Work and the Transition to a Solar Future: A Perspective

Societal change is an unavoidable constant.  The totality of humans, other species, and physical earth systems constitute a single economy (the Inclusive World Economy) that is continuously evolving.  This global process of change is driven by the constant flow of energy from the sun.  Energy must do what it does: change the materials it interacts with and change the forms in which it presents itself.  Materials must do what they do: interact with the flows of energy, be changed, and facilitate the transformation of energy forms into different energy forms. As part of this enormous configuration of processes I call the Inclusive World Economy, the world of work must continuously become different and we must become different in dynamic association with this process — but not necessarily in the ways or at the speed we expect or want.

We humans are among the vast array of material instruments through which the flow of solar energy drives change.  Work is the primary way in which we are instruments of change.  In the last several centuries we have vastly expanded and continue to expand the human role in the processes of change in the Inclusive World Economy.  We did this by borrowing solar energy from the past (stored as fossil fuels) and adding it to the flow of solar energy that daily fuels earth’s myriad systems.[1] This dramatic daily increase in the flow of energy through the Inclusive World Economy accelerated and continues to accelerate the global processes of societal and earth systems change, has changed and continues to change the way societal and earth systems change takes place, and has transformed and continues to transform us and almost everything about our planet.

We already know that we can’t keep increasing the use of fossil fuels to augment the daily flow of solar energy.  We have to dramatically limit our borrowing from past solar energy income.  More unsettling is the possibility that we must learn to share the budget of current solar energy flow with other species and with various earth system processes – such as cleansing water through solar powered processes – to a much greater extent than we now think.  We just do not know how much solar energy we can divert from other species and processes in the Inclusive World Economy without generating a new round of system level changes that are both massive and destructive to human wellbeing.

In a large, complex, and dynamic system, system level change can remain evolutionary even while subsystems are going through deep and far reaching change and components are being created and destroyed at a rapid pace.  This is what is now happening in the Inclusive World Economy.  Species are being destroyed; whole communities of people are losing their ways of life; institutions that have been central to our wellbeing are losing there effectiveness and new institutional arrangements are popping up; planetary threats that we have never encountered before have emerged.  The effects of climate change, species loss, limits to vital resources like fresh water and arable land, and conflicts over these things are multiplying and coming faster and faster.

Not surprisingly, the world’s institutional arrangements, which we took for granted only a few decades ago, are becoming dysfunctional in various ways and being subjected to mounting attacks from various quarters.  This is happening to the world of work, where big changes are under way and conflicts over these changes are growing.  The pay and benefits associated with high end jobs are disappearing; protections against harmful work environments are being weakened; more and more jobs involve the work of repairing the damages inflicted by climate change, wars, and illegal business operations.  The world’s stock of wealth (including its people) is growing older, forcing us to devote much more of our work activity to fighting the ordinary ravages of time.

Everything in the Inclusive World Economy is connected, so this is a very dynamic situation.  No one can escape this global upheaval, so everyone is or will be forced to respond to and manage the specific forms in which these massive and life-altering global crises visit us.  As we take actions to respond, every other part of the Inclusive World Economy will change in response to our actions.   Ironically, as we do more to respond to the crises by exerting more technological control over other species and earth systems rather than adapting our own activities to the laws of the universe as they operate in the Inclusive World Economy, the more we accelerate the intensification of the crises.  Unwittingly and carelessly, we have pushed the Inclusive World Economy into a new and dangerous era of change.

In this increasingly hostile global environment, many of us are already struggling with life-altering consequences of these global crises.  Where this is happening, working people are experimenting with old and new ways of making a living and old and new ways of protecting their work opportunities. They have no choice.  But, some of these efforts only work for the short term because they propagate effects through the dynamic processes at work in the Inclusive World Economy to intensify crises and create new ones.

The future of work is uncertain, but at the moment bad outcomes look more likely than good outcomes.  Rising support for authoritarian governments that divide the world’s workers into categories and help one category by taking from the others is accelerating the destruction of the very institutions we need to respond to global crises effectively.  Much more importantly, though, the world’s leaders continue to strongly embrace the idea that the economic growth “miracle” of the last two centuries has no end in sight.  If only we make the right policy choices,  they continue to claim, the material riches of the world can continue to grow, everyone can enjoy a share of those riches, and the crises will wither away like so many storm clouds.

From the perspective of the Inclusive World Economy, the end of the material growth miracle is right in front of us.  The era of fossil fuel energy is coming to an end, the world’s material riches are beginning to diminish, and the world of work is changing quickly.  A shift to solar energy, no matter how successful and complete, will not sustain the material wealth miracle created by massive fossil fuel energy flows.  The only choice before us is how we make the shift to a world of less.  For now, a democratic and equitable shift seems very out of reach, but an authoritarian and inhumane transition is not inevitable.  An inclusive perspective, attention to the limits of a solar future, and hard and careful political work can move the world in the direction of a much more desirable future than the one now looming darkly on the horizon.

[1] In economics we borrow from future income to augment current income.  In the case of energy, however, we can borrow from past solar energy income.

Paradigm Premises and Insights into Stagnating Global Economic Growth


Why does political instability afflict Europe and the United States? The answer is that just as the great transformation of the world economy between 1850 and 1890 generated political instability, so too does the globalization of the present era. In addition, the second great transformation of the world economy is larger than the first, and thus, not surprisingly, generates greater churn. … Those countries able to keep unemployment and inequality within bounds will be more stable. The greater the levels of inequality and unemployment, the greater the political instability and the smaller the chance of achieving stable economic growth.

David W. Brady, Globalization and Political Instability, The American Interest, March 8 2016. Accessed March 24, 2016.


Political instability reduces the likelihood of defining and implementing a reasonably comprehensive, coherent, and sustained economic-policy agenda. The resulting persistence of low growth, high unemployment, and rising inequality fuels continued political instability and fragmentation, which further undermines officials’ capacity to implement effective economic policies.

Michael Spence and David Brady, Economics in a Time of Political Instability, Project Syndicate, March 23, 2016. Accessed March 24, 2016.


We tend to focus on the problem of the moment — the subprime crisis, the euro crisis, the China slowdown, the oil bust. But surely these events are connected. What threads link them? I’ve been collecting possible story lines for a while now. … Put these all together, and what do you get? A Great Muddle, perhaps. Some stories overlap. At least two of them contradict each other. They don’t all add up to any kind of consistent narrative.

Justin Fox, Eight Story Lines Explain the Global Economic Crisis, BloombergView, March 10, 2016, Accessed March 24, 2016.


Statements about what can be done and should be done in a particular arena of human activity rest on foundation premises about how that part of our world works. These premises establish a paradigm for gathering and interpreting data about the world. They pull certain things into view and push other things out of view.

Professor Brady says we are in an era of transformation in the world economy.   Everyone knows that things are changing rapidly and in big ways and Brady is far from alone in concluding that a transformation is underway. This is an important development because the term transformation connotes change that reaches past surface phenomena, change that runs deep into the machinery of a system.

Such deep-running change often exposes weaknesses in a paradigm that worked well in the past. This is the case for theories of economic growth.

The field of economics is in turmoil because of the unpredicted crisis of 2008 and the persisting economic growth stagnation. In the search for answers, the paradigmatic premise that humans act rationally is now widely questioned. But, other premises should be getting more attention.

One premise worth questioning is that systemic continuity is a given. This premise is embraced across the fields of economics and politics. It is reflected in two assertions that are widely made and widely accepted.

The first is that this time is really not different. Although a few economists have argued that the financial crisis of 2008 is unusual, the dominant view is that it is not fundamentally different from numerous other financial crises in the history of capitalism. Brady affirms this view by comparing the transformation of the world economy in our time to the transformation in the 19th century. He sees it as more destabilizing, but not fundamentally different. After the transformation has played itself out, life can return to what we call normal.

The second assertion is that government policy interventions can restore world economic growth. In the past, economic growth has stagnated and stalled, but in every case it was sooner or later restored. Now is no different. By adopting the appropriate economic policies, governments can restore economic growth to levels that restore full employment and steadily increase human wealth and well-being.

The concepts of transformation and systemic continuity do not sit together well. This is a telling juxtaposition to which economists should be giving more attention. Perhaps as I have been arguing in this blog, it isn’t bad policies that are limiting global economic growth; perhaps it is existential limits to economic growth that make all policy interventions fall short.

Perhaps economists, including Brady himself, should set aside the premise of continuity and explore all the implications of applying the concept of transformation to our current circumstances.

Economists are Still Dragging Their Analytic Feet

But right now I’m stuck. I have no idea how the United States economy is doing. And the closer I look at the data, the more contradictory it looks. … Yeah, but what happened in 2008 was a once-a-century kind of storm. If you always think that the big one is imminent, most of the time you’ll turn out to be wrong.

Neil Irwin, Is the Economy Really in Trouble? A Debate, New York Times, October 30, 2015.


Yes, but why would anyone, especially an economist, think that the once-a-century kind of storm rule still holds for economic matters. This century is unlike any other century before it, in so many ways. For the first time in human history, virtually every inhabitant on the planet is connected to every other inhabitant through commodity markets, communications systems, transportation systems, and a global financial system.

If economic theories and models can still be applied in any valid way, they can only be applied to the single world economy. National governments exist, nation boundaries exist, but national economies do not exist, except as ghosts of their former selves.  If an economy is a system that produces and distributes wealth, then it is glaringly apparent that the economic activities found within a national boundary do not constitute an economy.

To get un-stumped, economists must abandon the ghosts of economies past.  What’s keeping them stuck with an analytic approach that is a century behind the times?

This Is No Time for Irrational Exuberance about Jobs at Living Wages – We’re in a New World of Work


Eurozone GDP still hasn’t gotten back to its 2007 level, and doesn’t look like it will anytime soon. Indeed, it already wasn’t clear if its last recession was even over before we found out the eurozone had stopped growing again in the second quarter. And not even Germany has been immune: its GDP just fell 0.2 percent from the previous quarter.

Matt O’Brien, Worse than the 1930s: Europe’s recession is really a depression, Washington Post, August 20, 2014. Web 9/5/2014.


Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 142,000 in August … Manufacturing employment was unchanged in August, following an increase of 28,000 in July. Motor vehicles and parts lost 5,000 jobs in August, after adding 13,000 jobs in July. Auto manufacturers laid off fewer workers than usual for factory retooling in July, and fewer workers than usual were recalled in August. Elsewhere in manufacturing, there were job gains in August in computer and peripheral equipment (+3,000) and in nonmetallic mineral products (+3,000), and job losses in electronic instruments (-2,000).

Employment Situation Summary, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 5, 2014. Web 9/5/2014.


Today’s report also included revisions to first-quarter personal income. Wages and salaries rose by $131.3 billion, revised down from an initially reported $135.1 billion gain. They climbed by $103.6 billion in the second quarter.

Shobhana Chandra, Economy in U.S. Expands 4.2%, More Than Previously Forecast, Bloomberg, August 28, 2014.


Almost 21 million people are victims of forced labour – 11.4 million women and girls and 9.5 million men and boys. … Almost 19 million victims are exploited by private individuals or enterprises and over 2 million by the state or rebel groups. … Forced labour in the private economy generates US$ 150 billion in illegal profits per year.

Facts and Figures, Forced labour, human trafficking and slavery, International Labour Organization, Web 9/5/2014.


Comparing the first half of 2014 with the first half of 2007 (the last period of reasonable labor market health before the Great Recession), hourly wages for the vast majority of American workers have been flat or falling. And even since 1979, the vast majority of American workers have seen their hourly wages stagnate or decline…

Elise Gould, Why America’s Workers Need Faster Wage Growth—And What We Can Do About It, Economic Policy Institute, August 27, 2014. Web 9/5/2014.


The U.S. is deeply tied to the rest of the world economy and the world economy is plagued by contradictory national economic policies, geopolitical instability, extreme weather conditions, and rising prices. These are chronic conditions that will continue to prevent the world economy from achieving a steady rate of economic growth high enough to grow jobs and incomes.

Slow economic growth combined with high levels of global income and wealth inequalities can only produce a steady stream of domestic and geopolitical disasters. Slow economic growth is probably a permanent feature of the 21st century world economy, so we have to learn to live with it. We can, however, do a lot to reduce economic inequalities.

STEM Education Falls Short: The Problem is Too Few Jobs, Not Too Little Education


According to new statistics from the 2012 American Community Survey, engineering and computer, math and statistics majors had the largest share of graduates going into a STEM field with about half employed in a STEM occupation. Science majors had fewer of their graduates employed in STEM. About 26 percent of physical science majors; 15 percent of biological, environmental and agricultural sciences majors; 10 percent of psychology majors; and 7 percent of social science majors were employed in STEM.

 Census Bureau Reports Majority of STEM College Graduates Do Not Work in STEM Occupations, U.S. Census Bureau, July 2014.


Since cohort-wage profiles display a similar pattern, these findings appear to fit with a strong increase in demand for cognitive tasks in the 1990s followed by a decline in the 2000s.

 Paul Beaudry, David A. Green, and Benjamin M. Sand. The Declining Fortunes of the Young since 2000, American Economic Review, 2014


Chart-Labor Force Participation Rate Trend

The labor force is anticipated to grow by 8.5 million, an annual growth rate of 0.5 percent, over the 2012–2022 period. The growth in the labor force during 2012–2022 is projected to be smaller than in the previous 10-year period, 2002–2012, when the labor force grew by 10.1 million, a 0.7-percent annual growth rate.

 Labor force projections to 2022: the labor force participation rate continues to fall, Monthly Labor Review, December 2013.


We now live in a world economy in which economic processes and trends are global. Global economic growth is constrained and will continue to be into the foreseeable future. As a consequence, current patterns of investment, domestic and global, will not generate a sufficient number of jobs to produce anything near global full employment at living wages.

Economic activity in the U.S. does not constitute a separate economy, so U.S. economy policies cannot produce full employment and high wages in the U.S. while the rest of the world is stuck with high rates of unemployment and low wages.   Investment follows profits.  Profits are maximized by producing in low income places in the world economy and selling in high income places.  Unfettered transnational flows of capital and commodities combined with preventing low-skill working people from easily crossing national boundaries in search of work gives the world’s investors the legal framework with which to manage the world’s labor supply to their advantage.

Why are Americans Stumped about the Economy? Nonsense for Analysis


Some Federal Reserve policy makers are citing the lowest inflation rate in at least five decades as an alarm bell for the economy. Economists at UBS Securities LLC say the figure isn’t as troubling as it appears. … Among the reasons for slowing inflation are improved efficiency and a stronger dollar, which puts downward pressure on prices of imported goods such as cars and clothing.

“If anything, the price softening is helping to support demand,” and the dollar is set to rise further, said Coffin [an economist at UBS Securities]. … “Households are getting a little bit more purchasing power out of their income growth.”

Michelle Jamrisko, Inflation at 53-Year Low Belies U.S. Demand Vigor: Economy, Bloomberg, June 12, 2013.


If a stronger dollar means you can buy more T-shirts from Bangladesh, then the manufacturing job growth will be there not here.  Just as importantly, who says you are going to buy another T-shirt or a new Toyota with money saved because a stronger dollar creates lower real prices.  Maybe you just might bank the extra money  or buy a couple more GM stocks.   What happens to demand growth in that case?

Then, there is the other side of the stronger dollar.  While American consumers can buy more T-shirts from Bangladesh with the same wages, the factory owners in Bangladesh have to pay higher real prices for the American parts to keep their sewing machines running.  Maybe they turn to China or Brazil for those parts.   Quite logically, any demand growth at home can easily be offset by losses in demand from abroad.

(Of course, most economists either work for global corporations and investors or support their agendas.  Global corporations and investors don’t care where the demand is rising and where it is falling or where jobs are being created or being destroyed.  Unlike you and me, they are not tied to a particular nation or a particular city or a particular family, so their fortunes do not rise and fall in connection with a particular place or a particular group of people.)

The key point is that supply and demand functions are global.  To write about supply and demand in nation terms is misguided and misguides readers.  The U.S. has to export goods and services to pay for the things we import — although we are now wedded to a way of life in which we buy goods and services made in other countries on credit and then pay our debts by selling ownership of our tangible wealth to global investors in those other countries.

Debt supported buying has obscured the loss of wealth in the U.S.  But, only in the short term can debt do this.   Sooner or later a transfer of real wealth has to take place to clear the debt — then the loss that occurred a decade ago is finally seen for what it is.  (It may well be that one part of the value of  the foreclosed home down the street from you now belongs to an Asian investor and the other part belongs to a Swiss investor.)

In a world economy, what matters for the working people in the U.S. and for working people everywhere else in the world is the structure of global investment decisions that give life to the relationship between global supply and global demand.  Globally, there are now too many businesses and not enough buyers, and tracking the ebbs and flows of demand within the U.S. obscures the far greater power of this global reality over our working lives.

Economists at a Crossroads: The Ideology of National Policy Making Sovereignty vs. the Reality of a Global Economy


When Sweden’s Riksbank was founded in 1668, followed by the Bank of England in 1694, the motivation was that a single economy should have a single central bank. Over the next three centuries, as the benefits of instituting a monopoly over money creation became more widely recognized, a slew of central banks were established, one for each politically bounded economy.

What was not anticipated was that globalization would erode these boundaries. As a result, we have returned to a past from which we tried to escape – a single economy, in this case the world, with multiple money-creating authorities.

This is clearly maladaptive, and it explains why the massive injections of liquidity by advanced-country central banks are failing to jump-start economies and create more jobs.

Kaushik Basu (Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank and Professor of Economics at Cornell University), Two Policy Prescriptions for the Global Crisis, Project Syndicate, April 23, 2013.


Since the economic crisis of 2008, most economists have been telling political leaders and their constituents what they want to hear – that national policy making sovereignty is still viable.  (Implement the right policies and your nation will do well no matter what is happening in the rest of the world.)

The time is up for this kind of political expediency.  With more than four years of policy failure now weighing on the world’s political leaders and no promising economic corners in sight, economists can only lose the last of their credibility by continuing to tell policy makers that they are the sole masters of the destinies of their peoples.

The choice for the field of economics is clear: take a chance that some political leaders and some constituencies are ready to acknowledge that national policy making sovereignty is a thing of the past.  That’s the only approach that will save the field of economics from becoming an object of contempt.

See related source items and comments in earlier blog posts:

Accumulating Evidence Shows That the World’s Nation-Centered Economic Policy Making Paradigm is Obsolete, March 21, 2012.

The World Economy’s Demolition Derby of Competing and Overlapping Economic Policy Making Entities, January 22, 2012.

What Happens In Vegas Doesn’t Stay In Vegas: National Policies Have Global Consequences, November 30, 2011.

Fragmented and Weakened Global Governance Perpetuates the World’s Employment Crisis, September 9, 2011.