Borrowing Against Our Futures is Required

By the age of 15 chimpanzees have produced about 40 per cent and consumed about 40 per cent of the calories they will need during their entire lives. By the same age, human hunter-gatherers have consumed about 20 per cent of their lifetime calories, but produced just 4 per cent. More than any other animal, human beings borrow against their future capabilities by depending on others in their early years. A big reason for this is that hunter-gatherers have always specialised in foods that need extraction and processing – roots that need to be dug and cooked, clams that need to be opened, nuts that need to be cracked, carcasses that need to be butchered – whereas chimpanzees eat things that simply need to be found and gathered, like fruit or termites. Learning to do this extraction and processing takes time, practice and a big brain, but once a human being has learnt, he or she can produce a huge surplus of calories to share with the children. Intriguingly, this pattern of production over the lifespan in hunter-gatherers is more like the modern Western lifestyle than it is like the farming, feudal or early industrial lifestyles. That is to say, the notion of children taking twenty years even to start to bring in more than they consume, and then having forty years of very high productivity, is common to hunter-gatherers and modern societies, but was less true in the period in between, when children could and did go to work to support their own consumption.

The difference today is that intergenerational transfers take a more collective form – income tax on all productive people in their prime pays for education for all, for example. In that sense, the economy (like a chain letter, but unlike a shark, actually) must keep moving forward or it collapses. The banking system makes it possible for people to borrow and consume when they are young and to save and lend when they are old, smoothing their family living standards over the decades. Posterity can pay for its ancestors’ lives because posterity can be richer through innovation. If somebody somewhere takes out a mortgage, which he will repay in three decades’ time, to invest in a business that invents a gadget that saves his customers time, then that money, brought forward from the future, will enrich both him and those customers to the point where the loan can be repaid to posterity. That is growth. If, on the other hand, somebody takes out a loan just to support his luxury lifestyle, or to speculate on asset markets by buying a second home, then posterity will be the loser. That is what, it is now clear, far too many people and businesses did in the 2000s – they borrowed more from posterity than their innovation rate would support. They misallocated the resources to unproductive ends. Most past bursts of human prosperity have come to naught because they allocated too little money to innovation and too much to asset price inflation or to war, corruption, luxury and theft.


Folksonomies: society civilization planning

 The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Ridley , Matt (2010), The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Retrieved on 2017-09-22
Folksonomies: capitalism optimism libertarianism