Saturday, May 29, 2010

Declining GDP Can Be Good

The following is an open letter to John Mauldin in response to Thoughts from the Frontline Weekly Newsletter, Six Impossible Things. It ties in with another story at about the rapid decline in money supply.


Good essay, as usual, Mr. Mauldin. Hey, ask a trusted scientist about dimensional analysis. Your delta force equation is slightly incorrect; it should be multiplicative, not additive. Conceptually it's right, but the formula is formed wrong and the implications may be very different when you use the correct dimensions and mathematical operations. You might characterize this with the label "Busy Boys ... Better Boys", from the 3-cent stamp I discuss at the end, where I reveal another time in American history that produced sustainable healthy economic output. In short, declining GDP might not be bad if we think about it a little deeper than our illustrious leaders who seem to be acting out of habit, not knowledge.

First Fixing the Formula
For your delta force equation the definition of productivity has to be "dollars per person", since "population" is clearly "sum of persons". Therefore, the plus sign is wrong; it must be "multiplied by". Think about it this way in dimensional analysis: if you get 10 miles per gallon and have 20 gallons of gas, how many miles can you travel? The formula is "M traveled = 20G x 10 MPG". Take away the numbers and just use dimensions: M = G x MPG.

The "per" in math means"divided by", and so the Gs cancel each other out:
G x (M / G) [in our case, 20G x 10M / G)]

Canceling out the Gs...
20 x 10M = 200M

You can't do that with addition: 20G + 10MPG = M is an invalid formula.

So look again at your delta formula. What you're saying is correct, but addition is the wrong operation and the implications are different when you properly put them into the correct mathematical dimension.

In dimensions, your delta force would be "Dollars" = "People" x "dollars per person" [D = P x D/P]. But there is still something missing. Some dollars per person are zero. My 5 year old productivity is zero because he isn't working. Likewise for the unemployed. Those have to be clarified as "working people" x "average dollar per working person".

It is not enough to "grow one's population", one must grow the population of people "that contribute to monetary productive efforts". If population grows, but the output of the new people are smaller than existing labor, it may not produce a rising GDP. To the extent new population produces less per person than existing population, GDP may decline if workers leaving the work force were more productive.

The corporation I work for is making this mistake. In the latest economic downturn, they got rid of highly-skilled labor because their wages and benefits were high, resting on imported immigrants with lower wages. The consequence now is that what they produce requires much higher labor input, because the inexperienced immigrants repeat many of the old mistakes the experienced laborers learned how to avoid. I'm not against immigrant labor, I'm just pointing out that low-wage immigrant labor may do more harm than good, even though low wage costs can increase productivity metrics. Wage-based productivity metrics can't tell you how much output was sacrificed.

There is a component of output, momentum, that doesn't manifest itself instantly with the replacement of high wages with low wages. Decay exists in everything. Poorly maintained plant and equipment break down more often. Poorly engineered products don't last as long. Poor quality of service and product diminishes customer willingness to return for more or refer others when needs arise.

If our economic stimulus programs don't produce another artificial credit-induced wave of consumer spending to make up for the diminishing sales of the old customers, the diminished momentum from displaced experienced labor is going to become evident when the consequences of the inexperienced low wage worker is reflected in declining output, increasing costs, or declining sales.

Busy Boys ... Better Boys
I think this single-minded focus on dollar metrics by economists, business managers, and policy planners is insufficient for solving the real problems facing the global economy. I have a 3-cent US postage stamp I found in my Mom's estate. It has no date on it, but others appear to be from the 1950s. This little 3-cent stamp speaks volumes about the decline in American culture, and it's impact on GDP when we consider the abstractions evident in the Delta Force equation.

It's a picture of newspaper boy on the left walking through a neighborhood. A bag rests over his shoulder with the motto, "Busy Boys ... Better Boys". On the right is a hand holding a torch with the motto, "Free Enterprise". Between them is a statement, "In recognition of the important service rendered their communities and their nation by America's newspaper boys."

We used to call that "work ethic"; it used to be a virtue. I don't recall seeing any government program honoring and extolling the virtues of work ethic like that 1950s postage stamp. Instead the focus is on entitlement, equality, and rights. It's evident, too, when you shop for products and services. Finding anyone with a work ethic that values one's contribution to others is rare, especially in the young. The predominant theme is one's right to income, or making a sale (getting one's money) at the cost of integrity and future product loyalty.

It isn't enough to just get more people earning wages, or keeping wages high to prop up tax revenues. The culture needs to re-discover the value of contributing to the success of others, which is the essence of the old work ethic. The idea that one's existence earns them a fair wage without consideration of their contribution is the essence of the decline in American industry and economic health.

Bad Can Be Good
Declining GDP or contraction of money supply are not problems in and of themselves. They are symptoms of something more fundamental. Whether they are good or bad depends on the essence of the underlying fundamental. A family that lives within it's means is a financially healthy family. If that family had a growing GDP (lots of economic activity based on new debt) they would be creating new money (increasing money supply) as they take on new debt and buy more products and services.

If they change their wayward ways, stop incurring new debt, reduce spending to conform to current income, they will flatten their contribution to GDP and contribute to a reduction in money supply. This is good for the family and the community, because there comes a point when economic activity shifts from debt service payment to new product and service output, but at sustainable levels. This was what characterized the decades following the great depression, an age where people understood the good things of life come from hard work, not easy credit.

If the old GDP reflected this old over-spending habit of the community at large (an addiction to "more stuff" now!), a declining GDP may be indicative of a more sustainable and healthy future. Furthermore, to the extent business learns to evaluate their output based on making product more desirable to the consumer, not only on price, it means a higher satisfaction (standard of living) and a more sustainable business model for business.


  1. I read both the John Mauldin newsletter and the UK story you mention in this post. I'm looking forward to see if Mr. Mauldin responds. You're comment about the stamp and the story it speaks of is a good one. It's so true. In my field of work I see that attitude everyday. What a shame.

  2. Alas, nothing from Mr. Mauldin yet. Thanks for the comment.