If we think our economies, and particularly our government budgets, are in trouble now, just wait until we wake up to the true costs coming our way in the next decade or two. Balancing our budgets, using our existing system of economics, is about to go from difficult to impossible.
If the only problem the developed economies had to worry about was repaying their massive debts after correcting their budget deficits during a recession, then one could argue that a way forward can be found. However the challenge we face is greater, and we are going to have to fundamentally reform our thinking before we can turn our economics around.
There are clues to why our situation is more complicated in three factors that underlie our already obvious economic dilemmas: infrastructure underinvestment, social support bankruptcy and global resource constraints.
Even without providing for investment in climate mitigation, the WEF estimates that we are running more than a $2 trillion annual deficit in infrastructure investments and replacement. It is likely that the USA, India and China will need to spend $2 trillion a year on infrastructure by themselves, the unfunded deficit across the globe is probably around 2 to 3 times that number.
Social support bankruptcy
Never mind that we aren’t meeting the basic sustenance needs of millions of children every year in the developed countries, the global targets that the UN set itself for “Millennium Goals” are being missed at every turn. On top of all the social support we are failing to provide and haven’t accounted for, we have a massive overhang of known social support costs that we have accounting for. The unfunded pension obligations of developed nations are over $100 trillion and those pension shortfalls will start to materialize in less than 10 years from now – half a dozen states in the USA will have bankrupt pension schemes by 2020, and that’s before the US federal system runs out of money between 2030 and 2040. The published deficits in existing social security systems and pension schemes are not a complete picture of the gap in funding for social security worldwide – that’s probably 10 to 20 times as large again.
Global resource constraints
The third leg of this upside down stool is the inevitable rise in the cost of resources as the supply of raw materials becomes constrained due to increased demand and higher production costs. This will add another $2 trillion or so to the burden of the global economy every year for at least the next 30 years, probably more likely it will be 50 to 100 years. A $65 increase in the price of oil (putting it back at 2008 prices) would add $2 trillion a year to the cost base of the global economy all by itself.
Just fixing the current budget and debt problems of developed nations will mean correcting an annual $3 trillion imbalance, and then attempting to pay back $30 trillion of debt over 30 years. Assuming costs remain stagnant and growth could be accelerated to 3% plus, these seemingly enormous problems could be coped with. But when you add $6 trillion or more of annual cost on top of these numbers, the global economy would have to achieve never before seen (and completely unsustainable) rates of economic growth to make the numbers work out. It just ain’t going to happen–something’s got to give.
What could “give” to correct this impending imbalance of economic mathematics? One or more of the following will have to give: peace and freedom, the global economy and “sound” money or our current, traditional perspective. Indeed, all of these will have to give if we don’t rearrange our relationship between society and economy. Without a reorientation of perspective we can only have one of the first two, and even then only for a short time.
As we think about and plan our societies, we have to carry this understanding with us: if we try and pay for all of our welfare and social services with money, we are trying to satisfy the non-wealth portion of our society with our wealth. Not only isn’t there enough wealth to perform this feat, we’re actually abusing the role of money in our society. It’s like trying to make water out of milk… it’s possible, but you’ll run out of milk before you have watered the cow.
We have become blinded by the amazing rise of the capitalist economy, and in so doing we have dropped the notion of “in-kind” exchange from our thinking and our imaginations; even though we know intellectually and emotionally that “the best things in life are free”. In the real world, the in-kind transfer of social support is a necessary and vital complement to the capital economy.
What we are missing is the very nature and meaning of money. Money is a means of representing wealth. Wealth is material value accumulated greater than material need. You would not hesitate for a moment to profess that the total real value of your life, your family and your community is greater than the sum of your money, and therein lies the truth about why our attempts to value everything in money is doomed to fail the basic test of mathematics. The total value of every society is greater than its total wealth, and any attempt to contain its value within its wealth will wreck on the rocks of reason, sanity and economics. And yet this is what we are trying to do when we provide money in lieu of the social support we intend to supply.
The “traditional” perspective, although it is actually very modern, is that everything has to be valued in currency. The shift we have to make is to revert to a more fundamental understanding that currency is a method of transferring wealth is part of an economic transaction, and not every transaction needs to be, or should be, valued in currency. There are quite obviously enough people to provide all of the required social support services, to build the bridges and to modify our infrastructures for sustainability; it’s just that we can’t afford to pay everyone to do all of these things. Why should we pay each other, in currency, to do these things? Are these activities wealth creating?
The reason we are running out of money is because we, rightly, understand and practice the science of preserving the wealth symbolized by our money, otherwise we’d just print all the money we needed to pay for everything. But we cannot maintain the value of money and at the same time value everything with money, money can only be a symbol of wealth. That portion of human activity that is not wealth creating cannot be paid for with wealth and still preserve the value of money. I do not feed myself with wealth, wealth is what I have left after I have fed myself. The fundamentally distorting spell we have all fallen under is that our society will fit inside our economy. We are so used to using money every day to pay for everything we buy, that we forget to notice all the things we do for others, and receive from others, every day without pay. Our society is bigger than our economy and believing that we can pay for society out of the proceeds of the economy is borderline insanity.
Before we get too heavy, let’s recognize that there is plenty that we should value with money, everything that represents a transfer of wealth, and that’s many things. But there’s a large portion of society that we must learn to value differently, almost like a separate, parallel currency, only without numerical denomination. That portion of society that is what we must have before we can consider ourselves to have wealth, must be paid for in kind, otherwise we will destroy our wealth. The basic necessities of life, without which wealth is meaningless, must be removed from the accounting system we call our economy. The way to do this is to establish a system of universal services that satisfy the most basic universal needs we all have, and without which we cannot consider ourselves to have wealth. When we provide these for ourselves and each other without payment, we integrate the cost of our social needs into our lives, liberate money for its intended purpose and can actually build functioning, sustainable economies that can balance their money books.
Eventually we will have to change our perspective, it’s our choice as to whether we decide to do it now or later. The longer we wait, the greater the pain; but I suspect we haven’t felt quite enough pain yet to entertain such a change in thinking. After all, letting go of our attachment to a concept that we believe makes the world understandable, is one of the hardest things to do. But once we do, the world will make infinitely more sense.