Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Franz Hörmann’s Infomoney, Part I


Recently, George Monbiot proposed changes to Greece’s money system as a solution to their seemingly intractable predicament. Varoufakis has capitulated to the EU’s austerity demands, perhaps to buy time. The question is, for what? Can Syriza survive now? Greece cannot meet Europe’s demands, and given the boundary conditions I listed in an earlier post, neither should we want them to pursue the perpetual growth course, implicit in EU demands.

I’m sure it must be increasingly clear to more and more people that the System is broken, and thus that solutions must revolutionise the System to have lasting success.

So, what is the System? Is it capitalism itself? What is capitalsim, exactly? Is it fractional reserve banking? Is it perpetual growth? Is it casino/crony capitalism? Your answer will determine how radical your solution is. I believe perpetual growth is a fundamental aspect of the System, that waged labour is on its last legs, and that consequently an entirely new sociopolitical economic paradigm is required. The mainstream and most people appear to be as far from this view as they were in 2008, despite the visible awareness in the mainstream that each boundary condition I reference is in force (sadly, they do not explore their combined relevance and their interwoven nature).

A Columbia University study suggested that with a fleet of just 9,000 autonomous cars, Uber could replace every taxi cab in New York City – passengers would wait an average of 36 seconds for a ride that costs about $0.50 per mile. Such convenience and low cost will make car ownership inconceivable, and autonomous, on-demand taxis – the ‘transportation cloud’ – will quickly become [sic] dominant form of transportation – displacing far more than just car ownership, it will take the majority of users away from public transportation as well. With their $41 billion valuation, replacing all 171,000 taxis  in the United States is well within the realm of feasibility – at a cost of $25,000 per car, the rollout would cost a mere $4.3 billion.
Source (I recommend reading the article in full, it is extremely sobering.)
Interest on savings deposits is at around plus/minus 0%. Official inflation is far higher. In the first quarter of 2014, the first German bank (Skatbank, a subsidiary of a Volksbank in Thüringen) introduced a punitive negative interest rate. At the end of November, Germany’s second largest bank (Commerzbank)  talked of introducing a “fee for credit” for large businesses, groups and institutional savers with large balances.
Even Deutsche Bank does not rule out negtive interest rates. Jürgen Fitschen, Deutsche Bank’s joint CEO and President of the Deutsche Bankenverband: “Every institute has to tackle this issue.”
[…snip…]
So the next step will and must be that proposed by top economist Kenneth Rogoff: make cash money illegal. According to Rogoff, central banks would “therefore find it easier to implement negative interest rates and so better stimulate the economy.”
Rogoff realises that “paper money is the main obstacle to further lowering central bank interest rates”. In his view, eliminating paper money would be a simple and elegant solution to this problem. For then we would all be fully controllable.
Source (Die Welt, my translation.)
By definition, the elites are the gatekeepers of the system du jour. They will do whatever they can to keep it operational enough to maintain themselves as its primary beneficiaries. Negative interest is promoted by a few people for different reasons, and is an idea I find interesting. But, it is not a silver bullet, and implemented simply to reignite growth and in the absence of other fundemantal changes, it would be nowhere near radical enough, and quite destructive. A more reasoned use of negative interest rates is part of the “Plan B” (advocated by the German outfit Wissensmanufaktur) I outlined a few years ago.

However, the solution I find most interesting is Franz Hörmann’s Infomoney (Informationsgeld), and this post begins my translation of some of the website he has dedicated to explaining that plan. The idea is not perfect, it is just a proposal. I have my own quite serious reservations (including the excessive use of bold!). I offer it here in the spirit that Franz Hörmann (a professor of accounting at the University of Vienna) offers it: an idea to be discussed, and if possible tested (a German social-media forum called Osbee is doing just that, albeit at what looks like a very small scale). As a side note, Hörmann has been in touch with the Greek government to present his proposal, but I am not aware of any interest on their part.


Information money, part 1

The deed of partnership

Today's economic system is characterised by exchange between individuals. In other words, the system's participants complete bilateral contracts out of which arise claims and liabilities between the parties involved: a service rendered generates the realisable expectation of a prompt consideration (return service) that should be as equivalent as possible in terms of value.

If, due for instance to the scarcity of the means of payment in the money supply, this consideration cannot be rendered as payment, the parties to the contract sue each other. In other words, they fight. The initiating reason for this systemic development is always how banks keep the money supply restricted. (Apparently, banks perceive "increased credit risk" because of insufficient solvency on the part of the debtor, or feel they are faced with "increased refinancing costs". How this can be the case when bank money is created via a simple accounting entry on the liabilities side of the bank's balance sheet, no one can say.) In today's system, (bank) money is an abstraction of a medium of exchange: when people think of money, most imagine some equivalent of scarce gold coins being handed from person to person in economic circuits. But the "coins" we imagine don't really exist; modern money is primarily accounting entries treated and misperceived by the general public as real notes and coins.

The information money system does not use bilateral contracts. All the system's participants complete a deed of partnership with the entire community (the social network, the "Democratic Central Bank"). These contracts consist of: individual price systems (how much information money is spent (destroyed) on goods and services: accounting entry: "Expense on cash"), individual tariff systems (how much information money is created for rendering services to the community by a particular individual: accounting entry: "cash on equity"), and individual shopping baskets (which and how many goods and services of what type and quality are desired at what intervals). Therefore, information money is not a medium of exchange but an individualised KPI (key performance indicator). Information money can therefore be compared with a person's blood pressure: blood pressure levels are not used as a medium of exchange, and it makes little sense to compare them between different people. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense to compare your blood pressure level of today with last week's. A personal KPI is therefore not fully comparable between individuals. It is most relevant on the time axis of an individual's unique biography. In the exchange money system, bank money amounts represent the abstraction of a physical medium of exchange. In the information money system's deed of partnership, however, we interact with the abstraction of a contract partner. The Democratic Central Bank is a "dummy", a proxy for a contract partner. This means the deed of partnership can be adapted to the particular needs of each individual at any time. Because there are no bilateral contracts in this system, individuals are freed to cooperate, the constraints of the zero-sum game of double-entry bookkeeping are transcended and we enter the plus-sum game of a cooperation-based society. Information money would establish an economic and social system that can be fine tuned to the needs of each individual. The constant systemic pressure to adapt individuals to a rigid (the "only" ideologically correct) economic and social system would become a relic of history.

Individuals will be accompanied by a personal life coach when designing their social contract. Life coaches are specially trained to assist and accompany 25–30 people's pursuit of happiness by helping them develop their full potential. In other words, life coaches help their companions discover what it is they really want to do with their lives: that which springs from their deepest being. These activities are then added to the individual's tariff system in the knowledge that those activities that truly excite and inspire the individual will be most beneficial to the community.

Because information money is individually created and destroyed for each person, it generates and supports a social system that is cooperative and requires no redistribution. Neither exploitation (redistribution from below to above) nor expropriation (from above to below) are needed, desired or even possible. This social system transcends the zero-sum game of double-entry bookkeeping and initiates the plus-sum game of cooperation: we can all improve our standard of living, and this improvement is never at anyone else's expense.

Asymmetrical prices

In today's system, one price is agreed between buyer and seller that is the same for both: the bank accounts of each will be altered by this agreed amount. This procedure simulates the transfer of gold coins (that no longer exist).

But even today, no numbers (bits and bytes) are transferred from the buyer's to the seller's bank account. What actually happens is that the buyer's account is reduced by some amount, and the seller's account is increased by that same amount. And the fact that that amount is the same in each separate action is due solely to the pre-existing claim and liability (likewise of the same amount).

In the information money system, the buyer and seller each have their own individual deed of partnership. The tariff system in the seller's social contract stipulates that she "receives" amount X each time she renders a particular service (regardless of to whom) individually and freshly created (accounting entry: "cash on equity") directly to her account. One of her customers pays amount Y for this service – as stipulated in the price system of his own deed of partnership. This means that this amount of information money is deleted from his "account": accounting entry "expense on cash". Another of her customers has amount Z recorded in the price system of his deed of partnership. That amounts Y and Z are different (each customer pays a different amount for one and the same service) is perfectly fair. Information money is not comparable between individuals. Each participant operates within their own unique economic system, with its personalised price and tariff systems and shopping basket. The amounts Y and Z are also not comparable. To compare them, we would have to compute a special exchange rate that would be of no use to anyone: information money cannot be transferred (exchanged). It is a medium of cooperation, not of exchange.

Many goods, e.g. new cars, are still waiting in stock to be sold because they are too expensive. But if the seller could sell at the price she wants and her customer buy at the (different) price he wants to pay (asymmetrical prices), the markets would clear in no time at all.

All account activity is, however, individually transparent and legally regulated. Information money can only be used for goods and services bought by the end customerProduction occurs cooperatively and without the use of money. The means of production are made available by the community (the Democratic Central Bank) at no cost in the interests of cooperation. Only the products themselves are distributed to end users (consumers) using information money. 

Information money is individually created and individually destroyed. It is therefore like virtual subatomic particles that appear and disappear in the vacuum (quantum noise), and not like e.g. solid gold. Further, it cannot be compared between individuals. For this reason, it only has relative meaning within the individual biographies of each citizen.

This means that the principles of quantum physics and relativity have been echoed in economics. Information money is thus relativity- and quantum-theory money that is a medium of cooperation, not of exchange. It can guide us from exchange-based to cooperation-based economic and social activity.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Greece, Euro and Reality II


But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When pressed by a journalist for a clear answer on the “are we f**ked” question, Werner set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.” [...snip...]
[Werner] is saying that his research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability. And indeed that challenging this economic paradigm – through mass-movement counter-pressure – is humanity’s best shot at avoiding catastrophe.
I want to look at Grexit in a little more detail, as I may have given the impression in my previous post that the option of leaving the Eurozone was akin to the royal road to prosperity. I do not think that. I believe that the option can only work in particular conditions that all revolve around establishing a steady-state economics that can operate equally healthily with growth, zero and negative growth. This would mean leaving the prevailing paradigm behind, not an easy decision to make for a nation state. It is a path that would isolate Greece from international orthodoxy, an orthodoxy that has very powerful vested interests determined to perpetuate it ad infinitum. Alternatively, Grexit followed by Drachma then a return to normal growth might initially be less troubled (more below) but would run into the wall of peak growth at some point. Grexit followed by radical socioeconomic renewal is a beast of a very different stripe (more below).

I have to assume that Syriza has some sort of contingency plan for a Grexit, as it is a possible outcome. WWI started without anyone really wanting it to (apart perhaps from Germany, interestingly enough). To have no Plan B, to have all one’s eggs in one basket, is not wise in crises of this gravity. The unwanted position, however, is being the first fool to fully break with tradition. I was the first to do so in my own small circle of family and friends with three dependents and no debt, and it caused many a sleepless night. To do so as a heavily indebted nation of millions of people is another thing entirely. But, if perpetual growth is impossible, if it is pure fantasy to think this growth game can be extended forever, either nature corrects the situation whereupon the suffering will be far worse than a Great Depression, or we risk radical change. I think humanity, nations and individuals are confronted with that sort of choice today, though most do not want to face up to it.

At Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith is adamant Grexit makes no sense whatsoever, a view she says that Yanis Varoufakis shares, and certainly all his public statements confirm this. In a response to a commenter under a recent posting, she had this to say (my emphases):
I suggest you look in more detail at the case of Greece. There have been studies for years that show that Greece has an export mix that is will not benefit anywhere near as much as the textbook accounts depict from a currency devaluation. This has been confirmed empirically by Dani Rodrik, who is a highly-regarded development economist and no neoliberal, in a recent Project Syndicate column. In it, he describes how Greece has considerably lowered its wage rates, which has a similar impact to a currency depreciation, and has not gotten anywhere near the export benefit that you’d expect. And as we discussed, it’s not clear how much of a benefit it will get in the agriculture sector, since Greece will lose EU agriculture subsidies, while its competitors will continue to benefit from them.
This all feels to me like orthodox thinking that is predicated on the conviction that economic growth is always good, and can go on indefinitely. I checked the article she references and found it to be far more hedged that her characterisation of it (my emphases):
Currency depreciation works by lowering domestic costs in foreign-currency terms. One such cost has already come down significantly in Greece. Since the onset of the crisis, Greek wages have dropped by more than 15% – a process called, appropriately enough, internal devaluation. Yet the response in terms of exports has been disappointing. Though the country's whopping current-account deficit is gone, this reflects a collapse of imports – a result of austerity – rather than an export boom.
This fact on its own suggests that bringing back the drachma might not help Greece much. Greek exports appear to have been hampered by other factors. Higher energy costs (owing to increases in both excise taxes and electricity rates), credit bottlenecks, specialization in stagnant export markets, and generalized policy uncertainty all seem to have played a role. As a result, Greek export prices have not come down nearly as much as wages. Grexit might conceivably help with some of these costs, but it will aggravate others (such as policy uncertainty).
As ever in such analyses, there’s no doubt an enormous amount of data to interpret. We can never be sure of the correctness of our interpretation, far more so when the data is highly complex. Yves Smith appears to have a kind of background PR role to play in Greeces immediate future, and is trying, forcefully, to steer opinion to Varoufakis’ side. Her output, I have to say, is astonishing, and the quality of her analyses breath-taking considering its quantity and the rapidity of changing circumstances she is keeping track of, but it is all couched within the growth paradigm. This is of course understandable, since Greece’s exit from the international community would be a huge and extremely unconventional risk, especially as it is easier to convince ourselves we can get off the growth bandwagon later on when conditions are more amenable to that course. However, at some point this nettle must be grasped, and it is, typically, only when the pain of not doing so exceeds doing so. The unpalatable truth is that the nettle’s barbs become more poisonous the longer we delay.

Can Greece go it alone? How would it pay for its imports? How quickly can it manufacture e.g. its own cars? These are the devilish questions. I think it can head in that direction with good long-term chances of success considering the nature of the challenge, but it would be a very bumpy journey indeed. Ill now take a quick look at the basic essentials.

Food: It has good soil ferility, and a wonderful climate for food production. It currently imports a lot of food (including olives from Germany!), but need not in time. Were it to decide to go it alone, there is technology it can avail itself of (this for example) that would speed up its food production for the national transition to a more sustainable mix of e.g. permaculture and other more organic, petrochemical-free farming methods. It might also take a close look at what these guys are doing for replacement of tools and farming equipment.

Energy: it could produce its own energy using renewables (plenty of wind, sunlight, and tidal sources in Greece) and ween itself off fossil fuels as quickly as possible (more below). 

Transport: it could aggressively develop 3D printing solutions for cars, ditto biodegradble plastics, look at new mass transport systems and build them if required, set up car-sharing during the transition to other transport modes and models, set up co-ops for food distribution, etc. etc. 

There are no end of ideas out there that would slowly enable Greece to become self-sufficient, but it would have to abandon consumerism, set up a new money system, and draw support from communities that are passionate about these things, both locally and from around the world. Here I mean technical knowhow and inventive genius, not financial support. Given the right vision, I suspect there would be a huge desire to help Greece from around the world, not from the status quo, but from ordinary people.

On current energy requirements: in 2012, Greek industry, transport and domestic energy usage together accounted for around 75% of their oil consumption, agriculture for about 5% (transport is a little over 40%). I doubt things are significantly different today. A restructuring of transport and domestic usage would save plenty, i.e. far more home-office work, key workers could be relocated to live near offices where necessary, three-day week, car sharing where driving must be done, etc. In terms of imports, 33% of oil was imported from Russia and another 33% from non-Western sources, sources that would not want to punish Greece for going it alone. So fairly immediate reductions of around 33% might be needed to weather the transition to alternative energy sources. On a war-like footing (see below) this sort of cut is not unfeasible. Greece is more dependent on Russia for gas (60%), with the political loyalties to the west of other suppliers unpredictable, so a similar type of challenge here. Greek demand for imported oil was at 405,000 bbl/day in 2010 (cant find newer data). This equates to a little over $21m a day at current prices, and demand could be considerably cut by measures I outline above, perhaps to around $15m. Annual gas imports were at over 4bn cubic metres for 2012, which means about 11m per day. Gazprom prices are at around $485 / 1,000 cubic metres, which equates to a touch over $5m/day.

Transitional funding: Tourism is about 18% of GDP and could be continued more or less as is. This would be an influx of money that could fund immediate energy requirements: GDP is a little over $240bn. 18% of that is around $43bn, which equates to about $114m per day, more than enough to cover immediate, emergency energy needs, even if income from tourism were to halve (and there would be other sources of income too). Greece also has untapped oil and gas reserves that could also help to ease the transition. Things like rare earths and other commodities not local to Greece could be also purchased from the remainder of those funds, while local inventive genius is directed, on crade-to-cradle principles, to synthesising their replacements and building products that last (no need for built-in or perceived obsolescence once consumerism has been abandoned). Recycling of these commodities would also help. A relatively rapid transition towards renewables (energy independence) and an electrification of the Greek economy is thus conceivable guided by the right vision and in appropriate sociopolitical/socioeconomic conditions.

In terms of wages and local economic activity both state and commercial, this could be effected with a new money system (e.g. Infomoney, which I will detail in later posts). Imports would be purchased using dollars, euros, etc. acquired from tourism and other sources. So a dual money system to smooth the transition.
Governance would steadily devolve to a more Athenian model, to regional or city-state levels and become increasingly democratic. Notions such as wealth and profit would have to be understood very differently at the cultural level, to be seen as necessarily rooted in ecosystem, community and personal health, and also in the freedom to pursue that which our hearts desire and thus contribute to society from that passionate space.

Of course I have not considered everything (impossible anyway and this is a quick blog post), and am suggesting a very radical change, one Greek oligarchs and army generals will not want. However, I dont think a move of this kind is technically unfeasible. It is culturally and politically extremely unlikely. Again, it would be a bumpy ride to say the least, but once a people chooses to embark on a new direction, to really embrace a new vision of what is possible, miracles can be worked. This often happens when countries are at war. Greece would be on a similar psychological footing: self-preservation and survival as social fuels for deep change. It would be anything but easy, but as I say, the alternative (perpetual growth) is impossible. Within current orthodoxy, my reading is that on balance a return to the Drachma (via Russian and BRIC aid) is the better path: the Euro project is unsustainable anyway. However, who am I to cast judgment on such affairs!

Such change as I have sketched here must not be forced from above (as in the horrendous Great Leap Forward). It must be willingly adopted and understood by the people, and the Greeks appear to want to stay in the Euro. I do not believe Greece will follow the sort of path I prefer; it is simply too radical. Further, my sense is that the nation state is the wrong social structure for implementing radical change of this depth and breadth; if it happens, this sort of change will rise from below and slowly shuck off existing structures. I merely wanted to expand on my last post and put my radical cards on the table.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Greece, Euro and Reality

[Addendum: Tweaked on 12 February 2015, links added.]
[Addendum: Tweaked on 17 February 2015: de-simplification of explanation of high-powered money creation and destruction processes in the interests of accuracy (brevity can mislead).]


Now to Grexit, a.k.a. Greece’s possible exit from the Euro and Eurozone. I’m not going to trawl mainstream articles as I did in the last post, as their narrative is unanimous on one key point, “Syriza has to [insert preferred prescription here] to get Greece growing again.” The disagreement is on how. The why is not examined, for reasons I explored in my last post.

Syriza is a party of hope for those bearing the horrible weight of austerity. The party’s electoral success is an historic event. It is the first time, certainly in decades, that a non-mainstream and very young party (DOB 2004) has defied mainstream opprobrium to sweep to power in Greece. It calls itself a “radical left” party, but seeing as Syriza campaigned on staying in the Euro and Eurozone and that it wants growth, this label is more theatre than substance, regardless of its composition of various smaller left-wing parties. Syriza’s promises on a minimum wage (the UK and US have that), the reinstatement of pensions, more transparent politics, renationalisation etc. are not particularly radical historically speaking. In other words, they are what we might call centre-left policies (with renationalisation being an exception, though still hardly radical). Perhaps the reason the “radical” label goes uncontested in the media is due in part to how right wing consensus has become, and also to the party’s open defiance of the Troika, its willingness to speak its truth to power and vociferously reject the austerity narrative so favoured by Germany, Finland, Holland and others. But I do not want to get bogged down in that swamp of pedantry about neoliberalism, right- and left-wing politics, thrift, debt obligations, etc. Others do that far better than I care to: all of it stays within the mainstream’s preferred narrative of paying back debt no matter what, perpetual economic growth as an imperative, and never questioning the underlying system.

A little on Grexit briefly before I get to the meat. Syriza campaigned on staying in the Euro, but can they do so and defy Germany, Brussels, the Troika and a host of others? Can the powers ranged against Greek defiance allow Greece to defy and succeed? Surely they have to stamp down hard on Greece to discourage Spain, Ireland, then Italy and others from acting on similarly “radical” ideas that are favoured by their populations. In the other corner, Syriza wants to stay true to their anti-austerity programme, so they must defy. If they buckle and continue with austerity, they were a waste of the electorate’s time and hope, and the fascist Golden Dawn party are guaranteed to make hay in that bitter sunshine. My sense is that Syriza politicians are passionately and ideologically committed to their programme, and thus will not buckle.

So something’s got to give. Germany has made it plain they don’t fear Grexit, but I suspect this is a bluff. If Greece exits and makes a decent fist of life outside the Euros embrace, this will encourage the others. (And Germany has a small but growing and vocal anti-Euro segment while around 75% of the public does not trust the mainstream press.) This means that all efforts would be made to turn the country into something resembling a failed state. On the other hand, there’s Russia waiting to adopt the abandoned baby (China, Brazil, India?), so Greece might be tempted away from the Euro should circumstances coalesce in that direction, as I think they will. So, in other words, I think Grexit is coming sooner or later and believe it will be messy.

What I want to examine here in more detail is what can be accomplished within the current money system and broader growth-based paradigm, primarily by Greece but by extension any other nation. My operating assumption is that the economic growth required by capitalism is over, and that this fundamental situation is causing constant economic and political disruptions across the globe. The reasons for this are varied, but primary among them are:

1.       Automation blocking the flow of money through the economy, and attendant weak wages are contributing to anaemic demand and insufficient purchasing power
2.       The bumpy peak oil phenomenon
3.       Consumerism losing its appeal at the edges (and increasingly in the centre)
4.       Peak debt in the private sector a.k.a. tapped-out consumers = insufficient purchasing power (see below)
5.       The decline of ecosystem health across the planet.

While each factor receives sporadic attention from the mainstream media as isolated issues, it is their interconnected, cumulative effects and profound implications that are studiously overlooked. The powers that be are systemically required to continue to flog this dead-horse system to mincemeat for fear its death spells their demise before they reach sufficient escape velocity and fully decouple from the hoi palloi. A delusion on their part no doubt, but I think we all know how hard it is to drop cherished delusions, especially those we believe define us.

Given these conditions, Greece can accomplish very little indeed within or outside the Eurozone, since neither location changes any one of them. Even leaving these vital issues to one side, as a member of the Eurozone Greece cannot raise money by its own fiat, as that power has effectively been ceded to the ECB: when a member state’s debt exceeds 60% of GDP it may no longer issue its own bonds. Greece is at around 175%. In effect, Greece needs permission from the Troika to pay out pensions at the level that makes sense to it, to pay teachers and police the higher wages it believes they deserve, to invest in infrastructure development etc. Being granted permission to take on more debt to pay off existing debts comes with a whole raft of neoliberal demands that rule out such state largesse. Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s finance minister, has put forward a “Modest Proposal” that, riddled with the language of perpetual growth, suggests debt swaps to get the ball rolling again. However, considering the country’s anti-austerity ambitions, its hostility to the Troika but loyalty to the perpetual-growth paradigm and the overlooked boundary conditions, not only are such band-aid measures falling on deaf ears, they will fall short of producing the desired effects, even though a short bounce back from the depths of a very nasty economic depression is achievable. Should this New-Deal proposal be green lighted by Russian backing and thus outside the Eurozone, the boundary conditions do not change. I am not aware of any plans to change the money system itself, though a proposal has recently been made (German article) to that end by Professor Franz Hoermann and Sarah Hassel-Reusing.

So, these are the current rules of the money game, and the Modest Proposal sticks to them, Euro or Drachma. Money is created as debt one way or the other. Interest-bearing debt in this model is backed (sustained, kept going) by expanding economic activity, not gold or other single physical resource, though cheap oil is of course critical to strong growth. If there is too-low, zero or negative growth, the debt-money system implodes, i.e. recessions, depressions and anaemic growth are invariably Bad Things. I examined this in my last post from a narrowly money-system angle, I want to examine it here from a crude, structural angle to make a very simple point. I’ll start by sketching the economy as a whole then proceed to some thought exercises.

A modern economy is basically composed of a public (state) sector and private sector at the broad, macro level.

There is, in keeping with this, both state debt and private debt.

Following from that there is high-powered money and bank money. Both are brought into existence as interest-bearing debt one way or the other.

A state creates new high-powered money when it repays its debt. Private debt is incurred when commercial banks create new bank money (issue loans) to firms and individuals.

High-powered money resides in central-bank accounts held at commercial banks. These accounts are currently awash with high-powered money after the various tranches of quantitative easing. This money represents, theoretically speaking, the “reserves” against which commercial banks are said to issue new bank money via loans to private firms and individuals (fractional reserve banking, though banks in Canada and the UK are allowed to loan money into existence against no reserves, i.e. how it happens in the real world is different). If banks don’t create bank money as loans, high-powered money does not lead, as it were, to more bank money via lending. More simply, it does not reach the consumer. This system feature lies behind all the talk of getting banks lending again.* Commercial bank lending is how our economies are kept lubricated.

Both sectors are thus always indebted, because money is created as debt in both. One corollary of this is that if all debts were repaid tomorrow morning, there would be no (bank) money in the economy (about 97% of the money supply). Money is debt. However, there is nuance. I.e., commercial bank money disappears from the economy as commercial loans are repaid, while high-powered money is added when government repays its debts (government debt is replaced with high-powered money). 

The relationship between central and commercial banks thus mirrors (slightly) that between oxygen-emitting plants and oxygen-breathing animals, only the relationship is nowhere near 50-50, but about 3-97. The trick is how money is moved through the economy to effect economic activity (wages, buying and selling) and how to keep the relationship between that movement and the overall money supply on the one hand balanced with economic activity and growth on the other (i.e. controlling inflation/deflation). We cant just spend money into existence with total abandon without somehow destroying it too; the money supply would balloon far beyond what economic activity could bear. The system is designed with this in mind: debt repayment removes bank money from the economy, taxes and selling government debt remove high-powered money from the economy. However, there is always interest to pay, and that requires exponential economic growth: one systemic effect of interest is that there is never enough money available to cover the interest owed. This creates a musical-chairs atmosphere of constant competition, where survival tends to be about being the biggest, i.e. always growing, always increasing profits and market share. And this dynamic dutifully adheres to the state (or civilisational) project of Human Ascent.

So, were money not created as debt, it would be printed (or spent) into existence, as a government might do faced with the thought experiment below. But I think most of us know how taboo that is in real-world circumstances. It should also be apparent why the problem of growth is such an intractable problem, institutionally speaking.

(As an aside, if you think your money is yours, that because your current account is in the black and you owe nothing to anyone you are thus not debt, your money is nevertheless owed by someone to a bank somewhere and is thus someone’s debt. To make matters yet more counterintuitive, money at the bank is in fact the property of the bank. You are allowed to use your money while the bank deems it permissible for you to do so. Banks may close their doors during a bank run, for example. (Remember the Cyprus bail in?) The system is more important than the individuals of which it is composed.)

The reason we constantly hear of debt mountains during busts (but not booms), is because low growth inhibits commercial banks from issuing and consumers and private firms from taking on new debt (tapped-out consumers). The system stops functioning as debt repayments gradually exceed earnings throughout the economy. Low, zero or negative growth and debt-as-pain are thus synonymous, hence the mantra Growth is Good. When the economy is growing, debt is invisible or not generally problematic at national and international scale. When it is contracting, debt becomes an issue.

After quantitative easing, poor economic growth in the ‘real’ economy of manufacturing and widget production means banks increasingly seek their profits by gambling high-powered money on the stock and commodity markets, hence that is where we currently see very visible growth, or bubbles. This means the financial sector rises and falls in a volatile way while everyone else suffers worsening malaise. What to do?

Back to Greece. Syriza’s solutions stay within the system and broader paradigm. They want to swap out painful debt for less painful debt to free themselves to stimulate their economy by directing purchasing power via restored pensions, public-sector salary increases and infrastructure investment directly into the pockets of consumers, thus bypassing commercial bank lending. The consumers will then dutifully go out and buy with renewed abandon, thus collectively causing an uptick in GDP. This will boost business confidence, which will lead to banks again seeing profit on the other end of issuing credit to businesses and individuals, and we return to normal. Après le bust, le boom!

This looks relatively sound on paper and would no doubt conjure a recovery from the bottom (not in itself a bad thing considering the suffering of the Greek people), but let’s look at this (old) idea in light of the boundary conditions I listed above. To do so we’ll start with some simple thought experiments that, hopefully, will bring into relief important economic distinctions between the public and private sectors.

Imagine that all commercial manufacture, retail, food production and distribution, i.e. the entire private sector, is now automated and requires no human labour whatsoever. All that remains for humans to do is teach, police, put out fires etc., all paid for by the state. What happens to money flow in this bizarre scenario? The state pays money into people’s pockets, they buy stuff over the internet that is delivered by driverless vehicles to their door. From whom do they buy? The owners of the means of production who continue to attach price tags to their goods and services. So money flows from state coffers through consumers’ pockets and on to the owners of capital. Either the state taxes back that money 100% to pay its workers next month, or it borrows and borrows and borrows, going deeper and deeper into debt.  Private individuals do not exchange money among themselves at all in this scenario, so the number of times money changes hands is one: from consumer to owner of corporation. Money flows straight to the owners of capital who earn pure profit, more or less (I’m leaving out the costs of raw materials, utilities and land for the sake of argument). Therefore, the only point at which the state can realistically exact tax is from the owners of capital.

There’s an obvious pointlessness to the above highly fantastical sketch. Of course, I haven’t added banking and interest rates nor considered who builds those websites etc. because it doesn’t illuminate my central point, which is this: What balance of public and private economic activity is healthy for an economy? This is of course the stuff of endless and heated debate, but it should be obvious that it can’t be 100% state. I’ll repeat and italicise that: it can’t be 100% state.

Back to the boundary conditions. The commercial sector needs fewer and fewer human workers to produce the abundance of consumer goods there is not enough effective demand (purchasing power) to consume. The environment cannot cope with the amount of resource depletion consumerism is exacting on it. More and more people are unsatisfied with consumerism. Peak debt, peak oil, peak other stuff are coming home to roost. In short, demand is too weak for the system’s perpetual-growth needs. If the state stimulates demand via direct spending (not via commercial bank lending), will increased consumer spending lead to meaningful and secure private sector jobs for a sufficient number of people? Or will corporations’ increased profits resulting from this state largesse free them to rationalise, invest in new automation technology and further increase their profits? Will ecosystems allow this game to go on indefinitely? Will ordinary folk be forever enthralled by the hollow allure of consumerism as ecosystems fail, as their hunger for authenticity and community grows?

I have worked in the automotive sector as a translator and translated documents that detail how wages are the only cost companies can tweak (downwards) to increase profits. Staff are an unwanted overhead best minimised. The competition is very fierce in the automitive sector, and no doubt elsewhere. If Corporation A doesn’t downsize to stay price competitive, Corporation B will and then eat into A’s market share via lower prices. As this pattern increases and meaningful, well-paid work disappears, the state will be under pressure to take up the slack more and more so as to furnish consumers with enough purchasing power to buy what is on sale. If they want it. If the planet can cope. If Neoliberalism permits or yields to Neokeynesianism.

Now imagine the energy problem is attacked with vigour. Oil and other fossil fuels are no longer needed. There is suddenly an abundance of cheap, renewable energy. Now is sustainable growth possible? Not really. Cheap, green energy does not change the spectre of technological unemployment, in fact it makes it worse. It also does little to nothing to reduce consumerism’s environmental footprint (mining, soil fertility, plastic crap, toxins etc.), except on the carbon-emissions side.

Consumerism, a.k.a. the inevitable Cancer Stage of Capitalism, is the wrong economic model for current realities, regardless of Grexit, Euro success, austerity, government-side economic stimulation and so on.

We are already asking too much of the state and in pursuit of the impossible anyway: perpetual growth. For systemic reasons we cannot ask the state to carry 100%, or 90%, or 80% etc. of the economy. Indeed, 50% is probably too high for systemic reasons, and I believe some countries are steadily approaching that figure. Neoliberals probably want to see it down at 10 or 20%, but purchasing power would collapse.

As ever, short-termism prevails in the desperation austerity has wrought, medium-term thinking is the best we can do in the circumstances, and that at the fringes of political and business activity. We will thus stay mired in this systemic problem (absent little, short-lived growth spurts here and there) until the underlying perpetual growth dynamic and the boundary conditions I set out here are seriously, openly and wisely discussed right across the planet, and until radical change is pursued. Syriza appears not to want to address this and is thus nowhere near radical enough, though I commend them for their courage and integrity.



* From Bloomberg:
Banks may now be less reluctant to pass on negative rates to clients thanks to surplus liquidity.

“Banks don’t have a need for deposits, and the demand for loans by households and firms is weak,” Niels Storm Stenbaek, chief economist at the Danish Bankers Association, said in a phone interview.
“[T]hanks to surplus liquidity” references quantitative easing. There’s a tonne of money out there in commerial bank accounts. Consequently, banks no longer need customer deposits, and on top of that demand for debt is weak. Banks are making huge profits nevertheless, not by lending to the private sector, but by gambling all that high-powered money on the markets. This explains the divorce between market boom and real-economy malaise.