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What is Wrong with a Zero Interest Rate?

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyThe stock market took a dip, so the Fed will likely continue to keep the interest rate at zero, in conformity with its goal of supporting asset prices by quantitative easing. What is wrong with a zero interest rate? Doesn’t it boost investment, growth, and employment?

There are many things wrong with a zero interest rate. Remember that the interest rate is a price paid to savers by borrowing investors. At a zero price, savers will save less and receive less return on past savings. Savers and pensioners are penalized. At a near zero price for borrowed funds, investors are being subsidized and will invest in just about anything, leading to many poor investments and negative returns, furthering the economy’s already advanced transition from economic to uneconomic growth. Zero interest promotes an infinite demand for savings with zero new supply. But the “supply” is provided artificially by the Fed printing money. The infinite demand would be checked by the rising costs of natural resources and environmental damage if those costs were internalized, but they are not. Yet the environmental costs are real and do not disappear just because they are not counted. With free money and uncounted environmental costs, why not invest heavily in fracking? A very unequal distribution of income does check demand, at least for non-luxury goods. Rich people have an increasing surplus of money to invest, which also helps hold down the interest rate. Yes, mortgage rates fall, and that benefits citizens as home buyers, but they lose more in terms of their retirement accounts. And there is still a significant spread between the zero rate paid to savers and the positive rates charged on credit card and other debt, so the banks are doing quite well.

Also think for a moment about the calculation of present value in finance—a perpetual stream of future income divided by the interest rate gives its capitalized value. If the interest rate is zero, then the capitalized present value of any positive perpetual income stream becomes infinite. To put it another way, a zero interest rate is equivalent to saying that a hypothetical stream of income into the infinite future is all totally available today. Supply of financial capital in terms of its present value is infinite. But financial capital is supposed to be a measure of real capital, which is not infinite. Furthermore, the interest rate, to a significant degree, reflects the risk of loss. With infinite capital it matters little if you lose some, so risk too is uncounted.

U.S. Treasury.Elfboy

U.S. Department of the Treasury, Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Elfboy

Zero interest rates encourage aggregate growth in scale of the macro-economy to ecologically unsustainable, as well as uneconomic, levels. Zero interest rates also neglect risk of loss, while encouraging microeconomic misallocation to stupid projects. At the same time, it redistributes income inequitably. Does all this make you think that something might be screwy with the policy of zero interest rates? Economists pride themselves on their knowledge of advanced mathematics, but they don’t seem to mind the fact that their policies imply dividing by zero!

Granted that with severe unemployment it is worthwhile, as Keynes said, to hire people just to dig holes and fill them up again in order to increase spending. However, this would better be done by the Treasury paying the hole diggers with new Treasury money than by the Fed doing it by distorting the scale, distribution, and resource allocation of the whole economy with zero interest rates in order to create new bank money. Also, the money created by the Treasury costs no interest to the public, while the money created by the Fed costs us the positive rate charged to borrowers, not the zero rate paid to depositors. Money is a public utility like a road. Should private banks be allowed to set up a tollbooth and charge us for using public roads? By the way, the Fed is owned by its member private banks.

How does the Fed keep the interest rate at zero? By printing money—quantitative easing, so called. Some hyper-Keynesians want a negative nominal interest rate (we already have a negative real rate when corrected for inflation) because we still don’t have full employment even at a zero interest rate. But this is so crazy that it requires a separate discussion of its own.

Why has this huge monetary expansion not led to more inflation? For one, because the dollar is a reserve currency and other nations hold large dollar assets. Also, other major currencies, following the same expansionary policy, have been depreciating relative to the dollar. This will not likely continue. Furthermore, there really has been inflation, but of a hidden kind. Instead of stimulating new production and employment, the new money has increased the demand for existing assets such as stocks, houses, art, etc., providing little employment and leading to speculative bubbles. The Consumer Price Index (CPI), the official measure of inflation, does not include capital assets. And concurrent cheap-labor policies—off-shoring of production and tolerance of illegal immigration—depress wages, holding inflation in check. In addition, the externalization of increasing environmental costs keeps prices lower than they should be. Further, as any consumer can testify, the quantity per package of food is getting less, and the quality of service of airlines, internet providers, public utilities, etc. is deteriorating. Our leading newspaper, the New York Times, now repeats many of the same articles over and over for weeks at a time. Getting less quantity or quality or more repetition for the same price is equivalent to a price increase—hidden inflation. So the claim that quantitative easing has not yet led to inflation is at best only half true—it has certainly led to inflationary substitutes not measured by the CPI. Some official versions of the CPI even exclude such basics as energy, food, and housing (too “volatile” is the excuse). Do you ever feel that you are being lied to?

It is a bad idea to manipulate the interest rate as a policy variable—it has too many side effects cutting in too many different directions, especially in a fractional reserve monetary system. Better to control the money supply directly by moving to a full reserve banking system. We should abolish the Fed, let the Treasury directly control the money supply, constrained by avoiding inflation, not by a budget. An entity that can create money does not face a budget constraint, and has no need to borrow. But it does have a price-index constraint, and must be disciplined by avoidance of inflation (or deflation). As long as the public wants to hold more money, the Treasury can keep creating and spending it. When the public wants to hold more real goods and less money, they will exchange money for goods driving the price index up, which is the signal to the Treasury to stop issuing money, and if necessary to withdraw some. Money, in a full reserve banking system, becomes non interest-bearing government debt rather than interest-bearing private debt. Seigniorage (profit from creating token money at negligible cost and receiving its face value in exchange) will go entirely to the government, not largely to private banks. Also, banks no longer have the extortionary power to crash the entire payments system that fractional reserves gives them. The interest rate, like other prices, can take care of itself, determined by supply and demand. The policy focus should be to manage the money supply, constrained by a constant price index. In effect, the real value of the dollar is backed by all the commodities in the price index, rather than gold, or the “full faith and credit of the US government.” (See Nationalize Money, Not Banks)

Policies of this general kind, but elaborated on in much more detail, are currently suggested by the British NGO known as Positive Money. They are reviving and updating the sound monetary economics of Frederick Soddy, Irving Fisher, Frank Knight, and other leading economists of the 1920s. Fractional reserve banking supports the whole pyramid structure of Ponzi finance, and we badly need to move toward a full reserve banking system to escape instability.

 

Peace, Love, and the Gift

by James Magnus-Johnston

“You can’t have community as an add-on to a commodified life” Charles Eisenstein

Johnston_photoFor many Westerners, Christmas Day is one of the most sacred days of the year. Perversely, perhaps, the holidays are also marked by excessive materialism, consumerism, and the creation of false needs. Today happens to be “Boxing Day” in Canada, Black Friday’s Christmas equivalent, marked by mad and even obscene rushes for the best post-holiday deals. How have we reached such a disconnect between the meaning of our traditions and the way we practice them?

It might be hard to see with our consumer lens, but there is a deeply important connection between the sacredness of December 25th and the practice of gifting. As Charles Eisenstein has eloquently and passionately argued, gifts are an expression of love that begins with the gift of life itself:

We didn’t earn being born, being fed as babies, having an earth to live on, air to breathe, water to drink. All came as a gift. Ancient cultures often recognized this explicitly; theirs was a gift cosmology that was echoed in their economic systems.

Therefore our natural state, he says, is gratitude. And therefore, we have a built-in desire to give and be generous.

An obsession with money, on the other hand, has contributed to “alienation, competition, and scarcity, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth.” Today, money acts as a profane separator when seen as an end in itself rather than a means to an end. Rather than understanding money as a tool that helps facilitate the exchange of goods or truly improve our quality of life, we tend to see money–its accumulation and growth–as the ultimate end. Undoubtedly, money is required to move us towards a level of material sufficiency, but beyond sufficiency, more money won’t make you happier. Are you dissatisfied with your life regardless of how much money you’re making? Will the growth imperative behind the accumulation of money improve the planet’s life support system?

Millennia of ancient thought–including that of the Christian tradition–reminds us that traditional gift practices are expressions of love. Expressions of love aren’t luxury items any more than the planet’s life support system is. Expressions of love keep human beings connected, because they remind us that we actually need one another! Eisenstein writes,

One thing that gifts do is that they create ties among people–which is different from a financial transaction. If I buy something from you, I give you the money and you give me the thing, and we have no more relationship after that. . . But if you give me something, that’s different because now I kind of feel like I owe you one. It could be a feeling of obligation, or you could say it’s a feeling of gratitude. What’s gratitude? Gratitude is the recognition that you’ve received, and the desire to give in turn. And that’s why we are driven to give. Because everything we’ve received is a gift.

Gifts - Andy Noren

Let’s take a step back from the excessive materialism of the holiday season to think about why we really give gifts. Photo Credit: Andy Noren

Peace, love, and community are fostered through the gifts we provide for one another not only on December 25th, but throughout every day of the year. In the grand cosmic scheme of things, gift practices can make us more aware of the miracle of life itself, and the gift of existence we received–and continue to receive–from planet earth and the universe, or God, depending on your inclination.

The purpose of our existence can’t be quantified in monetary terms. Perhaps as this year comes to a close, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the gifts you received at birth or the gifts you have honed and developed throughout your life. Why are you here? Are you able to express your innate gifts? Do you need to unplug from the formal economy to explore and give of yourself more meaningfully?

If you can’t make more money exploring your gifts and skills, embrace the challenge. If we are to degrow the economy towards a steady state, we’re going to need to be a whole lot more generous, a whole lot happier, and more grateful for what we have already. Gift practices might shrink the formal economy a little, but they will engender precisely the love and community that we often feel is missing in modern life.

Charles Eisenstein’s full book “Sacred Economics” is available on his website at http://sacred-economics.com.

Use and Abuse of the “Natural Capital” Concept

by Herman Daly

Herman DalySome people object to the concept of “natural capital” because they say it reduces nature to the status of a commodity to be marketed at its exchange value. This indeed is a danger, well discussed by George Monbiot. Monbiot’s criticism rightly focuses on the monetary pricing of natural capital. But it is worth clarifying that the word “capital” in its original non-monetary sense means “a stock or fund that yields a flow of useful goods or services into the future.” The word “capital” derives from “capita” meaning “heads,” referring to heads of cattle in a herd. The herd is the capital stock; the sustainable annual increase in the herd is the flow of useful goods or “income” yielded by the capital stock–all in physical, not monetary, terms. The same physical definition of natural capital applies to a forest that gives a sustainable yield of cut timber, or a fish population that yields a sustainable catch. This use of the term “natural capital” is based on the relations of physical stocks and flows, and is independent of prices and monetary valuation. Its main use has been to call attention to and oppose the unsustainable drawdown of natural capital that is falsely counted as income.

Big problems certainly arise when we consider natural capital as expressible as a sum of money (financial capital), and then take money in the bank growing at the interest rate as the standard by which to judge whether the value of natural capital is growing fast enough, and then, following the rules of present value maximization, liquidate populations growing slower than the interest rate and replace them with faster growing ones. This is not how the ecosystem works. Money is fungible, natural stocks are not; money has no physical dimension, natural populations do. Exchanges of matter and energy among parts of the ecosystem have an objective ecological basis. They are not governed by prices based on subjective human preferences in the market.

Furthermore, money in the bank is a stock that yields a flow of new money (interest) all by itself without diminishing itself, and without the aid of other flows. Can a herd of cattle yield a flow of additional cattle all by itself, and without diminishing itself? Certainly not. The existing stock of cattle transforms a resource flow of grass and water into new cattle faster than old cattle die. And the grass requires sunlight, soil, air, and more water. Like cattle, capital transforms resource flows into products and wastes, obeying the laws of thermodynamics. Capital is not a magic substance that grows by creating something out of nothing.

While the environmentalist’s objections to monetary valuation of natural capital are sound and important, it is also true that physical stock-flow (capital-income) relations are important in both ecology and economics. Parallel concepts in economics and ecology aid the understanding and proper integration of the two realities–if their similarities are not pushed too far!

The biggest mistake in integrating economics and ecology is confusion about which is the Part and which is the Whole. Consider the following official statement, also cited by Monbiot:

As the White Paper rightly emphasized, the environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed.

—Dieter Helm, Chairman of the Natural Capital Committee, The State of Natural Capital: Restoring our Natural Assets, Second report to the Economic Affairs Committee, UK, 2014.

If the Chairman of the UK Natural Capital Committee gets it exactly backwards, then probably others do too. The environment, the finite ecosphere, is the Whole and the economic subsystem is a Part–a completely dependent part. It is the economy that needs to be properly integrated into the ecosphere so that its limits on the growth of the subsystem will not be missed. Given this fundamental misconception, it is not hard to understand how other errors follow, and how some economists, imagining that the ecosphere is part of the economy, get confused about valuation of natural capital.

Natural Capital, James Wheeler

How can we correctly price natural capital in a full world? Photo Credit: James Wheeler

In the empty world, natural capital was a free good, correctly priced at zero. In the full world, natural capital is scarce. How do we take account of that scarcity without prices? This question is what understandably leads economists to price natural capital, and then leads to the monetary valuation problems just discussed. But is there not another way to recognize scarcity, besides pricing? Yes, one could impose quotas–quantitative limits on the resource flows at ecologically sustainable levels that do not further deplete natural capital. We could recognize scarcity by living sustainably off of natural income rather than living unsustainably from the depletion of natural capital.

In economics, “income” is by definition the maximum amount that can be consumed this year without reducing the capacity to produce the same amount next year. In other words, income is by definition sustainable, and the whole reason for income accounting is to avoid impoverishment by inadvertent consumption of capital. This prudential rule, although a big improvement over present practice, is still anthropocentric in that it considers nature in terms only of its instrumental value to humans. Without denying the obvious instrumental value of nature to humans, many of us consider nature to also have intrinsic value, based partly on the enjoyment by other species of their own sentient lives. Even if the sentient experience of other species is quite reasonably considered less intrinsically valuable than that of humans, it is not zero. Therefore we have a reason to keep the scale of human takeover even below that indicated by maximization of instrumental value to humans. On the basis of intrinsic value alone, one may argue that the more humans the better–as long as we are not all alive at the same time! Maximizing cumulative lives ever to be lived with sufficient wealth for a good (not luxurious) life is very different from, and inconsistent with, maximizing simultaneous lives.

In addition, speaking for myself, and I expect many others, there is a deeper consideration. I cannot reasonably conceive (pace neo-Darwinist materialists) that our marvelous world is merely the random product of multiplying infinitesimal probabilities by infinitely many trials. That is like claiming that Hamlet was written by infinitely many monkeys, banging away at infinitely many typewriters. A world embodying mathematical order, a system of evolutionary adaptation, conscious rational thought capable of perceiving this order, and the moral ability to distinguish good from bad, would seem to be more like a creation than a happenstance. As creature-in-charge, whether by designation or default, we humans have the unfulfilled obligation to preserve and respect the capacity of Creation to support life in full. This is a value judgment, a duty based both historically and logically on a traditional theistic worldview. Although nowadays explicitly rejected by materialists, and by some theists who confuse dominion with vandalism, this worldview fortunately still survives as more than a vestigial cultural inheritance.

Whatever one thinks about these deeper issues, the point is that determination of the scale of resource throughput cannot reasonably be based on pseudo prices. But scale does have real consequences for prices. Fixing the scale of the human niche is a price-determining macro decision based on ethical and religious criteria. It is not a price-determined micro decision based on market expression of individual preferences weighted by ability to pay.

However the scale of the macro-limited resource flow is determined, we next face the question of how to ration that amount among competing micro claimants? By prices. So we are back to pricing, but in a very different sense. Prices now are tools for rationing a fixed predetermined flow of resources, and no longer determine the volume of resources taken from nature, nor the physical scale of the economic subsystem. Market prices (modified by taxes or cap-auction-trade) ration resources as an alternative to direct quantitative allocation by central planning. The physical scale of the economy has been limited, and the resulting scarcity rents are captured for the public treasury, permitting elimination of many regressive taxes. Dollars become ration tickets; no longer votes that determine how big the scale of the economy will be relative to the ecosystem. The market no longer conveys the message “we can grow as much as we want as long as we pay the price.” Rather the new message is, “there is only so much to go around, and dollars are your ration ticket for a part of the fixed quota, not a vote that can be cast for growth.” Equitable distribution of dollar incomes (ration tickets) will then be seen as the serious matter that it is, to be solved by sharing, not evaded by growth, especially not by uneconomic growth.

Unfortunately, the more common approach in economics has been to try somehow to calculate that price that internalizes sustainability and impose it via taxes. The right price, given the demand curve, will result in the corresponding right quantity. However, there is a two-fold problem: first, methods of calculating the “right” price are usually specious (e.g. contingent valuation); and second, we don’t really know where the shifting demand curve is, except on the blackboard. In fixing prices, errors in demand estimation result in variations in quantity. In fixing quantity, errors result in variations in price. The ecosystem is sensitive to quantity, not price. It is ecologically safer to let errors in estimation of demand result in price changes rather than quantity changes. This is one advantage of the cap-auction-trade system relative to carbon taxes. Although a great improvement over the present, carbon taxes attempt to ration carbon fuels without having really limited their supply. Nor are the “dollar ration tickets” limited, given the fractional reserve banks’ ability to create money, and the Fed’s policy of issuing more money whenever growth slows down.

A monetary reform to 100% reserve requirements on demand deposits would be a good policy for many reasons, to which we can add, as a necessary supplement to a carbon tax. It would not be necessary as a supplement to cap-auction-trade, but should be adopted for independent reasons. A good symbol should not be allowed to do things that the reality it symbolizes cannot do. One hundred percent reserves would require the symbol of money to behave more like real wealth, at least in some important ways. But this is another story.

Do U.S. Election Financing Laws Force Politicians to Ignore Limits to Growth?

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderThis fall, huge election campaign spending to influence the outcome of U.S. Congressional races, gubernatorial races, and state legislative races exceeded $3 billion.

Money in politics has stopped progress toward real economic reform and slowed efforts to move to a true-cost, sustainable, steady state economy. It will continue to do so unless people seeking to end today’s cheater economics, with its global casino-style economy, join in the ongoing efforts to change the election financing laws.

Recent decisions by the Supreme Court have made a bad situation much worse. In Citizens United v. FEC, (2010) the Court ruled that it was unconstitutional (a violation of First Amendment-protected free speech) for the government to restrict political spending by corporations. While there are limits on what individuals and corporations may give directly to candidates, there is no limit on corporate contributions to independent political spending to benefit or to smear candidates. The massive floodgates of electoral spending have been opened wide for industries, and today’s electoral spending in the United States amounts to a system of legalized bribery.

Billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch assembled a secretive network of wealthy political donors set to spend about $300 million in the Congressional races in 2014, which is approximately the total spent by Bush and Kerry in the 2004 presidential race. By early September, a full two months before Election Day, Koch-funded groups already had paid for about 44,000 ads in U.S. Senate battleground races. That means approximately one out of every ten TV ads aired in those states had Koch fingerprints.

But fortunately, several dozen organizations are fighting back. For example, Common Cause, United Steelworkers, Sierra Club, United Autoworkers, and other national groups have already had success with a big effort to reverse the Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United v. FEC, (2010) and McCutcheon v. FEC (2014). These efforts involve supporting a constitutional amendment permitting Congress and the states to set reasonable limits on political spending. Leadership of these groups has been instrumental in the passage of ballot measures and legislative resolutions in 16 states and about 500 localities, calling on Congress to pass a Constitutional amendment and send it to the states for ratification. These jurisdictions are home to more than 120 million Americans, which is more than one-third of the U.S. population.

Why would cleaner elections matter for achieving a true-cost, steady state economy? The large volume of money that Wall Street puts into elections effectively stymies efforts to reform the U.S. Tax Code. Tax codes around the world tend to subsidize pollution, tolerate externalization of costs, and penalize recycling while rewarding extraction of natural resources and exempting poisons from sales taxes. The United States is not alone among nations providing generous subsidies to polluters: globally, $1.5 billion is provided by governments to fossil fuel industries.

There are many other ways in which corporate money in elections can subvert democracy and block paths to a true-cost economy. Having lobbied Congress for over 40 years, I have seen how the huge amounts of fossil fuel money for politicians have made a lot of Members “climate deniers.”

Chevron & Ecuador, Caroline Bennett-Rainforest Action Network

Hundreds of Chevron’s abandoned open toxic pits remain in Ecuador. Photo Credit: Caroline Bennett-Rainforest Action Network

But it happens in category after category. For instance, as early as the 1990s, I saw the huge influence of corporate money enabling the passage of so-called free trade agreements. Many trade agreements contain a dispute settlement mechanism that allows corporations to sue a government. Such a challenge is not heard in the normal court system of a nation but rather in a secret, three-person tribunal. Currently, a Canadian mining company is suing the government of Costa Rica for $1 billion for denying a permit to mine copper and gold in a tropical rainforest. Costa Rica wants to conserve its rainforests because eco-tourism is a key part of their economy. Chevron has used the secret tribunal process to avoid payment of damages for persistent, serious oil spills in Ecuador.

Another example can be seen in ballot measures such as Proposition 92 in Oregon, which would require labeling of genetically engineered foods. This measure was opposed by major transnational corporations such as DuPont, Coke, and Monsanto, and their war chest was estimated at $25 million. When people use ballot measures to deal with legislatures that refuse to act on issues of public health and environmental protection, industries pour out millions in propaganda to defeat such measures.

In poll after poll, voters say that they care about clean air, clean water, and the environment, but the reality is that it is harder today than at any time in the last 40 years to pass significant legislation to safeguard air, land, and water. The problem has grown much worse since the 1970s, when 30 major environmental laws were passed, and a big part of the problem is the cost of elections.

Twenty-five years ago, I was one of about a dozen environmental leaders called to a U.S. Senator’s office to hear a sobering message about what the staggering costs of elections were doing to Members who were not independently wealthy. He said to us:

To be reelected, this means my having to raise $10,000 every day on average until election day. For you it means two things: 1) I have little time to study issues and legislation and 2) while I may vote with you from time to time, I cannot champion any legislation that would prevent me from getting campaign contributions from major industrial interests.

As recording setting amounts have just been set in the 2014 elections, the need for election financing reform is paramount if we are to prevent these major industrial interests from keeping us on the path of cheater economics.

Piketty Acknowledges a Limit to Inequality–Will He Acknowledge the Limits to Growth?

by James Magnus-Johnston

Johnston_photoIn Piketty’s celebrated new work, Capital in the 21st Century, we are treated to a robust argument about the mechanics of worsening structural inequality. He narrates why owners of capital assets–stocks, bonds, and real estate–historically realize higher returns than wage workers. Piketty uses econ-speak to describe this as a gap in “the capital-income ratio,” and explains how our present system is engineered to favour capital-owners or “rentiers.” In the 21st century, he predicts slower growth in population and productivity, but a higher rate of return on capital, pushing us into inequality levels not seen since the 19th century.

But the limits we face are far greater than limits to just the capital-income ratio. While many of us share Piketty’s anxiety about worsening inequality (for me, every time I see a headline celebrating the rise of house prices), worsening structural inequality at this stage in history is but one symptom of our obsession with growth. Like Piketty, many post-growth thinkers are calling for a system change so the distribution of wealth will not inevitably concentrate in fewer and fewer hands. But rather than Piketty’s proposed progressive tax on wealth, we are calling for a fundamental adjustment to the financial system to make it more socially equitable and ecologically sustainable.

It might be helpful to interrogate the question of inequality this way:

  • Why is it that rentiers can achieve such high rates of net worth?
    Because overly-inflated asset values make rentiers look great on paper, and those funds can be leveraged for even more consumption.
  • How did asset values become so inflated in the first place?
    Because everyone from hedge fund managers to real estate investors bid up prices.
  • Why can prices be bid up? 
    Because banks lend out historically unprecedented amounts of money in the form of debt.
  • Why do we need so much debt?
    Because if we fail to grow by at least the rate of interest, the entire financial system enters a state of default and collapse! Herman Daly proposes an increase to the fractional reserve requirement so that banks are able to lend out real money instead of just creating more debt.

While Piketty does acknowledge how the “financialization of the economy in no way contributes to the real economy,” he stops short of acknowledging that the volume of debt-money in the economy makes money scarce for some and abundant for others, and that the system is set up to either grow exponentially or fail spectacularly. More dubiously, in Robert Solow’s review of Piketty’s book, Solow suggests that “a society or the individuals in it can decide to save and to invest so much that they (and the law of diminishing returns) drive the rate of return below the long-term growth rate.” Not so in a debt-backed monetary system steeped in stratospheric and unprecedented levels of debt!

Piketty similarly avoids acknowledging peak oil or ‘limits to energy returns.’ At the most fundamental level, economic growth and capital accumulation require huge flows of matter and energy. This important consideration takes the form of but a few small caveats in Piketty’s book. He predicts that “wealthy countries” will grow at a rate of “1.2 percent,” while acknowledging that such a growth rate can only be achieved as “new sources of energy are developed to replace hydrocarbons.” I’m not sure how this prediction can be taken seriously when we are always and everywhere these days confronted by diminishing energy returns. These limits are evident in our reliance on unconventional oil, including fracking, the tar sands, and all of the new hazards that come with shipping it, such as building new pipelines and ports in fragile ecological zones, the release of methane and other undesirables from fracking, and the looming spectre of another Lac Megantic disaster. Add to this the uncounted costs of climate change–from private insured losses to government disaster expenses–and we wind up in the highly questionable position of counting disaster rebuilding efforts as additions to GDP!

DivideByZeroError

What happens if Picketty assumes a growth rate of zero? ERROR.

Perhaps, interpreted liberally, Piketty’s prediction of 1.2 percent growth is a couched acknowledgement that we have a failed growth economy on our hands. Or perhaps there is an even simpler methodological explanation for Piketty’s prediction, which is that if he were to assume a growth rate of zero, the “law” he applies–“beta equals savings divided by growth”–would yield absolutely no results whatsoever! And who can make newsworthy predictions with a divide-by-zero error message?

Piketty’s research is certainly useful and clearly resonates with a disillusioned public seeking to understand the causes of growing inequality. But without full acknowledgement of the limits to growth, there are also limits to his historical analogies–after all, the extent of ecological overshoot makes this period remarkably different from any period before it. Which means that the laws and formulae used throughout his book must be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. EF Schumacher wrote

economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions. Some go as far as to claim that economic laws are as free from ‘metaphysics’ or ‘values’ as the law of gravitations.

Piketty makes a compelling, historically grounded argument about worsening structural inequality. But perhaps we can call for bolder action to respond to contemporary problems, including serious financial reform that reduces or extinguishes unsustainable debt; nurturing a grassroots movement toward more equitable, democratic work structures (so that more people have access to assets and ownership in the first place); and teaching a new generation of economists that all financial capital is fundamentally a gift from nature.

How I’ve Responded to the Financial Crisis

by Andrew Fanning

Since reading Herman Daly’s “Nationalize Money, not Banks,” my head has been whirling with notions of how to help restructure the financial system to support a steady-state economy that respects ecological limits. The current system creates debt-based money by allowing banks to hold only a very small fraction of demand deposits while lending out the rest (with interest) to be re-deposited and then loaned out again (with interest), and on and on. Why is this so important? Besides according gratuitous profits to the private banks for producing money (a public resource that could just as easily be produced by a public institution), the fractional reserve system also creates a structural dependency on economic growth because, as Bill McKibben observes, “without the growth, you can’t pay off the interest.”

But the purpose here is not to repeat our dire situation. Instead, I want to share a plan that I’m using both to disentangle myself from the flawed financial system and to put pressure on the system to change. My plan consists of three steps.

Step 1: Get informed

“The process by which money is created is so simple the mind is repelled.” (John K. Galbraith)

Wow, did Daly say that the financial sector captures 40% of all profits in the United States? While I’m no authority on financial matters, I do have a master’s degree in economics and was even a teaching assistant for Macroeconomic Principles. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t ever recall hearing the term “seigniorage,” and we definitely didn’t focus students’ attention on the fact that “growing the money supply” is profitable. After reading “Nationalize Money, not Banks,” I was left with the familiar post-Daly feeling that I had been blind(ed) but was starting to see.

Fortunately, I received my copy of Enough is Enough in the mail shortly thereafter, and Chapter 8 (Enough Debt) provides more ideas on the issue of debt-based money creation and policies for reform. Also, issue no. 63 of the Real World Economics Review, a pluralist, open-access journal, offers excellent papers on the recent financial crises and money markets. So, having been acquainted with a number of alternatives to the current system, I was ready to roll on to the next step.

Step 2: Start worrying (more)

“Thus, our national circulating medium is now at the mercy of loan transactions of banks, which lend, not money, but promises to supply money they do not possess.” (Irving Fisher)

Cyprus recently joined Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal to become the 5th country in the Eurozone that has needed outside assistance to bail out its troubled financial sector. When the Cypriot authorities meet in early April to sign the agreement with representatives of the “Troika” (International Monetary Fund, European Commission and European Central Bank), every man, woman and child in Cyprus will effectively take out a €12,000 loan.

That sounds pretty bad, but actually, in the current system, the bailout should have been even bigger. In an unprecedented move that ought to shake the rotten foundations of the fractional reserve system, depositors holding more than €100,000 in Cyprus’ two largest banks have been subject to levies of 100% and 37.5%, respectively, in order to “recapitalize” their coffers. The original plan, voted down by the Cypriot parliament due in large part to public outrage, was to levy all depositors. This sends a very clear and ominous message to people (like me) holding deposits in the Eurozone: the governments of the Eurogroup — representing the world’s largest common market — have proven unwilling to fully guarantee demand deposits in this crisis. And if Europe can’t guarantee deposits, is there anywhere else that can really be considered safe?

Step 3: Take action

“The issue which has swept down the centuries and which will have to be fought sooner or later is the people versus the banks.” (Lord Acton)

There are two simple avenues for someone like me (or you) to take action against the banks.

First, I plan to continue using my voice as a citizen to spread the word concerning the inherent instability of the fractional reserve system and get involved with efforts to promote an alternative vision of a financial system — one that serves the needs of the economy and society, while respecting the limits of a finite planet.

Second, and more immediately, I wanted to get my deposits out of the system ASAP. If enough people stash their money under the proverbial mattress, then banks should get a warning message from their balance sheets that they need to finance more of their loans with real equity and long-term bonds rather than debt.

However, I found that I couldn’t easily abandon my checking account because that’s where my employer deposits my salary and where companies bill me for utilities. As a working compromise, my partner and I closed our accounts with Bankia — the giant Spanish conglomerate that has siphoned away more than half of the €40bn in bailout funds spent by Spain so far — and started banking with Triodos Bank.

Although Triodos still creates debt-based money from our deposits, they lend it to initiatives that benefit people and the environment, and what’s more, they publish each and every loan made. They are co-founders of the Global Alliance on Banking for Values, a network of 22 “values-based banks” that have recently issued a declaration calling for greater transparency, sustainability and diversity in banking. Consider the following excerpt:

Banks play a critical role in the transition towards a more sustainable economy. Therefore social and ecological criteria must play a critical role in the creation and use of financial products. […] Banks have to serve the real economy and include broader societal perspectives in their considerations.

Can you believe this is coming from a group of bankers managing more than $60 billion worth of assets?

My three-step plan isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it is helping to secure my own financial situation and putting pressure on the system at large. If enough of us take steps like these, the day will come when the Triodos perspective on banking is the norm.

Andrew Fanning grew up on the blustery east coast of Canada where he eventually earned a master’s in economics. His interests include lots of things, especially the capacity of the planet to support life.

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.

Capital, Debt, and Alchemy

by Herman Daly

Herman Daly“Capital,” said Nobel chemist and pioneer ecological economist Frederick Soddy,”merely means unearned income divided by the rate of interest and multiplied by 100.” (Cartesian Economics, p. 27).

He further explained that, “Although it may comfort the lender to think that his wealth still exists somewhere in the form of “capital,” it has been or is being used up by the borrower either in consumption or investment, and no more than food or fuel can it be used again later. Rather it has become debt, an indent on future revenues…”

In other words capital in the financial sense is the perennial net revenue stream expected from the project financed, divided by the assumed rate of interest and multiplied by 100. Rather than magic growth-producing real stuff, it is a hypothetical calculation of the present value of a permanent lien on the future real production of the economy. The fact that the lien can be traded among individuals for real wealth in the present does not change the fact that it is still a lien against the future revenue of society — in a word it is a debt that the future must pay, no matter who owns it or how often it is traded as an asset in the present.

Soddy believed that the ruling passion of our age is to convert wealth into debt in order to derive a permanent future income from it — to convert wealth that perishes into debt that endures, debt that does not rot or rust, costs nothing to maintain, and brings in perennial “unearned income,” as both IRS accountants and Marxists accurately call it. No individual could amass the physical requirements sufficient for maintenance during old age, for like manna it would spoil if accumulated much beyond current need. Therefore one must convert one’s non-storable current surplus into a lien on future revenue by letting others consume and invest one’s surplus now in exchange for the right to share in the expected future revenue. But future real physical revenue simply cannot grow as fast as symbolic monetary debt! In Soddy’s words:

You cannot permanently pit an absurd human convention, such as the spontaneous increment of debt [compound interest], against the natural law of the spontaneous decrement of wealth [entropy]. (Cartesian Economics, p. 30).

In case that is a too abstract statement of a too general principle, Soddy gave a simple example. Minus two pigs (debt) is a mathematical quantity having no physical existence, and the population of negative pigs can grow without limit. Plus two pigs (wealth) is a physical quantity, and their population growth is limited by the need to feed the pigs, dispose of their waste, find space for them, etc. Both may grow at a given x% for a while, but before long the population of negative pigs will greatly outnumber that of the positive pigs, because the population of positive pigs is limited by the physical constraints of a finite and entropic world. The value of a negative pig will fall to a small fraction of the value of a positive pig. Owners of negative pigs will be greatly disappointed and angered when they try to exchange them for positive pigs. In today’s terms, instead of negative pigs, think “unfunded pension liabilities” or “sub-prime mortgages.”

Soddy went on to speculate about how historically we came to confuse wealth with debt:

Because formerly ownership of land — which, with the sunshine that falls on it, provides a revenue of wealth — secured, in the form of rent, a share in the annual harvest without labor or service, upon which a cultured and leisured class could permanently establish itself, the age seems to have conceived the preposterous notion that money, which can buy land, must therefore itself have the same revenue-producing power.

The ancient alchemists wanted to transmute corrosion-prone base metals into permanent, non-corruptible, time-resistant gold. Modern economic alchemists want to convert spoiling, rusting, and depleting wealth into a magic substance better than gold — not only does it resist corrosion, but it grows — by some mysterious principle the alchemists referred to as the “vegetative property of metals.” The modern alchemical philosopher’s stone, known as “capital” or “debt,” is not only free from the ravages of time and entropy, but embodies the alchemists’ long-sought-for principle of vegetative growth of metals. But once we replace alchemy with chemistry we find that the idea that future people can live off the interest of their mutual indebtedness is just another perpetual motion delusion.

The exponentially growing indent of debt on future real revenue will, in a finite and entropic world, become greater than future producers are either willing or able to transfer to owners of the debt. Debt will be repudiated either by inflation, bankruptcy, or confiscation, likely leading to serious violence. This prospect of violence especially bothered Soddy because, as the discoverer of the existence of isotopes, he had contributed substantially to the theory of atomic structure that made atomic energy feasible. He predicted in 1926 that the first fruit of this discovery would be a bomb of unprecedented power. He lived to see his prediction come true. Removing the economic causes of conflict therefore became for him a kind of redeeming priority.

Economists have ignored Soddy for eighty years — after all, he only got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, not the more alchemical “Swedish Riksbank Memorial Prize for Economics in Honor of Alfred Nobel.”

Defusing the Debt Bomb

by James Johnston

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

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

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

How we got here

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecosystem Services: Pricing to Peddle?

by Brian Czech

On November 15, five nations issued a complaint about a UN initiative called the “Global Green New Deal.”  These nations claim that “nature is seen [by the UN] as ‘capital’ for producing tradable environmental goods and services.”  They express their concern about the “privatization and the mercantilization of nature through the development of markets for environmental services.”   They also declare their “condemnation of unsustainable models of economic growth.”

For the purposes of this week’s Daly News, it matters little who these nations are, nor does it matter if their interpretation of the Green New Deal is completely accurate.  What does matter is that their complaint ripens our attention to a widespread and growing controversy about the implications of valuing ecosystem services.

The good news from the Green New Deal is that ecological microeconomics (such as valuing ecosystem services) has risen from the recesses of academia into the realm of international diplomacy.  The bad news is that ecological macroeconomics (such as limits to growth) apparently has not.  Let’s take a look at the implications.

The primary distinction of ecological economics, in contrast with conventional or “neoclassical” economics, is that ecological economists recognize limits to growth and a fundamental trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection.  The economic pie can only get so big even if all its pieces are correctly priced, including ecosystem services.  Because the economic pie can only get so big, society must also pay greater attention to fairly distributing the pieces.  In order to protect the environment, and to help allocate resources in the fairest manner, it helps to recognize the economic value of ecosystem services.  That’s what ecological microeconomics is all about; estimating the value of natural capital and ecosystem services.

In mainstream economic circles, on the other hand, limits to growth are seen as nonexistent or too far off to worry about.  That leads to a nonchalant attitude about fairness; just grow the economy because a “rising tide lifts all boats.”  Traditional economists don’t mind valuing ecosystem services, however.  As long as the prices are right, and markets are established, ecosystem services can be allocated efficiently, just like steel and milk into guns and butter.

The valuation of ecosystem services provides some common ground for neoclassical and ecological economics.  That should be a good thing.  However, common ground can be a minefield, too.  Many a well-meaning bureaucrat and diplomat are stumbling toward the landmines.

Perhaps the two most common concerns about valuing ecosystem services are:  1)  Many ecosystem services are beyond the ability of humans to estimate the value of, much less to “price” for the market.  “Value of the ozone layer?  Priceless.”  2)  The valuing of ecosystem services begs a market, then monetization of the services such that they are viewed as commodities to be traded like hogs or hoola hoops.  For many cultures this offends the senses of dignity and harmony with the natural world.  “Would you take 40,000 hogs for the climate regulation provided by that forest over there?”

But my concern is with another problem; namely, our inattention to where the money comes from to pay for services such as water filtration, carbon sequestration, pollination, etc.  There seems to be an attitude that, if we just throw enough money at a problem, we’ll solve it.  And that is precisely the attitude that creeps in when ecological microeconomics is not complemented with a healthy dose of ecological macroeconomics.  Markets convey the idea that you can have as much as you want as long as you pay the right price; ecological macroeconomics says the total is limited and the right market price should simply ration the limited total. And if the total is not limited then it is hard for the price to be “right”.

We especially need more awareness of the trophic origins of money.  Money doesn’t grow on trees, but it does come from the ground in a very real sense.  The amount of money available for the purchasing of guns, butter, hogs or carbon sequestration originates from the agricultural and extractive surplus that frees the hands for the division of labor.

In other words, it is not the ozone layer that “generates” money for throwing at its priceless service.  Nor does the North Pole “generate” the money for ecotourists to witness it.  What generates money is activity on the ground – on the farm, in the forest, in the fishery – that gives everyone else their food, as well as the materials for their clothing and shelter.  Everyone else is then free to work in the manufacturing or service sectors.  With plenty of surplus, the economy can even support bankers, actors, and financial engineers who set up markets for trading carbon permits.  That’s the trophic structure of the human economy.

The more our farmers, loggers, and fishermen produce, the more money we’ll all have for the bank, the movies, and trading in biodiversity credits.  But of course the more we ask them to produce, the more environmental impact we’ll have.  If you insist on growing the economy and protecting the environment, eventually the bank and the theatre will be empty; your money’s going straight to the ecosystem services market.  It’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Now consider the other side of the coin, so to speak.  We often hear about the investment in the Catskill Mountains watershed that provides clean water to New York City.  I’m all for it!  But it’s no example of reconciling the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.  What do the growthers think they’re going to do in that watershed:  open hog farms and build high-rises?  No, by “investing” in that natural capital a decision was made to keep the land relatively free from intensive economic activity.  That’s not the kind of investment they like to hear about in New York City, at least not on Wall Street.

So I’ll stop short of saying, “Let’s encourage all the ecological microeconomics we can get.”  Let’s encourage some of it, while realizing that there are only so many ecological economists to go around.  Let’s encourage far more study and practice of ecological macroeconomics.  With microeconomics, let’s help to demonstrate what’s at stake when we mine an aquifer or pull up a fishery.  But more importantly, let’s not peddle those ecosystem services like they’re rubber boots.  Remember where the money comes from to pay for them: the liquidation of natural capital stocks somewhere else.  That’s ecological macroeconomics, and that leads to a steady state economy where some of those precious ecosystem services stay where they belong: out of the market.