Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Cultural Economics

What is Cultural Economics?

The study of how human culture interacts with economic events and conditions. Culture, in this sense, includes everything we are: our political systems, religious beliefs, ethnic character, mores, traditions, history, customs, arts, sciences, and education. These all play a role in how we chose to organize the production of goods and services, the values we place on labor and opportunity, how we make purchase and investment decisions, and how we utilize the resources of this earth. The term "Economics" refers to the extent and process of how we employ capital, labor and materials. In the aggregate, these drive the data that is used to measure how our economy is behaving - markets, raw materials, production, finished goods, revenues, costs, profits, inventory, employment, housing, income, savings, stocks, bonds - and so on.

Why is Cultural Economics Important?

Cultural Economists must have a strong sense of the cultural matrix within which economic phenomena occur. However irrational they may appear, values and traditions are non-the-less relevant to economic analysis. Political and religious allegiance influence purchase decisions. Fear and greed are economic motivators. Attitudes about education, individual rights, the accumulation of wealth and the importance of private property drive the adoption of economic systems and political institutions. Collectivist, dictatorial and democratic solutions compete for political power that will determine how labor, capital and material resources are allocated and managed. Culture defines the collective manifestations of who and what we are, including our religious beliefs, political systems, customs, values, intellectual acumen and creative endeavors.
It should be obvious. If we want to make long range economic forecasts, we must understand how culture and cultural change will shape future economic choice.

What sets Cultural Economics apart from other methodologies of economic analysis?

Economic research frequently yields inadequate conclusions based on irrelevant or obsolete data that has been interpreted using algorithms of questionable relevance. In other words - we play with the numbers. It's a great academic exercise. Then we project our conclusions into the future on the basic assumption that future reality will be an extension of past reality.
Sometimes it actually works. We can usually make reasonable estimates of near term demand and consumption, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), inflation, employment and so on. We have a reasonable probability of success if we are making a specific forecast for event driven data that will occur within the next three to six months. It helps our accuracy if future events within the forecast period are well understood and relatively static. In other words – our economic environment will not be altered by any surprises such as weather disasters or unanticipated political events.
Unfortunately, the longer the forecast period, the higher the margin of error. Cultural change is a given. Our economic environment is always evolving in reaction to current events. If we only use historical data as the basis of our economic analysis, then forecasts that extend out beyond a year or two will be something of a crap shoot.
Why? Because the future is NEVER an exact duplicate of the past. The technology boom of the 1990s was a one time series of specific events that will never be repeated. It is therefore useless to extrapolate the economic data of that period in making forecasts of future events. When the boom went bust, all of our economic data got reshuffled. Sure. We will have other periods of boom - and bust - but they will be propelled by a different set of circumstances. Data from periods like the Great Depression and the 1990s can be used as a point of comparison, an illustration of what might happen, but not a blueprint of future events.
For example. Various economists have made estimates of how the price of oil impacts GDP, inflation and employment. These forecasts have usually been based on an analysis of historical data and events. They generally conclude that oil consumption only constitutes about four percent of domestic consumption and therefore even radical changes to the price of oil will only have a marginal impact on the economy. The numbers are correct.
But the forecast is not.
Why? Three reasons.
  1. Past oil demand occurred in a world where there was excess capacity. Although temporary supply restrictions drove up the price of oil in the early 1970s and 1980s, the supply of oil eventually recovered to a point where there was more than enough oil to satisfy consumer demand. The price of oil then declined. Our cumulative thirst for oil continued to increase. As we look ahead, however, the combined impact of cultural change and declining oil reserves will bring about a continuing decrease in available supply versus a continuing increase in demand. Islamic Jihad, for example, promises to have a negative impact on oil exploration, production and transportation. On the other hand, China and India are scrambling to secure as much oil as they can to satisfy the needs of their growing economies. Since actual consumption will be restricted by available supply, the economic disruption will far exceed a mere change in price. At first, supply disruptions will cause intense shifts in the world’s economy. Oil shortages will drive recession and inflation. Subsequent reductions in economic activity will reduce the demand for oil. When demand falls below available production, excess capacity becomes available and oil is no longer a barrier to economic growth. As economic activity recovers, the demand for oil will again increase until consumption equals production. The cycle will then be repeated. Good times beget bad times beget a resumption of good times. However, as described in “The Report on Oil Depletion”, the cumulative impact of declining reserves and escalating cultural conflict will push the world’s economy into a long term decline.
  2. Generally speaking, relatively short term oil shortages and price increases do not have much of an impact on long term consumer behavior. Despite what happened in the 1970s and 1980s, we Americans continue to favor energy intensive life styles and emerging industrialized powers such as China need a lot more oil in order to continue their economic growth. These life style and economic choices are structural in nature. That means they are embedded in the economic outlook of our respective cultures. The net result? Even though higher prices and widespread oil shortages will unquestionably force a transformation of national cultures, cultural change usually takes a long time to evolve. During the interim, oil depletion will have a long term inflationary impact on the price of oil and a recessionary impact on the world’s economy.
  3. The third reason has to do with the uneven impact of price on individual consumers. In 2002, the national average price per gallon for refined oil consumed was just over $1.50 per gallon. By 2008, it appears the average price for the refined oil we consume may exceed $3.00 per gallon. Since fuel shortages can be expected to increase the cost of transportation, warehousing and distribution, net discretionary income will decrease from 2002 to 2008. The greater percentage of this decrease will fall upon lower income groups. Given the patterns of oil product consumption by income group, and factoring in a three percent per annum increase in wages, if you made $25,000 in 2002, refined oil products absorbed over 8 percent of your income. By the end of 2008, refined oil products will cost you over 13 percent of your income. For someone making $100,000 a year, however, the direct and indirect cost of oil increases from a more affordable 2.35% of income in 2002 to 3.94% of annual income in 2008. There will be substantial shifts in the economy as consumers, particularly in lower income groups, scramble to reduce the cost of transportation. Consumers will demand vehicles that can deliver greater fuel efficiency, there will be political pressure to improve the public transportation infrastructure, and we will be forced to adopt less energy intensive life styles. Economic stress will drive a cultural transformation which – in turn – will drive additional economic change.
We must conclude that if we hope to forecast future reality with any accuracy, we must find a way to factor cultural change into our economic analysis. To meet the demands of this challenge, we need the disciplines of Cultural Economics.

What are the disciplines of Cultural Economics?

Cultural Economics is not some dreary cross between tedious accounting and data necrophilia. It is a science that quantifies the past, present and future of human behavior. If human existence is dynamic, then economics – as a field of study – must be able to characterize the interaction of culture and economics in contemporaneous terms.
· We start with an understanding of human nature and its expression through the institutions and corporations that characterize our existence on this planet. Every organization has a unique personality. The contemporary economic environment influences organizational behavior. Political and social constraints impact business decisions. And finally, we need to understand research, development, production, marketing, distribution and finance as a series of interrelated business processes.
· To this we add the sociology and psychology of consumer behavior and the projected evolution of established religious and political institutions. Both will respond to economic, demographic and social trends.
· We then add information resources that quantify and describe our economic environment - population, employment, inflation, GDP, production, consumption, finance, commodities, trade, property, geography, and so on.
Research is a process of discovery. Raw information is accumulated and assembled into a series of related data structures that describe economic events, trends and environments. We are not looking for random pieces of information. Every piece of data that we chose to save must relate to the essential issues and questions of our inquiry. Research provides information.
Analysis is a process of creation. Starting with validated data structures, we assemble a hypothesis of future reality. Our hypothesis can then tested for logical consistency and intellectual credibility. Analysis yields understanding.
In order to make sense of our economic environment and to forecast future reality, we need to know how to focus our attention on a specific issue. For example, the key issue in our study of oil production and consumption was not - How much oil is left? Or when will we run out of oil? It soon became apparent that the real issue was - How much oil can we (humans) produce? That shifts the burden of research from geology to questions that describe how we find, produce, transport, refine and distribute the products derived from oil. Along the way we need to consider where the remaining oil is located. That leads to questions like: Who actually owns the oil that is left? Under what conditions will they be willing to let us find, extract and transport the remaining oil? Can we find oil elsewhere? What are the production constraints of alternative energy resources? And so on.
All of our questions should be relevant to the key issues we have identified. In doing the research for “The Report on Oil Depletion”, it was unnecessary (however interesting the topic) to become an expert on Islam. It was enough to establish if Islamic Jihad has the resources, intensity, and endurance to disrupt oil production. The next step was to establish a probable timetable and a realistic disruption scenario.
Our Cultural Economics Forecast starts with an examination of industry trends. We must understand existing and projected oil exploration and production by geographic region; the application of technology to enhance the discovery, extraction, refining and distribution of petroleum resources; competition and accommodation among the national governments that actually own most of the oil on this planet; how standards and bureaucratic duplicity impact the veracity of industry data; the role of cultural conflict as a barrier to exploration and production; and how political agendas, government regulation, and environmental challenges impact world oil supplies.
We then build a profile of current and projected consumer demand by examining petroleum market trends, consumer wants and needs, historical and projected demand data, consumer demographics, and purchase criteria. This profile of consumer demand is matched by a corresponding synopsis of suppliers that includes a chacterization of their exploration and production capability, market presence, financial strength, strategy, use of technology and business practices.
Assuming we have done a good job of identifying the key issues and developing a relevant set of questions, we can now plunge into a period of intensive primary and secondary research. We methodically collect the data and collateral information needed to answer our questions. Along the way, we will undoubtedly develop additional questions that scream for an answer because they are critical to our analysis and forecast.
After we collect, organize, calibrate, qualify, verify and synthesize a mountain of data that will (hopefully) permit us to accurately describe the contemporary economic environment and to lay down a credible forecast of future trends, we can proceed with our analysis and interpretation. Our oil production and consumption forecast, and the data upon which it is based, can then be substantiated by treating it as a hypothesis. In order for the hypothesis to be true, it must have intellectual consistency and the individual data elements should be verifiable through further research. If our hypothesis survives this rigorous examination, we have a credible forecast of future reality.
Our final step is to document our conclusions and forecasts in a comprehensive report that not only profiles the impact of resource depletion on oil production and consumption, it can also be used as a basis for projecting the effect of depletion on our economy.
So there you have it.
The market or industry research used in Cultural Economics is a process that involves a number of interrelated steps. Research reports are based on facts and opinions which have been compiled, organized, analyzed and interpreted by someone who understands the research process. Cultural Economics is not about static absolutes. It’s about people. Events. Products. Issues. Questions. Change. And their interrelationship.

Why is Economics called "The Dismal Science"?

Economics has been called "The Dismal Science". That phrase was coined in 1849 by Thomas Carlyle in an essay "An Occasional discourse on the Negro Question.". The essay attacked John Stuart Mill for supporting the emancipation of slaves. Mill, along with many other Economists of that era, assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty. The paragraph reads: " Truly, my philanthropic friends, Exeter Hall Philanthropy is wonderful; and the Social Science—not a "gay science," but a rueful—which finds the secret of this universe in "supply-and-demand," and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone, is also wonderful. Not a "gay science," I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science." There are those who believe that Carlyle's label was also, in part, motivated by Mill's support of T. R. Malthus's gloomy prediction that population would always grow faster than food, dooming mankind to unending poverty and hardship.
If my work had been confined to the mind numbing analysis of extinct events described by copious quantities of dubious numerical data; if economics were merely an exercise in abstract analysis based entirely on theory; then my interest would have withered long ago. But I quickly learned that neither number crunching nor theory can predict real world events with consistent accuracy. Because it is people – in their infinite diversity - who interact with economic events and conditions. That undeniable truth makes Cultural Economics a challenging, interesting, and provocative field of study.
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