Our economy is a mystery to almost everyone, including economists. Let me explain the way I see the situation:
If an economy is already reaching limits because of the long-term battle between diminishing returns and rising complexity, the use of an increasingly hierarchical structure tends to lead to a society of “haves” and “have nots.” The people at the top of the hierarchy have more than enough. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy find it increasingly difficult to meet their basic needs for food, housing, and transportation. They find it difficult to afford the output of the economy. This is a problem we are increasingly facing today, because of the way our self-organized economy operates.
This analysis is based on US data, but it gives some insight into what is happening on a world basis. I would expect that Europe and Japan are in many ways not too different from the US. The world economy has done better, because it includes countries with more opportunities for investments that might truly be associated with economic growth.
The situation everywhere may very well be that growth is a temporary phenomenon. Rapid growth occurs for a while, but then it fades away. When it fades away, inflation tends to shift to deflation. This presents a huge problem, because our financial institutions are built using debt and debt-like instruments. When deflation hits, the “Opportunity Gradient” changes from favorable to unfavorable for future investment. This creates a much greater likelihood of future debt defaults, and discourages citizens from wanting to take out loans to finance new investments. All of these things are concerns for the future functioning of the economy.
The situation we seem to be encountering is that economies, both of the world and of individual countries, are dissipative systems. As such, they require energy. Similar to other dissipative systems (hurricanes, ecosystems, stars, plants and animals), they grow for a while, and eventually collapse.
Economies, as dissipative systems, seem to need several kinds of systems. Energy provides sustenance for an economy, in a way similar to the way food provides sustenance for humans. The debt system acts somewhat similarly to the way a human’s circulation system works; the time-transfer mechanism provides a pumping action similar to that of the heart. The pricing system acts very much like a human’s sensory system; it allows the system to discern whether the current opportunity gradient is sufficient to justify adding more debt. Thus, this analysis suggests that one way the system may fail is through commodity prices that fall too low. Most people have never considered the possibility that this could happen.
It would be nice if we could figure out a way to make our economy last forever, but it is doubtful that we can. Ultimately, the battle between diminishing returns and increased complexity seems likely to be settled in a way that causes the economy to collapse.