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

by James Magnus-Johnston

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Krugman’s Growthism

by Herman Daly

Herman Daly


Paul Krugman often writes sensibly and cogently about economic policy. But like many economists, he can become incoherent on the subject of growth. Consider his New York Times piece, published earlier this month:


…let’s talk for a minute about the overall relationship between economic growth and the environment.

Other things equal, more G.D.P. tends to mean more pollution. What transformed China into the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases? Explosive economic growth. But other things don’t have to be equal. There’s no necessary one-to-one relationship between growth and pollution.

People on both the left and the right often fail to understand this point…On the left, you sometimes find environmentalists asserting that to save the planet we must give up on the idea of an ever-growing economy; on the right, you often find assertions that any attempt to limit pollution will have devastating impacts on growth…[Krugman says both are wrong]…But there’s no reason we can’t become richer while reducing our impact on the environment [emphasis mine].

Krugman distances himself from “leftist” environmentalists who say we must give up the idea of an ever-growing economy, and is himself apparently unwilling to give it up. But he thinks the “right-wingers” are wrong to believe that protecting the environment will devastate growth. Krugman then advocates the more sensible goal of “becoming richer,” but fails to ask if growth in GDP is any longer really making us richer. He seems to equate, or at least fails to distinguish, “growing GDP” from “becoming richer.” Does he assume that because GDP growth did make us richer in yesterday’s empty world it must still do so in today’s full world? The usual but unjustified assumption of many economists is that a growing GDP increases measured wealth by more than it increases unmeasured “illth” (a word coined by John Ruskin to designate the opposite of wealth).

To elaborate, illth is a joint product with wealth. At the current margin, it is likely that the GDP flow component of “bads” adds to the stock of “illth” faster than the GDP flow of goods adds to the stock of wealth. We fail to measure bads and illth because there is no demand for them, consequently no market and no price, so there is no easy measure of negative value. However, what is unmeasured does not for that reason become unreal. It continues to exist, and even grow. Since we do not measure illth, I cannot prove that growth is currently making us poorer, any more than Krugman can prove that it is making us richer. I am just pointing out that his GDP growthism assumes a proposition that, while true in the past, is very doubtful today in the US.

To see why it is doubtful, just consider a catalog of negative joint products whose value should be measured under the rubric of illth: climate change from excess carbon in the atmosphere; radioactive wastes and risks of nuclear power plants; biodiversity loss; depleted mines; deforestation; eroded topsoil; dry wells, rivers and aquifers; the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico; gyres of plastic trash in the oceans; the ozone hole; exhausting and dangerous labor; and the un-repayable debt from trying to push growth in the symbolic financial sector beyond what is possible in the real sector (not to mention military expenditures to maintain access to global resources).

Deforestation–one of the many “illths” created by continual GDP growth

These negative joint products of GDP growth go far beyond Krugman’s minimal nondescript category of “pollution.” Not only are these public bads un-subtracted, but the private anti-bads they make necessary are added to GDP! For example, the bad of eroded topsoil is not subtracted, but the anti-bad of fertilizer is added. The bad of Gulf and Arctic oil spills is not subtracted, but the anti-bad of clean-up is added. The natural capital depletion of mines, wells, forests, and fisheries is falsely accounted as income rather than capital draw-down.

Such asymmetric accounting alone is sufficient to refute growthism, but for good measure note that the growthists also neglect the most basic laws of economics, namely, the diminishing marginal benefit of income and increasing marginal cost of production. Why do they think these two curves will never intersect? Is Krugman just advocating temporary growth up to some level of optimality or sufficiency, or an ever-growing economy? If the latter, then either the surface of the Earth must grow at a rate approximating the rate of interest, or real GDP must become “angel GDP” with no physical dimension.

Krugman is correct that that there is no necessary “one-to-one relationship between growth and pollution.” But there certainly is a very strong positive correlation between real GDP growth and resource throughput (the entropic physical flow that begins with depletion and ends with pollution). Since when do economists dismiss significant correlations just because they are not “one-to-one”?

Probably we could indeed become richer (increase net wealth) while reducing our impact on the environment, as Krugman hopes. But it will be by reducing uneconomic growth (in throughput and its close correlate, GDP) rather than by increasing it. I would be glad if this were what Krugman has in mind, but I doubt that it is.

In any case, it would be good if he would specify whether he thinks current growth in real GDP is still economic in the literal sense that its benefits exceed its costs at the margin. What specifically makes him think this is so? In other words, is GDP growth currently making us richer or poorer, and how do we know?

Since GDP is a conflation of both costly and beneficial activity, should we not separate the cost and benefit items into separate accounts and compare them at the margin, instead of adding them together? How do we know that growth in GDP is a sensible goal if we do not know if the associated benefits are growing more or less rapidly than the associated costs? Mainstream economists, including Krugman, need to free their thinking from dogmatic GDP growthism.

Nationalize Money, Not Banks

by Herman Daly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eight Fallacies about Growth

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyOne thing the Democrats and Republicans will agree on in the current U.S. presidential campaign is that economic growth is our number one goal and is the basic solution to all problems. The idea that growth could conceivably cost more than it is worth at the margin, and therefore become uneconomic in the literal sense, will not be considered. But, aside from political denial, why do people (frequently economists) not understand that continuous growth of the economy (measured by either real GDP or resource throughput) could in theory, and probably has in fact, become uneconomic? What is it that confuses them?

Here are eight likely reasons for confusion.

1. One can nearly always find something whose growth would be both desirable and possible. For example, we need more bicycles and can produce more bicycles. More bicycles means growth. Therefore growth is both good and possible. QED.

However, this confuses aggregate growth with reallocation. Aggregate growth refers to growth in everything: bicycles, cars, houses, ships, cell phones, and so on. Aggregate growth is growth in scale of the economy, the size of real GDP, which is a value-based index of aggregate production and consequently of the total resource throughput required by that production. In the simplest case of aggregate growth everything produced goes up by the same percentage. Reallocation, by contrast, means that some things go up while others go down, the freed-up resources from the latter are transferred to the former. The fact that reallocation remains possible and desirable does not mean that aggregate growth is possible and desirable. The fact that you can reallocate the weight in a boat more efficiently does not mean that there is no Plimsoll Line. Too much weight will sink a boat even if it is optimally allocated. Efficient reallocation is good; the problem is aggregate growth.

Reallocation of production away from more resource-intensive goods to less resource-intensive goods (“decoupling”) is possible to some degree and often advocated, but is limited by two basic facts. First, the economy grows as an integrated whole, not as a loose aggregate of independently changeable sectors. A glance at the input-output table of an economy makes it clear that to increase output of any sector requires an increase in all the inputs to that sector from other sectors, and then increases of the inputs to those inputs, etc. Second, in addition to the input-output or supply interdependence of sectors there are demand constraints — people are just not interested in information services unless they first have enough food and shelter. So trying to cut the resource-intensive food and shelter part of GDP to reallocate to less resource-intensive information services in the name of decoupling GDP from resources, will simply result in a shortage of food and shelter, and a glut of information services.

Aggregate growth was no problem back when the world was relatively empty. But now the world is full, and aggregate growth likely costs more than it is worth, even though more bicycles (and less of something else) might still be possible and desirable. That should not be too hard to understand.

2. Another confusion is to argue that since GDP is measured in value terms, it is therefore not subject to physical limits. This is another argument given for easy “decoupling” of GDP from resource throughput. But growth refers to real GDP, which eliminates price level changes. Real GDP is a value-based index of aggregate quantitative change in real physical production. It is the best index we have of total resource throughput. The unit of measure of real GDP is not dollars, but rather “dollar’s worth.” A dollar’s worth of gasoline is a physical quantity, currently about one-fourth of a gallon. The annual aggregate of all such dollar’s worth amounts of all final commodities is real GDP, and even though not expressible in a simple physical unit, it remains a physical aggregate and subject to physical limits. The price level and nominal GDP might grow forever (inflation), but not real GDP, and the latter is the accepted measure of aggregate growth. Most people can grasp this, and do not conceive of real GDP as trillions of dollar bills, or as ethereal, abstract, psychic, aggregated utility.

3. A more subtle confusion results from looking at past totals rather than present margins. Just look at the huge net benefits of past growth! How can anyone oppose growth when it has led to such enormous benefits? Well, there is a good reason: the net benefits of past growth reach a maximum precisely at the point where the rising marginal costs of growth equal the declining marginal benefits — that is to say, at precisely the point at which further growth ceases to be economic and becomes uneconomic! Before that point wealth grew faster than illth; beyond that point illth grows faster than wealth, making us poorer, not richer. No one is against being richer. No one denies that growth used to make us richer. The question is, does growth any longer make us richer, or is it now making us poorer?

To understand the question requires that we recognize that real GDP has a cost, that illth is a negative joint product with wealth. Examples of illth are everywhere and include: nuclear wastes, climate change from excess carbon in the atmosphere, biodiversity loss, depleted mines, eroded topsoil, dry wells and rivers, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, gyres of plastic trash in the oceans, the ozone hole, exhausting and dangerous labor, and the exploding un-repayable debt from trying to push growth in the symbolic financial sector beyond what is possible in the real sector. Since no one buys these annually produced bads (that accumulate into illth), they have no market prices, and since their implicit negative shadow values are hard to estimate in a way comparable to positive market prices, they are usually ignored, or mentioned and quickly forgotten.

The logic of maximization embodied in equating marginal cost with marginal benefit requires a moment’s thought for the average citizen to understand clearly, but surely it is familiar to anyone who has taken Econ 101.

4. Even if it is theoretically possible that the marginal cost of growth has become greater than the marginal benefit, there is no empirical evidence that this is so.  On the contrary, there is plenty of empirical evidence for anyone who has not been anesthetized by the official party line of Madison Avenue and Wall Street. As for empirical evidence of the statistical type, there are two independent sources that give the same basic answer. First are the objective measures that separate GDP sub-accounts into costs and benefits and then subtract the costs from GDP to approximate net benefits of growth. The Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) and its later modifications into the General Progress Indicator (GPI) both indicate that, for the US and some other wealthy countries, GDP and GPI were positively correlated up until around 1980, after which GPI leveled off and GDP continued to rise. In other words, increasing throughput as measured by real GDP no longer increased welfare as measured by GPI. A similar disconnect is confirmed using the different measure of self-evaluated happiness. Self-reported happiness increases with per capita GDP up to a level of around $20,000 per year, and then stops rising. The interpretation given is that while absolute real income is important for happiness up to some sufficient point, beyond that point happiness is overwhelmingly a function of the quality of relationships by which our very identity is constituted. Friendships, marriage and family, social stability, trust, fairness, etc. — not per capita GDP — are the overwhelming determinants of happiness at the present margin, especially in high-income countries. If we sacrifice friendships, social stability, family time, environmental services, and trust for the sake of labor mobility, a second job, and quarterly financial returns, we often reduce happiness while increasing GDP. Relative income gains may still increase individual happiness even when increases in absolute income no longer do, but aggregate growth is powerless to increase everyone’s relative income because we cannot all be above average. Beyond some sufficiency, growth in GDP no longer increases either self-evaluated happiness or measured economic welfare, but it continues to increase costs of depletion, pollution, congestion, stress, etc. Why do most economists resist the very idea that we might have reached this point? Why do they resist measuring the costs of growth, and then claim that “there is no empirical evidence” for what is common experience? Read on.

5. Many believe that the way we measure GDP automatically makes its growth a trustworthy guide to economic policy.  To be counted in GDP, there must be a market transaction, and that implies a willing buyer and seller, neither of whom would have made the transaction if it did not make them better off in their own judgment. Ergo, growth in GDP must be good or it would not have happened. The problem here is that there are many third parties who are affected by many transactions, but did not agree to them. These external costs (or sometimes benefits) are not counted in GDP. Who are these third parties? The public in general, but more specifically the poor who lack the money to express their preferences in the market, future generations who cannot bid in present markets, and other species who have no influence on markets at all.

In addition, GDP, the largest component of which is National Income, counts consumption of natural capital as income. Counting capital consumption as income is the cardinal sin of accounting. Cut down the entire forest this year and sell it, and the entire amount is treated as this year’s income. Pump all the petroleum and sell it, and add that to this year’s income. But income in economics is by definition the maximum amount that a community can produce and consume this year, and still be able to produce and consume the same amount next year. In other words income is the maximum consumption that still leaves intact the capacity to produce the same amount next year. Only the sustainable yield of forests, fisheries, croplands, and livestock herds is this year’s income — the rest is capital needed to reproduce the same yield next year. Consuming capital means reduced production and consumption in the future. Income is by definition sustainable; capital consumption is not. The whole historical reason for income accounting is to avoid impoverishment by inadvertent consumption of capital. By contrast our national accounting tends to encourage capital consumption (at least consumption of natural capital), first by counting it in GDP, and then claiming that whatever increases GDP is good!

As already noted we fail to subtract negative by-products (external costs) from GDP on the grounds that they have no market price since obviously no one wants to buy bads. But people do buy anti-bads, and we count those expenditures. For example, the costs of pollution (a bad) are not subtracted, but the expenditures on pollution clean-up (an anti-bad) are added. This is asymmetric accounting — adding anti-bads without having subtracted the bads that made the anti-bads necessary in the first place. The more bads, the more anti-bads, and the greater is GDP — wheel spinning registered as forward motion.

There are other problems with GDP but these should be enough to refute the mistaken idea that if something is not a net benefit it would not have been counted in GDP, so therefore GDP growth must always be good. Lots of people have for a long time been making these criticisms of GDP. They have not been refuted — just ignored!

6. Knowledge is the ultimate resource and since knowledge growth is infinite it can fuel economic growth without limit.  I am eager for knowledge to substitute physical resources to the extent possible, and consequently advocate both taxes to make resources expensive and patent reform to make knowledge cheap. But if I am hungry I want real food on the plate, not the knowledge of a thousand recipes on the Internet. Furthermore, the basic renewability of ignorance makes me doubt that knowledge can save the growth economy. Ignorance is renewable mainly because ignorant babies replace learned elders every generation. In addition, vast amounts of recorded knowledge are destroyed by fires, floods, and bookworms. Modern digital storage does not seem to be immune to these teeth of time, or to that new bookworm, the computer virus. To be effective in the world, knowledge must exist in someone’s mind (not just in the library or on the Internet) — otherwise it is inert. And even when knowledge increases, it does not grow exponentially like money in the bank. Some old knowledge is disproved or cancelled out by new knowledge, and some new knowledge is discovery of new biophysical or social limits to growth.

New knowledge must always be something of a surprise — if we could predict its content then we would have to know it already, and it would not really be new. Contrary to common expectation, new knowledge is not always a pleasant surprise for the growth economy — frequently it is bad news. For example, climate change from greenhouse gases was recently new knowledge, as was discovery of the ozone hole. How can one appeal to new knowledge as the panacea when the content of new knowledge must of necessity be a surprise? Of course we may get lucky with new knowledge, but should we borrow against that uncertainty? Why not count the chickens after they hatch?

7. Without growth we are condemned to unemployment. The Full Employment Act of 1946 declared full employment to be a major goal of U.S. policy. Economic growth was then seen as the means to attain full employment. Today that relation has been inverted — economic growth has become the end.  If the means to attain that end — automation, off-shoring, excessive immigration — result in unemployment, well that is the price “we” just have to pay for the supreme goal of growth. If we really want full employment we must reverse this inversion of ends and means. We can serve the goal of full employment by restricting automation, off-shoring, and immigration work permits to periods of true domestic labor shortage as indicated by high and rising wages. Real wages have been falling for decades, yet our corporations, hungry for cheaper labor, keep bleating about a labor shortage. They mean a shortage of cheap labor in the service of growing profits. Actually a labor shortage in a capitalist economy with 80% of the population earning wages is not a bad thing. How else will wages and standard of living for that 80% ever increase unless there is a shortage of labor? What the corporations really want is a surplus of labor, and falling wages. With surplus labor wages cannot rise and therefore all the gains from productivity increases will go to profit, not wages. Hence the elitist support for uncontrolled automation, off-shoring, and immigration.

8. We live in a globalized economy and have no choice but to compete in the global growth race. Not so! Globalization was a policy choice of our elites, not an imposed necessity. Free trade agreements had to be negotiated. Who negotiated and signed the treaties? Who has pushed for free capital mobility and signed on to the World Trade Organization? Who wants to enforce trade-related intellectual property rights with trade sanctions? The Bretton Woods system was a major achievement aimed at facilitating international trade after WWII. It fostered trade for mutual advantage among separate countries. Free capital mobility and global integration were not part of the deal. That came with the WTO and the effective abandonment by the World Bank and IMF of their Bretton Woods charter. Globalization is the engineered integration of many formerly relatively independent national economies into a single tightly bound global economy organized around absolute, not comparative, advantage. Once a country has been sold on free trade and free capital mobility it has effectively been integrated into the global economy and is no longer free not to specialize and trade. Yet all of the theorems in economics about the gains from trade assume that trade is voluntary. How can trade be voluntary if you are so specialized as to be no longer free not to trade? Countries can no longer account for social and environmental costs and internalize them in their prices unless all other countries do so, and to the same degree. To integrate the global omelet you must disintegrate the national eggs. While nations have many sins to atone for, they remain the main locus of community and policy-making authority. It will not do to disintegrate them in the name of abstract “globalism,” even though we certainly require some global federation of national communities. But when nations disintegrate there will be nothing left to federate in the interest of legitimately global purposes. “Globalization” (national disintegration) was an actively pursued policy, not an inertial force of nature. It was done to increase the power and growth of transnational corporations by moving them out from under the authority of nation states and into a non-existent “global community.” It can be undone, as is currently being contemplated by some in the European Union, often heralded as the forerunner of more inclusive globalization.

If the growth boosters will make a sincere effort to overcome these eight fallacies, then maybe we can have a productive dialogue about whether or not what used to be economic growth has now become uneconomic growth, and what to do about it. Until these eight fallacies have been addressed, it is probably not worth extending the list. It is too much to hope that the issue of uneconomic growth will make it into the 2012 election, but maybe 2016, or 2020, …or sometime? One can hope. But hope must embrace not just a better understanding regarding these confusions, but also more love and care for our fellow humans, and for all of Creation. Our decision-making elites may tacitly understand that growth has become uneconomic. But they have also 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 GoldSacks and Wall Street — all sing hymns to growth in harmony with class interest and greed. The public is bamboozled by technical obfuscation, and by the false promise that, thanks to growth, they too will one day be rich. Intellectual confusion is real, but moral corruption fogs the discussion even more.

Uneconomic Growth Deepens Depression

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyThe US and Western Europe are in a recession threatening to become a depression as bad as that of the 1930s. Therefore we look to Keynesian policies as the cure, namely stimulate consumption and investment—that is, stimulate growth of the economy. It seemed to work in the past, so why not now? Should not ecological economics and steady-state ideas give way to Keynesian growth economics in view of the present crisis?

Certainly not! Why? Because we no longer live in the empty world of the 1930s — we live in a full world. Furthermore, in the 1930s the goal was full employment and growth was the means to it. Nowadays growth itself has become the goal and the means to it are off-shoring of jobs, automation, mergers, union busting, importing cheap labor, and other employment-cutting policies. The former goal of full employment has been sacrificed to the modern ideology of “growth in share holder value.”

Growth has filled the world with us and our products. I was born in 1938, and in my lifetime world population has tripled. That is unprecedented. But even more unprecedented is the growth in populations of artifacts — “our stuff” — cars, houses, livestock, refrigerators, TVs, cell phones, ships, airplanes, etc. These populations of things have vastly more than tripled. The matter-energy embodied in these living and nonliving populations was extracted from the ecosystem. The matter-energy required to maintain and replace these stocks also comes from the ecosystem. The populations or stocks of all these things have in common that they are what physicists call “dissipative structures” — i.e., their natural tendency, thanks to the entropy law, is to fall apart, to die, to dissipate. The dissipated matter-energy returns to the ecosystem as waste, to be reabsorbed by natural cycles or accumulated as pollution. All these dissipative structures exist in the midst of an entropic throughput of matter-energy that both depletes and pollutes the finite ecosphere of which the economy is a wholly contained subsystem. When the subsystem outgrows the regenerative capacity of the parent system then further growth becomes biophysically impossible.

But long before growth becomes impossible it becomes uneconomic — it begins to cost more than it is worth at the margin. We refer to growth in the economy as “economic growth,” — even after such growth has become uneconomic in the more basic sense of increasing illth faster than wealth. That is where we are now, but we are unable to recognize it.

Why this inability? Partly because our national accounting system, GDP, only measures “economic activity,” not true income, much less welfare. Rather than separate costs from benefits and compare them at the margin we just add up all final goods and services, including anti-bads (without subtracting the bads that made the anti-bad necessary). Also depletion of natural capital and natural services are counted as income, as are financial transactions that are nothing but bets on debts, and then further bets on those bets.

Also since no one wants to buy illth, it has no market price and is often ignored. But illth is a joint product with wealth and is everywhere: nuclear wastes, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, gyres of plastic trash in the oceans, the ozone hole, biodiversity loss, climate change from excess carbon in the atmosphere, depleted mines, eroded topsoil, dry wells, exhausting and dangerous labor, exploding debt, etc. Standard economists claim that the solution to poverty is more growth — without ever asking if growth still makes us richer, as it did back when the world was empty and the goal was full employment, rather than growth itself. Or has growth begun to make us poorer in a world that is now too full of us, and all our products, counted or not in GDP?

Does growth now increase illth faster than wealth? This is a threatening question, because if growth has become uneconomic then the solution to poverty becomes sharing now, not growth in the future. Sharing is frequently referred to as “class warfare.” But it is really the alternative to the class warfare that will result from the current uneconomic growth in which the dwindling benefits are privatized to the elite, while the exploding costs are socialized to the poor, the future, and to other species.

Finally, I eagerly submit that even if we limit quantitative physical throughput (growth) it should still be possible to experience qualitative improvement (development) thanks to technological advance and to ethical improvement of our priorities. I think therefore we should urge policies to limit the quantitative growth of throughput, thereby raising resource prices, in order to increase resource efficiency, to force the path of progress from growth to development, from bigger to better, and to stop the present folly of continuing uneconomic growth. A policy of quantitative limits on throughput (cap-auction-trade) will also block the erosion of initial resource savings resulting from efficiency improvements (the rebound effect or Jevons paradox). In addition the auction will raise much revenue and make it possible to tax value added (labor and capital) less because in effect we will have shifted the tax base to resource throughput. Value added is a good, so stop taxing it. Depletion and pollution, the two ends of the throughput, are bads, so tax them. If you are a technological optimist please have the courage of your convictions and join us in advocating policies that give incentive to the resource-saving technologies that you believe are within easy reach. You may be right — I hope you are. Let’s find out. If you turn out to be wrong, there is really no downside, because it was still necessary to limit throughput to avoid uneconomic growth.

Growth and Free Trade: Brain-Dead Dogmas Still Kicking Hard

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyThere are two dogmas that neoclassical economists must never publicly doubt lest they be defrocked by their professional priesthood: first, that growth in GDP is always good and is the solution to most problems; second, that free international trade is mutually beneficial thanks to the growth-promoting principle of comparative advantage. These two cracked pillars “support” nearly all the policy advice given by mainstream economists to governments.

Even such a clear thinker as Paul Krugman never allows his usually admirable New York Times column to question these most sacred of all tenets. And yet in less than 1,000 words the two dogmas can easily be shown to be wrong by just looking at observable facts and the first principles of classical economics. Pause, and calmly consider the following:

(1) Growth in all micro-economic units (firms and households) is subject to the “when to stop rule” of optimization, namely stop when rising marginal cost equals declining marginal benefit. Why does this not also apply to growth of the matter-energy throughput that sustains the macro-economy, the aggregate of all firms and households? And since real GDP is the best statistical index we have of aggregate throughput, why does it not roughly hold for growth in GDP? It must be because economists see the economy as the whole system, growing into the void — not as a subsystem of the finite and non-growing ecosphere from which the economy draws resources (depletion) and to which it returns wastes (pollution). When the economy grows in terms of throughput, or real GDP, it gets bigger relative to the ecosystem and displaces ever more vital ecosystem functions. Why do economists assume that it can never be too big, that such aggregate growth can never at the margin result in more illth than wealth? Perhaps illth is invisible because it has no market price. Yet, as a joint product of wealth, illth is everywhere: nuclear wastes, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, gyres of plastic trash in the oceans, the ozone hole, biodiversity loss, climate change from excess carbon in the atmosphere, depleted mines, eroded topsoil, dry wells, exhausting and dangerous labor, exploding debt, etc. Economists claim that the solution to poverty is more growth — without ever asking if growth still makes us richer, as it did back when the world was empty, or if it has begun to make us poorer in a world that is now too full of us and our stuff. This is a threatening question, because if growth has become uneconomic then the solution to poverty becomes sharing now, not growth in the future. Sharing is now called “class warfare.”

(2) Countries whose growth has pushed their ecological footprint beyond their geographic boundaries into the ecosystems of other countries are urged by mainline economists to continue to do so under the flag of free trade and specialization according to comparative advantage. Let the rest of the world export resources to us, and we will pay with exports of capital, patented technology, copyrighted entertainment, and financial services. Comparative advantage guarantees that we will all be better off (and grow more) if everyone specializes in producing and exporting only what they are relatively better at, and importing everything else. The logic of comparative advantage is impeccable, given its premises. However, one of its premises is that capital, while mobile within nations, does not flow between nations. But in today’s world capital is even more mobile between countries than goods, so it is absolute, not comparative advantage that really governs specialization and trade. Absolute advantage still yields gains from specialization and trade, but they need not be mutual as under comparative advantage — i.e., one country can lose while the other gains. “Free trade” really means “deregulated international commerce” — similar to deregulated finance in justification and effect. Furthermore, specialization, if carried too far, means that trade becomes a necessity. If a country specializes in producing only a few things then it must trade for everything else. Trade is no longer voluntary. If trade is not voluntary then there is no reason to expect it to be mutually beneficial, and another premise of free trade falls. If economists want to keep the world safe for free trade and comparative advantage they must limit capital mobility internationally; if they want to keep international capital mobility they must back away from comparative advantage and free trade. Which do they do? Neither. They seem to believe that if free trade in goods is beneficial, then by extension free trade in capital (and other factors) must be even more beneficial. And if voluntary trade is mutually beneficial, then what is the harm in making it obligatory? How does one argue with people who use the conclusion of an argument to deny the argument’s premises? Their illogic is invincible!

Like people who can’t see certain colors, maybe neoclassical economists are just blind to growth-induced illth and to destruction of national community by global integration via free trade and free capital mobility. But how can an “empirical science” miss two red elephants in the same room? And how can economic theorists, who make a fetish of advanced mathematics, persist in such elementary logical errors?

If there is something wrong with these criticisms then some neoclassical colleague ought to straighten me out. Instead they lamely avoid the issue with attacks on nameless straw men who supposedly advocate poverty and isolationism. Of course rich is better than poor — the question is, does growth any longer make us richer, or have we passed the optimum scale at which it begins to make us poorer? Of course trade is better than isolation and autarky. But deregulated trade and capital mobility lead away from reasonable interdependence among many separate national economies that mutually benefit from voluntary trade, to the stifling specialization of a world economy so tightly integrated by global corporations that trade becomes, “an offer you can’t refuse.”

Will standard economists ever pull the plug on brain-dead dogmas?

Wealth, Illth, and Net Welfare

by Herman Daly

Adapted from an article published in Resurgence.

Herman DalyWellbeing should be counted in net terms — that is to say we should consider not only the accumulated stock of wealth but also that of “illth;” and not only the annual flow of goods but also that of “bads.” The fact that we have to stretch English usage to find words like illth and bads with which to name the negative consequences of production that should be subtracted from the positive consequences, is indicative of our having ignored the realities for which these words are the necessary names. Bads and illth consist of things like nuclear wastes, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, biodiversity loss, climate change from excess carbon in the atmosphere, depleted mines, eroded topsoil, dry wells, exhausting and dangerous labor, congestion, etc. We are indebted to John Ruskin for the word “illth,” and to an anonymous economist, perhaps Kenneth Boulding, for the word “bads.” In the empty world of the past these concepts and the names for them were not needed because the economy was so small relative to the containing natural world that our production did not incur any significant opportunity cost of displaced nature. We now live in a full world, full of us and our stuff, and such costs must be counted and netted out against the benefits of growth. Otherwise we might end up with extra bads outweighing extra goods, and increases in illth greater than the increases in wealth. What used to be economic growth could become uneconomic growth — that is, growth in production for which marginal costs are greater than marginal benefits, growth that in reality makes us poorer, not richer. No one is against being richer. The question is, does growth any longer really make us richer, or has it started to make us poorer?

I suspect it is now making us poorer, at least in some high-GDP countries, and we have not recognized it. Indeed, how could we when our national accounting measures only “economic activity.” Activity is not separated into costs and benefits. Everything is added in GDP, nothing subtracted. The reason that bads and illth, inevitable joint products with goods and wealth, are not counted, even when no longer negligible in the full world, is that obviously no one wants to buy them, so there is no market for them, and hence no price by which to value them. But it is worse — these bads are real and people are very willing to buy the anti-bads that protect them from the bads. For example, pollution is an unpriced, uncounted bad, but pollution clean-up is an anti-bad which is accounted as a good. Pollution cleanup has a price and we willingly pay it up to a point and add it to GDP — but without having subtracted the negative value of the pollution itself that made the clean up necessary. Such asymmetric accounting hides more than it reveals.

In addition to asymmetric accounting of anti-bads, we count natural capital depletion as if it were income, further misleading ourselves. If we cut down all the trees this year, catch all the fish, burn all the oil and coal, etc., then GDP counts all that as this year’s income. But true income is defined as the maximum that a community can consume this year, and still produce and consume the same amount next year — maximum production while maintaining intact future capacity to produce (capital in the broadest sense). Nor is it only depletion of natural capital that is falsely counted as income — failure to maintain and replace depreciation of man-made capital, such as roads and bridges, has the same effect. Much of what we count in GDP is capital consumption and anti-bads.

As argued above, one reason that growth may be uneconomic is that we discover that its neglected costs are greater than we thought. Another reason is that we discover that the extra benefits of growth are less than we thought. This second reason has been emphasized in the studies of self-evaluated happiness, which show that beyond a threshold annual income of some $20-25 thousand, further growth does not increase happiness. Happiness, beyond this threshold, is overwhelmingly a function of the quality of our relationships in community by which our very identity is constituted, rather than the quantity of goods consumed. A relative increase in one’s income still yields extra individual happiness, but aggregate growth is powerless to increase everyone’s relative income. Growth in pursuit of relative income is like an arms race in which one party’s advance cancels that of the other. It is like everyone standing and craning his neck in a football stadium while having no better view than if everyone had remained comfortably seated.

Check out the wellbeing issue of Resurgence Magazine.

As aggregate growth beyond sufficiency loses its power to increase welfare, it increases its power to produce illth. This is because to maintain the same rate of growth ever more matter and energy has to be mined and processed through the economy, resulting in more depletion, more waste, and requiring the use of ever more powerful and violent technologies to mine the ever leaner and less accessible deposits. Petroleum from an easily accessible well in East Texas costs less labor and capital to extract, and therefore directly adds less to GDP, than petroleum from an inaccessible well a mile under the Gulf of Mexico. The extra labor and capital spent to extract a barrel in the Gulf of Mexico is not a good or an addition to wealth — it is more like an anti-bad made necessary by the bad of depletion, the loss of a natural subsidy to the economy. In a full employment economy the extra labor and capital going to petroleum extraction would be taken from other sectors, so aggregate real GDP would likely fall. But the petroleum sector would increase its contribution to GDP as nature’s subsidy to it diminished. We would be tempted to regard it as more rather than less productive.

The next time some economist or politician tells you we must do everything we can to grow (in order to fight poverty, win wars, colonize space, cure cancer, whatever…), remind him that when something grows it gets bigger! Ask him how big he thinks the economy is now, relative to the ecosphere, and how big he thinks it should be. And what makes him think that growth is still causing wealth to increase faster than illth? How does he know that we have not already entered the era of uneconomic growth? And if we have, then is not the solution to poverty to be found in sharing now, rather than in the empty promise of growth in the future? If you get a reasoned, coherent answer, please send it to me!

The Financial Crisis Is the Environmental Crisis

by Eric Zencey

In May of 2009, U.S. federal legislation created the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, charged with investigating the causes of the financial crisis that led to the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression. The Commission’s report is due in January. But don’t get your hopes up; they’re more than likely to get it wrong.

The Commission has held hearings with and gathered testimony from quite a few experts, all of them entrenched within the mainstream of neoclassical economic theory. The experts have named the usual suspects: cyclical swings between greed and fear; feedback effects that “disequilibrate” markets; cheap and “poorly documented” mortgage financing; bank accounting that kept some liabilities “off balance sheet;” the international sale of debt that guaranteed that a collapse in one market in one country would ripple out to affect the world; foreign demand for American debt, which created demand-pull for riskier and riskier American investments; and unworkable hedge funds that appeared to transform sure-to-fail loans into sure-to-pay investments.

It’s likely that all of these played a role. Fixes for most of them ought to be undertaken on their own merits. (Who could be in favor of “poorly documented mortgages” or “off-balance-sheet” investments?) But none of the testimony makes this point: the financial crisis is also the environmental crisis. We won’t solve the former until we start solving the latter.

Two facts about this crisis stand out: the world came to the brink of global economic collapse, and the world is and remains on the brink of ecosystem collapse. The economy is humanity’s primary instrument for interacting with its environment; this suggests that these two facts are somehow related. And yet none of the standard diagnoses come anywhere close to acknowledging that there might be a connection, let alone start to illuminate it. In the standard view, the financial crisis beset an economy that consists solely of humans acting within formalized systems of their own creation —systems that have no connection to a larger world.

And that’s why the standard view won’t succeed in fixing the problem. The spasm of debt repudiation with which the crisis began — the collapse of the sub-prime lending market — is what happens when an infinite-growth economy runs into the limits of a finite world.

That insight comes from the reference frame suggested by Frederick Soddy, as elaborated by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Herman Daly, and others. Soddy offered a vision of economics as rooted in physics — the laws of thermodynamics, in particular. An economy is often likened to a machine, though few economists follow the parallel to its logical conclusion: like any machine the economy must draw energy from outside itself. The first and second laws of thermodynamics forbid perpetual motion, schemes in which machines create energy out of nothing or recycle it forever. Soddy criticized the prevailing belief in the economy as a perpetual motion machine, capable of generating infinite wealth. That belief is nowhere more clearly manifest than in how we treat money. Soddy distinguished between wealth, virtual wealth, and debt. Real wealth, even the provision of services, is irreducibly rooted in physical reality. The money we use to represent this wealth isn’t real wealth, but virtual wealth — a symbol representing the bearer’s claim on an economy’s ability to generate real wealth. Debt, for its part, is a claim on the economy’s ability to generate wealth in the future. “The ruling passion of the age,” Soddy said, “is to convert wealth into debt” — to exchange a thing with present day real value (a thing that could be stolen, or broken, or rust or rot before you can manage to use it) for something immutable and unchanging, a claim on wealth that has yet to be made. Money facilitates the exchange; it is, Soddy said, “the nothing you get for something before you can get anything.”

Problems arise when wealth and debt are not kept in proper relation. The amount of wealth that an economy can create is limited by the amount of low-entropy materials and energy that it can sustainably suck from its environment and by the amount of high-entropy effluent that natural systems can sustainably absorb. (We can in practice exceed those sustainable limits, but only temporarily; that is the definition of “unsustainable.”)

There are only two ways that an economy can increase the rate at which it creates wealth: it can process a larger and larger flow of matter and energy, increasing its ecological footprint on both the uptake and the effluent side; or it can achieve efficiencies in its use of a constant flow of matter and energy. Both means of growth have limits. Increasing an economy’s ecological footprint decreases the ability of healthy ecosystems to provide us with a civilization-sustaining flow of ecosystem services (like climate stability, a service currently in critically short supply). Efficiency gains in the use of a constant flow offer large returns today and will probably do so into the future, but those gains will become harder and harder to achieve as we run into diminishing returns. Technological advances and efficiencies will allow us to make more with less, especially in places where we’ve been profligate in our use of low-entropy inputs; but no technical advance will get us around the first law of thermodynamics, which tells us “you can’t make something from nothing, nor can you make nothing from something.” Creation of wealth is irreducibly physical, and all physical phenomena obey the laws of thermodynamics.

Thus, the creation of wealth has physical constraints, set by ecosystem limits, physical law, and the limits of the technology we currently employ. But debt, being imaginary, has no such limit. It can grow infinitely, compounding at any rate we choose to let it.

These considerations led Soddy to this incontrovertible truth: whenever an economy allows debt — a claim on wealth — to grow faster than wealth can be created, that economy has a structural need for debt to be repudiated.

Inflation can do the job, decreasing debt gradually by eroding the purchasing power of the monetary units in which debt is denominated. And debt repudiation can be exported — some of the pressure to reconcile wealth and debt is released when other nations in the system inflate their currencies or default on obligations.

But when there is no inflation, and when the economy becomes one integrated global system in which export to outside the system is no longer possible, overgrown claims on future wealth will produce regular crises of debt repudiation — stock market crashes, waves of bankruptcies and foreclosures, defaults on bonds or loans or pension promises, the disappearance of paper assets in any shape or form. As Lawrence Summers noted in a speech last year at the Brookings Institute, “In little more than two decades, we have seen the stock market crash of 1987, the savings and loan scandals, the decline of the real estate market, the Mexican crisis, the Asian crisis, LTCM, Enron and long-term capital. That works out to one big crisis every two and a half years.” He went on to add: “We can and must do better.” Each and every one of the crises he listed was, at bottom, a crisis of debt repudiation. We are unlikely to avoid their recurrence until we stop allowing claims on real wealth to grow faster than real wealth can grow.

The cause of the financial crisis, Soddy would certainly say, isn’t simply opportunistic financiers exploiting the lag between innovation and regulation, isn’t simply ignorance, isn’t a failure of regulatory diligence, isn’t a cascading lack of confidence that could be solved with some new and different version of the F.D.I.C. The problem is a systemic flaw in our treatment of money. Whenever and wherever growth in claims on wealth outstrips growth in wealth, our system creates a niche for entrepreneurs who are all too willing to invent instruments of debt that will someday be repudiated. There will always be a Bernie Madoff or a subprime mortgage repackager or a hedge fund innovator willing to play their part in setting us up for a spasm of debt repudiation. Regulation will always be retrospective.

The best solution is to eliminate that niche. To do that, we must balance claims on future production of wealth with the economy’s power to produce that wealth.

Soddy distilled his vision into five policy prescriptions, each of which was taken at the time as evidence that his theories were unworkable. One: abandon the gold standard. Two: let international exchange rates float against one another. Three: use federal surpluses and deficits as macroeconomic policy tools, countering cyclical trends. Four: establish bureaus of economic analysis to produce statistics (including a consumer price index) that will facilitate this effort. These proposals are now firmly grounded in conventional practice. Only Soddy’s fifth proposal remains outside the bounds of conventional wisdom: stop banks from creating money, and debt, out of nothing.

Soddy’s work helped to inspire the short-lived “100% Money” movement that emerged during the Depression, which offered a diagnosis that went beyond treatment of symptoms (the cascading collapse of confidence that led to bank failures, which was addressed through creation of the F.D.I.C.) to reach the underlying cause: the leveraging of debt through the practice of fractional reserve banking. Irving Fisher at Yale and Frank Knight, the prominent Chicago School economist, also supported the elimination of fractional reserve banking. For a time the movement counted no less an economic eminence than Milton Friedman as a sympathizer. (Perhaps because he saw that the tide of history was against him, Friedman eventually dropped his call for elimination of fractional reserve banking from his policy recommendations.) The 100% money movement finds a contemporary advocate in ecological economist Herman Daly, who has called for the gradual institution of a 100 percent reserve requirement on demand deposits. This would begin to shrink what he has called “the enormous pyramid of debt that is precariously balanced atop the real economy, threatening to crash.”

In such a system, banks would support themselves by charging fees for safekeeping, check clearing, loan intermediation, and all the other legitimate financial services they provide. They would not generate income by lending out, at interest, the money entrusted to them for safekeeping — money that does not belong to them. Banks would still make loans and still be able to lend at interest “the real money of real depositors,” people who forego consumption today in order to take money out of their checking account and put it in time deposits (e.g., CDs, passbook savings, and 401Ks). In return these savers would still receive interest payments — a slightly larger claim on the real wealth of the community in the future.

In a 100% money system, every increase in spending by borrowers would have to be matched by an act of saving — abstinence — on the part of a depositor. This would re-establish a one-to-one correspondence between the real wealth of the community and the claims on that real wealth. To achieve 100% money, the creation of monetarized debt through other mechanisms — repackaged mortgages and securitized derivatives and the like — would also have to be brought under control.

An added benefit: establishing 100% money would have an enormous and positive effect on the public treasury. Seigniorage, the profit that comes from the creation of money, is currently given away free to banks (which collect it as the payment of interest and the repayment of principle on loans made with money that is not actually theirs). Under a 100% money regime, money would be created — spent into existence — by a public authority. (This is what Friedman advocated.) The capture of seigniorage would have obvious benefits for governmental budgeting: the seigniorage on a modest 3% growth in M1 (one of the chief measures of the money supply) amounts to $40 billion a year. And, when you come right down to it, to whom does seigniorage, by rights, belong? Despite long-standing custom to the contrary, the profit that comes from the issuance of money belongs to the sovereign power that guarantees that money. In the U.S., that’s us: We, the People.

This change in our banking system would eliminate the structural cause of spasms of debt repudiation. It would also eliminate one strong driver of uneconomic growth —growth that costs more in lost ecosystem services and other disamenities than it brings in the form of increased wealth. The change is thus economically and ecologically sound. It is, obviously, politically difficult — so difficult that advocacy for it sounds hopelessly unrealistic. But consider: in the 1920s, the abolition of the gold standard and the implementation of floating exchange rates sounded absurd. If the laws of thermodynamics are sturdy, and if Soddy’s analysis of their relevance to economic life is correct, we’d better expand the realm of what we think is realistic.