Defusing the Debt Bomb

by James Johnston

If it didn’t have such explosive consequences, you’d have to laugh at the comedy of errors unfolding in the U.S. political arena. Politicians are proposing farcical “solutions” to the debt crisis in a competition to see who is better at pandering to the electorate. Are citizens really supposed to believe that raising taxes or cutting expenditures will provide meaningful relief on ballooning bank-inherited interest payments — payments so stratospheric that the human mind lacks a conceptual reference point for them? Each and every government service could be cut and it still wouldn’t help pay off the debt. The problem can’t be solved by reining in an overgrown government bureaucracy because much of it was created by an unregulated, overgrown banking system.

On the advice of conventional economic sages, we are to believe that the “credit crunch” is an event that took place in the past, with the words “growth” and “recovery” being used instead. But the transfer of debt from the private sector to the public sector in 2008 has merely postponed the inevitable detonation of a debt bomb that started ticking many years ago. If the government manages the bank-inherited debt in such preposterously piecemeal terms, it will never be paid off. Propping up the same broken banking system won’t solve the problem and will eventually cause history to repeat itself.

Only meaningful regulatory and monetary reform — reform that lowers the leverage ratio of lenders and discourages irresponsible gambling with the money earned by average people — can truly diffuse the debt bomb and prevent this from happening again. The result will increase the stability of the financial system and bring us closer to an economic steady state. But it means that we have to give up our collective obsession with the meaningless, self-destructive growth provided by an overgrown banking sector. First, government leaders must stop celebrating the growth of debt-inflated GDP figures like unthinking, euphoric addicts.

How we got here

No one can pinpoint the causes of the Great Depression with certainty, but prominent economist Irving Fisher argued that the predominant catalyst was over-indebtedness and speculation, which fuelled asset bubbles (Fisher, 1933). Sound familiar? After the Great Depression, the U.S. government initiated reforms based on Fischer’s explanation of the problem. The purpose was to avoid another debt-driven crisis. New regulations prevented bankers from speculating with depositors’ savings, and the U.S. economy experienced many years of prosperity without financial crisis. Investment banking was a more conservative endeavor and savings and loan funds were not used for speculation or risky business investing.

Fast-forward half a century. During the 1980s, the deregulation of banking allowed savings and loan banks to make increasingly risky bets with borrowers’ money. Some banks failed during the savings and loan crisis, yet the process of deregulation continued. Meanwhile, bankers’ wages skyrocketed. So-called new financial “products” facilitated speculation and fueled an illusion of growth and prosperity. The illusion enshrouded bankers in a mystical aura. Everything they touched turned to gold, and politicians and citizens began to regard them as sages. Only the most intelligent people, one might suppose, could create so much wealth so quickly.

The illusion of growth produced illusions of stability and prosperity; bad decisions were rewarded while lessons from history were either disregarded or forgotten. In 2008, as the American economy inched uncomfortably close to detonation, the big banks revealed that the debt bomb was much larger than initially thought. Still the regulatory bomb squad sat idle. At no point did they come up with a useful plan for truly defusing it — it was simply postponed through the transference of debt. This occurred in spite of the risks associated with a pending disruption of the monetary system: the potential disappearance of savings, the foreclosure of homes, disruptions in the flow of goods and services, and unemployment. As a bomb counting down to detonation, here is the timeline we need to bear in mind:

  • At ten seconds to detonation, advances in computing technology allow for “bankers” (many of whom were in fact physicists and computer scientists) to create investment products called “derivatives,” products that Warren Buffet called “financial weapons of mass destruction.”
  • At nine seconds, the financial sector consolidates into gigantic firms — something that was illegal following the Great Depression. Laws are changed under the guise of “modernization,” paving the path for the debt economy to balloon (and for history to repeat itself). Attempts to regulate derivatives fail and banking practices become increasingly risky.
  • At eight seconds, the euphoria reaches new heights. Loans are used as a means of generating investment funds for large banks. It becomes harder to track the risk associated with certain kinds of debt, as they are lumped together into an untraceable electronic mass (including commercial and residential mortgages, car loans, student loans, credit card debt and corporate debt). The products — “collateralized debt obligations” or “CDOs” — are given high ratings by credit rating agencies.
  • Seven seconds. Despite high ratings, many of the loans held in these portfolios are borrowed by people who cannot repay them. The banks don’t care, however, because insurance and default mechanisms allow them to avoid repaying any of the bad loans they issue. Besides, they argue, defaults like that are historically unprecedented.
  • Six seconds. As dot-com stocks crash due to over-speculation, investment money flows into sub-prime mortgages, which become all the rage. Mortgages reach their highest prices in history and home values skyrocket around the country. Indeed, many countries around the world see home values spike faster than ever. In the process, big financial firms (including JP Morgan, Credit Suisse, Citibank, Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae and UBS) defraud their borrowers to push profits ever higher.
  • Five seconds. The leverage ratio between borrowed money and reserve money reaches new heights (from 20:1 to 30:1). For every dollar a bank has, it loans out 20 to 30 times that amount. Limits on leverage are relaxed, enabling banks to bet more with the money of depositors.
  • Four seconds. U.S. home prices double over their 1986 levels. The IMF and a handful of economists warn of crisis.
  • Three seconds. Big firms declare bankruptcy and the giant debt bureaucracy (the big banks) take a tumble.
  • Two seconds. As if covering a bomb in duct-tape, the U.S. government bails out the banks and transfers debt from the private sector to the public sector, tripling U.S. debt overnight. And yet, the same system that caused the crisis is propped up.

At this point in history, with the debt reaching more than 14 trillion dollars, U.S. leadership has a choice between defusing the bomb with meaningful regulatory and monetary reform — reform that lowers the leverage ratio and punishes irresponsible institutional gambling — or further bandaging a broken system that meaninglessly consumes government expenditures and cripples the real economy to the benefit of big banks. Choosing the latter will again postpone the inevitable, maintaining an unstable economic status-quo obsessed with illusory growth derived from debt-inflated GDP.

If the U.S. government refuses to defuse the bomb now, it will explode in the foreseeable future as risky banking practices continue and interest payments (penalties for past mistakes) soar to super-stratospheric heights. The irresponsible actions of financially bloated bankers are being overlooked by a government distracted with irrelevant ideological arguments. When the debt bomb finally detonates, those responsible will likely avoid the fallout in the comfort of their unjustifiable excess. And while average people can try to shield themselves by minimizing their exposure to the debt-inflated growth economy, they will undoubtedly suffer the most. If only those elected to represent their interests would overcome petty illusions and turn their attention to more critical reforms than cutting and taxing.

Real Economies and the Illusions of Abstraction

by Hazel Henderson © 2010

Editor’s Note:  Hazel Henderson, guest contributor and true champion of the steady state economy, digs deep into the deficiencies of our economic and financial systems.

The yawning gap between the real world and the discipline and profession of economics has never been wider.  The ever-increasing abstractions in finance and its models based on “efficient markets” and “rational actors”: capital asset pricing, Value-at-Risk, Black-Scholes Options Pricing, have been awarded most of the Bank of Sweden prizes since they were founded in the 1960s and foisted onto the Nobel Prize Committee.  Most of these abstract models, based on misuse of mathematics, contributed to the financial crises of 2007-2008.  Now, the family of Alfred Nobel, led by lawyer Peter Nobel, has disassociated itself from the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economics In Memory of Alfred Nobel.[1] They point out that Nobel never would have approved of a prize in economics since it is not a science – and would have disapproved even more that most of the prizes were given to Western, neoclassical economists using mathematized, abstract models – far from Nobel’s wider concerns.

Nowhere is this abstraction more devastating than in the mathematical compounding of interest rates on borrowed money, now sinking individuals, companies and nations in unrepayable debt as explored in lawyer Ellen Brown’s Web of Debt (2007).

In The Politics of the Solar Age (1981, 1988), I warned that compound interest violated the Second Law of Thermodynamics:

Much confusion arises because economics inappropriately analogizes from some of these models from the physical, social, and biological realms.  For example, the best example of a “runaway” can be found in the hypothetical model that economists have imposed on the real world: compounded interest.  Here, they have set up an a priori, positive feedback system (based on the value system of private property and its accumulation), in which the interest earned on a fixed quantity of money (capital) will be compounded and the next calculation of interest added on cumulatively.  But this “runaway” accumulation process bears no relationship to the real world – only to the value system.  However, it has profound real-world effects if enough people believe it is legitimate and employ lawyers, courts, etc., to enforce it!  (p. 228)

I also pointed out that Frederick Soddy, Nobel laureate in chemistry, decided that economists’ dangerous drift into pseudo-scientific abstraction must be halted before they destroyed industrial societies, because their uninformed ideas contravened the first and second laws of thermodynamics.  (p. 225)

The mathematical fantasy that money is wealth and can reproduce itself is revealed again in the US housing and foreclosure crisis.  Money is a useful information system for tracking our use of nature’s resources and scoring the games we humans play, but it gradually became mistakenly equated with the real wealth of nations.  Similarly, too often economists and politicians describe money flows in economies as analogous to the human body’s circulatory system.  Yet human blood’s hemoglobin cells do not charge money or interest for the life-giving oxygen they deliver to every other cell in our bodies.

Charging interest for lending money was frowned on by our ancestors and considered a sin in Christian, Judaic as well as Islamic and other religious traditions.  This view survives today in Sharia finance where lending at interest is shunned in favor of requiring the investor or creditor to share risks of any enterprise with the entrepreneur.

Generations of scholars since Aristotle’s treatises on “just prices” have examined the myths and human experiments in creating money and systems of exchange, from mutual fund manager Stephen Zarlenga’s The Lost Science of Money (2002) and Prof. Margrit Kennedy’s Interest and Inflation Free Money (1995) to lawyer Ellen Brown’s Web of Debt (2007).  In my Creating Alternative Futures (1978), I posed the question: Is there any such thing as profit without some equal, unrecorded debt entry in some social or environmental ledger or passed on to future generations?  My answer was “yes,” provided all costs of production were internalized and thermodynamic, not economic, measures of efficiency were calculated.

The mismatch is between the real-world economies, where real people grow food, make shoes, clothes, shelter and tools in real factories, versus the human mind’s tendencies toward abstraction.  Understanding the real world in which we live requires us to recognize patterns and to abstract reality into mental models.  The map is not the territory, as we have been reminded by many epistemologists.  The danger is that we routinize our perception through these models, forgetting the need for constant updating and course-correcting as conditions change around us.  Thus our mental models are memes that crystallize into habits, dogmas and outdated theories such as those in conventional economics and finance.  These led to collective illusions: about “efficient markets,” “humans as rational actors” and the lure of “compound interest” that still guide the decisions of too many asset managers.  New models of triple bottom line accounting for environmental, social and governance (ESG) have been adopted by responsible investors and institutional investors, including those engaged with the UN Principles of Responsible Investment, managing $22 trillion in assets.  The current US mortgage and foreclosure mess provides a new teachable moment where we can re-examine the obsolete beliefs still at the core of economics and now refuted by physicists, thermodynamics, endocrinologists, brain and behavioral scientists.[2]

The computerized efficiency of digitizing mortgages for rapid securitization in the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS) is at the root of the foreclosure and toxic assets dilemma.  We must examine how computers when introduced into Wall Street, financial and housing markets drove economic theories further into mathematization, led by the Arrow-Debreu modeling of national economies in the 1960s, beyond earlier attempts by Leon Walras.  Bank of Sweden Prizes in Memory of Alfred Nobel were given to Arrow and Debreu and others for mathematical models inappropriately applied to economics and finance.[3] Similar mathematical models on which economists still rely, accept Arrow-Debreu’s assumption of a process of “market completion” where markets could be extended to enclose ever more of the global commons: air, carbon emissions, water, forests, biodiversity, ecological assets and their productivity which supports all life.  The newest commons are global communications infrastructure, the internet, the electromagnetic spectrum and space, all of which required massive public investments and underpin global finance and its extensive bailouts.  The report of the Global Commission to Fund the UN,  The UN: Policy and Financing Alternatives, Eds. H. Cleveland, H. Henderson and I. Kaul (Elsevier Science Press, UK, 1995) proposed taxing all commercial uses of the global commons and fines for misuse, including a tax on currency speculation.

For any market to efficiently allocate resources, buyers and sellers must have equal information and power, while their transactions should not harm any innocent bystanders.  These conditions identified by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations in 1776 are now violated everywhere due to the scale and technological reach of global corporations and finance.  Examples include the earliest forms of industrial pollution and exploitation of workers to today’s toxic sludge dam failure in Hungary; BP’s Gulf oil contamination and the growing costs in lives and ecological destruction of coal mining; the Wall Street volatility due to program trading; the financial meltdown of 2007-2008; the May 6, 2010 “flash crash,” and the new revelations of US mortgage and foreclosure frauds.  An ingenious enterprise, the Open Models Company (OMC) founded by Prof. Chuck Bralver at the Fletcher School of Tufts University, based on Linux principles, provides an open-source platform for global experts and critics in finance to examine the assumptions underlying derivatives and risk models – a huge help for underfunded regulators.[4] Mervyn King, head of the Bank of England, called for restructuring beyond Dodd-Frank, Basel III and other recent reforms of today’s unsustainable “financial alchemy.”[5] King reflects most of the issues identified by experts in our Transforming Finance statement of September 13, 2010.

The scale of industrial and financial operations becomes global and ever more computerized and digitized, accelerating the abstraction of management, global supply chains, risk assessment, calculations of accountants for profits and losses, strategies of national governments and central bankers using defunct models such as NAIRU (non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment) to set interest rates, along with subsidies, tax policies, and quantitative easing to “manage” their economies.  All are based on levels of aggregation in statistical indicators akin to assessing national economies while over-flying a country’s territory at 50,000 feet.  The digitization of Wall Street and security analysis is cancelling out strategies for diversification of portfolios.  In the post-Bretton Woods, turbulent global casino, the $3 trillion plus daily electronic trading of currencies and sovereign bonds are driven largely by speculation, credit default swaps, and high-frequency trader’s algorithms.  The proliferation of electronic trading platforms, credit cards and digital payment and credit systems bypass regulatory models of governments and central banks.

Today’s ad hoc global financialization cannot be described as a system since it is still driven by the long-outdated assumptions and models in economics and the sloppy generalizations and categories that underlie economics and its theories: “capital” (not clearly defined); “growth” (GDP is the output of goods and services measured in money without subtracting social and environmental costs or adding the unpaid services in families and communities which support official paid production); “innovation” (does not distinguish between new brands of dog food, potato chips, credit default swaps vs. computer chips, gene sequencing or renewable energy); “productivity” (if measured as output per worker, this leads to further automation and technological unemployment); “free trade” (which led to the hollowing out of the US economy, outsourcing of jobs in manufacturing and services, trade deficits); “inflation” and “deflation.”  Statistical illusions: CPI, “core CPI” (which excludes energy and food), drives Fed policies, Social Security, taxes as well as employment and macroeconomic policies (see Current Issues).

Perhaps the most obvious policy errors were the models used by Alan Greenspan to describe the global economy in the boom and by Ben Bernanke during the period from 2003-2006 as “The Great Moderation” (economic cycles had been tamed) and then, as the global imbalances grew, labeling them “the Global Glut of Savings” (China, Japan and other countries supposedly saved too much).  Instead, I and others labeled this a growing global bubble of fiat currencies, led by the US dollar, acting as a global reserve currency.  The crisis was one of macro-economic management – sinking under mounting deficits, debt and compound interest, while facing growing systemic risks due to deregulation in the global casino.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb pointed out all these conceptual errors in Fooled by Randomness (2005) and The Black Swan (2007), digging even deeper into the fallacies of the human mind, including confirmation bias, herd behavior and excessive optimism verified by behavioral psychologists.  Mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot warned of the limits of statistical models of probability and risk informed by Gaussian normal distribution “bell curves.”  Fat tails, black swans and perfect storms entered the language, but instead of examining these human perceptual errors, they became excuses for Robert Rubin and his protégés, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, as well as central bankers, Wall Street CEOs and asset managers – all claiming that “no one could have predicted the financial crises.”   As Richard Bookstaber described in A Demon of Our Own Design (2007), Wall Street’s financial models were bound to fail.

The truth is that thousands of critics, scholars and market players, including the author[6] accurately predicted and warned of the coming debacle – but were ignored by the leading elites in business, government and academia.  Mainstream media accepted conventional wisdom, funded by advertising from incumbent industries and their financial allies while their lobbyists took control of Congress.  After the half-hearted reforms  of Dodd-Frank, the IMF, the World Bank, the BIS and the G-20, how can a paradigm shift allow new voices, new models and more accurate modeling and control of systemic risk to emerge in the global financial system?

First, we must recognize the crises we face are not black swans, fat tails or perfect storms, but symptoms of our limited perception, fragmentary reductionist mindsets, models, research methods and academic curricula , particularly in economics and business schools.  Second, we must move beyond economics to capture all their “externalities” in multi-disciplinary frameworks, systems models, multiple metrics and pluralistic research, such as that pioneered by the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) on whose founding Technology Assessment Advisory Council I was honored to serve from 1974 until 1980.  This useful messenger, with its ground-breaking research, now copied in many countries, was decapitated by Congress in 1996 by Speaker Newt Gingrich and his Republican colleagues.  Luckily, OTA’s studies are still highly relevant and archived at Princeton University and the University of Maryland.  Signs of awakening include new memes, including describing fragmented approaches as “silos” and narrow research as “stovepipe information” with frequent calls to “connect the dots.”

Equally urgent are the phasing out of all the hundreds of billions of dollars of perverse subsidies propping up obsolete, incumbent companies and industries still blocking the emergence of cleaner, greener information-rich technologies and new companies.  Governments’ conceptual confusion over climate issues is evident in still subsidizing carbon-based industries while at the same time trying to cap and price carbon emissions.  This Green Transition to the Solar Age is underway as we gradually exit the earlier, fossil-fueled Industrial Era.  Ethical Markets Media measures private investments since 2007 in solar, wind, energy efficiency, renewables and smart infrastructure worldwide in our Green Transition Scoreboard®.

Meanwhile, a below 1% financial transaction tax on all transactions can curb high frequency trading and currency speculators, limit positions by hedge funds and other institutional investors – while sparing legitimate hedging by commercial firms.  Such long-debated taxes, proposed by James Tobin in the 1970s and Larry Summers in his 1989 paper,[7] are now supported by the EU and are on the G-20’s agenda.  See my “Financial Transaction Taxes: The Commonsense Approach.”[8]

To finally correct our money-creation ceded to private banks by Congress in 1913 through the Federal Reserve system, Congress could enact the Monetary Reform Act long proposed and vetted by seasoned market veterans of the American Monetary Institute.  This would entail a rolling readjustment in money issuance – now obviously dysfunctional under the Fed and private banks and return it to a public function as in the US Constitution.  Meantime, many states could adopt state banking as in North Dakota, the only state with a surplus and full employment – unharmed by the depredations of Wall Street extractions from Main Street.

I agree with others from E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful (1973), Simon Johnson, author of 13 Bankers (2009), Laurence Kotlikoff, author of Jimmy Stewart is Dead (2009) to Nassim Nicholas Taleb: if systems are too large and interconnected to manage and banks are “too big to fail,” then they need to be carefully dismantled and decentralized to restore diversity and resilience following nature’s design principles.  Monetary monocultures now on a global scale have demonstrably failed.  Healthy, homegrown, local economies need protection from global bankers and their casino.   Complimentary local currencies and peer-to-peer finance are flourishing (see my “Democratizing Finance“).  Bloated financial sectors can be downsized and return to their role of serving real economies.  In the USA, small non-profit community development finance institutions (CDFIs) are growing to fill the needs of micro-businesses.[9]

Trickle down economics has failed utterly, even as the politicians and central bankers still believe that pouring taxpayers funds and printed money into big banks and bloated financial sectors will somehow trickle down to Main Street and local businesses.  Instead of creating US jobs, the rest of us see the Wall Street traders and big asset managers investing these funds in China, India, Brazil and other emerging markets where US multinationals have shifted their plants, jobs and research.  Worse still, big banks take the Fed’s funds and rather than lending to Main Street, use it for gambling on currencies, oil, interest rates and other derivatives.  All this money-creation is fueling currency wars.  Hopefully, all this together with ballooning debts, deficits and un-repayable compound interest, the foreclosure and mortgage securitization scandals and auditing Fannie, Freddie and the Fed, will provide enough evidence to Washington and voters in many countries of the needed paradigm shift and new policies.

Calls in the USA for facing up to these painful truths are coming from all sides, from Republicans, including Congressman Ron Paul to Democrats including Congressman Dennis Kucinich and Independents including Senators Bernie Sanders and Byron Dorgan.  Indeed, Republicans and Democrats are now both minority parties as most voters are now independents.

Exposing all the statistic illusions, inoperative models, dysfunctional economic dogmas – including their unsustainable offspring: debt-based money and compound interest – can begin the Green Transition to the emerging economies of the 21st century.  The new coalition is now visible: responsible and green investors and companies, environmentalists, Millennials, progressive labor unions and their pension funds, students, independent media and voters, systems thinkers, futurists and academics pioneering new courses in sustainability, as well as dispossessed homeowners, jobless workers, professionals and veterans eager to put their skills to work – all are ready to help grow the green economies of the future.

Hazel Henderson, D. Sc.Hon., FRSA, author of nine books, is President of Ethical Markets Media (USA and Brazil) and its Green Transition Scoreboard; co-creator with the Calvert Group of the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators (regularly updated at and the Transforming Finance initiative.  Her company is signatory of the UN Principles of Responsible Investing.

[1] Söderbaum, Peter.  “Nobel Prize in Economics Diminishes the Value of Other Nobel Prizes.”  Dagens Nyheter, Sweden, October 10, 2004

[2] Henderson, Hazel.  “The Cuckoo’s Egg in the Nobel Prize Nest,”  InterPress Service, October 2006.

[3] Henderson, Hazel.  “Abolish the ‘Nobel’ in Economics? Many Scientists Agree.”  InterPress Service, 2004.

[4] Tapscott, Don and Williams, Anthony. Macrowikinomics, Penguin Group, USA, 2010

[5] “King plays God.”  The Economist Online, October 26, 2010

[6] Henderson, H. Building a Win-Win World, Berrett-Koehler, 1996 (now an e-book)

Henderson, H. “New Markets and New Commons,” FUTURES, Elsevier Science, vol. 27 #2, 1995

[7] Summers, Larry.  “When Financial Markets Work Too Well: A cautious case for a securities transactions tax”, Journal of Financial Services Research vol. 3(2-3) 1989

[8] Henderson, Hazel. “Financial Transaction Taxes: The Common Sense Approach,” Responsible Investor, London, October 19, 2010

[9] Pinsky, Mark. “Help for Small Businesses: Loans are just a start” Bloomberg Businessweek, Oct. 25, 2010, p. 74