Friday, April 26, 2013

Your Grandchildren Have No Value

Good interview with Jeremy Grantham on the Guardian, if you haven't seen it. The reporter also released some transcripts of the interview:

Jeremy Grantham on population growth, China and climate sceptics

Jeremy Grantham on how to feed the world and why he invests in oil
Capitalism does millions of things better than the alternatives. It balances supply and demand in an elegant way that central planning has never come close to. However, it is totally ill-equipped to deal with a small handful of issues. Unfortunately, today, they are the issues that are absolutely central to our long-term wellbeing and even survival. It doesn't think long-term very well because of high discount rate structure. If you're a typical corporation anything lying out 30 years literally doesn't matter. Or, as I like to say: QED, your grandchildren have no value. And they usually act as if that was true, even though I'm sure they are actually very kind to their grandchildren.

My favourite story is about the contract between the farmer and the devil. The devil says, "sign this contract and I'll triple your farm's profits". But there are 25 footnotes, as there always is with the devil. Footnote 22 says that 1% of your soil will be eroded each year, which is actually horrifyingly close to the real average over the past 50 years. The farmer signs and makes a fortune on a 40-year contract. And his son then signs up for the next 40-year contract and makes a fortune. And his son then signs up for the third and final contract. He still does very well, and in the final 20 years the family has accumulated enormous wealth, but the soil has gone. It's the same story for all his neighbouring farms and everyone is out of business. My sick joke is that at least he will die a rich farmer when all the starving hordes arrive from the city.

Every graduate who took Econ 101 would probably sign that contract. There is no single theory that is used in economics that considers the finite nature of resources. It's shocking. But not as shocking as the pathetic waste of space over the last 50 years given to "rational expectations", which allows a whole generation of bankers and central bankers to believe that the market is efficient. None of it applies to the real world, or to messy human beings, many of whom are a little crooked when they have to be. It's been a disaster and a complete waste of time.  
It has been remarked before that modern economics is belief in a perpetual motion machine. Capital and labour, but no mention of energy. Without energy the whole thing grinds to a halt and the whole theory is demonstrated to be totally false. I'm late in the game at recognising this. One of my new heroes is an economist called Kenneth Boulding who, at 22, got a paper into Keynes's journal. At the age of about 50 he realised that economics was not taking its job seriously, that it was not interested in utility, in real serious improvement in the world, but that it was increasingly interested in new, elegant mathematical theories designed to get career advancement, over usefulness. He said the only people who believe you can have compound growth in a finite world are either mad men or economists. He also said: "Mathematics has brought rigor to economics. Unfortunately, it also brought mortis."
I don't quite understand his optimism on Chna, though. It seems like they are making the exact same mistakes.


  1. "Footnote 22 says that 1% of your soil will be eroded each year"

    That of course is not limited to soil erosion.
    For example governments sign the same kind contract. Here the 1% is debt.
    Almost all people would sign up. And have in fact done so, albeit unknowingly.

    1. We have indeed all signed up, whether we wanted to or not.

      It reminds me of dicsussions of the national debt. Somehow "we" ran up this debt. But I did not run up any debt. I have kept myself debt free. Yet somehow I am equally responsible for this collective "debt" that we are all supposed to have rung up? And somehow "our chidren" will have to pay for this debt that they have done nothing to create? WTF?

      Now that I think about it, it is alot like Christian theology - sin passing from generation to generation as a debt. I think David Graeber makes this same point in Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

  2. Thanks for the link. A really good interview.


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