Compassionate economics

Are the words compassion and economics compatible?

Absolutely. If we were to exchange goods and services without interference from legislation which restricts competition we would have an economy with a high degree of equality, fairness, environmental sustainability, peace and compassion.


Major evidence for this comes from the hunters and gatherers who used to inhabit this planet and especially the bushmen of the Kalihari Desert who lived a peaceful and sustainable lifestyle for close to 200,000 years


This writer has come to this conclusion after a lifetime of interest in current affairs and relationships, through a first class degree in economics from the University of British Columbia and lots of informal reading in economics, economic history, history, ancient history and anthropology.


That I feel it necessary to start this book with this question indicates how poorly so many people, including economists, understand economics and money. At least since Marx many people have equated economics with the evils of the current economic system and shut off whenever the word economics is used. This is sad because economics is about the relationships involved in the exchange of goods and services and most of us have to exchange with at least a few people. Money is a tool to facilitate this exchange. Both economics and money involve a lot of distortions of the truth which makes it easy for some people to exploit the rest of us.


team-spirit-2447163_1920As we work through compassionate economics the issue of the resource base hangs over us and makes life difficult for all of us.

Economics professors often start their lectures by drawing a simple x graph on the black board. One line represents the physical side of the economy and the other line represents the financial side of the economy. This is a very important distinction as ignoring it diverts our attention from the reality of economics.

As we mostly discuss economic problems in terms of money we ignore the physical side of the problem. For example, pensions are very important for most of us but we always talk about saving enough money rather than having enough energy and mineral resources. Two things could and probably will happen to most of the money people save for their retirement – inflation or bankruptcy. Our standard of living in retirement will depend upon the quantity of goods and services we are capable of producing relative to the number people making demands on that production. A key factor in this ratio will be the energy and mineral resources we have. There are still lots of these on the surface of our planet but we have consumed the most easily accessable.Those that are left will require a lot of energy to extract and may not be feasible.


The cost of solar energy has recently been falling quickly and has some potential. I also like that solar has the potential for each of us to make decisions about adopting it. It is great that individuals can make these decisions instead of bankers. The down side is that most of our money supply is based on debt and will disappear if a lot of loans have to be written off. I fear a lot of our money is based on loans made to support petroleum.


We need to exchange goods and services because we are social creatures. It may be this is what distinguishes us from animals. In some circumstances it may be possible for an individual to live alone but for most of us we must live with at least one other person and this means living in a relationship. On the Canadian Prairies the early explorers found they needed a female partner for survival because the division of labour was too much for one person. Later the settlers found that during harvest labour requirements were such that they needed to help each other and took turns at several farms. Now, with modern equipment one person can seed, fertilize and harvest up to 7,000 acres. But he still needs a huge support staff of suppliers. These he pays in cash rather than return labour. Economics is about how we exchange goods and services and the relationships which are a part of these exchanges.


Decision making is an important part of compassionate economics. When we make decisions for others we can and often do make those decisions by what is best for us rather than them. As there is no place for exploitation in compassionate economics we should as much as possible exchange goods and services so that individuals can make decisions for themselves. In capitalism bankers and government make decisions about what and how much is to be produced. In socialism bureaucrats in the form of central planners make those decisions. The only way I know to allow individuals to make economic decisions is the perfect competition model upon which the formal study of economics based.

At least since Marx economics has been defined as either capitalist or socialist. Both of these are very vague terms which is good for people who want to control or exploit others but meaningless for those of us who want to understand how we exchange goods and services. The main feature of capitalism as we know it is that governments pass legislation which restricts competition and we call it a market economy. The main feature of socialism is a matrix known as central planning and they say it is “by the people and for the people”. Both concepts are the idealogical equivalent of the stuff through which one would walk if one visited a cattle feed lot.

For four years this guy lived on a British Columbia coastal Indian reserve. One evening a old timer told us about the time consuming process his people used to make themselves a sweet treat,

“Do you still do this,?” I asked?

“No,” he replied. “It is a lot easier to go to Dairy Queen.”

These people did most of their hunting at the local supermarket but they still fished and they still had a few of their old traditions. One of these traditions was the sharing of fish and we had a lot of salmon, halibut, crab and oolichans (a very small, oily and smelly fish.)

It appears that in a lot of hunting gathering cultures sharing mostly with family or clan members was the predominant way of exchange. This is a major difference from our culture where it is assumed the exchange of goods and services should yield a profit. I would like us to plagiarize the hunters and gathers and make sharing the key concept in our economy. This is somewhat radical and would open the door to some major changes in our economy – a guaranteed income policy, a new way of creating money and a zero growth economy. All of these are important for resource and environmental concerns. All of these are important if we are to have a compassionate economy.

One of the major issues we have to deal with is the incompatibility of economic growth and environmental issues such as global warming, pollution, mono culture agriculture, health and overpopulation. The need for economic growth is sold as a fix for unemployment although its main purpose may be to further increase the wealth of the one percent. As compassionate economics is based on sharing rather than profits there is no need for further economic growth. With a guaranteed income scheme people will not need jobs to survive and we can deal with environmental concerns. We will also no longer need to support the greatest of all make work schemes, the arms industry. Lets opt for peace and sharing with all peoples. The goal of compassionate economics is to get the population to a sustainable level and live in peace.

Compassionate economics will allow us to replace our commitment to the work ethic with a commitment to a leisure ethic. In future we should get our self identity from the leisure activities in which we engage whether they be acting in a play, writing a book or even drinking beer.It is relatively easy for me to sit here in a comfortable chair and a nice view out the window and think out solutions to economic problems. But economics involves people with emotions and special interests. A lot of people will find it difficult to see the need for changes and those with special interests will be very vocal in protecting themselves. However I believe the future of most of us is seriousl

It is a pity that so many people shut off when they hear the word “economics.” A few years ago I read a book on green economics which promoted small businesses. I laughed and cried because economic theory is based on the concept of small businesses. One of the key assumptions of economics is that no firm is large enough to influence prices by restricting production and by restricting the quantity purchased.

A key feature of a true market economy as described by economic theory is that there are no profits. If there are profits to be made in an industry new firms will enter until prices drop to the point where there are no more profits. Firms can make wages and a return on investment (maybe) but there will be no profits. Thus a perfect market economy with competition is what is needed for a compassionate economy. A lot of people need to be studying formal economics.

It is relatively easy for me to sit here in a comfortable chair and a nice view out the window and think out solutions to economic problems. But economics involves people with emotions and special interests. A lot of people will find it difficult to see the need for changes and those with special interests will be very vocal in protecting themselves. However I believe the future of most of us is seriously threatened and we must at least try for compassionate economics.

 

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The next economic crisis: financial or real?

A few people are prepping themselves for the next economic crisis and speculating about what will cause it.  This blogger thinks there are several possible causes.  It is about 99.99 per cent certain there will be another crisis.

Even if somebody does make an accurate prediction it will probably do no good because there are so many vested interests there will be no consensus about the cause and about what to do to prevent it.  However, for some of us there is some fun in trying to think out economic problems and we might be able to improve our understanding of economics.  So, here goes.

The possibilities are for the cause to be within the financial system or for the cause to be within the physical or real side of the economy.  As the two are interconnected it may be difficult to determine just what is happening.

Problems within the financial system relate to money. Either there is too much money or not enough.  Ideally the available money supply needs to be just right for the quantity of goods and services exchanged and as this varies it needs to be flexible.  When there is too much money available there is potential for inflation and this is a problem for people with invested savings as they lose some of their purchasing power.  Deflation is a problem for lenders as the money they have loaned out will have less purchasing power when it is returned, if it is returned.

The really serious problem comes when there is not enough money as this curtails economic activity.  Most of the money supply is based on loans made by the financial industry and involves a multiplier.  When the industry has to write off a large quantity of loans, as with the recent subprime housing crisis, the money supply goes down, again with a multiplier effect.  Without money the exchange of goods and services becomes difficult and lots of people lose their jobs. Big time suffering.

Currently it appears there is lots of money floating around the economy.  Lots of firms are reported to have piles of cash on hand and are probably unable to see investment opportunities.

On the real side of the economy, many people assume there are lots of energy and mineral resources available and therefore no physical restraints on the exchange of goods and services.   This may not be true.

A common argument is that as resources are consumed higher prices will bring on a greater supply which happened with oil and lots of minerals.  The problem is that they also require more energy to extract which reduces the energy available for other activities and at some point the value of the energy exceeds the value of the resources.  This blogger figures there are lots of energy and mineral resources available on the earth’s crust,  but the cost of getting them makes them useless.  This could be changed by technology and the decreasing cost of solar energy will make the high cost of oil irrelevant.

Children, workings in a vegetable garden.

However there may be some economic  disruptions in the transition.  How much oil infrastructure will have to be written of and what would that do to the money supply? Also there are all the other minerals for which there are no clear cheap substitutes.

This guy fears the greatest threat to our economic well-being is from resource restrictions on the physical side of the economy.  An even greater threat is that too many people will not see the problem because they analyse problems only in financial terms and will be looking for solutions on the financial side.  Changes in how much money is available or even in the way in which we create money will not add to the resource base or make it cheaper to extract them.

I fear for the future of my grandchildren.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Pensions: Promises and reality

It is difficult for this blogger to get excited about pensions because he grew up to Doris Day singing “Whatever will be, will be“.  I heard that song so many times I still believe it.

There are two things that make pensions difficult.  They are part of a big business and they involve promises to be redeemed  in an unknown future.

This post was inspired by this article in The Economist about pension problems in Taiwan but the ideas here apply anywhere around the world where people rely upon pensions for their future.

Pensions are a problem because we evaluate economic problems in monetary terms and assume there will be no inflation or deflation.  We would get a more accurate evaluation if we did it in physical terms.  The reality is that our future standards of living depend upon the ratio of population to the quantity of goods and services we will be capable of producing. Monetary savings will probably be irrelevant thanks to inflation or bankruptcy.

We know, or we should know, from experience that the economic growth is fractal in nature rather than linear as we learned in university economics.  Being fractal means there are a series of ups and downs and sometimes major changes in direction.  There is some evidence that we are experiencing a major turning down.  This blogger  believes current economic problems are because we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  Yes, there are lots left but they require so much energy to extract they are mostly useless.  Regardless of what financial people say there may  be some grim prospects. If this analysis is correct the best career and investment is a market garden.

Pensions and other forms of savings are a big business in which sales people earn  commissions and profits on current sales.  They are selling promises for a future they probably will not have to keep.  The reality is that there may not be enough resources to keep them.

To believe in pensions one must have a lot of faith that the world is going to continue as it is for the rest of one’s life.  We can sometimes see into the near future but the further out we look the more blurred is our vision.

Back to Doris Day.

 

Why your savings and pensions are at risk

The fractional reserve way of creating money means a lot of people are at risk of losing all or part of their savings and pensions.

If there is too much money supply in the economy then we have inflation and people with savings or pensions lose some of their purchasing power and those who owe money benefit because they repay their loans with less purchasing power.  Now you know why governments and the people who speak on their behalf promote mild inflation.  This is at least unauthorized taxation if not theft.

pexels-photo-2105902If you have deflation, then people who are owed money win because they are repaid with more purchasing power than they loaned.  The borrowers lose because they have to repay with more purchasing power.

To be fair to everyone we need to manage the economy so that just the right amount of money is available at all times.  At a time when the economy is on a down trend, this is very important as too much money puts us in danger of hyperinflation.

Getting this amount right has long been a challenge to central banks although the common sense answer is fairly simple.  The money supply should vary with the quantity of goods and services we want to exchange and it should be flexible up and down.

The wrench in the simplicity is the fractional reserve way of creating money.  When banks make loans they must (or should) keep a fraction of the amount on reserve for when the depositor wants his/her money returned.  As the amount is only a fraction banks are at risk of a “run” if depositors lose faith.  And because of the fractional reserve there is a multiplier effect involved.  Does not this sound like a set up for a crisis?  The mechanics of this process are a little complex although I have always found it easy to understand. To figure it out I suggest you Google “fractional reserve” or look at my free e book Funny Money: Adapting to a Down Economy or look at the essay Going to Market on this weblog.

The other end of the wrench is  that interest is charged on the loans made by the banks.  Mainstream economists have given little or no thought to the consequences of this. Because all of our money is created by the making of loans, if all the outstanding debt were to be paid off at one time there would not be enough money to repay it all because of the interest.  The charging of interest on the debt/money means there is never enough money available to repay all outstanding debt. Inflation is built into the fractional reserve way of creating money.

The system works only so long as the economy and the money supply continues to grow.  An upset in either means crisis of which we have had many.

The relationship between money supply and economic output is expressed in a formula, MV=PQ, some times known as the quantity theory of money.  Money times the velocity at which it circulates in the economy is equal to a price index times the quantity of goods and services produced.

I get ticked off because this is frequently taken to mean there is a direct, proportional relationship between the money supply and the inflation rate or price level.   Can’t people see there are four variables in this formula?  Total output is an important part of this formula.  If it should happen to go down something needs to happen to another variable.

Our society has a strong commitment to economic growth and a need to keep it growing so that people will not suffer from unemployment.   Some desperate people are trying to stimulate growth by increasing the money supply. This may increase inflation but it will not lead to growth unless we can find inexpensive energy and mineral resources to support it.  I suspect the new American president has  his eye on parks and reserve lands to encourage more economic activity.  He will probably succeed in the short term to be followed by a major economic collapse.

This blogger thinks we need some major economic reforms, not only in our financial system but in our commitment to economic growth.  We need to minimize our production and exchange of goods and services so we are using fewer energy and mineral resources.

A lot  of people operate on faith in our financial system and ignore suggestions we need reform.  I think the risk is so great that prudent people will at least give some thought to these issues.  It is your savings and your pensions and your future that is at risk.

 

 

Please help promote this weblog

Please send the link to this post to your friends and social media.  Promoting a weblog can be difficult.  I get some referrals from LinkedIn.  I used to get quite a few from Reddit but I have been “shadow  banned” for linking to my own weblog.  Self promotion (and free speech?) are serious offenses on Reddit. I figure my strength is in the thinking that goes into the posts and I thank you for helping.  (r/economics   r/libertarian   r/economiccolapse  r/Degrowth )

Pensions and dreams

Many people like to dream about the things they will do in retirement and count on their pensions and savings to make the dreams come true.  For lots of current seniors this has been true but younger people may not get beyond the dream.  All the uncertainties of the economic future come to the fore when one starts thinking about pensions.

One hears two major concerns about pensions:  most  people are not saving enough and too many pensions are based on unfunded liabilities.

The one certainty about retirement futures is that well-being and standard of living will depend upon the quantity of goods and services we are capable of producing and the number of people with whom those goods and services must be shared.  Inflation or bankruptcies could easily wipe out  pensions and savings. In any case an increasing population and people living longer into retirement will put pressure on pensions.

There are two ways we can try to ensure our futures into retirement – we can work our butts off in an attempt to return to economic growth or we can reduce our expectations so that we don’t need so need so many goods and services.  It is possible the second option will be forced upon us.  That may not be all bad.  This blogger knows from experience that canoe camping is a lot cheaper and more enjoyable than the large cruise ships..   I also have to recognize that camping would be a lot less fun if we had to share the lake with 2,000 people at a time.

Most  of us are subject to a lot of media hype about the importance of pensions and saving for retirement.  We should keep in mind that we are in for the long-term while the people selling investments are more interested in their next pay cheque.  What is good for them may not be good for their customers and by the time you find out you may not even remember their name.

Some people are worried about government pensions and see private investments as the answer.  I figure the whole financial system is at risk of either inflation or bankruptcy.

In planning for the future we have to evaluate the potential for a return to economic growth.  If one believes we are going to return to growth then it might  be okay to put a lot of effort into a pension.  .  Personally, I think the best long-term investment at this time is a market garden.

 

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 future of money: inflation, deflation or disappearance into thin air

The future of money has been getting a little attention lately.  It could go one of three ways – inflation, deflation or part of it could disappear into thin air.  Concerns about money probably reflect concerns and uncertainty about where the economy is going.  Frequently behind these concerns lurk people who want a fixed money supply such as gold or bit coin.

This blogger figures money should be defined as a tool to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  I do not like definitions that make it a store of wealth or a measure of value because these give money an intrinsic value which it does or should not have.  Money should only have value as a tool. 

One of the most important features of money should be the amount available  in the economy needs to be flexible.  It should be able go to up or down  with changes in the quantity of goods and services we want to exchange.  If the money supply is not flexible then as we change the quantity of goods and services then either prices must go up or down or the velocity, the rate at which money changes hands will change.  It is dangerous to assume there will be only growth.

Inflation happens when the money supply increases faster than the rate of economic growth and deflation happens when the money supply goes not keep up with the rate of growth.    Inflation is good for borrowers as the can repay their loans with money which has less real value.  This is one reason governments and their agents want to see mild inflation.  Deflation is good for lenders as they will be repaid with money which has more value.  The ideal should be price stability so nobody loses.

Our understanding of inflation and deflation has been distorted by the long period of economic growth we have just experienced. Most inflation has happened along with growth and most deflation has resulted from banking authorities trying to restrict the amount of money available.  This happened in the 1930s and todays central bankers have sworn to never again let that happen.

There is some evidence that our time of economic growth has terminated.  It is unclear how this will affect prices.  Quantitative easing which is an attempt to increase the money supply has not led to high inflation.  Past hyperinflations have occurred when governments have increased to money supply faster than the economy was capable of growing.  It appears the money created by quantitative easing has led to inflation in the financial markets rather than consumer markets.

Economists generally understand how fractional reserve banking works to increase the money supply but I am not aware of anyone who has thought out the opposite process.  Money that can be created out of thin air can just as easily disappear into thin air.

In fractional reserve banking banks are required to keep a portion of their deposits as reserves for protection against runs. The rest is loaned out and redeposited with the new deposits subject to the same fractional reserve.  The result is that a large proportion of our money supply is  somewhat precarious.  This blogger and many other people on the internet have explained the process.  Just search “fractional reserve banking.”

Central banks can add money to the system by purchasing financial instruments or by changing the reserve requirements.  The could also reduce the money supply by selling financial instruments or by changing the money supply although it is unlikely they will do either under current conditions.

Another way the money supply could be reduced is if the banks suffer large losses.  Any loans the banks have to write off will directly decrease their available reserves.  (The technical term is high powered money.)  This means they will have to decrease their outstanding loans with the same multiplier effect as the money supply was increased.  We will hear about it as a contraction of credit.

So if the banks experience unusually large losses there could be a drastic decrease in the money supply which could have dire consequences.  ( I have read that a number of Canadian and British banks are highly exposed to the energy industry with unsecured loans.)

If a large part of the money supply were to disappear into thin air in the short term a lot of economic activity would come to a screeching halt.  People have in the past used playing cards or candies as a substitute for money.  In the long term the level of activity would depend upon the physical resources available.

People who talk up monetary reform often want a return to a gold standard or facsimile (bit coin).  It is not clear that either of these would correct the problems inherent in the fractional reserve way of creating money.  Nor would they provide the flexibility that is needed in the total amount of money available.

We all think we know everything there is to know about money.  That is a part of what our parents teach us. However, it is a complex subject which few people understand and there are a lot of unknowns, especially if we have to deal with an extended period of low or negative growth.

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