an interest in using up the finite resource, be it petrol or fish in the ocean, but by doing so will damage the collective group. The uncertainty involved in the trade-off between technological innovation and resource depletion is complex. For example, Richard Heinberg writes in 2004 about unconventional petroleum resources, suggesting that they are too costly to extract. Forward 10 years later, and we have a boom in shale oil production [2]. Even with the development in shale oil, he still believes its impact is overstated and will be short-lived [3].

Unconventional petroleum resources -- so-called "heavy oil," "oil sands," and "shale oil" -- are plentiful but extremely costly to extract and process, a fact that no technical innovation is likely to change much [1]

[1] Powerdown, Richard Heinberg

[2] Frackers and the Energy Revolution, Russ Roberts interviewis Gregory Zuckerman,

[3] Peak Prosperity Podcast with Chris Martenson

Powerdown - Richard Heinberg

Heinberg provides evidence our endless supply of non-renewable resources are disappearing fast. He outlines three ways of handling the pending crisis: competition for the remaining resources, powerdown - cooperation, conservation and sharing, and wishful thinking. 



Manufacturing in Australia - Mancur Olson

In 1984 Mancur Olson wrote a paper arguing for the lowering of tariffs on manufacturing in Australia. He argued that Australia was in a favourable position to obtain increases in real income from increasing manufacturing, citing an abundance of raw materials and a well educated and technically sophisticated population. He advocated freer trade to increase gains to Australia, larger than what would be expected from the theory of comparative advantage. He writes in the summary:

... the level of protection is very important among small economies as an indication of their ability to export. There is a striking pattern:

if countries have high levels of protection on manufacturing, without a single exception, they export very little of their manufactures. Australia is the second most protectionist on manufactures of the devloped countries, and Australia exports only about 7.5 per cent of its manufactured output.

Olson suggested a test of his theory of the logic of collective action by looking at the manufacturing and degree of protection in small and medium sized countries.

.. the patterns of trade in manufactured goods provide better insights into the efficiency of the institutions and policies of a country than do pattern of trade in primary products, because the dependence of manufactures on teh endowments of natural resources is not as strong as in the case of primary products.

The intuition is that these countries are the ones where protection (a collective action) will have its greatest impact. That is, the mileage of barriers, as determined by the size of the jurisdictions, should be of greater significance than the height of the barriers. He touched on evidence for distributional coalitions acting as a drag on the economy: Low growth is expected in long-stable countries like the UK due to the influence of organizations for collective action. In contrast, Japan, Germany and Italy experienced rapid growth from the destruction of these organizations after world war 2. Olsen also suggested that the USA has similar historical trends, where the Northeast and Eastern Middlewest are decline, whereas the frontier areas in the West and recently turbulent South are doing better.

The results presented show a strong correlation between tariffs (1976) and 1973 percentage of manufactures exported (value of manufactured exports / value of manufactured output). Denmark (42.5%), Sweden (37.5%), and Austria (32.5%) are offered as counterexamples with low tariffs and large percentage of manufactures exported. 

In summary, Olson discounts the idea that protectionism is beneficial in the early stages of infant industries and interprets the abundance of small high exporting countries with low tariffs and the failure of medium sized protecionist coutnries to attain impressive outputs of manufaturing to indicate that protection of manufactures does not lead to increasing manufacturing output of a country in the long run.

The Decline of Manufacturing in Australia 

The manufacturing industry in Australia has been in decline for a protracted period of time, and has coincided with the growth of the services industry. In recent years, automakers Toyota and Ford have announced job cuts as well as the inevitable closure and relocation of plants to other countries, such as Thailand. The high labour costs arising from Australia's centralised wage setting institutions and the historically high Australian dollar no doubt played a large role in these changes. The strength of the Australian economy has been driven by a large one in a lifetime resources boom, where China now comprises 25% of Australia's exports.

Three decades have passed since Mancur Olson advocated that Australia decrease its manufacturing tariffs in order for Australia to develop internationally competitive manufacturing and consequently increase manufacturing output. What has happened since then, is that the tariffs have been reduced [1], albeit to differing degrees depending on product. Amazingly, in line with Olson's prediction, the percentage of exports to sales has risen to 35% [2]. 

Despite this, manufacturing has decilned as a share of all industries due to the growth of other industries and the contraction of manufacturing itself. Reducing tariffs appears to have improved, or coincided with the improvement of, the ratio of exports to total manufacturing but manufacturing itself has become less important over time. Is there a trade-off between size of manufacturing with the percentage of manufacturing exported? 

[1] Australian Manufacturing: A Brief History of Industry Policy and Trade Liberalisation, 1999-2000 

[2] The Australian Dollar and Manufacturing Exports, The Australian Industry Group, 2007.

[3] Why Manufacturing in Australia has a future, 16 April, 2014, Ross Gittins.

[4] Labour Market Snapshot #5, March 2014 Jeff Borland  

The New New Thing - Michael Lewis

I've taken some notes from the New New Thing by Michael Lewis, which is about Jim Clark, the founder of Netscape.


Silicon Valley is to the United States what the United States is to the rest of the world

It is the capital of innovation... and of transience.


Software and Engineers

  • Veblen (1921) predicted that engineers would become an integral part of the economy, a world view which Clark shares, as a creator and engineer (though trained as physicist). [1]
  • The IT industry has become like arts and music industries. Capital costs are low now as hardware costs have decreased, and finance and legal support is easy to obtain. The value lies the efficient allocation of the finance and hence the supernormal returns to the visionary. There are many aspirants but the masses of app developer wannabees are commodities.
  • What I relate to the most about Clark is that he is technological purist. All the while, as these events are happening to his third company, he is coding the software to his hobby yacht with the majority of this time. The Indian software engineer, an employee, he consults can hardly believe a man of his importance is spending his spare time practicing coding.
  • This is where Clark and I depart in risk tolerance; he is an all-in type of fellow. During the dot-com crash, his net worth drops from a billion down to $250 million and every time his third company requires more funding, using a poker analogy, he raises his bets every time, as opposed to the venture capitals who want to hold. They call, in response to Clark, fearing embarrassment, should he succeed, not because they are believers.
  • To my mind, there is a lot of similarity with leading a technology company and being an investor, as forseeing trends appears to be paramount. In support of this idea, later on Clark invested heavily in Apple and Google during the great financial crisis with minor positions in Twitter and Facebook. Andreesen thinks that "software is eating the world", and so does Clark. Well it looks like it anyway. His investment in Apple was based on his view that Apple made programming simple with its object oriented platform for the iphone [2].

The Visionary

  • This leads into his childhood background, which shaped him. He started with nothing and had a huge chip on his shoulder. I suspect this is what separates him from the majority, who may have equal ability and ambition. Doubling down on a bet when circumstances go against you is reckless in the eyes in most. Clark doesn't even question it. 
  • It is worth noting that his ability to focus at the expense of all else had a cost on his personal relationships. 
  • As I am reading this book, it is hard to believe in his followers and the blind faith they have in their idol. After succeeding in his second venture, he is basically the ideas man, receiving a pile of cash and assembling a team, which he checks in on remotely, part-time. He has an epiphany that he is rewarded handsomely for being able to see the future.
  • My intuition reading the book was that luck played a large part in Clark's initial success such that subsequent success was unlikely. Really, Clark's conviction trumps the markets and everyone. 
  • I cannot help but see the parallels of Jim Clark at Silicon Graphics with Steve Jobs at Apple; his role as the inspirational creative leader and his struggle against corporate culture 
  • Head fake in the telecomputer / feigning one direction but moving another; reduced to a figurative head of the organization as chairman, he begins making media releases about new technology, resulting in pressure on his CEO to deliver on this project. As the project is in motion, he jumps ship to start a competing venture, which then, unplanned, becomes the Netscape browser. 
  • Is he at the right place at the right time in meeting Marc Andreesen?

[1] I think it's fair to say that Veblen wasn't a great writer. It's not worth your time reading the book, Engineers and the Price System.