What is Wrong with a Zero Interest Rate?

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyThe stock market took a dip, so the Fed will likely continue to keep the interest rate at zero, in conformity with its goal of supporting asset prices by quantitative easing. What is wrong with a zero interest rate? Doesn’t it boost investment, growth, and employment?

There are many things wrong with a zero interest rate. Remember that the interest rate is a price paid to savers by borrowing investors. At a zero price, savers will save less and receive less return on past savings. Savers and pensioners are penalized. At a near zero price for borrowed funds, investors are being subsidized and will invest in just about anything, leading to many poor investments and negative returns, furthering the economy’s already advanced transition from economic to uneconomic growth. Zero interest promotes an infinite demand for savings with zero new supply. But the “supply” is provided artificially by the Fed printing money. The infinite demand would be checked by the rising costs of natural resources and environmental damage if those costs were internalized, but they are not. Yet the environmental costs are real and do not disappear just because they are not counted. With free money and uncounted environmental costs, why not invest heavily in fracking? A very unequal distribution of income does check demand, at least for non-luxury goods. Rich people have an increasing surplus of money to invest, which also helps hold down the interest rate. Yes, mortgage rates fall, and that benefits citizens as home buyers, but they lose more in terms of their retirement accounts. And there is still a significant spread between the zero rate paid to savers and the positive rates charged on credit card and other debt, so the banks are doing quite well.

Also think for a moment about the calculation of present value in finance—a perpetual stream of future income divided by the interest rate gives its capitalized value. If the interest rate is zero, then the capitalized present value of any positive perpetual income stream becomes infinite. To put it another way, a zero interest rate is equivalent to saying that a hypothetical stream of income into the infinite future is all totally available today. Supply of financial capital in terms of its present value is infinite. But financial capital is supposed to be a measure of real capital, which is not infinite. Furthermore, the interest rate, to a significant degree, reflects the risk of loss. With infinite capital it matters little if you lose some, so risk too is uncounted.

U.S. Treasury.Elfboy

U.S. Department of the Treasury, Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Elfboy

Zero interest rates encourage aggregate growth in scale of the macro-economy to ecologically unsustainable, as well as uneconomic, levels. Zero interest rates also neglect risk of loss, while encouraging microeconomic misallocation to stupid projects. At the same time, it redistributes income inequitably. Does all this make you think that something might be screwy with the policy of zero interest rates? Economists pride themselves on their knowledge of advanced mathematics, but they don’t seem to mind the fact that their policies imply dividing by zero!

Granted that with severe unemployment it is worthwhile, as Keynes said, to hire people just to dig holes and fill them up again in order to increase spending. However, this would better be done by the Treasury paying the hole diggers with new Treasury money than by the Fed doing it by distorting the scale, distribution, and resource allocation of the whole economy with zero interest rates in order to create new bank money. Also, the money created by the Treasury costs no interest to the public, while the money created by the Fed costs us the positive rate charged to borrowers, not the zero rate paid to depositors. Money is a public utility like a road. Should private banks be allowed to set up a tollbooth and charge us for using public roads? By the way, the Fed is owned by its member private banks.

How does the Fed keep the interest rate at zero? By printing money—quantitative easing, so called. Some hyper-Keynesians want a negative nominal interest rate (we already have a negative real rate when corrected for inflation) because we still don’t have full employment even at a zero interest rate. But this is so crazy that it requires a separate discussion of its own.

Why has this huge monetary expansion not led to more inflation? For one, because the dollar is a reserve currency and other nations hold large dollar assets. Also, other major currencies, following the same expansionary policy, have been depreciating relative to the dollar. This will not likely continue. Furthermore, there really has been inflation, but of a hidden kind. Instead of stimulating new production and employment, the new money has increased the demand for existing assets such as stocks, houses, art, etc., providing little employment and leading to speculative bubbles. The Consumer Price Index (CPI), the official measure of inflation, does not include capital assets. And concurrent cheap-labor policies—off-shoring of production and tolerance of illegal immigration—depress wages, holding inflation in check. In addition, the externalization of increasing environmental costs keeps prices lower than they should be. Further, as any consumer can testify, the quantity per package of food is getting less, and the quality of service of airlines, internet providers, public utilities, etc. is deteriorating. Our leading newspaper, the New York Times, now repeats many of the same articles over and over for weeks at a time. Getting less quantity or quality or more repetition for the same price is equivalent to a price increase—hidden inflation. So the claim that quantitative easing has not yet led to inflation is at best only half true—it has certainly led to inflationary substitutes not measured by the CPI. Some official versions of the CPI even exclude such basics as energy, food, and housing (too “volatile” is the excuse). Do you ever feel that you are being lied to?

It is a bad idea to manipulate the interest rate as a policy variable—it has too many side effects cutting in too many different directions, especially in a fractional reserve monetary system. Better to control the money supply directly by moving to a full reserve banking system. We should abolish the Fed, let the Treasury directly control the money supply, constrained by avoiding inflation, not by a budget. An entity that can create money does not face a budget constraint, and has no need to borrow. But it does have a price-index constraint, and must be disciplined by avoidance of inflation (or deflation). As long as the public wants to hold more money, the Treasury can keep creating and spending it. When the public wants to hold more real goods and less money, they will exchange money for goods driving the price index up, which is the signal to the Treasury to stop issuing money, and if necessary to withdraw some. Money, in a full reserve banking system, becomes non interest-bearing government debt rather than interest-bearing private debt. Seigniorage (profit from creating token money at negligible cost and receiving its face value in exchange) will go entirely to the government, not largely to private banks. Also, banks no longer have the extortionary power to crash the entire payments system that fractional reserves gives them. The interest rate, like other prices, can take care of itself, determined by supply and demand. The policy focus should be to manage the money supply, constrained by a constant price index. In effect, the real value of the dollar is backed by all the commodities in the price index, rather than gold, or the “full faith and credit of the US government.” (See Nationalize Money, Not Banks)

Policies of this general kind, but elaborated on in much more detail, are currently suggested by the British NGO known as Positive Money. They are reviving and updating the sound monetary economics of Frederick Soddy, Irving Fisher, Frank Knight, and other leading economists of the 1920s. Fractional reserve banking supports the whole pyramid structure of Ponzi finance, and we badly need to move toward a full reserve banking system to escape instability.


The Future History of Political Economy – Part 2

Thermodynamics in Economics: Revolutionary portent, future history

by Eric Zencey

Eric ZenceyEcological Economics represents the extension into economics of the thermodynamic revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In physics, that revolution dethroned Newton and brought relativity. In biology, it was midwife to the birth of ecology, the study of ecosystems as wholes in which energy networks—food webs—are a defining structure. In chemistry the laws of thermodynamics brought clarity and rigor to a science that struggled to bring theoretical unity to diverse phenomena. So far, though, most economists are perfectly willing to treat their subject matter as if the laws of thermodynamics simply don’t apply to it.

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But the thermodynamic revolution in economics can’t be permanently forestalled. For one thing, it’s getting harder and harder for the neoclassical model to reassure us that its system of Newtonian abstractions is a good fit to the real world. The Great Collapse of 2008 demonstrated that whatever else it is, the discipline of economics isn’t very good at predicting major economic phenomena. Climate change and the Sixth Extinction make it hard for economics to maintain its pretense that economic activity takes place in abstractia, on the clean white pages of textbooks or on whiteboards holding formulae, with no roots in or consequences for anything outside of itself. Truths derived on the model of Newtonian mechanism are supposed to be abstract and ahistorical, but our planet and our economy are most assuredly evolving concretely and over time.

The driving dynamic of this economic and planetary change—the driver of history for the past three centuries—has been human use of high-EROI fossil fuel. The driving dynamic of the history yet to come will be the declining EROI of our civilization’s energy sources.

Oil Well 3.Texas State Archives

Oil used to gush out of the ground under pressure, making for a very high Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI). In the 1920s, wells like this gave the industry an average EROI of 100 to 1 or more. Today’s petroleum industry has a much lower EROI. Photo Credit: Texas State Archives

You can see some of the consequences of declining EROI already:

  • Despite a rising real per capita GDP, for a significant percentage of workers in OECD nations personal income has flatlined or is declining. An increasing concentration of income helps explain this but another dynamic is at work as well. As EROI falls, it takes more economic effort to get the energy that’s needed to support economic effort. Even as gross economic activity (GDP) grows, production of net benefit is shrinking.
  • Other sectors of the economy have been affected by this ongoing increase in the economy’s matter-and-energy overhead. “Austerity” has become the watchword for governmental budgets, even in the wealthiest nations in the world. Developed countries find it increasingly difficult if not impossible to pay maintenance and upgrade costs on infrastructure investments made in the heyday of 100-to-1 oil.
  • In its 2013 report card on America’s infrastructure, The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that the U.S. needs to invest $3.6 trillion over seven years to restore and maintain existing infrastructure.
  • Worldwide, many of the ecosystems that support human civilization are degraded and close to collapse. Forced by both ideology and declining EROI into austerity budgeting, governments are reducing their scope and energy at the exact moment that sustainability would have them take strong action to rein in the rational, free-market tendency of corporations to maximize profits by degrading the commons and externalizing other costs.
  • Pension-fund wipeouts are becoming common as one way to fulfill the economy’s structural need for debt repudiation—a need that lies in our system’s willingness to let debt grow faster than a declining EROI economy can pay back, even after growth has been stimulated by lifting or reducing regulations that limit the environmental damage done by economic activity.
  • The planetary carbon sink is full, producing climatic effects that even an abstraction-inhabiting, arithmo-morphizing economist has to acknowledge as a troubling reality.

Centuries from now economic historians are likely to understand the relationship between EROI and wealth creation much better than does the average economist of today. I think it likely that future political economists will express wonder not at the 20th century’s enormous economic success, but at how little we actually added to our stock of wealth for all the high-EROI coal and oil it was our pleasure to burn. They are almost certain to shake their heads in wonder that we, enjoying an energy supply and an EROI never seen on the planet before or since, could ever have experienced an economic downturn, could ever have let a human starve from want, could ever have been so programmatically blind to the physical origins of our fortunes.

Oil and Real Estate Bubbles in Canada: What Goes up Won’t so Smoothly Come Down

by James Magnus-Johnston

Johnston_photoFive years ago, I noted how unsustainable Canadian economic growth is fuelled by debt, which is leveraged to increase the prices–and ‘profitability’–of assets like oil holdings and real estate. It might as well be called “phantom growth,” because it’s bound to disappear in due course. When prices are high, the debt-based Ponzi scheme functions; when prices sustain lows, the scheme unravels. With Canada’s oil and real estate sectors both apparently slowing down, will it lead to a ‘Minsky moment?’

Economist Hyman Minsky studied financial instability as a result of debt accumulation, and his work was largely ignored by mainstream economists. He noted that debt-heavy capitalist economies exhibit inflations and deflations that tend to spin out of control–inflation feeds inflation and deflation feeds deflation. The ‘Minsky moment’ is the moment where our financial system begins to experience deflationary stress due to price shifts. Historically, government interventions to contain debt spirals were not terribly competent, and–other factors notwithstanding–the sheer volume of debt that has been leveraged makes the global economy poised for contraction. Canada’s recent dependence upon asset inflation makes it particularly vulnerable.

Where has all the Money Come From?

Debt has been leveraged in several investment streams, including derivatives, securities, and ordinary debt. After 2008, international quantitative easing–essentially the creation of money from nothing–has partly facilitated further investment in unconventional and costly oil production methods. As long as international prices and investment levels remain high, it is feasible for unconventional oil to achieve a return on the huge amounts of money and energy required to get it out of the ground. But the longer oil prices remain low, the longer investors will be exposed to defaults.

Investors include ordinary folks by virtue of our holdings in pension funds and RRSPs. Laricina Energy has defaulted on financing extended by Canada’s largest pension fund, the public Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board. We can likely expect defaults to international investors as well, which should create upward pressure on interest rates as investors try to cover exposure to losses.

Photo Credit: Robert Fairchild

These debt-fuelled investments likely won’t come down as smoothly as they went up. Photo Credit: Robert Fairchild

Optimism in the resource extraction industry–despite its disproportionately small role in creating jobs for Canadians–has fostered optimism in other parts of the economy, including real estate. One Canadian commentator remarked that the causes for slowdown in the two sectors are “completely unconnected.” They’re quite well-connected when you notice that in both areas, investors are ‘conservatively’ lending their money to what they think are sure bets, with the expectation of certain returns. In both cases, debt has been leveraged systemically to push prices higher.

Deutshe Bank has proclaimed that Canada is the most overvalued real estate market in the world, by as much as 63%. Canada’s current Bank Governor, Stephen Poloz (who is subject to ‘home country bias’) concedes that the market is overvalued, but by only 30% in his estimate–if only prices were quite so objective! As defaults in other sectors of the economy put upward pressure on interest rates, investment slows. Sure bets become bad bets, and real estate ‘growth’ will evaporate, too.

Debt and the Growth Imperative

Growth–even when it’s illusory or damaging–is an imperative in debt-heavy economies because the economy must expand by at least the rate of interest; if this doesn’t happen, the risk of default is potentially catastrophic. As Richard Douthwaite writes, the choice is between growth and collapse in a debt-based banking system due to the contagion of default–not growth and stability. In order to feed the growth imperative, we’ve normalized the practice of using debt to gamble on unsound high-return investments. In a saner banking system that didn’t require growth at the rate of interest, deflation might be cause for relief among millennials who have been priced out of the real estate market, or among those who have general concerns about the long-term consequences of unconventional oil production.

But in an overgrown lending system that feeds phantom growth, what goes up doesn’t so smoothly come down. After a string of defaults in the unconventional oil sector, credit would tighten, oil prices would react with further unpredictable volatility, and the banking system could require either the kind of government bailout we saw in 2008, or a ‘bail-in,’ where bondholders would cover some of the losses by providing equity for the bank. Canadians have likely forgotten by now that the federal government passed legislation in 2013 that allows banks to take money from bondholders.

Most importunately, unsustainable debt drives the expansion of the physical economy as a self-reinforcing (‘positive’) feedback, despite the fact that we’re pushing up against the planet’s physical limits. Debt is the engine of growth which drives climate change and rapid biodiversity loss.

The Steady State Solution to Overleveraging

It’s insane to require growth just to pay for the invented convention of ‘interest,’ which is at odds with basic physics and the fundamental geochemistry of the planet. But that’s how we roll these days. We celebrate the overexuberant rise in home values, all too willing to count this rise as positive GDP growth. We encourage spending money on products faster than it’s earned, and the debt-backed economy commands us to repeat this inherently unstable practice until the bubbles burst and the financial system collapses.

If we’re staring down the barrel of another inevitable financial crisis due to the fact that instability is built right into the system, why don’t we try doing things a little differently next time? When confronted with another need for a bail-out, rather than “priming the pump” and resurrecting a dead financial system, governments should gradually reduce the ability of banks to leverage so much. Maybe we could even begin to invest in more meaningful things, like small businesses that re-localize and de-carbonize the economy.

As Herman Daly suggests, increasing the fractional reserve requirement would have the effect of reducing risky lending. He writes,

With 100% reserves every dollar loaned to a borrower would be a dollar previously saved by a depositor (and not available to him during the period of the loan), thereby re-establishing the classical balance between abstinence and investment. With credit limited by saving (abstinence from consumption) there will be less lending and borrowing and it will be done more carefully–no more easy credit to finance the massive purchase of “assets” that are nothing but bets on dodgy debts.

By decreasing the potential to ‘leverage’ assets, the relationship between real savings and investment would be restored, and we wouldn’t be encouraging periodic wild swings in the economy and spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need. After all, when confronted with rapid biodiversity loss, climate change, and other serious planet-wide problems, indulging the whims of a risk-prone banking system seems to me an unnecessary distraction, particularly if what goes up doesn’t so smoothly come down.

Piketty Acknowledges a Limit to Inequality–Will He Acknowledge the Limits to Growth?

by James Magnus-Johnston

Johnston_photoIn Piketty’s celebrated new work, Capital in the 21st Century, we are treated to a robust argument about the mechanics of worsening structural inequality. He narrates why owners of capital assets–stocks, bonds, and real estate–historically realize higher returns than wage workers. Piketty uses econ-speak to describe this as a gap in “the capital-income ratio,” and explains how our present system is engineered to favour capital-owners or “rentiers.” In the 21st century, he predicts slower growth in population and productivity, but a higher rate of return on capital, pushing us into inequality levels not seen since the 19th century.

But the limits we face are far greater than limits to just the capital-income ratio. While many of us share Piketty’s anxiety about worsening inequality (for me, every time I see a headline celebrating the rise of house prices), worsening structural inequality at this stage in history is but one symptom of our obsession with growth. Like Piketty, many post-growth thinkers are calling for a system change so the distribution of wealth will not inevitably concentrate in fewer and fewer hands. But rather than Piketty’s proposed progressive tax on wealth, we are calling for a fundamental adjustment to the financial system to make it more socially equitable and ecologically sustainable.

It might be helpful to interrogate the question of inequality this way:

  • Why is it that rentiers can achieve such high rates of net worth?
    Because overly-inflated asset values make rentiers look great on paper, and those funds can be leveraged for even more consumption.
  • How did asset values become so inflated in the first place?
    Because everyone from hedge fund managers to real estate investors bid up prices.
  • Why can prices be bid up? 
    Because banks lend out historically unprecedented amounts of money in the form of debt.
  • Why do we need so much debt?
    Because if we fail to grow by at least the rate of interest, the entire financial system enters a state of default and collapse! Herman Daly proposes an increase to the fractional reserve requirement so that banks are able to lend out real money instead of just creating more debt.

While Piketty does acknowledge how the “financialization of the economy in no way contributes to the real economy,” he stops short of acknowledging that the volume of debt-money in the economy makes money scarce for some and abundant for others, and that the system is set up to either grow exponentially or fail spectacularly. More dubiously, in Robert Solow’s review of Piketty’s book, Solow suggests that “a society or the individuals in it can decide to save and to invest so much that they (and the law of diminishing returns) drive the rate of return below the long-term growth rate.” Not so in a debt-backed monetary system steeped in stratospheric and unprecedented levels of debt!

Piketty similarly avoids acknowledging peak oil or ‘limits to energy returns.’ At the most fundamental level, economic growth and capital accumulation require huge flows of matter and energy. This important consideration takes the form of but a few small caveats in Piketty’s book. He predicts that “wealthy countries” will grow at a rate of “1.2 percent,” while acknowledging that such a growth rate can only be achieved as “new sources of energy are developed to replace hydrocarbons.” I’m not sure how this prediction can be taken seriously when we are always and everywhere these days confronted by diminishing energy returns. These limits are evident in our reliance on unconventional oil, including fracking, the tar sands, and all of the new hazards that come with shipping it, such as building new pipelines and ports in fragile ecological zones, the release of methane and other undesirables from fracking, and the looming spectre of another Lac Megantic disaster. Add to this the uncounted costs of climate change–from private insured losses to government disaster expenses–and we wind up in the highly questionable position of counting disaster rebuilding efforts as additions to GDP!


What happens if Picketty assumes a growth rate of zero? ERROR.

Perhaps, interpreted liberally, Piketty’s prediction of 1.2 percent growth is a couched acknowledgement that we have a failed growth economy on our hands. Or perhaps there is an even simpler methodological explanation for Piketty’s prediction, which is that if he were to assume a growth rate of zero, the “law” he applies–“beta equals savings divided by growth”–would yield absolutely no results whatsoever! And who can make newsworthy predictions with a divide-by-zero error message?

Piketty’s research is certainly useful and clearly resonates with a disillusioned public seeking to understand the causes of growing inequality. But without full acknowledgement of the limits to growth, there are also limits to his historical analogies–after all, the extent of ecological overshoot makes this period remarkably different from any period before it. Which means that the laws and formulae used throughout his book must be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. EF Schumacher wrote

economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions. Some go as far as to claim that economic laws are as free from ‘metaphysics’ or ‘values’ as the law of gravitations.

Piketty makes a compelling, historically grounded argument about worsening structural inequality. But perhaps we can call for bolder action to respond to contemporary problems, including serious financial reform that reduces or extinguishes unsustainable debt; nurturing a grassroots movement toward more equitable, democratic work structures (so that more people have access to assets and ownership in the first place); and teaching a new generation of economists that all financial capital is fundamentally a gift from nature.

Nationalize Money, Not Banks

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyIf our present banking system, in addition to fraudulent and corrupt, also seems “screwy” to you, it should. Why should money, a public utility (serving the public as medium of exchange, store of value, and unit of account), be largely the byproduct of private lending and borrowing? Is that really an improvement over being a by-product of private gold mining, as it was under the gold standard? The best way to sabotage a system is hobble it by tying together two of its separate parts, creating an unnecessary and obstructive connection. Why should the public pay interest to the private banking sector to provide a medium of exchange that the government can provide at little or no cost? And why should seigniorage (profit to the issuer of fiat money) go largely to the private sector rather than entirely to the government (the commonwealth)?

Is there not a better away? Yes, there is. We need not go back to the gold standard. Keep fiat money, but move from fractional reserve banking to a system of 100% reserve requirements on demand deposits. Time deposits (savings accounts) would have zero or minimal reserve requirements and would be available to lend to borrowers. The change need not be abrupt — we could gradually raise the reserve requirement to 100%. Already the Fed has the authority to change reserve requirements but seldom uses it. This would put control of the money supply and seigniorage entirely with the government rather than largely with private banks. Banks would no longer be able to live the alchemist’s dream by creating money out of nothing and lending it at interest. All quasi-bank financial institutions should be brought under this rule, regulated as commercial banks subject to 100% reserve requirements for demand deposits.

Banks cannot create money under 100% reserves (the reserve deposit multiplier would be unity), and banks would earn their profit by financial intermediation only, lending savers’ money for them (charging a loan rate higher than the rate paid to savings or “time-account” depositors) and charging for checking, safekeeping, and other services. With 100% reserves every dollar loaned to a borrower would be a dollar previously saved by a time account depositor (and not available to the depositor during the period of the loan), thereby re-establishing the classical balance between abstinence and investment. With credit limited by saving (abstinence from consumption) there will be less lending and borrowing and it will be done more carefully — no more easy credit to finance the leveraged purchase of “assets” that are nothing but bets on dodgy debts.

Why are private banks controlling this public utility? Photo credit: Steve Rhodes

Why are private banks controlling this public utility? Photo credit: Steve Rhodes

To make up for the decline and eventual elimination of bank-created, interest-bearing money, the government can pay some of its expenses by issuing more non interest-bearing fiat money. However, it can only do this up to a strict limit imposed by inflation. If the government issues more money than the public voluntarily wants to hold, the public will trade it for goods, driving the price level up. As soon as the price index begins to rise the government must print less and tax more. Thus a policy of maintaining a constant price index would govern the internal value of the dollar.

The external value of the dollar could be left to freely fluctuating exchange rates. Alternatively, if we instituted Keynes’ international clearing union, the external value of the dollar, along with that of all other currencies, could be set relative to the bancor, a common denominator accounting unit used by the payments union. The bancor would serve as an international reserve currency for settling trade imbalances — a kind of “gold substitute.”

The United States opposed Keynes’ plan at Bretton Woods precisely because under it the dollar would not function as the world’s reserve currency, and the U.S. would lose the enormous international subsidy that results from all countries having to hold large transaction balances in dollars. The payments union would settle trade balances multilaterally. Each country would have a net trade balance with the rest of the world (with the payments union) in bancor units. Any country running a persistent deficit would be charged a penalty, and if continued would have its currency devalued relative to the bancor. But persistent surplus countries would also be charged a penalty, and if the surplus persisted their currency would suffer an appreciation relative to the bancor. The goal is balanced trade, and both surplus and deficit nations would be expected to take measures to bring their trade into balance. With trade in near balance there would be little need for a world reserve currency, and what need there was could be met by the bancor. Freely fluctuating exchange rates would also in theory keep trade balanced and reduce or eliminate the need for a world reserve currency. Which system would be better is a complicated issue not pursued here. In either case the IMF could be abolished since there would be little need for financing trade imbalances (the IMF’s main purpose) in a regime whose goal is to eliminate trade imbalances.

Returning to domestic institutions, the Treasury would replace the Fed (which is owned by and operated in the interests of the commercial banks). The interest rate would no longer be a target policy variable, but rather left to market forces. The target variables of the Treasury would be the money supply and the price index. The treasury would print and spend into circulation for public purposes as much money as the public voluntarily wants to hold. When the price index begins to rise it must cease printing money and finance any additional public expenditures by taxing or borrowing from the public (not from itself). The policy of maintaining a constant price index effectively gives the fiat currency the “backing” of the basket of commodities in the price index.

In the 1920s the leading academic economists, Frank Knight of Chicago and Irving Fisher of Yale, along with others including underground economist and Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Frederick Soddy, strongly advocated a policy of 100% reserves for commercial banks. Why did this suggestion for financial reform disappear from discussion? The best answer I have found is that the Great Depression and subsequent Keynesian emphasis on growth swept it aside, because limiting lending (borrowing) to actual savings (a key feature of 100% reserves) was considered too restrictive on growth, which had become the big panacea. Saving more, even with the intent to invest more, would require reduced present consumption, and that too has been deemed an unacceptable drag on growth. As long as growth is the summum bonum then we will find ways to borrow against future wealth in order to finance the present investment needed to maximize growth.

Why would full reserve banking not crash on the rock of the growth obsession again, as it did before? One answer is that we might recognize that aggregate growth today increases unmeasured illth faster than measured wealth, thereby becoming uneconomic growth. How can loans be repaid out of the net illth they generate? Should we not welcome full reserve banking as a needed financial restraint on growth (uneconomic growth)? Another answer is that, thanks to financial meltdowns, the commercial banks’ private creation of money by lending it at interest has now become more obvious and odious to the public. More than in the 1930s, fractional reserve banking has become a clear and present danger, as well as a massive subsidy to commercial banks.

Real growth has encountered the biophysical and social limits of a full world. Financial growth is being stimulated ever more in the hope that it will pull real growth behind it, but it is in fact pushing uneconomic growth — net growth of illth. Quantitative easing of the money supply does nothing to counteract the quantitative tightening of resource limits on the growth of the real economy.

The original 100% reserve proponents mentioned above were in favor of aggregate growth, but wanted it to be steady growth in wealth, not speculative boom and bust cycles. One need not advocate a steady-state economy to favor 100% reserves, but if one does favor a steady state then the attractions of 100% reserves are increased. Soddy was especially cautious about uncontrolled physical growth, but his main concern was with the symbolic financial system and its disconnect from the real system that it was supposed to symbolize. As he put it: “You cannot permanently pit an absurd human convention, such as the spontaneous increment of debt [compound interest], against the natural law of the spontaneous decrement of wealth [entropy].” Wealth has a physical dimension and is subject to physical limits; debt is a purely mathematical quantity and is unlimited.

How would the 100% reserve system serve the steady-state economy?

First, as just mentioned it would restrict borrowing for new investment to existing savings, greatly reducing speculative growth ventures — for example the leveraging of stock purchases with huge amounts of borrowed money (created by banks ex nihilo rather than saved out of past earnings) would be severely limited. Down payment on houses would be much higher, and consumer credit would be greatly diminished. Credit cards would become debit cards. Long term lending would have to be financed by long term time deposits, or by carefully sequenced rolling over of shorter term deposits. Equity financing would increase relative to debt financing. Growth economists will scream, but a steady-state economy does not aim to grow, for the very good reason that aggregate growth has become uneconomic.

Second, the money supply no longer has to be renewed by new loans as old loans are repaid. A continuing stream of new loans requires that borrowers expect to invest in a project that will grow at a rate greater than the rate of interest. Unless that expectation is sustained by growth, they will not borrow, and in a fractional reserve system the money supply will shrink. With 100% reserves a constant money supply is neutral with respect to growth; with fractional reserves a constant money supply imparts a growth bias to the economy.

Third, the financial sector will no longer be able to capture such a large share of the nation’s profits (around 40%!), freeing some smart people for more productive, less parasitic, activity.

Fourth, the money supply would no longer expand during a boom, when banks like to loan lots of money, and contract during a recession, when banks try to collect outstanding debts, thereby reinforcing the cyclical tendency of the economy.

Fifth, with 100% reserves there is no danger of a run on a bank leading to a cascading collapse of the credit pyramid, and the FDIC could be abolished, along with its consequent moral hazard. The danger of collapse of the whole payment system due to the failure of one or two “too big to fail” banks would be eliminated. Congress then could not be frightened into giving huge bailouts to some banks to avoid the “contagion” of failure because the money supply is no longer controlled by the private banks. Any given bank could fail by making imprudent loans in excess of its capital reserves (as opposed to demand deposit reserves), but its failure, even if a large bank, would not disrupt the public utility function of money. The club that the banks used to beat Congress into giving bailouts would have been taken away.

Sixth, the explicit policy of a constant price index would reduce fears of inflation and the resultant quest to accumulate more as a protection against inflation. Also it in effect provides a multi-commodity backing to our fiat money.

Seventh, a regime of fluctuating exchange rates automatically balances international trade accounts, eliminating big surpluses and deficits. U.S. consumption growth would be reduced without its deficit; Chinese production growth would be reduced without its surplus. By making balance of payments lending unnecessary, fluctuating exchange rates (or Keynes’ international clearing union) would greatly shrink the role of the IMF and its “conditionalities.”

To dismiss such sound policies as “extreme” in the face of the repeatedly demonstrated colossal fraudulence of our current financial system is quite absurd. The idea is not to nationalize banks, but to nationalize money, which is a natural public utility in the first place. The fact that this idea is hardly discussed today, in spite of its distinguished intellectual ancestry and common sense, is testimony to the power of vested interests over good ideas. It is also testimony to the veto power that our growth fetish exercises over the thinking of economists today. Money, like fire and the wheel, is a basic invention without which the modern world is unthinkable. But today out-of-control money is threatening to “burn and run over” more people than both out-of-control fires and wheels.

The Top Three Actions to Fix the Economy

by Rob Dietz

Fixing the economy will require more than tax code tweaks and stock market peaks.  Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that we need big changes to the way we run things on this planet. Even a partial list of today’s social and environmental problems sounds grim:

  • An unfathomable number of people (2.7 billion) live in poverty, scraping by on less than $2 per day.
  • Our penchant for burning fossil fuels has increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere such that scientists are throwing around phrases like “runaway climate change.”
  • National governments are drowning in debt, while the global financial system teeters on the verge of ruin.
  • The health of forests, grasslands, marshes, oceans, and other wild places is declining, to the point that the planet is experiencing a species extinction crisis.

ResultEnoughIsEnough_Final_LoRess like these arise because the global economy has grown too big for the broader systems that contain it. We have too many people consuming too much stuff. Sure, the engine of economic growth has driven technological advances and provided a dizzying array of consumable goods. But it’s hard to argue that these material benefits outweigh the costs of social breakdown and environmental upheaval.

So we need a systemic change, but what are our options? We could try to increase the size of the planet, or try to find another one that’s habitable. But maybe it would be more prudent to focus on changing the economy. That means shrinking, and then stabilizing, the economy so that it can meet humanity’s needs while conserving and protecting the ecosystems that support life on Earth. The book I wrote with Dan O’Neill, Enough Is Enough, describes policies to do that, but as Peter Victor has noted:

The dilemma for policy makers is that the scope of change required for managing without growth is so great that no democratically elected government could implement the requisite policies without the broad-based consent of the electorate. Even talking about them could make a politician unelectable.

Victor’s statement rings true. For example, in the last U.S. Presidential election, the candidates sparred with each other over who could grow the economy faster and create the most jobs. Suppose that instead of trying to “outgrow” his opponent, President Obama had run on a platform of stabilizing the economy. You can almost hear President Romney’s inaugural address about more oil pipelines, more highways, more consumption, more, more, more. But to the climatologists, conservation biologists, and ecological economists (and even the butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers) who are tracking the limits to growth, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to make room for our leaders to discuss economic stabilization. It’s time for them to begin working on an economy that aims for enough instead of always chasing more.

Victor_Managing_wo_GrowthFrom Victor’s quote, we can deduce the top three things we need to do to begin the transition to such an economy.

1. Achieve widespread recognition that our planet is finite and that our economy has to fit within ecological limits. Politicians can’t talk about the limits to growth because most of the electorate remains unaware of the limits. Even with increasing attention paid to climate change and other developing crises, the conversation rarely turns to overconsumption in the economy. Schools are not teaching ecological economics, and people are too distracted by the routines of daily life to pay much attention. We need compelling stories and broad public education to get people discussing critical topics  such as the relationship between environmental and social systems, humanity’s place within nature, and the benefits of a steady-state economy.

2. Provide a set of practical policies for achieving a steady-state economy. All citizens (even the politicians) need to understand what can replace the growth-obsessed policies in use today. As soon as people begin to get a feel for how a well-conceived set of steady-state policies can outperform the obsolete policies of endless growth, politicians will gain the broad-based support they need to overhaul the system. The heart of Enough Is Enough describes this set of policies, but even a quick glance at them confirms Victor’s point: the scope of change required is indeed great. That’s why we need more than just awareness of the problem and a set of policy proposals.

3. Cultivate the will to act. Economic changes won’t materialize on their own. People have to want out of the current system, and they have to demand the transition to a new one. Without such pressure, entrenched elites (in both politics and business) have no incentive to overturn the status quo. There’s an awful lot of networking and organizing to be done.

With these three actions, we can get the economy we want and the planet needs. The unelectable politicians will be the ones who cling to the wishful thinking of perpetual growth. It’s time to take a stand, to put aside the destructive mania for more, and let our lawmakers know that enough really is enough.

Enough: the Central Concept in Economics

by Herman Daly

Foreword to Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources, a book by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill (published by Berrett-Koehler in the U.S. and Earthscan in the U.K.)

Herman DalyI have long wanted to write a book on the subject of “enough” but never did. Now I don’t have to because Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill have done it in a clearer and more accessible way than I could have. Therefore it is a special pleasure for me to write a foreword calling attention to their important contribution.

Enough should be the central concept in economics. Enough means “sufficient for a good life.” This raises the perennial philosophical question, “What is a good life?” That is not easy to answer, but at a minimum we can say that the current answer of “having ever more” is wrong. It is worth working hard and sacrificing some things to have enough; but it is stupid to work even harder to have more than enough. And to get more than enough not by hard work, but by exploitation of others, is immoral.

Living on enough is closely related to sharing, a virtue which today is often referred to as “class warfare.” Real class warfare, however, will not result from sharing, but from the greed of elites who promote growth because they capture nearly all of the benefits from it, while “sharing” only the costs.

Enough is the theme of the story of God’s gift of manna to the ancient Hebrews in the wilderness. Food in the form of manna arrived like dew on the grass every morning and was enough for the day. If people tried to gather more than enough and accumulate it, it would spoil and go to waste. So God’s gift was wrapped up in the condition of enough — sufficiency and sharing — an idea later amplified in the Lord’s Prayer, “give us this day our daily bread.” Not bread for the rest of our lives or excess bread with which to buy whatever luxuries we may covet, but enough bread to sustain and enjoy fully the gift of life itself.

EnoughIsEnough_Final_LoResThis story from Exodus has parallels in the thoughts of pioneer ecological economist and Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Frederick Soddy. Soddy observed that humanity lives off the revenue of current sunshine that is gathered each day by plants with the aid of soil and water. Unlike manna some of the sunshine was accumulated and stored by geologic processes, and we have consumed it lavishly with mixed results. Today we also try to accumulate surplus solar income and exchange it for a permanent lien on future solar income. We then expect this surplus, converted into debt in the bank, to grow at compound interest. But the future solar-based revenue, against which the debt is a lien, cannot keep up with the mathematics of exponential growth, giving rise to debt repudiation and depression.

For the Hebrews in the wilderness the manna economy was designed with “enough” as a built-in feature. Our economy does not have that automatic regulation. We have to recognize the value of enough and build it into our economic institutions and culture. Thanks to Dietz and O’Neill for helping us do that.

For more information about the book, including ordering information, please click here.

More People, Less Unemployment?

by Max Kumerow

Bill Clinton took a welcome step toward reality. In his Democratic Convention speech, he pointed out that cutting taxes on rich people and fighting endless wars increased federal debt, and more of the same would make things even worse. Tax cuts and deregulation during the Bush administration failed to bring prosperity and helped cause the global financial collapse and widespread joblessness.

The Chicago School of economics has been preaching for decades, with lots of money from rich people adding to the volume of their message, that low taxes, small government, and deregulation are the road to nirvana. But the last time we had low taxes on the rich and little regulation was called the Great Depression. Clinton, at least, has come to understand that America made a mistake in believing the fairy tale that “government is the problem, so let’s cut rich people’s taxes.”

Clinton still remains bamboozled, however, by the neoclassical nonsense that sees economic growth as the solution to unemployment. On the Daily Show Clinton offered a demographic path to prosperity. He opined that because most of America’s competitors — Russia, Japan, China, and Europe — have low birth rates and aging populations, we will have a younger workforce with a lower old-age dependency ratio, so growth will solve our unemployment and debt problems.

But the notion that population growth cures unemployment is false, just like the idea that cutting taxes on the rich raises revenue and cuts the deficit. The immigration and higher birth rates that keep the population younger also guarantee a higher young-age dependency ratio and a growing population. In a world constrained by high commodity prices and other symptoms of reaching the limits to growth, a growing population leads to high unemployment, rising cost of living, and falling wages. If a young population leads to prosperity, why aren’t places like Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda thriving? Why has China gotten so much richer since starting its “one-child” policy?

The fertility rates in all the Asian tiger economies dropped below the replacement level during the decades when their economic output increased dramatically. Hong Kong and Singapore, places with no natural resources and aging populations, have a higher per capita income than the United States. Hong Kong’s 0.97 children per woman and Singapore’s 1.26 are two of the lowest fertility rates in the world.

Birth rates that low mean each generation inherits twice as much as the one before, and a future economy can have full employment with half as many jobs. Scarcer labor means higher wages. New technology and rising productivity can be used to raise incomes instead of what happens with a growing population (i.e., society treads water as the benefits of increasing productivity are canceled out by more people consuming more resources). Low fertility is the path to high incomes and abundance. High fertility is the path to poverty and scarcity.

America’s ongoing population growth has played a role in causing higher unemployment rates, more difficulty funding education, falling real wages for workers, and the incarceration of two and a half million people. You would think that in a country where oil production has fallen by 40% since 1972, a country responsible for so much of the global climate change problem, where forests have been burning, cities have been wrecked by hurricanes, and crops have been withered by drought, we would have learned that more growth is not the answer to unemployment and budget deficits.

Bill Clinton should read ecological economists like Herman Daly. He should pay attention to systems thinkers such as Donella Meadows and Bill McKibben, and consult Al Gore about our ethical responsibilities to future generations. Growth cannot be the solution to unemployment. If all countries decide to grow their populations and their economies, ice will melt, putting cities under sea level, oil will run out, food prices will rise, wages will fall, and human welfare will be reduced, not increased. We will be poorer and fewer people will be able to find jobs.

Common sense says that continuously increasing population makes it harder to keep everyone employed, not easier. The problem is not too few jobs; it’s too many people. There are already too many people consuming too much and diminishing the earth’s long-run carrying capacity.  Economic growth is running into the wall of limited resources on a finite planet. The trends created by economic growth and population growth include higher carbon emissions and climate change, loss of forests, depleted fisheries, soil erosion, species extinctions, toxic contamination, and the possible negative effects of technologies like fracking and genetically modified foods. The path the world is on — economic and population growth — is just as unsustainable as the subprime mortgage market and trillion-dollar federal deficits and will lead to collapse.

Long-run prosperity on a planet with limited land and water and air requires a transition to a steady state economy — a transition which in turn requires a transition to a smaller global population. The higher fertility rates, immigration, and economic growth that Clinton described as the path to prosperity turn out to be the path to collapse.

Do the arithmetic, starting with this year’s federal deficit, the short crop in the Corn Belt, the number of Americans in jail, and cuts to education budgets. Growth has not been the path to full employment or deficit reduction. If Romney was right about tax cuts, we wouldn’t have a federal debt crisis. If Clinton was right about population growth, we wouldn’t have unemployment. It’s time to try something beyond politics as usual.

Max Kummerow has a Ph.D. in urban and real-estate economics. This semester he is a visiting lecturer at Lincoln University in Canterbury, New Zealand.

What Is the Limiting Factor?

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyIn yesteryear’s empty world capital was the limiting factor in economic growth. But we now live in a full world.

Consider: What limits the annual fish catch — fishing boats (capital) or remaining fish in the sea (natural resources)? Clearly the latter. What limits barrels of crude oil extracted — drilling rigs and pumps (capital), or remaining accessible deposits of petroleum — or capacity of the atmosphere to absorb the CO2 from burning petroleum (both natural resources)? What limits production of cut timber — number of chain saws and lumber mills, or standing forests and their rate of growth? What limits irrigated agriculture — pumps and sprinklers, or aquifer recharge rates and river flow volumes? That should be enough to at least suggest that we live in a natural resource-constrained world, not a capital-constrained world.

Economic logic says to invest in and economize on the limiting factor. Economic logic has not changed; what has changed is the limiting factor. It is now natural resources, not capital, that we must economize on and invest in. Economists have not recognized this fundamental shift in the pattern of scarcity. Nobel Laureate in chemistry and underground economist, Frederick Soddy, predicted the shift eighty years ago. He argued that mankind ultimately lives on current sunshine, captured with the aid of plants, soil, and water. This fundamental permanent basis for life is temporarily supplemented by the release of trapped sunshine of Paleozoic summers that is being rapidly depleted to fuel what he called “the flamboyant age.” So addicted are we to this short-run subsidy that our technocrats advocate shutting out some of the incoming solar energy to make more thermal room for burning fossil fuels! These educated cretins are also busy chemically degrading the topsoil and polluting the water, while tinkering with the genetic basis of plants, all toward the purpose of maximizing short-run growth. As Wes Jackson says, agricultural plants now have genes selected by the Chicago Board of Trade, not by fitness to the ecosystem of surrounding organisms and geography.

What has kept economists from recognizing Soddy’s insight? An animus against dependence on nature, and a devotion to dominance. This basic attitude has been served by a theoretical commitment to factor substitutability and a neglect of complementarity by today’s neoclassical economists. In the absence of complementarity there can be no limiting factor — if capital and natural resources are substitutes in production then neither can be limiting — if one is in short supply you just substitute the other and continue producing. If they are complements both are necessary and the one in short supply is limiting.

Economists used to believe that capital was the limiting factor. Therefore they implicitly must have believed in complementarity between capital and natural resources back in the empty-world economy. But when resources became limiting in the new full-world economy, rather than recognizing the shift in the pattern of scarcity and the new limiting factor, they abandoned the whole idea of limiting factor by emphasizing substitutability to the exclusion of complementarity. The new reason for emphasizing capital over natural resources is the claim that capital is a near perfect substitute for resources.

William Nordhaus and James Tobin were quite explicit (“Is Growth Obsolete?,” 1972, NBER, Economic Growth, New York: Columbia University Press):

The prevailing standard model of growth assumes that there are no limits on the feasibility of expanding the supplies of nonhuman agents of production. It is basically a two-factor model in which production depends only on labor and reproducible capital. Land and resources, the third member of the classical triad, have generally been dropped… the tacit justification has been that reproducible capital is a near perfect substitute for land and other exhaustible resources.

The claim that capital is a near perfect substitute for natural resources is absurd. For one thing substitution is reversible. If capital is a near perfect substitute for resources, then resources are a near perfect substitute for capital — so why then did we ever bother to accumulate capital in the first place if nature already endowed us with a near perfect substitute?

It is not for nothing that our system is called “capitalism” rather than “natural resource-ism.” It is ideologically inconvenient for capitalism if capital is no longer the limiting factor. But that inconvenience has been met by claiming that capital is a good substitute for natural resources. Ever true to its basic animus of denying any fundamental dependence on nature, neoclassical economics saw only two alternatives — either nature is not scarce and capital is limiting, or nature’s scarcity doesn’t matter because manmade capital is a near perfect substitute for natural resources. In either case man is in control of nature, thanks to capital, and that is the main thing. Never mind that manmade capital is itself made from natural resources.

The absurdity of the claim that capital and natural resources are good substitutes has been further demonstrated by Georgescu-Roegen in his fund-flow theory of production. It recognizes that factors of production are of two qualitatively different kinds: (1) resource flows that are physically transformed into flows of product and waste; and (2) capital and labor funds, the agents or instruments of transformation that are not themselves physically embodied in the product. If one finds a machine screw or a piece of a worker’s finger in one’s can of soup, that is reason for a lawsuit, not confirmation of the metaphysical notion that capital and labor are somehow “embodied” in the product!

There are varying degrees of substitution between different natural resource flows, and between the funds of labor and capital. But the basic relation between resource flow on the one hand, and capital (or labor) fund on the other, is complementarity. Efficient cause (capital) does not substitute for material cause (resources). You can’t bake the same cake with half the ingredients no matter if you double or triple the number of cooks and ovens. Funds and flows are complements.

Further, capital is current surplus production exchanged for a lien against future production — physically it is made from natural resources. It is not easy to substitute away from natural resources when the presumed substitute is itself made from natural resources.

It is now generally recognized, even by economists, that there is far too much debt worldwide, both public and private. The reason so much debt was incurred is that we have had absurdly unrealistic expectations about the efficacy of capital to produce the real growth needed to redeem the debt that is “capital” by another name. In other words the debt that piled up in failed attempts to make wealth grow as fast as debt is evidence of the reality of limits to growth. But instead of being seen as such, it is taken as the main reason to attempt still more growth by issuing more debt, and by shifting bad debts from the balance sheet of private banks to that of the public treasury, in effect monetizing them.

The wishful thought leading to such unfounded growth expectations was the belief that by growth we would cure poverty without the need to share. As the poor got richer, the rich could get still richer! Few expected that aggregate growth itself would become uneconomic, would begin to cost us more than it was worth at the margin, making us collectively poorer, not richer. But it did. In spite of that, our economists, bankers, and politicians still have unrealistic expectations about growth. Like the losing gambler they try to get even by betting double or nothing on more growth.

Could we not take a short time-out from growth roulette to reconsider the steady-state economy? After all, the idea is deeply rooted in classical economics, as well as in physics and biology. Perpetual motion and infinite growth are not reasonable premises on which to base economic policy.

At some level many people surely know this. Why then do we keep growth as the top national priority? First, we are misled because our measure of growth, GDP, counts all “economic activity” thereby conflating costs and benefits, rather than comparing them at the margin. Second, the cumulative net benefit of past growth is a maximum at precisely the point where further growth becomes uneconomic (where declining marginal benefit equals increasing marginal cost), and past experience ceases to be a good guide to the future in this respect. Third, because even though the benefits of further growth are now less than the costs, our decision-making elites have figured out how to keep the dwindling extra benefits for themselves, while “sharing” the exploding extra costs with the poor, the future, and other species. The elite-owned media, the corporate-funded think tanks, the kept economists of high academia, and the World Bank — not to mention Gold Sacks and Wall Street — all sing hymns to growth in perfect unison, and bamboozle average citizens.

What is going to happen?

Capital, Debt, and Alchemy

by Herman Daly

Herman Daly“Capital,” said Nobel chemist and pioneer ecological economist Frederick Soddy,”merely means unearned income divided by the rate of interest and multiplied by 100.” (Cartesian Economics, p. 27).

He further explained that, “Although it may comfort the lender to think that his wealth still exists somewhere in the form of “capital,” it has been or is being used up by the borrower either in consumption or investment, and no more than food or fuel can it be used again later. Rather it has become debt, an indent on future revenues…”

In other words capital in the financial sense is the perennial net revenue stream expected from the project financed, divided by the assumed rate of interest and multiplied by 100. Rather than magic growth-producing real stuff, it is a hypothetical calculation of the present value of a permanent lien on the future real production of the economy. The fact that the lien can be traded among individuals for real wealth in the present does not change the fact that it is still a lien against the future revenue of society — in a word it is a debt that the future must pay, no matter who owns it or how often it is traded as an asset in the present.

Soddy believed that the ruling passion of our age is to convert wealth into debt in order to derive a permanent future income from it — to convert wealth that perishes into debt that endures, debt that does not rot or rust, costs nothing to maintain, and brings in perennial “unearned income,” as both IRS accountants and Marxists accurately call it. No individual could amass the physical requirements sufficient for maintenance during old age, for like manna it would spoil if accumulated much beyond current need. Therefore one must convert one’s non-storable current surplus into a lien on future revenue by letting others consume and invest one’s surplus now in exchange for the right to share in the expected future revenue. But future real physical revenue simply cannot grow as fast as symbolic monetary debt! In Soddy’s words:

You cannot permanently pit an absurd human convention, such as the spontaneous increment of debt [compound interest], against the natural law of the spontaneous decrement of wealth [entropy]. (Cartesian Economics, p. 30).

In case that is a too abstract statement of a too general principle, Soddy gave a simple example. Minus two pigs (debt) is a mathematical quantity having no physical existence, and the population of negative pigs can grow without limit. Plus two pigs (wealth) is a physical quantity, and their population growth is limited by the need to feed the pigs, dispose of their waste, find space for them, etc. Both may grow at a given x% for a while, but before long the population of negative pigs will greatly outnumber that of the positive pigs, because the population of positive pigs is limited by the physical constraints of a finite and entropic world. The value of a negative pig will fall to a small fraction of the value of a positive pig. Owners of negative pigs will be greatly disappointed and angered when they try to exchange them for positive pigs. In today’s terms, instead of negative pigs, think “unfunded pension liabilities” or “sub-prime mortgages.”

Soddy went on to speculate about how historically we came to confuse wealth with debt:

Because formerly ownership of land — which, with the sunshine that falls on it, provides a revenue of wealth — secured, in the form of rent, a share in the annual harvest without labor or service, upon which a cultured and leisured class could permanently establish itself, the age seems to have conceived the preposterous notion that money, which can buy land, must therefore itself have the same revenue-producing power.

The ancient alchemists wanted to transmute corrosion-prone base metals into permanent, non-corruptible, time-resistant gold. Modern economic alchemists want to convert spoiling, rusting, and depleting wealth into a magic substance better than gold — not only does it resist corrosion, but it grows — by some mysterious principle the alchemists referred to as the “vegetative property of metals.” The modern alchemical philosopher’s stone, known as “capital” or “debt,” is not only free from the ravages of time and entropy, but embodies the alchemists’ long-sought-for principle of vegetative growth of metals. But once we replace alchemy with chemistry we find that the idea that future people can live off the interest of their mutual indebtedness is just another perpetual motion delusion.

The exponentially growing indent of debt on future real revenue will, in a finite and entropic world, become greater than future producers are either willing or able to transfer to owners of the debt. Debt will be repudiated either by inflation, bankruptcy, or confiscation, likely leading to serious violence. This prospect of violence especially bothered Soddy because, as the discoverer of the existence of isotopes, he had contributed substantially to the theory of atomic structure that made atomic energy feasible. He predicted in 1926 that the first fruit of this discovery would be a bomb of unprecedented power. He lived to see his prediction come true. Removing the economic causes of conflict therefore became for him a kind of redeeming priority.

Economists have ignored Soddy for eighty years — after all, he only got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, not the more alchemical “Swedish Riksbank Memorial Prize for Economics in Honor of Alfred Nobel.”