La peste

COVID-19 Blog

In this time of ‘la peste’ the world as we know it is different.

Assumptions about who and how we are as the humans of this Earth are now under question. The world hungers for a return to normality. I do not want this. The fabric of what we believe is truth is perhaps no longer, truth being implicit in that fabric of certainty peddled by the astonishing success of our capitalist economy. They probably are implicit in any economy, the difference of course being that the capitalist system is the most successful economic system the world’s has ever known and such success carries with it the wisdom of certainty and uncertainty shaped by that success; perhaps a delusion; the future invented on a tissue; the root cause of this pandemic if you believe in root causes. Capitalism can turn on a five cent piece. Capitalism can exploit anything to  its own advantage. It is the stuff of genius, whether we like it or not.

The truth about Capitalism is simply that it is reliant upon a fundamental mathematical equation that sketches the compelling relationship between economic growth (g) on the one side and population growth (p) and energy consumption (e) on the other.

g = f{p.e}

The ‘e’  in this equation is energy and energy is fossil fuel consumption.
Population growth is defined by the fertility rate for women.

The brutality of ‘la peste’ is implicit in this equation, just as it explains global inertia about climate change.

As world population inexorably moves along an ever flattening growth curve from 6 billion in 2000 to 11+ billion in 2100 the only way to maintain economic growth (g) is to increase the consumption of energy (e), not decrease it as the Danish idealists of this world would have us believe. There is no way out of this equation and this pandemic will almost certainly and conclusively demonstrate this fact to the world. Neoliberal economics with its faith in the marketplace will not solve or even manage this equation for us.

This is not a diatribe against neoliberal economics. There does need to be an entirely new global dialectic between the incompatibilities of Neoliberal and Post-Keynesian macroeconomic  thinking and theory. The Post-Keynesian’s will need to manage this equation for us.
There can be no compromising growth. Growth is sacrosanct. What constitutes growth may alter as it moves from the literal to the analogic. Growth is and is not the central issue. If growth drops we are in deep strife and extremely vulnerable to the vicissitudes of  the next pandemic.
Energy consumption is the issue. It is energy consumption that will kill us and it will kill us if we consume energy, and we need a brand of economic thinking that solves this conundrum for us. It is energy consumption and energy production along with the management of inequality that will protect us from the next pandemic. It is energy production that will maintain economic growth in the face of flattening a population growth curve, that will create the economic structure and framework that protects us from the next pandemic.
We also know that inequality is central to the collective virulence and transmission of a virus in a pandemic; the less unequal the population the more protected that population is from virus transmission; the more possible it is to manage the presence of that virus in the population; the good management of inequality is fundamental to containing, suppressing and possibly eliminating the virus entirely. This cannot happen when inequality is out of control.
A virus is a parasite that has a particular relationship with its host’s immune system. This relationship is perfect. That is exactly why a virus of this nature is so threatening to the host; very similar to the analogy of perfect love. This host is both individual and collective. The virus must be able to move from one individual to another in order to remain viable and alive. It may kill the individual but it cannot kill its collective host. Extreme inequality in the population of the collective host creates the fertile conditions for a virus to thrive and propagate and transmit.
That is why Singapore has quarantined 20,000 foreign workers. Makes the eyes water! We also know that inequality is a  primary constraint to economic growth (see GINI). So it is not unreasonable to factor inequality into the growth – population – energy – equation.
Growth is moderated by population inequality (i)
g = f{(p.e)/i}
We also know that a reduction in inequality (i) increases energy consumption (e) and reduces population growth (p) thus altering economic growth (g) and so we do the full round of recursive relationships between these four critical factors.
Simply, inequality is central to the growth equation and it is central to the pandemic model going forward given that all expectations are that there will be an increasing number of possible pandemics, if the last 30 years are something to go by.
In its simplest terms, we need to maintain economic growth as population growth flattens and increase energy consumption and decrease inequality. We also know that increasing energy production decreases inequality which further flattens population growth, all of which impact on economic growth. Elegant. So in my opinion it is important that this moment of ‘la peste’ be taken and sipped and savoured and meditated upon; that we bear witness to the stripping of our assumptions; let us not hanker after an old normality from a few weeks ago; and let us lay bare the foundational equations and algorithms we pin our hopes and assumptions and dreams and certainties and truths to.
©Malcolm Robinson