Thursday, May 19, 2005

Past Performance is NOT A Guarantee of Future Returns.

Our economy, our worldview, our entire society is based on an assumption that growth, expansion and "advance" will always forge ahead, never ending.

Interesting. It's pretty obvious that I disagree with that assumption, but let's take a look at how completely it pervades our world:

- Our entire economy is fouded upon the principle of growth. A recession--quite a bad word--is not actually going backwards, but just the lack of growth. A depression--heaven forbid--is an actual shrinking of the economy for more than a couple of quarters in a row. And even during the "Great Depression", world population was still growing--it was just the pre-existing economic metrics that showed a retracement.

- Our entire credit system is based on a view of the "Time-Value of Money" that says that the economy will be bigger next year. Stock prices are--in theory--equal to the total profit of a corporation into the infinite future reduced by the time-value of money for that profit.

- Public and private sector finance, budgets, EVERYTHING is based upon the assumption that the economy will grow.

Well... needless to say, this isn't a given. Things like Peak Oil suggest the very real possibility that our world economy may be about to crest the preak of history, and begin a perpetual decline from that "peak" point onwards. What would happen if the assumption flipped, and going logic suggested that the economy will continually shrink? Well, the world of credit would be turned upside down. Pension plans, even the very concept of a "retirement" may go away. Nation-states will need to adapt quickly or die out, as their deficit-finance mechanisms suddenly get pulled out from beneath them. The entire concept of investing might go the way of the dodo--why would you invest in a factory to produce something when the existing level of production of that product will soon be more than the current demand? If there is no incentive for investment based upon growth, then what incentive is there for specialization in job skills? No specialization... what's next, no stratification? If the analogy is accurate--that we will retrace the upward curve of progress on the way back down, then we may just find ourselves back in the Paul Shepard's "hamlet economy", where economic activity doesn't make sense beyond individual production and local self-sufficiency.

Of course, maybe the economy will keep growing forever. Sure, there are limits--like when the mass of our human population is greater than the mass of the earth, or when the energy return on energy invested of recycling our limited resource base prevents further growth, but we must be able to overcome these things just like we always have in the past, right? I think that the very financiers that depend on perpetual growth actually have a catch phrase about it that they like to print on their documents: "Past performance is not a guarantee of future returns".


It would be interesting, there is no doubt of that... worth thinking about, at least.


troutsky said...

I have always found it fascinating that an important aspect of the American Dream is that each generation improve on the economic well being of the last.This kind of collective "growth", played out generationally,is a little hard to sustain even in the era of overt imperialism.

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