Top 10 Policies for a Steady-State Economy

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyLet’s get specific. Here are ten policies for ending uneconomic growth and moving to a steady-state economy. A steady-state economy is one that develops qualitatively (by improvement in science, technology, and ethics) without growing quantitatively in physical dimensions; it lives on a diet — a constant metabolic flow of resources from depletion to pollution (the entropic throughput) maintained at a level that is both sufficient for a good life and within the assimilative and regenerative capacities of the containing ecosystem.

Ten is an arbitrary number — just a way to get specific and challenge others to suggest improvements. Although the whole package here discussed fits together in the sense that some policies supplement and balance others, most of them could be adopted singly and gradually.

1. Cap-auction-trade systems for basic resources. Caps limit biophysical scale by quotas on depletion or pollution, whichever is more limiting. Auctioning the quotas captures scarcity rents for equitable redistribution. Trade allows efficient allocation to highest uses. This policy has the advantage of transparency. There is a limit to the amount and rate of depletion and pollution that the economy can be allowed to impose on the ecosystem. Caps are physical quotas, limits to the throughput of basic resources, especially fossil fuels. The quota usually should be applied at the input end because depletion is more spatially concentrated than pollution and hence easier to monitor. Also the higher price of basic resources will induce their more economical use at each upstream stage of production, as well as at the final stages of consumption and recycling. Ownership of the quotas is initially public — the government periodically auctions them to individuals and firms. There should be no “grandfathering” of quota rights to previous users, nor “offshoring” of quotas for new fossil fuel power plants in one by place by credits from planting trees somewhere else. Reforestation is a good policy on its own.  It is too late for self-canceling half measures — increased carbon sequestration and decreased emissions are both needed. The auction revenues go to the treasury and are used to replace regressive taxes, such as the payroll tax, and to reduce income tax on the lowest incomes. Once purchased at auction the quotas can be freely bought and sold by third parties, just as can the resources whose rate of depletion they limit. The cap serves the goal of sustainable scale; the auction serves the goal of fair distribution; and trading allows efficient allocation — three goals, three policy instruments. Although mainly applied to nonrenewable resources, the same logic works for limiting the off-take from renewable resources, such as fisheries and forests, with the quota level set to approximate a sustainable yield.

2. Ecological tax reform. Shift the tax base from value added (labor and capital) to “that to which value is added,” namely the entropic throughput of resources extracted from nature (depletion), and returned to nature (pollution). Such a tax shift prices the scarce but previously un-priced contribution of nature. Value added to natural resources by labor and capital is something we want to encourage, so stop taxing it. Depletion and pollution are things we want to discourage, so tax them. Payment above necessary supply price is rent, unearned income, and most economists have long advocated taxing it, both for efficiency and equity reasons. Ecological tax reform can be an alternative or a supplement to cap-auction-trade systems.

3. Limit the range of inequality in income distribution with a minimum income and a maximum income. Without aggregate growth poverty reduction requires redistribution. Unlimited inequality is unfair; complete equality is also unfair. Seek fair limits to the range of inequality. The civil service, the military, and the university manage with a range of inequality of a factor of 15 or 20. Corporate America has a range of 500 or more. Many industrial nations are below 25. Could we not limit the range to, say, 100, and see how it works? This might mean a minimum of 20 thousand dollars and a maximum of two million. Is that not more than enough to give incentive for hard work and compensate real differences? People who have reached the limit could either work for nothing at the margin if they enjoy their work, or devote their extra time to hobbies or public service. The demand left unmet by those at the top will be filled by those who are below the maximum. A sense of community, necessary for democracy, is hard to maintain across the vast income differences current in the United States. Rich and poor separated by a factor of 500 have few experiences or interests in common, and are increasingly likely to engage in violent conflict.

4. Free up the length of the working day, week, and year — allow greater option for part-time or personal work. Full-time external employment for all is hard to provide without growth. Other industrial countries have much longer vacations and maternity leaves than the United States. For the classical economists the length of the working day was a key variable by which the worker (self-employed yeoman or artisan) balanced the marginal disutility of labor with the marginal utility of income and of leisure so as to maximize enjoyment of life. Under industrialism the length of the working day became a parameter rather than a variable (and for Karl Marx was the key determinant of the rate of exploitation). We need to make it more of a variable subject to choice by the worker. Milton Friedman wanted “freedom to choose” — OK, here is an important choice most of us are not allowed to make! And we should stop biasing the labor-leisure choice by advertising to stimulate more consumption and more labor to pay for it. At a minimum advertising should no longer be treated as a tax-deductible expense of production.

5. Re-regulate international commerce — move away from free trade, free capital mobility, and globalization. Cap-auction-trade, ecological tax reform, and other national measures that internalize environmental costs will raise prices and put us at a competitive disadvantage in international trade with countries that do not internalize costs. We should adopt compensating tariffs to protect, not inefficient firms, but efficient national policies of cost internalization from standards-lowering competition with foreign firms that are not required to pay the social and environmental costs they inflict. This “new protectionism” is very different from the “old protectionism” that was designed to protect a truly inefficient domestic firm from a more efficient foreign firm. The first rule of efficiency is “count all the costs” — not “free trade,” which coupled with free capital mobility leads to a standards-lowering competition to count as few costs as possible. Tariffs are also a good source of public revenue. This will run afoul of the World Trade Organization/World Bank/International Monetary Fund, so….

Ten pieces of the policy puzzle for an earth-centric economy

Ten pieces of the policy puzzle for an earth-centric economy

6. Downgrade the WTO/WB/IMF. Reform these organizations based on something like Keynes’s original plan for a multilateral payments clearing union, charging penalty rates on surplus as well as deficit balances with the union — seek balance on current account, and thereby avoid large foreign debts and capital account transfers. For example, under Keynes’s plan the U.S. would pay a penalty charge to the clearing union for its large deficit with the rest of the world, and China would also pay a similar penalty for its surplus. Both sides of the imbalance would be pressured to balance their current accounts by financial penalties, and if need be by exchange rate adjustments relative to the clearing account unit, called the “bancor” by Keynes. The bancor would also serve as the world reserve currency, a privilege that should not be enjoyed by any national currency, including the U.S. dollar. Reserve currency status for the dollar is a benefit to the U.S. — rather like a truckload of free heroin is a benefit to an addict. The bancor would be like gold under the gold standard, only you would not have to tear up the earth to dig it out. Alternatively a regime of freely fluctuating exchange rates is a viable possibility requiring less international cooperation.

7. Move away from fractional reserve banking toward a system of 100% reserve requirements. This would put control of the money supply and seigniorage (profit made by the issuer of fiat money) in the hands of the government rather than private banks, which 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. 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 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 prior 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. To make up for the decline in 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 Treasury would replace the Fed, and the target policy variables would be the money supply and the price index, not the interest rate. The external value of the dollar could be left to freely fluctuating exchange rates (or preferably to the rate against the bancor in Keynes’s clearing union).

8. Stop treating the scarce as if it were free, and the free as if it were scarce. Enclose the remaining open-access commons of rival natural capital (e.g., the atmosphere, the electromagnetic spectrum, and public lands) in public trusts, and price them by cap-auction-trade systems, or by taxes.  At the same time, free from private enclosure and prices the non-rival commonwealth of knowledge and information. Knowledge, unlike the resource throughput, is not divided in the sharing, but multiplied. Once knowledge exists, the opportunity cost of sharing it is zero, and its allocative price should be zero. International development aid should more and more take the form of freely and actively shared knowledge, along with small grants, and less and less the form of large interest-bearing loans. Sharing knowledge costs little, does not create un-repayable debts, and increases the productivity of the truly rival and scarce factors of production. Patent monopolies (aka “intellectual property rights”) should be given for fewer “inventions,” and for fewer years. Costs of production of new knowledge should, more and more, be publicly financed and then the knowledge freely shared. Knowledge is a cumulative social product, and we have the discovery of the laws of thermodynamics, the double helix, polio vaccine, etc. without patent monopolies and royalties.

9. Stabilize population. Work toward a balance in which births plus in-migrants equals deaths plus out-migrants. This is controversial and difficult, but as a start contraception should be made available for voluntary use everywhere. And while each nation can debate whether it should accept many or few immigrants, and who should get priority, such a debate is rendered moot if immigration laws are not enforced. We should support voluntary family planning and enforcement of reasonable immigration laws, democratically enacted.

10. Reform national accounts — separate GDP into a cost account and a benefits account. Natural capital consumption and “regrettably necessary defensive expenditures” belong in the cost account. Compare costs and benefits of a growing throughput at the margin, and stop throughput growth when marginal costs equal marginal benefits. In addition to this objective approach, recognize the importance of the subjective studies that show that, beyond a threshold, further GDP growth does not increase self-evaluated happiness. Beyond a level already reached in many countries, GDP growth delivers no more happiness, but continues to generate depletion and pollution. At a minimum we must not just assume that GDP growth is economic growth, but prove that it is not uneconomic growth.

Currently these policies are beyond the pale politically. To the reader who has persevered this far, I thank you for your willing suspension of political disbelief. Only after a significant crash, a painful empirical demonstration of the failure of the growth economy, would this ten-fold program, or anything like it, stand a chance of being enacted.

To be sure, the conceptual change in vision from the norm of a growth economy to that of a steady-state economy is radical. Some of these proposals are rather technical and require more explanation and study. There is no escape from studying economics, even if, as Joan Robinson said, the main reason for it is to avoid being deceived by economists. Nevertheless, the policies required are far from revolutionary, and are subject to gradual application. For example, 100% reserve banking was advocated in the 1930s by the conservative Chicago School and can be approached gradually, the range of distributive inequality can be restricted gradually, caps can be adjusted gradually, etc. More importantly, these measures are based on the impeccably conservative institutions of private property and decentralized market allocation. The policies here advocated simply reaffirm forgotten pillars of those institutions, namely that: (1) private property loses its legitimacy if too unequally distributed; (2) markets lose their legitimacy if prices do not tell the truth about opportunity costs; and as we have more recently learned (3) the macro-economy becomes an absurdity if its scale is required to grow beyond the biophysical limits of the Earth.

Well before reaching that radical biophysical limit, we are encountering the classical economic limit in which extra costs of growth become greater than the extra benefits, ushering in the era of uneconomic growth, whose very possibility is denied by the growthists. The inequality of wealth distribution has canceled out the traditional virtues of private property by bestowing nearly all benefits of growth to the top 1%, while generously sharing the costs of growth with the poor. Gross inequality, plus monopolies, subsidies, tax loopholes, false accounting, cost-externalizing globalization, and financial fraud have made market prices nearly meaningless as measures of opportunity cost. For example, a policy of near zero interest rates (quantitative easing) to push growth and bail out big banks has eliminated the interest rate as a measure of the opportunity cost of capital, thereby crippling the efficiency of investment. Trying to maintain the present growth-based Ponzi system is far more unrealistic than moving to a steady-state economy by something like the policies here outlined. It is probably too late to avoid unrealism’s inevitable consequences. But while we are hunkered down and unemployed, enduring the crash, we might think about the principles that should guide reconstruction.

Making Sense of the Protests through a Post-Growth Lens

by James Johnston

The world has recently seen protests on Wall Street, rioting in London, and tension in other parts of Europe as it deals with insolvent debtor nations. Mass confusion is in the air.

In New York, as the protesters try to explain why they feel exploited, critics and observers can’t seem to figure out what they’re crying about. Protesters have been labeled a bunch of entitled, rambling, half-naked young hipster eccentrics. In London, the world witnessed a similar process of bewilderment, where observers couldn’t initially put their fingers on why impoverished “working class” rioters were out causing a fearful stir (after all, most of the critics were motivated and had decent jobs, thank you very much). Meanwhile, stocks around the world continue to rally and tumble with unprecedented volatility. Growth forecasts and economic orthodoxy are proven wrong again and again. Job and wealth creation strategies don’t help the people who need it most.

If the protesters are rambling eccentrics, then traders, mainstream economists and policymakers must be lunatics because they continue to make the same mistakes and expect better results each time!

Frankly, neither side of the debate has a particularly firm handle on the reality of the problem, and hoping that the movement will simply fade away will prove to be wishful thinking. Among all the mass confusion, steady-state theory might help us account for not only the the economic problems, but also the ideological divide. Using the Wall Street occupation as our example, let’s assess the two sides of the debate and hypothesize how the two groups have come to inhabit such different planets.

First, the two sides of the debate are divided primarily along generational lines, not just ideological ones. The protesters might be characterized as a group of well-educated, disenchanted and heavily indebted young people who were raised to be grossly unprepared for the situation they find themselves in. They were told that when they completed their degrees, a growing economy would enable them to pay back their hyper-inflated loans and put a down payment on a massively overpriced home (relative to historical norms). Not only are these young people seriously indebted and underemployed, but they know the planet’s ecological line of credit is also maxed out, causing them to question what they should be working so hard for in the first place. They’re expressing legitimate frustration with a set of real, serious problems that go unaddressed in the U.S.

What about the other side? While some lucky or ambitious younger folks may also fall into this category, it can more generally be characterized as an older, more comfortable cohort on auto-pilot that has grown accustomed to the illusion of perpetual growth. They’ve witnessed it their whole lives: growth in asset values (including home values), growth in the economy’s energy use (more stuff, more suburbs, more oil), growth in levels of indebtedness (to afford it all), and growth in the supply of money.  They are perpetuating a system that is structurally engineered to collapse without feeding its addiction to growth (mainly by exploiting future generations).

Unfortunately, those advocating the status quo are firmly entrenched in their beliefs, and they have in their midst traders, economists and policymakers who can articulate those beliefs well.  Meanwhile the protesters have yet to present a unified and coherent set of theoretical principles to rebut conventional arguments and explain their worldview. They come off as disoriented, lost, and a little incoherent. But stupid they are not.

While the nuanced reasons for protest vary around the world, young people have a visceral grasp of something that the most comfortable in our global society are simply too sheltered to acknowledge — big problems in an economy that has been engineered for ecological and financial ruin.

It’s only a matter of time before confusion gives way to clarity, when we’ll have to come to terms with our post growth reality. It will begin with a set of pragmatic banking reforms: a gradual increase in the fractional reserve requirement, the reconnection of investment banking to the real economy, and the regulation of derivatives.

That’s just the beginning.

After Wall Street — or whatever comes next — we will all have to make an effort to inhabit the same finite planet and bridge the divide. We will have to find common purpose in the realignment of our overarching social and economic goals — not toward yesterday’s notions of solidarity or neoliberalism — but toward meaningful capital maintenance for prosperity without irresponsible growth.

Growth, Debt, and the World Bank

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyWhen I was in graduate school in economics in the early 1960s we were taught that capital was the limiting factor in growth and development. Just inject capital into the economy and it would grow. As the economy grew, you could then re-invest the growth increment as new capital and make it grow exponentially. Eventually the economy would be rich. Originally, to get things started, capital came from savings, from confiscation, or from foreign aid or investment, but later out of the national growth increment itself. Capital embodied technology, the source of its power. Capital was magic stuff, but scarce. It all seemed convincing at the time.

Many years later when I worked for the World Bank it was evident that capital was no longer the limiting factor, if indeed it ever had been. Trillions of dollars of capital was circling the globe looking for projects in which to become invested so it could grow. The World Bank understood that the limiting factor was what they called “bankable projects” — concrete investments that could embody abstract financial capital and make its value grow at an acceptable rate, usually ten percent per annum or more, doubling every seven years. Since there were not enough bankable projects to absorb the available financial capital the WB decided to stimulate the creation of such projects with “country development teams” set up in the borrowing countries, but with WB technical assistance. No doubt many such projects were useful, but it was still hard to grow at ten percent without involuntarily displacing people, or running down natural capital and counting it as income, both of which were done on a grand scale. And the loans had to be repaid. Of course they did get repaid, frequently not out of the earnings of the projects which were often disappointing, but out of the general tax revenues of the borrowing governments. Lending to sovereign governments with the ability to tax greatly increases the likelihood of being repaid — and perhaps encourages a bit of laxity in approving projects.

Where did all this excess financial capital come from? Not from savings (China excepted), but from new money and easy credit generated by our fractional reserve banking system, amplified by increased leverage in the purchase of stocks. Recipients of new money bid resources away from existing uses by offering a higher price. If there are unemployed resources and if the new uses are profitable then the temporary rise in prices is offset by new production — by growth. But resource and environmental scarcity, along with a shortage of bankable projects, put the brakes on this growth, and resulted in too much financial capital trying to become incarnate in too few bankable projects.

So the WB had to figure out why its projects yielded low returns. The answer sketched above was ideologically unacceptable because it hinted at ecological limits to growth. A more acceptable answer soon became clear to WB economists — micro level projects could not be productive in a macro environment of irrational and inefficient government policy. The solution was to restructure the macro economies by “structural adjustment” — free trade, export-led growth, balanced budgets, strict control of inflation, elimination of social subsidies, deregulation, suspension of labor and environmental protection laws — the so-called Washington Consensus. How to convince borrowing countries to make these painful “structural adjustments” at the macro level to create the environment in which WB financed projects would be productive? The answer was, conveniently, a new form of lending, structural adjustment loans, to encourage or bribe the policy reforms stipulated by the term “structural adjustment.” An added reason for structural adjustment, or “policy lending,” was to move lots of dollars quickly to countries like Mexico to ease their balance of payments difficulty in repaying loans they had received from private US banks. Also, policy loans, now about half of WB lending, require no lengthy and expensive project planning and supervision the way project loans do. The money moves quickly. The WB definition of efficiency became, it seemed, “moving the maximum amount of money with the minimum amount of thought.”

Why, one might ask, would a country borrow money at interest to make policy changes that it could make on its own without any loans, if it thought the policies were good ones? Maybe they did not really favor the policies, and therefore needed a bribe to do what was in their own best interests. Maybe the goal of the current borrowing government was simply to get the new loan, splash the money around among friends and relatives, and leave the next government to pay it back with interest.

Such thoughts got little attention at the WB which was haunted by the specter of an impending “negative payments flow,” that is, repayments of old loans plus interest greater than the volume of new loans. Would the WB eventually shrink and disappear as unnecessary? A horrible thought for any bureaucracy! But the alternative to a negative payments flow for the WB is ever-increasing debt for the borrowing countries. Of course the WB did not claim to be in the business of increasing the debt of poor countries. Rather it was fostering growth by injecting capital and increasing the debtor countries’ capacity to absorb capital from outside. So what if the debt grew, as long as GDP was growing. The assumption was that the real sector could grow as fast as the financial sector — that physical wealth could grow as fast as monetary debt.

The main goal of the WB is to make loans, to push the money out the door, to be a money pump. If financial capital were really the limiting factor countries would line up with good projects and the WB would ration capital among countries. But financial capital is superabundant and good projects are scarce, so the WB had to actively push the money. To speed up the pump they send country development teams out to invent projects; if the projects fail, then they invent structural adjustment loans to induce a more favorable macro environment; if structural adjustment loans are treated as bribes by corrupt borrowing governments, the WB does not complain too much for fear of slowing the money pump and incurring a “negative payments flow.”

If capital is no longer the magic limiting factor whose presence unleashes economic growth, then what is it?

“Capital,” says Frederick Soddy,”merely means unearned income divided by the rate of interest and multiplied by 100” (Cartesian Economics, p. 27). He further explains 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 future expected net revenue from a project divided by the rate of interest and multiplied by 100. Rather than magic stuff it is an indent, a lien, on the future real production of the economy — in a word it is a debt to be repaid, or alternatively, and perhaps preferably, to not be repaid but kept as the source of interest payments far into the future.

Of course debt is incurred in exchange for real resources to be used now, which as Soddy says cannot be used again in the future. But if the financed project can extract more resources employing more labor in the future to increase the total revenue of society, then the debt can be paid off with interest, and with some of the extra revenue left over as profit. But this requires an increased throughput of matter and energy, and increased labor — in other words it requires physical growth of the economy. Such growth in yesterday’s empty-world economy was reasonable — in today’s full-world economy it is not. It is now generally recognized that there is too much debt worldwide, both public and private. The reason so much debt was incurred is that we have had absurdly unrealistic expectations about growth. We never expected that growth itself would begin to cost us more than it was worth, making us poorer, not richer. But it did. And the only solution our economists, bankers, and politicians have come up with is more of the same! Could we not at least take a short time-out to discuss the idea of a steady-state economy?

The Financial Crisis Is the Environmental Crisis

by Eric Zencey

In May of 2009, U.S. federal legislation created the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, charged with investigating the causes of the financial crisis that led to the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression. The Commission’s report is due in January. But don’t get your hopes up; they’re more than likely to get it wrong.

The Commission has held hearings with and gathered testimony from quite a few experts, all of them entrenched within the mainstream of neoclassical economic theory. The experts have named the usual suspects: cyclical swings between greed and fear; feedback effects that “disequilibrate” markets; cheap and “poorly documented” mortgage financing; bank accounting that kept some liabilities “off balance sheet;” the international sale of debt that guaranteed that a collapse in one market in one country would ripple out to affect the world; foreign demand for American debt, which created demand-pull for riskier and riskier American investments; and unworkable hedge funds that appeared to transform sure-to-fail loans into sure-to-pay investments.

It’s likely that all of these played a role. Fixes for most of them ought to be undertaken on their own merits. (Who could be in favor of “poorly documented mortgages” or “off-balance-sheet” investments?) But none of the testimony makes this point: the financial crisis is also the environmental crisis. We won’t solve the former until we start solving the latter.

Two facts about this crisis stand out: the world came to the brink of global economic collapse, and the world is and remains on the brink of ecosystem collapse. The economy is humanity’s primary instrument for interacting with its environment; this suggests that these two facts are somehow related. And yet none of the standard diagnoses come anywhere close to acknowledging that there might be a connection, let alone start to illuminate it. In the standard view, the financial crisis beset an economy that consists solely of humans acting within formalized systems of their own creation —systems that have no connection to a larger world.

And that’s why the standard view won’t succeed in fixing the problem. The spasm of debt repudiation with which the crisis began — the collapse of the sub-prime lending market — is what happens when an infinite-growth economy runs into the limits of a finite world.

That insight comes from the reference frame suggested by Frederick Soddy, as elaborated by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Herman Daly, and others. Soddy offered a vision of economics as rooted in physics — the laws of thermodynamics, in particular. An economy is often likened to a machine, though few economists follow the parallel to its logical conclusion: like any machine the economy must draw energy from outside itself. The first and second laws of thermodynamics forbid perpetual motion, schemes in which machines create energy out of nothing or recycle it forever. Soddy criticized the prevailing belief in the economy as a perpetual motion machine, capable of generating infinite wealth. That belief is nowhere more clearly manifest than in how we treat money. Soddy distinguished between wealth, virtual wealth, and debt. Real wealth, even the provision of services, is irreducibly rooted in physical reality. The money we use to represent this wealth isn’t real wealth, but virtual wealth — a symbol representing the bearer’s claim on an economy’s ability to generate real wealth. Debt, for its part, is a claim on the economy’s ability to generate wealth in the future. “The ruling passion of the age,” Soddy said, “is to convert wealth into debt” — to exchange a thing with present day real value (a thing that could be stolen, or broken, or rust or rot before you can manage to use it) for something immutable and unchanging, a claim on wealth that has yet to be made. Money facilitates the exchange; it is, Soddy said, “the nothing you get for something before you can get anything.”

Problems arise when wealth and debt are not kept in proper relation. The amount of wealth that an economy can create is limited by the amount of low-entropy materials and energy that it can sustainably suck from its environment and by the amount of high-entropy effluent that natural systems can sustainably absorb. (We can in practice exceed those sustainable limits, but only temporarily; that is the definition of “unsustainable.”)

There are only two ways that an economy can increase the rate at which it creates wealth: it can process a larger and larger flow of matter and energy, increasing its ecological footprint on both the uptake and the effluent side; or it can achieve efficiencies in its use of a constant flow of matter and energy. Both means of growth have limits. Increasing an economy’s ecological footprint decreases the ability of healthy ecosystems to provide us with a civilization-sustaining flow of ecosystem services (like climate stability, a service currently in critically short supply). Efficiency gains in the use of a constant flow offer large returns today and will probably do so into the future, but those gains will become harder and harder to achieve as we run into diminishing returns. Technological advances and efficiencies will allow us to make more with less, especially in places where we’ve been profligate in our use of low-entropy inputs; but no technical advance will get us around the first law of thermodynamics, which tells us “you can’t make something from nothing, nor can you make nothing from something.” Creation of wealth is irreducibly physical, and all physical phenomena obey the laws of thermodynamics.

Thus, the creation of wealth has physical constraints, set by ecosystem limits, physical law, and the limits of the technology we currently employ. But debt, being imaginary, has no such limit. It can grow infinitely, compounding at any rate we choose to let it.

These considerations led Soddy to this incontrovertible truth: whenever an economy allows debt — a claim on wealth — to grow faster than wealth can be created, that economy has a structural need for debt to be repudiated.

Inflation can do the job, decreasing debt gradually by eroding the purchasing power of the monetary units in which debt is denominated. And debt repudiation can be exported — some of the pressure to reconcile wealth and debt is released when other nations in the system inflate their currencies or default on obligations.

But when there is no inflation, and when the economy becomes one integrated global system in which export to outside the system is no longer possible, overgrown claims on future wealth will produce regular crises of debt repudiation — stock market crashes, waves of bankruptcies and foreclosures, defaults on bonds or loans or pension promises, the disappearance of paper assets in any shape or form. As Lawrence Summers noted in a speech last year at the Brookings Institute, “In little more than two decades, we have seen the stock market crash of 1987, the savings and loan scandals, the decline of the real estate market, the Mexican crisis, the Asian crisis, LTCM, Enron and long-term capital. That works out to one big crisis every two and a half years.” He went on to add: “We can and must do better.” Each and every one of the crises he listed was, at bottom, a crisis of debt repudiation. We are unlikely to avoid their recurrence until we stop allowing claims on real wealth to grow faster than real wealth can grow.

The cause of the financial crisis, Soddy would certainly say, isn’t simply opportunistic financiers exploiting the lag between innovation and regulation, isn’t simply ignorance, isn’t a failure of regulatory diligence, isn’t a cascading lack of confidence that could be solved with some new and different version of the F.D.I.C. The problem is a systemic flaw in our treatment of money. Whenever and wherever growth in claims on wealth outstrips growth in wealth, our system creates a niche for entrepreneurs who are all too willing to invent instruments of debt that will someday be repudiated. There will always be a Bernie Madoff or a subprime mortgage repackager or a hedge fund innovator willing to play their part in setting us up for a spasm of debt repudiation. Regulation will always be retrospective.

The best solution is to eliminate that niche. To do that, we must balance claims on future production of wealth with the economy’s power to produce that wealth.

Soddy distilled his vision into five policy prescriptions, each of which was taken at the time as evidence that his theories were unworkable. One: abandon the gold standard. Two: let international exchange rates float against one another. Three: use federal surpluses and deficits as macroeconomic policy tools, countering cyclical trends. Four: establish bureaus of economic analysis to produce statistics (including a consumer price index) that will facilitate this effort. These proposals are now firmly grounded in conventional practice. Only Soddy’s fifth proposal remains outside the bounds of conventional wisdom: stop banks from creating money, and debt, out of nothing.

Soddy’s work helped to inspire the short-lived “100% Money” movement that emerged during the Depression, which offered a diagnosis that went beyond treatment of symptoms (the cascading collapse of confidence that led to bank failures, which was addressed through creation of the F.D.I.C.) to reach the underlying cause: the leveraging of debt through the practice of fractional reserve banking. Irving Fisher at Yale and Frank Knight, the prominent Chicago School economist, also supported the elimination of fractional reserve banking. For a time the movement counted no less an economic eminence than Milton Friedman as a sympathizer. (Perhaps because he saw that the tide of history was against him, Friedman eventually dropped his call for elimination of fractional reserve banking from his policy recommendations.) The 100% money movement finds a contemporary advocate in ecological economist Herman Daly, who has called for the gradual institution of a 100 percent reserve requirement on demand deposits. This would begin to shrink what he has called “the enormous pyramid of debt that is precariously balanced atop the real economy, threatening to crash.”

In such a system, banks would support themselves by charging fees for safekeeping, check clearing, loan intermediation, and all the other legitimate financial services they provide. They would not generate income by lending out, at interest, the money entrusted to them for safekeeping — money that does not belong to them. Banks would still make loans and still be able to lend at interest “the real money of real depositors,” people who forego consumption today in order to take money out of their checking account and put it in time deposits (e.g., CDs, passbook savings, and 401Ks). In return these savers would still receive interest payments — a slightly larger claim on the real wealth of the community in the future.

In a 100% money system, every increase in spending by borrowers would have to be matched by an act of saving — abstinence — on the part of a depositor. This would re-establish a one-to-one correspondence between the real wealth of the community and the claims on that real wealth. To achieve 100% money, the creation of monetarized debt through other mechanisms — repackaged mortgages and securitized derivatives and the like — would also have to be brought under control.

An added benefit: establishing 100% money would have an enormous and positive effect on the public treasury. Seigniorage, the profit that comes from the creation of money, is currently given away free to banks (which collect it as the payment of interest and the repayment of principle on loans made with money that is not actually theirs). Under a 100% money regime, money would be created — spent into existence — by a public authority. (This is what Friedman advocated.) The capture of seigniorage would have obvious benefits for governmental budgeting: the seigniorage on a modest 3% growth in M1 (one of the chief measures of the money supply) amounts to $40 billion a year. And, when you come right down to it, to whom does seigniorage, by rights, belong? Despite long-standing custom to the contrary, the profit that comes from the issuance of money belongs to the sovereign power that guarantees that money. In the U.S., that’s us: We, the People.

This change in our banking system would eliminate the structural cause of spasms of debt repudiation. It would also eliminate one strong driver of uneconomic growth —growth that costs more in lost ecosystem services and other disamenities than it brings in the form of increased wealth. The change is thus economically and ecologically sound. It is, obviously, politically difficult — so difficult that advocacy for it sounds hopelessly unrealistic. But consider: in the 1920s, the abolition of the gold standard and the implementation of floating exchange rates sounded absurd. If the laws of thermodynamics are sturdy, and if Soddy’s analysis of their relevance to economic life is correct, we’d better expand the realm of what we think is realistic.