Monday, August 29, 2011

Pyramid Revisited — Again

Back in June I presented a picture of the U.S. economy as a pyramid in two ways (link). The first was the conventional way, as we see pyramids in Egypt, showing the most basic elements at the bottom supporting, as it were, layers of economic activity above them. The second showed the same layers, but this time sized in proportion to their importance as part of the Gross Domestic Project. Here the pyramid looks more like a top spinning on a narrow tip, that tip being the most basic activities of Agriculture, Mining, Forestry, and Fisheries. That pictured showed the U.S. economy in 2010.

In a comment John Magee wrote as follows:

Now, wouldn’t it be interesting to compare that chart with previous decades? Offhand, I suspect that it looked a heck of a lot more like a pyramid in the 1950s.

I am pleased, today, to respond to John’s request. Once more I present the pyramids, this time with the 1950 version on top and the 2010 version on the bottom. Here is the picture…

…and, yes, John was right. The economy did look more like a pyramid sixty years ago, although even back then it was already resting on a rather narrow “basic” cluster of sectors.

What strikes the eye here is that the top three layers—thus those farthest removed from the nitty-gritty physical realities of life have all grown—and the more basic sectors have all shrunk, Manufacturing, Transportation, Power, Utilities, and Construction most dramatically.

What does such a change tell us about our fitness as a society? It tells us that we have become much more dependent on others for the basic goods by means of which real life proceeds. But in the process we’ve relinquished resources, know-how, and actual physical assets—have lost entire industries—to actors over-seas. In a peaceful, unchanging, and therefore predictable environment, that wouldn’t matter. But what loom ahead of us in this century are perhaps the most dramatic changes experienced by such a large global population: the drastic shrinkage of fossil fuels. Not that we’re at peace, bored with the same-old, same-old cornucopia disgorging wealth right on the mark. No. But what lies ahead is much more daunting than these troubled times.

We must become alert. And if we are asleep, wake up. We won’t survive on blackberries alone when the times begin to darken.

1 comment:

  1. Mmmn ... blackberries. Score one for the agricultural sector! (Indeed, I think I much prefer to think about blackberries than to contemplate the increasing inability of this country to supply itself with many its most basic physical and economic needs.)

    I was looking at some Great Depression and World War II stats recently, and was struck by what a different country we were then, and by how much better we were prepared to be self-sufficient in the face of that sort of huge disruption of international trade.