Dualist Economics

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyFrederick Soddy (1877-1956) discovered the existence of isotopes and was a major contributor to atomic theory, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1921. He foresaw the development of an atomic bomb and was disturbed by the fact that society often used the contributions of science (for which he was partly responsible) for such destructive purposes. The reason for this was, in his view, faulty economics, so in the second half of his 80 years he set out to reform economics. He was the first person coherently to lay out the policy of 100% reserve banking, later taken up by the Chicago School economists and by Irving Fischer of Yale — and still an excellent idea. Soddy was considered an outsider and a “monetary crank” by mainstream economists. Nevertheless, his views on money are sound and highly relevant to today’s financial debacle. Another neglected but increasingly relevant contribution is his philosophical vision of the place of economics in the larger intellectual map of the world.

For Soddy economics occupies the middle ground between matter and spirit, or as he put it, “between the electron and the soul:”

In each direction possibilities of further knowledge extend ad infinitum, but in each direction diametrically away from and not towards the problems of life. It is in this middle field that economics lies, unaffected whether by the ultimate philosophy of the electron or the soul, and concerned rather with the interaction, with the middle world of life of these two end worlds of physics and mind in their commonest everyday aspects, matter and energy on the one hand, obeying the laws of mathematical probability or chance as exhibited in the inanimate universe, and, on the other, with the guidance, direction and willing of these blind forces and processes to predetermined ends.
(Cartesian Economics, p. 6)

Soddy did not mean that economists should neglect the two end worlds of electron and soul — much to the contrary he insisted that wealth must reflect the independent reality of both end worlds. What must be resisted is the “obsessive monism” of either idealism or materialism. We must recognize the fundamental dualism of the material and the spiritual and resist attempts to reduce everything to one or the other.

Wealth has both a physical dimension, matter-energy subject to the laws of inanimate mechanism, especially the laws of thermodynamics, and a teleological dimension of usefulness, subject to the purposes imposed by mind and will. Soddy’s concept of wealth reflects his fundamental dualism and is why his first lectures on economics were entitled Cartesian Economics, meaning in effect, “Dualist Economics” (not, as might be imagined today, economics diagrammed in terms of Cartesian coordinates). The subtitle of Cartesian Economics, “The Bearing of Physical Science on State Stewardship,” better reflects his dualism in the contrast between “physical science” and “stewardship.”

Philosophically Rene Decartes accepted dualism as a brute fact even though the interaction of the two worlds of mind and matter, of soul and body, of res cogitans and res extensa, remained mysterious. Subsequent philosophers have in Soddy’s view succumbed to monistic reductionism, either materialism or idealism, both of which encounter philosophical problems no less grave than dualism, as well as provoke greater offenses against both common sense and direct experience. It is fashionable to reject dualism nowadays by saying that humans are a “psychosomatic unity” even while recognizing a “polarity” within that unity. Nevertheless, the two poles of electron and soul are very far apart, and the line connecting them is, as Soddy argued, twice discontinuous. While we are surely in some important sense a “unity,” it would be good to recognize the legitimate claims of dualism by writing the word “psycho–somatic” with a long double hyphen.

Soddy's Dualist Economics

Soddy’s Dualist Economics

Soddy’s view can be represented by a vertical line connecting the electron (physical world, useful matter-energy, ultimate means) at the bottom, to the soul (will, purpose, ultimate end) at the top. In the middle is economics (efforts in ordinary life to use ultimate means to serve the ultimate end). Soddy did not draw such a diagram, but it is implicit in his writing. The vertical connecting line has two mysterious discontinuities that thwart monistic attempts to derive soul from electron, or electron from soul. The first discontinuity is between inanimate mechanism and life. The second discontinuity is between life and self-conscious mind (will, soul). Monists keep trying, and failing, to leap over both chasms. Dualists accept them as irreducible brute facts about the way the world is.

Dualists use the axiom of duality to interpret other phenomena instead of vainly pursuing the illusion of reductive monism. Nowadays the dominant monistic obsession is materialism, supported by the impressive successes of the physical sciences, and the lesser but still impressive extrapolations of Darwinist biologism. Idealism does not have so much support at present, although modern theoretical physics and cosmology seem to be converting electrons and elementary matter into mathematical equations and strange Platonic ideas that reside more in the minds of theoretical physicists than in the external world, thus perhaps bending the vertical line connecting mind and matter into something more like a circle. Also, a Whiteheadean interpretation of the world as consisting most fundamentally of “occasions of experience” rather than substances, is a way to bridge dualism, but only with the help of widely separated and mysteriously combined “polarities” of mentality and physicality posited or anticipated in each occasion of experience. While these are challenging and important philosophical developments, it remains true that materialism currently retains the upper hand and is claiming an ever-expanding monistic empire, including the middle ground of economics. In addition, physics’ modern revival of idealism so far seems morally vacuous — among the equations and Platonic ideas of modern physics one does not find ideas of justice or goodness, or even purpose, so the fact-value dimension of dualism remains.

As Soddy insisted, economics occupies the middle ground between these dualistic extremes. Economics in its everyday aspects remains largely “unaffected whether by the ultimate philosophy of the electron or the soul,” but this may be the big weakness of economics, the myopia that leads to its growth-forever vision. Each end world reflects unrecognized limits back toward the middle world –limits of possibility from below, and limits of desirability from above. Economics seems to assume that if it is possible it must be desirable, indeed practically mandatory. Similarly, if it is desirable it must be possible. So everything possible is considered desirable, and everything desirable is considered possible. Ignoring the mutually limiting interaction of the two end worlds of possibility and desirability has led economists to assume a permissiveness to growth of the middle world of the economy that is proving to be false. For Soddy this is reflected concretely in the economy by our monetary conventions — fractional reserve banking, which allows alchemical creation of money as interest-bearing private debt:

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)

Debt is confused with wealth. But unlike debt, wealth has a physical dimension that limits its growth. This reflects mainly a misunderstanding of the physical world and its limits on wealth. But Soddy also saw limits coming from the end world of the soul.

Just as I am constrained to put a barrier between life and mechanism in the sense that there is no continuous chain of evolution from the atom to life, so I put a barrier between the assimilation and creation of knowledge.
(Cartesian Economics, p. 28)

For Soddy the assimilation of knowledge was mere mimicry, and was discontinuous with the creation or discovery of new knowledge, which he saw as also involving a spiritual top down influence from the soul, from the mysteriously self-conscious mind that could not be derived from mere animate life by a continuous chain of evolution. Soddy said little about the life-mind discontinuity relative to the matter-life discontinuity, but it was clearly part of his philosophy, and has come to the fore in modern philosophical debates about the “hard problem of consciousness.”

To the mechanistic biologists, who were already around in his day, Soddy had the following barbed comment:

I cannot conceive of inanimate mechanism, obeying the laws of probability, by any continued series of successive steps developing the powers of choice and reproduction any more than I can envisage any increase in the complexity of an engine resulting in the production of the “engine-driver” and the power of its reproducing itself. I shall be told that this is a pontifical expression of personal opinion. Unfortunately, however, for this argument, inanimate mechanism happens to be my special study rather than that of the biologist. It is the invariable characteristic of all shallow and pretentious philosophy to seek the explanation of insoluble problems in some other field than that of which the philosopher has first hand acquaintance.
(Cartesian Economics, p. 6)

To generalize a bit, monists, who deny the two discontinuities, seek to solve the insoluble problems that they thereby embrace, by shallowly and pretentiously appealing to some other field than that of which they have first hand experience. This is a serious indictment — is it true? I will leave that question open, but will note on Soddy’s behalf that regarding the matter-life discontinuity, Francis Crick evidently thought it more likely that first life arrived from outer space (directed panspermia) than that it formed spontaneously from inanimate matter on earth, given the demonstration by Pasteur and Tyndall that “spontaneous generation is not occurring on the earth nowadays.” And, as already mentioned, a number of philosophers and neuroscientists (including John Eccles and Karl Popper) have declared that the life-mind discontinuity presents “the hard problem of consciousness,” judged by many to be unbridgeable.

The relevance of Soddy’s dualistic economics to steady-state economics is that there are two independent sets of limits to growth: the bottom-up bio-physical and the top-down ethical-economic. The biophysical limit says real GDP cannot grow indefinitely; the ethical-economic limit says that beyond some point GDP growth ceases to be worth what it displaces, although it may still be bio-physically possible. Certainly Soddy did not speak the last word on dualism versus monism. Nevertheless, he was truly a pioneer in ecological economics, seen as the middle ground between the electron and the soul. Although no ecological economist has won the ersatz “Swedish National Bank’s Memorial Prize in Economics in Honor of Alfred Nobel,” pioneer ecological economist, Frederick Soddy, has the distinction of having won a real Nobel Prize in chemistry. That doesn’t mean that he is right about dualist economics, but I think it earns him a serious hearing.

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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.

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.

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.”

Economics Unmasked

by Herman Daly

Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good by Phillip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef, Green Books, UK, 2011.

Manfred Max-Neef is a Chilean-German economist noted for his pioneering work in human scale development and his threshold hypothesis on the relation of welfare to GDP, as well as other contributions, for which he received the Right Livelihood Award in 1983. Phillip B. Smith (deceased, 2005) was an American–Dutch physicist with a devotion to social justice that led to an interest in economics. Smith died before this collaborative work was completed, so it fell to Max-Neef to finish it, respecting what Smith had done. Although this results in differences in style and approach between chapters, Max-Neef informs us that they both read and approved each other’s contributions, so it is a true collaboration. These differences between the physical and social scientists are complementary rather than contradictory.

As clear from the title, the book argues that modern neoclassical economics is a mask for power and greed, a construct designed to justify the status quo. Its claim to serve the common good is specious, and its claim to scientific status is fraudulent. The latter is sought mainly by excessive mathematical formalism to the neglect of concrete facts and real values. The mathematical formalism is in imitation of nineteenth century physics (economics viewed as the mechanics of utility and self-interest), but without any empirical basis remotely comparable to physics. Pareto is identified a villain here, and to a lesser extent Jevons.

The hallmark of a real science is a basic consensus about fundamentals. There is no real consensus in economics, so how can it claim to be a mature science? Easy, by forcing a false “consensus” through the simple expedient of declaring heterodox views to be “not really economics,” eliminating history of economic thought from the curriculum, instigating a pseudo-Nobel Prize in Economics, and attaining a monopoly on faculty positions in economics departments at elite universities. Such a top-down, imposed consensus is the opposite of the true bottom-up consensus that results when independent minds all bow before the power of the same truth. “Mathematics was simply built into the laws that describe the behavior of the atomic nucleus. You didn’t have to impose it on the nucleus.” (p.67). The same cannot be said of people, even atomistic homo economicus.

The authors give due attention to the history of economic thought, drawing most positively on Sismondi (for statements of value and purpose), Karl Polanyi (for his treatment of labor, nature, and money as non commodities that escape the logic of markets), and Frederick Soddy (for his thermodynamics-based analysis of money, wealth, debt, and the impossibility of continuing exponential growth of the economy). Negative references are reserved mainly for Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, with a mixed review for Amartya Sen. While I understand their antipathy to Hayek I found their case against him less than totally convincing. More convincing and fruitful is their building on the neglected work of Sismondi, Polanyi, and Soddy. That effort cries out to be continued by others.

Their criticisms of globalization, free trade, and free capital mobility are well founded. Economists must remember that the first rule of efficiency is to count all costs, not to specialize according to comparative advantage, especially if that “advantage” is based on a standards-lowering competition to externalize environmental and social costs. Indeed comparative advantage is irrelevant in a world of international capital mobility that gives priority to absolute advantage. While specialization according to absolute advantage gives gains from trade, they need not be mutually shared as in the comparative advantage model.

Chapter 10 provides a summary of the basics of ecological economics as “the humane economy for the 21st Century,” as well as a review of Max-Neef’s insightful matrix of needs and satisfiers.

Of particular interest is Chapter 11 on “the United States as an underdeveloping nation” — the process of development in reverse, or retrogression in the U.S. is chronicled in terms of unemployment, wage stagnation, increase in inequality, dependence on food stamps, bankruptcy, foreclosure, health care costs, incarceration, etc. Not happy reading, but a necessary reminder that gains from development are not permanent — they can be squandered by a corrupt elite employing a self-serving economic model to fool a distracted populace.

As a teacher of economics I was especially glad to read Chapter 12 on “the non-toxic teaching of economics.” I concur with the authors’ view that the teaching of economics today is a scandal. Reference has already been made to the dropping of history of economic thought from the curriculum — why study the errors of the past now that we know the truth? That is the arrogant attitude. And we certainly do not want any philosophical or empirical questioning of the canonical assumptions upon which the whole superstructure of mathematical deduction teeters. Growth must not be questioned because it is by definition the solution to all problems — even those that it causes.

As late as the 1960s economics students could study approaches other than the neoclassical — there were the remaining classical economists, institutional economists, the Marxians, the Keynesians, the Austrian School, Labor economics, Fabian Socialists, Market Socialists, Distributists, etc. Now there is a cartel of elite, expensive universities, “the Big Eight” as the authors call them (California, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, Chicago, Yale, and MIT) to which we could add Cambridge, Oxford, and a few others. They all teach the same growth-oriented, globalizing economics. The IMF and the World Bank hire economists from many countries and pride themselves on their diversity. But the diversity of nationality and color masks homogeneity of viewpoint since 90% of these economists graduated from the Big Eight, and are comfortable with both their position and their economic views. One wag succinctly described a frequent career path as: “MIT-PhD-IMF-BMW.”

Further evidence of the corruption of economics arrives daily. The documentary film Inside Job exposed the complicity of some Big Eight faculty in the financial debacle of 2008. I recently read that the Florida State University economics department has accepted a grant from the right-wing Koch Brothers to hire two prestigious economists with acceptable views, no doubt products of the Big Eight, whose presence on the faculty will raise FSU a step on the academic ladder. All corruption in academia cannot be blamed on economics departments, but the toxicity level there is high, and Max-Neef and Smith are right to accuse. One good way for honest economics professors to fight back is to recommend this book to their students!

The book ends with a hopeful review of some concrete, real world, bottom-up, human-scale development initiatives. The World Bank and the IMF are necessarily absent from this final chapter’s discussion of moving from village to global order. Might it be that after globally integrated collapse we will move to village reconstruction, and then to a global federation of separate national economies under the principle of subsidiarity?

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.

Money and the Steady State Economy

Historically money has evolved through three phases: (1) commodity money (e.g. gold); (2) token money (certificates tied to gold); and (3) fiat money (certificates not tied to gold).

1. Gold has a real cost of mining and value as a commodity in addition to its exchange value as money. Gold’s money value and commodity value tend to equality. If gold as commodity is worth more than gold as money then coins are melted into bullion and sold as commodity until the commodity price falls to equality with the monetary value again. The money supply is thus determined by geology and mining technology, not by government policy or the lending and borrowing by private banks. This keeps irresponsible politicians’ and bankers’ hands off the money supply, but at the cost of a lot of real resources and environmental destruction necessary to mine gold, and of tying the money supply not to economic conditions, but to extraneous facts of geology and mining technology. Historically the gold standard also had the advantage of providing an international money. Trade deficits were settled by paying gold; surpluses by receiving gold. But since gold was also national money, the money supply in the deficit country went down, and in the surplus country went up. Consequently the price level and employment declined in the deficit country (stimulating exports and discouraging imports) and rose in the surplus country (discouraging exports and stimulating imports), tending to restore balanced trade. Trade imbalances were self-correcting, and if we remember that gold, the balancing item, was itself a commodity, we might even say imbalances were nonexistent. But of course the associated increases and decreases in the national price levels and employment were disruptive.

2. Token money would function pretty much like the gold standard if there were a one-to-one relation between gold and tokens issued. But with token money came fractional reserve banking. Goldsmiths used to loan gold to people, but gold is heavy stuff and awkward to carry around. Token money was created when a goldsmith gave a borrower a document entitling the bearer to a stated quantity of gold. If the goldsmith were widely trusted, the token would circulate with the same value as the gold it represented. As goldsmiths evolved into banks they began to make loans by creating tokens (demand deposits) in the name of the borrower in excess of the gold they held in reserve. This practice, profitable to banks, was legalized. Statistically it works as long as most depositors do not demand their gold at the same time—a run on the bank. Bank failures in the United States due to such panics led to insuring deposits by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). But insurance also has a moral hazard aspect of reducing the vigilance of depositors and stockholders in reviewing risky loans by the bank. Fractional reserves allow the banking system to multiply the money tokens (demand deposits that function as money) far beyond the amount of gold “backing.”

3. Fiat money came when we dropped any pretense of gold “backing,” and paper tokens were declared to be money by government fiat. Currency is printed by the government at negligible cost of production, unlike gold. As the issuer of fiat money the government makes a profit (called seigniorage) from the difference between the commodity value of the token (nil) and its monetary value ($1, $5, …$100 …depending on the denomination of the paper note). Everyone has to give up a dollar’s worth of goods or services to get a dollar—except for the issuer of the money who gives up practically nothing for a full dollar’s worth of wealth. Nowadays the fractional reserve banking system counts fiat currency instead of gold as reserves against its lending. The demand deposit money created by the private banking sector is a large multiple of the amount of fiat money issued by the government. Who earns the seigniorage on the newly created demand deposits? The private banks in the first instance, but some is competed away to customers in the form of higher interest rates on savings deposits, lower service charges, etc. It is difficult to say just what happens to seigniorage on demand deposits, but clearly that on fiat currency goes to the government. (With commodity money seigniorage is zero because commodity value equals monetary value—except when the mint purposely debased gold coins). Under our present system, money is currency plus demand deposits. Currency is created out of paper by the government, and no interest is charged for it; demand deposits are created by banks out of nothing (up to a large limit set by small reserve requirements) and interest is charged for it. For example, when you take out a mortgage to buy a house, you are not borrowing someone else’s money deposited at the bank. The bank is in fact loaning you money that did not exist before it created a new deposit in your name. When you repay the debt, it in effect destroys the money the bank initially loaned into existence. But over the next 30 years, you will pay back several times what the bank initially loaned you. Although demand deposits are constantly being created and destroyed, at any given time over 90% of our money supply is in the form of demand deposits.


If phase 3, our present system, 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 by-product of private lending and borrowing? Is that much of an improvement over being a by-product of private gold mining? Why should the public pay interest to the private banking sector to provide a medium of exchange that the government can provide at no cost? Why should not seigniorage, unavoidable in a fiat money system, go entirely to the government (the commonwealth) rather than in large part to the private sector?

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. The change need not be drastic–we could gradually raise the reserve requirement to 100%. This would put control of the money supply and all seigniorage in hands of the government rather than private banks, which would no longer be able to live the alchemist’s dream of 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. Credit cards would become debit cards. Banks would earn their profit by financial intermediation only — i.e. lending savers’ money for them (charging a loan rate higher than the rate paid to savings 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, re-establishing the classical balance between investment and abstinence. The government would pay some of its expenses by issuing more non interest-bearing fiat money in order to make up for the eliminated bank-created, interest-bearing 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, bidding the price level up. As soon as the price index begins to rise the government must print less, tax more, or withdraw some of the previously issued currency from circulation. Thus a policy of maintaining a constant price index would govern the internal value of the dollar (providing a trustworthy store of value and constant unit of account). In effect the fiat money would receive a real backing—not gold, but the basket of commodities in the price index. The external value of the dollar could be left to freely fluctuating exchange rates. These policies are not new—they go back to Frederick Soddy in1926, and to similar proposals by Frank Knight and Irving Fisher, the leading American economists of the 1920s. The fact that bankers and their friends in government and academia have willfully ignored these ideas for 90 years does not constitute a refutation of them, but rather is a tribute to the power of vested interests over the common good.

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 would be severely limited.

Second, the fact that money no longer has to grow to pay back the principal plus the interest required by the loan responsible for the money’s very existence lowers the general pressure to grow. Money becomes neutral with respect to growth rather than biasing the system toward growth.

Third, the financial sector will no longer be able to capture such a large share of the nation’s wealth, leaving more available for meeting the needs of the poor. A steady state economy is not viable if it means a steady state of poverty for any significant proportion of the population.

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. Reducing the risk of recession reduces the need to accumulate more to get us through the bad times.

Fifth, with 100% reserves there is no danger of a run on the bank leading to failure, and the FDIC could be abolished, along with its consequent moral hazard.

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.

Seventh, a regime of fluctuating exchange rates automatically balances international trade accounts, eliminating big international surpluses and deficits. US 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 would greatly shrink the role of the IMF and its “conditionalities.” It also introduces more short-term risk and uncertainty into both international trade and investment. Many economists would see this as a disadvantage, but steady state economics favors a greater degree of national production for national consumption, and fluctuating rates would offer a bit of protection in the form of adding an extra element of cost (exchange rate risk) to international transactions. Like the Tobin tax it “throws a bit of sand into the gears” and reduces global commerce and interdependence to a more manageable level.

To dismiss such sound policies as “extreme” in the face of the demonstrated 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. This monetary system makes sense independently of one’s views on the steady state economy. But it fits better in a steady state economy than in a growth economy.