31 December 2008

Is this the year of the steady state?

The economy has ceased to grow, in fact it has begun to shrink. Interest rates are now at marginal levels and may soon drop to 0%. Combine this with the falls in stock prices and you realise that it is no longer possible to earn money from having money. These are the very characteristics of the steady state economy that greens have been calling for. So should we be celebrating?

The problem with interest and other forms of using money to make money is that it is mortgaging the future. Since money is expanding goods will need to be increased so that they are available when the people who have that money come to demand them. And all those goods need resources and energy to make them. This is an unsustainable way of running an economy.

Because of this link between expanding money supply and increasing demand for goods, in a capitalist economy unless you have constant and exponential growth the money system will collapse--as it just has done. But rather than try to reboot the money system and desperately try to stimulate more economic activity, wouldn't it be more sensible to use this opportunity to shift our economy onto a more sustainable path?

Herman Daly's concept of the steady state economy is one where you do not take more resources from the planet than can be replenished and where scarce resources are used frugally and recycled. The concept also has significant implications for the population, which needs to be stabilised. He argued that this is the only sort of economy that can be sustainable on a limited planet.

The coming year is going to be a grim and challenging one; we will see the darkest face of capitalism. But it will also offer great opportunities for those of us who have a clear vision and proposals for how to bring it to life to make those arguments.

22 December 2008

The indifferent children of the earth

For those who no longer sign up to the official Christian faith this time of year can be rather tiresome. The desperation of prelates has reached such a pitch that they will resort to almost anything to fill their churches. A few years ago I went to a service where the vicar was performing a conjuring trick on the high altar with a children's ball and three plastic buckets.

But there is something at the heart of the myth of Christmas that can speak to green economics. This is the myth of God made flesh. It seems to me that this is an attempt to explore the tension that we feel between our spiritual and corporeal being. Something that sets green economics apart from other variants is its willingness to encompass the spiritual. The ecofeminists suggest that re-embedding ourselves in our bodies and in our environment is the first step on a journey that leads to living in harmony.

It is a commonplace of green critiques that the dualism between mind and matter that is usually attributed to Descartes is one of the sources of our current predicament. We call instead for holism--for the reuniting of man and woman, of spirit and flesh, or people and planet. Our spirit is not a ghost in the machine of our body; neither are we born of the stars and destined to return there. If we could learn to celebrate our fleshly inheritance and our earthly destiny we might make a better fist of our short span on earth.

Obscene over-consumption is no more acceptable than hair-shirt asceticism: what we should seek instead is balance and integration. The sort of integration we need is not the sort we learned in maths classes but the bringing together of all aspects of ourselves. There's a challenge for 2009!

16 December 2008

Frenetic engineering

There's nothing I love as much as a critical accountant - just thinking about the juxtaposition of those two words is delightful. It is a subversive job title. I recently attended a seminar by Jean Shaoul, Professor of Public Accountability (there's another subversive job title) at Manchester Business School and one of the UK's leading critical accountants.

Jean explained how 'financial engineering' developed as a tactic for squeezing profits out of economic sectors that had already been squeezed dry. She has made her name by analysing the waste of cash that results from privatising public industries. Her simple account of corporate accounts made it clear that if you make profits where once there was only a service either the service users (us) or the service providers (public-sector employees) will lose.

Since the deregulation of financial markets in the 1980s companies have focused on using their money to make money rather than investing in tiresome productive capacity and persuading people to buy things. It is in this setting that 'financial engineering' has flourished. Its predominance is indicated by the gulf between falls in sales and falls in profits. In the case M&S sales have fallen by 6% but profits by 50% in the past year. This gives an indication of how much of their profit was actually related to sales of stuff and how much was about financial fiddling the could engage in balanced on top of the stuff they were selling.

She had some other rather challenging statistics - such as that 67% of corporation tax is paid by three sectors: banking, insurance and oil & gas. And that in 1977, 70% of public expenditure went towards wages, whereas now the percentage is only 45%.

Talk about intelligent design. I sometimes wonder whether the whole financial crisis isn't a sort of cosmic joke. I like the idea of God(dess) as some form of comedian - probably not the stand-up sort; probably more like Alan Bennett - especially as I've noticed that since I've been putting more energy into spirtual practice I've lost my sense of humour.

Subversive job titles is one thing, but what about the potential for double entendres offered by a fiscal bailout that is made up of bonds which are also called gilts. Images of snouts in troughs and prisoners longing to break free abound. But it was the divine being who made Bernard Madoff into a fraudster that takes the prize - the crook that launched a thousand puns.

The Q&A of the Borrowing

I was recently commissioned to answer some questions about where on earth the government is getting all of this money from - a question asked by many in pubs and on buses up and down the land. Irritatingly, they did not then publish the answers I had spent time considering, so I offer it now, in a temporary change to the style of the blog. Comments and corrections are welcome.

What is government borrowing?

When I learned my economics this was called the PSBR or ‘public sector borrowing requirement’ but it has since been renamed the PSNCR or ‘public-sector net cash requirement’. These renamings usually have political intent and in this case I’m guessing it it is to get away from the unhealthy concept of ‘borrowing’. This is the annual amount that central government, local government and the public services borrow each year to keep themselves going. The ‘national debt’ is the accumulated total money that government has borrowed over the years which it couldn’t afford to pay back. Sometimes it goes down but, since the Bank of England was set up in 1694, the trend has been steadily upwards.

Where does this money come from?

The government has three sources of revenue: taxation, where it takes money directly from companies or individuals; from selling government bonds; and from printing money directly. The last of these has become increasingly unpopular since the Second World War, but is in fact a liberating way for government to create money without putting anybody into debt. At present government only creates note and coin in this way, which represents around 3% of total money.

What role do gilts play?

Gilts is just another name for government bonds—gilt-edged securities—because they are safer than anything else, since so long as the country doesn’t sink the government is bound to pay interest twice a year on them. Investors will get their money back after a certain fixed time specified on the bond, however before that time the value of the bonds will fluctuate, depending on the rate of UK interest rates. If interest rates are expected to fall, investors will tend to buy bonds because they are likely to be worth more in the future.

Who is stumping up?

This is an interesting question. Why should anybody want to invest in UK bonds when our economy is clearly short of a paddle and in unpleasant surroundings? If you are somebody with plenty of money to invest your primary concern at the moment is going to be security, so bonds might look quite attractive compared to stock in a corporation. So your gamble is likely to be about which countries bonds are most attractive, based on your view of how the interest rates of countries are going to move. Given that all countries are cutting interest rates one would assume that all national bonds are equally (un)attractive.

This question makes it clear how we are all entangled in the same mess. China owns a vast quantity of US treasuries (their name for government bonds) and if it chose could sell these and destroy the US economy. But if it did that it would lose its main export market and its own economy would falter. So, on a global basis, owning more stock doesn’t necessarily make you more powerful. Remember the old adage: if you own £1m. the bank owns you, but if you owe £1bn you own the bank!

Why should anybody buy our national debt?

Your ability to sell you bonds depends on the general perception of your reliability as an economy. This was the problem Iceland faced, being a volcanic rock with a population the size of Bristol and no resources other than fish and hot water, it couldn't realistically stand behind the debts that its entrepreneurs had racked up. A country’s ability to do this depends on its perceived power in the global capital market. The most powerful economies are those that control the ‘reserve currencies’—the dollar, euro, pound, yen and Swiss franc. These are currencies other governments hold their national reserves in and therefore are good for massive debts. The US is in a special position because in 1944 it negotiated that its currency would actually be held as equivalent to gold in reserve terms. It had to maintain a link between its currency and gold to back this up, but broke that rule in 1971 and since then has been able to print paper and get massive amounts of resources in exchange for it.

The UK is therefore in a strong position in increasing its national debt. One important way of measuring this is comparing the amount our economy produces each year with the size of our national debt—the so-called debt-to-GDP ratio. Ours is currently around 40% and is predicted to go above 50% as the recession deepens. Argentina went bust in 2001 with a debt-to-GDP ratio of less than 40% and a healthy level of exports and resources. The difference was it did not have a reserve currency and when speculators targeted the peso the government could not defend it. So it is really about political rather than economic power.

Who calls in the debt, both to the banks and the government? When?

So long as government continues to pay the interest it owes on the bonds there need never be any ‘calling in’ of the debt. There never has been since this malarkey started in 1694. When the bonds come to the end of their life, the government creates new ones to pay back the people who bought the old ones. The same people probably buy the new ones—at least to some extent.

Aren’t we the taxpayer then going to pay for what we’ve lent?

Yes. Absolutely. This is why Percy Bysshe Shelley called the national debt ‘a system for transferring income from the labouring segment of the population to those who’ had money to lend to government and would thus accrue interest, and who profited from government expenditure in wars. It is a way of transferring money from the poor to the rich and always has been. Amazing how they’ve got away with it for so long isn’t it? I wonder how many people will wise up now.

The banks seem to want to have their cake and eat it; they can take our money but still decide that we’re too much of a risk to invest in?

What is happening with the banks is a bit different. They do not lend pre-existing money but create money through a multiplier process—because they never expect all depositors to come back for their money at the same time. But to accept other banks’ promises to pay requires mutual confidence between the banks and this is lacking. You can see it as rather like a pyramid-selling scheme. While you can find new buyers it works fine, but when the market is exhausted the people at the end of the chain lose their money and the system collapse. That is what just happened. The only way out is for banks to believe in each other again—which is what the government is trying to ensure. Then they will bring money into existence again and the whole upward spiral can start again. So, to be fair, I don’t think the government gave money to the banks to be passed on in loans, but rather to reboot the system. This doesn’t appear to have worked and banks are only following their rulebook in not lending their own money.

Why does government policy on banking keep changing?

When the Rock started the rot the government still believed it could stop the rapid downward spiral if it stood behind just this one bank, initially just in theory. But the bad debts were so frightening to the banks that this didn’t work and it was clear that other banks—-perhaps all the banks—could go down like dominos. At that point it took complete control of Northern Rock. At each stage it has in mind to achieve the rebuilding of confidence as cheaply as possible. Supporting Northern Rock did not rebuild confidence so then they moved to the full-scale bail-out. This also doesn’t seem to be working, since credit is still tight. In a world where businesses rely on debt to survive this is now damaging the real economy that provides goods and services. So the economic bail-out is the latest stage. But it is still jump-starting and is by no means guaranteed. We will have to pay the damage whether or not it succeeds.

There is still no plan to address the problem at source, which is the gap between nominal value in terms of finance and real value in terms of what our economy actually does. On a global basis, 98% of the transactions that take place everyday have nothing to do with the real economy, they are just gambling in the casino economy, most of it speculation in the possible future rises and falls in the value of the various currencies. This is a much more efficient way to make money than actually making stuff.

This sounds like a merry-go round rather than a rescue plan?

It always was a merry-go-round. That is how finance works. It has worked fairly well for the 200-odd years that we have lived in the capitalist economy, but with periodic booms and busts. To achieve a steady-state economy would also require stable money. Government could just create that money by fiat—we would believe it because we believe the government, just like investors believe in the value of government bonds. But this would be money creation without debt. The difference would be that the process would not require our work to pay back the national debt and would therefore undermine the work-money nexus at the heart of capitalism. Sounds tempting doesn’t it?!

Surely the global financial system as currently configured is on any accepted measure a write off?

I agree with you about this. I think the only solution is to go for the full-scale jubilee and go back to the Bretton Woods conference table. We could then reinstate the two major planks of Keynes’s plan at that time: balanced budgets between nations with fines for deficits and surpluses, and a neutral international currency so that no government had the ‘reserve currency’ advantage. In addition I think we could tie this currency to an agreement on climate change and therefore stitch the environmental crisis into the solution too. The main difference between then and now is the liberalization of finance so that it is not under national control. This needs to be reversed with the reintroduction of credit and exchange controls. Without control of finance how can a government claim to be sovereign? And how can we imagine we live in democracies?

8 December 2008

Don't be fooled by the credit window

The private market banks have failed and the function of banking has moved into the public sector. But, taking one step bank, we see that the function of creating money in the private market has also failed. Reducing interest rates, i.e. making money cheaper to borrow, has not managed to stimulate the money creation system that is privately operated, and relies on debt for its existence.

So this monumental market failure requires the public authorities to pick up the pieces again. As all existing money disappears into bottomless pits of commercial debt, governments are considering exactly how they are going to put more money into the economy. Now is a useful time to learn, because the fact that governments can do this proves the case that has long been made by monetary reformers: that we do not need to go into debt to create money to pay for public services or a citizens' income scheme.

The money that will be created by public credit is plainly and unquestionably our money which gives us an unarguable right to decide precisely where the metaphorical helicopter is hovering when the balding and over-excited economist starts shovelling crisp notes out of the side door. No doubt the bloated beneficiaries of government largesse in the construction and arms industries are gesticulating wildly for attention. My choice would rather be using this opportunity to introduce a Citizens' Income scheme. The money would be much more likely to be spent than saved, and therefore achieve objectives other than simply keeping the capitalist economy afloat.

The image of the economist at the helicopter door is particularly appealing, since I have always believed that most economic theory is analogous to the window that was pushed out of aircraft during the war to mislead radar systems tracking their movements. For those with alert antennae this is a time when the real workings of a capitalist economy show themselves especially clearly.

2 December 2008

Time to Stir it up

My friend Barbara Panvel posts weekly at The Stirrer: 'campaigns that count in Birmingham, the black country and beyond'. Her latest post is addressed to Helicopter Ben - Ben Bernanke of the Federal Reserve who is now following up on Milton Friedman's suggestion that dropping money from helicopters might be a way to deal with deflation.

Nothing could better illustrate the desperation of policy-makers than such an arbitrary and aimless dumping of money into the economy. The language of strategic injections has been abandoned. There never was any attempt to direct the money towards those who might need it.

As Barbara points out, why not simply create money for public projects, along the lines of the proposal from Robertson and Huber? This would allow governments to invest in all the services their citizens need without the need to pay back the debts.

There have been a whole string of Early Day Motions calling for money creation in this form. Such a monetary reform could also pay for the shift towards a low-carbon economy that we so urgently need. It appears to be implicit in the Green New Deal proposal, which is perhaps why that has not gained the attention it deserves.

As Barbara identifies, a key mover in favour of this radical revision of the money creation system has been Austin Mitchell MP. For this he was given the Thomas Atwood Award earlier this year. The reason this proposal is not taken up is purely political, and the political consensus rests of public ignorance. The financial crisis has lit the fuse under this debate.

28 November 2008

Domesday survey to avert doomsday

I've just spent a sublime half hour in Tewkesbury Abbey for choral evensong. There were another four people enjoying the transcendently beautiful singing, from the men's voices of the Schola Cantorum, who outnumbered us by about two to one. This tradition of singing evening prayers has been going on in our cathedrals for around a thousand years, kept alive by the dedication of those who value the ethereal rather than the financial. Once might say the same about our Gloucestershire apple varieties and old spot pigs. In these days of crisis and rapid change I find these traditions deeply comforting.

The Abbey building dates back to 1121, before the Medieval architects discovered the flying buttress, or whatever else it was that allowed them to build enormous height without the support of hefty pillars. Its style, therefore, is sold, stocky and reassuring. It was built just thirty-five years after the Domesday Book was first published.

The domesday survey was compiled by William the Conquerer so that he could assess the exact value of the land he had just invaded. This was to be his source of power and wealth so he needed to know, virtually down to the last chicken, exactly how much he had to bribe the barons with and to extort taxes from. I doubt if there has been such a thorough survey of our natural resources since that time.

The name 'domesday book' did not come into usage until the late 12th century and I wonder whether it was a statement on the devastating effect on the lives of the English people caused by the shift from the essentially egalitarian Saxon farming system--based on strip farming and common rights to land use--to the fedual system. Under feudalism the king owned all land, which he could give to barons who would then live without having to work. Their tenants owed them both farmwork and war-work.

1066 is remembered as an important date because of the battles that were fought in that year. The fundamental shift in economic structure and power is rarely taught in schools. Yet it was at this time that the focus of the economy changed to be about the financial rather than subsistence value of land. As we move towards an economy that is more self-sufficient in food we need to have similarly detailed knowledge of the land that is available to us and what purposes it could serve in terms of grazing land, arable land, forestry and so on. The land that we discover should be once again a common treasury for the people of Britain to feed themselves from. It is about time we reversed nearly a thousand years of feudal servitude.

24 November 2008

Ooh, give me some more pain, darling

I enjoy discussing a conspiracy theory over a pint as much as the next person and, given the shallow and irrelevant nature of most media chat on issues of importance, one can only gain a sense of what is really afoot from trying to read the clues. I would condemn this as undemocratic and unaccountable government in normal times, but just now I am seriously hoping that what we see is not going to be what we actually get.

Apart from the concern about paying the money back, it seems a strategy that is highly likely to fail in its own terms. How many of us feel inclined towards a pre-Christmas splurge this year? Isn't it much more likely that we'll save the money? Rather than encouraging consumption, investment in a low-carbon economy a la Green New Deal would be a strategy worth getting into debt for.

The only justification for racking up spending at the rate we are expecting this afternoon is to keep an unsalvageable system on track for long enough to put something better in its place. The media tidbits about higher income taxes in the future are window, meant to conceal and to impress those amongst the electorate who have longed to see new Labour give some indication that it still represents the have-nots more than the haves. The level of revenue it is likely to accrue for future spending is a pathetic £2bn. and can make no difference to the big picture.

As I blogged previously, what happened in Washington ten days ago was equally meaningless. In this case window-dressing to impress the punters that the big players were talking to each other, and were agreeing, and that they could really make a difference. Hence the Nuremberg-style backdrop: negotiation to impress rather than to make any serious plans.

But I really hope serious plans are being made somewhere. Given the dire situation we are in even a completely undemocratic and secretive policy-making process would be better than the economic freefall and possible social breakdown that is threatening. Gordon Brown might be the person to lead this debate - a politician with a good grasp of economics is valuable in such a crisis. If we see other governments following a similar finger-in-the-dyke strategy to our own Darling's after today then I think we can assume that this is the case. We can hope that a longer-term plan is being assembled and we can do our best to democratise that process by debating our own plans for a steady-state and sustainable economy in pubs, on buses and in any media to which we have access.

22 November 2008

Gordon is Not a Moron

On Monday Alastair Darling will announce his plans for borrowing. He will be quite explicit in his hypocrisy. All the ideological ranting we have listened to for the past 40 years about how spending would destroy the economy has suddenly been abandoned. Was it wrong for all those years? Or is our economy so close to collapse that all the rules we have lived by can be gleefully abandoned?

The scale of borrowing is set to exceed $100bn., which is three times more than the government predicted. What are we to make of this? How can we possibly take any more of those projections - neat lines of exactly 45 degrees on x-y axes - seriously ever again? It is quite clear that the government economists are not in control and don't know what they are doing.

So what are the economic rules for? One begins to suspect they may be made up to find excuses for not doing what the people in the democracy demand. Want a new hospital funded from government spending? Sorry, we can't possibly borrow more than 40% of GDP. Could we have more investment in the railways so that people have a serious alternative to driving? Can't do that because we can only borrow to invest.

It all turned out to be nonsense. Because when it looks like a situation might arise where really radical economic change is called for, any amount of money can be borrowed to ensure this doesn't happen.

When this level of borrowing was first mooted I remember waxing biblical and wailing about the debt hanging around our descendants necks unto the tenth generation. I thought I was being rhetorical, but the size of debt we're talking about raises questions of intergenerational equity in financial, not just planetary, terms.

What is our chuckling ex-chancellor thinking about all of this? I have a sneaking suspicion that he may have been expecting it just like I was. Is it just possible that he is deliberately provoking this massive indebtedness to force us towards the grand jubilee, the wiping out of all national debts, and the road to the New Jerusalem?

16 November 2008

G20: Some Achievement!

I am impressed by the results of the so-called global negotiation that took place in Washington in just one day. It is a remarkable achievement to have been able to agree solutions diametrically opposed to those that would serve people and planet and to be so spectacularly wrong on all points!

Cut taxes and increase public spending: in a world of open economies and free movement of capital this will vastly increase national government debt across the world but is not guaranteed to achieve anything for national economies. Public spending directed specifically at green objectives and politically managed would be a preferable option.

Stabilisation of national financial systems: without a negotiation between countries about reasonable exchange rates and a political agreement to reinstitute exchange controls this can provide no guarantee against future destabilising speculation in currencies.

Economic growth and more global trade: both will only increase inequality within and between nations and force a further damaging exploitation of natural and human resources.

The expansion of G8 to G20 is something to be celebrated, but not much consolation if you are in Lesotho or Papua New Guinea. Without the poorer nations of the world being included in the negotiations how can we expect to end the desperate global inequality that scars our world?

The absurdity of attempting to negotiate anything in one day and without the world's most powerful player was obvious from the start. The lengthy negotiation towards a just and sustainable financial structure should begin as soon as possible. It should begin with the loss of the dollar's role as global currency and end with the cancellation of trade and debt surpluses. Nothing less radical can provide a genuine solution to the economic and environmental crises facing us.

15 November 2008

Dreaming the New Economy

I had an exciting experience on Monday, at a meeting of the Executive of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies. This seems an unlikely setting for an epiphany, but perhaps not when you recall I was amongst friends who had not only been expecting the failure of capitalism but working steadfastly as part of a saner and just alternative for most of their lives.

For half the people in the room the end of a capitalism was already a known reality, and the more I thought about this the more I realised that they were right. Had governments not intervened, the financial sector and then the real economies of the leading capitalist nations would have collapsed over the past couple of months. We the people are now supporting the economy - and also owning large parts of it. That is not capitalism according to any definition I can think of.

Sharing this thrilling news with others can be an interesting experience. When I spoke at a public meeting in Lancaster on Tuesday a couple of people had violent physical reactions to the news - as if they had received significant voltages of unexpected electricity. Others warily pointed to the adaptability of the system in the face of past crises and collapses.

This is a good lesson to remember, but what it tells us is not that we are wrong to think that capitalism is finished but rather that now is the crucial time to argue for the utopia we want to put in its place. We have to have the courage right now to dream the future we want to see, to demand it, and to build it together.

When I used the phrase 'building the post-capitalist economy' as the subtitle for my book Market, Schmarket in 2006 it felt like whistling in the dark, singing songs of hope in the face of the juggernaut of globalisation. But the power of capitalism was always more apparent than real, always the power of the conjuror. Let's not be mesmerised now: now is the time to create the better future we have all dreamed of.

13 November 2008

Green New Deal: What's the Deal? And How Green Is It?

Chatter about this mind-catching proposal is everywhere in green circles. My hearty congratulations to the authors who have managed to capture the imagination and direct it towards economics. I've been trying to do that for some time and know how challenging it can be.

It is fairly inevitable in a recession that the government will become a more significant part of our economy. If nothing else, as the economy as a whole shrinks, the public sector grows relative to the private sector, where jobs are dependent on immediate spending. Add to this that, in a civilised society, we pay something to those who are out of work and the balance is bound to shift towards government spending.

This means our money - either now or in the future - and therefore we have a democratic right to decide how it is spent. Some of the proposals for this spending from Labour and the Tories are very far from green - such as the building of more roads and other vast infrastructure projects. We need to think big but also think local: this would be the heart of a truly green new deal.

For me the priorities for spending would be local green banks, preferably organised as mutuals, which could lend money to small, local businesses according to strict criteria about their sustainability. This would underpin the growth of the local green economy and ensure that we emerged from the recession with a much greener economy.

And more important than money, we should be thinking about food and energy. As the pound sinks on the foreign exchanges we will realise the foolishness of government statements that food security is of no strategic importance. As we negotiate in international markets from a position of weakness we will regret the fact that our main export is financial services. Who will buy? Hardly anybody at all I would have thought.

7 November 2008

Capitalist rollercoaster

Generally in economics 'long-term trends' are anything but. I was recently in a supervision session with a colleague who was describing an econometrics method used to 'explain' the behaviour of stock-market investors. It works with long data series, but these are minutes of investment decisions! So in a day you can create a really long-term trend!

For a discipline that makes great play of the differences between short, medium and long terms, economics is remarkably poor at analysing the long run. Perhaps that is because, as Keynes so eloquently noted, in the long run we are all dead. This is not a very helpful attitude for our grandchildren or the planet they hope to inherit.

In view of this prevalent short-termism what joy it was to find the long-term trend of UK (English) interest rates on the Guardian website. I would be interested to hear others' interpretations of what we can learn from these.

What immediately captures attention is that in the early phase of the life of the Bank of England interest rates are almost completely static. Is this an image we should hold in mind when thinking of the steady-state economy? A stable long-term interest rate suggests a lasting agreement about the return that the holders of capital may demand. This seems to suggest that, prior to 1800, there was little evidence of struggle over the value in the economy.

The trend becomes increasingly haywire from 1800 onwards, as industrial capitalism began in England and conquered the world. For the past 200 years we have been living on this rollercoaster with its endless economic and social conflict. The solution is not to return to the earlier phase of stable interest rates relying on an agreement that the rich man should stay in his castle and the poor man at his gate.

Surely a more fruitful solution would be to challenge the concept of interest itself. What gives a rich person the right to become richer merely because they have wealth to begin with? Removing the ability of money to store value through time would radically change the way we behave as economic actors--it is surely a prerequisite for any steady-state economy.

4 November 2008

No Sustainability Without Equity

Things have gone very quiet on the finance front. My general conclusion is: no news is bad news. We can only hope to read between the news and try to work up what is being stitched up behind closed doors. Mandelsohn's recent visit to Russia is a case in point.

When the Realpolitik begins we are in a fairly well-protected position relative to our sisters and brothers in the South. Because we sit at the high table of corporate capitalism, we can expect an acceptable deal. It will include a lifetime of servitude to pay off recently acquired mega-debts but is unlikely to include starvation and war - at least in the immediate future.

This unjust and inequitable settlement has severe implications for the planet. While the world's powerful nations ensure for themselves a share that is far more than those in the South, it is also far more than the planet can sustain. The figure illustrates the differences in the size of ecological footprints in different countries. It is the rich of the world who are trashing the planet.

The table below illustrates the same information in a different way, giving rates of consumption of various items by region of the world (from Jules Pretty's latest book The Earth Only Endures). Rather than trying to maintain over-consumption we should be lobbying our politicians to steer the country towards the 'prosperous way down' to a low-carbon convivial economy that is our only hope for survival as a species.

31 October 2008

Samhain blessings

With November 1st we reach one of the pagan quarter days of the year. These have all survived the advent of Christianity in various guises - in this case the festival of halloween. Behind the tawdry pumpkin balloons and plastic tridents, what can we grasp of the deeper meaning of this commemoration of one aspect of our relationship with the earth?

In spite of the cold and the falling of leaves, this is a time of abundance on our community farm. Plants and animals are storing up energy for the winter - the period of rest that our restless economic system no longer allows us. In Celtic tradition, this time of year saw the slaughter of animals that could not be fed through the winter. This meat and the abundant vegetables were preserved for the times when the earth could not provide.

In the pagan system this is the festival of new year. The cycle of the year was seen as symbolic of the life cycle, from birth through flourishing to death and decay. And as the earth came back to life in the spring, so there was promise of reuniting with the earth mother in death. The fading of nature's life in the autumn leads to the dark thoughts of mortality that we now make fun of by dressing up as ghosts.

The failure of our culture to accept the rhythm of life is at the heart of our unsustainable exploitation of resources. Without any sense of connection with the earth we fear death as our final annihilation and struggle to make our material presence felt. Samhain is the best time to re-examine our attitude to death - and to life.

Global poll

Weggis has asked me to add this link to my blog:http://www.iftheworldcouldvote I feel a bit uncertain about the poll, since it seems to be tantamount to accepting that the US President has some sort of right to rule the world. The results are interesting though - especially to see where in the world people favour McCain.

27 October 2008

International Monetary Farce

Where do you turn as national chancellor when your country is bankrupt? If you don't have a reserve currency to protect you this is a situation you are pretty likely to face in the coming months. Your only option is to hope that you get in while the IMF still has some funds.

The International Monetary Fund is the part of the global financial system that is supposed to support the occasional accident that results from over-exuberant capitalist enterprise. It is not in a position to support the whole global banking system. Its pot apparently only extends to $200bn, which, given the size of money flows we've seen recently, appears extremely modest.

So, it could be that the Fund will be coming to national governments, asking them, on our behalf, to put our hands in our pockets again. Now we will be expected to bail out not only our own banking system, but whole economies across the world. The countries themselves will be required to take on more debt - the last thing they actually need. Surely it would be better to cancel all these debts in one almighty jubilee and negotiate the whole system again from scratch?

Imagine yourself as that national chancellor. You have only done what you were advised by economic theory. You have no control over global capital flows, and is isn't really your fault that your rely heavily on oil, or steel, or that you are a country which financial speculators don't like the look of.

The IMF tends to make offers to people who are in no position to refuse, and the offers are usually in the neoliberal mode, requiring restraint on public spending, a contracting state, and more market liberalisation. Exactly the sorts of policies that got those countries into the mess in the first place.

Interestingly, in the past few years many of the poorer countries who have been the recipients (victims?) of IMF loans have wised up and chosen to repay (see stories on Argentina and a story of recent IMF politics). In the insane world of banking, without anybody to lend to, the IMF would have gone bankrupt. It does seem a strange coincidence that exactly at this point a whole new range of countries are being forced into bankruptcy and into crippling loans that will keep the IMF afloat for another few decades.

23 October 2008

So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish

I feel tempted to begin in the immortal words of E. J. Thribb, 'so farewell then Iceland'. The country has overreached itself and been forced to learn the lessons of hubris. I had a conversation with my son in which I said 'Iceland is bankrupt' and he asked, 'What? The supermarket?'. That is the nature of the global economy - it is quite simply beyond belief.

What is the difference between Iceland and the UK or US? For once, in economics, there is a simple answer to that question: we have reserve currencies; Iceland does not. The viking raiders who bestrode the globe arranging impossible deals failed to grasp this fact about the global economy. Only those who are part of the charmed circle can get away with this sort of behaviour.

In a world of global finance, who is really backing up anybody's savings? If your bank is owned by a country with international clout it will be defended by others when the crunch comes. Iceland found itself left exposed - and rather smartly turned to Russia for help. This leverage appears to have resulted in 'support' from the IMF: the terms of this remain to be clarified.

Iceland is an object lesson in what is wrong with capitalism. Like all capitalist economies it grew exponentially and using debt rather than saved value. It ignored the fact that, with few resources other than hot water and fish, and with a population barely larger than the size of Bristol, it was always on borrowed time in its competition with the big boys of global capitalism.

But let us not be deceived by the 'one bad apple' mantra that is used to explain away capitalist disasters. Iceland was not an economic basket-case - it was just a country that played by the rules of the system without knowing its place and ignoring the crucial rule - if you are not at the top table you have nowhere to go when the creditors come to call in their debts.

21 October 2008

Can't Buy Me Equality

The news today is that we do not need to worry about the inequality in our society. A combination of poor people working more and stealthy redistribution of wealth has solved this problem, a new report from the OECD informs us. New Labour has been true to its roots and dealt with the problem of unequal distribution of wealth.

This seems a rather strange story to emerge from the OECD data when what it actually shows (see the figure) is that the UK is the seventh most unequal of the 31 countries that are members of the OECD and that, leaving aside the US, which is a self-referential scandal in equality terms, only Italy, Poland, Turkey, Portugal and Mexico are more unequal societies.

The data for trends in real household income by quintiles, i.e. dividing the population up into 5 strips according to how rich they are, is also interesting. It shows that for the UK, from the 1980s to the 1990s, those in the middle of the income distribution saw an increase of 2% in their incomes while the richest 20% saw their incomes rise by 4.3% and the lowest 20% saw their incomes rise by only 0.7% This was the time when Thatcherite inequality really bit into our social fabric. The fact that things have been reversed very slowly since then seems little comfort. The inequality that developed in our society then has not been reversed.

Leaving aside arguments over measurement and spin - we all know how assumptions and definitions can distort data findings - is it healthy for society and for the planet that the response to the inequality generated by capitalism is always and only through more work? The quality of this work is never questioned, nor its consequences for children being brought up without parents. And for a gaian economist, the question of the increased pressure on the planet that the extra work creates is the most important of all.

16 October 2008

Hero or Heroin

I'm sure Gordon Brown was secretly delighted to have been compared with Flash Gordon at a recent press conference. Given his recent shady dealings with the bankster fraternity I would have thought Flash Harry was more appropriate. What would the flaming red Gordon of his student days have made of this man who is putting the poor of this country in debt to prop up a failing capitalist system?

But is it the right thing to do, to fuel capitalism's addiction to money? Isn't Gordon rather acting as a drug dealer, providing more of just what is worst for the global economy, bloated with years of excess and destroying the body it depends on?

If you will indulge my extended metaphor for a while longer, perhaps we could explore what mechanisms we might pursue to tackle the addiction, to move the economy away from its moneylust and towards a balanced steady state. What would be the methadone that we could introduce as a substitute during the transition?

Gordon is calling for a summit to debate a new financial architecture. Part of that might be Richard Douthwaite's Ebcu or environment-backed currency unit. This is a neutral currency created by agreement between the world's nations and under their control. It could contribute to a global economy where the economic power of countries was more equal; in a world dominated by the dollar this can never be the case.

But more importantly, because the ebcu is linked to emissions of carbon dioxide, it operates like a carbon standard, linking economic activity to the ability of the planet to support that activity. It follows the Contraction and Convergence model for a decline in CO2 emissions and a fair sharing of these emissions between countries.

Although the 'summit' will be exactly that - our exalted leaders meeting like so many Old Testament prophets on the mountain top - we should make our demands clear. The agreement should be for a steady-state economy that balances the interests of the people of the world, and the planet we all depend on.

[Thanks to Polyp for another brilliant cartoon. Visit his website and check out his great new animated version of the rats in the trap]

14 October 2008

Nothing to Fear but the Flannel

It was the fact that we were hearing a lot about Zimbabwe on the news again that gave me the clue. The media-financialist complex has moved into a different gear. Now that they have frightened us into ramping up the national debt even unto the tenth generation we have stopped hearing the market disaster stories and the traders are playing along by boosting the values of stocks.

It is still unclear whether the elastoplast solution will work as there is as yet no sign of a fall in the interest rates banks are charging each other, or any increase in lending between them. The success of this latest attempt to reboot the corrupt banking system so that banks will accept each other's debts as money is not yet evident.

But what about the attempt to convince people that a system which has been variously referred to as a rollercoaster and a confidence trick by sober BBC commentators is the best we ingenious and sophisticated people can come up with? Will this crash prove a radicalising experience that people will remember and that will undermine their faith in the capitalist system as such and send them looking for something better?

As green economists we have grown tired of being told we must be communists just for questioning this wasteful and destructive way of organising economic affairs. We have an alternative paradigm up and ready to go. It will only take the courage of green politicians to announce it and the wisdom of the voters to choose it at the ballot box.

In the mean time I, for one, will be keeping in mind the words of John Lennon from 'Give Me Some Truth':

No short-haired, yellow-bellied, son of tricky dicky
Is gonna mother hubbard soft soap me
With just a pocketful of hope
Money for dope
Money for rope

11 October 2008

Hoist by their own petard?

The confusion over where exactly money comes from seems so widely shared that I wonder whether it is a conspiracy of silence, a conspiracy of ignorance, or maybe just ignorance plain and simple. The smoke-and-mirrors and creative use of jargon is deliberately intended to conceal a simple fact: the banking system, as opposed to any individual bank, has been able to make as much money as it can persuade us to borrow.

A bemused reader of today's Guardian asked, 'Why do banks need to borrow from each other?' and was greeted with the usual confusing and misleading account. The response begins, 'Banks do not have vaults stuffed with money', agreed, but the following sentence about how they 'trade on fairly thin margins' is confusing and irrelevant. Deborah Hargreaves then drivels on about Libor and other irrelevant and technical sounding nonsense for a while. No doubt the reader feels none the wiser.

This confusion is not necessary because the way money is created is simple. Essentially, the banks operate as a kind of closed club, within which small amounts of money are inflated many times over until, as in recent years, the only limit on money creation is the willingness of borrowers to get into debt. Hence the growth of debt-concealing activities that are now unravelling.

This process is explained very clearly in the film Money as Debt, which is available on Youtube and on Google video. A laudably clear written account is given by Richard Douthwaite in chapter 2 of The Ecology of Money. So why the confusion? We can only assume that, if the simplicity of this scam were to become more widely known, in J. K. Galbraith's famous words, 'the mind would be repelled'.

It might also undermine any lingering support for the policy of throwing money at the banks. Since the money they loaned never existed, there is not enough money in the world to actually pay back all the debts of the financial institutions. Our money is being used to attempt to crank the debt-money system back into an upward rather than downward spiral; nothing more.

It is interesting to speculate to what extent bankers, financiers and finance ministers have begun to believe their own fantasy. If the reality of the money creation system were clear to them I can't help thinking they would be following a different sort of policy altogether.

9 October 2008

'Let Finance Be Primarily National'

In recent weeks we have probably all looked back wistfully to the days of John Maynard Keynes. It just feels like a world where stability was a normal state of existence, not a chimera that seemed unavailable no matter how many billions we were prepared to spend to achieve it.

It seems to me that Keynes was always right about economics. I really wish I had more time to read his lucid and insightful writings about money and inflation. Sadly, the academic's life was not what it was in Keynes's day - and besides, like Ricardo before him, he made a fortune from the stock markets that funded his life of thoughtful leisure.

I sympathize, therefore, with those who would minimize, rather than with those who would maximize, economic entanglement among nations. Ideas, knowledge, science, hospitality, travel--these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible, and, above all, let finance be primarily national.

The quotation from which the title of this post is taken is a favourite amongst greens, who usually cite it because of its emphasis on economic self-reliance. But Keynes's focus is on the importance of national governments having control over finance.

Once finance is no longer national we have lost effective control and no longer live in a democracy. Our government can do nothing about the lending policies of US mortgage dealers or insurance companies. If these companies can bankrupt our banking system which we then have to subsidise with our own money, what is the point of voting? The fact that the three main parties simply congratulate each other about their ability to prop up capitalism is only a complacent confirmation of the reality of politics since the globalisation of finance and deregulation of the money markets in the 1980s.

I feel similarly reluctant about giving my money to people who sent their money overseas to invest in countries beyond their democratic remit for an extra half percentage point of interest. Guaranteeing rich people's savings in our banks is one thing; guaranteeing rich people's savings in Iceland, Bulgaria or the Cayman Islands feels quite different.

The 1930s was a time when men who modelled their sartorial style on Mr Cholmondley-Warner, spoke like Trevor Howard and were exclusively white, dominated economic and political life. Although we feel ourselves infinitely more sophisticated and cosmpolitan we haven't solved the problem of our powerlessness in a world dominated by global capital. Credit and exchange controls, giving us as voters power over our national economy, seems increasingly attractive.

7 October 2008

Credit crunch for breakfast?

This is obviously a cereal that will run and run. Robert Peston reports that he expected the banks to be too proud to ask for government money. I’m rather bemused about how he might have formed this opinion given their recent behaviour. Fawning over the hand that feeds has been more the style amongst financiers of late. Darling is quite rightly resisting giving any more public money than is absolutely necessary, hence his piecemeal rather than global rescue strategy. The pundits who are calling for total guarantees and US-style largesse should be reminded that it will be their grandchildren who will be paying off these debts, just as we, the grandchildren of the 1930s, only finished repaying the wartime debts to the USA last year. I wonder if there is a connection there?

The real policy question is why any Chancellor should shovel money into the gaping maw of the banks where it will serve no purpose but paying off their debts. They have provided an effective distraction by arguing that without their finance the real economy would seize up. But our primary attention should be focused on that economy, the one where people actually make stuff and do useful things. There is no reason to use the banks as middlemen.

The banks’ lack of concern for the real economy is shown in their profiteering from the difference between the bank rate and the rates of interest they charge to businesses. This is now the only way banks still have to leverage money out of the economy and their use of it will rapidly increase the number of businesses going bankrupt. They are using the same tactics on mortgage-payers, which will cause an increase in foreclosures and damage the housing market yet again. Far from being the saviours, the banks are shown again to be the destroyers of the economy.

Darling’s plan should focus on the small businesses that provide 99% of the employment in this country. He should establish an ‘Economy Saving Bank’ (literally!) and use taxpayers money through that route to be channelled into business lending. Does this begin to seem like political management of the economy? Might I be the first to mention that unspoken phrase ‘credit controls’? If money is in short supply it seems only sensible to ration it. Those who need to borrow can justify their right to the shrinking pot on the basis of their usefulness to society. My guess would be that in any democratic system the banks would come rather low on this list at present.

Thanks to the Green Bean Counter for the joke and to Lew Rockwell for the cartoon.

4 October 2008

Bush is laughing all the way

George W. Bush has been the most successful president of the US I can remember. He came to office with specific objectives, aiming to serve a tiny kleptocratic minority of US citizens, and he has done this with huge success. His role of the fool has been a skilful ruse to distract us from a ruthless and highly effective economic and political manoeuvre.

Let's consider the three sectors of the US economy whre the wealthy earn their money: banking, arms, and oil. We'll start with the most obvious: arms. When Bush came to power I would never have believed that the US, still suffering the hangover from Vietnam, would willingly engage in not one, but two lasting military commitments. The profiteering this enables for arms companies is clear. Major success number one for the Bush Presidency.

In the case of oil, the Bush administration worked closed via its networks in the industry to hold back policy to tackle climate change. And of course the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have both interrupted oil supplies, thus pushing up price and increasing the profits for Bush's cronies.

And now finance. What an extraordinary state of affairs that the the law-makers of the foremost democracy in the world can vote to extort $700bn. from middle-income Americans to bail out Bush's banking chums. As I understand it, this deal comes down to passing a bag of gold to Paulsen, who can then give it to financial institutions in return for worthless assets. There is no suggestion that the US public will take corresponding ownership or control in any of these banks, which are just going to enjoy a gargantuan free lunch.

Hats off to Dubya. While we laughed, he just single-mindedly achieved everything he came into office to do and more. This only proves that it isn't the spin that matters; it really is the substance.

Meanwhile we should not be so smug on this side of the Atlantic. With typical British deceit, the Bank of England is playing a similar game but without any discussion by democratic representatives. Behind the cover of the Mandelson gossip yesterday The Bank agreed to accept much weaker collateral (for which read worthless assets) at its credit window.

3 October 2008

Prince of Darkness Returns

I have been wondering for a while what Mandelson has been up to. Along with Kenneth Clarke - and we've certainly been seeing a fair bit of him on our TV screens - he has been identified as a key member of the Bilderberg Group. Will Hutton has referred to this shadowy bunch as the 'high priests of capitalism'. so we might expect them to have been rather busy recently.

Mandelson has taken a few blows in his time, most recently when the trade talks, the Doha round which had been billed as the round for the poor nations, collapsed during the summer. Globalisation is really about money, but in order to make the extortion of resources from the world's poor seem more decent it has to have trade as well. The terms of trade need to be fixed so that the rich countries will always win the game. It was that which the more powerful of the producer nations refused to accept in Geneva in July, and so the talks collapsed.

And now the financial side has fallen apart as well. No wonder we need dear Peter back in the Cabinet. Some speedy restitching of the global capitalist pact must be achieved without delay. No chance this time of a transparent international negotiation, or a fair balancing of the needs of all the world's people. This will be Bretton Woods on the back of a fag packet and behind closed doors.

So I'm not taken in by the drivel about Labour patching up its quarrels. We long since reached the Cat's Cradle world of Gore Vidal, where the politicians allow us a meaningless choice between policy platforms that are only cosmetically different. Who do you vote for if you don't want capitalism at all? If you're tired of a world where children are allowed to starve so that we can have plasma TVs? Where middle-income taxpayers in this country are subsidising the Bank of England's decision to buy the worthless assets of the morally as well as financial bank-rupt? By the way, this is not a rhetorical question.

1 October 2008

Moral economy takes the sting out of things

Like many, I have been mesmerised by the drama unfolding in the world's financial institutions for the past couple of weeks. In fact I must confess that the word Schadenfreude has taken on a new depth of meaning. So it was pleasant to be reminded this morning by the Bishop of Liverpool about the economy that matters: the natural economy.

He quoted the poem Providence by George Herbert and discussed how Herbert's image of the bee is a suitable one for a sustainable economy:

'Bees work for man; and yet they never bruise
Their master's flower, but leave it, having done,
As fair as ever, and as fit to use;
So both the flower doth stay, and hony run.'

This is a way of viewing resources and thinking about the economy that was commonplace before we left the land and were corrupted, mentally and physically, by capitalism.

As the new economic system spread throughout the country, and then the world, it replaced the older moral economy or the people, which had been supported by the church. According to the old ways it was a religious duty to work well and to be rewarded fairly. In the marketplace the church agreed a 'just price' and traders who exceeded this were excluded from the church and ostracised from society.

E. P. Thompson in his Making of the English Working Class describes the decades of riots that coincided with the enforcement of unjust markets in British society: 'the final years of the eighteenth century saw a last desperate efort by the people to reimpose the older moral economy as against the economy of the free market.' (p. 73)

Working people took direct action, removing the grain and flour from stores and mills, taking it to the market, and selling it themselves for 'the popular price'. They then took the money earned (and even in one case the flour sacks) back to the rightful owners. They were challenging not the right to ownership but the sin of profiteering; they were enforcing what had long been recognised as a moral economy against the immoral market economy that was being imposed.

As the institutions of capitalism totter we need to challenge its supporting ideology. Our ancestors mocked the laws of supply and demand and punished those who charged people more just because they had bought up supplies in advance, or held them back to watch prices increase. We can only guess what they would had had to say about the commodity futures market.

29 September 2008

Bowled for six

This morning we see the final act of the asset-stripping of local communities that began when the Abbey National gave up its mutual status, under the pro-market encouragement of the dying Thatcher government, in 1989. Wikipedia helpfully provides a list of the spate of demutualisations that followed: it shows that many of our building societies are now controlled by Spanish bank Banco Santander.

I imagine the original founders of these societies as bewhiskered gentlemen in Batley or Huddersfield, but the reality is that they were more likely to have worn flat-caps than top hats. They were working people clubbing their savings together so that one after another they could save themselves from rapacious landlords.

The building societies were part of the mutual society that developed in response to the growth of capitalism. As a challenge to domination by rentier interests it is unsurprising that the high tide of capital power saw their dismantling. In the loadsamoney culture of the 1980s the members who voted for the paltry £1500 or so of shares (most of which they turned into cash) had lost their sense of the way that owning assets protected them. Their ancestors had learned this the hard way; they may well be learning that lesson in the years to come.

Mr Bradford and Mr Bingley, those sober, suited gentlemen in bowler hats would never have gambled their investors' money on self-certified mortgages and buy-to-let cowboys. We have, perhaps, been dazzled by the proliferation of multi-coloured bowler hats, a classic piece of financial illusionism, but the hard realities of a capitalist economy remain. Money means power and the more assets you control the more powerful you are. Trying to take on the big boys in property speculation was a sting perpetrated on the foolish by the confidence tricksters. And the building societies that working people worked so hard to create now belong to banks which follow only the interests of capital.

In my home community of Stroud we are going back to learn from our ancestors. The recession does offer us opportunities as a community, since assets such as empty property and even - conceivably - land will fall in value. Although we are poor, we are many. Just as the Miners’ Welfares and working mens’ clubs of Northern Britain were built on the sixpences of their working-class members, so we are establishing a ‘tenner a month’ fund which we hope will generate enough cash to buy community farms and workshops.

24 September 2008

Fair shares?

It has been refreshing to hear the calls for nationalisation coming from union leaders in Manchester this week - quite like old times! Even those with no interest at all in socialism must be beginning to see that crucial public institutions such as banks, transport and utility companies, even telecomms and housing, would be better off outside the risky culture of the marketplace.

But we can't have security for our most basic services because it is too expensive. So the argument runs, but let's look at the numbers. In 2007/8 total government spending was £589 billion (see the government's account here). Last Friday alone the Bank of England 'made available' $40bn, which we can guess is around £20bn and the same day the Guardian reported that the banks controlling the world's reserve currencies had together 'injected' $550bn. into the money markets that week. Given an exchange rate of around 2:1 that is equivalent to half of UK public spending in just one week!

Sums like this are beyond the wildest imaginings of the union members running hospitals and schools. They couldn't be trusted to act responsibly with such vast sums. Much safer in the hand of bankers like Sir John Gieve, deputy governer of the Bank of England, who has particular responsibility for financial stability. Back in May he reassured us that 'London's troubled money markets could soon recover' from the disastrous squeeze on credit. 'The most likely path ahead', he said 'is that confidence and risk appetite will return gradually in the coming months.' I'm so glad my money is in the hands of such a prescient economic actor.

It is capitalism's way to privatise the benefits and publicise the costs of the economy. So in the good times corporation taxes remained low for them who paid them at all, and personal taxation of those on moderate incomes paid for public services. Now the bust has come, companies are rushing into the public-sector fold, demanding our money to keep their bonuses paid.

How many people are going to accept this and just carrying on shelling out for those much wealthier than themselves? How many bags of chips do you have to fill to afford a Maserati? As taxes rise over the coming years will the meek of the earth simply run ever harder on the work treadmill to keep capitalism turning?

22 September 2008

It's the Energy Stupid!

In spite of evidence that UK consumers bought less stuff in the last statistical quarter (only 0.1% less stuff, but in view of recent trends the slowing down is still notable), the reduced incomes resulting from economic slowdown and the disappearance of cheap money is likely to make people respond more strongly to prices when making the spending decisions.

This is a shame. Capitalist economics has trained us to use price as the most important factor in making decisions. If we look at just one market, the food market, we see the consequences of this. Until recently we may have been able to buy ever more food for ever less money but the food has been of frankly shit quality.

The predominance of price in market decisions is an indication and a reinforcement of the fact that, as capitalism grinds on to its miserable nadir, money becomes the only thing of importance. Everything else is sacrified to money—quality, happiness, health and so on. In a market where money is set up as god, both producers and consumers lose out. Those who win are those who control the money.

There is something we can do about this and that is set up for ourselves another standard rather than that of money. We should create our own mental energy-tags to replace the price-tags that the market shows us. When making purchasing decisions we have to be actively enthusiastic about paying more for items that have less embodied energy.

Once you adopt this way of thinking it becomes a habit and you begin to see stuff in shops in terms of its energy content rather than its price. In this way you can begin to the shift from measuring economic life in terms of energy rather than money that sustainability requires.

19 September 2008

One law for the rich

There is so much to learn from the present tumult on world financial markets - make sure that you are saying clearly what you know and think on the bus and in the local shop. This is a great opportunity for radicalisation that should not be missed. It must be increasingly obvious to those who do not usually share our scepticism about the way our economy is organised that, far from being a uniquely powerful and 'efficient' system, capitalism is in fact an impressively attired version of various low-level financial scams.

A question that is being asked increasingly is: where can the governments get the money from to 'inject' into the financial markets? There are two possible answers to this question. The first is that they put it onto the national debt, leaving it to be paid back by ourselves and our children through losing a share of the value we create via taxation.

The other is that they simply make it up. This is fraud on an epic scale - but if it is in the national interest why should we worry? I think the answer is that we will still have to pay. Just like the national debt, it is a way of forcing the poor to subsidise the rich. The debt created while the banks were booming may not be real money but it was still used to buy real stuff. So by creating non-existent money and swapping it for worthless assets the government is colluding in this fraudulent creation of value by the rich.

Another question I would like to add is: do we need stock markets? What function do they actually serve? Is the buying and selling of bits of companies of any real value? It is now generally known that stocks and shares are actually just alternative vehicles for gambling to horses or dogs. How about serious financial regulation that required investors to stay with the company they had chosen for a minimum time period of, say, a year. That might lead to stock markets that supported rather than undermined the real economy.

As Evan Davies rightly stated on Today this morning, capitalism is a roller-coaster, but one that, rather than choosing to ride, we are born onto. For those who are beginning to grow a little sick and tired might I suggest moving your assets and consumption into the alternative, mutual parts of the economy?

18 September 2008

Money, money everywhere

I had another horrendous train journey yesterday - I was facing the prospect of a two-and-a-half hour delay on a two-hour journey when I took direct action and cadged a lift. The explanation was 'incidents in tunnels' which has made me think about 'leaves on the line' and, more relevantly, 'the wrong kind of snow'.

Perhaps this is what Marx meant by the contradictions of capitalism? During the floods, which were our local learning experience of last year, we found ourselves deluged and yet short of water. This year our economy is short of cash because of an excess of credit. The recession that we are jointly embarking on has been the result of the uncontrolled creation of the wrong kind of money: debt money.

The link between rail disasters and monetary disasters is that we should not allow control of the most fundamental structures in our economy to be in the hands of privateers. Railtrack, at least, is now back in public hands; the money creation system should follow. This is not to argue for the abolition of private banks, just to suggest, as James Robertson and Joseph Huber do in their excellent book Creating New Money, that they should perform a standard retail function rather than being allowed absolute power over the extent of credit in our economies.

Such a system would not only stabilise the money system, it would have the added benefit that the value of the money created would be in public, rather than private, hands. It would be available to be invested in public projects or used to pay off the national debt and generate tax cuts, depending on the preferences of the government in power.

The debate is now focusing on whether or not the carnage we see around us representss capitalism working or failing. All I can say is that if this is a system working, it just isn't a very good system.

15 September 2008

By the waters of Leman . . .

So here we are again. Financial journalists and politicians trying to make sense of a world they have long reassured us could never come again. A world they vaguely remember from old men's stories and scratched black-and-white moving images. A world where banks collapse and stockbrokers commit suicide - well scrap the last part because there was at least some honour amongst thieves in the 1920s which appears strikingly absent today.

Because nobody believed this would ever happen again nobody has a plan to deal with it. We are all dredging around for what we can remember reading in the work of Galbraith, deliberately written to prevent us taking the same path towards economic destruction caused by financial irresponsibility. A path we have stumbled along in recent years with increasing speed as memories of the last significant financial crash have faded.

Vince Cable managed to dredge up the name of the Glass-Steagall Act, which I also recall from undergraduate economics. A lesson well learned from the last crash which required the creation of a wall between commercial and domestic banking activities and was designed - if memory serves - to prevent the risky behaviour of venture capital investors from dragging down the small saver - precisely what appears to be happening now as a result of the Act's repeal.

Clearly re-regulation of financial activities is crucial and urgent, but it isn't sufficient. Boom and bust is not an inevitability, it is merely the periodic consequence of an economic system which creates money in an irrational and undemocratic way. Without monetary reform we will only be storing up more problems in the future. The suited chaps who will bear the brunt of public opprobrium in the coming months were bound to create ever more ingenious ways to persuade people to borrow their unreliable money, because otherwise the whole system would have seized up. It is the system, not the greed it generates, that is at fault.

That is not to say that we should allow these city rogues to retire to their recently acquired country estates. The artificial value they created in the financial sector has been translated in many cases into real value as they bought up land, gold and other safe assets. We should use the money laundering legislation to trace the path this money took and claim it back through windfall taxes. This is the only way that the pain of recession can be fairly and democratically shared. Money generated from these windfall taxes can be used to fund the Green New Deal that leading environmentalists are calling for.

And because this is a blog which strives for erudition as well as political insight, here is a stanza from T. E. Eliot's The Wasteland which was dredged up from my memory:

THE river's tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept...
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

9 September 2008

What is a Brumaire anyway?

At the risk of sounding like a Marxist I can't help noticing that the struggle between capital and labour over the value in the economy is becoming more pronounced every day.

While the economy was growing, politicians could conceal the fact that, since the heady days of the 1970s, they have responded more and more to the concerns of 'business' and less and less to those of 'ordinary people'. The pie grew larger, the environment was more stressed, but even those who had the smallest slice tended to get a slightly larger slice each year. Inequality was ruled irrelevant, in spite of evidence showing that it is intrinsically very bad for a nation's health. The fact that the labels 'capital' and 'labour' have been replaced by those of 'business' and 'hard-working families' has not changed the essential power dynamic in the economy.

But with the recession, the fighting over the spoils is beginning to intensify. Unusually, although unsurprisingly, it is the leaders of the trade unions who are speaking up (finally) on behalf of their members and asking very reasonable questions. Such as why should energy companies like British Gas see their profits rise by 500% while bills soar and a significant minority of poorer people will struggle to keep themselves warm.

I'm enjoying what the unions are up to just now. Campaigning for a windfall tax on energy profits to be given out as winter fuel payments is a good start. So is there persistent campaigning to close the scandalous loopholes around the tax treatment of private equity companies. Longer term the attempts to build international unions is the only serious political resonse to the globalisation of production and the way this has reduced the power of organised labour in the West.

Once, while I was giving a talk, a woman got terribly excited and clapped her hands together squeaking 'Oh, this is just like the Sixties!' I'm feeling rather that way about the return to the 1970s. Actually they were a grim decade with Glam rock and playing scrabble by candlelight, but at least there was some honesty about the struggle over economic value.

2 September 2008

Africa Wins the Olympics

I missed enjoying Christina Ohuruogu win the 400m. in Beijing. It was during the time when my resolve to boycott this hideous corporate extravaganza was still holding out. Eventually I gave in, overcoming my rage that my own delight in sport should be alienated from me by the real powers behind these games — corporate PR and Chinese rehabilitation.

The attempt to defend the sole right of those who have paid millions to gain publicity from the games has gone to the absurd lengths only a totalitarian state would be capable of. Logos and brand-names of those companies who could not offer the large price-tags have been covered with masking tape throughout Beijing. A shame this process was not taken to its ultimate conclusion, thus allowing us a temporary escape from the corporate shouting-match our high streets have become in recent years.

So much for intellectual property. What of the physical property, the muscle-power and stamina and co-ordination that the games are really about? The ultimate provenance of most of this — especially in athletics — is really Africa. In the case of the UK, both Christina Ohuruogu and Philips Idowu, our two leading medal hopes, have names that suggest African ancestry. Outside the countries of central and eastern Europe this also applies to the medal-winners of most other rich western nations. Even the US, having stolen Africans in their own fairly recent history, are now benefiting from their sporting success while still oppressing their descendants on home soil.

If Africa fails in the global market-place I can only think that this is because of its generosity of spirit. A country so over-endowed with resources natural and human has felt no need to be grasping and mean. Its tragedy has been that it has come into contact with cultures so much more lacking in the human spirit that it is.

30 August 2008

Credit Crunch or Debt Swamp?

The much-discussed interview with the Chancellor published in this morning's Guardian is intriguing. It is so unusual for a politician to be this honest, or for anybody involved in the neurotic world of finance to say anything even slightly negative, that his assertion that this may be the worst economic crisis for 60 years is very unusual indeed.

The first question is, why on earth did he say that? Rapidly followed by the second: why choose the post-war period to compare with, when the economy was on its knees because of over-exploitation and exhaustion rather than a long debt-fuelled binge. A devastated economy is not a problem, so long as you have able and active people and sufficient resources to rebuild what has been destroyed. An over-indulged, greedy, wasted economy, still leeching off a munificent but abused planet is another matter entirely.

Honing our skills for reading between the news might help to explain what the Chancellor is up to here. Is this the first step towards a 'we're all in this together' approach to economic management, which will involve us all tightening belts, accepting a reduced standard of living, and co-operating rather than competing for once?

This is just the sort of approach a Green chancellor might have to adopt. However, it will never work unless the Chancellor has the courage to reclaim the power of economic management, and especially the finance sector. This power was ceded by the Thatcherites, with New Labour joining in to prove to the City that they were no threat. In the austerity scenario Darling may have in mind, the reduced standard of living would also have to take us to a future of equality--so no good the ordinary employee living on less while the elite can still sup champagne and enjoy foreign holidays.

Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the Chancellor's admission that he did not expect the bubble to burst, or, in his words, 'No, no one did. No one had any idea'. Well that isn't strictly true. In the circles I move in the crash had long been predicted. Could it be that what the Chancellor had not understood is how money is made as debt and how insecure this makes us all? Has he learned that lesson now? Is there any prospect, then, of not only banking reform but even monetary reform?

For those who have been wondering where I have been for the past month, I can let you know that I have been enjoying an enforced absence from cyberspace, thanks to the utter inadequacy of BT, the telecommunications monopolist. While I don't use them for either phone or internet services, they can still manage to make it impossible for my ISP to restore my Broadband. This post has been made via a dial-up connection--hence no pictures. Normal service will be resumed whenever BT can be persuaded to wander to the local exchange with a screwdriver.

22 July 2008

The Richness of Life

I've just had the pleasure of reading Cider with Rosie for the first time. Like everybody else I'm amazed I never had the opportunity before - it was a school favourite everywhere except my school, it appears. The explanation must be to do with my Victorian schoolmistresses fears about the possibile influence on tender minds of the scene under the hay wagon. They clearly felt that the face-slashing reality of Brighton Rock was more suitable for pre-pubescent girls.

For whatever reason I'm glad that this gem has been saved for my middle years and now comes to me at around the same age Laurie Lee was when he wrote the book - and very nearly in the same place as well. The village of Slad is only a couple of miles up the road from where I'm writing this. And I have been spared the stifling, smelly, repressive atmosphere of school as a permanent association with the book.

Everything about Lee's writing is rich, as is the childhood he describes. People who live around here and who knew the author and still know his widow tell you that it isn't realistic. That he has rose-tinted spectacles on. The major criticism is that he doesn't portray the family as poor enough. The spendthrift single mother and her frequently bootless, snotty-nosed children as seen from the outside do not match the wealth that Laurie Lee clearly found in the Gloucestershire countryside.

I was listening to Haydn's Creation recently and for the first time - I think because it was sung rather than spoken - thought about the second sentence of the bible: 'The Earth was without form - and void'. This is how death feels to those who live close to the earth: an absence of the teeming, messy variety of life at this time of year. As we have used technology to gain mastery over nature so we have strangled and stifled this life.

The UK economy is based on financial services - 73% of our economy is now in the services sector, and most of this is financial services. What could be more alien to life than this 'industry' which lures us through life with the attraction of money, especially money via pensions (by which time we are really too old to enjoy it and life has passed us by) and persuades us (the insurance 'industry') that we can use money to prevent the accidental disasters that are an inevitable part of life. A paltry attempt to use the meaningless and worthless construct of money to keep life at bay.