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The Debt Ceiling: What’s Good for the Public Goose is Good for the Private Gander

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechTea Partiers railing against raising the debt ceiling have a valid point. Operating on perpetual deficits and debt is unsustainable. In fact, a perpetually growing government would be impossible under any circumstances. That’s pursuant to the dictum that nothing grows forever.

What the Tea Partiers tend to forget is that, in a well-balanced democracy, the public and private sectors grow as an integrated whole. If you want more people and more cars, you should expect a bigger Department of Transportation and more cops. More oil rigs and smokestacks? Bigger EPA. More Wall Street? Bigger SEC. It’s common sense; something the Tea Party is supposed to thrive on.

Now there may be some legitimate, philosophical disagreement about how many cops per thousand drivers or how much EPA per thousand smokestacks. There’s also the issue of where you want most of your government seated: in Washington, DC, or the statehouse. But presumably we all want the right-sized public sector pursuant to the American constitution.

Otherwise what? Anarchy? That’s not dumping the tax-laden tea; that’s sinking the whole ship of state. The Tea Party could be good for America, but it has to avoid the tendency to look like the Treason Party.

If we want the right-sized government, then we’d generally want a growing government as the American economy grows. Economic growth means increasing population times per capita consumption. In other words, more folks and more goings-on, entailing more feds and their local counterparts.

But there’s that dictum again: Nothing grows forever, and usually the right size is reached long before the limit.

So if you’re itching to fight the growth of government, walking the talk means supporting the transition to a stabilized, steady state economy. The only right way to stabilize the size of government is to stabilize the size of Wall Street, the banks, and for that matter, Main Street. That doesn’t mean central planning or stagnation; the idea is a dynamic steady state economy with different technologies and consumer preferences rippling through the market. But macroeconomic policies and level-headed consumer behavior help keep the whole shootin’ match at a sustainable size.

We’ve got a long way to go to establish the social and political will for a steady state economy with stabilized population and GDP. But in the current climate, the first step is obvious: A debt ceiling at the federal level must be matched by a debt ceiling in the private sector. Every new loan should be met with the closing of another. A dollar out; a dollar in. What’s good for the public goose is good for the private gander.

In the absence of conventional political parties with enough integrity to acknowledge limits to growth, the Tea Partiers have a chance to gain a new and ironic ally: Americans concerned with sustainability. If not, the non-partisan, steady state economy movement remains the only game in town. It’s one of those movements that starts in academia and, via the non-profit sector, moves into society at large, resonating with common sense at every step.

The steady-state movement seeks responsible political shepherding, not bringing down the government. It takes, as it were, steady statesmanship. Whether that’s something the Tea Party can handle will be a prime indication of its intelligence, integrity, and patriotism.

“Steady State Economy” — a Positive Vision in International Affairs

by Brian Czech

Before we think about the steady state economy, let’s think for a moment about economic growth. Economic growth still has such positive connotations in domestic politics, especially American politics, that the vast majority of citizens simply assume that whoever can do more for economic growth is the better statesman (man or woman), better Federal Reserve chair, better economic advisor, etc. That’s why the definition of economic growth bears repeating over and over again, to pull the magic cloak from a purely material process. Economic growth simply means increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate.

In other words, economic growth means increasing population, increasing per capita consumption, or both. There’s nothing magical about it. Economic growth means more and more “stuff” – green stuff, brown stuff, pink stuff — and it takes more “stuff” to make it happen. That’s pretty obvious for the agricultural, extractive, and manufacturing sectors. But service sectors, even the information sector, take more stuff to grow, too.

And stuff tends to run out. Peak Oil, Peak Water, Peak Everything as Richard Heinberg called it; Earth has only so much to go around. Earth is big, but so is 7 billion — the number of people in the global economy. More importantly, guess which one is still growing.

Economic growth is indicated by increasing GDP. In nations with big ecological footprints — the United States, Japan, Germany, China, Brazil — economic growth has long been maxed out within the borders. Huge economies have to reach across their borders for natural resources, and their pollutants go international too. Economic growth is increasingly questioned as a positive vision in international affairs.

Many if not most nations recognize that economic growth has become more of a problem than a solution from a global perspective. That’s why Herman Daly calls it “uneconomic growth.” Resource shortages, pollution, climate change, congestion, and biodiversity loss are all results and indicators of economic (or uneconomic) growth.

In other words economic growth, indicated by increasing GDP, has become a bad deal, at least at the global level. It was a good deal some decades ago when it cost us little in clean air, clean water, fish and wildlife, and peace and quiet. But now it’s a bad deal and we need to recognize it as bad.

Calling economic growth a bad thing doesn’t make the steady state economy a negative vision. Far from it. In fact, when economic growth is a bad thing, only an alternative to growth can be a good thing, right?

So what are the alternatives to economic growth? This is where sticking to the standard, textbook, policy-relevant definition of economic growth comes in handy. Again, economic growth is increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate, indicated by growing GDP. So we have only two basic alternatives: decreasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate, or stabilized production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. The former results in declining GDP and the latter in stabilized GDP. The former is called “recession.” The latter is called a “steady state economy.”

Of these, which one sounds like the better deal? Which one evokes the more positive image? Which one should be advocated as the solution to the problem of economic growth?

I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s the steady state economy.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to test this hypothesis at the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, otherwise known as “Rio+20,” from June 20-22. There in Rio de Janeiro I talked with dozens of delegates from countries ranging in GDP from the gargantuan United States to the diminutive Comoros. Here’s what I found: nearly all favored the steady state economy as the positive solution to the problem of economic growth. Nearly all saw continuous economic growth as bad and the steady state economy as good.

That’s right, nearly all!

Doubt it? Think again. These diplomats ain’t no dummies. They know full well the planet is filling up with people and stuff, and that many national economies are beyond their sustainable levels.

Of course, there are exceptions. Some diplomats have the intellectual disadvantage of a background in neoclassical economics, leading them to believe there is no limit to economic growth. They can’t defend such a fallacious hypothesis, but they still believe it.

Then again, not all diplomats who agree about limits to economic growth will formally acknowledge such agreement. A distinct tendency was clear in Rio: wealthy-nation delegates were afraid to buck the party line of economic growth except in private conversation. The reasons should be obvious. In the United States, for example, we have Wall Street, the Federal Reserve System, and the Department of Commerce pushing hard for economic growth. No one should underestimate the power of these players to influence the language of statesmen, political appointees, and bureaucrats.

In small nations with widespread poverty, on the other hand, the general public, professional diplomats, and elected politicians have one thing in common: they’ve all experienced the unfairness of global economic growth and pro-growth policies. When it comes to natural resources, smaller countries tend to be deal takers, not deal makers, and the terms of trade are harsh.

That’s why the CASSE position on economic growth has garnered signatures from numerous small-country diplomats, ministers, and other delegates in international affairs. In Rio, I found delegate after delegate supportive of steady state economics for international diplomacy. Many were from African, South American, and Asian countries far removed from Wall Street and wary of international pro-growth institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization. I got the succinct impression that, if only we had the time and access to all diplomats of the world, and even to heads of state, we would find the vast majority of them calling for steady state economics just as the CASSE position describes. That means starting in large, wealthy countries and gradually expanding to other nations after an opportunity to catch up in per capita consumption, at least to a reasonable degree.

Yet many activists, scholars, and ‘think-tankers’ are afraid to talk openly in public about the steady state economy, much less to go on record as supporting it. They think the phrase “steady state economy” has negative connotations. They think this makes the steady state economy too difficult to promote.

The fact is that any macroeconomic goal (growth, steady state, recession) has negative connotations. It’s time to pick your negative connotations!

Some may think that negative connotations can be avoided by the use of feel-good rhetoric such as “green,” “blue,” or “new” economics. I hate to burst the bluegreen bubblegum, but these too have plenty of negative connotations. This was evident in Rio. “Green,” “blue,” and “new” are seen by diplomats for what they are: rhetorical ploys to skirt the tough issues we face in the real world.

Long-time explicit advocates of the steady state economy could, I suppose, be accused of a biased opinion. But I know what I saw in Rio: delegates almost invariably connected quickly with the phrase “steady state economy.” Although it’s a phrase that requires some thought for translation to other languages, it makes so much common sense that the translation occurs alright. For example, the CASSE position on economic growth is already posted in 19 languages. After all the followups from Rio+20, it will also be posted in Chinese, Turkish, Hindi, Bangladeshi, Japanese, and Hungarian.

In political science, a central principle is name recognition. All else equal, the name recognized is the name favored. This applies to politicians, policies, and platforms. That’s why it matters when a professor, activist, diplomat, minister, or head of state chooses a label for a particular economic goal. “Green” has name recognition, but its meaning is fuzzy. “New” has little recognition or meaning, at least as applied to economics. “Steady state economy” has modest recognition, so far, but it clearly expresses the primary principle; a stabilized economy that is neither growing nor shrinking, but fluctuating around a sustainable level.

“Steady state economy” is a positive, proactive phrase that’s productive in international affairs. It has decades of academic reputation from the work of Herman Daly and others. It speaks clearly of the need to stabilize the size of the human economy. It has plenty of backing by dignitaries in sustainability science, policy, and diplomacy, and the list of dignitaries (not yet updated from Rio) is growing fast. We should encourage the purveyors of “green,” “blue”, and “new” economics to adopt it.

Aren’t there reasons enough?

What Is the Limiting Factor?

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyIn yesteryear’s empty world capital was the limiting factor in economic growth. But we now live in a full world.

Consider: What limits the annual fish catch — fishing boats (capital) or remaining fish in the sea (natural resources)? Clearly the latter. What limits barrels of crude oil extracted — drilling rigs and pumps (capital), or remaining accessible deposits of petroleum — or capacity of the atmosphere to absorb the CO2 from burning petroleum (both natural resources)? What limits production of cut timber — number of chain saws and lumber mills, or standing forests and their rate of growth? What limits irrigated agriculture — pumps and sprinklers, or aquifer recharge rates and river flow volumes? That should be enough to at least suggest that we live in a natural resource-constrained world, not a capital-constrained world.

Economic logic says to invest in and economize on the limiting factor. Economic logic has not changed; what has changed is the limiting factor. It is now natural resources, not capital, that we must economize on and invest in. Economists have not recognized this fundamental shift in the pattern of scarcity. Nobel Laureate in chemistry and underground economist, Frederick Soddy, predicted the shift eighty years ago. He argued that mankind ultimately lives on current sunshine, captured with the aid of plants, soil, and water. This fundamental permanent basis for life is temporarily supplemented by the release of trapped sunshine of Paleozoic summers that is being rapidly depleted to fuel what he called “the flamboyant age.” So addicted are we to this short-run subsidy that our technocrats advocate shutting out some of the incoming solar energy to make more thermal room for burning fossil fuels! These educated cretins are also busy chemically degrading the topsoil and polluting the water, while tinkering with the genetic basis of plants, all toward the purpose of maximizing short-run growth. As Wes Jackson says, agricultural plants now have genes selected by the Chicago Board of Trade, not by fitness to the ecosystem of surrounding organisms and geography.

What has kept economists from recognizing Soddy’s insight? An animus against dependence on nature, and a devotion to dominance. This basic attitude has been served by a theoretical commitment to factor substitutability and a neglect of complementarity by today’s neoclassical economists. In the absence of complementarity there can be no limiting factor — if capital and natural resources are substitutes in production then neither can be limiting — if one is in short supply you just substitute the other and continue producing. If they are complements both are necessary and the one in short supply is limiting.

Economists used to believe that capital was the limiting factor. Therefore they implicitly must have believed in complementarity between capital and natural resources back in the empty-world economy. But when resources became limiting in the new full-world economy, rather than recognizing the shift in the pattern of scarcity and the new limiting factor, they abandoned the whole idea of limiting factor by emphasizing substitutability to the exclusion of complementarity. The new reason for emphasizing capital over natural resources is the claim that capital is a near perfect substitute for resources.

William Nordhaus and James Tobin were quite explicit (“Is Growth Obsolete?,” 1972, NBER, Economic Growth, New York: Columbia University Press):

The prevailing standard model of growth assumes that there are no limits on the feasibility of expanding the supplies of nonhuman agents of production. It is basically a two-factor model in which production depends only on labor and reproducible capital. Land and resources, the third member of the classical triad, have generally been dropped… the tacit justification has been that reproducible capital is a near perfect substitute for land and other exhaustible resources.

The claim that capital is a near perfect substitute for natural resources is absurd. For one thing substitution is reversible. If capital is a near perfect substitute for resources, then resources are a near perfect substitute for capital — so why then did we ever bother to accumulate capital in the first place if nature already endowed us with a near perfect substitute?

It is not for nothing that our system is called “capitalism” rather than “natural resource-ism.” It is ideologically inconvenient for capitalism if capital is no longer the limiting factor. But that inconvenience has been met by claiming that capital is a good substitute for natural resources. Ever true to its basic animus of denying any fundamental dependence on nature, neoclassical economics saw only two alternatives — either nature is not scarce and capital is limiting, or nature’s scarcity doesn’t matter because manmade capital is a near perfect substitute for natural resources. In either case man is in control of nature, thanks to capital, and that is the main thing. Never mind that manmade capital is itself made from natural resources.

The absurdity of the claim that capital and natural resources are good substitutes has been further demonstrated by Georgescu-Roegen in his fund-flow theory of production. It recognizes that factors of production are of two qualitatively different kinds: (1) resource flows that are physically transformed into flows of product and waste; and (2) capital and labor funds, the agents or instruments of transformation that are not themselves physically embodied in the product. If one finds a machine screw or a piece of a worker’s finger in one’s can of soup, that is reason for a lawsuit, not confirmation of the metaphysical notion that capital and labor are somehow “embodied” in the product!

There are varying degrees of substitution between different natural resource flows, and between the funds of labor and capital. But the basic relation between resource flow on the one hand, and capital (or labor) fund on the other, is complementarity. Efficient cause (capital) does not substitute for material cause (resources). You can’t bake the same cake with half the ingredients no matter if you double or triple the number of cooks and ovens. Funds and flows are complements.

Further, capital is current surplus production exchanged for a lien against future production — physically it is made from natural resources. It is not easy to substitute away from natural resources when the presumed substitute is itself made from natural resources.

It is now generally recognized, even by economists, that there is far too much debt worldwide, both public and private. The reason so much debt was incurred is that we have had absurdly unrealistic expectations about the efficacy of capital to produce the real growth needed to redeem the debt that is “capital” by another name. In other words the debt that piled up in failed attempts to make wealth grow as fast as debt is evidence of the reality of limits to growth. But instead of being seen as such, it is taken as the main reason to attempt still more growth by issuing more debt, and by shifting bad debts from the balance sheet of private banks to that of the public treasury, in effect monetizing them.

The wishful thought leading to such unfounded growth expectations was the belief that by growth we would cure poverty without the need to share. As the poor got richer, the rich could get still richer! Few expected that aggregate growth itself would become uneconomic, would begin to cost us more than it was worth at the margin, making us collectively poorer, not richer. But it did. In spite of that, our economists, bankers, and politicians still have unrealistic expectations about growth. Like the losing gambler they try to get even by betting double or nothing on more growth.

Could we not take a short time-out from growth roulette to reconsider the steady-state economy? After all, the idea is deeply rooted in classical economics, as well as in physics and biology. Perpetual motion and infinite growth are not reasonable premises on which to base economic policy.

At some level many people surely know this. Why then do we keep growth as the top national priority? First, we are misled because our measure of growth, GDP, counts all “economic activity” thereby conflating costs and benefits, rather than comparing them at the margin. Second, the cumulative net benefit of past growth is a maximum at precisely the point where further growth becomes uneconomic (where declining marginal benefit equals increasing marginal cost), and past experience ceases to be a good guide to the future in this respect. Third, because even though the benefits of further growth are now less than the costs, our decision-making elites have figured out how to keep the dwindling extra benefits for themselves, while “sharing” the exploding extra costs with the poor, the future, and other species. The elite-owned media, the corporate-funded think tanks, the kept economists of high academia, and the World Bank — not to mention Gold Sacks and Wall Street — all sing hymns to growth in perfect unison, and bamboozle average citizens.

What is going to happen?

Presenting the Economic Policy of the Occupy Movement

by Brian Czech

If there is one thing the Occupy Wall Street movement has generated, it’s the opinion that there is no unifying agenda or policy being advanced by the Occupiers. Perhaps that explains why we (CASSE) have been asked repeatedly to contribute to that agenda and identify that policy. And perhaps the time has come to oblige.

No one can claim to represent the entire Occupy movement or all its concerns. The wide-ranging movement has taken on local, grassroots issues as much as national, systemic concerns. I got a taste of that recently during a visit to Bloomington, Indiana, where the local Occupiers were camped out on the perimeter of Indiana University. I was in Bloomington to give a talk about steady state economics at the university, and happened upon the Occupiers’ camp my first night in. They had little to say about Wall Street, GDP, or national unemployment. Maybe it was just my timing — which happened to correspond with Halloween– but the Bloomington Occupiers seemed pre-occupied with surviving the annual student “Zombies” march that apparently threatens the security of Indiana University every Halloween. The Occupiers were equally concerned with aggressive Zombies and the police assembled to confront said Zombies. (They feared the police would use the Zombies as an excuse to clean house all around the campus.)

It’s hard to blame the Occupiers for focusing on local issues and forces. Police suppression alone saps the energy from many movements, as I recall from the days of World Bank demonstrations. Yet despite the inevitable localization of Occupier concerns, the Occupy movement needs a national identity to survive, and it needs a macroeconomic policy goal to unite around. That policy goal should be a sustainable and fair steady state economy. Let’s see why.

The Occupy movement is, first and foremost, an objection to the rule of Big Money; big corporations, big banks, and big-time rip-offs of the taxpaying public. It’s all about economic justice. But at this point in history, economic justice is complicated by limits to economic growth. The old notion that a “rising tide lifts all boats” has become morally inadequate and physically irrelevant. In a world of over 7 billion people and an economy over $73 trillion in gross world product, the Wall Street Bull is tromping through an ecological china shop with increasingly endangered glassware. It’s not only that the Wall Street Bull is kicking Occupiers and the rest of the 99% out of the way; the Bull is destroying the planet. It spans the globe but the globe is full.

The Occupiers need to get this, discuss it, and emphasize it. Otherwise, they could be unfairly portrayed as just the latest brand of populists seeking to expropriate the expropriators. Wall Street could point out that everybody has always wanted “theirs,” including Nazis, Bolsheviks, and French revolutionaries known today as “The Terror.”

The Occupiers can do better. They are better.

The Occupy movement can do better especially by adopting the steady state economy as its macroeconomic policy goal. That means an economy with stabilized levels of production and consumption, which means stabilizing population and per-person consumption. It means an economy that fits on Earth without threatening present and future generations with its overbearing, bloating size. It means an economy of stable size that, when accepted by national governments and sought in international diplomacy, replaces war as a mode of getting “theirs.”

Only sound economic diplomacy — steady statesmanship — can ensure that everyone gets enough without killing thy neighbor. Wall Street doesn’t get that. To the corporations and banks, the world is a china shop to buck around in, and good luck to the kicked.

The ball is in the Occupiers court. They’ve got to concern themselves with more than the local food, zombies, and police. Occupiers must decide if they really want to distinguish themselves from the growth-at-all-costs corporations, banks, Democrats and Republicans that really and permanently occupy Wall Street. Can they distinguish themselves with steady statesmanship?

I think they can, and I’m one of them!

How to Turn the Power of the Wall Street Protests into Real Reforms

by Brent Blackwelder

As the Wall Street protests have spread from New York City to the rest of the country, some media pundits have criticized the protesters for being unfocused — as if there were only one thing wrong with the financial sector of the U.S. economy. The protests have provided a welcome response to Wall Street’s massive takeover of governance, and continued opposition to the status quo could produce opportunities to enact real reforms.

Don’t expect Wall Street to undertake such reforms voluntarily — some of the shady practices are too profitable. It’s going to take new laws, and key legislation is pending in Congress that could provide important remedies. But new legislation won’t pass without the strongest pressure. That’s where the protesters could make a difference, especially with some forceful activity in the districts where the obstructionists, like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor from Virginia, reside. Cantor said to the conservative Values Voter conference: “I, for one, am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street” but he backtracked a week later when cautioned by his political finger-in-the-wind testers about the growing popularity of the protests.

Among all the morally bankrupt practices on Wall Street, there’s one in particular that would be easy to abolish. Easy, that is, if we can translate some the energy of the protests into pressure on lawmakers. Pending in Congress are powerful bills such as Senator Levin’s S. 1346 (Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act of 2011) that would strike hard at tax dodgers. But a bill like that has no prayer of passage unless representatives like Cantor feel the pressure.

Instead of reform, Congress is in fact poised to give another “one-time only” tax holiday to companies that stashed profits in tax havens. Huge and wealthy U.S. corporations are actively seeking what is known as a “repatriation holiday” because they say it would create jobs. Such a holiday would allow them to bring home offshore profits at a reduced rate — a nice holiday for the well-to-do CEOs and shareholders, while the rest of us taxpayers suffer the consequences of losing $80 billion of revenue.

The Tax Justice Network and a number of small business associations are trying to right this wrong. They have sent a letter to Congress to dispute this repatriation holiday, noting: “Too many corporations have turned their tax departments into profit centers, using aggressive accounting manipulation to disguise U.S. profits as foreign profits.”

Bloomberg Business Week has pointed out prime examples: Google reduced its income taxes by about $3.1 billion over three years — first by shifting income to Ireland, then to the Netherlands, and finally to Bermuda. Another example is Forest Laboratories, a company that sells over 99% of its drugs in the U.S. but attributes the bulk of its profits to a law office in Bermuda.

Corporate abuses are all the more frustrating in light of how the Congressional “Supercommittee” is discussing the deficit. The Supercommittee is poised to recommend draconian cuts in important programs, but its Republican members are unwilling to address tax havens and tax dodgers that cost the U.S. Treasury an estimated $100 billion per year. The two biggest banks benefiting from taxpayer bailouts are Citigroup with 427 subsidiaries in tax havens and Bank of America with 115.

A recent report  by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) adds more grist to the protesters’ mill. The report notes that the salary of chief executives (CEOs) of the S&P 500 soared 27.8% in 2010 to $10.8 million, making the ratio between average CEO pay and average U.S. worker pay now 325 to 1. Back in the good old days of 2009, the ratio was much more equitable at “only” 263 to 1. The IPS study found that 25 of the top 100 CEOs received more pay than their companies paid in federal income tax. Furthermore, 20 of these 25 companies spent more on lobbying than they paid in federal income tax.

One more recent analysis,  published in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science, provides new support for those advocating major reforms in the tax code. The analysis found that those countries with the most progressive tax codes (those that are the exact opposite of a flat tax where everyone regardless of income pays the same rate) had the highest happiness ratings.

Americans want a sustainable and fair economy. But we won’t get one without fundamental financial reforms and a clamp-down on tax dodgers.  And we won’t get that without applying pressure to lawmakers and corporations.  Now that’s a good focus for a protest.

President Obama’s (Hoped for) “Amaze Speech”

Speechwriter: Brian Czech

President Obama’s hoped-for speech first appeared in the Daly News on August 7. We reprint it this week in anticipation of the President’s September 8th speech.

Fellow Americans, this evening I have a special message for you. It’s an unprecedented and surprising message, but ultimately it will resonate with your common sense, good will, and patriotic spirit. It turns out that the recessionary cloud we’re under does have an extremely valuable silver lining. I know; it sounds like something only a politician would say, but wait. I think you’ll be surprised to hear my explanation.

Now before I elaborate on the silver lining, I want to make it clear that the cloud has some rain, too. As a nation, we are struggling with debt, credit ratings, and worst of all, the painful experience of unemployment. The last thing I want is to mislead you into thinking these are problems I take lightly, or problems that will be automatically solved by the markets or policy makers. These problems were many years in the making — decades in fact — and it’s going to take years of diligence and readjustment to solve them.

Yet none of these problems can deny us the silver lining, which is this: the economic turmoil we experience today will change the course of history in such a way as to secure the future for American posterity, starting with our children and grandchildren. Let me reiterate, our own kids and grandkids — the most precious American treasure — will have a secure future as a result of the problems we face today. Here’s why…

Far from the trading floors of Wall Street and the policy meetings of the Federal Reserve, crucial discoveries have been made by scientists, economists, anthropologists, historians, and others collaborating under a broad umbrella called “sustainability science.” No, they haven’t discovered an unlimited energy source, a pollution-free car, or a method to stabilize our climate at optimum conditions. They’ve discovered something far more important and exciting: the key to permanent economic security.

For the past few years, as time has allowed, I and my economic advisors, with the assistance of numerous scholars, have studied this key to economic security. The theory and evidence for it is absolutely irrefutable. The only reason this key to security hasn’t broken into public dialog is because it serves no short-term vested interests; no wealthy corporations, think tanks, or political parties that would stand to profit before the next shareholders meeting or election cycle. But that’s also the beauty of it: the key to security is a non-partisan, scientifically sound approach to the long-run interests of all, especially our kids and grandkids. Fortunately for us, it’s surprisingly simple as well.

What is this key to a secure future? We could coin a new phrase to get credit for the idea or to improve its political flavor, but I believe the clearest term is what the scientists already call it: the “steady state economy.” Political advisors think it’s a bit on the dry side, but after what we’ve been through – stock market crashes, insurance crises, banker bailouts, panic over the debt ceiling, having our credit downgraded — doesn’t a “steady state economy” sound like just what the doctor ordered?

In the coming weeks and months, I and my Cabinet will be helping to introduce fellow Americans to the basics of steady state economics, especially what it means for producers, consumers, and public policy. We’ll do this through a series of public announcements, publications, and townhall meetings. Meanwhile, this evening, I’ll provide a brief summary, first by noting what a steady state economy is not.

A steady state economy is not communism, Marxism, or anything at odds with the Constitution of the United States. A steady state economy is not a stagnant, flat-lined economy but is rather continuously dynamic and creative. A steady state economy is not established overnight with draconian policies; instead it evolves as a matter of consumer preference and prudent policy. Most importantly, a steady state economy is in no way opposed to jobs and full employment. To the contrary, a steady state economy is the only economy that can ensure full employment, for your kids and theirs.

The most fundamental feature of the steady state economy is stability. The idea is to stabilize good conditions; stable agriculture, stable manufacturing, stable services, stable production and consumption, stable currency, stable markets, stable international trade, stable impact on the environment, stable air and water, stable climate… You get the picture, and remember, all this stability is at a good level — a level that ensures life, liberty and happiness for us and future generations. At this point in history, the steady state economy is the right goal, and the first step in getting there is recognizing it.

Perhaps you find this amazing. I think you should be amazed. After all, I haven’t said a word about economic growth; in fact I’ve called growth into question. The closest thing to this in presidential history is when President Carter encouraged Americans to consume a little less after the OPEC oil embargo. But President Carter was before his time, and his speech was maligned as the “malaise speech.”

Well, at this point in history, we can no longer afford — literally or figuratively — to pull out all the stops for economic growth. Therefore, tonight you’re hearing the “amaze speech,” the speech that introduces our nation to steady state economics, the alternative to growth.

I understand the adjustment in thinking that this will entail. I’ve gone through it myself. With the exception of President Carter in 1979, my predecessors for over 50 years have prioritized economic growth in their speeches, campaigns, and policies. None even mentioned steady state economics in a speech. Yet with every new president, the pursuit of economic growth has become less realistic, less sustainable, and even less desirable.

Earlier I mentioned the profound developments in sustainability science. Among the sustainability scholars are behavioral scientists and psychologists who have found compelling evidence that economic growth stopped contributing to a happier United States somewhere from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. After that, our gross domestic product continued to rise, but our happiness did not. If you’re like me — meaning old enough to remember — this probably resonates with you. Somewhere along the line the brighter lights, bigger houses and fancier cars stopped making us better off. In fact, all the new “stuff” started working against us. Now we struggle to find enough oil, water, “green space,” solitude, free time, and the peace of mind that comes with a stable climate. It’s all the sign of an economy grown too big.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I think we’ve all done some crazy things in life, but I don’t want to go down in history as the insane president who kept trying every trick in the book to “stimulate the economy,” when stimulating the economy was neither bound to work nor even desirable by that point in history. I don’t want to oversee more banker bailouts, more stimulus spending, more loosening of environmental protections in a vain attempt to increase GDP growth. That would be insane. Instead, I’m going to tell it like it is: the pursuit of economic growth has become a dangerous obsession that we must overcome. I say this with the backing of sound science, the lessons I’ve learned, and the concern I have for the future of America.

I’m going to test your common sense now. Do you think there is a limit to economic growth? Remember, economic growth is increasing production and consumption of goods and services. It means more and more people, more and more stuff. It takes more energy, water, space to operate in, and places to put out the trash.

Now as a politician, I can assure you that, in the coming days, well-paid pundits will conjure up magical concepts of perpetual growth based on “dematerializing” the economy. Well when they’re ready to dematerialize it, maybe they can beam us up. Meanwhile, the rest of us in the real economy know what perpetual GDP growth would take: evermore people, evermore stuff. And we know we’re running out of evermore room, resources, and patience for unreal notions of evermore growth.

I know that for some, and perhaps for many, this is hard to swallow. For decades we Americans have been encouraged to believe in the notion of continual economic growth. But look at it this way: to think there is no limit to economic growth on Earth is like thinking we could fit a stabilized economy into a perpetually shrinking area. For example, with computers, robots, nanotechnology and the like, we could squish the $70 trillion global economy into North America, then the United States, then Iowa, then into the foyer of the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, leaving the rest of the world as a designated wilderness area! It’s a ludicrous notion, and it’s precisely as ludicrous as thinking there’s no limit to economic growth in Des Moines, the United States, or Earth.

Now, let’s consider some of the problems we will face if we continue pulling out all the stops for economic growth. The first is inflation. Typically we use monetary policy — such as increasing the money supply — to stimulate growth. But when the real economy isn’t meant to grow as easily as increasing the money supply, the result is inflation. Nothing could be more harmful to our economy at this point than inflation, which is like a devastating tax on the nation.

Another problem is debt. As you know, my Administration injected a major fiscal stimulus into the economy. It helped somewhat and spun off some jobs, but it did not produce the wave of jobs we’d get in an economy with plenty of room to grow. Meanwhile, it added to our deficit and ultimately our debt. Now our credit is coming into question, as with so many nations in a global economy bumping up against the limits to growth.

Of course, there is no shortage of special interests to pounce on the news of faltering fiscal policy. The answer, they say, is to turn over as much as possible to Wall Street. “Take care of national security,” they say, “and let the markets take care of the economy.” The problem with that approach is that national security is about more than having the biggest military. National security starts with a sustainable economy, which requires a stable environment to support the agricultural, fishing, logging, mining, and ranching activities that have always been and always will be the foundation of the American and global economy. Our manufacturing and service sectors — the best in the world — are the best because we have the biggest and best agricultural and extractive sectors. And we have those because we have protected the environment from overuse, pollution, and displacement.

Consider what will happen if we take an unbalanced approach and prioritize economic growth even more over environmental protection. Does anyone really question whether we will have more environmental problems, including devastating problems? More oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of Alaska, more mountaintop mining in the Appalachians, more scraping for shale oil in the Rockies, more nuclear waste, more endangered species, more greenhouse gas emissions, and all the while less water, less fish and wildlife, less wilderness, less nature, less beauty. Does anyone question whether such trends diminish the quality of life for future generations? No, the problems caused by economic growth are unquestionable. It’s just that, for much of American history, the benefits of increasing GDP outweighed the costs. That’s no longer the case, and I’m confident that most of us can sense it.

In fact, the more I thought about this speech, the more amazed I became. Why did it take us so long, in America, to have an open discussion of limits to growth and alternatives to growth? The principles are irrefutable. Neither growth nor recession is sustainable in the long run; a steady state economy is the obvious policy for long-run security. Yet based on the politics of the past 50 years, you’d think economic growth had supplanted apple pie as the companion to motherhood.

Well, now we’re entering a new era of dealing squarely with sustainability. It turns out that economic growth was not a good companion to motherhood, not in the long run. We want apple pie back. We want loving homes for our children, quality time with family and friends, the occasional escape to the great outdoors, and peace. That’s the American dream in a nutshell, and it’s too valuable to sacrifice for economic growth.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and wash our hands of the dirty business of growth at all costs. We know what the right goal is, and malaise won’t get us there. We have work to do to stabilize the economy for our children and grandchildren. Our decisions — what we eat, what we drive, what we build, and frankly how many kids we have — all these will determine the quality of life for the kids that we do have. Meanwhile, those of us privileged to hold public office are responsible for developing the policies to help you thrive in a steady state economy, and for avoiding the policies that force us onto an unsustainable pathway of evermore growth. You could say we are tasked now with “steady statesmanship.”

To conclude, my fellow Americans, do stay tuned. In the coming days and weeks we’ll be discussing the details of transitioning from growth to a steady state. We’ll be talking with you about employment, population growth, stock markets, the banking system, and more. Don’t fear any shocks to the system; you’ve seen most of the shocks already as the policies of economic growth have failed. One by one, we’re going to turn these “failures” into steady state successes.

Meanwhile, good night, and God bless America.

President Obama’s (Hoped For) “Amaze Speech”

Head Speechwriter: Brian Czech

Fellow Americans, this evening I have a special message for you. It’s an unprecedented and surprising message, but ultimately it will resonate with your common sense, good will, and patriotic spirit. It turns out that the recessionary cloud we’re under does have an extremely valuable silver lining. I know; it sounds like something only a politician would say, but wait. I think you’ll be surprised to hear my explanation.

Now before I elaborate on the silver lining, I want to make it clear that the cloud has some rain, too. As a nation, we are struggling with debt, credit ratings, and worst of all, the painful experience of unemployment. The last thing I want is to mislead you into thinking these are problems I take lightly, or problems that will be automatically solved by the markets or policy makers. These problems were many years in the making — decades in fact — and it’s going to take years of diligence and readjustment to solve them.

Yet none of these problems can deny us the silver lining, which is this: the economic turmoil we experience today will change the course of history in such a way as to secure the future for American posterity, starting with our children and grandchildren. Let me reiterate, our own kids and grandkids — the most precious American treasure — will have a secure future as a result of the problems we face today. Here’s why…

Far from the trading floors of Wall Street and the policy meetings of the Federal Reserve, crucial discoveries have been made by scientists, economists, anthropologists, historians, and others collaborating under a broad umbrella called “sustainability science.” No, they haven’t discovered an unlimited energy source, a pollution-free car, or a method to stabilize our climate at optimum conditions. They’ve discovered something far more important and exciting: the key to permanent economic security.

For the past few years, as time has allowed, I and my economic advisors, with the assistance of numerous scholars, have studied this key to economic security. The theory and evidence for it is absolutely irrefutable. The only reason this key to security hasn’t broken into public dialog is because it serves no short-term vested interests; no wealthy corporations, think tanks, or political parties that would stand to profit before the next shareholders meeting or election cycle. But that’s also the beauty of it: the key to security is a non-partisan, scientifically sound approach to the long-run interests of all, especially our kids and grandkids. Fortunately for us, it’s surprisingly simple as well.

What is this key to a secure future? We could coin a new phrase to get credit for the idea or to improve its political flavor, but I believe the clearest term is what the scientists already call it: the “steady state economy.” Political advisors think it’s a bit on the dry side, but after what we’ve been through – stock market crashes, insurance crises, banker bailouts, panic over the debt ceiling, having our credit downgraded — doesn’t a “steady state economy” sound like just what the doctor ordered?

In the coming weeks and months, I and my Cabinet will be helping to introduce fellow Americans to the basics of steady state economics, especially what it means for producers, consumers, and public policy. We’ll do this through a series of public announcements, publications, and townhall meetings. Meanwhile, this evening, I’ll provide a brief summary, first by noting what a steady state economy is not.

A steady state economy is not communism, Marxism, or anything at odds with the Constitution of the United States. A steady state economy is not a stagnant, flat-lined economy but is rather continuously dynamic and creative. A steady state economy is not established overnight with draconian policies; instead it evolves as a matter of consumer preference and prudent policy. Most importantly, a steady state economy is in no way opposed to jobs and full employment. To the contrary, a steady state economy is the only economy that can ensure full employment, for your kids and theirs.

The most fundamental feature of the steady state economy is stability. The idea is to stabilize good conditions; stable agriculture, stable manufacturing, stable services, stable production and consumption, stable currency, stable markets, stable international trade, stable impact on the environment, stable air and water, stable climate… You get the picture, and remember, all this stability is at a good level — a level that ensures life, liberty and happiness for us and future generations. At this point in history, the steady state economy is the right goal, and the first step in getting there is recognizing it.

Perhaps you find this amazing. I think you should be amazed. After all, I haven’t said a word about economic growth; in fact I’ve called growth into question. The closest thing to this in presidential history is when President Carter encouraged Americans to consume a little less after the OPEC oil embargo. But President Carter was before his time, and his speech was maligned as the “malaise speech.”

Well, at this point in history, we can no longer afford — literally or figuratively — to pull out all the stops for economic growth. Therefore, tonight you’re hearing the “amaze speech,” the speech that introduces our nation to steady state economics, the alternative to growth.

I understand the adjustment in thinking that this will entail. I’ve gone through it myself. With the exception of President Carter in 1979, my predecessors for over 50 years have prioritized economic growth in their speeches, campaigns, and policies. None even mentioned steady state economics in a speech. Yet with every new president, the pursuit of economic growth has become less realistic, less sustainable, and even less desirable.

Earlier I mentioned the profound developments in sustainability science. Among the sustainability scholars are behavioral scientists and psychologists who have found compelling evidence that economic growth stopped contributing to a happier United States somewhere from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. After that, our gross domestic product continued to rise, but our happiness did not. If you’re like me — meaning old enough to remember — this probably resonates with you. Somewhere along the line the brighter lights, bigger houses and fancier cars stopped making us better off. In fact, all the new “stuff” started working against us. Now we struggle to find enough oil, water, “green space,” solitude, free time, and the peace of mind that comes with a stable climate. It’s all the sign of an economy grown too big.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I think we’ve all done some crazy things in life, but I don’t want to go down in history as the insane president who kept trying every trick in the book to “stimulate the economy,” when stimulating the economy was neither bound to work nor even desirable by that point in history. I don’t want to oversee more banker bailouts, more stimulus spending, more loosening of environmental protections in a vain attempt to increase GDP growth. That would be insane. Instead, I’m going to tell it like it is: the pursuit of economic growth has become a dangerous obsession that we must overcome. I say this with the backing of sound science, the lessons I’ve learned, and the concern I have for the future of America.

I’m going to test your common sense now. Do you think there is a limit to economic growth? Remember, economic growth is increasing production and consumption of goods and services. It means more and more people, more and more stuff. It takes more energy, water, space to operate in, and places to put out the trash.

Now as a politician, I can assure you that, in the coming days, well-paid pundits will conjure up magical concepts of perpetual growth based on “dematerializing” the economy. Well when they’re ready to dematerialize it, maybe they can beam us up. Meanwhile, the rest of us in the real economy know what perpetual GDP growth would take: evermore people, evermore stuff. And we know we’re running out of evermore room, resources, and patience for unreal notions of evermore growth.

I know that for some, and perhaps for many, this is hard to swallow. For decades we Americans have been encouraged to believe in the notion of continual economic growth. But look at it this way: to think there is no limit to economic growth on Earth is like thinking we could fit a stabilized economy into a perpetually shrinking area. For example, with computers, robots, nanotechnology and the like, we could squish the $70 trillion global economy into North America, then the United States, then Iowa, then into the foyer of the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, leaving the rest of the world as a designated wilderness area! It’s a ludicrous notion, and it’s precisely as ludicrous as thinking there’s no limit to economic growth in Des Moines, the United States, or Earth.

Now, let’s consider some of the problems we will face if we continue pulling out all the stops for economic growth. The first is inflation. Typically we use monetary policy — such as increasing the money supply — to stimulate growth. But when the real economy isn’t meant to grow as easily as increasing the money supply, the result is inflation. Nothing could be more harmful to our economy at this point than inflation, which is like a devastating tax on the nation.

Another problem is debt. As you know, my Administration injected a major fiscal stimulus into the economy. It helped somewhat and spun off some jobs, but it did not produce the wave of jobs we’d get in an economy with plenty of room to grow. Meanwhile, it added to our deficit and ultimately our debt. Now our credit is coming into question, as with so many nations in a global economy bumping up against the limits to growth.

Of course, there is no shortage of special interests to pounce on the news of faltering fiscal policy. The answer, they say, is to turn over as much as possible to Wall Street. “Take care of national security,” they say, “and let the markets take care of the economy.” The problem with that approach is that national security is about more than having the biggest military. National security starts with a sustainable economy, which requires a stable environment to support the agricultural, fishing, logging, mining, and ranching activities that have always been and always will be the foundation of the American and global economy. Our manufacturing and service sectors — the best in the world — are the best because we have the biggest and best agricultural and extractive sectors. And we have those because we have protected the environment from overuse, pollution, and displacement.

Consider what will happen if we take an unbalanced approach and prioritize economic growth even more over environmental protection. Does anyone really question whether we will have more environmental problems, including devastating problems? More oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of Alaska, more mountaintop mining in the Appalachians, more scraping for shale oil in the Rockies, more nuclear waste, more endangered species, more greenhouse gas emissions, and all the while less water, less fish and wildlife, less wilderness, less nature, less beauty. Does anyone question whether such trends diminish the quality of life for future generations? No, the problems caused by economic growth are unquestionable. It’s just that, for much of American history, the benefits of increasing GDP outweighed the costs. That’s no longer the case, and I’m confident that most of us can sense it.

In fact, the more I thought about this speech, the more amazed I became. Why did it take us so long, in America, to have an open discussion of limits to growth and alternatives to growth? The principles are irrefutable. Neither growth nor recession is sustainable in the long run; a steady state economy is the obvious policy for long-run security. Yet based on the politics of the past 50 years, you’d think economic growth had supplanted apple pie as the companion to motherhood.

Well, now we’re entering a new era of dealing squarely with sustainability. It turns out that economic growth was not a good companion to motherhood, not in the long run. We want apple pie back. We want loving homes for our children, quality time with family and friends, the occasional escape to the great outdoors, and peace. That’s the American dream in a nutshell, and it’s too valuable to sacrifice for economic growth.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and wash our hands of the dirty business of growth at all costs. We know what the right goal is, and malaise won’t get us there. We have work to do to stabilize the economy for our children and grandchildren. Our decisions — what we eat, what we drive, what we build, and frankly how many kids we have — all these will determine the quality of life for the kids that we do have. Meanwhile, those of us privileged to hold public office are responsible for developing the policies to help you thrive in a steady state economy, and for avoiding the policies that force us onto an unsustainable pathway of evermore growth. You could say we are tasked now with “steady statesmanship.”

To conclude, my fellow Americans, do stay tuned. In the coming days and weeks we’ll be discussing the details of transitioning from growth to a steady state. We’ll be talking with you about employment, population growth, stock markets, the banking system, and more. Don’t fear any shocks to the system; you’ve seen most of the shocks already as the policies of economic growth have failed. One by one, we’re going to turn these “failures” into steady state successes.

Meanwhile, good night, and God bless America.

A Liberating (but Damned Uncomfortable) Conversion

by Herman Daly

Foreword to Wendell Berry’s What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth

Herman DalyAs a poet, novelist, essayist, farmer, and thinker on matters agrarian, Wendell Berry needs no introduction. But he is not a professional economist, not a guild member with a Ph.D. union card. Nor does he claim to be such. In a world where knowledge is organized by discipline and professionalized in tight circles, it is often hard to be heard outside the circumference of one’s own silo. Therefore I fear that the very people for whom reading these essays would be most beneficial, and through whom they could have the most salutary impact on our ailing world, will simply not read them. I can imagine some of my university colleagues and students in economics departments asking: Why should I read a book by a noneconomist on “economics for a renewed commonwealth”? There likely won’t be a single equation in the book, and use of the archaic word “commonwealth” betrays a probable lack of understanding of the individualistic basis of neoclassical economic theory. Economists don’t write poetry or fiction (well, maybe a bit of the latter, but not on purpose), so let not poets or agrarian-environmentalist- localists write about the sophisticated technical science of economics in a globalized industrial growth economy. Leave it to the experts to continue to grow the economy and thereby provide the only possible solution to the problems of poverty, energy, and climate change. I can hear it now, complete with aggrieved intonation.

My purpose in this foreword is therefore to preemptively reply to this imagined but not unlikely invitation for Wendell to shut up. I want to explain why it is critically important for all citizens, especially professional economists, to read and reflect deeply on the essays in this book. Yet I understand the reluctance of someone with the commitments sketched above to give these essays a fair reading. To do so is to run a serious risk of conversion away from the dominant idolatry of our culture—a liberating conversion to be sure, but damned uncomfortable.

What do we economists have to learn from Wendell Berry? Many things, but here I will mention only two. First is a definitional correction regarding the basic nature of our subject matter—exactly what reality matters most to our economic life and why? Second, what mode of thinking does this reality require of us in order to understand it as well as possible, without seducing us into spurious substitutes for honest ignorance?

The definitional correction goes back to Aristotle and, while somewhat retained by the classical economists, seems to have been dropped from the current neoclassical canon. Aristotle distinguished “oikonomia” from “chrematistics.” Oikonomia is the science or art of efficiently producing, distributing, and maintaining concrete use values for the household and community over the long run. Chrematistics is the art of maximizing the accumulation by individuals of abstract exchange value in the form of money in the short run. Although our word “economics” is derived from oikonomia, its present meaning is much closer to chrematistics. The word chrematistics is currently relegated to unabridged dictionaries, but the reality to which it refers is everywhere present and is frequently and incorrectly called economics. Wendell Berry is, I believe, urging us to correct our definition of economics by restoring to it the meaning of oikonomia and freeing it from confusion with, and excessive devotion to, chrematistics. In replacing chrematistics by oikonomia we not only refocus on a different reality but also embrace the purposes served within that different reality—community, frugality, efficiency, and long-term stewardship of particular places.

Where today do we find chrematistics masquerading as economics? Certainly in the recent Wall Street fiasco—“selling a bet on a debt [as] an asset” as Wendell succinctly put it. It is amazing that people who have recently engaged in this disastrous stupidity on such a massive scale still have any credibility at all! Yet belief in “free markets” as the philosopher’s stone that alchemically transmutes the dross of chrematistics into the gold of oikonomia remains strong.

Other examples of chrematistics at work include monopoly pricing, tax evasion, subsidies, rent seeking, forced mobility of labor, cheap labor from union busting and illegal immigration, off-shoring, mergers, hostile takeovers, usury, and bullying litigation—not to mention the airlines’ successful shifting on to their customers the labor previously done by former travel agents, check-in clerks, and baggage handlers. Externalizing environmental costs—shifting the cost of depletion and pollution from the producer to the general public, the future, and other species—is probably the most common and most disastrous chrematistic maneuver. The unaccounted costs range from irksome noise, to mountaintop removal and filling up of valleys with toxic tailings, to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, to global climate change and species extinction. Confusing oikonomia and chrematistics, misdefining the proper subject matter of economics, has deadly consequences. In the face of all this it is hard to remember that there are still some people doing useful work and creating wealth to really benefit the community. Chrematistics has not entirely displaced oikonomia, but it is trying to. In Wendell’s terms the little economy is trying to impose its puny logic on the mysteries and complexities of the Great Economy.

Professional economists should thank Wendell for his sharp reminder about what matters. However, if we are too proud to accept correction from a poet and agrarian, we can claim to have rediscovered Aristotle’s forgotten definitions all by ourselves. But then we will still be obliged to apply those definitions to the modern world and be brought face to face with the collective fantasy, idiocy, and horror that Wendell has identified and discussed.

The other thing economists can learn from Wendell Berry, as much from his example as from explicit discussion, has to do with the proper matching of our mode of thinking to the particular reality we are thinking about, and inevitably shaping. Blaise Pascal spoke of two modes of thinking: the “spirit of geometry” and the “spirit of finesse.” Similarly, economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen recently distinguished thinking with precisely defined analytic concepts that do not overlap with their other, from thinking with dialectical concepts that do overlap with their other at the boundaries. The best example of an analytic concept is a number. It is only itself and does not overlap with any other number. Land and sea would be dialectical concepts because, although for the most part distinct, they must overlap in tidal marshlands, estuaries, beaches, river deltas, or even the continental shelf, if they are to reflect reality. Each of these border areas in some reasonable sense is both land and sea—a logical contradiction but true to reality. Money is a notoriously dialectical concept, overlapping with nonmonetary assets of varying degrees of liquidity. When economists try to impose an analytical definition on money they end up multiplying categories (M1, M2, M3 . . .) or failing to capture the shaded subtleties of the borderlands. Analytical concepts employ mathematics to weed out contradictions where “yes-and-no” answers are not allowed. The virtue demanded by analytic thought is rigor; its defect is its inability to deal with qualitative change and evolution. If we do not allow something to overlap with its other then how could it ever evolve into anything different from what it is? The virtue of dialectical thinking is that it can accommodate qualitative change—what used to be dry land can gradually become sea or vice versa. Its defect is that it has to tolerate at least a range of contradiction. The virtue demanded by dialectical thought is good judgment, or as Pascal preferred, “finesse”—finesse in handling contradiction.

Today analytic thought is very much in vogue, and in economics quite dominant. It has the aura of science. Analytic thinking requires a reality that is like a number, and since chrematistics is about the maximization of exchange value numerically measured by money, it tends to attract those with a strong prior commitment to analytical thinking. Dialectical thinking is required by a reality that changes qualitatively through overlapping categories. Oikonomia deals with use values that are embodied in products that evolve over the long run to serve changing wants, and with changing technical efficiency in an evolving community that coheres around values that also change. A preference for dialectical thinking leads to a focus on oikonomia, and vice versa.

My point is not to say that one mode of thought is good and the other bad. Both are clearly necessary. There is a limit to what we can do with numbers, just as there is a limit to what we can do without them. But I do suggest that there is currently a bias toward the analytical and a corresponding prejudice against the dialectical. This quantitative bias is certainly not the only reason for the excessive importance given to chrematistics over oikonomia—greed, avarice, and intellectual sloth play a bigger role—but I think it is a contributing factor. In sum, the second thing that economists can learn from Wendell Berry’s essays is that clear-headed reasoning with dialectical concepts about what matters is possible, necessary, and enlightening. Here Wendell persuades by example.

When a problem yields neither to the spirit of geometry nor to the spirit of finesse, Wendell advises us to be more at home with ignorance and mystery. They are much better companions than either phony equations or empty verbiage, and more congenial to a creature trying to understand the overall workings of Creation and intuit the will of the Creator whose broken image he still bears.

In my eagerness to convince my fellow economists to read this book, I am afraid that I have failed to specifically address the general reader. So, dear general reader, for whom Wendell Berry wrote these essays, let me assure you that if you have read this far, you have gotten through the most obscure and convoluted part of the book. The rest is smooth sailing with a clear-headed and trustworthy navigator, albeit through deep waters. The essays require wakeful attention and focused thought, but priestly intermediation by professional experts is surely not needed.

Real Economies and the Illusions of Abstraction

by Hazel Henderson © 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is a “Green Economy?”

Herman DalyA green economy is an economy that imitates green plants as far as possible. Plants use scarce terrestrial materials to capture abundant solar energy, and are careful to recycle the materials for reuse. Although humans are not able to photosynthesize, we can imitate the strategy of maximizing use of the sun while economizing on terrestrial minerals, fossil fuels, and ecological services. Ever since the industrial revolution our strategy has been the opposite. Fortunately, as economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen noted, we have not yet learned how to mine the sun and use up tomorrow’s solar energy for today’s growth. But we can mine the earth and use up tomorrow’s fossil fuels, minerals, and waste absorption capacities today. We have eagerly done this to grow the economy, but have neglected the fact that the costs of doing so have surpassed the benefits – that is to say, growth has actually become uneconomic.

In spite of the fact that green plants have no brains, they have managed to avoid the error of becoming dependent on the less abundant source of available energy. A green economy must do likewise – seek to maximize use of the abundant flow of solar low entropy and economize on the scarce stock of terrestrial low entropy. Specifically, a green economy would invest scarce terrestrial minerals in things like windmills, photovoltaic cells, and plows (or seed drills) – not squander them on armaments, Cadillacs, and manned space stunts. A green economy can be sufficient, sustainable, and even wealthy, but it cannot be a growth-based economy. A green economy must seek to develop qualitatively without growing quantitatively – to get better without getting bigger.

There is another kind of green economy that seeks to be green after the manner of greenback dollars, rather than green plants. Green dollars, unlike green plants, cannot photosynthesize. But dollars can miraculously be created out of nothing and grow exponentially at compound interest in banks. However, Aristotle noted that this kind of growth is very suspect, because money has no reproductive organs. Unlike green plants, green money seeks to grow forever in the realm of abstract exchange value, even as we encounter limits to growth in the realm of the concrete use values for which money is supposed to be an honest token and symbol.

Recently we have grown, or rather “swollen”, by expanding the symbolic realm of finance. Debt is a mere number (like negative pigs) and can easily grow faster than the real wealth (positive pigs), by which it is expected to be redeemed. Wall Street has bought and sold an astronomical number of negative pigs-in-a-poke – they have “sold bets on debts and called them assets”, as Wendell Berry succinctly put it. We have recently experienced the failure of this fraudulent attempt to force expansion. Yet we have so far been unable to imagine any policy other than restarting the old growth economy for another round. After the next crisis we should try to avoid the Ponzi scheme of growth and build a steady state economy – a green economy that is sustainable, just, and sufficient for a good life.