What is the point of politics?

‘Politics is not worth a lightning bolt to me. Throw it to the sharks,’ the Dutch band Normaal sang in 1984. Many people in democracies experience disillusionment with their government and political system, but the feeling is not new. Something appears to be wrong with politics. But what is the problem, and what are the solutions? Perhaps, we expect too much of our politicians as they often have limited influence on affairs. Maybe, politicians interfere with issues that are the domain of experts. And what is the point of politics when there is no food on the table?

Still, there has been some progress in political institutions. Political institutions can be customs, laws, government organisations, and other arrangements. Human nature does not change, and politicians have remained more or less the same, but our forefathers devised political institutions to provide political stability and make governments work better. They learned from previous mistakes, so there was some improvement. But institutions can outlive their usefulness because societies change over time. So, what is the point of politics? To answer that question, it might be good to start with the basics.

The basics of politics

Humans flexibly cooperate in large numbers. That made us so successful as a species. To do that, we need language to describe what is happening. For instance, during a hunt, I can tell you that a deer hides behind the tree in front of us. Some animals have languages to communicate about the whereabouts of food or enemies, but human language serves more purposes. Most notably, we gossip and discuss what others are doing and thinking. That gives us more accurate information about other people in the group, for instance, who can do a particular job best. We use this information to cooperate in sophisticated ways.1

Another essential feature of human language is not gossip but the ability to convey information about imaginary things. Many forms of large-scale human cooperation, such as nation-states, religions, corporations, laws and money, are fictions that exist only in the collective imagination of human beings. Our collaboration depends on shared beliefs or collective imaginations.1 If you believe that a piece of paper is money, but I do not, we cannot trade. If I think a law exists, but you do not, we may get into a conflict. And if we share the same religion, we can do things together, like praying or building a temple.

Politics usually deals with questions like: what should we be doing as a group, which are our rules, and who will lead us? What we are going to do, is decided by ideas like we should sow crops in the spring, do a rain dance in the summer to please the rain fairy, and harvest in the autumn. Doing a rain dance in the summer is a rule. It depends on our belief in the rain fairy, our collective imagination. Religions and ideologies more or less play the same role in politics. Ideologies are beliefs too. They can be wrong. For instance, we could expect better results from an irrigation system connected to a nearby lake. And ideologies like socialism and liberalism do not work in practice as their proponents claim.

The rules could dictate that we need a priest for the religion of the rain fairy. Every year, he leads a procession while holding the stature of the rain fairy in front of him before the rain dance begins. The priest is a sage of the village. The priesthood is open only to highly esteemed men of a certain age. If rain does not come and the crops fail, the question of who will lead the procession next year becomes of the utmost importance, as harvests depend on rain and, therefore, on pleasing the fairy. Our ability to gossip allows us to evaluate potential candidates. And so, the village may elect a new priest, hoping the fairy will send rain next season. If droughts are rare, this approach usually seems to work.

This short tale about the village that worships the rain fairy and elects a priest explains a lot about politics. There is a belief system. There are rules about the priesthood, and the priest has authority. Villagers believe the priest can influence the rainfall. Political leaders can influence what happens, but in many cases, they have to deal with circumstances over which they have little control. Leaders might revert to public display, like doing a rain dance to show the public they are working on the problem because building an irrigation system is not an option in our religion. Imaging can trump facts, but the underlying cause is often not politicians but our beliefs, for instance, the imagination that rain dances promote rainfall.

The big man

We are social animals, and politics is part of our nature. Traditional societies have politicians too. For instance, the big man is the leader of a family group or a small tribe in Papua New Guinea. No one is born a big man, nor can a big man hand that title down to his son. Rather, his position has to be earned. It falls not necessarily to those who are physically strong, but to those who have earned the community’s trust, usually on the ability to distribute pigs, shell money, and other resources to the members of his tribe. The big man must constantly be looking over his shoulder, because a competitor for authority may be coming up behind him. Without resources to distribute, he loses his status as a leader.2

This description comes from Francis Fukuyama’s book The Origins of Political Order. The big man is a politician. Much of politics comes down to distributing resources and favours. To become the leader, the big man forges a coalition of followers, and his followers benefit once he becomes the leader. A big man can also take actions that benefit the entire community. Likewise, a politician can look after the interests of his followers or work in the public interest. Also, the ideology-based programmatic political parties in Europe operated for the benefit of their voters. For instance, labourers often voted for socialist parties because they expected to benefit, while business owners often voted for liberal parties for the same reason.

The role of institutions

Our disappointment with politics is not always justified. Politicians in modern democracies are like the big men in Papua New Guinea or the priests of the rain fairy. And in democracies, the citizens elect their leaders, so why do we not elect better ones? Hence, the room for improvement in the quality of politicians appears limited. But we cannot do without politics. After all, it is part of our nature. The programmatic ideological political parties of Western Europe may have been an apex in the development of politics. They promoted general policies in the interest of their constituency rather than benefits for individuals.

These parties have lost their lustre. Today’s world differs from the world where these parties emerged and flourished. If you were born in a socialist or Roman Catholic family in the Netherlands in 1900, you remained a socialist or a Roman Catholic for the remainder of your life. Society was stable and politicians didn’t need to compete for attention. The ideologies and religions of these parties have not passed the test of time. They do not answer the questions of today. And many voters think traditional parties have neglected their interests. In the absence of better ideas, politics became more about personalities and emotions.

Institutions can raise politics beyond the level of individuals and their interests, emotions and weaknesses. Traditional societies already have them. For instance, the practice of electing a new priest if the crops fail is an institution. This arrangement answers the question of what we should do on such an occasion. Otherwise, villagers might disagree and start a bloody conflict. After all, the harvest is of the utmost importance, so if you do not have faith in the measures taken, you must protect yourself and your family. But institutions like rain dances do not guarantee good outcomes.

The Chinese were the first to develop a modern state with a rationally organised administration with merit-based recruitment and promotion. It was one of the most significant improvements in state institutions in history. But Chinese emperors did not have to pass an exam. They usually inherited the title or emerged from a power struggle. Emperors had unchecked powers. So the question was how to guarantee a continuing supply of good emperors?2 You cannot, but perhaps institutions can protect the country from poor rulers. And this problem does not go away by electing leaders. That is why democratic states also have institutions, most notably, the separation of powers.

The separation of powers aims to split the state into three independent branches, which are the administration (the executive), the parliaments (the legislative) and the courts (the judiciary). Each has its responsibilities, and the branches do not interfere with each other’s tasks. Parliaments make the laws, the administration executes them, and the courts verify whether they are applied correctly. Ideally, the administration has no power over the parliaments and the courts, for instance, the administration should not nominate or appoint candidates for the parliaments and the courts, and the courts should stay out of political affairs, which is the domain of parliaments.

As political leaders often change or are controversial, many nations have a ceremonial head of state to provide a sense of stability and continuity in the form of a person. Some countries hold on to their royal families, while others have presidents. Usually, ceremonial presidents are highly respected individuals who are supposed not to interfere with political affairs. Royals can also provide a stable sense of nationhood, but kingship is a birthright. Kings do not need to have particular qualities, so they may lose respect, while a ceremonial president usually has earned respect.

Our predicament

Improvements in democratic political systems are possible, but our current predicament is not so much the result of a lack of democratic oversight of governments. Our belief systems are at stake here, for instance, nationalism, socialism and liberalism, but also cultures, religions and traditions. And money can buy influence in politics. That has always been so, but wealth inequality has increased in recent decades, creating a self-reinforcing trend. Existing ideas and ideologies are models of reality with assumptions that do not always apply.

For instance, you can analyse the economy from a socialist or a capitalist perspective. The results are very different, and neither is entirely wrong or right. The proponents of ideologies and religions have an explanation for everything. Within the confines of their models, their arguments make sense. If you believe in the rain fairy, it makes perfect sense to think she is angry if rain does not come. We all have beliefs, and so do I. And it might surprise you how often I find my opinions wrong. We should let go of them and see them as models of reality with merits and limitations. That allows us to have rational debates.

Our political institutions are based on ideas from the past. Clinging to defunct ideas is like doing rain dances to prevent harvest failures. If existing ideas do not work anymore, troubles arise. If crops continue to fail because of persistent droughts, some villagers realise that electing a new priest does not solve the issue, and they may get into conflict with adherents of the religion of the rain fairy. And even though the causes appear complex, our predicament is about the failure of ideas. We are at a crossroads and some developments may soon alter human existence:

  • We are running out of resources, and a protracted period of economic decline might be upon us. Our institutions are built for growth. And so, we could expect political instability to increase.
  • Nation-states and their ambitions pose a constant threat to peace. To have peace, we need the world to be unified under one leadership, which could be democracy on a global level.
  • Humans may soon enhance themselves with biotechnology, information technology, and cyborg engineering, and may turn into post-humans with abilities we do not have, while artificial intelligence may make decisions for us.
  • Post-humans might already exist and created virtual universes for their personal entertainment. We may find out that we live inside one of those universes and who owns our universe.

Apart from that, several developments have converged to make existing political systems increasingly dysfunctional:

  • Political institutions developed on a national level. They are not well-suited for today’s globalised world. At the same time, existing global institutions lack legitimacy.
  • Globalisation changed politics. Wealth inequality is extreme, mass migration creates new social problems, while elites have undue political and economic influence.
  • Individualism makes it harder for people to rally for common causes, make sacrifices, and for individuals to submit themselves to agreed collective purposes.
  • Identity politics pits people against each other. In the past, it was about nations, but nowadays it is often about religion, gender, race, and political orientation.
  • The outcomes of policy measures are often not easy to estimate as many factors interfere. Usually, there are unintended consequences. We must allow for a degree of trial and error to arrive at improvements.
  • Many issues are of a technocratic nature and involve science and uncertainty. Most people have not learned to evaluate scientific research and statistical analysis.
  • Parliaments are theatres where politicians compete for voter attention. They often do not quietly and diligently work on the nation’s problems.
  • Many important decisions are made outside the public view. Governments and businesses collect data about us. We often do not know what is going on.

Each country has a distinct history, hence unique institutions, laws and arrangements. Nowadays, many critical issues are global, but it is not the level at which states operate. As a result, the influence of the elites and wealth inequality increased, and the elites became less accountable. The issues we face, like global warming, crime, and infectious diseases, require a global approach. Businesses increasingly operate internationally. Existing world institutions lack legitimacy and democratic oversight. And there are issues with democracy itself.

Liberal democracy emanated from liberalism, which centres around the individual. We are social animals and collaborate in groups and societies. Liberals may neglect societies. Most notably, neoliberalism helped to undermine their social fabric. Societies are more than social contracts. They can make people feel they belong to a community and it is a basis of social cohesion. That is why we can become emotionally attached to our nation-states.

The liberal view holds that you are free to do as you please unless you harm others. That can work well if we correctly identify harm to others. In the past, the definition of harm has been too narrow. As a result, we now have to deal with consequences like the disintegration of societies, mass migration, pollution and depletion of resources. Liberal democracy works best when there is a balance of power between social groups, and none can dominate the others. In recent decades, the balance of power shifted in favour of corporations and wealthy people, and conditions became less favourable to liberal democracy.

Individualism allows us to appreciate personal experiences and feelings. Everyone’s life is different, and you do not know how it is to be someone else who has a different life. For instance, a white man can never truly understand how it is to be a black woman and how it is to be discriminated against by whites and to be beaten up by her jealous boyfriend. That is true, and personal experiences can help to identify underlying problems, but once personal feelings get the upper hand, there remains less room for objective reality. And solutions more likely come from addressing facts than from catering for sensitivities. But people often desire attention and understanding rather than solutions for their problems.

It is hard to interpret data, scientific analysis, correlation and probability when multiple causes interfere with the outcome. In economics, that is all too clear, and the mathematical models that economists use can give us a false impression of exactness. Scientists can err, but usually, it is up to science to prove that. For instance, we use coronavirus vaccines based on a risk assessment. There is a chance the vaccine harms you, so you only take it if the disease is more dangerous than the vaccine. Vaccine sceptics have a different assessment of the risks of the disease and the vaccine, often based on incorrect information. Nevertheless, the coronavirus vaccines are of a new type, and their long-term consequences are not yet known.

We do not always know beforehand what will work. Technocratic issues usually are not well-suited for politics. Measures can have unintended consequences. Improvements may come from trial and error, and problems often are not fully solved. Politicians may not be interested in improvement. Instead, they may tout their ‘solutions’ based on their ideology or religion and simplify matters to play on the emotions of voters. Perhaps you have the impression that politicians are more occupied with political theatre or doing the bidding of lobbyists than the betterment of your country. You are not alone.

The boards of corporations and government agencies make decisions that affect us all. Meanwhile, corporations and governments collect data about us. Their decisions usually stay outside the public view. Lobbyists influence the political process and often operate in secret. On the local level, business representatives befriend politicians and civil servants who grant them contacts. These things happen everywhere, and also in countries with low levels of corruption. Successful people in business and politics spend much time on social networking. The elites are, above all, a social network.

We are accustomed to growth, for instance, economic growth, and so are our political institutions, but we are using more than Earth can provide. To prosper in the future, we must change how we live. We hope for a better future but think in material terms, not well-being. Property, not happiness or love, has become the ultimate goal in many lives. And for many, the ultimate nightmare is to own nothing and be happy. We will not elect politicians who tell us we have to do with less. The expectation of material gain defines our political systems. After all, big men distribute resources to their followers.

The limits of democracy

In democratic countries, leadership often changes, and that can cause discontinuity. Dictators often stay in power for a long time. The limits of democracy are most visible in times of crisis because there is freedom of speech and the press. Usually, the institutions of a nation provide political stability, but if people think the institutions fail, political instability ensues. Today, this is most visible in the United States where political violence is rising. China is moving ahead and may become the most powerful nation in the near future. During the Great Depression, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union also powered ahead but failed later on. And so, China’s success is not necessarily a failure of democracy.

Politicians often do not do what they promised to do. There might be political struggles that deflect attention away from the nation’s problems. And democracies can make poor decisions when voters don’t like much-needed measures. In times of upheaval, voters might opt for a leader who promises to take drastic action, for instance when the economy has collapsed or when insurgents and criminals wreak havoc. The most notorious example is Adolf Hitler. The suffering of the Germans during the Great Depression and the inability of politicians to solve the economic crisis helped Hitler to grab power.

Political debates can be about facts, interpretation of facts, and fiction, for instance, the rain fairy, reptilians, or the Jewish deity. People also believe in money, laws, nation-states, and corporations, but these fictions create reality. In other words, we make these imaginations come true. Our faith in the rain fairy does not produce a rain fairy, but this religion might promote social stability. Lying and misrepresenting facts to forward political goals can undermine the functioning of democracies. Usually, people believe these lies. Politics is about which collective imaginations should drive our decision-making. A correct assessment of the situation likely leads to more favourable outcomes. Ridicule and containment probably are better countermeasures than banning free speech. After all, sometimes crazy ideas turn out to have merit.

Even in stable and functioning democracies, citizens often lack faith in politicians. Politicians are easy scapegoats if things go wrong. Most people do not see their contribution to a problem. Parliaments are not a representation of the population at large. Those who like to talk, for example, lawyers and teachers, tend to be overrepresented. Engineers who know how systems work tend to be underrepresented. Perhaps that is why laws often fail to meet the intended objectives. Poor people and people with little education also do not enter parliaments in large numbers. And so, politicians neglect their interests.

Perhaps giving citizens more responsibility via direct democracy can make democracy work better. If you voted for it, you won’t blame others if it goes wrong. And that can make you think better about the consequences of your choices. Switzerland uses referendums in addition to parliaments. The Swiss are content with their political system. Hence, it could be an improvement. Implementing direct democracy the right way is not simply introducing referendums. After all, good institutions do not guarantee good outcomes. Referendums can go wrong, for instance, by reducing complex matters into simple yes-or-no questions. Referendums work well in Switzerland because the conditions in society are favourable. Switzerland has a political climate in which citizens civilly debate issues, and people are willing to compromise.

Swiss democracy

 
Switzerland combines representative democracy (the use of parliaments) with direct democracy (voting on issues by citizens). The Swiss are satisfied with their political system so it might be an improvement to political systems in other countries.

As they say, freedom comes with responsibility. Perhaps, we can only be free if we consider the interests of everyone else because our choices can impede the liberty of others. And so, individual liberty may only thrive with social equality. Societies that succeed in combining personal freedom and social equality tend to be the happiest. The American natives had a great degree of individual liberty and social equality. When making decisions, they strived for consensus. They could be an example to us.

The Great Law of Peace

 
Is a more equal and free society possible? In the year 1142, five North American tribes formed a league known as the Five Nations. The league still exists. Their arrangements are not uncommon in tribal societies, and we could learn from them.

Some countries have done a better job of creating a prosperous, free and equal society than others, and their examples can help to lead us to a better future. Denmark is such a country, and Francis Fukuyama calls the issue of creating a prosperous, free and equal society ‘getting to Denmark’. Denmark combines a competent government with a cooperative relationship between unions and employers. The Danish economy is innovative, incomes and social benefits are high, and labour markets are flexible. Many pundits argue that cultural differences block the introduction of these features into other societies. It is not easy and takes time, but it helps when everyone agrees on the goal and helps to make it happen.

Featured image: House Of Commons in the United Kingdom. Parliament.uk. [link]

1. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
2. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. Francis Fukuyama (2011).

Slums in Jakarta

Extreme living

Overdoing things

Princess, a friend from the United States, once came to visit me. I took a shopping bag with me when we went to the shopping mall. She remarked on it. I said that getting a new bag at the shop produced unnecessary waste. She then called me an environmental extremist. That reinforced my prejudice of Americans being wasteful consumers. Why should we make things to throw away? But perhaps, she was right. Bringing a shopping bag with you might be a minor inconvenience, but it can be the first step on the road to extreme living where nothing gets wasted. Before you know it, you are separating your waste for recycling. And what’s next? It is scary to think of it.

My mother once said that I overdo things. Buying second-hand is what poor people do, usually not privileged people like me. I have done my best to appear normal, but I can’t help eating scraps others leave behind or using paper towels my son has thrown away after hardly using them. Waste and spillage unnerve me somehow. It is better not to upset others, but I cannot always guess what disturbs them. Once, I wore worn-out clothes at a family party. My father was not amused. It probably reminded him of the poverty in which he once lived. He wanted me to have a better life. But can you overdo environmentalism? Buying new clothes is one of the worst things we can do to our planet. And some people do much more to save Earth than I do.

Indeed, I am a most peculiar person, and the evidence is mounting. Lately, I began having second thoughts about ‘normal’ living again. We are using far more than Earth can provide. The cuts in profligate consumption might need to be drastic, like in the vicinity of 100%. And excessive is anything we do not need. So what is extreme living? You can go out bungee jumping, take a vacation to a far-away country, or indulge in a hot dog eating contest and think that is extreme, but you are just unnecessarily turning precious resources into waste. That is normal living. My great-grandparents hardly ever left the village in which they lived. They had never been to Germany, even though it was only ten kilometres from their home. And bungee jumping was not on their bucket list either. That is more like it.

Perhaps it is not as hard as it seems

Most people in the past led extreme lives, and many still do today, most notably in areas that have not yet developed into consumerist economies. Compared to them, I am reasonably conventional. I do not live in a shed without heating, nor do I grow food in a kitchen garden. Well, I tried the latter. Indeed, there are stranger people out there than me. But my wasteful lifestyle cannot remain a standard for much longer. People like me should drastically reduce their consumption. Perhaps it is not as hard as it seems. You can see extreme living as the destination of a journey. You are not there yet.

There are many things you can do now. And there is always another step after that. And after you have taken action, you might be as happy or miserable as before. The 80/20 rule states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. And so, excessive consumption might only contribute a small part to our well-being. Many of us see that differently because squandering is a virtue nowadays.

In the consumerist economy, squandering boosts profits and employment. Those who do not waste energy and resources are deplorable because they are poor and cannot do what others can. We envy the rich and famous with their extravagant lifestyles. But if living a modest life is a virtue, and we see squanderers as planetary destroyers or wreckers of God’s creation, poor people become less deplorable. And there may be another benefit. A lot of crime comes from people desiring status goods they cannot afford with an ordinary job. But who needs a Rolex watch or Nike sneakers?

Time is money or convenience

Times have changed. We will not go back to the nineteenth century. So what is extreme living today? Perhaps, you think it is living in a car or a cold home, but that is just appearance. It is about saving the Earth and our future. The consumerist economy is about spending and squandering resources and energy. We should stop doing that as we are running out of resources. If you spend less, you save money. We hear that time is money. But if time is money, money might be time. For instance, if you spend half your income on rent, living in a car saves you lots of money. And you may only have to work half days to make ends meet, so it also saves you time. A tiny house is less extreme but comes from the same logic.

Convenience translates into using energy and resources. Advertisements tell us how easy the product is and the time or trouble it saves you. They do not tell you how many hours you sweat for it. Eating out is convenient, but you have to work for it. As a result, you have less time and crave more convenience. Before you know it, you are like a mouse trapped on a treadmill. If you forego ease, you may have time. In the past, people had time, for instance, to grow their food or mend their clothes. That is a lot of work, but food and clothes were expensive because incomes were low. Buying clothes meant more work, so mending saved time. It may not be a coincidence that poor people often have more time than rich people.

Creating wealth

The consumerist economy is about selling stuff. And you work for it. If you do not need a product or a service, the advertising industry gets the order to make you believe you need it. Soon, you may find celebrities flaunting the product on social media. The more you work and buy, the wealthier you appear. It increases GDP and profits, but it harms life on the planet. Businesses make money if you buy their products, while your employer makes money when you go to work. Economists call it creating wealth. That is why time is money. There is no problem with that unless your job or the products you buy are unneeded and use energy and scarce resources. It applies to most people in today’s ‘advanced’ economies, myself included. But worsening the future of our children is not creating wealth. And so, we need a new definition of wealth.

Wealth could be the time we can live off our capital. If you own € 50,000 and need € 10,000 per year, you are better off than someone who has € 100,000 and needs € 40,000 per year. We save to increase our wealth. If we live off the interest, we do not touch our capital. In either case, we forego consumption to invest or live within our means. And even though we do not own it, the most precious resource we live off is Earth. By saving Earth, we create wealth. And so, most activities in the consumerist economy do not create wealth. Extreme living is about saving the planet and providing the children of the Earth with a better future. Sustainable living is living off the interest and keeping the capital intact. Sadly, we live on borrowings and have consumed a significant part of our most precious resource. And so we should restore Earth first. That requires investment hence savings, hence sacrifice.

We prefer a comfortable life, but extreme living could be our near future. And if we do it, we probably will do fine, and it will become normal. If you are honest, you might arrive at this conclusion too. I do not believe we can expect solutions to come from corporations and governments alone. It begins with us. Once we stop buying unnecessary and harmful products, corporations will become less wasteful. And if we do it ourselves, governments do not have to tell us that we should do it. Costs are the best motivator. Low costs inspire us to squander, while high costs motivate us to save. When natural gas prices soared because Russia cut the gas supply to Europe, natural gas consumption in the Netherlands dropped by 30%. My savings were considerable too.

Most of us think saving energy is good, but we do much more if we are rewarded or cannot afford it. High energy prices cause a lot of stress because we are accustomed, or perhaps addicted, to low energy prices. We have to adapt and give up comfort. We have built our lives on cheap fossil fuels. High energy prices cause shock. Some businesses, for instance, bakers, get in trouble, while poor people with high energy bills face stark choices. If energy prices remain high, we have to deal with that and prevent essential businesses from closing and the poor from freezing. But many things we consider necessities nowadays have never been necessities in the past. If resource and energy prices had always been high, we would have different lifestyles and a higher price for a loaf of bread. And it would have been normal rather than extreme living.

Living without a car

My great-grandparents never owned a car. They walked, and perhaps they had a bike. They might have taken the train occasionally. Today, many people work one day per week for their car alone. You can have lots of extra spare time if you ditch your car. You might need that time because the same trip takes longer if you use public transport, but you can ditch that trip too. Why should you go there? In the past, people usually did not go outside their village. Back then, if your aunt celebrated her birthday and lived thirty kilometres away, you didn’t go, and she wasn’t offended. There were festivals in your village you could attend instead. Extreme living is about not doing things that cost energy and resources. Does that sound boring? Sure. But think of what you can do instead, for instance, taking a walk or visiting your neighbours.

Your family and friends expect you to emit greenhouse gases to come to their parties. They might be offended if you forego the occasion to avoid contributing to global warming. That is socially unacceptable, so you have to find other excuses, like feeling sick. Few people want to hear that the Earth is more important than them. But you can also cancel trips without offending someone. Nearly every week, I go to the forest with my wife, which is a thirty minutes drive. After that, we go to a pub before returning home. Alternatively, we could go by bus. That would take fifty minutes. In that case, we must plan the trip as there is one bus every hour. Sometimes the bus might not come, and we must wait another hour. It is an inconvenience that car drivers prefer to avoid. But going to the forest is just walking and watching trees. We can do that near home. And there are pubs in my hometown too. One of them has become the theme of a song.

For many years, I did not own a car while having a job that required it. My employer could send me to jobs all over the country. But I lived in a remote city. I had a job over there, or the job was at least 200 kilometres from home, so I had to stay in a hotel or rent an apartment. In either case, I could go to my work by bike. For long trips, I used the train. Using public transport requires some planning, extra time, and sometimes sacrifice. I remember a thirty-minute walk through the snow to reach the Oracle office in De Meern because buses only go there during rush hour. And all that waiting at train stations. But it saved me money so I could buy a house. After all, time is money.

After I met my wife, we often borrowed her mother’s car for trips, so my life was not entirely without a car from then on. And we rented a car if we needed one. Most people can do without a car most of the time, but it requires planning and sacrifice, for instance, sharing a car with colleagues, finding another job or relocating. The proximity to a public transport hub was a reason for me to buy my house. In areas without public transport, there is room for an alternative. When I was on vacation in Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean, I noticed that van drivers provided this service to the public. They had no timetables, but the driver went off once the van was filled with people. Usually, you had to wait fifteen minutes or so. But the people who used this service had time. In the Summer of 2021, I started using public transport again when travelling alone if it was not too much trouble.

Turning down the heating

My great-grandparents did not have central heating. It was cold inside their home, and it could freeze. They warmed themselves at the stove in the living room, the only warm place in their home. More and more people in the Netherlands only heat the living room. And so do I. A few even turn off the heating entirely and put on a warm vest or a coat. You may not want to go that far, but heating only the living room makes sense. It is the place where you spend most of the time when you are at home.

Others turn down the heating. I do that too. That is healthy for most people, except for the elderly and the sick. I can work at 17 degrees Celsius if I wear extra clothes and thin gloves. Cold fingers are my biggest worry because I work with a computer. If the temperature inside your house goes below 15 degrees Celsius, you may need to ventilate more often. If you feel chilly, you can do some physical exercise. The heat you generate can help to warm the room. In any case, you will feel warmer.

Growing your own food or local farming

There is not much I can tell you about growing food. I have tried it, but it was too much work. The clay soil was not easy to till, and the savings were negligible. If you love gardening, it can be a great hobby, but I do not expect that kitchen gardens can provide for our food requirements. High energy prices may revive farming for local markets and growing crops in their seasons. Agricultural products are bulky. Today, farmers offer their produce to national or even world markets. Transport costs can be substantial. It can make sense for farmers to diversify and grow several crops for local markets.

The distribution of these goods can be an obstacle. In the past, agricultural products were usually sold on local markets. Today, they are sold in supermarkets. Selling local products may require a separate distribution channel, for instance, someone collecting the produce from farmers and running a stand in a shopping mall. For several foods, there are safety considerations and they may require industrial processing. Still, a wide range of foods is suitable for local production and consumption. Governments could relax regulations to promote small-scale local trade, but food safety regulations exist for a reason.

And some crazy things are going on, like growing crops in South America to feed livestock in Europe to produce meat for Asia. That brings us to the damage and suffering caused by meat and dairy consumption. Taking in less is already an improvement if you cannot stop. I forego meat if it is not too much trouble, and I never buy meat for myself. Meat substitutes likely become available that cause not as much animal suffering and damage to the planet. Let’s hope it will happen soon.

Other savings

Compared to heating, you probably use less energy for showering or bathing. I would not recommend turning yourself into a stinky monster, but if you bathe or shower daily, you can save energy and water by taking shorter showers and doing it less frequently. If you do not sweat, you might not need to shower daily. My great-grandparents did not shower or bathe but may have used a washcloth instead. For that, you need to warm a bit of water, add some soap, and there you are. Compared to taking a bath, you use 99% less water and energy.

There are other savings you can make. You can wear your clothes longer and wash them less frequently. Again, if you do not sweat, you may wear your clothes for a week without becoming smelly. You may scrub under your armpits regularly to lengthen the interval between clothing switches and showers. I do these things too, and two or three short showers a week usually suffice. I think there are a lot of tips on the Internet if you consider going more extreme, for instance, doing the dishes manually, cooking your meals shorter or installing solar panels and adapting your electricity use to the sunshine.

Not throwing away

Pundits talk a lot about recycling, but what about not throwing away? Recycling costs energy, and you do not recover all the waste. For instance, glass must be melted at high temperatures. You can recycle glass by throwing it in a glass container, but recycling still costs a lot of energy. And there is so much packaging. And thirty brands sell the same stuff. They call it freedom of choice. Take, for example, shampoo. You go to a shop and buy a bottle. And you throw away the old bottle. That is normal. A crazy individual might suggest that a supermarket should have a tank and that you can fill your bottle there. Once you think of that, you can imagine a wide range of products supermarkets might distribute in this way. For instance, you might bring a bag with you for apples. Some are doing that already.

There are some considerations. It is better not to mix the shampoo with a detergent. And so, there should be different types of bottles for products that we should not mingle. The hard part is, and that is why consumers might oppose it, you must bring these bottles and bags with you. That is an inconvenience if the shop is far away and you have forgotten some bottles or bags. Having thirty brands is also a waste. You need thirty tanks for shampoo, not to mention thirty trucks delivering shampoo to the distribution centre of your supermarket. If you say that, consumers can get angry. Their identity is attached to the brand of shampoo they use. The advertising industry has done its job well.

But there are some really crazy things going on. Recently, I saw a documentary on Netflix about bottled water. There is a multi-billion industry selling a free commodity. Did you know that drinking the recommended eight daily glasses of water from the tap costs less dan € 1 per year? The same water in bottles costs you more than € 1,000. Did you know that Americans use over 70 billion bottles of water per year? The energy to make them could fuel two million cars. And nearly all those bottles are disposed of, creating an environmental disaster.

It is about marketing and brand identity. Cool dudes and gals cannot go without bottled water. That is what the advertising industry told them. But what if they are mere idiots paying a thousand times more and producing waste that ends up as microplastics in their health foods? Water from the tap is at least 99.9% the same. You might consider giving the money you save from not drinking bottled water to a charity that provides clean drinking water to people in developing countries. They often have no choice but to buy these expensive bottles. Talk about exploiting poor people. They can do a lot with an extra € 1,000 per year.

If it is about being cool

Buying bottled water or choosing between thirty different brands is often about being trendy and cool, at least if we believe the word of the advertising industry. But if wasting nothing becomes the new awesome, then we do not need bottled water or brands. And all those salespeople, influencers, brand managers, bloggers and advertisement sellers may have to find a job that contributes to society. Big internet corporations might stop tracking you, but you may have to pay for their services.

Book: the virtual universe

Religions claim that a god or gods have created this universe. The simulation hypothesis explains how the gods might have done this. We could all be living inside a computer simulation run by an advanced post-human civilisation. But can we objectively establish that this is indeed the case?

There is sufficient evidence that we live inside a simulation, and it allows us to establish the most likely purpose of our existence. The book does not promote a specific religion. It goes along with science, but there are limits to what science can establish. God is beyond those limits.

The book addresses the following topics:

  • Why our existence is not a miracle that requires a creator.
  • Why the simulation hypothesis is not scientific.
  • How possible motives of post-humans can help us establish that we live inside a simulation.
  • Why there is no proof in real life, not even in science.
  • How our minds can trick us, and how to avoid pitfalls in our observations and reasoning.
  • How laws of reality can help us establish that we live inside a simulation.
  • Why evidence for the paranormal is not scientific but strong enough to count.
  • How to interpret religious experiences and miracles.
  • How to explain premonition, evidence suggesting reincarnation, ghosts, ufos, and meaningful coincidences.
  • How coincidences surrounding major historical events indicate that everything happens according to a script.
  • Why do many people see 11:11 and other peculiar time prompts.
  • What predetermination tells us about our purpose.


By reading the book, you will discover that the world makes perfect sense if we assume it to be a simulation created by an advanced post-human civilisation to entertain someone we can call God.

The book is freely available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 licence. You can download your free PDF here:

Alternatively, you can buy a Kindle or paperback on Amazon:

What is the use of banks?

Turning debt into money

The previous episode about money discussed some imaginary trades between you, a hatter, a lawyer, a barber and a fisherman. It is shown that if people promise to pay this might suffice for payment. So if the fisherman promises you to pay next week for the hat you just made, you could say to the lawyer that you expect the fisherman to pay in a week, and ask her if you can pay in a week too. The lawyer could then ask the same of the barber and the barber could ask the same of the fisherman. If all these debts cancel out then no cash is needed.

In most cases, debts cannot be cancelled out so easily. A hat may cost € 50, legal advice € 60, a hairdo € 30, and the fish € 20. If you are the hatter, you could lend € 10 to the barber and the lawyer could lend € 20 to the fisherman. Perhaps the lawyer doesn’t trust the fisherman because he smells fishy. But if the lawyer trusts the barber and the barber trusts the fisherman then the lawyer could lend € 20 to the barber and the barber could lend € 20 to the fisherman.

That could become complicated quite easily. And this is where banks come in. Banks can lend money because they know the financial situation of their customers. The fisherman can borrow money from his bank to make payments because the bank knows that he has an unstable but good income and a vessel that can be sold for cash if needed.

If the fisherman borrows money to pay for the hat you made, this money ends up in your account. You can use it to pay the lawyer. And so the fisherman’s debt becomes the lawyer’s money until she uses it to pay the barber. People that have a deposit lend money to the bank and the bank is lending this money to those who have a loan, in this case, the fisherman. Depositors trust the bank even though they do not know the people the bank is lending money to.

Most people think of money as coins and banknotes but more than 90% of the money just exists as bookkeeping entries in banks. When a fisherman borrows money from his bank, he can spend it on a hat. This means that the bank creates money and that this money is debt. Most of our money is debt so the value of money depends on the belief that debtors pay back their debts. This seems scary and it keeps quite a few people awake at night.

Some people argue that debts and banking are frauds because they are based on a belief. But banks and debts help to boost trade and production by creating money that doesn’t exist to start businesses that don’t yet exist to make products which will be bought by the people those businesses will hire with this newly created money. Banking and debts are the basis of the capitalist economy.

Banking as bookkeeping

Banking is more or less just bookkeeping and balance sheets. Balance sheets can be used to explain the magic trick banks do, which is creating money. Balance sheets are simple. There are no intimidating formulas, only additions and subtractions. The important thing to remember with balance sheets is that the total of the amounts on the left side must always equal those on the right side.

On the left is the value of your stuff and your money. On the right side is the value of your debts. Your net worth is what remains when you sell all your stuff and pay off your debts. It is on the right side too in order to make it equal to the left side. Your net worth can be a negative value. If that is the case, you might be bankrupt because you can’t repay your debts by selling your assets. The left side is named debit and the right side is called credit. Your balance sheet might look like this:

debit
 
credit
 
house
€ 100,000
mortgage
€ 80,000
other stuff
€ 50,000
other loans
€ 30,000
cash, bank deposits
€ 20,000
your net worth
€ 60,000
total
€ 170,000
total
€ 170,000

When you buy a car, you own more stuff, but also another loan or fewer bank deposits as you have to pay for the car. This is because debit always equals credit. When you drive the car, it goes down in value, as does your net worth, because debit always equals credit. If your salary comes in, your bank deposits as well as your net worth rise because debit always equals credit. If you pay down a loan, the amount in your bank account, as well as the amount of your loan, goes down because debit always equals credit. If debit doesn’t equal credit then you have made a calculation error.

Also for a bank, the total of the amounts on the left side must always equal those on the right side, so that debit always equals credit. Your debt is on the debit side of the bank’s balance sheet. You have borrowed this money from your bank. The bank owns this loan. Your bank deposits are on the credit side of the bank’s balance sheet. The loans of the bank are paid for by deposits. Banks lend money to each other. This may happen when you make a payment to someone who has a bank account at another bank. Your bank may borrow this money from the other bank until another payment comes the other way. The balance sheet of a bank may look like this:

debit
 
credit
 
mortgages and loans
€ 70,000,000
deposits
€ 60,000,000
loans to other banks
€ 10,000,000
deposits from other banks
€ 20,000,000
cash, central bank deposits
€ 10,000,000
the bank’s net worth
€ 10,000,000
total
€ 90,000,000
total
€ 90,000,000

How banks create money

Banks create money. How do they do that? It is easy if you understand balance sheets. Assume that you, the hatter, the lawyer, the barber, and the fisherman all have € 10 in cash. Together you decide to start a bank. You all bring in the € 10 you own so that you all have a deposit of € 10 and the bank has € 40 in cash. The bank allows everyone to withdraw deposits in cash. This is no problem as long as the total of deposits equals the total amount of cash. After everyone has put in the deposit, the bank’s balance sheet looks as follows:

debit
 
credit
 
cash
€ 40
your deposit
€ 10
  
deposit lawyer
€ 10
  
deposit barber
€ 10
  
deposit fisherman
€ 10
total
€ 40
total
€ 40

First, there was only € 40 in cash. Now there are € 40 in bank deposits too. You might think that the bank created money. Only, that isn’t true because the depositors can’t spend the cash unless they take out their deposits. In other words, the depositors don’t have more money at their disposal than before. If you look at the total, there is still € 40. This is bookkeeping. You have to write down the total twice as debit must equal credit.

But now things are going to get a bit wild. The fisherman comes to you and he wants to buy a hat. The hat costs € 50 but the fisherman has only € 10 in his account. To make the sale possible, the bank is going to do its magic. The fisherman calls the bank and asks if he can borrow some money. The bank grants him a loan of € 40 and puts the money in his deposit account so that he can spend it. And look:

debit
 
credit
 
cash
€ 40
your deposit
€ 10
loan fisherman
€ 40
deposit lawyer
€ 10
  
deposit barber
€ 10
  
deposit fisherman
€ 50
total
€ 80
total
€ 80

Who says that miracles can’t happen? The deposits miraculously increased from € 40 to € 80 so € 40 is created from thin air. There is still only € 40 in cash but the fisherman’s debt created new money. This is how banks create money. And that is only because bank deposits are money. This is all there is to it. So much for the mystery. The fisherman then pays € 50 for the hat. And so it becomes your money:

debit
 
credit
 
cash
€ 40
your deposit
€ 60
loan fisherman
€ 40
deposit lawyer
€ 10
  
deposit barber
€ 10
  
deposit fisherman
€ 0
total
€ 80
total
€ 80

And now comes the dreadful part that keeps some people fretting. Everyone can take out his or her deposits in cash. There are € 80 in deposits and only € 40 in cash. If you go to the bank and demand your € 60 in cash, the bank would go bankrupt, even when the fisherman pays off his loan the next day. You could bankrupt the bank by buying € 50 in fish with cash. If you go to the bank to get € 50 in cash it would not be there so the bank would go bankrupt before the fisherman can pay off his loan with the same cash.

A bank could get into trouble in this way even when debtors repay their debts. Clever minds already figured out a solution. Central banks can print money too. If the European Central Bank (ECB) prints € 20 on a piece of paper and lends this money to the bank, there would be enough cash to pay out your deposit. Banning the use of cash and only using bank deposits for payments would be another option. So, after the ECB deposited € 20 in cash, the bank’s balance sheet might look like this:

debit
 
credit
 
cash
€ 60
your deposit
€ 60
loan fisherman
€ 40
deposit lawyer
€ 10
  
deposit barber
€ 10
  
deposit fisherman
€ 0
  
deposit ECB
€ 20
total
€ 100
total
€ 100

After you pay the fisherman, he can pay off his loan, and the bank will have enough cash to pay out all deposits. The bank can repay the central bank and everything is fine and dandy again. In this case the bank could not meet the demand for cash but the value of cash and loans wasn’t smaller than the deposits (the bank’s debt). After the fisherman pays back his loan and the bank pays back the ECB, the bank’s balance sheet might look like this:

debit
 
credit
 
cash
€ 40
your deposit
€ 10
loan fisherman
€ 0
deposit lawyer
€ 10
  
deposit barber
€ 10
  
deposit fisherman
€ 10
  
deposit ECB
€ 0
total
€ 40
total
€ 40

If banks can’t create money, trade would be difficult. If the hat is € 50, the legal advice € 60, the hairdo € 30, and the fish € 20, and you, the lawyer, the barber and the fisherman all have only € 10, nothing can be bought or sold. If the bank lends € 40 to the fisherman, he can buy a hat from you, you can buy legal advice from the lawyer, the lawyer can buy a hairdo and the barber can buy fish. Debt is the basis of the capitalist economy. Nearly all money is debt, and without debt, the economy would come to a standstill.

How much money can banks create?

The amount of money a bank can create is limited by the bank’s capital, which is the bank’s net worth. Regulations stipulate that banks should have a minimum amount of capital. This is the capital requirement. If the capital requirement is 10%, and the bank’s capital is € 10,000,000, it can lend € 100,000,000, provided that there are enough deposits. If the bank makes a loan, a new deposit is created. If the deposit leaves the bank, the bank must borrow it back from another bank or cut back its lending. That is because debit must always equal credit.

debit
 
credit
 
mortgages and loans
€ 70,000,000
deposits
€ 60,000,000
loans to other banks
€ 10,000,000
deposits from other banks
€ 20,000,000
cash, central bank deposits
€ 10,000,000
the bank’s net worth
€ 10,000,000
total
€ 90,000,000
total
€ 90,000,000

When a deposit leaves the bank, it ends up at another bank. The other bank can use it for lending, provided that it has sufficient capital. There may be a reserve requirement, which is a minimum of cash and central bank deposits the bank must hold. If the reserve requirement is 10%, the bank can lend out as much as ten times the amount of cash and central bank reserves it has available. In the past, reserve requirements were important as people often used cash and could go to the bank to demand their deposits in cash. For that reason banks needed to hold a certain amount of cash.

Featured image: Deutsche Bank building CC BY-SA 4.0. Raimond Spekking. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Coin hoard

What is money?

Why do we have money?

Money was invented because trade would be difficult without it. For example, if you are a hatter in need of legal advice, then without money, you have to find a lawyer who craves a hat. That is unlikely to happen. Maybe there is a fisherman dreaming of a hat, but he can’t give you legal advice. Maybe there is a lawyer in need of a hairdo instead of a hat. With money, all these problems disappear like magic. You can buy the services of the lawyer so that she can go to the barber. After that, the barber can buy some fish so that the fisherman can buy a hat from you.

Despite these mind-blowing advantages humans didn’t need money for a long time because they lived in small bands and villages where everyone depended on each other and everyone helped each other. This meant, for example, that when a fisherman needed a hat, you would make a hat for him, and if you needed anything, someone else would provide it to you. You did someone a favour so that he or she was obliged to do something back. Villagers produced most of what they needed themselves. Trade with the outside world was limited and was done with barter.

Uses of money

Later cities, kingdoms and empires emerged. People living in cities, kingdoms and empires didn’t know each other so it became difficult to track whether or not everyone was contributing. Favours and obligations didn’t suffice. They were replaced by a formal system for making payments and tracking contributions and obligations. Commerce and tax collection needed a means of payment as well as administration. It is therefore not a coincidence that writing and money were invented around the same time in the same area. The earliest writings were bookkeeping entries. Money has the following uses:

  • buying and selling stuff (payment) so money is a medium of exchange
  • saying how much something is worth, so money is a unit of account
  • keeping track of contributions and obligations (saving and borrowing) so money is a store of value.
catdog
Nickelodeon character CatDog

Money being a medium of exchange as well as a store of value is like your pet being a cat as well as a dog. The result is not really a success. The parts of the pet may often quarrel, for example, because the dog part wants to play while the cat part wants to sleep. If someone keeps some money for a rainy day and does not spend it, others cannot use this money for buying stuff. And this can be a problem. A simple example can explain this.

Imagine that everyone decides to save all his or her money. Nothing would be bought or sold anymore. All businesses would go bankrupt and everybody would be unemployed. All the money that has been saved would buy nothing because there isn’t anything to buy anymore. This is a total economic collapse.

In reality, it doesn’t get that bad as people always spend on basic necessities like tablets and mobile phones, and perhaps food. When people only spend money on necessities there is an economic depression, which is not as bad as a total economic collapse but still very bad. Saving can make you poorer, but only when there are too many savings already. Savings are used to invest in businesses and hire workers to make products and services. Only if there are more savings than investments, does money remain unused.

The value of money

Money has no value when there isn’t any stuff to buy or when there aren’t any other people to trade with. Imagine that you get the offer to be dropped alone on a remote and uninhabited island in the Pacific with 10 million euros. Probably you would decline the deal, even if you can keep your mobile phone. It is other people and stuff that give money its value. But how? The answer is remarkably simple. The value of money is just a belief.

People are willing to work for money and sell their stuff for money. And because others do this, you do the same. For example, you may think that euro notes have an appalling design as well as an unpleasant odour, but nevertheless, you desire to own them because other people want them too. The euro’s value is based on the belief that other people accept euros for payment.

This is just a belief as the following example demonstrates. Suppose that you wake up one day to hear on the news that the European Union has been dissolved overnight. Suddenly you may have second thoughts about your precious stockpile of foul-smelling unstylishly decorated euro banknotes.

Lord of the Rings character Sméagol
Lord of the Rings character Sméagol

You may ask yourself in distress whether or not your precious bank notes still have any value. What is the value of the euro without the European Union? You may find yourself hurrying to the nearest phone shop in an effort to exchange this pile of banknotes for the latest model mobile phone.

And to prove this point even further, suppose that the phone shop gladly accepts your euros. Suddenly they become desirable again and you may start to have second thoughts about that latest model you are about to buy. It may not remain hip for much longer, so you may change your mind again and prefer to keep your precious euros because there may be a newer model next month. So, because the shop wants your euros, you wants them too.

Types of money

At first, money was an item that people needed or desired. Grain was one of the earliest forms of money. Everybody needed food so it was easy to make people believe that others accept grain for payment. In prison camps during World War II cigarettes became money because they were in high demand. Even non-smokers accepted them because they knew that other people desired them very badly. For that reason, cocaine can be money too.

Wares like grain, cigarettes and cocaine have disadvantages. They degrade over time so they aren’t a very good store of value. This makes them a great medium of exchange because people won’t save them. An example can demonstrate this. Imagine that apples are money and you want to buy a house. A house costs 120,000 apples but your monthly salary is just 2,500 apples of which you can save 1,000. It takes 10 years of saving to buy a house. Soon you will discover that apples rot and that you will never be able to buy a house. Then you will spend all your apples right away.

Saving is difficult with apples. This is where gold and silver come in. Gold and silver do have not much use, but humans were always attracted to shiny stuff. Gold is rare so a small amount of gold can have a lot of value because some people feel a strong desire for shiny stuff. Gold and silver coins can be made of different sizes and purity so that they are suitable for payment and can be used as a unit of account.

More importantly, gold and silver do not deteriorate in quality like apples, grain or cigarettes. They do not even rust after 1,000 years. This makes gold and silver an excellent store of value. But this should make us suspicious. A perfect cat makes a lousy dog so a perfect store of value can fail the test for being a good medium of exchange. People can store gold and silver so that there is less money available for buying and selling stuff. And this can cause an economic depression as we have seen.

Governments create money too, for example by printing “10 euro” on a piece of paper. Governments require by law that this money should be used for payments and taxes. This makes people believe that others accept this money too. Government money is called fiat currency or simply currency. The authority of a government is limited to the area it controls so in the past government currencies had little value outside the country itself unless this money consisted of coins containing gold or silver.

In fact, another reason why gold and silver are attractive as money is that the value of gold and silver does not depend on the authority of a government. This made gold and silver internationally accepted as money. In the 19th century, most government currencies could be exchanged for a fixed amount of gold. This is the gold standard. The gold standard boosted trade because gold was internationally accepted as money.

Most money is debt

Debts can have value and so debts can be money too. This may seem strange or even outrageous, but money is just a belief. For example, money is the belief that you can exchange a hat for money and then exchange this money for legal advice. Hence, if you believe that the debtor is going to pay, you can accept his or her promise to pay as payment. And if others believe this too, you can use this promise to pay someone else.

So if the fisherman promises you to pay next week for the hat you just made, you could say to the lawyer that you expect the fisherman to pay in a week, and ask her if you can pay in a week too. The lawyer could then ask the same of the barber and the barber could ask the same of the fisherman. If all debts cancel out then there is no need for cash. Most of the money we currently use is debt. In most cases, debts don’t cancel out and there are many more people involved so it would be complicated to keep track of all debts and savings. That is where banks come in.

Featured image: Close up of coin hoard CC BY-SA 2.0. Portable Antiquities Scheme from London, England (2010). Wikimedia Commons.

Other images: Nickelodeon character CatDog, Sméagol character from The Lord of the Rings [copyright info]