More money is not the answer

We need to occupy our communities and demand less money, rather than occupying corporate spaces and demand more money.

More money for banks. More money for governments. More money for small businesses. More money for social services. More money for everything – who could disagree with that!?

Apparently the US and the UK are so short of money that their central bankers have had to print trillions more just to keep the wheel of society turning. Banks whose capital base consists of nothing more than bits of paper have apparently run out of the ability to write more bits of paper and now need others to print paper for them. Whole nations that voluntarily gave up the right to print their own pieces of paper are apparently on the brink of collapse without someone else lending them more bits of paper.

This situation is evidently insane. The problem is NOT too little money! The problem is TOO MUCH MONEY!

We talk of not being able to provide for our old age security without money… horse shit! You’ll only need money if no one else will help you. We talk of unemployment, when there is evidently so much basic work to be done around us building and maintaining and improving our communities. We have come to conceptualize ourselves as living in a world of individual separateness in which transactions can only occur when greased by the flow of printed pieces of paper. But this concept does not withstand even the merest scrutiny, in fact it requires deliberate denial all the time. We all know that we are people, living with others and largely dependent on each other to get through any single day. We are dependent on each others good graces, compassion, empathy and generosity – even for the most basic restraint of not running us down with their car in the carpark!

We have not run out of money, we have just run out the capacity for money to substitute for reality.

The frail reality of the theater set we have built to act out our life-play in is upon us. Soon it must surely become too obvious to ignore: neither we, nor our world, are built from money. We are flesh and bone progeny of the earth beneath our feet, and “our world” is but a social construct designed by us to support our huge number.

Money has a role, an important role, but it is just a role in the wider context of our society. Enterprise is a natural aspect of human society, and business is a good thing. But lack of money and lack of economic activity are not what ails us – there isn’t enough money in all the world to fix our social disconnectedness. Money cannot be used to pay for everything, it is an instrument for the exchange of surplus value and if we try to use it as a substitute for the value of life it loses its value, and its role collapses. This is the lesson of our times: we must learn to see the reality of our mutual interdependence and lose the illusion of separateness that our plunge into industrial capitalism pulled over our eyes.

We need to occupy our communities and demand less money, rather than occupying corporate spaces to demand more money. When we start giving ourselves the right to live in the reality we are already in we will not need to protest others to give us permission.

A Brief History of TEA

Total Economic Awareness (TEA) is used in this article to describe a philosophical framework, adopted by many people today, in which every activity is perceived as being of monetary value. It is not entirely new, King Midas had a touch of it, but it has never been so broadly adopted as it is now that it has become a defining feature of industrial capitalism. It is worth understanding a little about the evolution and development of TEA so that we can perceive it more accurately, and determine where it has infected otherwise functional systems.

TEA is essentially a completely commercial view of the world, encompassing both living things and inanimate objects. It is the “business” view of life, a mindset that sees everything as tradable and therefore worth something that can be traded for something else. In theory there is nothing wrong with this, and it is used in the theoretical study of economics; in practice, most traditions and religions warn against its adoption as a singular focus, or its use as an exclusive lens for life.

In the pre-capitalist world there were always some who adopted a TEA mindset, and they became the bankers and traders of their time and place. But their actions were always a minority of total activity, and they existing inside a wider context of other frameworks that had greater standing in their society, like religion and culture. It has only been in the last 50 years or so that TEA became such a widely adopted world view, and that is has become the definition of culture in certain societies; so much so that people refer to themselves as living is a “capitalist society” in which economics has come to define the culture they live in. This increase has been spurred in recent decades by the adoption of fiat currencies, which have allowed so many more people to avail themselves of greater wealth. The early industrialists and oil men at the turn of the previous century adopted TEA as a brazenly deliberate approach to life, developing grand plans for their businesses in which people were simply units of resource, borrowing the dislocated condescension of the aristocracy that preceded them. They set an example of grand achievement by developing huge industrial empires and amassing great fortunes without regard to the toll extracted from the ‘resources’ they used. The damage caused by their activities was obscured by dramatic advances in production and technology, and by their industrial contributions to war efforts.

In the middle of the 20th Century, as fiat currencies replaced gold standards, the example set by the early industrialists was adopted more and more broadly by the populations of the industrialized countries, encouraged by the innate desire for competitive advantage and the apparent absence of consequences. The early TEA adopters never had to acknowledge the real support provided by their societies, which constrained their excesses and caught the fallout that they ignored. So long as the purely commercial world remained a minority of all activity and was constrained to its own sphere, the TEA mindset of a minority could not destabilize the society.
But the untrammeled pursuit of advantage through wealth has a limit, and that limit is defined by the size of the consequences that it ignores (i.e. the extent to which it is exploitative). If 20% of the consequences are unaccounted for, then 80% is the maximum TEA penetration that a society can tolerate; if 50% of the consequences are ignored, then 50% is the maximum. But the theoretical maximum TEA penetration into a society has to be modified by the amount of social support that is present by default, without any commercial activity, and that is, at a minimum, 20%, rising to 50% as the prosperity of a society increases.

The formula for determining the maximum penetration that a society can tolerate is:
Population – Default Social Need – (TEA Penetration x Exploitation Factor)
Assuming that TEA activity has a 20% exploitation factor, then the maximum penetration is 65% is an underdeveloped society with a 20% default social need
100 – 20 – (TEA Penetration x 20%) = 80-20% = 65
and 40% in a developed society with a 50% default social need
100 – 50 – (TEA Penetration x 20%) = 50-20% = 40

The absence of fiat currency in pre-industrial economies meant that TEA penetration never reached much above 10% or 20% and could easily be tolerated, even if the exploitation factor was greater than 100%. If exploitation factors reached up into the 300%-1000% range (slavery) then those activities had to be exported to remote lands (colonies) so as not to destabilize the domestic society. The domestically sanitized presentation of the wealth acquired from TEA exploitation abroad gave it a legitimacy, and allowed the domestic audience to focus more on the benefits of the greater prosperity than on the costs of the fallout from the exploitation.
The introduction of fiat currencies effectively removed most of the barriers to broad adoption of TEA and so the only limit on its growth became the tolerance capacity of the society. The concurrence of increased access to wealth resulting from fiat capitalism and the growing dependent demography, caused by increased life expectancy and greater education requirements, created a collision course between the penetration of TEA and the maximum tolerable penetration rate for TEA. It became a race for individuals to adopt TEA (commonly known as the “growth of the middle class”) before the social tolerance level was reached, meaning the point at which there would be no more room on board that bus.

Constraining the exploitation factor allows TEA to penetrate society at closer to its maximum percentage, and in the beginning of broad TEA penetration this was an almost universally adopted convention – manifested in “a growing middle class with strong labour unions and safer workplaces”. But, as the maximum potential TEA penetration approached, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that even if exploitation was reduced to zero there still wasn’t room on the bus for much more than 50% of the total population of a modern society. So some people adopted the ultimate TEA rationale, which was to increase the exploitation factor by exploiting those running to get on the bus. If there wasn’t going to be enough wealth to give everyone comparative advantage, then you’d may as well stop playing by even the most basic social rules and adopt TEA as a total philosophy, in which those who didn’t grasp the finite nature of TEA should rightly be the victims of it themselves. This final and terminal stage of TEA is where we are today, in which a small minority of TEA adherents have callously figured out that their own advantage is best acquired through the maximization of exploitation. This maximization is achieved through the deliberate obscuring of the exploitation’s effects at the same time as the cynical promotion of TEA. Examples of this terminal TEA include denying climate science while promoting consumer credit to boost wasteful product consumption, and complete destruction of Appalachian communities to produce climate destroying coal.

An alternative to TEA is here.

Sustainable Economics paper published!

We have just completed our paper showing a practical path to reaching a sustainable state. This paper brings together various aspects of the Standards of LIFE to focus specifically on why and how universal services are the key to saving our environment. This is an important document – please read it.

Armed with the knowledge in this paper you will be able to explain to others how we can get to a steady state economy and why it will be fantastic once we get there. Truly the next stage in the development of empathic civilization, there’s on need to return to the “dark ages” to save ourselves.

You can read the paper at http://www.standardsoflife.org/Sustainable_Economics as well as download both an ePub version for iPad/iBook/kindle and a PDF version.

The wiki pages are open for adding comments and you can always give feedback via our Facebook page and email to feedback@standardsoflife.org.

Enjoy and educate!

LIFE SPAN – 2011.05.01

LIFE SPAN 2011.05.01 – First Edition of the new LIFE newsletter – subscribe now!
Situation – Nu-clear Power. Policy – No Alternative to Voting. Analysis – The inflation tiger is out of it’s cage and walking around the world economy with a gaggle of central bankers holding onto it’s tail.

LIFE SPAN 2011.05.01

Situational Policy Analysis & News from LIFE

Subscribe at lifespan@standardsoflife.org


Situation – Nu-Clear

Even before you factor in the pollution, proliferation and profligation of nuclear power, the most important thing to understand is the distraction that nuclear power represents.

The situation at Fukushima in Japan has brought the world’s attention to one aspect of the dangers of nuclear power generation, without even touching on the dangerous pollution resulting from mining and producing the nuclear materials in the first place, or dealing with the storage, recycling and disposal of nuclear waste at the other end of the cycle. But these dangers are not even the most dangerous thing about nuclear power, the most dangerous thing about nuclear power is that it distracts us from investing in the development of really sustainable renewable power generation.

Every single dollar invested in nuclear power could be used more productively invested in renewable power or improving efficiency. Every single physicist researching nuclear power could be more productively researching sustainability, deep chemistry or efficiency. The time for stop-gap measures has passed, we must aim straight for the finish line now.

Last month the world also committed to spending $1Bn on putting another protective cap over the leaking Chernobyl nuclear reactor. That has to be done, but it is just another example of time, money and effort that cannot now be spent on developing the sustainable energy infrastructure we need. Will we need to the same thing to Fukushima in 25 years from now?

A new clarity is developing in which we can see that any power source that is not re-newable is going to have insurmountable waste problems providing the energy we need to run a planet with 6, 7 or 8 billion prosperous people on it.

Now we can see Nu-Clear – we don’t want nuclear!

Policy – No Alternative to Voting

This week the UK will hold its second national referendum ever to decide whether to change the vote counting process used in national elections from decrepit to deprecated. It’s a miserable choice that incorporates almost nothing learned from the last 100 years of democratic practice. If the “no” camp wins it will probably be the end of the Liberal-Democrat Party in the UK, but, other than that, either result will make almost no discernible difference to the quality of democracy in the UK. Minority political parties will still be able to win elections, safe seats will remain safe and the diverse, multi-layered needs of citizens will remain unrepresented.

Citizen empowerment through democratic process is at the root of dealing with the most pressing issues we face, and apathy about how our votes are counted and who gets to vote for what betrays a complete failure to grasp the importance of this subject. Voting is not a dry subject for “policy wonks”, it is the most vital issue at the heart of our evolution! Efficable democracy that harnesses the collective wisdom of everyone’s input is the vital building block on which we can make the changes necessary to move to a sustainable prosperity. This is too important to be be left to the whims of incumbent politicians, so the citizenry must take the lead on moving to the best available models for voting and representation.

If we are to retool our civilization for sustainability, the extent, depth and breadth of the changes we need to make to our economic and social structures will require us to have a massively more participatory and effective political structure than we have today. The politics we need must include:

  • self-selected constituency boundaries defined by the resident citizens, not by the politicians
  • multi-layered, multi-constituency, multi-member democratic structures that reflect all the glorious diversity of humanity spread across the surface of the planet
  • bottom up power structures that allow jurisdiction to originate at the bottom and move up and back down the layers, locating decision making power at the appropriate layer for the scale of the decision

These are not difficult structures to imagine or implement, but they will only come about when we, the citizens for whom democracy is supposed to work, take control of the agenda and require proper, modern and comprehensive change. A referendum proposed and framed by incumbent politicians is not the way to change this properly, real change will come as part and parcel of the policy framework of a government specifically elected to make the changes. Over to you, citizens.

Analysis – Tiger Tails

Inflation. Inflation is the increase in prices without any corresponding increase in value, i.e. when the same thing costs more. There are three possible causes for an increase in price: an increase in the underlying cost of producing the thing, an increase in the demand for a thing that is constrained in supply, or an increase in the price just because there’s so much money lying around. The first two cases are not within the control of bankers or politicians and are simply a fact of life as materials, products and services become more or less available, and demand for them falls or rises. The important thing about the first two types of price changes is that they represent real changes in wealth, in other words the price changes are aligned with the change in the value of the thing. It is the last case, the one where the price of something changes without any change in its value, that presents a real problem for capitalist economies and politicians. This kind of inflation can only occur in a “capitalist” economy because the value of the currency in a capitalist economy is not based on anything real – the money supply is managed by special banks called “central banks” who are also responsible for minting the paper/coin money we use to pay for things and controlling the credit which commercial banks use to lend out.

The job of a central bank is manage the amount of money that is flowing around the economy such that it is roughly equal to the amount of value, or wealth, that is recognized in the economy. As you might imagine, this is a pretty tricky thing to get right because the central bankers have to have a really keen grip on the state of the economy, the quantity of transactions and the amount of wealth being generated. If central bankers print too much money, or allow commercial banks to lend too much money, and that money is not matched to real increases in wealth, then the wealth that does exist simply gets revalued in terms of how much money is available: this is called “inflation” because the price of the same thing gets inflated over time without any real change in the value of the thing itself. If the central bank doesn’t print enough money or allow commercial banks to lend enough money, then the economy cannot grow at its natural pace and the lack of money can gum up the works. Not having enough currency can even lead to the strange situation where the price of a thing goes down even though its value remains constant, because the currency has gone up in value to reflect an increase in wealth that has not been matched by an increase in the supply of available currency. In fact, to stop this kind of problem happening, central bankers err very slightly on the side of extra money and allow for a minimal rate of inflation as normal, typically this inflation is considered controllable when it is less than 2% a year.

There are two tools in the central bankers’ briefcase that have proved invaluable for getting this tricky balancing act right: caution and confidence. Normally central bankers are very cautious about increasing the money supply and spend most of their time trying to make lots of small changes over time in response to continuous monitoring of the state of the economy, changes in wealth, and keeping a really keen eye on what the commercial banks are up to. The central bank controls the commercial banks by forcing them to keep a certain amount of cash on hand, as a deposit against what they are lending out – these are called “reserves”. Also, because in a capitalist system the commercial banks can lend more money than they have taken in deposits, there is always the risk that they might get asked by their deposit customers for the return of more money than the bank has on hand; so commercial banks can always turn to the central bank and borrow the money they need at an interest rate set by the central bank. This interest rate, that a commercial bank may at any time have to pay for money they borrow from the central bank, effectively sets the floor on interest rates charged by the commercial banks on loans they make to their borrowers, and in this way the central bank controls the “cost of money” in the marketplace. If the central bank is cautious in managing the supply of money, and keeps the commercial banks on a tight leash, then everyone’s confidence in the ability of the whole system to properly represent their real wealth in paper money is maintained and everyone stays calm.

Now, if things start to go wrong they can head south pretty quickly: prices inflate, depositors loose confidence in the value of their savings, they withdraw their money from the banks, more customers get worried about the ability of the banks to give them their money back; traders lose confidence in the ability of the currency to represent their wealth and start jacking up their prices, or start asking to be paid in other things that they think will maintain their value, like gold or some other country’s currency. It can get really messy really quickly and will cause an economy to collapse with wholesale destruction of wealth and confidence. It is the job of central banks to stop this from ever happening, and that’s why they typically operate independently of politicians so that they don’t get asked to do silly things like just start printing money to pay for things the government wants but doesn’t have any real wealth to pay for. Caution and confidence, caution and confidence: the watchwords of effective, modern, monetary management.

When caution is defrayed, confidence is sure to follow at some point, and that is what happened in 2008. After a couple of decades of deprecated caution, a sudden fall in the perceived value of assets on which the commercial banks had staked their reputations led to an almost complete collapse of confidence overnight. The commercial banks were bankrupt and the central banks were on the hook for keeping the whole system running – the massive fall in real wealth was absorbed by the taxpayers, in the form of loans and gifts to the commercial banks, to stop the commercial banks from actually going bankrupt. At this point in the debacle there was a choice: recognize the loss of wealth and reorganize the banking system, or try and cover the bases until the loss of wealth was regained. The central bankers and politicians chose the latter, and that is the world we live in now. Money was printed and credit expanded on a massive scale to shore up commercial banks around the world, especially in the US and Europe, on the grounds that the depreciated assets would regain their value and any permanent loss in asset value would be made up for by increases in wealth derived from other activities in the economy. In the meantime there shouldn’t be an inflationary risk because all the extra money printed was just going to be absorbed by the balance sheets of the commercial banks and wouldn’t leak out into the rest of the economy. In theory, as assets values recovered and economic activity picked up, the commercial banks would re-establish their balance sheets and the central banks would simply draw back in all the extra money they had printed, so that some time down the road the total wealth and the total amount of money sloshing around would be back in equilibrium again. Neat, tidy and easy, eh? Not quite so much.

In other parts of the world, like China, that weren’t directly affected by a collapse of their commercial banks, they did still feel a pinch from the slow down in economic activity that occurred. In those places they increased the money supply by letting their banks lend out tons of extra credit so that people and business could spend lots to make up for the lost demand that previously came from the economies that are now having banking problems. In these countries they figured they could control the inflationary risk of printing all that money by making sure that the money went into activities that resulted in real increases in wealth, like railways and other infrastructure investments. The trouble with that plan is that real increases in wealth only occur naturally with the development of better things and ways of doing things, wealth does not simply increase in response to expanded cash spending. Just boosting the amount of cash in the system leads to people making silly decisions about what to spend that money on, and too often those decisions fail to generate any real increase in wealth; so the money is wasted and sloshes around looking for a quick bet, like the “inevitable and certain” rise in the price of property or other assets like gold.

Now its 2011 and here’s a summary of where we have ended up. The commercial banks have taken all the cheap money the central banks gave them and used it make huge “profits” using activities that do not create any additional wealth, often by lending the money back to the government at a higher rate than they borrowed that same money from the central bank. There has been no re-appreciation in the value of the assets that lost their value in 2008. The extra money injected into the system by the central banks has found its way into “quick bets” on assets around the world, jacking up the prices of property in Asia and raw materials in developing countries. One intended consequence of the rescue plan has come true: there has been relatively little fall in overall demand, a few percentage points here and there but nothing like the 20% revaluation that the other choice in 2008 would have required. Lastly, we live in a very financially orientated world because we are trying to use money to provide for the future security of our old age, and that means that we have a lot of wealth tied up in financial investments we call pensions. All these investments are effectively part of the overall money supply, and in places like the US the total of these investments is greater than the total annual GDP of the country – that’s a lot of free-floating money in the system.

Now, before we bring the strings of this story together, I want to remind you of the other types of price increases that occur naturally in markets: increases in the demand for constrained things (‘materials, products and services become more or less available, and demand for them falls or rises’). We live in a world where demand (population x aspiration) is increasing faster than we are developing new ways of meeting that demand, so the demand for the materials that drive our current way of life (food, oil, metals) is increasing without a commensurate increase in supply. This means that we are living in a world where the price of basic inputs is rising naturally, and will continue to rise until we retool for sustainability. The more successful we are at raising living standards (aspirations) the greater the increase in demand, and the higher the prices go. It is important to recognize this because the effect on the economy of naturally rising prices is the same as the effect of inflationary price increases: workers demand higher wages to allow them to maintain the same standard of living. This is the “price-wage” spiral that central bankers have learned to fear, because once it starts it stokes inflationary price rises through cyclical reinforcement, and it is really difficult to control without severely affecting living standards, which often results in social unrest and upheaval.

Think of money supply management as the tiger than drives the incredible development of wealth in a modern economy; so long as the tiger remains in a cage, or at least on a leash, the economy grows and wealth can appreciate naturally as a result of everyone’s efforts to add value to each other’s lives. The growth in wealth is not constrained by the availability of some fixed material, like gold, and every contribution by every participant can be recognized at the point when value is created. But if the tiger gets out of its cage and off it’s leash, it marauds around the economy spreading destruction and fear. Then it becomes the problem that has to be dealt with, instead of the enabler of greater good.

The inflation tiger is out of it’s cage and walking around the world economy with a gaggle of central bankers holding onto it’s tail.

While we would all like to wish the central bankers the very best of luck in their attempts to hold on to the tiger’s tail, the following factors suggest that they will not be able to hold on for long:

  • demand for finite resources is increasing naturally (outside of their control) and that will result in price increases
  • price increases will lead, and has already, to demands for increases in pay
  • the imbalance in the ratio between available cash and real asset values remains uncorrected from 2008
  • the socio-political system of attempting to provide social security using financial instruments (i.e. pensions) means that there is a lot of money floating around the system that cannot be controlled without degrading the social security that that money is supposed to provide; i.e. in a capitalist economy where social security is provided by pension investments, it becomes politically unacceptable to properly manage the money supply in line with real asset values if the value of those assets falls, effectively quashing the independence of central banking and degrading the ability to keep the true value of monetary investments in line with wealth
  • democratic politics and capitalist economics both require processes for orderly failure, a “permanent” political power structure cannot accept failure so it will inevitably intervene (unsuccessfully and counterproductively) in monetary management to preserve its political hegemony
  • the money in the current system is controlled by a very small percentage of the population who are already wealthy and who do not see the need to maintain the ratio of money to wealth, they simply seek to increase the quantity of money they have; remember that money affects the human brain the same way that sex and drugs do, it acts on the most primitive reward structures of our brain, overriding the newer “thinking” parts of our brains

The benefit of a capitalist economy is the near universal and instant recognition of value added as wealth; the condition of that is the requirement to carefully manage the money supply. If the social security of the people or the political power of the rulers is dependent on the preservation of wealth, then the necessary leeway to control money supply in line with wealth will be degraded and the economic system will collapse. Capitalist economics requires the ability to recognize wealth destruction, and that in turn requires a political system that allows for the destruction of power and a social system that survives the destruction of wealth.

In the end the only way to maintain monetary credibility is to be able to adjust money supply in line with wealth, both up and down, and that will require that we decouple social security from financial investments. In the meantime we/they will try and make the current system work for as long as we/they can, and so we are in for a spectacle of monetary gymnastics over the coming years as the bankers of the world try and keep the tiger from running loose.

News – SPAN gets wings, fly with us!

This the first issue of the new newsletter from LIFE: Situational Policy Analysis and News (SPAN). LIFE SPAN is published online and provides more in-depth coverage of situations at the forefront of public policy at the current time.

To keep information flowing we encourage you to sign up for direct delivery of LIFE SPAN to your mailbox, so that any disruptions in the availability of Facebook, the blog site or the web wiki site do not affect your ability to get the latest news and updates from LIFE. Just send an email to lifespan@standardsoflife.org and we will add your email address to the distribution list, you can always do the same to unsubscribe at a later date if you want to. We will never share your email with any other organization.

Euro Tour 2011: if you are in Europe and would like to meet up to discuss starting a Local LIFE group, we are scheduling events from June 13th to July 7th. Email europe2011@standardsoflife.org if you’re interested in hosting an event.

Scale Matters

What do Spain, Japan and Croatia have in common? They are all suffering the consequences of industrialitis. Industrialitis is the inevitable malaise brought on by the failure to understand our economy as a function of our society, which mastaassizes into disease with the concentration of political power.

Business is actually a function of society, it is fundamentally dependent on the political process to create the conditions for commercial success. Businesses need legal systems, infrastructure, academic research and a host of other supporting conditions in order to operate successfully. It follows that businesses coalesce around political structures, and the level of which political power is concentrated is the level at which commerce is most successful. For the last century political power has been concentrating at the national level, and it is businesses that operate at the national level that get the most attention from national politicians. Some of this is a self reinforcing cycle, but once it has started it is certainly a self-perpetuating structure, mostly innocent but inevitably corruption also accompanies decision density concentration.

The true nature of human society is not adequately or properly represented in the concentration of political power at the national level, nor do national scale businesses harness the full economic potential society. Human scale politics and economics start at the local community and build up from there, and that’s how we need to arrange our political and economic structures if they are to serve the humans that comprise the society.

Spain, Japan and Croatia all have different problems, but they are all symptomatic of industrialitis, and their politicians are grasping for industrial-scale solutions, when what they really need to do is to rightscale their politics. In each case, the hollowing out to local and regional economic activity has followed concentrations of political power to the national level.

In Japan the result of their industrialitis is the loss of rural sustainability as commerce has focused in national and global scale clusters, necessitating economic migration to the cities where those businesses are located. Large-scale businesses are capital intensive and naturally gravitate towards geographic concentrations for their operations, a tendency that is only constrained by limits to market access. This is not a failure of the businesses, it is a natural outcome of their capital intensity. The national Japanese government has tried to employ national-scale solutions in an attempt to maintain the economic and social viability of its rural regions: top-down infrastructure projects, and subsidies. In the former, the national government allocates funds to build or improve infrastructure in rural areas, which results in temporary construction booms without sustained commercial activity. In the latter, a very commonly prescribed remedy in countries with industrialitis, the national government attempts to persuade industrial-scale businesses to do what is not in their self-interest, by providing subsidies and other financial incentives to locate some part of their operations in a region that they would not choose to be in, if left to their commercial instincts. Subsidies have the pernicious effect of corrupting the politics, the market and the businesses that accept them, and only further exacerbates the incentive for businesses to build and maintain political influence. It probably never even crosses the mind of most national politicians that the effective and sustainable solution to regional and local economic self-sufficiency is to devolve political power down to the regions and communities.

In Spain there is an employment crisis, with national unemployment at 20% and youth unemployment running at 64%. This symptom of industrialitis, caused by the concentration of financial capital at the national and supranational levels, is the result of a busted property and construction boom. The failure to develop local and regional economic activity independent of centralized, external capital has left the entire economy at risk, now that the global financial crisis has caused the flow of capital to evaporate. The national government sees itself as saving the regions by bailing out regional banks, but it is really just doing debt collection for national and international banks – everyone still has to carry the debt burden, but without the local and regional economic infrastructure to maintain commercial activity and employment. It probably never even crosses the mind of the average national politician that they need to devolve political power down, to get their economy working and make their society sustainable.

In Croatia people are coming out in spontaneous and leaderless protests against the failure of 20 years of “market capitalism” to deliver any improvement in their lives. The reality is that the national government has been concentrating political and economic resources at the top, while waiting for an even bigger entity, the EU, to rescue them by bringing large-scale businesses to their economy. In the meantime economic policy has consisted only of selling public assets to large, and largely foreign, businesses, further impoverishing their ability to develop internal, localized, self-sustaining economic activity. Their legacy of 20th century Communist centralized planning probably contributed to the failure to develop a more diverse economy, but the failure to devolve political power was the root cause.

When the Industrial Revolution started it developed on top of an existing economy that had local and regional fabrics, but during the last century the codevelopment of large-scale industrial commerce and national political concentration has led detrimentally to an almost exclusive focus on enabling national, and increasingly global, businesses. Many, and far too much of, modern societies have become dependent on the prosperity generated by large-scale industrial businesses, and the large-scale service industries that support them. We have neglected local and regional development in favor of an almost exclusive focus on national and international structures. But the reality of human society is multilayered, wherein each person lives in a community, that is part of a region, that comprises some part of a state; and that natural truth of our existence has to be reflected in the way we organize our power structures and economic fabric if we are to develop sustainable human societies.

This weakness in the sustainability of our societies is not confined to Japan, Spain and Croatia; it is ubiquitous and pervasive around the world. Until we acknowledge the multilayered nature of our human condition, we will not make the adjustments to our political structures necessary to enable more deeply rooted and broadly-based economic fabrics.

If Japan devolves political power to their rural regions, those regions will develop the marketplaces and infrastructure that enables local businesses to meet local needs. If Spain and Croatia did the same they wouldn’t be so dependent on external financing to provide employment for such large percentages of their populations. Every society has sustainable economic potential in the needs and wants of its population, but in order to to develop that potential into prosperity each society has to enable marketplaces at each level of social organization (local, regional, national, etc) where needs can be met by willing providers at freely floating prices. The Industrial Revolution spawned the capital revolution so that the creation and recognition of value was not constrained by physical representation, and this revolutionary development allows for accelerated prosperity in non-capital-intensive micro economies, just as it does in large-scale, capital-intensive ones.

A sustainable economy is: multilayered, scale appropriate enterprise operating in free markets, fostered by universal service societies that enable marketplaces for local, regional, national and international commerce. The prerequisite for a sustainable economy is a multilayered, scale appropriate free democracy.

Scale matters. We cannot look to industrial-scale businesses to satisfy local micro needs, anymore than we can expect national politics to satisfy local community aspirations. We humans are multidimensional beings, living in multilayered social configurations, and only a structural organization of power and commerce that reflects those realities will serve us and enable us to develop sustainably.

Social Security is Serious Stuff

If you think that social security is the generous expression of care for others in a civilized society, think again.

This may come as a surprise to many Americans, even a few Europeans: a functional social security system is a vital underpinning for a capitalist economy. Without functioning social security, there is insufficient society to support a vibrant economy; social security systems actually catalyze economic activity, and the prosperity it generates.

There are other vital reasons for maintaining a functioning social security system (a basic social “safety net”): maintaining social peace, elevating confidence, satisfying our natural empathy and improving sustainability. But even without those reasons, our economy simply cannot prosper without social security. It’s serious business – social security is really important. It isn’t a policy “option”, social security is the imperative at the root of all the things we cherish about our peaceful and prosperous life.

In the face of massive debts and monetary instability, our “Total Economic Awareness” (TEA) delusion jumps up and we make the kind of mistake that everyone makes in a panic: we grasp for simplistic, obvious solutions. No money left: OK, stop spending it. That’s the kind of reaction you get to apologize for later, in your personal life (so long as you didn’t destroy something or do something unforgivable) but when you’re a sophisticated, modern society, that kind of reaction just won’t do. We didn’t come this far, or get to this point, without a lot of careful attention and wisdom gained from many experiences – we need to remember that, and cultivate the poise that allows us to make sensible decisions about serious matters at important moments.

The current fashion for degrading the social security of our societies, as a means of supporting huge debt burdens, is extremely dangerous and very short sighted. And this is happening just as we enter the times when climate instability is likely to test us all.

The reasons why social security is an absolutely essential foundation of our society include:

  1. Our social cohesion is fundamentally dependent on the maintenance of basic life services for everyone
  2. The health of our economy is dependent on broad economic participation, both as producers and as consumers
  3. Innovation requires risk taking, and social security encourages risk taking
  4. Situations and circumstances change: our societies and their economies need to transition as smoothly and quickly as possible
  5. The rule of law and the control of crime are dependent on broad participation by all
  6. The quality of our democracy is dependent on an educated, informed and involved citizenry
  7. Our ability to withstand shocks and natural disasters is heavily dependent on our social cohesion

Social security is not an optional, luxury expression of generosity, that we can afford to do away with when money is short. Social security provision is an absolutely essential, basic building block of a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable society – without it, peace, prosperity and our survival are all endangered.

How do we square that essential nature of social security, with the budget dilemmas and economic weakness of these times? To resolve this conundrum we must revisit what it is that makes up the essential nature of “social security”: it is the provision of personal security from the elements, hunger, sickness and depravation to each and every member of our society. This is not a monetary transaction, it is a social intention. We will not make our way out of this until we fully grasp the proper nature of social security.

In the Standards of LIFE we have modeled the impact of delivering social security as a set of universal services, and found that this not only fulfills the essential nature of social security, but has positive knock-on effects across the economy and budgetary process that address the concerns of fiscal responsibility and fosters sustainable prosperity.  We must solve our budget problems, resolve the monetary dilemma and build sustainable societies, all at the same time – and the only way to do that is with the parallel adoption of universal services and micro-economics.

Read more and find out how to fix our problems without breaking our societies at www.standardsoflife.org.

New Economics

Along with the newly emerging democracies of the world, a new economics is desperately needed. The current economic model is at the end of its road and that is readily apparent to many savvy observers.

There are two factors driving the need for a new economic model:

  1. The desperate need for social and physical infrastructure investment
  2. The crisis of monetary management

We can see a new economic model by reconnecting with the truth of our existence: individual humans, born in relationship and seeking purpose – in that order. Understanding that sequence and priority, we can place our economy in its appropriate context: our economy is a client of our society. In so doing we can shed the delusion of “total economic valuation” (in which everything has a price tag), and clearly see that there is much activity that is not, and cannot be, valued in monetary terms.

In the new economics, social value is not accounted for with money. Demonetizing social value immediately transforms our economics; it makes investments affordable, protects the value of money and creates sustainable social structures.

Investments

We need to make some massive investments. The demographics of the developed world demands social infrastructure to manage the changing ratios of contributors and dependents. The demographics of the developing world requires economic infrastructure to support the burgeoning youth population. And the demographics of the entire world requires physical infrastructure for transitioning to a sustainable energy supply.

Among the recognized investments that we all need to make are:

  • education – life long, civic and skills
  • energy – replacing stored & extracted with renewable & sustainable
  • transport – leveraging the new energy infrastructure
  • water, food and health
  • shelter and sanitation
  • information, democratic accountability and transparency
  • investment in research, innovation and development

These investments are not only large, they are essential! We have to find a way to make these investments, and no one in the current economic modus has got a clue, let alone a practical path to their accomplishment. The most significant reason why none of the current practitioners has advanced any concrete ideas is because they are mired in the current morass that is modern monetary policy.

Monetary Mess

The worldwide crises in monetary management of fiat currencies has exposed the fundamental flaw of attempting to visualize all human activity as economic activity: the debt burden is unreasonable and unsustainable. This is resulting in the need to bankrupt national societies just to try and maintain a delusion of currency rectitude.

The economists and economic policy makers of today are stuck between what seem to them to be unreconcilable problems:

  • massive public debt
  • unbalanced budgets
  • unaffordable social security systems
  • currency credibility issues
  • inflationary pressures
  • massive investment deficits

Central bankers across the world, in the vacuum created by political inaction, are trying to balance the credibility of their currencies and budgets with massive debts and the need for growth and investment. In a world where prosperity is seen as a gift to the people from the bounty of commercial enterprise, these problems cannot be resolved. But they can, if we just pause for a moment and observe the reality.

New Economics is the only option

Into this world of monetary and investment crises arrive the newly emerging democracies of North Africa and the Middle East. The need to replace decrepit, crony economies with sustainable economies is a parallel requirement of the arrival of freedom and dignity. The demands of the protests are overtly political, but they are subliminally economic as well. What do they see when they look around the existing economies for inspiration for their new world?

None of today’s dominant economic models are providing a sustainable path to a future for their current adherents, nor would they for any new arrivals. Read this collection of essays from some of the preeminent economic experts of the day, and you will see that no one has a solution to the debt v. investment conundrum we are facing. The Western capitalist models cannot balance their books without forever pushing their debts out to the next generation. The Eastern capitalist models are mired in inefficiencies, corruption and environmental degredation that do not deliver sustainability, while also being dependent on the suppression of freedom and dignity.  Neither of these offers a model worthy of adoption.

The new, sustainable economics seats the economy firmly within the context of society and generates growth out of untapped micro-economic capacity. The new economics provides the wellfair necessary to support aging populations, enables affordable infrastructure to create a new energy platform and delivers vibrant growth for coming generations.

New Economics is the result of a three step process that yields sustainable prosperity, affordable investment and sound monetary management:

  1. Understand the economy as a client of human society
  2. Take responsibility for society by delivering social value through Universal Services instead of welfare
  3. Unleash the total potential for growth using modern communications to enable micro-enterprise

To preserve the peace we have, and move forward to sustainable prosperity, we all have to take the first step. Ask yourself: “Am I a human being, or an economic asset, first and foremost?”. I think you will agree that you are a human first; and so it follows that your economic value and activity is a subset of your humanity. That too is the valid order and construction for human society. The economy is a subset of our humanity and it is an illogical and impossible task to try and value all human activity in monetary terms. When we assimilate this understanding and stop trying to “pay” for our social needs, we can liberate our economy to fill its natural role in the firmament of human existence.

The structure of New Economics is laid out at www.standardsoflife.org in full. The principles that reconcile the seemingly intractable problems of today’s economic systems are also discussed extensively in this blog – select the Economics category to see a full list of articles.

Money Flows

Hot money flows will not save the bankrupt status quo.

This week two news stories pointed to an issue that, wish it were otherwise, demonstrate the need for fundamental system change. The first story regards the fortune amassed by the Mubarak family during their rule of Egypt and the second concerns the massive scale of the corruption afflicting Indian society. Read the comments after the Indian article to get a real grasp of how this kind of corruption affects the core of a society down to the smallest neighbourhood, and this story that reveals the extent of the theft of public property in Egypt.

Where do these trillions of ‘hot’ currency go? They go into banks in the Western industrialized nations and their lackey tax havens – these three components form a coherent whole, interdependent on each other. This is colonialism by corruption, and the citizens of the beneficiary societies are as guilty of complicity today as they were 100 years ago. If you live in the West, don’t feel bad about it: you’re as much a victim as the citizens of the new ‘colonies’, because the same institutionalized theft is robbing your neighbourhood of resources just as much, through tax avoidance.

Why is this tolerated? Well it’s not tolerated by those who can’t do anything about it, in Egypt and India; they are just in a state of powerless despair. It is tolerated by those of us who can do something about it, because we have been unwitting clients of the system. The availability and use of debt to finance our distracted acquiescence has been the magician’s move that has drawn our attention away from the true play that is being made. In this trick there is a fine balance that the magician must strike, wherein the audience feels like it is getting more than it deserves, without actually getting real benefits. Like any sidewalk hussler, when the opportunity comes along to really cream a willing punter, the escape requires all parties to feel sufficiently guilty that no one feels entitled to recompense. This where the citizenry of the West is: asleep at the table, engorged on the fake food served up by the chefs in the kitchen while they resell the real food out of the back door of the restaurant to their buddies on the black market.

What can be done about it? The complete reorganization of the banking system. Preferably a coordinated reorganization encompassing the US, the EU, the UK and Japan; but even a principled stand by one of those financial centers would put the cat amongst the pigeons enough to disrupt the system and lead to change over the medium term.

What are the consequences? Without the hot, secret money Western banks will not be able to generate the profits they do today, nor would they be able to support the same level of employment. The fall off in tax revenues and employment in the client states would have to be offset, requiring a fundamental reorganization of commercial and social infrastructure. The net effect on tax revenues to Western states might even be positive, as banks pay a smaller percentage of their profits in taxes than the individuals and corporations who use the banks to avoid tax would have to pay on their incomes if they were properly declared. Potential benefits to non-haven states would be massive improvements in social wellfair, but would only accrue if accompanied by a significant democratization of their political systems – that democratization would be much easier to achieve without banking system support for corruption.

When will this happen? When the balance of benefits to the citizens of the haven states falls below even. The citizens of those haven states have already assumed the burden of the 2008 bank bailouts, but they have accounted for that with debt, so the full reality of those costs have not yet been bourn. The “plan” is to meet those debts over the coming decade by leveraging the same financial colonialism and conjuring (the failures of which created the debts in the first place) so that the massive increase in the money supply (aka ‘printing money’) that was used to account for the debts can be matched to grown wealth. This plan relies on the perpetuation of the existing banking system, complete with inflows of hot, corrupt money from all over the world. This is why today’s Western leaders will connive, lie and obstruct as much as they think they need to to protect the status quo, because they do not know how to plan for or adjust to a fundamentally reorganized society – they are not evil, they are just clueless.

The troubles with the “plan” are already becoming obvious. First is that the wealth that is being created is being confined to very small slither of the populations of the haven states, and, in a superb irony, they are using the same financial corruption to avoid adding to the wealth of states they inhabit. Second is that the debts cannot be satisfied with the growth that is available, and must be supplemented by sucking more wealth out of compliant tax payers through ‘austerity measures’. Third, none of the first two plans is happening fast enough to stop the excess money causing inflation, further exacerbated by real increases in the costs of raw materials. These problems mean that the haven states will start, this year, to raise interest rates to combat inflation, and in so doing push the balance of benefits for their average citizen firmly into negative territory. 20% youth unemployment, rising basic living costs and a kleptocratic ruling elite are the perfect ingredients for a revolution – witness North Africa, January 2011.

In the next few years, as real social disruption develops in Western states, a serious debate will emerge around whether completely reorganizing our economic and social frameworks is actually any less disruptive that attempting to maintain the old status quo. If we desire a constructive process of change we need to start thinking now about how that reorganization can manifest positively – that’s the reason to read and contribute to alternative thinking like the Standards of LIFE.

The Clarity Deficit

Why deficit spending is more populist than practical.

Deficit spending. It’s all the rage in the US, from progressive politicians to populist economists the call goes out for “greater spending to offset the recession”. Money’s cheap, the need is great and history shows it can work, or so they say. But is it that true, and is that really going to help?

The basic theory of maintaining demand in our economies is sound, but the proposal to spend borrowed money to maintain it has limited applicability (Jeffrey Sachs, Financial Times, June 2010). To misquote the master of fiscal interdiction, the economy can stay rational longer than policy can remain illiquid. We cannot at the same time profess belief in monetary economics and propose to subvert it. In other words, we cannot propose to inject more liquidity, more demand, into the economy without also proposing how to pay for it and what kind of demand we expect to stimulate. The debate must be about what to do in our specific context now, not about competing theories of economic policy. Our reality is that we are carrying structural budget and trade deficits into it a period that requires very significant investment.

The rationales for deficit spending today rely on appeals to empathy and historical precedent, rarely is there rational analysis of how the imbalance that they propose to create would be corrected. While the desire to do something to alleviate the plight and suffering of those victimized by the recession is both honorable and understandable, the proposed solutions must have a stronger foundation in the reality of our predicament and the practical possibilities available to us.

Let’s look at the arguments proffered to support the case for further deficit spending at this time. They boil down to two assertions: one, that the spending will stimulate future growth and that that growth (along with a little inflation) will make today’s borrowing affordable in the future; and, second, that the historical lesson of the Great Depression is that fiscal rectitude robbed us of an early exit, only rectified by the splurge of deficit spending that accompanied the Second World War.

First, the idea that growth and inflation will make our debts affordable in the future assumes that we grow our wealth and that inflation is controlled. The anticipation is that growth will exceed 3% and inflation will be constrained to single digits.

Just how much growth can our current economies sustainably achieve? Our modern economies are basically tooled for 20th-century style industrial growth, fed by an unsustainable power infrastructure. Any increases in demand today necessarily feed fuel into an unsustainable, waste generating economic system dependent on limited supplies of fossil fuels. The real need in our economies is for investment in re-infrastructuring to support sustainable growth, but that is not where anything but a vanity veneer of the proposed deficit spending would be directed. The principle supporting argument advanced by the proponents of deficit spending is that it will stimulate demand today, and we have to ask ourselves if that is not simply sacrificing our grandchildren to feed our comfort now, while wasting the opportunity to actually invest in our futures.

Even if we put aside concerns about sustainability, the cost of primary inputs into our economies today, from foods to oil and just about everything in between, are rising and forecast to increase by 50% to 100% within a decade (Sir David King, The Guardian, June 2010). Increases in demand today automatically trigger rises in the price of raw materials that are primary determinants of the costs basis of our economy; for instance, the price of oil is directly related to the prospects for growth in the US, and as soon as there is a predicted rise in US demand the price of oil goes up. These cost increases suck wealth out of the US economy in most cases.

Inflation is dramatically more likely than growth, to a point of near assuredness, if there is no real growth in wealth. Monetary economic systems are completely dependent and finely balanced on the concurrence of money supply and real wealth, the former without the latter necessarily results in inflation. None of the proponents are arguing that deficit spending today will directly result in real increases in wealth, the proposal is simply to maintain demand on the grounds that real wealth growth will be stimulated by the demand. This has some limited validity, but it is important to note that the vast majority of the proposed spending would be consumed immediately by the social needs of the society, leaving increases in wealth substantially lagging behind the increase in money supply. This is a recipe for inflation and would be spotted by the would-be lenders way before it becomes a fact, resulting in increased borrowing costs that would sap any increase in wealth achieved.

So if the assertion is that we will be able to grow and inflate our way out of the debts we create, we are wrong on both counts. We are unlikely to generate net growth and we are very likely to create inflation. And the inflation will not mitigate our debts because the markets will spot the risk and inflate the cost of our debts to compensate.

Turning our attention to the historical narrative offered to support the importance of spending our way out of depression, we need to look at the circumstances of that history and ask ourselves if we are in the same context today. The example is that the Western economies only truly emerged from the Great Depression when deficit spending dramatically accelerated with the advent of a concerted war effort in the 1940s. That history is true, but is deeply flawed as an example of what we could follow to emerge from this recession. The number and variety of reasons why the history does not apply to us are great but let’s have a go at a few of the obvious ones.

Firstly, World War II left only one industrialized economy effectively untouched: the USA. As a result of this preeminent advantage the US was able to grow its wealth very dramatically in the years following the war and thus easily afford to repay the debts. The years following WWII were effectively a free-for-all for the Americans, and to a lesser extent the British, because they had little or no economic competition. That is most assuredly and evidently not the case today. The world has many strong economies today and growth in US demand today will result in the accumulation of wealth over a much more distributed geography than was the case in the 1950s. In fact, deficit spending in the US today is most likely to result in greater increases in wealth abroad than it is at home, while the debt will be entirely American.

Second, the spending in the 40s was focused on production capacity, not demand enhancement. The equivalent today would be to spend all the money on greening our infrastructure, something we should do, but not the intention of the proponents of deficit spending. It is possible to invest without borrowing, as I explain later.

Third, the deficit in the 40s was funded from a basically domestic debt market when global fluidity was almost nonexistent. Today’s deficit must be funded in a highly fluid global money market, using international sources for at least half of the debts. This means that borrowers today are subject to the inspection and opinion of economic observers across the globe, who have a myriad of options for what to do with their money. Thirty, and even ten, year debt today is substantially more expensive than it was in the offered historical example.

Fourth, material input costs today are substantially more volatile than they were in the 40s. In the 40s and 50s the cost of many raw material inputs was still falling in real terms, as the effects of advances in the sciences of discovery and extraction increased available supplies, at the same time that speed to market and cost of production were reduced. This is most certainly not the case today; the cost of primary inputs into our economies today are only going to rise, especially energy costs.

Fifth, the demographics of the modern societies that host the economies of which we speak have almost exactly the reverse characteristics of the historical example. Today we have aging populations with high demands for social support within reproductively stable demographic profiles. Our futures promise greater social infrastructure burdens, not the larger contributing workforces of the 40s and 50s.

So, compared to the historical example: we have more competition for the benefits, greater constraints on activity and higher costs of borrowing, within a more globally fluid economy, with a completely different demographic profile.

The 21st century is not the 20th century, and we are not in the same position as our grandparents. The idea that we can spend our way out of this recession, like our grandparents spent their way out of their Great Depression, is both false and a disservice to the great pain inflicted on them by the worldwide war that created their circumstances. We must face our challenges with a clear understanding of the world we live in, and we must develop solutions in the context of our situation and with the objective of developing a sustainable future for ourselves, our grandchildren and the planet we inhabit.

Given the constraints on both the source and use of funds that we face today, it becomes apparent that rather than running up debts to fuel demand, we must invest in re-infrastructuring our economy while reducing our dependence on borrowing – a mighty challenge indeed! Which brings us back around to one of the motives for proposing the deficit spending: empathy for our fellow citizens and an understanding that our peace and freedom are dependent on a more balanced distribution of material security across our society. How can we reduce borrowing, increase investment and maintain our social cohesion simultaneously? That is what we need to do, and I doubt there’s a single proponent of deficit spending that would disagree, it’s just that they assume it’s not possible to do all three at the same time, and so they propose a remedy for one or two out of the three. In reality our social cohesion is doomed if we don’t do all three: debts, inflation and failure to adjust to climate changes are the three most common causes of social collapse.

In order to do all three there is one key factor that must be achieved: a reduction in real (aka monetary) costs. As we have just examined, this will not be a reduction in the cost of material inputs, nor a reduction in the cost of capital, so it must be a reduction in the remaining element in the cost of production: labor. The key to understanding how the cost of labor can be reduced is to remember that the “cost” we are talking about is monetary cost, measured in Dollars or Pounds or Yen. Monetary costs are significant of wealth, and costs paid in money are necessarily significant of the transfer of wealth. If costs can be met without money, then wealth does not get used to satisfy them, and wealth does not need to be borrowed to fund them.

There is a significant portion of labor costs that do not need to be satisfied with wealth transfer, these are the cost of satisfying what Maslow termed as “hygiene factors” in his Hierarchy Of Needs. That portion of labor costs that are made up of hygiene factors and can be satisfied with the transfer of labor instead of money, can be removed from the monetary cost equation. Those costs do not need to be funded with money, instead they can be “funded” by the transfer of labor within a social system. For instance, if transport is free to me, that reduces my need for monetary compensation commensurate to my need for that transport. Of course transport is not free, because there are material inputs to its provisioning and operation, but if that portion of the cost of transport that is represented by the hygiene needs of the workers within the transport system was satisfied in-kind, the monetary cost of the transport service presented to me would be similarly reduced. There is a cyclical and repetitive reduction in the cost of labor the more the hygiene needs of the workforce are met without monetary transfer. Because hygiene factors are nearly universal across the population, the exchange of labor as a replacement for currency has universal value and similarly reductionist effects on the cost of labor across the economy and society.

Even just the availability of hygiene services at reduced cost has the effect of reducing labor costs, even if many do not avail themselves of the actual services. Establishing the universal availability of basic services that satisfy the hygiene needs of the workforce at little or no monetary cost reduces the cost of labor in the economy significantly. The size of the cost reduction can be measured in that portion of income it is necessary to pay the labor component of satisfying hygiene needs; in most economies an easy indicator of this cost is some portion of the mandated minimum wage.

Analyzing the hygiene services in the modern economy (housing, food, health and elder care, education, transport and information access) suggests that 80% of the cost is attributable to labor, and of that about one third is the equivalent of minimum wage. If 50% of that is provided by in-kind services, the reduction in the cost of providing the hygiene services themselves is around 13%, a factor that is at least repeated throughout the private sector as well. If the cost of labor across the economy was reduced by half the minimum wage, sufficient monetary value would be liberated to invest in infrastructure without borrowing, and the cohesion of society would be enhanced. The impact on taxation revenues would be minimal because the hygiene portion of incomes is not usually tax burdened, and the hygiene services themselves are not typically subject to consumption taxes.

The move to universal hygiene services has the potential to negate the annual budget deficit of most industrialized countries at the same time as it enables development of a sustainable microeconomic fabric that generates real wealth across a broader spectrum of society, and enhances resilience against the turbulence of climate instability. Instead of increasing debts to increase demand which results in accelerated climate change, we can reduce debts to increase sustainable development that begins to mitigate our impact on the climate. If we were to implement universal services within existing budget constraints, reduce costs and invest in infrastructure, that would be a more relevant narrative for our current predicament than deficit spending to maintain unsustainable demand!

The 21st century is the birth of the global age and we must put away our 20th-century toys if we are to successfully navigate the waters of our modern world. Borrowing is a 20th-century tool that requires segregations and imbalances that are no longer sustainable, in the 21st century we must learn to live sustainably without borrowing from each other or from the planet. By definition a self-sustaining system prospers from its inputs such that its balance sheet is in equilibrium at the end of each cycle – that is the nature of the planet that hosts us, and it is a process we are obliged to align ourselves with.

Reimagining our options

Why borrowing, taxing, printing and cutting are not our only options.

Why we don’t have to tax, borrow, print or cut.

Has it occurred to anyone that these are not our only options?

The prevailing logic (we won’t call it wisdom) goes something like this, and I’m sure you’ll find this very familiar.

We understand the need for a social safety net, especially important in urbanized societies where the poor cannot “return to the farm” in bad times, and the value of certain investments in our social infrastructure that sustain our economy and our social fabric, but we cannot afford to pay for them – meaning that our government does not raise enough in taxes to be able to pay for the services.

Here, below, are the reasons and rationales offered for why this problem is only resolvable through austerity measures, meaning reductions in social services and investments.

1) We cannot raise taxes to create more revenue because those taxes will destimulate our economy, resulting eventually in lower tax revenues. In other words, raising taxes is a self defeating strategy that will only require yet higher taxes in the future, until the economy is so deteriorated that it cannot create sufficient wealth to support the burden of the social infrastructure at any taxation rate.

2) We cannot borrow any more because we have already tried that and now carry so much debt that simply servicing the debt we have is the best we can do.

3) We cannot print money, or at least we cannot be seen to be printing money for very long, because that will devalue our currency and create inflationary pressures in our economy. We all know what happened in Germany before the Second World War.

4) We have no choice but to cut our expenditures, and that means reducing our social services and investment in our social infrastructure.

Now, before we go any further, let’s deal with the objections that have already arisen in your mind.

1) “Taxes can be raised.”
It is true, we could be more effective in our tax collection practices and we could probably tax certain activities more than we are. In most countries, that have income tax rates at or above one third and sales taxes of between ten and twenty percent, there is actually relatively little room to raise taxes without deflating economic activity. However, the most important point here is that it would take really high rates of taxation, high enough that almost everyone would agree they were too high, to raise sufficient revenues to cover an even moderately ambitious social investment program. When you do the math you realize that you cannot tax your way out of this problem. If anyone tells you that you can tax your way out and that there are examples of countries that are, you can safely tell them that those examples, and that math, is dependent on borrowing demand from another society, i.e. unbalanced trade. There is no sustainable taxation solution to the problem of affordable social infrastructure.

2) “We can still borrow more.”
As I write, in the Spring of 2010, this only true for an increasingly small number of countries, rapidly dwindling to only one, and soon to be none. There are counties with vast (unsustainably) exploitable natural resources who can borrow, but they don’t need to.

3) “We can print more money, it’s not the bogey man many say it is. We’ve done it before, we can do it again now. We now have sophisticated financial control mechanisms that allow us to control inflationary pressures. A little inflation is not such a bad thing – it will help to reduce our debt in real terms.”
You can take your pick from those arguments but ask any central banker charged with controlling inflation and you’ll hear a real expert tell you otherwise. Liquidity in a modern economy is a difficult beast to control and playing fast and loose with it will get you in trouble, nine times out of ten. You might be able to increase liquidity inside the banking system for a while, but if that gets out into the general economy (which is where social spending has to occur) you’re going to get inflation.

4) “We can cut other expenses, such as defense, instead.”
A favorite of the passionately well intentioned, but unfortunately deeply flawed. The horrible truth is that the necessary social costs greatly exceed any savings that could be wrangled from waste and militarism. This is not to say that waste and militarism should not be targets for reductions in expenditures, just that even if you’re wildly successful in reducing these expenses you simply won’t be saving enough to pay for the social infrastructure required to make your intentions a reality.

And so we are returned to the matter of cutting expenses. It would seem, and indeed it is true, that we have no choice but to cut our expenses. We can only spend what we can raise from reasonable taxes, and the options to borrow or print our way out of our problems are but short term tactics for delay.

Stumped? Did I take you all the way here just to show you that we have no other options? No, I didn’t. We have to cut expenses but we don’t have to cut our social services. In fact we can increase our services and our rate of investment with the same or less money that we use now. How? Let me show you.

Social services aren’t, can’t, won’t and must not be measured in monetary terms. You aren’t paid in money to help an old lady get off a bus, to change your children’s diapers, pick up a piece of litter or care for an elderly parent. So long as you are secure in your own personal welfare you do these things for free. Well, not actually for free, just free of monetary compensation. You do these things because they are part of your social fabric, and you are rewarded in kind by a cohesive and supporting social fabric around you. Inside the appreciation of this simple mechanism lies the key to unlocking the door that leads to the solution to our problem.

As long as our basic social welfare is secure we make spontaneous and voluntary contributions without monetary compensation. Even those who think of themselves as selfish animals are unavoidably and instinctually engaged by this natural mechanism. We do not have to pay ourselves to deliver our social services, we just have to create the basic security that unlocks our potential for social contribution, by guaranteeing that basic services will be available for anyone who needs them.

The solution that we have not considered yet as an option is revealed to us through simple observation of ourselves in action.

There are still costs that must be paid for with money, but the remaining costs are within reach of a reasonable tax on the economic activity of a sustainable economy. To paraphrase a wiser man than I: pay in money what must be paid in money, and pay in kind what can be paid in kind.

The math adds up, I’ve done it, try it for yourself. Take a reasonable tax on people’s incomes and spend it exclusively on social infrastructure that will guarantee every citizen the bare necessities of life. We can afford to guarantee everyone basic shelter, sustenance, education, healthcare, public transport, access to information and legal services. Not everyone will want them all, most will only use some, and a few will use none at all. But a reasonable tax on economic incomes will generate sufficient monetary revenues to pay for the monetary components of a guaranteed basic social infrastructure for all. The enablement of this basic infrastructure removes the monetary cost of its own delivery through the liberation of natural human tendencies.

The mechanisms to enable this solution are already in place: democracy, tax collection and service delivery. All we have to do is subtly reorient our priorities and activities to dedicate income tax revenues to guarantee a basic standard of life. It would take less than three years to be fully implemented in most nations today, and would not require any dramatic upheavals to any of the basic economic systems already in operation. It will require us to reimagine the possible, but that is well within our grasp.

Here’s how it works. I, and you, are guaranteed by our compatriots at least the bare essentials for a reasonable life: a roof over my head, some healthy food, access to a doctor, education, local public transport and the Internet. Understanding that these basic services are available, I am free to seek whatever work I can find to supplement these services with cash, that I can use for discretionary activities like entertainment and comfort. There is no minimum wage because my basic life sustaining needs are guaranteed, and also I am not forced to accept any job just to keep body and soul together. In fact, I only have to work for as many hours as I need to meet my needs for discretionary income; I am free to spend the rest of my time at leisure or helping out in my community, should I choose to do so. “But what about those who choose to neither work nor contribute?” They would have no discretionary income, and everyone has discretionary desires – in time desire will lead to work and contribution. In this situation the monetary cost of our time is reduced and this same reduction makes the provision of the social services affordable from a reasonable tax. In fact, the more I help out voluntarily in my local community the lower the cost of those services and therefore the lower the rate of tax on my income.

Within three years just about any community could build a community center with a canteen and build or acquire sufficient public housing to fulfill the fundamental elements of the required basic social services. This effort is easily within the grasp of most communities in the industrialized countries. While those are being built nothing else needs to change, and when they are completed and in operation the minimum wage can be abolished. Everyone is freed to work in whatever way they can and want to to earn monetary income. For many life will not have changed at all, they still have their job, go to work every day and earn similar incomes and pay similar taxes. For our governments the cost of delivering social services will have been transformed with plenty of workers delivering the services either completely voluntarily or at substantially lower montary cost, enabling them to balance their budgets while still supporting a vibrant and cohesive social structure.

The square can be circled. This is the option right in front of us that we have not seen. This is the solution, an alternative to socially destructive and ultimately self defeating cuts, that does not require unreasonable taxation, unsustainable borrowing or inflationary printing.

Rinse and repeat, until it sinks in.

After that, to find out more go to Standards of LIFE.