Thursday, July 11, 2019

How to Stimulate the Economy

With current economic indicators mostly signaling a slowdown in the economy--and perhaps a recession--a lot of attention is focused on stimulating the economy. The dialogue revolves around central bank accommodation (via lowering interest rates and bond purchases in the form of quantitative easing) and fiscal policy (i.e., deficit spending).  Fiscal measures are essentially impossible because of political gridlock.  And central banks, having devoted the past decade to accommodation, have only limited ammo left.  So what can stave off recession and renew economic growth?

There's no simple answer.  But one important factor is the availability of inexpensive energy.  Modern life is dependent on vast amounts of cheap energy.  The Industrial Revolution that created our high tech lives was the result of the development of inexpensive ways to harness and utilize large amounts of energy.

Let's begin in A.D. 1700.  Living standards in A.D. 1700 worldwide were about the same as they were in A.D. 700 and 300 B.C.  In other words, things had hardly improved over thousands of years.  But within the 150 years following 1700, people had developed the steam engine and learned how to harness electricity for commercial use.  These developments were followed by new ways to extract large amounts of fossil fuels that could be sold inexpensively.  Then, after 200 years (i.e., by 1900), people had developed the internal combustion engine.  The internal combustion engine could be used widely in transportation, manufacturing and many other ways.  Large scale generation and distribution of electricity became feasible, and the widespread availability of electric motors greatly enhanced living standards.  Economic growth and improvement of living standards accelerated at an exponential pace.  In essence, access to inexpensive energy sources (carbon based fuels and electricity) triggered a monumental amount of economic growth and a phenomenal rise in living standards in a historically short amount of time.  Of course, we now have pollution and other byproducts of the Industrial Revolution to contend with.  But the simple truth is the astounding economic growth of the past 300 years resulted to a large degree from ever increasing access to cheap energy.  Cheap energy and the technology developed to exploit it made modern life possible.   

Why is energy so important to economic growth?  Because energy is a key input into all economic activity.  From manufacturing to transportation to farming to fast food to government offices to hair salons to slimy corporate lawyers peddling excuses for their greedy clients to sordid lobbyists plotting to kill health insurance coverage for all to the performances of rock stars in large arenas, energy is an input into essentially all economic activity.  If the cost of energy is lowered, all economic activity gets a boost and economic growth in all sectors of the economy is facilitated.  

It's no accident that America's economy grew briskly in recent years concurrently with a drop in the price of natural gas, solar and wind energy, and to some degree, oil.  The proliferation of fracking not only has capped the price of oil, but also created demand for a lot of drilling equipment, trucks of various kinds, and so on.  So it boosted the manufacturing and transportation sectors. 

We use enormous amounts of energy stored in the past to make our current lives more comfortable and enjoyable.  We now understand we can't keep relying so much on energy from fossil fuels.  We have to develop more sustainable lifestyles.  However, in order to maintain and improve our lives, we need to continue our access to cheap energy in better ways.  After decades of frustration, solar and wind energy have actually become cheaper than fossil fuels.  That is a very positive development.  More technological advance is needed. 

The policies needed continue the availability of cheap energy would be varied and sometimes controversial.  Increased federal funding of basic research is an obvious one, although the GOP has done much to cut this from the federal budget.  Republicans seem fear science.  But ignorance will not spur economic growth.

Building more gas pipelines is obviously controversial to the NIMBY crowd.  But we do need better distribution systems for gas--and electricity as well.  All the windmills and solar farms in the Plains states won't do much good without power lines to transport the electricity to the big cities that need the power.  These power lines entail a huge NIMBY problem.  But this will have to be dealt with somehow, because distribution systems have to be enhanced if there is to be growth.  We need not bow to big, bullying energy and power companies and give them everything they want.  But we should acknowledge the need for better distribution systems.

Fostering greater fuel efficiency also helps to lower energy costs.  It may not lower the stated price per unit, but it reduces the number of units people have to buy.  So it would help to pursue efficiency as well as reduce unit costs.  One hidden cost of efficiency, though, is people consume more energy when it effectively becomes cheaper--many ordinary cars and SUVs today have engines that are as powerful as those in the muscle cars of the 1960's, since engine technology has improved so much, and people drive more miles per year.  So greater efficiency isn't an improvement if it doesn't reduce the use of fossil fuels.

There are many other factors besides energy that affect economic growth.  But a lot aren't controllable by any branch of the government.  Energy policy, though, can be implemented through government.

In the 1940's, 50's and 60's, the U.S. had ultra-high marginal tax rates, not that much deficit spending (the government focused on reducing the deficit, not increasing it), a rather inactive Fed, relatively high wages that provided for a comparatively equitable distribution of wealth and income--and an era of brisk economic growth and low unemployment.  This is an era still remembered as a golden age in America.  Why?  Because oil was damn cheap.  What happened after the first OPEC oil embargo in 1973?  A decade of economic stagnation followed by decades of economic uncertainty.  When we had cheap energy, we had lots of prosperity.  When energy rose sharply in price, prosperity as we had enjoyed it went away and still hasn't returned.  We don't need to sell our souls to the fossil fuels companies.  But we need to recognize that our standard of living and future improvements to our standard of living are dependent on access to cheap energy.  And we need to find responsible and sustainable ways to keep that gravy train rolling.

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