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Can Diplomacy Help Navigate an Upcoming Worldwide ‘Valley of Disappointment’?

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The current worldwide slowdown in productivity gains may reflect a combination of decreasing energy returns on energy investments in fossil fuels, and limitations on productivity gains in the early stages of development of renewable energy replacements.

A review of the development process in terms of non equilibrium thermodynamics concepts is in order. The stresses of the upcoming major worldwide energy transitions, accompanied by climate change protections, are likely severely to test national and international coordination systems, and demand insight into the thermodynamic and economic processes involved on the part of those who participate in international diplomacy.  

1.The Current Productivity Problem

Numerous publications have been reporting that rates of productivity gain have been declining in recent decades across much of ‘developed world’, and, from higher levels, in many ‘developing’ economies. A recent publication of the highly respected Brookings Institution probes this issue

The National Conference Board in the United States also reports almost imperceptible productivity gains, and some losses, in the most developed economies in the world. The Conference Board’s summation on this is as follows:

Zero or even negative total factor productivity growth suggests that improvements in the efficiency by which labor and capital are used have stalled . . . Ultimately declining TFP prevents companies from improving their competitiveness and profitability, and threatens the ability of countries to maintain or better people’s living standards.

As of this writing, the International Monetary Fund reports low growth prospects across a broad range of economies, and some difficulty in identifying why this should be so.

2. Current Related Financial Policy Actions

Institutions charged with coordinating national and global financial activities have undertaken attempts to encourage a resumption of ‘growth’ (typically measured within States as gross domestic product or gross national product). The conceptual basis for such measures seems to assume that growth rates should be those typical of the late 19th and the 20th centuries.

National governments have considered that they had two principal levers for trying to get economic activity back up to accustomed and/or targeted levels, termed ‘monetary’ and ‘fiscal’.

As to ‘fiscal’ action, the national government is assumed to be able to authorize economic activity directly, and to issue whatever monetary instruments, or forms, will be accepted in the markets supplying goods and services. This may create a current deficit, to be financed over time.

There seems to be more attention given to ‘monetary’ policy, typically managed by central banks, and institutions to coordinate the policies of national central banks.

National central banks have tended to try to stimulate economic activity by actions which make monetary units more amply available for national and international transactions. A part of this strategy is actions to lower the interest rates which generally apply in such transactions. This is thought likely to increase the levels of activity in investing in the production of goods and services (and in consumer purchases) by reducing the levels of yield needed over time from such activities to attract the ‘capital’ which will enable such activities.

At this time, most of the institutions with central bank functions, in the ‘developed’ economies, have been targeting very low interest rates for an extended period of time.

There have been at least two other, external but parallel discussions, with implications for economic activities. This article suggests that these inquiries are particularly significant at this time.

3. Current Awareness of A Need for An Energy Source Transition

It is generally understood that the enormous gains in human populations and activities have come from exploiting the ‘energy’ in fossil fuel, or earth-stockpiled, hydrocarbons. Discussions of productivity gains over time — generally the 19th and 20th centuries — seem to have assumed that the fossil fuel flows supporting such gains will be available at the same levels and costs as have been the case in these last two centuries. But looking ahead a century or two, this cannot continue to be taken as a given.

First, the prospective climate effects of combusting these hydrocarbons, to get the energy yield, has spurred a global search to replace these energy sources.

At the same time, the net energy yields from mining these hydrocarbons have tended to decrease. And, the limits of the most energy-rich hydrocarbon deposits seem visible, given current and prospective consumption rates.

The efforts to develop ‘renewable’ or ‘sustainable’ energy sources have led to a focus on a key measure — the energy returns on energy invested (EREOI) in such renewable technologies. Those tracking the development of renewables are keenly interested in when they will meet or exceed the EROEI of fossil fuels, and whether, and when, such energy yields will be sufficient to support a high energy industrial civilization in the future.

This author suggests that this should lead to shifting the conceptual center of discussion as to economic (and social) activity to the energy flow factors which enable such activity.

4. The Rise Of Academic Understandings of ‘Non Equilibrium Thermodynamics’

This dovetails into a stream of academic thought which has steadily expanded in recent decades, often termed ‘non equilibrium thermodynamics’.

The foundations of this thought go back at least as far as Heraclitus of Ephesus, born about 560 BC, who saw all things as process. However, in recent decades astronomers, physicists and others have expanded, elaborated, and measured these concepts in universally applicable ways.

Re-casting the productivity issues in thermodynamic terms may help answer a key question.

On the one hand, some suggest that the current slowdown in productivity growth in developed economies is just a pause in the realization of gains from innovations in process as to the economic potentials of current developed societies — e.g. ‘big data’ computations, self driving cars, the spread of ‘digitization’ of business and government operations.

An alternative suggestion might be that the combination of restrictions of fossil fuel use, the energy costs of such use, and the energy investment costs of creating and deploying   renewable energy sources now imposes or will impose constraints on the rate of productivity gains, if any, which we can project for coming decades.

Given the recent ascent into widespread scholarly discussion of non equilibrium thermodynamics, I should to state at the outset what version of nonequilibrium thermodynamics frames the premises here used in approaching human productivity and ‘finance’.

Briefly stated, this essay proceeds from the premise that all ordered structures in the Universe are manifestations of ordered energy flows. All ‘tangible’ structures are composed of relational systems — systems of correlated elements. Thus, the ‘order’ In the universe arises from correlations among the elements in the structures. In some, as in ‘solids’, the correlations are so stable as to stabilize both spatial dispersion, and radial degrees of freedom, over the periods of observation — or interaction with another ordered structure, or system.

Dynamic systems at the macro scale available to humans — processing energy flows and altering its internal conformation and/or relationships with external systems over time, or process — entail both energy intake and dissipation. Ilya Prigogine condensed this seminal insight long ago. A simple and visible astronomic example is the Red Spot on Jupiter.

Thus, ‘energy’ is in a fundamental sense the sovereign coin of the realm, so to speak, in the creation and maintenance of all ordered systems.

The leading explicant of the underlying dynamic nature of the Universe is Tufts/Harvard professor Eric Chaisson. In a series of exhaustively documented, elegant books and articles, he explains the energy densities, and related complexity levels, of galaxies, suns, ants, plants, humans and human societies. See for example “Cosmic Evolution”, Harvard, 2001, and for beautiful illustrations

A critical metric in Chaisson’s extensive documentation of energy flows is ‘free energy rate density’ (the amount of energy flow through a system per unit of mass and unit of time). Life units, for example, embody higher free energy rate densities than do galaxies or suns: animals higher free energy rate densities than plants, and humans, with their artifacts, like cities and particular elements in cities (e.. Jet planes and computers) much higher free energy rate densities than animals as a whole. In the energy scales of the Universe, human civilization is an extremely rare high free energy density phenomenon.

For a somewhat broader context, though condensed, overview for the interested general public,   one can consult an article on ‘relational order theories’

As humans have organized the world around them, they have identified and constructed systems which have, to the humans, the characteristic of yielding more energy to the humans than the humans invest in them.

In agricultural societies, ‘land’ was often used as a conceptual catch-all for an energy yielding asset. (However, I understand the the word ‘capital’ was derived from the indo-european term for cattle, in an semi-nomadic phase of the indo europeans). A fishing resource, or the ocean as a whole, could also be so considered.

Let us focus on a world in which systems other than ‘land’ (or a fishery area) were made to yield energy returns on energy invested in them.

In the fossil fuel era, such a system could be a coal mine, an oil or gas well, etc. where we have accessed energy bound in hydrocarbons by previously living systems, and learned how to liberate and turn to our use that energy. In this world, more types of resource, and energy flows, are organized more flexibly, by entities including the holders of the symbols of ‘capital’.

As we seek to enter a larger scale ‘sustainable’ or ‘renewable’ energy era we consider artifactual photosynthetic systems, wind energy systems, nuclear energy systems, etc. As to all such systems specialized so as to yield to humans more energy than humans organize into them, we have come to seek to measure the ‘energy return on energy invested’.

5. Initial Application of Non Equilibrium Thermodynamics Concepts to Productivity and Energy Transition Issues.

Assuming that ‘productivity’, as to humans, corresponds roughly to the ‘energy’ which the human or the system in which the human functions brings to ‘goods and services’ — the fabrication, transport, communication, etc. which the human becomes involved in ‘producing’ — productivity, as measured by the output of units specified per person work unit, would be enhanced by more energy entrainment, and decreased by less.

Generalizing this, one might posit that in a world of high EROEI, per person ‘productivity’ gains can be high, and in a world of low EROEI, they will be low.

We have noted that some suggest that underlying gains in efficiency — compositional productivity, or multiple factor productivity — are in operation but not yet manifested in ways which register in the statistical identities and measures we now use.

Let us entertain an alternate hypothesis oriented to a nonequilibrium thermodynamics framework, and a simple model which might be used to attempt to test such an hypothesis, over time, with enough data accumulation and analysis.

A candidate hypothesis would be that the energy returns on energy investments in the interconnected global economic systems are now rewarding investment in energy production at lower than historic levels, and at levels which, given all the energy dissipation in cycling energy through the generation and consumption, re-generation cycles does not allow for much increase in the over all activity levels of the societies involved, over time and the continuing cycling process.

Let us consider a simple model in which the key variables are a ‘capital’ sector, the energy return on energy which is invested into the ‘capital’ apparatus, and a population. These elements are arranged in a simple linear cycle, and the result which matters most to humans is designated as per capita wealth, in energy terms, as follows.

Per capita (energy) wealth = ((K*EROEI)-ReinvE)/P

That is, the wealth per person, calibrated in energy units (which have correspondences to ‘goods’ and ‘services’), equals the energy flow into the capital apparatus times the energy return from that apparatus per unit of energy investment, minus the energy reinvested in the capital apparatus, divided by the total population.

The physical system is a cyclical, reiterative one, as follows. The population inputs energy into the capital apparatus, the apparatus returns (and distributes) the energy back into the population, the population ‘consumes’ the energy, building some of it into population and amenities, etc, and returns energy into the capital apparatus. And keep cranking.

Using a model such as this, one can imagine differing endowments in different polities — e.g. higher or lower current capital endowments, populations, EROEI results. Some interesting possible relationships are noted in the footnote.

Malthus’s famous views come to mind. If we were to adapt a Malthusian point of view, the K, or capital, factor was largely seen as land. The yield — the EROEI — of land had not shown great increases in centuries prior to Malthus, and nothing like ‘geometric’, or exponential, or repetitive doubling, would seem plausible at his time. So if one assumed that the total population would increase faster than did energy production from land, using historic forms of agricultural technology, people would live more poorly, or some of them would, or some would have to go — to be subtracted from the equation.

Let us now put in this formula the Industrial (or fossil fuel) Revolution. Suddenly (in historical terms) EROEI skyrockets — let us say up to 50 times the energy input. The population can expand (improving food supply in various energy-fed ways), the energy using apparati generally (goods and services) can expand, and the capital factor can increase. The cycle becomes wonderfully virtuous, and humanity bestrides the Earth beyond its agricultural dreams.

But now let us suppose there are limits to the extent the capital factor can increase, or the EROEI begins to decrease, or both. Depending on how one varies the critical factors of population size, capital stock, and EROEI, many scenarios can be produced, as noted before. But with capital limited or fixed, and no appreciable gains in EROEI, we could be headed back to the Malthus type of calculation.

Let us sketch a more optimistic scenario for a few centuries ahead.

Let us continue to assume that the EROEI on fossil fuels decreases, and/or fossil fuel capacity is capped in order to avoid overheating the whole human complex, with major losses of system function and human welfare.

But our specialists advise us that life on earth taps only a very small fraction of the solar energy impinging on earth, we also tap a small fraction of the wind energy available, and if we are clever, farsighted, and disciplined enough we might replace the fossil fuels, at levels comparable to or above current civilization energy levels, at EROEI ratios sufficient to maintain our population levels and our per capita welfare, and also feed back into the capacity machinery enough energy to keep that machinery, and the whole system, stable and growing.

If humanity is not to go on a severe diet at some point, this is clearly the situation which will have to be managed. We humans have a very big and tricky energy supply transition coming up, and there are many uncertainties involved in it.

We may not know just how rapidly the energy supply transition can occur.

Vaclav Smil counsels that we think in terms of a century or so, and has historical evidence to support his view. Vaclav Smil (2011), Global Energy: The Latest Infatuations, American Scientist.

Others suggest that the coming transition could be managed more rapidly. The current Administration in the United States is pursuing an aggressive program to facilitate adaptation of the electricity system to increased proportions of wind and solar electricity generation.

As of this writing, a 2016 projection of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance group projects that by 2027 renewable electrical energy sources will cost less than operation of fossil fuel plants, and by 2040 renewable technologies will improve their cost levels 40-60% and fossil fuel production will have shrunk to less than 50% of total electrical energy production worldwide. In the advanced economies of Europe and America, the fossil fuel shares will have shrunk to a third or less of total electrical energy supplies. And, as to transportation, electric vehicles would constitute about 35% of new vehicles sold.

We also may not know exactly what system wide EROEI levels are required to maintain the high levels of free energy densities prevalent in highly industrialized civilization. A currently circulating guess is 10/1.

We do not know how well the public in the industrialized areas will understand their situation, and have the patience and foresight to soldier through the required transitions.

Given these uncertainties, we still must attempt to project a path forward.

Let us trace out a scenario reflecting the possibility that we are at or near a difficult point in our energy base transition.

This scenario might be called a ‘valley of disappointment’ scenario. (That is the pessimistic part. The optimism is reflected in the projection that only a valley, not a cliff, looms before us.)

If and as we are now entering a situation in which the fossil fuel energy recovery rates are declining, and the renewable energy yields are increasing, but are currently only a bit above the base rate needed for advanced civilization , account only a small part of energy supply at this moment and need extensive energy-consuming complements to fill out the entire range of energy uses, we might predict that our societies could encounter the following situation.

A slowdown in global, composite EROEI levels relative to historic fossil fuel boom era EROEI levels,

  • and thus widespread, aggregate slowdowns in GDP, or GDP growth
  • and related slowdowns in per person productivity gains,
  • and thus slowdowns in consequent ‘standard of living’ gains.

Even if the renewable energy sources were eventually to produce high and reliably increasing levels of energy flows in human societies, efficiently spread throughout our societies, we could see

  • lags between investment in the renewable energy sources, and the related complexes which are required to make them broadly and efficiently usable, and their full effectiveness, and thus
  • human societies enduring some decades of transiti

All this leading to

  • A lull in standard of living gains, if not a period of decline, and
  • slow progress in improving them again. And, consequently,

as these slowdowns occur, and a resumption of something like historic welfare gains seems remote, considerable dissatisfaction arising in populations which are accustomed to rapid gains in ‘welfare’, or standard of living.

Does this picture resemble what we now may be seeing in the ‘highly developed’, extremely entitled populations of America and Europe?

Were this overview accepted, the 2016 Bloomberg new energy investment scenario seems to suggest that by 2040 renewable EROEI would have increased by 40-60% and even transportation would be moving toward energy efficiency sufficient to service high energy human civilization. Such a rate of progress could make less onerous the ‘valley of disappointment’. We could at least better see our way to a more abundant future, perhaps even more abundant than our fossil fed recent past.  

6. Implications For Financial Policy

In this sort of scenario would the roles of ‘finance’ differ from those now prescribed?

‘Policy makers’ may be unclear whether they may just assume that ‘fiscal’ stimuli will draw on an underused and available well of production and productivity-increasing opportunities on which to spend money tokens, or whether their justification rests solely on a judgment that they, better than the market, can discriminate between higher EROEI possibilities and less productive ones. However, they may be inclined to choose to funnel resources to long term thermodynamic gain as well as or better than an unguided or unassisted market. We have done well in the past by encouraging canals and railroads, for two examples.

As to monetary tools, on the face of it, a regime in which low interest rates prevailed would seem to accord with a relative scarcity of thermodynamically fruitful (in customary language highly productive) investment opportunities. That is, low interest rates would appropriately reflect generally low returns to investments.  

If one expected that ‘natural forces’ — e.g. ‘innovations’ — would soon replenish the inventory of potentially rewarding opportunities, one might just hold steady and wait — perhaps a few years.

If on the other hand the ‘valley of disappointment’ construct more accurately depicts our situation, the ‘wait’ — the period of low returns on ‘capital’ generally — might go on for some decades. A great deal of adjustments in matters such as annuities, pensions, bond integrity — indeed, public and private finance generally — would be compelled.

Thus, there would seem to be a strong case for monetary policy functionaries and advisors to focus clearly on non equilibrium thermodynamics, EROEI oriented, analyses of economic phenomena. If this work is done thoroughly and well, the ‘valley of disappointment’ hypothesis may be confirmed in whole or substantial part, or disconfirmed. We may learn enough to get a better picture of workable paths through the transition before us.

7. Diplomacy

If the more advanced economies are facing thermodynamic/economic constraints in the upcoming Great Energy Transition, whereas on the other hand less developed venues feel entitled to a great deal of economic catch-up, regardless of atmosphere heating results, we have a continuing difficulty in managing world climate protection and acceptable rates of welfare improvement in some large and ambitious countries.  

The oil-laden Persian Gulf area is a continuing management problem. The deepest and most easily accessible pools of liquid hydrocarbons are in the hands of archaic political systems, some of whom — like Iran — have felt badly treated by the industrialized ‘West’. But USA Investment in an order-maintaining military presence in the Persian Gulf area most directly benefits India and China –the US only indirectly. This has not escaped the attention of one of the presidential contenders in the United States.

Diplomacy will be involved in finding ways to reconcile nativist-nationalist impulses in several European countries, and in the United States, with the economic and social advantages of global integration. The recent ‘Brexit’ act highlights the significance of this phenomenon.

Notwithstanding all the above, the hierarchy building imperative evident the hierarchical construction of order in the Universe explains at the most basic level currently available the tendency to global human integration evident in the last few centuries. This integration dynamic is fundamental.

But the equally underlying stochastic nature of the Universe counsels that nothing is guaranteed to we weird, extreme, socialized apes who seek to live like high technology, high energy, densely clustered ants, in a dynamic, promising, but perilous journey through life’s accumulated energy bounty into a new era of energy entrapment on Earth.

Thus the civilized effort to make light out of international heat, and workable coherence out of urgent parochialisms, has fundamental tasks before it in this era of change in the energy fundamentals. An understanding of the currents moving the ships of state, as well as steady hands on the helms, are needed.

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Eurasian integration: From economics to creation of a center of power

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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had every reason to congratulate his Armenian colleague Nikol Pashinyan with the outcome of the summit of Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) leaders that was recently held in Yerevan, where many promising decisions were made, bringing Iran, Singapore and Uzbekistan closer to this international organization.
Creation of various economic associations amid the ongoing process of globalization and toughening competition is a global trend nowadays. And still, the reasons for this process in Eurasia are as much economic, as they are existential.

The “traitorous” decision by the Western Christian powers during the Crimean War to side with the Ottoman Empire, which was widely perceived as a force hostile to the Christian world, came as a shock for Russian society, and above all, for the elite of the Russian Empire, which, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, had been working hard to expand “the window on Europe,” opened by Peter the Great. The Europeans’ deep-seated rejection of Russia as part of the European world, often spilled out into open hostility.

The Crimean War underscored Christendom’s split along ideological and political lines, which began with the separation of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches in 1054. The rapprochement between Russia and the European powers during and immediately after the Napoleonic wars proved a rather short-lived (and atypical) episode in the history of East-West relations. Before very long, however, Russian society managed to develop an “antidote” that cured the psychological trauma caused by the war: “Russia has only two allies: its army and Navy,” as Emperor Alexander III famously said. Moreover, the complex of “otherness” vis-a-vis Europe quickly turned into a matter of pride for many Russian thinkers, such as Nikolai Danilevsky (“Russia and Europe”), Leo Tolstoy (“War and Peace”), Alexander Blok (“Scythians”), to name just a few. 

While Danilevsky presented Russia as the leader of the still emerging Slavic “cultural-historical type,” the classical “Eurasians” with their idea of “Russia-Eurasia” believed that the cultural code of the Russian people is closer to the Turkic than to the West-Slavic one. What the “Eurasians” failed to delve into, however, was religious difference between the Russian and Turkic peoples, most of the latter being Muslims.

The ambitious experiment of building communism on a planetary scale further alienated Russia from the West, but brought it closer to the countries of the “third world,” primarily those in Asia. During the 1990s, Russia once again reached out to the West, only to be cold-shouldered by it.

This is exactly the response the West gave Turkey at the turn of this century and, just like the Russians before them, the Turks transformed their own complex of rejection from the West into a matter of pride. Today, according to various polls, up to 94.5 percent of Turks view the United States a hostile country. Anti-Americanism (coupled with anti-Western sentiment) is similarly on the rise in much of the Eurasian continent – from China all the way to the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the “Eurasians” theorized about a fundamental idea the entire future of “Russia-Eurasia” was to be built on. Today, most of the Eurasian countries’ foreign policy paradigm is overshadowed by their postcolonial syndrome and their desire for a more equitable world economic order.

“The recurrence of arrogant neo-colonial approaches, where some countries have the right to impose their will on others, is rejected by an absolute majority of members of the world community,” who seek “a more meaningful role in taking key decisions,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote in an article titled “The world at a crossroads, and the system of international relations of the future.”

This goal can only be achieved by joint efforts and closer integration in the Eurasian space, where complex supranational integration formats, such as ASEAN, SCO, the Customs Union and the Common economic space (Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) are already being established. Despite the complexity of the search for a mutually acceptable combination of the interests of very dissimilar countries (unlike in the case of the European Union), which have different civilizational affiliations and some even have running conflicts, this process is still moving ahead.

And yet, despite all their specific features, these countries still have very much in common: as a rule, a powerful state (“public”) economic sector, a long tradition of statehood (unlike Europe, not necessarily national) and, as a consequence, a traditional view of state power as something bordering on sacrosanct. And also an inherent rejection of the Western worldview with its mass culture, “rational,” almost materialistic, religion, and the substitution of morality by the criminal code, as the harshest critics of the West claim. Comparing Russia and Europe, the Russian historian Mstislav Shakhmatov stated: “The state of truth and the state of law are two different worldviews: the former is characterized by religious pathos and the latter – by material aspirations (…). Almost a century later, this maxim still rings true with many Eurasian societies.

Integration in our pragmatic century should start with a search for shared economic interests (by the way, the European Union grew out of the European coal and steel association). Speaking at the 2016 international economic forum in St. Petersburg, President Vladimir Putin pitched the idea of creating a large Eurasian partnership which, besides the CIS countries, would also bring on board China, India, Pakistan, Iran, and other countries.

Russia, which is a melting pot of a plethora of ethnic groups and cultures, has every reason to claim the role of a “natural” driving force behind the process of Eurasian integration. According to Turkish political analyst Ferhan Bayir, today “even the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey, which is rooted in political Islam, is edging closer to Russia as it increasingly opposes the United States… Even more so Iran, which is not just getting closer to Russia, but is actually working together with it in many parts of the region.”

Europe became a self-sufficient (though flagging) power center even before it united politically, and Eurasia may well become another such center. Since political unity, including in future, is unlikely, the participants of this integration process could still learn how best to respond together to external challenges, just like Russia, Turkey and Iran managed to collaborate in the Syrian conflict. 

It would certainly be great if all countries of the continent (like just anyone else too) could learn to be friends and work together, but awareness of common interests (and, in the era of globalization, of destinies too), can hardly extend to all of Eurasia. Therefore, when we talk about the hypothetical Eurasian community as a center of power, we would have to exclude China, which itself is a power center and the core of a separate civilization. As for India, it will hardly show much interest in close integration as Hindustani civilization is a vivid example of an introverted and self-contained one.

Putting aside the term “center of power,” creating a community of countries with shared economic interests in Eurasia is quite possible. This project will not be hampered by any political incumbrancers, if only its participants agree to find compromises as they go. It won’t be easy, but, as they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step…

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The $10 Trillion Question: How to End a Lost Decade of Global Productivity

MD Staff

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Ten years on from the global financial crisis, the global economy remains locked in a cycle of low or flat productivity growth despite the injection of more than $10 trillion by central banks. While these unprecedented measures were successful in averting a deeper recession, they are not enough on their own to catalyse the allocation of resources towards productivity-enhancing investments in the private and public sectors. The Global Competitiveness Report 2019, published today, points to the path forward.

Launched in 1979, the report provides an annual assessment of the drivers of productivity and long-term economic growth. The assessment is based on the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI), which maps the competitiveness landscape of 141 economies through 103 indicators organized into 12 pillars. These pillars are: Institutions, Infrastructure; ICT adoption; Macroeconomic stability; Health; Skills; Product market; Labour market; Financial system; Market size; Business dynamism; and Innovation capability. For each indicator, the index uses a scale from 0 to 100 and the final score shows how close an economy is to the ideal state or “frontier” of competitiveness.

This year, the report finds that, as monetary policies begin to run out of steam, it is crucial for economies to boost research and development, enhance the skills base of the current and future workforce, develop new infrastructure and integrate new technologies, among other measures.

With a score of 84.8 (+1.3), Singapore is the world’s most competitive economy in 2019. The United States remains the most competitive large economy in the world, coming in at second place. Hong Kong SAR (3rd), Netherlands (4th) and Switzerland (5th) round up the top five. The average across the 141 economies covered is 61 points, almost 40 points to the frontier. This global competitiveness gap is of even more concern as the global economy faces the prospect of a downturn. The changing geopolitical context and rising trade tensions are fuelling uncertainty and could precipitate a slowdown. However, some of this year’s better performers in the GCI appear to be benefiting from the trade feud through trade diversion, including Singapore (1st) and Viet Nam (67th), the most improved country in this year’s index.

“The Global Competitiveness Index 4.0 provides a compass for thriving in the new economy where innovation becomes the key factor of competitiveness. The report shows that those countries which integrate into their economic policies an emphasis on infrastructure, skills, research and development and support those left behind are more successful compared to those that focus only on traditional factors of growth.” said Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum.

The report documents emerging areas of promising policies, reforms and incentives to build more sustainable and inclusive economies. To manage the transition to a greener economy, the report recommends four key areas of action: engage in openness and international collaboration, update carbon taxes and subsidies, create incentives for R&D, and implement green public procurement. To foster shared prosperity, the Report recommends four additional areas of action: increase equality of opportunity, foster fair competition, update tax systems and their composition as well as social protection measures, and foster competitiveness-enhancing investments.

Global trends and highlights

In addition to providing an annual assessment of economies’ long-term health, the report also highlights five trends in the global economy and their implications for economic policymakers

The last ten years saw global leaders take rapid action to mitigate the worst of the financial crisis: but this alone has not been enough to boost productivity growth.

With monetary policy running out of steam, policymakers must revisit and expand their toolkit to include a range of fiscal policy tools, reforms and public incentives

ICT adoption and promoting technology integration is important but policymakers must in parallel invest in developing skills if they want to provide opportunity for all in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Competitiveness is still key for improving living standards, but policymakers must look at the speed, direction and quality of growth together at the dawn of the 2020s.

It is possible for an economy to be growing, inclusive and environmentally sustainable – but more visionary leadership is needed to place all economies on such a win-win-win trajectory.

The report’s data also shows growing inequalities in the global economy.

Market concentration: The report finds that business leaders in the United States, China, Germany, France and the United Kingdom believe that market power for leading firms has intensified over the past 10 years.

Skills gap: Only the United States among G7 economies features in the top 10 on the ease of finding skilled employees. It is, in fact, the best economy in the world in this category. Of the others, the United Kingdom comes next (12th) followed by Germany (19th), Canada (20th), France (41st), Japan (54th) and Italy (63rd). China comes 40th.

Technology governance: Asked how the legal frameworks in their country are adapting to digital business models, only four G20 economies make it into the top twenty. These are; the United States (1st), Germany (9th), Saudi Arabia (11th) and the United Kingdom(15th). China comes 24th in this category.

“What is of greatest concern today is the reduced ability of governments and central banks to use monetary policy to stimulate economic growth. This makes it all the more important that competitiveness-enhancing polices are adopted that are able to boost productivity, encourage social mobility and reduce income inequality,” said Saadia Zahidi, Head of the Centre for the New Economy and Society at the World Economic Forum.

Regional and country highlights

G20 economies in the top 10 include the United States (2nd), Japan (6th), Germany (7th) and the United Kingdom (9th) while Argentina (83rd, down two places) is the lowest ranked among G20 countries.

The United States (2nd overall) is the leader in Europe and North America. The United States remains an innovation powerhouse, ranking 1st on the Business dynamism pillar and 2nd on Innovation capability. It is followed by the Netherlands (4th), Switzerland (5th), Germany (7th), Sweden (8th), the United Kingdom (9th) and Denmark (10th). Among other large economies in the region, Canada is 14th, France 15th, Spain 23rd and Italy 30th. The most improved country is Croatia (63rd).

The presence of many competitive countries in East Asia and the Pacific makes this region the most competitive in the world, followed closely by Europe and North America. In Asia Pacific,Singapore leads the regional and the global ranking thanks to a top-10 performance in seven of the 12 GCI pillars, including Infrastructure (95.4), Health (100), Labour market (81.2), Financial system (91.3), quality of public institutions (80.4) and it takes advantage of being the most open economy in the world. It is followed by Hong Kong SAR (3rd), Japan (6th), and Korea (13th). China is 28th (the highest ranked among the BRICS) while the most improved country in the region this year (Viet Nam) is 67th. The ranking reveals how heterogenous the regional competitiveness landscape is. Although the region is home to some of the most technologically advanced economies in the world, the average scores of the innovative capability (54.0) and business dynamism (66.1) are relatively low, lagging behind Europe and North America.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, Chile (70.5, 33rd) is the most competitive economy thanks to a stable macroeconomic context (1st, with 32 other economies) and open markets (68.0, 10th). It is followed by Mexico (48th), Uruguay (54th), and Colombia (57th). Brazil, despite being the most improved economy in the region is 71st; while Venezuela (133rd, down six places) and Haiti (138th) close the regional ranking. The region has made important improvements in many areas, yet it still lags behind in terms of institutional quality (the average regional score is 47.1) and innovation capability (34.3), the two lowest regional performances.

In the Middle East and North Africa, Israel (20th) and the United Arab Emirates (25th) lead the regional ranking, followed by Qatar (29th) and Saudi Arabia (36th); Kuwait is the most improved in the region (46th, up eight) while Iran (99th) and Yemen (140th) lose some ground. The region has caught up significantly on ICT adoption and many countries have built sound infrastructure. Greater investments in human capital, however, are needed to transform the countries in the region into more innovative and creative economies.

Eurasia’s competitiveness ranking sees the Russian Federation (43rd) on top, followed by Kazakhstan (55th) and Azerbaijan (58th), both improving their performance. Focusing on Financial development (52.0), and Innovation capability (35.5) would help the region to achieve a higher competitiveness performance and advance the process towards structural change.

In South Asia,India, in 68th position, loses ground in the rankings despite a relatively stable score, mostly due to faster improvements of several countries previously ranked lower. It is followed by Sri Lanka (the most improved country in the region at 84th), Bangladesh (105th), Nepal (108th) and Pakistan (110th).

Led by Mauritius (52nd), sub-Saharan Africa is overall the least competitive region, with 25 of the 34 economies assessed this year scoring below 50. South Africa, the second most competitive in the region, improves to the 60th position, while Namibia (94th), Rwanda (100th), Uganda (115th) and Guinea (122nd) all improve significantly. Among the other large economies in the region, Kenya (95th) and Nigeria (116th) also improve their performances, but lose some positions, overtaken by faster climbers. On a positive note, of the 25 countries that improved their Health score by two points or more, 14 are from sub-Saharan Africa, making strides to close the gaps in healthy life expectancy.

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Economy

The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the (Unwarranted) Pessimism over Jobs

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Ever since homo erectus carved a piece of stone into a tool, the welfare of our species has been on the increase. Indeed, this technological breakthrough led first to the hand axe, and eventually to the iPhone. We have found it convenient to organize the most dramatic period of change between these inventions into four industrial revolutions.

 As each revolution unfolded, dire predictions of massive job losses ensued, increasing with each. The first three are over, and these concerns were clearly misplaced. The number of jobs increased each time, as did living standards and every other social indicator.

McKinsey predicts that 800 million workers could be displaced in 42 countries, or a third of the workforce, because of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). When reminded of the experience with previous revolutions, the comeback is often that this one is different. Although this has been said at the onset of each revolution, could there be something more to it this time?

Disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain and 3D printing are indeed transforming social, economic and political systems, often in unpredictable ways. The technology itself is difficult to map because its growth rate could be exponential, factorial or higher. It is this unpredictability that is making impact assessments difficult. Difficult but not impossible.

To begin with, we know that a lot of low-skilled, repetitive jobs are being automated, starting in high wage countries but quickly spreading to the developing world. And not all high-skilled jobs are immune either.

But are there limits? To answer this question, we need to first understand how work has been transformed, especially with global value chains. Jobs now consist of a bundle of tasks, and this is true for all skill levels. As long as one of the multitude of tasks that a worker performs cannot be technically and economically automated, then that job is probably safe. And there are lots of jobs like that, although it may not appear so, on the surface. 

For example, although most tasks performed by waiters can be automated, human interaction is still required. Human hands are also highly complex and scientists have yet to replicate the tactile sensors of animal skin. The robot may deliver your soup, but struggle to place it on your table without spilling it. Apart from what vending machines can dispense, some of the tasks associated with waiting tables will still require humans.

The debate also tends to wrongly focus on gross rather than net jobs, usually unintentionally. But it is the net figure that matters in this debate. 

For instance, greater automation of production processes will require greater supervision and quality control. Humans will be required to carry out this function. The focus on gross ignores the higher skilled jobs created directly as a result of greater automation. 

And as long as the cost of adding more supervisors does not outweigh the savings from automation, the reduction in the price of the final good would spur an increase in demand. If the increase in demand is large enough, it could even expand the number of jobs in factories that automate part, but not all, of their production process. In this case, the automation leads to a net increase in jobs.

There will also be inter-industry effects. Productivity gains from new technology in one industry can lower production costs in others through input–output linkages, contributing to increased demand and employment across industries. Higher demand and more production in one industry raises demand for other industries, and on it goes.

Why then the widespread pessimism about the 4IR and jobs? 

It could be that it is easier to see how existing jobs may be lost to automation than it is to imagine how new ones may emerge sometime in the future. Simply put, seeing is believing. In a sense, this is like the gross versus net confusion, but separated by time and greater uncertainty.

It is also more sensational to highlight the job displacing possibilities than the job creating ones. We also hear more about it because while the benefits are widely dispersed across the general public through lower prices, the costs are concentrated and can displace low-skilled workers, providing greater incentive to organize and lobby against or complain about the costs. 

Furthermore, when there is enough uncertainty, it is generally safer to overstate rather than understate the potential cost to innocent victims of change. All of these factors could combine to explain the unwarranted pessimism over jobs.

But there could be a silver lining to all this negativity. If it leads to greater efforts to reskill and reshape the workforce to better adapt to change, then this is exactly what is required, and there is no overdoing it. Ironically, it could well be this pessimism that produces the preparedness that results in it being misplaced, if not to begin with, but in the end!

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