Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Spinning Wheels Economy

OK lieutenants and economists.  We're going to go from 0 to mach 1 in a couple paragraphs so hold tight.

In all that is economics, and actually, all that is in life, the only thing that matters is "utility."

What is "utility" you ask?

Well it's a word that economists (poorly) use to describe the benefits people get from consuming or using goods and services.  If it were up to me I would replace "utility" with the word "enjoyment" in every economics textbook, but alas, I am not an academian.

Regardless, the point about utility (or enjoyment) is that, that is what life is all about.  Enjoying yourself and living life.  Extending your life as long as possible and enjoying a high of a standard of living as you possibly can.

Now, there are only two things (outside friends, family and loved ones) that can provide you enjoyment in an economic sense.

Goods and services.

Goods in the form of ice cream,motorcycles, dachshunds and martinis, etc.

Services in the form of massages, surgery, meal preparation, and so forth.

And that REALLY is all you need to know in order to understand economics.  Economics is NOT about money or business or commerce.  It is (again) about "stuff" and fun.  So whichever country produces the most stuff literally does win because it is stuff and services that provide us joy, not the paper money that we use to buy the stuff.

Now where we run into trouble is how economists measure the amount of "stuff" we produce in this or any other economy - Gross Domestic Product or "GDP."

GDP is technically defined as "all the goods and services produced within a nation's border within one year."  And so if GDP goes up, hey, we must be producing more stuff!

No so fast, buckaroo.

First there is the thing called the "Broken Window Fallacy."  If you break a window, it must be repaired.  Out comes the window repairman and he replaces your window.

Did this increase your standards of living?

No, it merely MAINTAINED your standards of living.

BUT because of how we account or measure GDP that $100 you spend on the window repairman goes into the GDP total.  In short, yes GDP went up, but our standards of living did not.

Now this "Broken Window Fallacy" is actually accounted for.  Windows will break, machines will wear out, cars break down, and so to account for the natural "wear and tear" that will occur in this or any other economy we come up with "Net Domestic Product" - an estimate as to how much real NEW production occurs, not replacement parts and repairs.  But even NDP does not account for other discrepancies between GDP and our actual standards of living.

Second, government spending.

Government spending (state and local) now accounts for 40% GDP and some of that is considered GDP.  Yes, a lot of it is deficit spending, but we'll leave that out of it for now.  The primary point is that government spending has been increasing and quite dramatically since 1900 when it only accounted for about 3% of GDP (below is just the federal share, AND it does not include Barack Obama's 10% jump in his 3.5 years in office).

The question is what do we get out of that government spending?

The truth is, nothing.

Yes, government spending is accounted for in the national income accounts, and yes it increases GDP, but the problem with government spending is it's nowhere near as efficient and productive as private spending.  The government (as I'm sure you're aware of) pisses away money worse than an Edina trophy wife with a horse farm.  The $800 spent on a hammer for the Pentagon back in the 80's is a perfect example.  Or, for you lovely liberals, your lovely $500 million in taxpayer money spent on Solyndra.  Or (once again for you lovely liberals) on a state level where we spend the equivalent of two houses per child on "teachers" as they fake educating the children.

Did we as a country cumulatively have our standards of living raised by $800 for that hammer?  Did we as a country cumulatively enjoy $500 million worth of solar panels and energy savings from Solyndra?  Did we as a country cumulatively have our standards of living raised by $200,000 for acting like we were educating that Detroit child-turned-gang-banger?

Of course not.

But from an accounting standpoint that money was still considered GDP and an increase in our standards of living.  This calls into question the ENTIRE government spending component of GDP.  And while there's no way to accurately measure just how much of government spending is wasted, I would estimate today nearly 85% of it is.

If you think we're done whittling away at your standard of living, sorry to say, we're not.  There's one more flaw in GDP that has been gnawing at the back of my mind - just how efficient is the private sector?  Oh, rip apart the public sector all we want, it ain't like the private sector is the epitome of efficiency.

And this is what I call the "Spinning Wheels Economy."

I happened upon this as I realized that in my now approaching 20 year banking career, the last 10 years, ESPECIALLY the last 5 have been spent cleaning up other people's mistakes.  My role as a credit analyst in theory should have benefited society by way of me assessing risk precisely and accurately.  You invest your money at a bank or a real estate company, I analyze and to the best of my ability calculate the risk, potential return and likelihood of repayment, to get you a higher rate of return.

But in the past 5 years I have spent no more than maybe, MAYBE a full 80 hours doing that.

Instead I've been spending my time cleaning up all the crap loans idiotic bankers made before me.  Dealing with problem loans where the client hasn't paid us back.  Dealing with impaired collateral because the galactically retarded branch president decided to hold onto it "until the real estate market improved."  And dealing with spineless pansies who can get the gall to foreclose and repossess on the losers of society.  I did nothing anywhere near what my original job was intended to be.  Oh, and don't get me started about all the government regulatory compliance that does nothing but piss away the shareholder's capital.

But, did I get paid a salary during that time?


Was that accounted for in GDP?


Did I produce one damn thing if value during the past decade?

Not a dime.

It then further dawned on me that I am probably not alone.  The current economic environment in the US is just ripe for millions of private sector people getting paid who essentially produce nothing of real value.

UNDERemployment is around 20-25%, nobody is working anywhere near their potential.

Businesses are currently managed by (in my humble opinion) the most incompetent, impotent, ineffectual, inefficient, cronyistic, nepotistic retarded rent-seekers in the history of the US.

And the overall quality and caliber of the average US person, who now populates both the rank and officer classes of the private sector, has deteriorated considerably since the 1940's.

All of which means we clock in, but there's no real, genuine economic production.

If I had to estimate it, I'd say that right now the average private sector employee is really only productive for 25% of his or her time while on the job.  And this says NOTHING about management arming them with the optimal, let alone, adequate combination of training, equipment and leadership.  Of course my experiences are biased.  I worked in the most corrupted, inefficient industry in the country - banking.  But I'm sure those of you in other industries could estimate your "efficiency loss."

Making an attempt to back out my bias, I'd still estimate given the average quality of the average American today, you'll looking at a loss of at least half the efforts in the private sector.

Now admittedly, these are all estimates.  And I would also contend these percentages of lost efficiency would be lower if we went back in time which Americans were more responsible.  But if we take some measure of accounting for

1.  this deterioration,
2.  NDP,
3.  government spending loss of efficiency
4.  private sector loss of efficiency

our "real" "Real Net Domestic Product" is nowhere near what government economists and databases tell us and perhaps more accurately reflect our own experiences and observations. Admittedly a very presumptuous and pessimistic-assumptions-made chart, but here is what I came up with:

In short standards of living haven't really increased all that much since 1967.  Oh yes, I know, we have cute little gadgets.  And yes, I know, our cars now have power windows.  But this trend does more or less correlate with what I've experienced.  I'm better off than I was in 1980, but not by much.

Now, again, there are admittedly a lot of assumptions that went into this chart:

1.  I assumed government spending was effective at a 50% rate, dropping to 15% today.
2.  I assumed the private sector was effective at 80%, dropping to 35% today.
3.  This does not account for any additional benefit technology may have provided in terms of increasing the quality of our goods and services.

But I am more curious if this correlates with what you have experienced in terms of standards of living and life in the past roughly 40 years instead of the BLS and BEA TELLING you what you've experienced.  And keep in mind the above chart DOES NOT account for all the money we've borrowed from foreign countries and spent on foreign made goods.  This is AMERICAN made products and AMERICAN consumption sans any subsidies from our foreign friends.


Unknown said...

I work for a canadian bank. We do business worldwide, including the US. Our cost of compliance is astronomical: Sarbanes-Oxley is an example of a compliance program that adds no value.
All communications have to be archived "forever" (we need an infinity of computer disk space)
But this compliance produces zero value for our shareholders. It reduces the reputational risk, but it is not a positive value-add.
Multiply this by the entire financial sector, then across the various industries.


heresolong said...

How much of the decreased efficiency of the private sector can be laid at the feet of government regulation? Take your example of bank loans. How many of those loans are sitting there because federal law requires that they make x% of loans to such and such class of people, that perhaps bank managers have no actual say in who gets a loan but have to go with the formula provided by the government? Seems to me that in a purely capitalist system, a bank that made that many bad loans would have gone out of business long ago, thereby increasing the efficiency of the private sector.

William said...

My standard of living has gone up a very great deal in the last thirty years. But then, I am a mechanical engineer managing heavy industrial construction in the mining sector in Canada.

I have gone from a 700 square foot house heated with a wood burning stove in northern Manitoba and fishing from a borrowed canoe, to living in a 1600 square foot home in Saskatoon and flying up north to go fishing in my own aircraft.

Net accumulated value is positive. Net change in standard of living is very positive.

Other's mileage may vary. I don't know that people who studied underwater basket weaving have done particularly well.

Cogitans Iuvenis said...

Great piece captain. I would say that technological advancements have allowed human beings to be more productive in a shorter time frame. But the chart about the net adjusted domestic product is an eye opener.

William said...

On a more practical note construction has gotten drastically more efficient over the last few decades. Machinery and other processes have made the individual craftsman much much much more productive. Simple things like hours per cubic meter of excavation might have halved depending upon type of unit.

Even with inflation and the escalating cost of skilled labour (it is getting harder to find) the dollars per unit of various types of construction have remained the same or gone down.

Creeping profit sucking overhead has cut into share payouts, but we remain vigilant and prune the bush every now and then.

Anonymous said...

1. I assumed government spending was effective at a 50% rate, dropping to 15% today.
2. I assumed the private sector was effective at 80%, dropping to 35% today.
3. This does not account for any additional benefit technology may have provided in terms of increasing the quality of our goods and services.

Yep, and if you're allowed to make any assumptions you want, you can prove up is down, green is blue, and Democrats are effective administrators.

Seriously - my first paying job was pumping gas back in 1970. I was paid $1.85 an hour, and gas was $0.54 per Canadian gallon. Today, gas in Canada is $1.30/l, or about $5.50 gallon. I make a lot more than $18.50 an hour.

As I've commented elsewhere, "stuff" in general has gotten cheaper/better/faster over the last 40 years. Record albums that cost me $4 back then, and warped, scratched, and dissolved have been replaced by CD's or iPods. The same 15 songs can be bought for $15 at iTunes, and last forever in perfect condition. And it doesn't just apply to electronics.

I remember my dad agonizing over spending $150 on a new refrigerator. Today, you can buy one for less than $500 that's better insulated, uses less power, has more compartments, is frost-free, etc., etc. Because of superior manufacturing techniques, virtually all "stuff" is better today.

What hasn't changed is services. While it wasn't exactly 'shave and a haircut - two bits', a kid's haircut was $1; it's a lot more now. From lawyers to lawnmovers, if it's provided by people, the price has gone up. And that's because the type of efficiencies we've seen in the world of stuff have been hard to replicate in the world of people.

Sure, computers, etc. have made some people more efficient at what they do, but companies' response has been to get rid of others. The sales organization I worked at in 1985 had 15 sales people and five secretaries - er, excuse me, I meant 'admin assistants'. The one I work in today has 15 sales people and 1 admin. In other cases, people are just too expensive. Everybody pumps their own gas now.

I'll admit the dead hand of government has gotten heavier; only a fool would deny that. As an engineer, my favourite analogy has always been friction. Government represents sand in the gears of commerce, and they are grinding away today. I wouldn't go so far as to say government adds NO value, but the value for money it provides is very low, no matter how you measure it.

But to say quality of life hasn't increased in thirty years is taking it way too far. Just from my apartment, I have access to an entire world at my finger tips through the net and TV. I can talk to friends from all over the world for pennies a minute. The life expectancy of a diabetic at 55 forty years ago was grim; I expect to see my grandchildren, and my daughter just started university. She recently returned from a trip to Hong Kong and Japan; my parents dreamed of going from Toronto to NYC.

So, while I agree government is a drag and getting draggier, using made up stats as quoted above makes you seem more like a global warming enthusiast than an economist. It's not near as bad as you make it out to be, although if Bambam wins again, it's going to get worse.

Anonymous said...

I think this post is very valid although I quibble with your focus on "stuff" as the ultimate end of the economy. To my eye, the ultimate end of the economy is time. Stuff is just something that aids me in enjoying my time more. I use my time to provide services to others that I can do faster than they can. We account for that in money (as you accurately lay out) and then I can use the time I gave to others to acquire things I want to assist me in enjoying my time from others who are able to use their time to produce those things faster and more efficiently than I can.

The problem you have identified is that in the not so distant past, the time spent by people in productive pursuits not only aided them in acquiring things to enjoy how they spent their time, but also in improving the speed with which those in the future would be able to perform those tasks. Think of the invention of the lightbulb or the computer.

Now, so much more time is spent on things that are less likely to have an appreciable impact on the ability of future generations to spend their time in a more enjoyable fashion. This shows up as lagging productivity, but goes much deeper. The more time we spend doing things simply to go through this hamster wheel of present contentment, the less likely it is the future will be better off.

I think you have identified some of the causes for this, in the bureaucratic inefficiency in both government and private enterprise. Let us hope that people's inate sense of how to preserve their long-term well being takes over before it is too late.

Keep up the good work.

Matt said...

Well, I know that I for one am a hell of a lot better off in 2012 than I was in 1980, even accounting for the inevitable differences attributable to the fact that in 1980 I was FIVE YEARS OLD. But I've got more career security than my parents ever had (yeah, I might lose my job at any time, and I've lost plenty in the past, but there's always another one, and with only one exception I've never had to take a pay cut to get it), more fun stuff than my parents ever had, and I own the house my mother lives in as well as the one I live in (and yes, _I_ own them, not some bank or quasigovernmental entity) whereas both of my parents always rented (or, as in the present condition, sponged off relatives).

Oh, and I have more and better friends than my mother ever has in her life (can't speak for my dad, since I didn't see him in between my fourth birthday and his funeral), and my marriage has already outlasted hers by over a year, and is still going strong. Neither, of course, count one way or another in GDP or NDP, but as measures of life utility, they do matter.

Is government spending horrifically inefficient and private spending too often only-slightly-less-horrifically inefficient? Yeah, I'd have to say that I concur, based on both repeatable observation and anecdotal experiences. But "my life isn't meaningfully better today than it was in 1980"? Not only would I not say that, I have never even been closely acquainted with anybody who could honestly say that.

If I had to guess, I'd say that your major error is in attributing only 50% efficiency to private sector activity. It may be terribly bad in the part you've worked in, but that still doesn't net out to an economy-wide average that low.

TJ said...

"If I had to estimate it, I'd say that right now the average private sector employee is really only productive for 25% of his or her time while on the job."

I concluded a significant contributor to this is productivity gains in relation to the number of hours we are expected to work. A task performed 100 years ago is done much faster than today. The same applied to a task performed 25 years ago - it is done in less time. Yet, we continue to "work" a minimum of 8 hours per days.

Imagine if business operations could continue working as they are today, innovation still being used as a driver for growth, and workers reducing the work day to 6 hours, or less, and keeping the same wages.

Anonymous said...

Ahhhh I want that! Is there going to be a Femme Con next year? Girl, please please post an announcement about this next year!
solo pissing

Anonymous said...

I really don't think there's been some huge drop in private sector productivity. I also don't believe there's been any increase in the number rent seeking nepotists. We are merely experiencing the cumulative effect of 200+ years of their work.

As others have pointed out, you can achieve any results you want depending on your assumptions. One thing others have not pointed out is that while their standard of living has increased, so has their debt. I suggest a new chart: do not adjust for for reduced efficiency. Merely subtract out the government spending to give us the private sector, subtract our accumulated debt as negative product and make it all per capita, or if you prefer adjust for the size of the workforce.

Captain Capitalism said...

Anon 1124,

That is totally turning me on if you are female.

You are totally gay if you are a male.

Just kidding, outstanding and astute observation either way.


TJ said...

"A task performed 100 years ago is done much faster than today."

Got that backwards. Labor productivity is better now than 100 years ago.

Herb Nowell said...

The biggest problem (and I'm sure you know it Cap) is GDP is an income statement not a balance sheet.

Of course, I know of no effort to create a national balance sheet so we work with what we have.

In fact, if you want to understand if a person has a clue about economics asking them to explain the difference between the two is a great test question. Failure to differentiate income (money) from wealth (stuff) is how we get idiot statements like "taxing millionaires and billionaires making more than $250k".

That statement confuses high income with high wealth. Someone with a $250k income a year who blows it all on hookers and blow isn't a millionaire. He's probably not a thousandaire.

If you have $1,000,000 in assets more than you have liabilities you're a millionaire. You might only make $24,000. In fact, you could make the median US income (about $50,000) and still live better than the "rich" guy who makes $250k. If we're to believe Thomas Stanley, the closest thing I think we have to a expert on the wealthy, the median millionaire household has an income under $150k.

In fact, I think the situation is worse than you posit, Captain. Given our level of debt (not just gov't but everyone) even if GDP is closer to 90% wealth creation and 10% maintenance I suspect we're still poorer, in balance sheet terms, than we were 10 years ago. Certainly we're poorer than 5 years ago given the federal debt income alone.

Plus, that's cash accounting. If we use accrual accounting, like most large businesses, I suspect we're actually broke and have a negative national wealth.

Mike said...

A must read:

Here's a little vid:

Anonymous said...

"Got that backwards. Labor productivity is better now than 100 years ago."

By Labor, I assume you mean Employment. Employees are much more productive now than they were 100 years ago.

This means that they give their employer much more wealth now than they did 100 years ago and take home a much smaller percentage of what they give their employer than 100 years ago.

No wonder there are super rich and that the average CEO makes 450 times the average employee's wages.

Productivity is a bad deal for employees.

On the other hand, if you're on a farm and working only to feed yourself, then improved machinery and techniques is a boon.