Hiding from the economic crisis

Why are interest rates so low?  It’s a question which has apparently been occupying a couple of North America’s top economists but this blogger sees the discussion as a screen hiding some very important economic issues.such as the root cause of the economic crisis and values which will guide us in trying to  find a solution.

On the surface the answer is simple.  Interest rates are the price of money and are determined by supply and demand.  They are low  because that is where the two balance.  They appear low because we are used to high returns on our investments and are reluctant to give them up.  There is no reason why interest rates could not be zero and maybe they should be.

To understand the root cause of the economic crisis we need to go into a macro economics classroom and watch the lecturer draw his basic diagram on the blackboard.  It is in the shape of an”x” with one side representing the financial side of the economy and the other the real or physical side.   This is important.  As we measure the physical part of the economy in financial terms it is easy to forget the distinction and analyze economic problems only in financial terms.  We need to ask what is happening to the physical side of the economy because it could be that is where the problem is.

This blogger figures the problem is with the resource base.  There are lots of energy and mineral resources left on this planet but we have exploited the most easily accessible.   Those that are left take a lot of time and energy to extract and this is causing a lot of economic problems.  It could even force us into negative growth.  This is a much more serious problem than why interest rates are low.  It is also an extremely difficult problem because it challenges some deeply held beliefs and values.  It’s a lot easier to talk about why interest rates are low.

Some ideas about how to fix the economy are included in the essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog.  A major feature of that essay is a proposal to change the way in which we create  money.

The emotions surrounding money make it a such a difficult subject that few people understand the economics of money and banking. This is unfortunate as money is so essential to how we exchange goods and services.  I encourage you to take a look at the essay.

While I prefer to see low interest rates as a symptom rather than the problem here are  some observations.

Money should be considered a tool to facilitate exchange rather than as a commodity with a value of its own As the quantity of goods and services we want to exchange varies up and down  so does the amount of money supply we need,  If there is too much money there will be inflation and if there is too little money there will be deflation.   Some people believe there should be mild inflation but this reduces the value of savings and should be  considered theft.

Quantitative easing has been an attempt to stimulate economic activity by increasing the money supply.  It has resulted in a rising stock market but has done little for the real economy.  That has to be a sign of a serious problem which has not been identified.

The way in which we create money, known as fractional reserve banking, is a heavy-duty problem because it is based on loans on which interest must be paid.  If all debts had to be repaid at one time there would not be enough money in the economy.  It is a Ponzi scheme on a grand scale and it is no wonder we experience frequent financial crisis.  For more on this topic see these previous posts on this weblog.

I believe we are facing a serious economic problem in that it is not clear there can  be a return to economic growth.  Dealing with this will require some major changes in our way of life.  It is disappointing that two of our most well-known economists are protecting us from having to deal with this with a frivolous argument. It’s as if they are playing in the turkey poo on animal farm and producing gobbledygook.

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Paying the piper/economist and making economic decisions

He who pays the piper calls the tune. This applies to economists as well as musicians and explains why economists have so much difficulty coming to terms with the ideological aspects of their field.

This post was prompted by an article about whether economists are biased towards the free market or towards regulation.  This blogger would prefer to evaluate economies according to who makes decisions.

I get suspicious when I hear economists talk about the “free market”  because they usually mean something different to what I understand is a free market economy.  To me a free market economy is one based on the perfect competition model.  What we actually have is an economy where governments pass legislation to restrict competition.  Copyright, patents, licensing, tariffs, health and safety regulations all work to restrict competition and allow some people to make profits they would not get in a competitive economy.

Sometimes the profit making gets out of control and the way to deal with this is to introduce  regulations  rather than to return to more competition.  Therefore I figure the debate in this article is irrelevant.

What is relevant is who makes economic decisions.  If we had perfect competition most if not all decisions would be made by consumers who would vote with their spending decisions.  Unfortunately there are too many people in this world who like to make decisions for others.

One of the big things which influences decision making is the fractional reserve way of creating money.  In this process money is created when bankers make loans and as they get to decide who gets loans they have a say over what economic activity is  going to take place.  If we had a national exchange trading system as proposed in the essay “LETS to market: Dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog money would be created via payments to individuals who would then make decisions in their purchases or investments.

The fractional reserve system  also limits decision making in that many people, especially during their working years, carry a large debt load.  As most of us have to work to repay our debts, we are forced to support another person’s decisions.  And the work ethic adds a lot of support.

Governments also interfere with decision making by passing legislation which restricts competition and by accessing large amounts of created money.  This of course allows them to make economic decisions according to their values which don’t always agree with their citizens.

My view of how the economy works is less than consistent with conventional economic wisdom.  Readers will decide for themselves which view  they want to accept but I will point out that economists who don’t promote the conventional view probably don’t stand much chance of holding important high paying jobs.  People in power, industry or government, want to feel they are doing good and it is the role of economists to say what their employers want to hear and most economists are paid directly or indirectly by business or government.

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Compassionate austerity to deal with the economic crisis

To cope with the economic crisis we need austerity with compassion.  Stimulus as a policy will likely make things worse more quickly and austerity as currently practiced is mean and hurting victims.  Those people voting for politicians urging austerity may regret their votes when they too get caught in the crisis.

Compassionate austerity would recognize we are dealing with events beyond our control and would therefore not blame the victims.  It would include some sort of income support for people caught in the crisis

How one wants to deal with the economic crisis depends upon how strongly one believes in economic growth.  If one believes this is just a temporary setback, then one probably wants either stimulus to keep things going or some austerity until the economy corrects itself and growth returns.  This blogger figures the crisis results from problems in the resource base and it is unlikely we will again see the golden  years of prosperity which we have experienced in recent decades.

If this is the case, then austerity is something which will be forced upon us and we should try to cope with it with as little human suffering as possible.

I figure the basic economic problem is that while we have lots of energy and mineral resources left in and on the surface of the planet we have used up the most easily accessible.  Those that are left take so much energy to extract it is becoming less feasible to do so.  Suppose that during the age of prosperity we were able to build an automobile with 1,000 units of energy and labour and suppose it now takes 2,000 units to build the same car.  Not only is this going to double the real cost of building a car it will probably limit the number of cars that can be built.  It will certainly limit the number of people who will be able to afford them.

If this is a correct analysis of the problem, then clearly we need to make some revolutionary changes in the way in which we organize ourselves to produce and exchange goods and services.  I predict there is little likelihood of the revolution starting until the economic crisis hits pensioners.  For the time being it is mostly young people who are hurting.

There is a need to rethink our commitment to economic growth and rearrange our economy so we take advantage of modern technology so that most of us can live comfortably without having a job.

What disturbs me about austerity is that the people who promote it have so little compassion and understanding for those who have been caught by the crisis.  Many of those who vote for politicians pushing austerity need to rethink their votes as it could be only a matter of time before they too will find their comfortable lifestyle being challenged,

Austerity with compassion should include some sort of income support.  This blogger would like to see  a guaranteed annual income scheme combined with changes in the way in which we create money.  However, the need is so great I will say we need anything that will provide everyone with a more or less equal share of the goods and services we are capable of producing.

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.



The unemployed scapegoats

Apparently a lot of people are blaming themselves for their own unemployment.  This is sad because there is a high probability that our committment to the work ethic will make it difficult or impossible to cope humanely with the economic crisis.

I believe economics is largely about relationships and for relationships to be satisfactory they require a  more or less equal two-way exchange including compassion and understanding.  Too often the victims of the economic crisis are being blamed for their misfortune which is neither understanding nor compassionate.  For them to blame themselves must be psychologically devastating.

Our economic problems are a result of our having consumed the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources and are aggravated by a financial system that has a built-in collapse mechanism.  Those of us who have lived through and enjoyed the recent golden age of prosperity should collectively  take responsibility for the crisis even  though we would not be human if we had not used the resources. To blame any one group for what we have all done is to make them into scapegoats.

Our economic problems could be a lot worse than we would like to think and could lead to a population reduction up to 80 per cent.  That is what the native North Americans experienced when the Europeans arrived.  Of course we are exempt from that kind of disaster but there are so many things threatening our civilization and our way of life that we might be wise to think about how we can cope with a serious disaster so as to minimize human suffering.

One approach may be to look at anthropology and history.  How have other cultures organized themselves and how have they organized the exchange of goods and services.  This has allowed me to see that there are other ways of doing things.  Sometimes those other ways are very appealing.

Our culture places too much emphasis on jobs and employment.  Not only do jobs provide us with food, clothing, shelter and entertainment, they also provide us with self-identity.  If one does not have a job one is a nobody and deserves to be look down upon.  The proper place for such people is that famous burning garbage dump in Jerusalem known as hell.

The reality is that full employment is not a realistic expectation.  The huge agricultural surplus we currently produce makes it unnecessary and our having used up the most easily accessible resources makes it impossible. We need to reorganize our economy so that all people can have the opportunity for a standard of living similar to most other people regardless of what they do with their time.  This means we need to look at some sort of universal income scheme.  Before we can have an income scheme we have to get over our committment to the work ethic.

To some extent we all have to take responsibility for how we live our lives within limitations.  Sometimes we must live in circumstances that are beyond our control.

This blogger feels quite pessimistic about the economic future but has to recognize that people have been pessimistic about the future for millenia.  On the other hand, there have been times during the millenia when pessimism has been justified.  Please don’t blame the economic crisis on those people who are suffering from it.


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He who pays the economist calls the tune

If one wonders why economists have had so much difficulty predicting and explaining the economic crisis it might be helpful to look at who pays their salaries. Isn’t there an old saying that he who pays the economist calls the tune?  As most economists work for large corporations, governments or universities (paid indirectly by governments) they have to answer ultimately to chief  executive officers or presidents/prime ministers.

The question then is what do these people want to hear?  Does the chief executive of a major bank want to hear that he is participating in a Ponzi scheme or does the president want to hear that we are going into a major recession and that his voters are going to have to accept a decreasing standard of living?

Probably not.  So economists tend to focus on things that will not be offensive to these people or that will help to support them.

Consider the book Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.  This popular book is very interesting but it doesn’t  touch on any of the big economic issues with which we are currently trying to deal.  People who have lost their jobs and homes to the crisis will not find much here to help them.  Nor will the book encourage them to become drug dealers. (Here is the Wikipedia entry on Freakonomics.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freakonomics )

Another example is this article ( http://www.economist.com/node/12851150 ) from The Economist, December 30, 2008.  This article lists eight up and coming economists and talks briefly about the work they are doing. None of them are doing research which will help us understand or cope with the current economic crisis.  Here are three quotes from this article which I think help make the point.


They share the same knack for finding ingenious ways to answer unlikely questions, often by plundering forgotten troves of data.


Mr Gabaix made a splash in 2006 when he concluded that the “excessive” pay of chief executives was not necessarily excessive. Compensation may have grown sixfold from 1980 to 2003 not because managers were six times greedier, but because the firms they ran were six times bigger.


What, then, unites these eight young stars and the discipline they may come to dominate? Economists still share a taste for the Greek alphabet: they like to provide formal, algebraic accounts of the behaviour they explain. And they pride themselves on the sophistication of their investigative methods. They are usually better at teasing confessions out of data than their rivals in other social sciences. What defines economics? Economics is what economists do—the best of them, anyway.


So long as the economy was growing it didn.t much matter what questions economists asked and most of their research assumed continued economic growth.  As a student I learned regression analysis with its upward sloping line.  It wasn’t until later that I learned about fractals with their ups and downs.  I speculate the people who sign economists’ pay cheques would not be much interested in economic projections based on fractals.

I believe most people who study economics want to make the world a better place.  Also we tend to think and act in our own short-term interests and for most people that is their pay cheque.  The economists I am criticizing probably believe they are helping make the world better – or would  be if only people would listen to them.  Who is to say one person is right rather than another when it comes to solving deep problems and shaping the future.  Sometimes, to others, our vision of the future is wishful thinking.

What then is the role of economists if not to make accurate forecasts and to solve major economic problems.  Shortly after starting my study of economics I decided economists were the theologians of the twentieth century.  Some of their debates are as relevent as the medieval debate over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

I have a theory that we need to believe the things we do are important and necessary.  Sometimes we need people to reinforce this belief.  As most of what we do involves the exploitation of resources we need to believe this is good.  As it becomes more difficult to extract the remaining resources it becomes even more important we have people to help reinforce our work ethic.  The theory is that this is the true role of economists.

Can faith solve our economic problems or do we need to challenge economic theology?

Can our economic problems be solved with belief and faith?  If yes we should all increase our attendance at church or mosque or temple.  If no we may need to challenge some basic economic theology and those whose interests are supported by current economic beliefs.

I figure the basic economic problem is with energy and mineral resources.  We have used up the most easily accessible.  While there may be lots left in the earth’s crust their extraction is difficult and requires lots of energy.  This means there is less energy available for all the other things we are used to having and standards of living are falling, at least for some people.

Many of us find it difficult to accept that this is a problem.  We want to believe that economic growth can continue forever.  We have been indoctrinated with the work ethic and believe that our happiness depends upon having a job and earning our keep.  Unemployment causes a great deal of hardship

If the above theory is correct, then the problem is not one of returning to economic growth but one of adapting to a different situation.  This means questioning a lot of what we believe about economics.

At this point I should distinguish between what I would like to see happen and what I expect to happen.

I believe we should have a collective responsibility to ensure everyone has the opportunity for the same standard of living as most other people.  Some ideas about how to accomplish this are outlined in the essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog.

What I expect to see is a return to the type of social order which existed before the industrial revolution where most people lived at a subsistence level and worked to support a very few in obscene luxury.

In the meantime the debate  of austerity as opposed to stimulus continues.  Austerity is probably necessary but the way it is being carried out is taking us to a feudal type of society.  Stimulus will use up even more of the available resources and bring us even quicker to a feudal society.  Hyperinflation is also a possibility.

When I read various reasons for the economic crisis and the few suggestions for dealing with it I think of people drowning in the middle of the ocean and thrashing about hopelessly.

What caused the financial collapse?

Here are four causes of the financial crisis not based on conventional economic wisdom:  the way in which we our economy creates money, the using up of the most accessible energy and mineral resources, the greed of most of us and imprudent or fraudulent banking practices which allow bankers to make excessive profits.

For a more conventional explanation see this article in The Economist.

We all use money and many people are very good at “making” money but very few understand its function and how it is created.  As gold and other items have traditionally been used as money we treat it as a commodity with some value of its own.  But money is a tool to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  It is a token of purchasing power.  It is important that we have just the right amount of money to use otherwise we have inflation (too much money for the transactions we want) or deflation (not enough).

The money we use results from fractional reserve banking in which banks are required to keep a percentage of their deposits as reserves.  How this works is explained in the essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the crisis” on this weblog.  It is complex but I find it  easy to understand.

Our money supply is based on loans made by banks and upon which they charge interest. For this system to work there must be a continuously increasing supply of money which sort of works so long as the economy is growing.  However, even a slowdown can cause problems because we need the right amount of money for the number of economic transactions.   I think this is a Ponzi scheme and therefore it is bound to collapse.  Periodic financial crises are built into the way we create money.  This is one of the causes of the current crisis.  When the U.S. mortgage bubble burst the money supply and the financial system collapsed.

There are two sides to the economic equation.  One side deals with the financial and the other with the physical goods that provide us with food, shelter, clothing. transportation and toys.

Since the industrial revolution we have been living in unprecedented increasing prosperity.  However there is some evidence that since the 1970s the growth of this prosperity has been slowing down and maybe even declining.  My theory to explain this is that we have used up the most easily accessible of the energy and mineral resources and it now takes more energy to recover what is left.  To use jargon, the marginal costs have increased.  This is bound to affect standards of living as more effort must be applied to resource extraction and less to other things.  This is background to the financial crisis.

Wall Street bankers are the kings of greed who got their riches partly be being in the right place at the right time.  They also make good scapegoats.

A scapegoat is somebody you blame for the consequences of your own weaknesses.  Most if not all of us have some greed and this was a factor in the financial crisis.  Before and since the crisis many people wanted the most they could get.  This includes the savers and investors who wanted the greatest returns to the poorer people who wanted housing they couldn’t afford.  Every time I go to the ATM machine or actually enter the bank I am reminded the financial industry is still appealing to the greed of its customers.

The final cause of the financial crisis is that bankers are smart enough to realize they can increase their margins and make huge profits by mismatching the terms of deposits and loans.  At the best this is imprudent.  It could even be fraud.

Bankers are financial intermediaries in that they collect deposits and make them into loans.  The difference in interest rates provide a margin which covers their expenses and provides some profits.  Prudent banking requires that the terms of the deposits and loans match.  Thus if a banker makes a loan for ten years then he should have on hand ten-year term deposits of the same amount.  Breaking this rule can be very dangerous and very profitable.

The reason for breaking the rule is that the longer the loan the greater the risk and therefore the higher the interest rate which will be charged on the loan and which must be paid to get deposits committed for the same time. A banker who finances a long-term loan with short-term deposits can increase his margin.  Prior to the financial crisis the banks were financing long-term mortgage loans with short-term deposits, some of the deposits were committed just for one day at a time.  This worked well when the economy was going well but when it became apparent there were problems the depositors became worried about their money and refused to roll them over.  As banks are required to only keep a fraction of their deposits on hand there was a limited number of depositors who could be refunded.

I think this should be considered fraud against the depositors or in this case the taxpayers who covered the losses.  It was necessary for the government to step in  because we would have lost even more of our money supply and that would have been disastrous.  The question which probably should not be asked: are bankers continuing to mismatch deposits and loans?

So there you have it, my list of four factors which contributed to the crisis.  All of these will be challenging to change.  Some ideas for change are in my essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis.”


If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

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