By Ursula Pidun / 19. April 2013 [Spreezeitung.de] (translation: Toby Russell, April-May 2013, original article here)
Professor Franz Hörmann, the Austrian financial expert who was provisionally suspended from his post last year after accusations of anti-Semitism, is lecturing again at the University of Economics and Business in Vienna. His criticism of the existing money system is still acute – as is the euro crisis. We wanted to find out more.
Two years ago, we conducted an interview with Professor Franz Hörmann, a financial expert who was at that time and is now again lecturing at the University of Economics and Business in Vienna. We discussed his views on: “The absurd money system” [German]. The euro zone has been buffeted by considerable turbulence since that time. Harshly prescribed austerity measures for the weaker EU states have led to worrying social unrest, while ever rising unemployment is destroying Europe’s hopes for a better future. We discussed these issues and their causes with Professor Hörmann.
Professor Hörmann, you are and were no friend of the existing money system, but we all have to live with it. Is everything currently slipping out of control?
It is now becoming apparent to the broader pubic that something is fundamentally wrong with our system, that the problems confronting us cannot be explained away with reference to ‘business cycles’ or to the ‘incompetent economic policy of particular countries’. Standard explanations are no longer sufficient in view of the comprehensive nature of societal indebtedness (companies, states, banks and individuals); the simple logic of double entry bookkeeping requires that each liability is balanced by an opposing claim of an equal amount.
Austerity is nonsensical because numbers in bank computers don’t have to be ‘saved’. Social unrest could be ended immediately if the public were provided with purchasing power instead of jobs, although here the question of sustaining money’s value arises if we think of money as a scarce medium of exchange and not as individual (personalised) vouchers. If, further, we were to cooperate within individual business sectors instead of competing, we could free ourselves from unwanted work via increasing efficiencies from the resultant synergies while preserving purchasing power and standard of living.
Many of your contemporaries (including politicians) talk freely of a crisis in Europe, but isn’t it rather that we have a euro crisis or, a bank debt crisis?
Exactly. The true root of our problem is neither Europe nor the euro (as a currency), but can be traced directly the booking method used by banks to extend credit: claim (of the bank on the borrower) on liability (of the bank on the same borrower). This is how a double entry debt is created, in which the bank’s debt corresponds exactly to the borrower’s credit in his/her bank account. We use this bank money to ‘pay off’ bank debts which – assuming we don’t withdraw the money as cash – are never actually paid off, but are used over and over again, indefinitely, as a means of payment. That bank balance sheets do not survive this process over the long term is a matter of simple logic.
Will the banks be brought sufficiently to account? And if not, how might such be effected?
I don’t feel that the expression “brought to account” is entirely appropriate. We would only need to pursue such a course of action if someone had knowingly transgressed clear (accountancy) rules. This hasn't happened. What we do have is a standard accountancy procedure which happens to be inappropriate and whose broader effects are understood by only a small fraction of bank employees. Those who have understood it often leave their jobs. So I don’t really believe that we would gain from pursuing legal action. Far more helpful would be a fundamental system change, as proposed for example by “positive money”, that is, the creation of money as purely electronic equity and not as borrowed capital (e.g. booked as ‘cash on equity’) under transparent, democratic control, i.e., not in the hands of private, profit-seeking companies (see e.g. http://www.positivemoney.org/). Money is currently (at least conceptually for most people) an essential component of the real economy. Its (artificial) scarcity, as a way of maintaining value or justifying interest rises (e.g. due to ‘increased risk’) should really be seen as extortion.
Savers have been asked to pay up (at least in Cyprus) for the failed speculative business activities of their financial institutions, although this was in fact a cloak and dagger action. Do you think it was legitimate?
Your phrasing, which reflects the public’s impression, expresses several inaccurate conceptions of the affair. First of all, this has very little to do with “failed speculative business activities” as the true cause of the ongoing banking crisis. If failed speculation were the cause, then according to the logic of double entry bookkeeping each speculative loss would be balanced by another player’s speculative gain of an equal amount. This is obviously not what is happening. All banks are irredeemably indebted for the same systemic reason; bank money creation as bank liability accountancy entries, not “speculative business activities”. The official explanation serves merely to distract and confuse politicians and public alike. Secondly, savers weren’t invited to pay, their ‘credit’ was written off. Basically, bank debts (i.e. savers’ money on account, a.k.a credit, is just bank debt, see above) were reduced using accountancy procedures. This ‘money’ is actually the property of the banks.
Money that people hand over to banks becomes bank property. In return, the ‘investors’ receive claims against the bank. Neither politicians nor the public are sufficiently aware of this. As long as ignorance on this matter prevails, the necessary reforms will not be pushed through. So while this action is, in my view, systemically legitimate, it was of course an imposition on bank customers. It is precisely this effect (system legitimacy to the considerable disadvantage of individual parties) that demonstrates amply how today’s banking system (i.e. the system of bank money creation) simply cannot work (to the satisfaction of all)!
How likely is it that this sort of action will be carried out in other European countries, despite the earnest denials of those in charge?
It's not really a question of probability. This sort of thing is going to happen in the near future with absolute certainty in all other countries. The reason is simple; bank money creation as laid out above is practised everywhere. Irredeemable bank over-indebtedness is thus just a matter of time, and a question of how creative accountants and regulators can be.
Banks have systemic relevance for all citizens, as we live in a cashless money system, more or less. Is it legitimate for financial institutions (as happened in Cyprus) to shut down their services, for weeks, to prevent a bank run?
In my opinion, this was either a badly planned (panic) action by the responsible banks and politicians, or a test to see how the population would react. But both possibilities erode trust in the existing system. A deeper objective could of course be the promotion of a purely electronic money system, which would render bank runs a thing of the past. But for democratic and political reasons such a system may not be owned and run by private monopolies.
All manner of experts are popping out of the woodwork with countless proposals and recommendations for the euro crisis. Whether debt jubilee or Eurobonds, the hope is the same: sort out this self-made mess. Do you see in any of these proposals any possibility of success in the current circumstances?
All of these proposals will at best win a few months more growth before the debt money system implodes. None get at the root of the problem, nor make any attempt at a sustainable solution. Instead they all preserve bank money created as bank debt. This reluctance to address the root cause is dragging us closer and closer to the edge of the abyss. A truly effective method would be one which is standard for any company reorganisation: the conversion of borrowed capital into equity. Because owners of bank money only really possess claims (i.e. their money is also the bank’s liability), it would be reasonable to make them co-owners of the bank instead of simply writing the money off (in other words, destroying it). Put another way, from the point of view of the bank, borrowed capital would be converted into equity. As co-owners they would then automatically have a voice in the business activities of their bank.
What will it mean for European Union stability if effective measures for putting an end to this lasting crisis are not implemented soon?
Society will split into two groups in the foreseeable future. One will consist of those who have understood the principles of bank debt and thus refuse to accept accounting entries as legal tender or as legal ‘debt’. The other will consist of those who have not understood the bank debt system and thus persist in seeing money as a thing of value, as a tool well suited to effecting transference of private property. At some point, the former group will, in large numbers, begin to inform the rest of the population about the existing system, after which reform will be possible.
What, in your view, would be the best and most sustainable way forward out of the current chaos?
I believe there are three necessary steps that could easily be followed with a minimum of mutual understanding and cooperation between all participants (i.e. bankers, politicians and the general public).
- Positive Banking: The financing of companies using registered securities whose interest is created for investors ‘out of thin air’ but at an amount backed by the real economy. If real returns decline over a period, the investor can at any time, for example, be paid off at 125% (with freshly created money) which reduces the investment risk to zero. Because the securities are registered, there can be no speculation or associated market manipulation. The banks can earn more in this system and be more secure than with today’s investing in shares and bonds.
- Positive Money: The creation of purely electronic money (“full reserve banking”) via the accounting entry “cash on equity” throughout the entire banking network on behalf of the state and monitored by democratic processes. The electronic payment units represent legal tender as the property of bank customers. The creation of bank money includes both a democratically legitimated guaranteed income, and a legally founded and transparently organised democratic price control system for guaranteeing the ‘value’ of this money (for as long as we still need a medium of exchange).
- The end of the exchange system and the transition to a cooperation-based society through “Information Money”: if we progress our thinking a little further, we see that we don’t actually need to conclude contracts with each other (out of which claims and liabilities then arise) to be able to cooperate economically. In today’s system (money as a medium of exchange) we have an abstraction of an exchange medium. We behave as if we are passing valuable (gold) pieces around in a circle, even though what is being ‘moved’ are valueless digits in bank computers. Nothing is really being passed around. Numbers are simply created and deleted. If all citizens were to conclude their (life) contracts with the whole community (the network or the “democratic central bank” responsible for creating legal tender as an abstraction of the exchange partner), prices could be established asymmetrically. In other words, a seller receives e.g. 10€ for each widget sold, an amount that is then booked/created as an accounting entry under “cash on equity (at the democratic central bank)”, e.g. via a UID such as a social security number. But his/her customers pay individual prices; one pays say 5€ for the widget, another perhaps 20€. These ‘prices’ belong to their personal life contracts (booked as “expense on equity”, but this ‘money’ remains in their individual accounting circuit from which it is also destroyed).
That sounds highly theoretical. What happens in practice, for example with regards all important purchasing power?
Well, we don’t need to concern ourselves with awkward questions on money supply and circulation, positive or negative interest rates, inflation etc. Prices, wages and baskets of goods can be individualised for each person. “Information money” is thus not a medium of exchange. It is purely a measure or reflection of an individual’s social activity which only has relevance within the biography of each individual. “Information money” only serves as a personal comparison within an individual’s timeline, not as a medium of exchange. It’s like your blood pressure data; it’s not used for exchange, not really compared with others’ either, but is indeed very relevant to your personal history. “Information money” makes possible the political transition from collectivism (in which baskets of goods, prices, inflation, wages etc. are “regulated” collectively for everyone by the free market) to individualism (each person develops according to his/her personal abilities and passions) as a basis for sustainable and exchange-free cooperation.
And in your opinion this would then lead inexorably to a more just society?
What I find particularly attractive about this system is that it would give rise to a society free of redistribution. Information money is created for each individual in accordance with their unique needs and then destroyed on payment. The two great sources of social conflict, namely exploitation and expropriation, are impossible in this system. Land and productive capital could be purchased from their owners by the democratic central bank (using freshly created money) at simply and transparently calculated prices, a purchase that would bring land and capital into cooperative, moneyless production. Only goods and services (while they are still ‘scarce’) would be ‘bought and sold’ (distributed) in accordance with information money rules.
Goods and services that are already available in abundance would simply be ordered and distributed with no need for any symbolic ‘service in return’ (payment). Premiums (in the form of vouchers, but also perhaps as personality shows, i.e. as immaterial values) would function as an incentive for innovators to improve existing methods of production so as to produce still scarce goods and services in sufficient quantities to meet total demand. So while today’s owners of resources and means of production would be reimbursed with freshly created money in payment for use of their property, the lower echelons of the income pyramid would be furnished with purchasing power (likewise with freshly created money) in the form of a guaranteed income, but all without any need to take these amounts away from anyone else. We would be leaving the zero sum game of today’s system behind us and entering a “plus sum game”, in which all participants can win simultaneously, as one person’s win would never be to someone else’s cost.
Which other factors contribute to this “plus sum game”.
Because prices are individually regulated, the purchasing power of information money is sustained. This money is no longer a medium of exchange that only retains its value by virtue of being kept scarce. Information money therefore represents a record of personal social activity, and is not a medium of exchange. It is created at the level of the individual (‘out of thin air’) and then destroyed, echoing what we see as quantum noise in the vacuum where virtual particles endlessly appear and disappear. Moreover, because this money is bound to a personal basket of goods and a personal price and wage system, it is also no longer comparable between people, just like blood pressure data. It is thus an entirely relative ‘money’ that can only be meaningfully interpreted within each person’s biography. We would thus be mapping quantum and relativity theory to economics. This advance would free individuals to cooperate in a self-determined way.
For you, a radical rethink or a totally new financial and social system has priority. Is your approach felt by other lateral thinkers as an attack, and to what extent are some trying to undermine you?
Defamation, denunciation and intrigue are sadly part and parcel of the old rule set, at least in the minds of some. But if you keep your head while also continuing to behave in a friendly and cooperative manner, then I think you have a better chance of convincing those who no longer want to fight to maintain this defunct system (spiritually or mentally), that we can at any time transition to a win-win situation. We need only talk honestly about our true concerns and feelings (standard of living, feelings of power, socialisation, fears etc.), instead of continuing with disproved theories or personal antipathies as the basis of our communication.
After the denunciations and subsequent suspension from the University of Economics and Business in Vienna, [German] you are back at your old post. Does the justice system work?
As they could not prove any infringement of the law on my part, and as words and expressions were attributed to me that I had in fact quoted from other sources as examples of divergent opinions, against which you should be arguing vigorously (assuming you’re passionately interested in these particular historical details), the reaction on the part of the judiciary was predictable. But of course the damage to my reputation remains. There are still those who, due to the fear of being associated with any hint of right wing extremism, are afraid of contacting me or my fellow campaigners. So I believe that was the real intention behind the accusations, to keep my purely factual ideas out of the political debate.
Your ideas are still controversial. Are you fully rehabilitated, or has some of that mud stuck?
Every reformer or innovator remains ‘controversial’ right up until the practical implementation of their idea proves it valid. I like to remember the story of the Wright Brothers. They were simple bicycle mechanics not blessed with any particular academic acumen, and yet, at the turn of the twentieth century, were the first to build a functioning flying machine. Only five years before, the recognised scientific luminary, Lord Kelvin (founder of the famous temperature scale) had the following to say about machine flight: “Heavier than air flying machines are impossible!” Social methods, or elements of the information structure of the economy (and ‘money’ is nothing more than that from a purely technical perspective) must not be organised as monopolised business models by private concerns. Imagine for a moment that a small group of people succeeds in seizing ownership of all of the earth’s atmosphere. They could then arbitrarily decide who was allowed to breathe clean air, and who was allowed to breathe polluted air – and at what prices. The power of the privately run debt money system is today almost as extreme as this imaginary example!
As mentioned above, the uninformed section of the population still has its reservations. But, if they were to familiarise themselves with the facts, they would soon learn that control of the money system has nothing to do with right or left wing politics. It’s a fundamental question: democracy or dictatorship?