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

by James Magnus-Johnston

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

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

Where has all the Money Come From?

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

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

Photo Credit: Robert Fairchild

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

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

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

Debt and the Growth Imperative

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

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

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

The Steady State Solution to Overleveraging

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

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

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

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

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

The Negative Natural Interest Rate and Uneconomic Growth

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyIn a recent speech to the International Monetary Fund economist Larry Summers argued that since near zero interest rates have not stimulated GDP growth sufficiently to reach full employment, we probably need a negative interest rate. By this he means a negative monetary rate set by the Fed to equal the “natural” rate, which he believes is now negative. The natural rate, as Summers uses the term, means the rate that would equalize planned saving with planned investment, and thereby, as Keynes taught us, result in full employment. With near zero monetary rates, current inflation already pushes us to a negative real rate of interest, but that is still insufficiently negative, in Summers’ view, to equalize planned investment with planned saving and thereby stimulate GDP growth sufficient for full employment. A negative interest rate is a stunning proposal, and it takes some effort to work out its implications.

Suppose for a moment that GDP growth, economic growth as we gratuitously call it, entails uneconomic growth by a more comprehensive measure of costs and benefits — that GDP growth has now begun to increase counted plus uncounted costs by more than counted plus uncounted benefits, making us inclusively and collectively poorer, not richer. If that is the case, and there are good reasons to believe that it is, would it not then be reasonable to expect, along with Summers, that the natural rate of interest is negative, and that maybe the monetary rate should be too? This is hard to imagine, but it means that savers would have to pay investors (and banks) to use the funds that they have saved, rather than investors and banks paying savers for the use of their money. To keep the GDP growing sufficiently to avoid unemployment we would need a growing monetary circular flow, which would require more investment, which, in turn, would only be forthcoming if the monetary interest rate were negative (i.e., if you lost less by investing your money than by holding it). A negative interest rate “makes sense” if the goal is to keep on increasing GDP even after it has begun to make us poorer at the margin — that is after growth has already pushed us beyond the optimal scale of the macro-economy relative to the containing ecosphere, and thereby become uneconomic.

A negative monetary interest rate means that citizens will spend rather than save, so savings will not be available to finance the investments that produce the GDP growth needed for full employment. The new money for investment comes from the Fed. Quantitative easing (money printing) is the source of the new money. The faith is that an ever-expanding monetary circulation will pull the real economy along behind it, providing growth in real income and jobs as previously idle resources are employed. But the resulting GDP growth is now uneconomic because in the full world the “idle” resources are not really idle — they are providing vital ecosystem services. Redeploying these resources to GDP growth has environmental and social opportunity costs that are greater than production benefits. Although hyper-Keynesian macroeconomists do not believe this, the micro actors in the real economy experience the constraints of the full world, and consequently find it difficult to follow the unlimited growth recipe.

Summers (along with other mainstream growth economists), does not accept the concept of optimal scale of the macro-economy, nor the possibility of uneconomic growth in the sense that growth in resource throughput could reduce net wealth and wellbeing. Nevertheless, it is at least consistent with his view that the natural rate of interest is negative.

A positive interest rate restricts the total volume of investment but allocates it to the most productive projects. A negative interest rate increases volume, but allows investment in practically anything, increasing the probability that growth will be uneconomic. Shall we become hyper-Keynesians and push GDP growth to maintain full employment, even after growth has become uneconomic? Or shall we back off from growth and seek full employment by job sharing, distributive equity, and reallocation toward leisure and public goods?

Why would we allow growth to carry the macro-economy beyond the optimal scale? Because growth in GDP is considered the summum bonum, and it is heresy not to advocate increasing it. If increasing GDP makes us worse off we will not admit it, but will adapt to the experience of increased scarcity by pushing GDP growth further. Non-growth is viewed as “stagnation,” not as a sensible steady state adaptation to objective limits. Stimulating GDP growth by increasing consumption and investment, while cutting savings, is the only way that hyper-Keynesians can think of to serve the worthy goal of full employment. There really are other ways, and people really do need to save for security and old age, as well as for maintenance and replacement of the existing capital stock. Yet the Fed is being advised to penalize saving with a negative interest rate. The focus is on what the growth model requires, not on what people need.

A negative interest rate seems also to be the latest advice from Paul Krugman, who praises Summers’ insights. It is understandable from their viewpoint because in their vision the economy is not a subsystem, or if it is, it is infinitesimal relative to the total system. The economy can expand forever, either into the void or into a near infinite environment. It does not grow into a finite ecosphere, and therefore has no optimal scale relative to any constraining and sustaining environment. Its aggregate growth incurs no opportunity cost and can never be uneconomic. Unfortunately, this tacit assumption of the growth model is seriously wrong.

Larry Summers and other growth-obsessed economists are calling for negative interest rates.

Larry Summers and other growth-obsessed economists are calling for negative interest rates.

Welcome to the full-world economy. In the old empty-world economy, assumed in the macro models of Summers and Krugman, growth always remains economic, so they advocate printing more and more dollars to expand the economy to take over ever more of the “unemployed” sources and sinks of the ecosystem. If a temporary liquidity trap or zero lower bound on interest rates keeps the new money from being spent, then low or even negative monetary interest rates will open the spending spigot. The empty world assumption guarantees that the newly expanded production will always be worth more than the natural wealth it displaces. But what may well have been true in yesterday’s empty world is no longer true in today’s full world.

This is an upsetting prospect for growth economists — growth is required for full employment, but growth now makes us collectively poorer. Without growth we would have to cure poverty by redistributing wealth and stabilizing population, two political anathemas, and could only finance investment by reducing present consumption, a third anathema. There remains the microeconomic policy of reallocating the same GDP to a more efficient mix of products by internalizing external costs (getting prices right). While this certainly should be done, it is not macroeconomic growth as pursued by the Fed.

These painful choices could be avoided if only we were richer. So let’s just focus on getting richer. How? By growing the aggregate GDP, of course! What? You repeat that GDP growth is now uneconomic? That cannot possibly be right, they say. OK, that is an empirical question. Let’s separate costs from benefits in the existing GDP accounts, and develop more inclusive measures of each, and then see which grows more as GDP grows. This has been done (ISEW, GPI, Ecological Footprint), and results support the uneconomic growth view. If growth economists think these studies were done badly they should do them better rather than ignore the issue.

The leftover Keynesians are correct in pointing out that there is unemployed labor and capital. But natural resources are fully employed, indeed overexploited, and the limiting factor in the full world is natural resources, not labor or capital as used to be the case in the empty world. Some growth economists think that the world is still empty. Others think there is no limiting factor — that capital is a good substitute for natural resources. This is wrong, as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen has shown long ago. Capital funds and natural resource flows are complements, not substitutes, and the one in short supply is limiting. Increasing a non-limiting factor doesn’t help. Growth economists should know this.

Although the growthists think quantitative easing will stimulate demand they are disappointed, even in terms of their own model, because the banks, who are supposed to lend the new money, encounter a “lack of bankable projects,” to use World Bank terminology. This of course should be expected in the new era of uneconomic growth. The new money, rather than calling forth new wealth by employing all these hypothetical idle resources from the empty world era, simply bids up existing asset prices in the full world. Most asset prices are not counted in the consumer price index, (not to mention exclusion of food and energy) so economists unconvincingly claim that quantitative easing has not been inflationary, and therefore they can keep doing it. And even if it causes some inflation, that would help make the interest rate negative.

Aside from needed electronic transaction balances, people would not keep money in the bank if the interest rate were negative. To make them do so, the alternative of cash would basically have to be eliminated, and all money would be electronic bank deposits. This intensifies central bank control, and the specter of “bail-ins” (confiscations of deposits) as occurred in Cyprus. Even as distrust of money increases, people will not immediately revert to barter, in spite of negative interest rates. Barter is so inconvenient that money remains more efficient even if it loses value at a rapid rate, as we have seen in several hyperinflations. But transactions balances will be minimized, and speculative and store-of value-balances will be diverted to real estate, gold, works of art, tulip bulbs, Bitcoins, and beanie babies, creating speculative bubbles. But not to worry, say Summers and Krugman, bubbles are a necessary, if regrettable, means to boost spending and growth in the era of newly recognized negative natural interest rates — and still unrecognized uneconomic growth.

A bright silver lining to this cloud of confusion is that the recognition of a negative natural interest rate may be the prelude to recognition of the underlying uneconomic growth as its cause. For sure this has not yet happened because so far the negative natural interest rate is seen as a reason to push growth with a negative monetary interest rate, rather than as a signal that growth has become a losing game. But such a realization is a reasonable hope. Perhaps a step in this direction is Summers’ suggestion that the old Alvin Hansen thesis of secular stagnation might deserve a new look.

The logic that suggests negative interest also suggests negative wages as a further means of increasing investment by lowering costs. To maintain full employment via GDP growth, not only must the interest rate now be negative, but wages should become negative as well. No one yet advocates negative wages because subsistence provides an inconvenient lower positive bound below which workers die. On this “other side of the looking glass” the logic of uneconomic growth pushes us in the direction of a negative “natural” wage, just as with a negative “natural” rate of interest. So we artificially lower the wage costs to “job creators” by subsidizing below-subsistence wages with food stamps, housing subsidies, and unpaid internships. Negative interest rates also subsidize investment in job-replacing capital equipment, further lowering wages. Negative interest rates, and below-subsistence wages, further subsidize the uneconomic growth that gave rise to them in the first place.

The leftover Keynesians tell us, reasonably enough, that paying people to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up, is better than leaving them unemployed with no income. But paying people to deplete and pollute the Creation on which our lives and welfare ultimately depend, in order to expand the macro-economy beyond its optimal or even sustainable scale, is surely worse than just giving them a minimum income, and some leisure time, in exchange for doing no harm.

An artificial monetary rate of interest forced down by quantitative easing to equal a negative natural rate of interest resulting from uneconomic growth is not a solution. It is just baling wire and duct tape. But it is all that even our best and brightest economists can come up with as long as they are imprisoned in the empty world growth model. The way out of this trap is to recognize that the growth era is over, and that instead of forcing growth into uneconomic territory we must seek to maintain a steady-state economy at something approximating the optimal scale. Since we have overshot the optimal scale of the macro-economy, this will require a period of retrenchment to a reduced level, accompanied by much more equal sharing, frugality, and efficiency. Sharing means putting limits on the range of inequality that we permit; it has huge moral and social benefits, even if politically difficult. Frugality means using less resource throughput; it results in less depletion and pollution and more recycling and efficiency. Efficiency means squeezing more life-support and want-satisfaction from a given throughput by technological advance and by improvement in our ethical priorities. Economists need to replace the Keynesian-neoclassical growth synthesis with a new version of the classical stationary state.

Nationalize Money, Not Banks

by Herman Daly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Infinite-Planet Approach Won’t Solve the European Debt Crisis

by Eric Zencey

Last week European leaders met in Brussels and, like sophomores cramming before a final, pulled an all-nighter. Their exam was a real-world project: restore investor confidence in the Eurozone. A lot of pressure was put on David Cameron to bring the UK into the new agreement; he was adamant in his refusal. Even without the UK, the measures that the Eurozone nations have announced may restore investor confidence, but one thing is certain: they shouldn’t, because they’ll fail miserably at staving off future financial crisis.

That’s because “restoring investor confidence” and “fixing the broken system” are two very different goals.

If more investors were like Jeremy Grantham, who’s got a clear view of the origin of the financial crisis, the two would line up a lot better. But most investors, like all of the policy makers who met in Brussels, are working out of an old-fashioned and mistaken economic model. Restoring confidence in a system built on that model isn’t going to fix what’s wrong.

What, exactly, is wrong? The New York Times articulated the conventional thinking when it opined, a few days before the all-nighter in Brussels, that the root of the debt crisis is “lack of growth.” The first step toward success in solving any problem is to define it accurately, and the conventional diagnosis gets it wrong because it looks at just half the problem. A more complete diagnosis: Some of the European economies haven’t been able to grow fast enough to pay back the burden of debt that has been wagered on them.

This formulation lets us see the path to a sturdy solution: if we want to avoid crises of debt repudiation, we need to limit the total creation of debt, public and private, to the amount that we can reasonably expect to be paid back through economic growth.

But instead of solving the problem of recurrent (and increasingly painful) crises of debt repudiation by looking at the system as a whole, the policy makers who met in Brussels went after just the most recent and obvious symptom: government deficits and threatened government defaults by the weaker economies of the Eurozone. When deficits are created by sovereign governments — governments that have the power to print money to cover them — they’re inflationary, and inflation is one way that a system’s need for debt repudiation can be met. But within the Eurozone, the European Central Bank holds inflation in check, so the necessary and expected debt repudiation has to take a different form. It has come this time as Greece’s move to renegotiate bond liability under threat of default — holders of Greek government bonds will get fifty cents on the dollar, not the full amount they expect. The conventional view sees that and thinks, “if Greece didn’t run deficits it wouldn’t have to default.”

That’s true, but too limited to get at the root of the problem. What the conventional frame of analysis doesn’t foresee: If you let the burden of total debt grow unchecked, and if you control both inflation and governmental default by mandating balanced budgets, you’ll simply displace the pressure for debt repudiation to somewhere else in the system. It will come out as bankruptcies and foreclosures or other private defaults, as stock market crashes, as cuts in pension promises or wage contracts, as loss of paper assets or expected future income of any kind. We can’t forestall the next crisis of debt repudiation unless we rein in the total creation of debt.

The new EU plan would take a major step toward making the Eurozone monetary union into a fiscal union, with stronger centralized control of inflationary deficits. Under the new rules, Eurozone member nations will have to balance their budgets over the economic cycle (if they go into deficit in times of recession, they’ll have to run a surplus in times of growth) and submit their budgets to the European Commission for review and approval. Currently member nations face penalties if they run persistent deficits — penalties that Greece consciously chose to ignore rather than see its economy sink into unemployment and recession under the onslaught of cheap imports from countries running a surplus. The new plan would have Eurozone member nations suffer larger, automatic penalties if they don’t obey the budget-balancing rules.

That will control inflation and bond default as methods of debt repudiation by imposing austerity budgets on struggling Eurozone members. (There are no penalties for the countries, like Germany, that create the other half of the problem by running trade surpluses.) Governments will have to cut social services and regulatory enforcement — cuts that will be touted as the best way to restore growth, and which will work to the benefit of the 1%. The rich get richer and government gets smaller — just what neocons and moneyed interests like to see.

As plenty of commentators have noticed, fiscal integration under the new budget rules and procedures means a loss of national sovereignty within the Eurozone. As only some of those commentators have cautioned, this makes government in Europe less democratic and less responsive to citizen concerns. “No problem,” say bankers and financiers. Democratically empowered citizens are likely to demand the level of governmental services and environmental protection that well-to-do nations are expected to provide — and those are luxuries their country can’t afford, not if it’s to grow rapidly enough to pay back the burden of debt it labors under.

The movement toward fiscal union and budget austerity thus represents the victory of growth-for-the-sake-of-growth over democracy-for-the-sake-of-democracy.

On an infinite planet, the two need not be at odds, and in fact can be seen to support each other. They certainly seemed to track together through much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as market economies expanded into an underdeveloped world. But in a world built out to the limits of what ecosystems can handle, it becomes increasingly obvious that there’s a tradeoff.

As should be obvious to policy makers, the expansionary phase of human economic history is over. It is no longer possible to have both democracy and robust, footprint-expanding growth. The freewheeling creation of debt, whether public or private, drives the latter. To preserve it as a very profitable feature of the economy, bankers and financiers are perfectly willing to sacrifice the former. That’s the deep and troubling lesson of the European Debt Crisis: today, the largest threat to democratic forms of government is the fact that the planet hosts a human debt-creation system suited for perpetual growth on an infinite planet.

Because an economy deals in physical reality — that is, it runs on matter and energy drawn from a finite planet — it is impossible for economic production to grow infinitely. Debt, being entirely imaginary, can grow however rapidly we choose to let it. A crisis of debt repudiation is the unavoidable result of a mismatch between the two. The conventional frame does not admit this, and it leads us straight toward regressive and destructive policies, including the elimination of environmental and social safeguards. Those safeguards set limits to what we let ourselves do in pursuit of economic growth, and thereby give us a higher standard of living by protecting us from environmental harms and economic insecurity.

Since a higher standard of living, and not growth for its own sake, is the ultimate purpose of the economy, it makes sense to allow for the possibility that the solution to our system’s regular crises of debt repudiation lies in controlling the creation of debt. The alternative — demanding more and more economic growth, ever larger throughput of matter and energy — is impossible to sustain on a finite planet.

Even in the short run, the infinite growth model is counterproductive. It leads to a declining standard of living and a loss of democratic freedom for the majority of the world’s population — Americans no less than Greeks, Italians and other Europeans. It does so because whether we’re prepared to admit it or not, we’ve reached the limits to growth. More often than not, further growth in GDP is uneconomic growth, because it costs us more in lost ecosystem services and other “disamenities” than we get in benefits.

Pro-growth people don’t see it that way, of course, no doubt because many of them are the ones who receive those benefits by imposing losses on the rest of us. Many of those losses emanate from, and aren’t fully contained within, the rapidly developing nations of China and India — countries whose leaders have mistakenly accepted a demonstrably flawed element of neoclassical thinking, the Environmental Kuznets Curve. This is the idea, much beloved of pro-growth advocates and members of the 1% everywhere, that environmental quality is a luxury that nations will be able to afford only after they develop more — which they can do by cashing out their natural capital for sale on world markets, and by hosting “sink” services, poisoning their land and mortgaging their future by absorbing the global economy’s waste stream.

The ecological footprint of the global economy is currently larger than the globe it inhabits. But you don’t have to believe that we’ve reached the limits to growth in order to see that the basic problem behind the European Debt Crisis is the mismatch between our rate of debt creation and the rate at which we can grow real wealth in order to pay that debt off.

How much can real wealth grow under reasonable environmental safeguards and with reasonable protection of worker (and citizen) health and safety? The answer is, in part, empirical. The non-empirical part has to do with those environmental and health and safety standards: what counts as “reasonable”? Opinions will differ, but only an out-and-out infinite planet theorist can argue that environmental constraints need to be lessened, and only an unreconstructed robber baron could argue that workers ought to be free — “free” — to starve or take on employment that could kill them.

Here’s how to begin to fix the broken system: Agree to minimum standards for environmental and health and safety regulation, such as those promulgated by the UN; find the sustainable rate of economic activity that’s possible within those limits; and limit the growth in debt — all debt, public and private — to what’s needed to support that activity. With such a fix, the human standard of living would be raised not though footprint- expanding growth, but through technological innovation that allows us to achieve more benefit from a constant, sustainably sized throughput.

If more investors understood that the excessive creation of debt in all its forms — not just government deficits — is the driver of our crises of debt repudiation, this reining in of the creation of debt would be the only way to restore their confidence.

Educating investors and policymakers about the economic and financial realities of a finite planet is a huge task, but eventually they’ll come around. They’ll have to. The planet is, after all, finite, and it’s going to keep offering the lesson until everybody gets it.

The Green Transition Scoreboard: How to Invest for a Steady State Economy

by Rosalinda Sanquiche

We must take some critical steps if we want to build a truly green economy — a steady state that meets global needs without undermining the life-support systems of the planet.  Clearly we need to move beyond fossil fuels.  We need to scale back the amount of energy and materials we’re consuming, especially in OECD countries.  We need to build a durable infrastructure, supportive of a low-carbon future.  One way to take these critical steps is through smart investments.  With governments stubbornly open to dangerous Industrial Era methods like nuclear power, despite the crisis in Japan, smart investments must come from the private sector.  The good news is that private investors are taking a strong lead, as demonstrated by the most recent update of the Green Transition Scoreboard® (GTS).

The GTS is a tool for tracking private investments in green markets, and the February 2011 update reveals an encouraging $2 trillion worth of investments in the green economy since 2007.  This amount is significant because many studies, computer models and reports indicate that investing $1 trillion annually between now and 2020 can ramp up material and energy efficiencies; reduce the costs of wind, solar and geothermal energy; increase sustainable land use and forestry; and support smart infrastructure, transport, building and urban re-design, all of which are necessary to achieve the green transition to a steady state economy.

The updated numbers for 2010 put global private sector investors on track to reach $10 trillion in investments by 2020!  How can more investments support a steady state?  The key is to spur substantial investment in the right sectors.  It’s a winning proposition, as smart investing can help societies use fewer energy and material resources and provide needed employment opportunities.

The GTS tracks five sectors:

  • Renewable Energy;
  • Efficiency and Green Construction;
  • Cleantech;
  • Smart Grid; and
  • Corporate R&D.

Renewable Energy includes private technology development, equipment manufacturing, and project finance. The Efficiency and Green Construction sector includes new building construction and existing building retrofits. Cleantech is a broad sector, encompassing agriculture, air and environment, energy efficiency, infrastructure and storage, materials, recycling and waste reduction, transportation and water/wastewater. Smart Grid includes companies actually putting smart grids in place, building the infrastructure rather than designing the technology.  Together, these first four sectors account for over $1.8 trillion in investments since 2007.

INVESTMENTS in the GREEN TRANSITION
2007 – 2010

Sector (US $)
Renewable Energy 1,358,937,000,000
Efficiency and Green Construction 282,011,000,000
Cleantech 65,024,042,088
Smart Grid 135,263,000,000
Corporate R&D 163,813,743,000
Total 2,005,048,758,088

Corporate R&D in green transition technologies alone accounts for over $163 billion in investments.  The GTS is the only source of aggregate corporate green research and development investments, specifically tracking R&D dollars for  innovative technologies that reduce the use of natural resources and minimize environmental impacts.

Several subsectors, such as nuclear, biofuels and coal carbon sequestration, have been purposefully omitted either because of controversy or lack of consensus that they will make a long-term contribution to sustainability.

Green technologies often draw on available local resources in a more cost-effective, timely manner than dated technologies of the fossil fuel era.  The GTS was created by Hazel Henderson, president of Ethical Markets Media, as a public service to help develop the green economy, reform market metrics, and provide due diligence worldwide.  Many developing countries where these technologies are of paramount importance lack the resources to compile the data encompassed in the GTS.  To provide this information as widely as possible, the GTS is available to the UN agencies spearheading the UN’s Green Economy Initiative.

To meet the challenge of achieving a sustainable and fair economy, investment funds need to be shifted away from ill-conceived hedge funds and dark pools, and away from sectors that depend on fossil fuels.  A modest goal for global private investment would be to direct 10% of portfolios to companies driving the global green transition. With the data in the GTS, security analysts can update their asset allocation models to highlight green markets.

The future of the economy will be determined by the investments we choose today.  Institutional investors need information like what’s provided by the GTS to make wise decisions.  As Ethical Markets Media continues to improve the Green Transition Scoreboard and as green sectors emerge around the world, investors will play a key role in building a 21st century economy that provides prosperity within the capacity of the planet.

Rosalinda Sanquiche is the executive director of Ethical Markets Media.

Real Economies and the Illusions of Abstraction

by Hazel Henderson © 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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