Over the last three years more than 70 posts were published on The Plan For The Future. That is an average of one post every fifteen days. And 65 WordPress users started following this blog. Some posts have been viewed more often than others. This is the top 5 of posts based on page views.
The miracle of Wörgl
During the great depression of the 1930s a local currency in the small Austrian town of Wörgl produced an economic miracle. It demonstrated that the economy can do well without more debt if the existing money keeps circulating. This may be the key to keeping the economy afloat without more debt.
Was Eve a goddess and was she the mother of Adam? And did Jesus believe this too because Mary Magdalene told him so? And what is the evidence? Reality can be stranger than fiction, most notably when our reality itself is a fiction created by an advanced civilisation.
The direction of history is towards a single integrated world order. The world is becoming one intellectually, economically and politically. The world is now run by a global elite of business people, politicians, bureaucrats, engineers, journalists, scientists, opinion makers, writers and artists.
Rumours go that some films have been cursed. The evidence is not always convincing. The Omen stands out. Events took a stranger turn in the Netherlands. And when I began to investigate the most peculiar event of the curse, strange things happened.
In 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in his car in Sarajevo. This triggered World War I. The car had licence plate number A III 118, a possible reference to the Armistice of 11 November 1918 ending the war. So could history be script? And could there be a plan for the future?
Evolution theory can explain how biological organisms evolve over time. Genes determine their nature, which means how organisms behave and what they look like. Genes mutate randomly and this causes variation. It is a reason why humans differ in size, behaviour and skin colour. Mutations are passed on to the organisms’ offspring. These mutations alter the features of organisms. Those that are better suited for their environment are more likely to survive and procreate. This is natural selection or survival of the fittest.
The basic principles of evolution, variation and selection, apply to human societies as well. There has been a lot of variation in political institutions throughout history. Societies that succeeded in adapting to new circumstances usually survived the ones that didn’t. The development of societies can therefore be seen as social and economic evolution. Political institutions are an important part of society. And even though institutions are planned or designed deliberately, while biological variation is random, social evolution looks like natural selection because of competition.
As a consequence later civilisations were wealthier and more powerful than earlier ones. For instance, industrial societies are more powerful than agricultural societies. But social evolution isn’t straightforward. Remnants of earlier phases of development continue to exist once a society moved to the next stage. So, after a society has entered the industrial phase, many farmers still farmed the land in a traditional way without machines. And some modern democratic countries still have a king or a nobility.
The earliest humans were hunter-gatherers who didn’t know of property. They lived like chimpanzees in family groups consisting of a few dozen individuals. These groups were self-sufficient. If another family group invaded their territory hunter gatherers could move on as population density was low and there was no property to defend.
Family groups were egalitarian. Social differences were based on age and gender. They had no permanent leader and there was no hierarchy. Leaders were elected based on group consensus. Usually women married outside their group to live in the group of their husbands. Marriage was a means of managing relations with neighbouring groups.
After the invention of agriculture population density increased dramatically and people came into contact with each other more often. Struggles became more intense as farmers invested in the land they cultivated. Harvests had to be protected against thieves. This required a different form of social organisation that included property.
From families to tribes
People became organised in tribes. A tribe consists of a number of related family groups who share common ancestors. Usually descent in a tribe is traced through the male family line. A common ancestor of a tribe might well be a mythical person. In this way it is possible to have large tribes. Tribes are often egalitarian. The family groups of the tribe usually remain independent but they can join their forces for war.
War is the main reason for organising in tribes. A tribe can muster more men for war than a family group. Property rights in tribes usually were related to the family groups rather than individuals. Land remained with the family group and couldn’t be bought or sold. The leader of a tribe usually had no authority over the tribespeople and couldn’t force them to obey. And so there was no rule of law. People had to enforce their rights themselves and blood feuds were common.
Religion plays an important role in organising large scale action. The question whether religion created the social order or that religion was invented to justify the social order is never answered. Most likely the causal relationship went both ways. Tribal organisation isn’t natural so people won’t revert to it once the social order fails. Tribal organisation is sustained by religious beliefs, which are often about common ancestors.
Tribes can develop into chiefdoms. A chiefdom has a lord who has armed vassals. It is the most basic form of political organisation. This type of political organisation came to dominate human history and it still exists today in the form of warlords, militia, drug cartels and street gangs. Chiefdoms have power to coerce people that didn’t exist in group based societies. Chiefdoms already have some features of states.
From tribe to state
Liberal social contract theories assume that states emerged when citizens agreed to subject to a state in exchange for safety and other public services. But tribespeople only temporarily gave up their freedoms to meet an external threat like an invasion. And so the reason for the first states to emerge appears to have been violence or the threat of violence, not the desire for a social contract. States differ from tribes in the following ways:
States are the highest authority and have a centralised hierarchy.
The state has a monopoly on the use of legal coercive force.
The authority of the state is based on territory rather than kinship.
States have a justification based on religion or political philosophy.
Population growth and increased population density have been important causes of technological improvements like irrigation works. This allowed for a division of labour and the emergence of elites, which promoted state creation. If the population density is low, conflicts about land and access to resources can be solved by relocation, but this option disappears once population density increases or when physical borders fence in the population. The factors that allowed for the first states to emerge were:
There must be a surplus of means of existence to support a state.
Society must be large enough to allow for a division of labour.
Natural borders must fence in the population so people can’t escape when they are oppressed.
Tribespeople must subject themselves to a higher authority either because of an external threat or the charismatic leadership of a leader.
The first states may have emerged when one tribe subjected another. In order to rule the other tribe, the victorious tribe may have introduced centralised repressive institutions and established itself as the ruling class. The threat of being subjected may have induced other tribes to develop more permanent and centralised authoritarian structures. Still many tribes just assimilated conquered tribes and states never emerged.
It seems likely that religious ideas played a major role in the formation of early states as religion can provide sufficient legitimation for the loss of freedom coming from the subjugation to a leader or a hierarchical structure. Religious authority can make it easier to create a large military to subjugate rebellious tribes and to create peace and stability on the home front, which in its turn strengthens the religious authority of the leader.
Certain conditions had to be met for the first states to emerge but there are too many interacting factors to produce a strong theory on how the first states emerged. It may not be important to have such a theory as states nowadays are well-established. States now innovate and copy each other’s institutions because they are in a competitive struggle with each other.
Featured image: Cover of The Origins of Political Order
From: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution of Francis Fukuyama.
Once upon a time goldsmiths fabricated gold coins of standardised weight and purity. This made them a trusted source of gold coins. The goldsmiths also owned a safe where they stored their own gold. Other people wanted to store their gold there too because those safes were well-guarded. And so the goldsmiths began to rent out safe storage. People storing their gold with the goldsmith received a voucher certifying the amount of gold they brought in.
At first these vouchers could only be collected by the original depositor. Later on any holder of the voucher could collect the deposit. Another innovation was making standard vouchers representing 1, 2, 5 or 10 units. From then on people began to use them as money as paper money is more convenient than gold coin. And so depositors rarely came to collect their gold and it remained inside the vaults of the goldsmiths.
Some goldsmiths also lent out their own gold at interest. As depositors rarely came in to collect their gold, they soon discovered they could also lend out the gold of the depositors. When the depositors found out about this, they demanded interest on their deposits too. At this point modern banking took off and paper money became known as bank notes.
Borrowers preferred paper money too so the goldsmiths, who had become bankers, found out that they could lend out more money than they had gold in their vaults. They began to create money out of thin air. This is called fractional reserve banking as not all deposits were backed by gold reserves. The new money was spent on new businesses that hired new people so the economy boomed.
When depositors discovered that there were more bank notes circulating than there was gold in the vaults of the bank, the scheme could run into trouble if all depositors came in at the same time to demand their gold, but this rarely happened. Depositors received interest so they kept their deposits in the bank. They trusted their bank as long as they believed that debtors were paying back their loans.
But sometimes people began to doubt that the bank was safe and worried depositors would come to the bank to exchange their bank notes and deposits for gold coin. This is called a bank run. If too many people came in at the same time the bank could run out of gold and close down because not all the gold was there. As a result the bank’s notes and deposits could become worthless.
People who lost their money had less money to spend. This could hurt sales so businesses could run into trouble and default on their debts. As a consequence depositors at other banks might fear that their bank could go bankrupt too, leading to more bank runs. This could escalate into a financial crisis and an economic depression. This happened in the United States during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Regulations and central banks
To forestall financial crises and to deal with them if they occur, banks were required to have a minimum amount of gold available in order to pay back depositors. Central banks were created to support banks by supplying additional gold if too many depositors came in to collect their gold at the same time. Central banks could still run out of gold but this was solved by ending the gold backing of currencies. Nowadays central banks can print new dollars or euros to cope with any shortfall. Regulations limit the amount of loans banks make and therefore the amount of money that exists.
But everyone can lend to everyone. There are ways to circumvent the regulations imposed on banks. For example, corporations can issue bonds or use crowd funding. And a lot of lending nowadays happens outside the official banking sector in institutions that are not subject to these regulations. Human imagination is the only limit to the amount of debt that can exist. And as long as people expect that those debts will be repaid, even if it is with new debts, there can be trust in these debts. But the financial crisis of 2008 demonstrated that this trust can disappear very suddenly.
Featured image: A goldsmith in his shop. Peter Christus (1449). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
From segregation laws to white supremacist terrorism, the history of the Jim Crow era is reflected in these newly colourised photos. This era started shortly after the Civil War and lasted into the 1960s. For about 100 years white lawmakers kept racial inequality intact through policies that legally enforced segregation between white and black people in America. This era still cast its shadow over American society today.
Until very recently nearly everyone lived in abject poverty. Most people had barely enough to survive. In 1651 Thomas Hobbes depicted the life of man as poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Yet a few centuries later a miracle had happened. Many people are still poor but more people suffer from obesity than from hunger while the life expectancy in the poorest countries exceeds that of the Netherlands in 1750, the richest country in the world in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.
In 1516 Thomas More wrote his famous novel about a fictional island named Utopia. Life in Utopia was nearly as good as in the Garden of Eden. The Utopians worked six hours per day and took whatever they needed. His book inspired writers and dreamers to think of a better world while leaving the hard work to entrepreneurs, labourers and engineers. Today many of us have more than they need but still we work hard and feel insecure about the future.
Why is that? The answer lies within the nature of capitalism. It is not enough that we just work to buy the things we need. We must work harder to buy more, otherwise businesses go bankrupt, investors lose money, and people will be unemployed and left without income. In other words, the economy must grow. That worked well in the last few centuries, and it brought us many good things, but it may be about to kill us now.
People in traditional cultures didn’t need much. They were easily satisfied. Many modern people in capitalist societies believe they never have enough. You can always go for a bigger house, a more expensive car, or more luxury items. Many of us do not need more but the advertisement industry makes us believe that we do. We believe in scarcity even when there is abundance. And so the economy must grow. That is what they tell us.
But what are the consequences of this belief? If you eat too much this is great for business profits. And if you become obese as a consequence and need drugs for that reason, you again contribute to business profits so this is even better. Meanwhile we are using the resources of this planet in a much faster pace than nature can replenish. Humanity is standing before the abyss. Civilisation as it is will not continue for much longer. The end is near.
What has this to do with interest? If we want more products and services, we need more businesses, so we need investments. To do investments, we need savings. And to make people save, we need interest to make saving attractive. Consequently investments need to be profitable to pay for the interest. But there can be too much of a good thing. If we don’t need more stuff, we don’t need more savings, and interest rates go down.
A sustainable and humane economy?
Is it possible for humanity to live in harmony with itself and nature? We work harder than ever before and in doing so we destroy life on this planet. It seems hard to change this. If you organise production differently then your products might not be sold at a price that covers the cost to make them. In a market economy the value of a product is the price it fetches in the market. Marketing often comes down to inflating the market price of a product or a service to make more profit.
In the past there have been two fundamentally different approaches to the economy. For instance, before Germany became united in 1990, there were a capitalist and a socialist Germany. Socialist Germany ensured that everyone was employed. People in socialist Germany had enough but they had little choice as to what products they could buy. For instance, in socialist Germany there were two kinds of yoghurt while there were sixty in capitalist Germany.
And there was little freedom in socialist Germany. The secret police were everywhere. When Germany became united the socialist economy collapsed. Socialist corporations suddenly were bankrupt because no-one wanted to buy the products they produced. The ensuing reorganisation of the economy led to mass lay-offs and a staggering rise in unemployment. Ultimately 60% of the jobs in the former socialist firms disappeared.
Many lives and communities in former socialist Germany were destroyed. And people suddenly felt insecure about their future as businesses had to compete and make a profit in order to survive. In a market economy efficiency considerations determine what is produced. These efficiency considerations are the result of customer preferences as well as the requirement to make a profit. Loss-making businesses usually can’t attract capital in a market economy.
The quest for efficiency results in fewer and fewer people producing the things we need. To keep everyone employed in a capitalist economy unnecessary products and services must be produced, causing a rapid depletion of scarce resources as well as lots of waste. At least in theory we work can a few hours per day so we have more time for our mobile phone and each other. It may also be possible to free up resources to address poverty and other social problems.
And what has this to do with interest? The profit a corporation is expected to make should be higher than the interest rate in the markets for money and capital. Because what’s the point in making the effort and taking the risk of running a business if you can get the same return on a savings account? And so it appears that with negative interest rates corporations with zero profits can survive and that the economy doesn’t need to grow.
The road to inequality
Not so long ago an economist wrote a book that sent a shock-wave through the economic world because of stating a major cause of wealth inequality, which is that the return on capital usually is higher than the rate of economic growth. Capitalists reinvest most of their profits so capital usually grows faster than the economy most of the time. It can be proven beyond any doubt that capital can’t grow faster than the economy forever. Something will have to give at some point.
And what has this to do with interest? Interest is any return on capital. Interest income is the income of capitalists. That includes business profits and interest on bonds. The graph shows that labour income as part of the economy has diminished in recent decades in the United States. And that is because the capital share of national income has risen. In the past depressions and wars destroyed a lot of capital. Since 1945 there hasn’t been a serious depression or a world war.
The capitalist economy is like a game of monopoly. First everyone is doing great and capital is built in the form of housing and hotels. At some point some people can’t pay their bills anymore. To keep the game going, the winners can lend money to the losers. But at some point the losers can’t pay the interest any more. To keep the game going, interest rates must be lowered, so they can borrow more. But at some point some people can’t pay the interest again.
This happens in the real economy too. In a game of Monopoly we can start all over again. In the real economy that’s not an option. It would mean closing down factories in another great depression or destroying houses in another world war. So the game must continue. In Monopoly the rich can lend money at negative interest rates to the rest so that they can pay their bills. In the real economy this may be possible too.
Monopoly features a scheme that looks like a universal basic income. Every time you finish a round you get a fixed sum of money from the bank. At some point the bank may end up empty. The rich can then lend money to the bank at a negative interest rate to pay for it. It might seem a stupid thing to do because Monopoly is just a game. But the real economy is not. It may need an income guarantee for everyone financed by the rich.
An outline of the future economy
Can we have an economy that is humane and in harmony with nature? A few centuries ago no-one would have believed that we could live the way we do today and most people would have believed that it is more likely that unicorns do exist. If excess resource consuming consumption is to be curtailed, fewer options for consumers remain, for instance there may only be organic products, and supermarkets in the future might look a bit like those in former socialist Germany.
That may not be so bad. People in socialist Cuba live as long as people in the United States despite the United States spending more on healthcare than any other country in the world. Cubans eat no fast food so they live a healthier life style. And Cubans suffer less from a negative self image than people who are exposed to the advertisement industry. Advertisements aim to make us unhappy with ourselves and what we have in order to make us buy more products and services.
Like in former socialist Germany there isn’t much freedom in Cuba. If the government is to regulate the fat content in fast food or the sugar content in sodas then we lose our freedom to become obese. Alternatively, the government could even end our freedom to destroy life on this planet and kill our children. That may be oppression. But the alternative may be a collective suicide of humanity. Even though socialism failed we may have to pick the best parts out of it and integrate them into a market economy.
If the most resource consuming non-essential activities are to be axed, entire industries will be wiped out like in socialist Germany. One can think of making air travel sustainable and what that will with ticket prices. It is bad for economic growth. Many people would not like this. Still, life in a future sustainable market economy can be much more agreeable than life in Cuba or former socialist Germany.
So what has this to do with interest? A dramatic change to make the economy sustainable can cause a massive economic shock like the Great Depression. The economy can soon recover if interest rates can go negative. Before you say that it is more likely that unicorns exist, this has been tested during the Great Depression. The outcome is dubbed the Miracle of Wörgl. And evidence for the existence of unicorns has not yet been so forthcoming.
If interest rates are low then the creators of ideas and makers of things are rewarded more. They are the entrepreneurs and labourers rather than the owners of capital. It is in the spirit of Silvio Gesell who believed that labour and creativity should be rewarded and not the passive ownership of capital. Only when there is a shortage of capital or more demand for goods and services than there is supply, people need to be encouraged to save.
The economy is already constrained by a lack of demand rather than supply. That will be even more so when excessive consumption is to be curtailed and the rich have fewer options to spend their money on. And so it may become possible to fund an income guarantee with income taxes as well as negative interest on government debt. This can improve the bargaining position of labourers.
It is better to have an income guarantee rather than a universal basic income because that would be cheaper. There is little to gain from handing out money to people that already have enough. And the scheme should provide an incentive to work. A simple example can explain how that might work out. Assume there is an income guarantee of € 800 per month and a 50% income tax. The following table shows the consequences for different income groups.
Perhaps it doesn’t feel right that people are being paid for doing nothing. But nowadays people are paid for producing and selling things we do not really need and by doing so they endanger our future. Someone who does nothing at all can be worth much more for society than a travelling salesperson, a trader on Wall Street or a constructor who builds mansions for the rich. Of course it is better that people do something useful and useful people should be rewarded for their efforts, but doing nothing is always better than doing something stupid, and having zero value is always better than having negative value.
Another question is how this can be paid for? The Miracle of Wörgl shows us that the economy can flourish without growth when interest rates are negative so that most people will be employed. Money can still be a motivator to run a business or to go to work but less so than in the present. It doesn’t have to stop people from starting a business. Many entrepreneurs didn’t intend to become rich. They just wanted to be an entrepreneur or believed in the product they were making or selling. Still, there is no doubt whatsoever that a humane economy in harmony with nature will be very different from the economy of today.
Featured image: Slums built on swamp land near a garbage dump in East Cipinang, Jakarta Indonesia. Jonathan McIntosh (2004).
Other images: Share of Labour Compensation in GDP at Current National Prices for United States. FED. Public Domain