Daydreaming reform: basic income, money and work ethic

To say we face an economic crisis is hardly controversial but the crisis is so severe that the reforms needed make Karl Marx look a part of the establishment.   The changes needed are radical beyond the comprehension of many people as they require more than just tweaking what we already have.

The basic problem is that we have used up most of the easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  Those that are left require so much energy to extract that they are almost useless.  There have been other times in economic history when humans have had to cope with resource shortages but these were temporary as more resources were waiting to be discovered.  This time the problem is not knowing where the resources are located but the cost/energy required to extract them.

The three basic changes are a basic universal income, the way in which we create money and overcoming the work ethic.  To accomplish anything all three reforms will be needed at the same time.  As there are so many conflicting vested interests this will be an impossibility.  Prove me wrong.  While these appear to be radical ideas, this writer did a degree in conventional economics at the University of British Columbia and has a strong commitment to a market economy.   The radical comes from wanting a market economy when a major feature of the current economy is that competition is restricted by government legislation.

The basis for an income scheme is the agricultural surplus resulting from all the technology which has developed at least since a farmer discovered he could produce more by using a collar on a horse rather than a harness on an ox.  Through the centuries the elite have confiscated most of the surplus with the use of force. Since the industrial revolution psychological tactics such as legal restrictions on competition,patents, copyright and the work ethic have been less messy.  The need for labour to man the empires has allowed workers to claim a share of the surplus.  As robots replace workers it will be interesting to see what happens to the agricultural surplus – and workers.

This writer would like to see the agricultural surplus treated as an inheritance to be shared equally by all the people of the world.  The way to distribute this inheritance is with a basic income scheme.  Some ideas as to how to do this are in the free e-book, Funny Money: Adapting to a Down economy, available from this weblog.

One of the advantages of an income scheme is that individuals would be able to take action on social and environmental issues related to their employment.  Workers would no longer have to work for exploitive employers and people who disagreed with a firm’s social or environmental policies would not have to bite their tongues for the sake of a pay check.

There is an old saying that money is the root of all evil.  When I studied the economics of money and banking I decided it was the lack of money that is the root of all evil.  I now think the way in which we create money is the root of all evil.

In most of the world’s economies money is created when the banks  make loans and because banks are generally required to keep a fraction of their deposits on reserve most loans become additional deposits in the banking system.  This is called fractional reserve money.  It is a problem because loans that have to be written off reduce the amount of money available, with a multiplier, and because interest is charged on the loans.  A sudden reduction in the money supply is the most difficult of all economic crises.   If all the loans outstanding had to be repaid at the same time there would not be enough money to repay the principle and the interest.  We would recognize the problem as a financial crisis.  This is why I titled my book Funny Money.  I encourage you to get a free copy from Smashwords for an explanation of this problem.

Money is useful because it is a tool which facilitates the exchange of goods and services especially when a lot of our exchanges are with strangers.  We have traditionally used gold or other material items as a basis for money.  Some people still talk about the gold standard although fractional reserve money is based on faith rather than gold.

A few small groups around the world have established what they call Local Exchange Trading Systems.  These people base their exchanges on credits.  You get a credit when you sell a good or service to another member and use credits when you purchase something.  I like this system because the credits are a form of money without the problems of fractional reserve and interest.  In my book I propose we adopt a national exchange trading system and combine it with credits from a guaranteed income scheme.  This would be using money as a tool rather than a commodity.  See the book for more details.

Adopting this system would be revolutionary because it would be a transfer of decision making power from bankers to individuals.  Under fractional reserve bankers get to make decisions about what projects get funded and who gets to do them.  A National Exchange Trading System would allow individuals to make these decisions as they decided what to do with their share of the agricultural surplus.  Some of us would use our share to vote for zero economic growth and more leisure activities.

Many people feel guilty if they do not work continuously.  The work ethic and a distribution of the agricultural surplus via employment are the main motivators that keep our economy going. But the truth is that we do not need everyone to work full-time to provide foods, shelter and entertainment to everyone.  Most of the work people do is work for the sake of work and to maintain the empires of the one per cent.

The bushmen of the Kalahari desert in Africa are/were known for not being interested in material things and for not working hard.  But as hunters and gatherers they had no need to store food.  Any day of the year they could go out and collect the food they needed for that day.  When our ancestors moved to agricultural pursuits, they had to store food and this meant working at least at some times of the year.  We have now taken this need to an extreme.

One of the reasons work is so important is that most of us get our self-identity from our employment.  To save our resource base and to preserve the environment we will have to get our self-identity from other activities.  How about a leisure ethic which encourages people to perform operas, write poetry, write economic weblogs or many other useless things.

This blogger keeps by his computer a little statue of the Laughing Buddha to remind him not to take life too seriously.  Most of the time it works but when thinking about the current economic outlook it is hard to laugh.  Most of us think and act in our own short-term interests as opposed to the long-term in interests of our selves or our communities.  So long as that holds true the outlook is for a lot of human suffering.  But  what does it matter.  To quote a famous economist, in the long term we will all be dead.



Recycling is not enough

In this corner of the world recycling is almost universal.  Plastics, glass, metals, compost and drink containers are separated from the rest of the garbage.  Some people also take their own shopping bags to the supermarket.  The exceptions are that we have not mastered the technology of recycling energy and most of us continue to drive a lot

Unfortunately we are still experiencing environmental degradation, inflation and unemployment.  Recycling is not enough.  Its main function is to allow us to feel we are doing something. It allows us to ignore the real issues –  population levels and values.

I believe the most important way in to protect the environment is to reduce the number of people trying to live on this planet.  There are just too many people and I do not like the idea of saying some people should not have the same standard of living as others.  Who is to decide who gets shorted?

I also recognize it is a near impossibility as we cannot tell people not to have sex and not to have children.  What are the consequences of not taking action to reduce the population?  When the Europeans came to North America they brought with them some new diseases and close to 90 per cent of the native population died.  I understand there is some archaeological evidence that there was a similar population reduction in the Mediterranean some millenia ago.  If these precedents hold for us, then there is likely to be one hell of a stench.

We also need to get over our fear of death as so much energy and resources go into prolonging life.  Quite a few years ago The Economist reported that 80 per cent of health care spending is in the last six months of life.  I do not want to go into the 80 per cent and I hope that when my time comes I and those close to me will be able to accept it gracefully.

The other big challenge to protect  the environment deals with values many of which are a part of our committment to economic growth.

According to anthropologist James Suzman who recently published the book Affluence without Abundance, the most successful and long-lasting civilization was that of the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert.  These hunters and gatherers “worked” only ten to 15 hours a week.  As they relocated up to ten times a year they had little interest in material things and their society had high equality.  We cannot all go back to being hunters and gathers but we can choose some of their values and apply them to our daily lives.

If we really want to protect the environment then we should have fewer children, live in place, live a healthy lifestyle, have fewer and smaller toys, drive less, go easy on the travel and work as little as possible.  Recycling may make us feel we are doing something but it is not enough.



Why the joke should not be impeached

The biggest problem now facing Americans is the emotional fears of those of them who elected the joke currently occupying the oval office.  Getting rid of Donald Trump by impeachment or otherwise will solve nothing and may be even worse.

We have to give Trump credit for having the brains to get himself elected.  He identified some of the emotional issues which are giving Americans nightmares and promised to deal with those issues. Emotional fears are  difficult to deal with and it is probable that his proposed solutions will not solve anything.  But at least he is trying and people appreciate that.

This blogger thinks the fears are legitimate.  I believe the current economic turmoil is because we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  We are going to have to adapt to life without the abundance to which we have grown accustomed.  Most of us realize something not good is happening but we do not know what.  Many people are afraid.

One of the ways to deal with fear is to blame other people, especially people who are different.  Lots of people around the world, including Americans and Canadians, are doing this.  It is unfair and morally wrong but it is also natural to blame others for our problems. It is not only right-wing people who are afraid.  Bernie Saunders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain have also attracted a lot of support with emotional appeals.

The best way to deal with these fears is to deal with the source problem.  However the problem is so serious and so difficult there is probably no solution.  We might be able to relieve things a little by changing our values, the way we create money and introducing a basic income plan.  These things would have to all be done at once and that is expecting a lot of human beings.

Another alternative might be to attack emotions with emotions and try to point out how people will themselves be hurt by blaming others.  Fighting fear with more fear could be dangerous.

Americans have very clear rules for replacing a president whose term is incomplete.  Whoever replaces him will be looking for support from the same people with the same emotions.  It might be better to have a joke in the Whitehouse rather than a serious far-right conservative.

The best way to deal with Donald Trump is to ignore him.

Brexit: the unilateral free trade option


As the British and the Europeans renegotiate the European Union following a British referendum a number of options are being considered.  What will not be considered is the option which would in the long term give the best standard of living – unilateral free trade.

For a long time this blogger has believed the best way to do free trade is for a country to do it on its own by removing all barriers to imports.  “Free trade” agreements are not free trade, they are negotiated trade.  To get the full benefits of the law of comparative advantage there must be no barriers to imports. There should be no import duties, no quotas and health and safety restrictions should be genuine rather than to restrict imports.

Unilateral free trade could easily be done by any country as each country has the right to control its imports.  This will leave them open to “dumping” or subsidies by trading partners.  If another country wants to subsidize our standard of living, then we should say, “Thank you very much”.

The case for free trade is based on the law of comparative advantage which says that two countries will be better off if they specialize in their most efficient production and trade even if one of the countries is more efficient in all trading items.  With our background we generally think of better off as meaning more economic growth but it could also mean more leisure time.  The law still applies.

There are two major problems with unilateral free traded – our  commitment to economic growth and the difficulty in making employment changes.

This blogger believes there will be little if any future economic growth because we have used up the easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  There are lots left on the surface of this planet but they are so difficult to extract they are mostly useless.  I also believe many people are aware of this economic uncertainty even if they do not understand what is happening.  This is probably behind the British vote for Brexit, the United States election of Donald Trump,  the increasing popularity of extreme left and right wing politicians and the rise of dictatorships around the world and a lot of other unpleasant developments.

The fear of losing one’s job is highly emotional and this is the second big problem with free trade.  Free trade means changes in production and this means some people will lose their jobs and have to find new employment.  The other side of this problem is that economic changes are a fact of life and will happen regardless of free trade.  We try to deal with changing market conditions with subsidies, import quotas, health and safety restrictions on imports and other trade restrictions. In the long term market forces usually win.

Under current economic conditions a lot of people are likely to lose their employment and a lot of people are going to suffer.  The challenge should be to facilitate the changes and reduce the suffering.  Most people are going to have to accept a lower standard of living.  This blogger believes the best way to adjust is to introduce a basic income plan.  For more discussion of this please see the rest of this weblog and my book Funny Money: Adapting to a Down Economy.

This guy believes the British and the Europeans would benefit if the British were to use the referendum as an opportunity for unilateral free trade.  I also would not want to be a part of the negotiating team as there is unlikely to be a consensus as to what degree of trade to negotiate.  There is so much fear, so many emotions and so many conflicting interests that it will be difficult to come up with something most people will be able to accept.  There is likely to be a lot of turmoil.



Retirement, the future and The Economist

The editors and writers of The Economist news magazine must be ageing and not seeing things too clearly.  That is my conclusion after reading their recent special report on the future of elderly people.  Another option is that my view of the future is incorrect.  The Economist is much more optimistic than I am, I hope they are correct.

I disagree with them on three issues – the future of the economy, the work ethic and financial issues.

Most of their readers probably have a vested interest in continued economic growth and to prosper the magazine needs to support this. And they do.

This blogger figures the current economic problems are related to energy and mineral resources.  We have used up the most accessible of these and those which are left take so much energy to extract they are worthless.  If this is correct the outlook for the future is rather grim.  We can anticipate a lot of human suffering as we have to adapt to a down economy.  So far retirees have largely been exempt from this but our time may be coming. Trump, Brexit, Saunders, Corbyn and Macron could all be symptoms of this problem.  Lots of people recognize something is not right but do not know what it is.

In recent years The Economist has come up with a number of cute cures for the economic crisis.  This time we are going to save ourselves by getting people to work further into old age.  This commitment to the work ethic may be good for those whose fortunes and status depend upon getting other people to work for them but if the above analysis is correct increasing economic activity will use up more energy and resources and bring forward the timing of a complete economic collapse.  Rather than promoting the work ethic we need to be pushing a leisure ethic  in which people get their self identity from doing non economic things such as music, theatre, art or writing a weblog on economics. The Economist talks about a longevity dividend.  Should this dividend be more work or more leisure?

One of the features of money is that it gives a person control over resources.  Financial obligations left over from the era of prosperity mean some older people have a greater  command over current resources than the young.  Older people are going on luxury cruises in which a waiter from a third world country puts the pepper on their food while their grandchildren are struggling to find jobs and homes.  When the crisis hits pensions and other savings the cruise ship operators will be lobbying for the release from prison of a famous Italian captain so they can put him back to work.

This blogger tends to be pessimistic about the economic future.  I figure I was very lucky in the time and place in which I was born and have lived most of my life (1941 and western Canada).

Guaranteed work or guaranteed income?

As an alternative to a basic income scheme a commentator on Medium is proposing universal guaranteed work.  This writer has put a lot of thought into his proposal and deserves to have it given some consideration.  I have a strong commitment to a guaranteed income scheme and I have some heavy-duty concerns about his work plan.

My first concern is a belief that we do not have enough energy and mineral resources to provide employment for all the people who inhabit this planet.  There are still lots of resources but we have cherry picked the most accessible and those which are left will require lots of inexpensive energy to extract.  Even if the cost of solar energy continues to drop there may not be enough other resources to maintain the economic growth required to provide work for everyone. Topsoil is a major resource which may deteriorate and restrict growth.

The proposal for guaranteed work is probably based on a belief in economic growth and a long tradition that people must “do their share” and work to support themselves.  It may be that some people see a basic income scheme as a way of distributing goods and services rather than as an economic necessity.

Technology has been changing our economy at least since an ancient farmer discovered he could increase his production by using a horse with a collar instead of an ox with harnesses.  This development and all those that  followed allowed fewer people to work the land and more people to do other things such as fight and prey.  (In medieval times there were three classes of people – those who prayed, those who fought and those who worked to support the first two.)  My professor of European economic history spent a lot of time talking about agricultural developments which increased productivity.

Modern technology is an extension of this trend releasing more people to do things other than work to provide food and shelter.  A major question is what is this free time going to be used for.  There are many choices beyond preying and fighting including making more electronic gadgets and performing or listening to music.  Another question is who is going to make the decision about what to do with this time.  I believe individuals should be able to make the decisions for themselves.

My third concern is that a guaranteed work scheme is a continuation of the work ethic which allows a few people to tell the rest of us what to do.  We should consider the agricultural surplus and the benefits of technology an inheritance for all of us rather than a right which can be expropriated by a few.  We should be able to decide for ourselves what we want to do with the free time we have inherited from our ancestors.  That could be drinking beer or creating great works of art.  Who is to say one activity is better than another? We need a leisure ethic rather than a work ethic.

Sadly there are some people who feel they should be able to tell others how to live their lives.  A universal guaranteed work scheme is an open invitation to these people to practice this dark business.

Our civilization has to deal with some serious economic problems.  I fear the work program as proposed would make a lot of those problems even worse.  A guaranteed income program would not be enough to solve all the problems but it would be a start and needs a lot more thought.



Pricing solar energy – the marginal cost factor

 The costs of solar energy are falling quickly and will probably soon be cheaper than more conventional sources.  Does this mean we will once again have large quantities of cheap energy and a return to economic growth?  Maybe and maybe not.

There may not be an immediate drop in the consumer price of power.

The maybe is because of the economic principle that price is equal to the marginal cost of the last unit produced and sold.This means solar will not influence the grid price until the whole current power infrastructure has been replaced. Until then the price will be set by whatever is the most expensive conventional power still being produced.  

It also means firms producing solar power for the grid  will be able to reap some windfall  profits as their costs of production will be lower and falling. Given the current corporate culture that firms have an obligation to maximize their profits regardless we have to anticipate most firms will take full advantage of the windfall. We observe that lots of oil reserves can be extracted at costs much lower than the current marginal cost for more expensive oil. This means some firms and/or governments are reaping windfall profits

The bright spot will be if and when the cost of solar falls enough for small units to be economical and for consumers to be able to afford them.

A further complication is the debt factor.  How much of the debt used to build the current infrastructure is outstanding?  If a large amount has to be written off, it will probably come out of what is called high power money.  If this declines rapidly  it could affect the money supply and cause some economic decline.

As the price of solar falls no doubt lots of large companies will get involved but sadly most if benefits may go to the one per cent in profits and the rest of us will be left out in the cold.  Expect turmoil rather than growth.

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