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.

 

Advertisements

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.

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.

 

 

What will be left for our grandchildren?

Should we feel sorry for our grandchildren who will have to repay the massive debts we have been building up?  Probably not but we should feel sorry for our grandchildren who will have to survive on mineral and energy resources which are difficult to extract.

Debts can suffer fatalities from three causes: bankruptcy, inflation or government haircuts.  Considering current economic conditions  there is some possibility the current debt load will be written off before our grandchildren even understand the word.  If and when this happens there will be considerable  economic turmoil.

I believe economies should be analysed first and mostly in physical terms rather than money terms.  This way we can see some underlying trends and problems which can easily be hidden behind financial terms.

Currently we are probably dealing with problems in both sides of the economy.  We have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources and the marginal cost of accessing what is left is going up.  At the same time the fraction reserve way of creating money in which interest is charged on the money supply is a Ponzi scheme which frequently breaks down.  Financial crises have long been a  feature of our economy.

If one analyses the economy only in phyiscal terms we are not living beyond our means as we produce everything we consume.  In this respect there can be no borrowing from the future.  What we are doing is using resources which won’t be available to our grandchildren at a reasonable cost.

A major financial collapse will have a devastating effect on our exchange of goods and services.  It is quite likely our grandchildren will have to pick up the pieces from a financial collapse.  What is more certain is that they will have to cope with our having used up the most easily accessibe energy and mineral resources.  There will be lots left for them but these resources will require a lot of energy to extract.  That will be enough of a burden to impose upon them.

 

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.

Are small-scale economies the answer?

Some people see small, local economies as the answer to current problems.  Currently the catch word is Transition as in the Transition Town network as reported in The Guardian.

Generally speaking, the Transition vision is of a move towards self-sufficiency at the local level, in food, energy and much else, but the specifics of what “getting it right” might look like were never handed down from above, says the article.

 

It could work for a few small groups but as a solution to the world economic problem I have to be skeptical.  This world has had lots of experience with local, small-scale production.  In fact economic theory starts with firms that are too small to influence prices with their purchasing or selling decisions.

lalolalo_Running_pigOne of the problems with this approach is the dynamics of small communities.   Some people think of small communities as being utopia where everybody is friends, cooperates and decisions are made by consensus.  

Those of us who live or have lived in small communities know this a long way from reality.  People have disagreements which never get resolved, even if one party leaves the community.  Us guys lived on a British Columbia coastal Indian reservation for four years.  Here where it was very difficult to leave, lots of people did not speak to each other.  They had a long tradition of feasts and large family dinners but they would have up to three or four hundred people eating  in the recreation center and one could almost hear a pin drop because it so quiet from people not speaking to each other.  Some of their leaders described the reservation as a prison camp.

We now live in a small rural community of mostly white people.  This is not so bad but there are still many people who don’t speak to some others.

I figure economics is about relationship as expressed in the exchange of goods and services.  When you try to go local you are cutting yourself off from lots of people who thanks to modern transportation are within visiting and trading range.  No small community is going to have all the resources it requires to maintain itself.  The local natives in our area needed arrows for hunting.  There was some usable stone in their area, now on a major highway.    Better stone was several days away and the best, obsidian, was found in what is now the United States.  Trying to go local limits your range of consumption.

The important thing to ask with this type proposal is will it solve the overall problem and that depends upon what the problem is.  I think the problem is that we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  While there may be lots of resources left it will take a lot of energy to retrieve them.  It may be there are some small deposits of energy or minerals which can easily be mined in which case some small economic communities  could fare reasonably well.  Another question:  would small-scale agriculture provide enough food for seven billion people?

This world has had several millenia of experience with local economics.  Since  the industrial revolution most of us have enjoyed the products and social interaction of dealing with people around the world.   I’m not sure I would want to lose that and I am not worried.

Why stimulus spending is a bad idea

Sadly, stimulus spending as an economic cure may make things even worse than they are.   It probably will not provide the results its promoters want although it will likely lead to a more egalitarian but poorer economy because there is a possibility it would lead to some heavy-duty inflation.

The ideal way to deal with the economic crisis requires  a major change in economic thinking and values starting with the way in which money is created.  Some ideas are in my essay “LETS go to market: dealing with the economic crisis.”  Of course this is not a realistic proposal. Its implementation would require a dictator with a strong and loyal military and this is contrary to my belief that decision-making should be made by individuals.

chovynz_Money_Bag_IconThat leaves austerity or stimulus.

The basic problem is that we have used up a big chunk of the easily accessible resource base.  There may be lots of energy and minerals left in  the surface  of the planet but they are so difficult and expensive to extract we cannot expect continued economic growth.

If this is a correct analysis then austerity will be forced upon us regardless of what we do.  The real challenge is to cope with austerity with a minimum of human suffering.   The problem with austerity as it is being promoted is the selfishness and meanness of those promoting it on the backs of people who are less fortunate.

But what about stimulus?  At least since Keynes, many economists have and continue to believe the way to get economic growth going is via government stimulus.

There is some evidence the depression of the 1930s was made worse because the banking authorities restricted the amount of money in the economy.   Once governments started spending (works and war) and the money supply was allowed to increase the depression came to an end.  This time  central  banks have been trying to stimulate the economy by creating more money to facilitate more economic activity.  It isn’t working  because the resource base won’t support more economic growth  although only a few people see that as the reason.

So what is likely to happen if the Keynesians get a turn at trying to solve the crisis.

There are two difficulties.

The first is that stimulus will be a transfer of purchasing power from those who now have it to others because the debts incurred will eventually be written off either by default or by inflation.  Cyprus isn’t the only country whose savers are likely to be hit.

The puzzle is why with all the quantitative easing and no matching growth in output we haven’t had inflation.  The answer:  there is anecdotal evidence that the banks and corporations are sitting on piles of cash presumably because they don’t  see profit opportunities.

Governments don’t worry about profits so if the money goes instead to governments for stimulus, it will be spent.  There will be more money chasing the same quantities of goods and services and prices are bound to go up.    Inflation provides an indiscriminate haircut to everyone with monetary savings or investments.  If it gets out of control a lot of people will lose their pensions or their fortunes.  It will solve the inequality about which many people have been worrying.  It would also be a neat revenge against those people who want austerity on the backs of poor people although a lot of innocent people would be hurt.

The second problem with stimulus is that if it succeeds in increasing the output of goods and services it will also use up more of the remaining mineral and energy resources and bring forward the timing of a major crash of civilization.  I would like the goal of economic policy to be to minimize overall  human suffering rather than to increase it.

I am not worried about an economic collapse for my own sake, but I do have six young grandchildren.   Perhaps we should post a job opening for a benevolent dictator.

%d bloggers like this: