Saturday , September 26 2020
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The post-viral economy

It should come as no surprise to learn that most of us are not included in the list of critical workers published by the UK government.  Hedge fund managers, permanent secretaries, members of parliament, corporate CEOs, senior local government managers and the celebrities so beloved of our mainstream media all fail to put in an appearance.  Indeed, almost all of the media themselves turn out to be what conservatives privately refer to as “useless eaters” – part of the multitude whose only purpose in life is to borrow new currency into existence and consume lots of stuff.  Only “journalists and broadcasters who are providing public service broadcasting” are considered essential.

Meanwhile, it turns out that those Romanian migrants who appear every summer to harvest our food – usually for a lot less than the Minimum Wage – are among the most important workers in an advanced economy.  Indeed, as the supermarket shelves lie empty and our already strained healthcare services sink beneath a tide of covid-19 patients, it is all too obvious that for the best part of half a century we have been rewarding the wrong people.  With more than half of the country on voluntary lockdown (and most of the rest facing redundancy because of the global collapse in demand) and with the ultra-rich fleeing to their New Zealand bunkers, it turns out that most of life’s necessities can be provided without us.

The lies told by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan have also been exposed in the cruellest manner.  It turns out that, faced with a pandemic, there is such a thing as society after all.  And far from being the most frightening words you will ever hear, it now seems that “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” are in fact some of the most reassuring.

We can ditch all of that crap about the imagined “hidden hand of the free market” riding to the rescue too.  Without massive currency printing and state (i.e. taxpayer) guarantees, every business from the smallest service company to the largest multinational corporation faces bankruptcy.  And the “magic money tree” that they spent the last decade telling us didn’t exist turns out to be alive and well after all.  Not, of course, that the statist alternative would have performed any better.  Let us not forget that the Chinese Communist Party added to the crisis by denying the existence of SARS-CoV-2 when clinicians first reported it.  And even when the virus was confirmed in humans, they slowed the response by claiming that human to human transmission was not possible.

At least the Chinese government acted decisively once it did get its act together.  By carrying out an enforced quarantine of a kind that would be difficult to impose in a democracy, they managed to halt the spread of SARS-CoV-2 so that – assuming the data is reliable – there are no new internal cases.  China’s neighbours – Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore – have led the world in responding to the spread of SARS-CoV-2; successfully achieving the “flattening of the curve” that western governments claim to be aiming for.

If the UK government’s response appears to be reactive, that is because it is.  Unlike our politicians, the majority of the British people are not stupid.  As a result, once they saw what was happening in Italy, most Britons quite reasonably believed that it was only a matter of time before the UK government would have to go down the quarantine route.  This created the conditions for the so-called “panic-buying” which has stripped the supermarket shelves bare.

The reality behind this is that – like everything else in our economy – food retail operates on a just-in-time basis.  A few additional people adding a few additional purchases to their weekly shop are all it takes to create shortages.  If the UK government had been properly prepared, they would have already made arrangements with the supermarkets to ration goods the moment the additional demand was created.  Instead, they have allowed several weeks to pass before even dropping the competition regulations that prevent supermarkets from working together.  Once the shelves were empty, panic-buying became a self-fulfilling prophesy.  The dimmer members of the species who did not have the wit to see this coming took to the supermarkets in pursuit of anything and everything they could squeeze into a trolley; with hand sanitiser and toilet roll apparently rising to a value not dissimilar to silver and gold. 

The problem has been compounded now that the government has been dragged kicking and screaming into creating the current nether world in which large numbers of us are “self-isolating” and most public venues are closed despite the government not officially ordering a lockdown.  This has created considerable pressure on internet-based businesses.  Most city-dwellers are in the habit of doing a single weekly shop and then topping up with additional items as and when needed.  Faced with online stores which operate a minimum charge and require booking more than a week in advance, it is hardly surprising that the amateurs have been ordering more than they need – and, as yet, there appears to be no limit on the quantities that individual shoppers are allowed to purchase.

While most of the media attention has been on those who have stripped the shelves of toilet roll and hand sanitiser (which is worse than soap, and so entirely unnecessary for people who are staying home) there is a special place in Hell reserved for sections of the billionaire class that are using their soon-to-disappear wealth in a desperate attempt to save themselves at the expense of the rest of us.  As Jon Christian at Futurist reports:

“Buried in an alarming New York Times story about a looming shortage of lifesaving ventilators is this horrifying detail:

“For days, [exec of ventilator maker Ventec Chris] Kiple said, he has been getting nonstop phone calls from frantic hospital administrators, governor’s offices and other government officials looking for more machines. He’s even received inquiries from a number of wealthy individuals hoping to buy their own personal ventilators, a fallback plan in case the American hospital system buckles. (Emphasis in the original).

“That’s right — the rich are so worried that the medical system will collapse under the strain of the runaway outbreak that they’re buying up ventilators, in case they happen to get so sick that they need them.

“Unspoken in the Times is a brutal implication. Most of those jetsetters won’t even need the ventilators, since most COVID-19 cases are mild enough that they don’t require hospitalization. And that means that each ventilator obtained as a backup plan for a terrified plutocrat won’t end up in a health care facility — meaning a patient, or multiple patients, could die.”

I have (a little) more time for people hoarding food than for plutocrats who add to a global shortage of ventilators.  Not least because the UK government’s handling of information has been appalling.  In the early stages of the pandemic, Prime Minister Johnson was nowhere to be seen.  It fell to lobby journalists to disseminate government plans in a manner that was guaranteed to cause panic.  An editorial in Media Lens highlights the problem:

“Over the last 20 years, we have documented some shocking examples of journalistic irresponsibility, but the tweet from ITV’s political editor Robert Peston on March 14 was something special. With China, South Korea, Italy, Spain and other countries in shutdown, lockdown and general medical meltdown, with the UK reeling from rising cases and deaths – with the elderly, in particular, facing a terrifying threat that had already claimed thousands of lives around the world – Peston tweeted:

‘Revealed: elderly to be quarantined at home or in care homes for four months, in ‘wartime-style’ mobilisation to combat Coronavirus.’

“That was that! No comfort, no reassurance, no careful qualification from government spokespeople and medical experts; just a link to an article, which also offered cold comfort for worried readers…

“Such painful, sensitive information simply had to be delivered by government spokespeople in a way calculated not to spread fear and panic…”

Again, you didn’t have to be a genius to work out that elderly people weren’t about to be quarantined for their own good; but rather to prevent them from getting ill and overwhelming the healthcare system.  Nor did you need a higher degree to figure out that what begins with care homes is very likely to spread to the over-60s in general, together with any younger people whose condition qualifies them for a free flu jab.  In the absence of a formal government announcement that included reassurances about such things as the food supply, it is no surprise that the supermarket shelves were quickly depleted.

This speaks to a deeper problem than the immediate crisis.  During the last half century we have witnessed a deliberate process of “depoliticisation” in which the state has been weakened well beyond the point that it can carry out the most basic function of state – the protection of the people.  For all that the neoliberals promised to “roll back the state” and to “cut red tape,” we pay more in taxes and have to cope with more bureaucracy than ever before.  In almost every area of our lives some new middleman, funded through generous corporate welfare handouts, has inserted him or herself into the process.  At the same time we have witnessed the growth of global corporations which – quite literally – are a law unto themselves, and which have made themselves “too big to fail” (and most probably too big to save).  These are the organisations that are currently lobbying governments for another round of state bailouts because their failure to act responsibly following the 2008 crisis has left them dangerously exposed to a new economic crisis which is only just beginning.

Whether any democratic government is going to get away with a second round of public bailouts is a moot point.  There is already a demand that any public support for failing corporations must come with strings attached; not least that any money received should be used to maintain jobs rather than to line the already bloated pockets of shareholders.

Governments, along with the mainstream media, lost the public’s trust in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis when they endorsed and attempted to legitimise “socialism for the rich and austerity for the poor.”  The ensuing political backlash – missed almost entirely by the neoliberal left – brought us Brexit, Donald Trump, the Mouvement des gilets jaunes, Hindu nationalism and a broader fracturing of the neoliberal international order.  This time around, few people are invested in a “back to normal” narrative similar to the one peddled by the political class in 2008.  Just as the people instinctively understood that sooner or later their governments would lock them down to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, so they understand that the elites will attempt to once again suck on the teat of corporate welfare and then attempt to dump the costs onto ordinary people.

Britain’s Tory government are caught on the horns of a dilemma in this respect.  Their donors are a part of the corporate elite that expects to be bailed out.  Their voter base, on the other hand, is largely made up of the non-metropolitan working class that was forced to pay a disproportionate part of the bill last time.  If the Tories repeat what was done by New Labour and the US Democrat Party in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, they will never be elected again.  If, on the other hand, they are prepared to act in the interest of the electorate, there is every chance that they will lead a de facto one-party state for years to come.

To be clear here, there is no such thing as free money.  Any new currency spirited into existence by central banks and governments to combat the economic fallout from the pandemic crisis will have to be paid back one way or another.  Last time around, the bill was paid through public spending cuts which, among other things, have left our critical infrastructure woefully ill-prepared for responding to a pandemic.  The purchasing power of the average wage is no higher today than it was back in 2010; the mean wage (the halfway point on the income ladder) is considerably lower.  Meanwhile the social security system has been savaged to the point that it cannot begin to cope with the anticipated job losses as Britain’s army of gig-economy and low-paid self-employed people see their incomes disappear following the collapse in demand that comes from mass self-isolation.

These are truths which are being learned the hard way by a population which was tacitly happy to go along these cuts out of the insane belief that unemployment, sickness and disability were things that only happened to other people.  Indeed, most continued to vote for parties that encouraged their media allies to portray the sick and the needy as workshy scroungers.  Today the self-employed are discovering that they do not qualify for sick pay at all; while those who do qualify are horrified to discover that sick pay is less than a fifth of the Minimum Wage. 

While most people experience Covid-19 as little different to the seasonal flu, the twenty percent or so who develop the serious version are suddenly finding out that the healthcare services that they allowed to be cut are now the difference between life and death.  There will be more pain to come too.  According to some reports, people who survive the worst of Covid-19 are left with considerable lung damage.  However (if you’ll pardon the pun) don’t hold your breath if you expect disability benefits to bail you out.  These days even people so ill and malnourished that they could be mistaken for the survivors of Bergen-Belsen are deemed to be “fit for work” by the UK’s benefits assessors.

There will be a reckoning in the aftermath of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.  Not least because our system of industrial agriculture has so intruded into the last natural habitats on the planet that novel pathogens that might otherwise have never come into contact with humans are likely to become commonplace.  There can be no guarantee that the world will not have to go through this all over again in a year or two’s time.

A part of the reckoning that is coming will involve a reassessment of what is and what is not important to us all.  To the chagrin of the elites, Gucci handbags and private yachts are unlikely to be a high priority on many people’s list of essentials.  A properly resourced healthcare system and a decent social security safety net, however, almost certainly are.  Indeed, the entire global economic system that has left us dangerously exposed to supply chains that turn out to be vulnerable to this kind of emergency is unlikely to survive beyond the short-term.  Developing a degree of duplication and redundancy – at least for critical infrastructure and services – will be impossible to resist as electorates insist that governments insure us against the next pandemic virus to cross species into humans.

Governments, however, are likely to find that doing much of anything beyond the short-term is going to become increasingly difficult.  Neoliberalism was a “solution” to the crises of the 1970s.  These crises marked the end of the spectacular period of oil-driven economic growth between 1953 and 1973.  The period 1979 to 2005 was marked by much slower energy growth as the world turned to more energy-expensive oil fields like the North Sea and the North Alaskan Slope to replace the depleting but far more energy-cheap deposits in the USA and the Middle East.  Since 2005, most of the conventional oil deposits are in decline.  Instead, and especially after 2008, we have taken to drilling and fracturing the source rock – effectively completing the natural process which, over thousands of years, allowed oil fields to form.  This technological feat has blinded investors to the simple fact that whichever way you cut it, shale oil (and its tar sands cousin) is far more energy-expensive to produce than the conventional oil around which our modern industrial civilisation was built.  Unseen by most politicians and economists – who tend to view the economy in strictly monetary terms – the additional energy (both direct and embodied) which was employed to produce and refine the unconventional oil (without which the economy would not have grown at all over the last decade) is energy which was no longer available to the much larger non-energy sectors of the economy.

Neoliberal globalisation was an adaptive (nobody planned it) attempt to maintain growth in the face of declining surplus energy.  Transferring and concentrating manufacturing in regions of the world that have cheaper labour in abundance, and which have fewer concerns about burning coal and living with pollution helped drive the price of goods down to the point that western consumers could (at least with the aid of credit cards) afford them.  But as the energy cost of energy has continued to increase, even the growth seen in Asia since 2008 was already grinding to a halt long before some hapless Chinese diner decided that bat stew was a good idea.

The latest neoliberal hope is that we will somehow continue to expand fossil fuel production out to 2050 in order to underwrite a transition to an economy powered by so-called “renewable energy.”  Surplus energy economist Tim Morgan nails this illusion:

“In this illustrative scenario, fossil fuels supply remains higher in 2040 than it was in 2018, but by only about 300 mmtoe (+3%), instead of the generally-expected increase of 1,540 mmtoe (+13%). This in turn would mean that, comparing 2040 with 2018, total energy supply would be higher, not by the projected 28%, but by only about 19%.

“My belief is that this is a more realistic set of parameters than the ‘more of everything’ consensus about our energy future. If energy supply does grow by less than is currently assumed, growth in many of the things that we do with energy is going to fall short of expectations, too.”

The reason we have a “pandemic crisis” has less to do with the emergence of a novel coronavirus that with the fragility of the complex interconnected global economy that we have built in an attempt to counteract the impact of the remorselessly growing energy cost of energy.  Fragility – for example, in the form of dangerously exposed just-in-time supply chains – is the inevitable cost of complexity.  In the absence of an abundant energy-dense alternative to our now depleting reserves of fossil fuels in general and oil (which fuels 90% of global transport) in particular, future resilience can only be bought at the cost of simplification and localisation.

This sounds technical, but it has ramifications for all of us now that our governments and central banks have decided to harvest all of the fruits of the magic money tree in one last ditch attempt to keep the system going.  The point of interaction between the financial economy and the real economy is the interest that is charged on the new currency which is borrowed into existence.  Currency itself is merely a social convention which allows us the illusion of carrying wealth forward into the future; it has no intrinsic value.  A worker provides labour and services to an employer in exchange for currency that is assumed to be of equivalent value.  At some time in the future the worker will attempt to use that currency to purchase goods and services of equivalent value to the work provided to the employer.  New currency must ultimately generate new value (in the form of energy-dependent goods and services) in order to maintain its nominal value and to repay the interest on the debt.  If, however, new goods and services are not – or more importantly cannot – be created, the result is widespread debt defaults and/or inflation.

The financial response to the pandemic assumes that the post-virus economy can grow at rates not seen since the early 1960s.  But there is no real world energy source that would allow us to grow at even a fraction of that rate.  As Tim Morgan explains:

“[L]ess-than-expected access to oil would have some very specific consequences. With population numbers still growing, we’ll need to keep on increasing the supply of petroleum products to essential activities, such as the production, processing and distribution of food. You’ll know that my expectations for ‘de-growth’ anticipate a lot of simplification and ‘de-layering’ of industrial processes, and there’s no reason why this shouldn’t apply to food supply. But it remains hard to see how we can supply more food from less oil.

“In short, there are reasons to suppose that oil supply constraint is going to have a disproportionate and leveraged impact on the discretionary (non-essential) applications in which petroleum is used. At the same time, faltering energy supply – and a worsening trend in surplus energy, reflecting the rise in ECoEs – is likely to leave us a lot less prosperous than conventional, ‘economics is money’ projections seem to assume.”

One conclusion we might draw from this is that as we are obliged to direct an increasing amount of energy both at replacing energy supplies and maintaining our critical infrastructure, then a large part of what we were doing before the pandemic struck is going to be impossible in the years afterward.  Ironically, the process of self-isolation – whether voluntary or imposed by law – allows us to differentiate between those things – utilities, food supplies, telecommunications, healthcare, etc. – that we must maintain for as long as possible and luxuries like commercial air travel that turn out to be anything but essential in an age of teleconferencing.  The political consensus which is emerging against the bailout of airlines (the political right because of the widespread engagement in stock buy-backs; the left because of desire to impose conditions; greens because of the impact on the climate; and libertarians because of free market purity) may well begin to extend to whole sectors of the global economy as we are increasingly obliged to simplify to a far less material post-viral economy.

As you made it to the end…

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