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?

Mountebank Wins Nobel for Infinite Planet Theory

by Rob Dietz

Few people have read the dense volumes published by the economist Milton Mountebank, but his work has affected you, me and every single person on the planet. Dr. Mountebank has revolutionized economic thought, and now he has been recognized for his singular efforts. Yesterday at a gala reception in Stockholm, Sweden, the chairman of Sveriges Riksbank, Peter Norborg, presented Dr. Mountebank with the Nobel Prize in Economics for his lifetime of work on infinite planet theory.

In his presentation of the award, Mr. Norborg stated, “Dr. Mountebank has demonstrated imagination and inventiveness beyond what the rational mind can comprehend.” Indeed, it is because of his theories that we all do what we do economically. Nations strive for continuous GDP growth and endless expansion of consumption thanks to infinite planet theory. Mr. Norborg went on to say, “All of our banks, including Sveriges Riksbank, owe him a huge debt. We finance  economic expansion. Our actions and decisions would be morally suspect if we lived on a finite planet.”

In a light-hearted moment during the presentation, Mr. Norborg asserted that Dr. Mountebank had provided an even greater service to humanity by reducing stress on individuals. “Best of all,” he said, “is that we can extract, consume and digest resources guilt-free. Planetary constraints have been conquered. They have gone the way of the dodo, the Roman Empire and the world’s major fisheries.”

Reagan's nod to Mountebank, etched in stone at the International Trade Center in Washinton, DC. Photo by Rob Dietz

Although Dr. Mountebank’s books have failed to reach mainstream audiences, his work has been highly influential among elite political and corporate leaders. Ronald Reagan is a prominent example. President Reagan once famously said, “There are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams.” That’s a close paraphrasing of Dr. Mountebank’s conclusion to his magnum opus, Infinity and Beyond: The Magical Triumph of Economics over Physics. Phillip van Uppington, former vice president at Lehman Brothers, asserts that Dr. Mountebank was a huge influence on his firm. “We used to quote him all the time. One of the highlights of my career was the symposium I arranged a few years back with Mountebank and Milton Friedman. We called it ‘Double Milton Day.’  It really opened our minds to the possibilities of innovative finance. Once we implemented the double Milton doctrines, we made more cash than most small nations.”

In his acceptance speech, Dr. Mountebank told the story of how he developed infinite planet theory. “Equations, equations, equations,” he said, “I would see them dancing across my eyelids as I laid down to sleep.  In the morning I would wake up and write them out. I did this for three straight years until I finally put it all together.” The centerpiece of Mountebank’s mathematical demonstration of the feasibility of infinite growth is his conjury equation, a recondite multivariate differential expression that, by common agreement, is understood by fewer than four economists in the world. “It’s why I’m standing on this stage today,” Mountebank said. “Unfortunately the equation is too long to fit on the screen behind me, but it’s the key to infinite economic growth. Fortunately, though, you don’t have to be an economist or a statistician to use it as a guide for your daily actions.” Dr. Mountebank continued by holding up a globe in his hand and stating, “We all recognize that the earth is a sphere, and from basic geometry, we all understand that a sphere has no beginning and no end. If you set out in one direction on the surface of a sphere, there is no stopping point—it’s infinite.” He spun the globe and walked his fingers around it to prove his point. “Q.E.D.  No end.  And that means it can be infinitely exploited for economic gains.”

Dr. Mountebank. Photo by Derrick Tyson.

Infinite planet theory has gained almost unanimous acceptance in economic circles, but there have been some vocal critics. On the day of the award ceremony, a small band of protestors formed a picket line outside Sveriges Riksbank. One protestor was carrying a sign that said “Steady State.” When asked why she was protesting, she said, “Mountebank? You can’t be serious. They should give the Nobel to Herman Daly.” Dr. Daly is known for his work on the limits to growth and the steady state economy, concepts which fly in the face of infinite planet theory. The Club of Rome provided the original critique of the theory when it published its bestselling book, The Limits to Growth. In his writings, however, Dr. Mountebank has dismissed the notion of limits. One of the passages in Infinity and Beyond says:

The end of cheap oil, species extinctions, climate change, deforestation, resource depletion, crippling poverty, loss of ecosystem services, soil and aquifer degradation—these are trifling problems, so long as we continue to grow the economy toward its ultimate size: infinity and beyond. Under no circumstances should we allow creeping thoughts about a finite planet or constraints handed down by universal physical laws to get in the way of building a bigger economy. And certainly we should shut our ears to the dreary doomsayers who continue to rain their inane facts upon our parade of growth. Growth, alone, is the moral and political ideal.

Dr. Mountebank ended his acceptance speech on a personal note, observing how infinite planet theory had soothed the fears of his young grandchildren. He said, “They told me they were scared about what was happening to the environment. I patted their little heads and told them not to worry.  After all, you can’t harm nature on an infinite planet. By definition, there’s always more.”

Dr. Mountebank is the eighth Nobel laureate in economics from Fantasia University.

Economic and Environmental Perspective on President Reagan on the Occasion of the 100th Anniversary of His Birth

by Brent Blackwelder

Amid all the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, it is important to note that his two-term presidency kindled a philosophy that has undermined governance in the United States, run in the opposite direction from a sustainable economy, and exhibited hostility toward a clean energy basis for the global economy. This was not, however, a strategy shared broadly by the Republican Party at that time.

The bipartisanship in Congress in the 1970s, under both Republican and Democrat presidents, enabled the passage of 30 major environmental laws – laws that established the United States as the world leader in the quest for clean air and clean water.  Congress set a framework of decision making in the federal government to ensure that long-range and short-range environmental impacts were integrated into economic decision making and that alternatives to proposed governmental actions were evaluated.  Other nations looked up to America as a pace-setter on energy and the environmental policy, and they adopted a number of our new laws for their own use.

President Nixon signed the keystone law for environmental protection, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and he appointed as heads of the  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Council on Environmental Quality two highly qualified Republicans, Bill Ruckelshaus and Russell Train, who believed in the mission of these agencies.

Had the 1980 election turned out differently, the United States might have become a clean energy pioneer.  And the emerging field of ecological economics might have taken center stage as the producer of policies for a sustainable economy. With the election of President Reagan, however, these hopes were dashed.

America had experienced the oil crisis of 1973, memorable for its long gasoline lines.  As a result of that experience, citizens across the nation were moving forward with innovative measures to save energy and develop renewable energy technologies.  In this spirit, President Carter had placed solar panels on the White House roof.  America, many of us thought, was poised to lead the world in a clean energy revolution.  Reagan had other ideas.  He had the solar collectors removed from the White House and gave the green light for all-out exploitation of fossil fuels.  Reagan’s idea of environmental stewardship was clearing brush and picking up fallen branches.

When Reagan took office in 1981, he appointed anti-environment zealots James Watt as Secretary of the Interior and Ann Gorsuch as Administrator of EPA.  Ann Gorsuch carried out a Machiavellian plan to prevent much from happening at EPA as she repeatedly rearranged the office spaces at the agency.  During her 22 months as agency head, she cut the budget of the EPA by over 20%, reduced the number of cases filed against polluters, relaxed Clean Air Act regulations, and facilitated the spraying of restricted-use pesticides. She cut the total number of agency employees just as its responsibilities were doubling and hired staff from the very industries they were supposed to be regulating.  Rita Lavelle, an Assistant Administrator of EPA, was convicted on federal charges of perjury related to irregularities and the misuse of federal cleanup money at a big hazardous waste dump, the Stringfellow Acid Pits.

But the greatest damage of all came from Reagan’s repeated message to the American people that government is the problem, that government is not good but evil, that government hinders the free enterprise system.  By appointing people who didn’t really believe in government or in the constitutionality of the agencies they were running, he produced a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Reagan fully embraced the economics of Milton Friedman, the antithesis of Herman Daly’s  steady state economics.  Friedman’s economics of deregulation sought to undo the safeguards put in place following the Great Depression, and in so doing, paved the way for the global financial scandal that precipitated the crisis of 2008 and governmental bailouts of the private sector.

Looking to the future, the U.S. government is being confronted by the ironic (for a so-called conservative) legacy of George W. Bush – a massive and growing deficit.  The Tea Party freshmen legislators are fighting to hold the Republican leadership to its promise to cut $100 billion from the federal budget; however, getting there is proving elusive for them.  Coming to the rescue in this dire situation is the Green Scissors plan of Friends of the Earth and Taxpayers for Common Sense.  The Green Scissors plan shows how to obtain  $200 billion in savings between 2011 and 2015 by getting rid of government subsidies to the oil, coal, gas, and nuclear industries, and by scrapping some boondoggle water development schemes of the Army Corps of Engineers and a handful of absurd highway projects.  In contrast to the outrage over some of the proposed Republican budget cuts, the Green Scissors cuts command popular support, because they save money while preventing environmental damage at the same time.  It’s a plan that anyone, except maybe Ronald Reagan and his anti-environment appointees, would support.

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.