Doughnut economic model

A model for the economy

Doughnut

Our greatest challenge at present is dealing with the limits of the planet. The second greatest challenge is to provide for an acceptable standard of living for everyone. The third may be reducing differences in income and power. To a large extent these are economic questions. The order is important. For instance, what’s the point of achieving a higher standard of living when our planet is destroyed in the process? And it may be good to reduce differences in income and power but not if everyone ends up poorer.

New technologies can make these goals easier to attain. Information technology and the Internet made it possible for people everywhere around the globe to connect and to work together. This created jobs for millions of people in countries like India and China and it provided them with a better standard of living. Imagine nuclear fusion becoming available and energy becoming really cheap. That could halt climate change and make our lives easier. But we don’t know what kinds of technology there will be in the future.

The challenges we face are of an economic nature so a model of the economy can be helpful. Economics is about deciding for what we use the limited means we have and for whom. The distinction between economics and politics is not always clear because economic choices are often of a political nature. Even when you believe that everything should be left to markets then this is a political opinion.

The economist Kate Raworth came up with a model called doughnut economy. Her model can be used to assess the performance of an economy by the extent to which the needs of people are met without overshooting Earth’s limits.1 Assessing is not the real challenge here. Making it work is. Raworth did some suggestions but this model outlines a comprehensive global solution.

Much of economics is drawn from experience. Often from experience supposed economic laws were formulated. The supposed laws don’t always work so we need imagination too. Experience may be a good guide to predict human behaviour and it can help us to see how far we can make our imagination become reality.

We can’t continue to live like we do. New technologies alone will probably not save us. The changes we need most likely are a shock for most people, except the poorest. On the bright side there is the 20/80 rule. It states that if you set your priorities right, you can achieve 80% of what’s possible with 20% of the effort needed to achieve the 100%. So if we stop the 20% most resource consuming and polluting non-essential activities then we might achieve 80% of what we can possibly achieve. That may be enough so life may still be acceptable in the future.

This plan contains ideas that ignore political borders like combining environmentalism with supply-side economics. This is a comprehensive solution. People may take their pickings based on their political views but you can’t cherry pick and expect it to work. This plan doesn’t include specific proposals like building windmills nor does it dwell on sustainable development goals. It is an economic model only.

This model gives a general outline as to how to deal with the challenges using underlying economic mechanisms. Many issues have to be resolved along the way, for instance mitigating the consequences for those who suffer the most. In short the model is:

  • The limits of our planet should dictate economics. That is just plain survival. Everything else should be of a secondary nature.
  • Ending poverty should be the second goal in economic thinking. That is our moral obligation. All other goals come after that.
  • People organise themselves in different ways. Organisational flexibility is the feature that made humans so successful as a species.
  • Setting these limits will bring severe dislocations in the economy that have to be addressed in the short term as well in the longer term.
  • Money is power. Ignoring money and the profit motive won’t produce acceptable outcomes. Still, it may be possible to reduce the power associated with money.
  • The economy has a short-term bias. An important reason is interest. Negative interest rates can lengthen the time horizon of investment decisions.
  • Capital represents wealth. Capital can help to make the economy sustainable and to end poverty. Destroying capital usually is not a wise course of action.
  • It is probably easier to build the required capital via investment than via taxation as most people love to invest but hate to pay taxes.
  • It may be better not to tax capital but to tax conspicuous consumption of the wealthy instead and to ban harmful activities if that is feasible.

Caring for our planet should be central in economic thinking. In traditional economics the consequences for the planet are delegated to a marginal role. The approach so far has been that products and services can have hidden costs like the usage of scarce resources and pollution. The proposed solution is that bureaucrats calculate these costs and tax harmful products to the point that their price reflects their true cost.

The government is supposed to use the proceeds from these taxes to repair the damage done, which often doesn’t happen. Still these taxes increase the price of harmful products so people can afford fewer of them. That may help but it is a proverbial drop-in-the-bucket. Economic growth is exponential so measures to reduce resource consumption or pollution are overtaken by the growth of production and consumption.

It is hard to calculate the true cost of products and services. Another problem is that green solutions use scarce resources too. To build a windmill energy is needed, which often comes from non-renewable resources like fossil fuels. Subsidising these solutions can be inefficient. A better way out may be setting hard limits on resource consumption and pollution. That could allocate resources more efficiently and set higher rewards on solutions that really contribute to a sustainable future.

Ending poverty is not always an explicitly stated goal of economics but economics is about making the best use of limited resources. Economic thinking can help to reduce poverty. Capitalism can create wealth efficiently but doesn’t distribute it equally. An important obstacle is interest rates being limited to the downside. Negative interest rates can help to reduce poverty but poor people are often poor for other reasons too, for instance a lack of opportunities or their own behaviour.

Human organisation

The political economy describes how humans organise themselves. Humans are social animals that can cooperate on a large scale in a flexible way. It made humans the dominant species on the planet. There are three major forms of human organisation:

  • communities
  • markets
  • governments

Traditionally humans lived in communities and villages where people help each other. They contributed to their community and expected their community to care for them. Money hardly played a role and trade with the outside world was often barter. People were born into a community and it was difficult to leave. Communities are still important in modern societies but leaving is easier. Many communities are communities of choice that you can join and leave as you like. These are often based on shared interests, for instance a soccer club or a message board on the Internet.2

Markets can distribute goods and services efficiently. This is what is meant by the invisible hand. If people work in their own self-interest, this can benefit society because products and services are made according to the desires of individuals. The theory of supply and demand explains how that is achieved. This is done with the use of money in market transactions. In many instances markets fail to bring desirable outcomes. Markets are flexible but they do not think ahead so they do not take into account the limits of the planet.

Governments set the rules in societies and enforce them, often with the consent of the citizens. They provide public services that markets do not provide efficiently or in an acceptable manner. The organising agent is money too, in this case via taxes and government expenditures on public services. Governments can think ahead but they are less flexible. The limits of the planet aren’t flexible either so it may be a task for governments to enforce them.

Dealing with the consequences

The flexibility of the ways in which we humans organise ourselves allows us to set limits on a global scale and let governments, businesses and communities all over the world deal with them and reorganise themselves accordingly. These limits must be set from the top down like a dictate because the size of the planet can’t be changed. Being too flexible on this issue can be a greater mistake than not being flexible enough.

This requires a global authority. If adequate measures are taken, severe dislocations in the economy can be expected. For instance, if recreational air travel is to be ended, that will affect poor countries depending on tourism. The same is true for people working for businesses that use scarce resources produce non-essential goods and services. Millions of people will lose their jobs and their means of existence.

In the short run they have to be helped out with food and money. In the longer term people, communities, businesses and countries must adapt to the new reality. Multinational corporations may have to relocate jobs to areas that have little to offer to international markets. Ideally everyone has a useful role in society and feels secure but the economy requires a flexible labour market.

Money makes the world go round

Humans have social needs and varying motivations but most people are motivated by money, at least to some extent. Even when people are not motivated by money, those who are often determine what happens. That is because money represents power. Reforming the economy based on ideals and moral values will have little effect if money and financial markets are ignored. We need the goods and services money can buy.

People can be motivated by their jobs but most people work to make a living. Money plays an important role in this process. If you are not rewarded for doing your job well that can demoralise you, most notably if others receive the same reward for doing a poor job. A great experiment called the Soviet Union has proven that beyond reasonable doubt. Markets can help to eliminate businesses that are useless or inefficient.

Sadly the amount of money individuals acquire doesn’t always represent their merits for other people and society. The politically connected can enrich themselves at the expense of taxpayers. Business owners can exploit labourers and enrich themselves by moving jobs to low wage countries. And criminals can become very rich too.

Rich people can buy the respect and cooperation of others. They can make others do what they want them to do. This comes with social status. People like you when you are rich because they hope to benefit from your spending. Social status also comes from the products you can afford. Differences in power and social status can lead to social instability, most notably when many are poor and the rich didn’t deserve their wealth.

It is easier to finance a great endeavours like making the economy sustainable and ending poverty from investments than from taxation because nobody wants to pay taxes but everybody is happy to invest. People may work hard to build some capital for themselves through savings and investment but they won’t work so hard to pay taxes.

This was the secret of the success of the European empires that conquered the world. England, France, Spain and the Netherlands were much poorer and smaller than China, India or the Ottoman Empire, but they didn’t finance their conquests with taxation, but with investment capita. European conquerors took loans from banks and investors to buy ships, cannons, and to pay soldiers. Profits from the new trade routes and colonies enabled them to repay the loans and build trust so they could receive more credit next time.2

Reducing the power associated with money is possible. For instance, if there is a tax on currency, interest rates can go below zero, and owners of money can’t demand interest when there is a capital surplus and positive interest rates aren’t beneficial to the economy. Redistributing wealth via wealth taxes may reduce differences in wealth and power but it can also lead to capital destruction via higher interest rates.

Capitalists save and invest while ordinary people borrow and spend. Wealth taxes divert money from investment to consumption so interest rates may rise and the effect may be a reduction of capital rather than more tax income. And it is consumption that harms the planet. Wealth taxes can be useful but they aren’t part of the solution. It may be better to reduce the consumption of the wealthy instead as they often consume the most.

This would reduce the privileges attached to wealth as it reduces the options for the wealthy to use their riches. At the same time it allows capital to be allocated via markets so that efficiency considerations apply. Hence, more investment capital may become available and the excess may be transferred to governments, people and businesses via negative interest rates.

In other words, it may be smarter to ‘milk the capital of the rich’ by giving the rich fewer options to spend their wealth than to tax their wealth. In this way their capital may grow to the possible maximum and interest rates go lower to the benefit of everyone.

In the neo-liberal era government spending was constrained by interest payments. The public sector was neglected. The price paid was often poor health care, bad roads or an overstretched police force. Once interest rates are negative, we may enter an era of abundance, and interest payments may be added to government budgets. This is to be expected when resources are diverted away from the consumption of the rich.

I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.

– Queen, I want it all

Short-term bias

These words of Queen express the mindset behind an economic system that encourages people to buy as much stuff as possible. More is preferred to less and now is preferred to tomorrow. If we stop buying stuff, or even when we buy less, businesses go bankrupt, people become unemployed, debts can’t be repaid and money becomes worthless. And so there is a quest for economic growth that’s killing us.

Economics teaches that our needs and wants exceed the available goods and services and that we always want more. This is called scarcity. Economics also teaches us that we want stuff sooner rather than later. This is called time preference. And so we must be encouraged to save for the investments needed to make more stuff by promising us more stuff in the future. And so there must be interest, economics teaches us.

To be fair, economics goes beyond this simple caricature, but the short-term bias caused by the belief in scarcity, time preference and positive interest rates, is still everywhere in economic thinking, and also in our thinking because we are influenced by economics. The existence of negative interest rates signals that the basic assumptions underlying economics may not be correct. People keep on saving without the promise of more stuff in the future. And that is a good sign.

Our way of living has to change in a fundamental way. We need to recycle more, buy second hand stuff and forego frivolous consumption. In the future employment may come from addressing needs in society. For instance, former salespeople may care for the elderly. There is an abundance of capital, and if those who have enough constrain their desires, even more capital can be available to meet the challenges humanity is facing.

To make that happen we need new ideas about wealth and poverty. It may be wiser to see wealth as the amount of time we can to sustain our current standard of living. For instance, someone who owns € 50,000 in assets and needs € 10,000 per year to live off may be wealthier than someone who owns € 100,000 and needs € 50,000 per year. This also applies to humanity. The resources of the planet can be considered as our assets. On the basis of this measure we are becoming poorer by the day.

Interest rates are important here. They affect the time horizon of investment decisions. That is because of discounting. When investment decisions are made, this usually comes down to discounting the future income stream from the investment against the interest rate. Higher interest rates promote shorter time-horizons. This can be illustrated with an example from the Strohalm Foundation:

Suppose that a cheap house will last 33 years and costs € 200,000 to build. The yearly cost of the house will be € 6,060 (€ 200,000 divided by 33). A more expensive house costs € 400,000 but will last a hundred years. It will cost only € 4,000 per year. For € 2,060 per year less, you can build a house that lasts three times as long.

After applying for a mortgage the calculation changes. If the interest rate is 10%, the expensive house will not only cost € 4,000 per year in write-offs, but during the first year there will be an additional interest charge of € 40,000 (10% of € 400,000).

The long-lasting house now costs € 44,000 in the first year. The cheaper house now appears less expensive again. There is a yearly write off of € 6,060 but during the first year there is only € 20,000 in interest charges. Total costs for the first year are only € 26,060. Interest charges make the less durable house cheaper.3

In reality things are not that simple. The building materials of the cheap house might be recycled to build a new house. And technology changes. If cars had been built to last 100 years, most old cars would still be around. This could be a problem as old cars are more polluting and use more fuel. Nevertheless, the example shows that long-term investments can be more attractive when interest rates are lower.

The interest rate is not the cause but the consequence of the time horizons of individual borrowers and lenders in financial markets, which are people, businesses and governments. The economy doesn’t magically become sustainable because interest rates are low. Interest rates are low for a reason. If we don’t buy things we don’t need, interest rates go down. The time horizon of the economy lengthens because our economic time horizon lengthens.

Capital and wealth

The painful reality of what our wealth really is has such dramatic consequences for the economy that it is hard to foresee what a future sustainable society might look like. But capital will still represent wealth in the future. The traditional definition of capital is buildings, machines, technology and knowledge to make the products and services we use. This definition ignores the planet and that is not helping us to survive.

Only if we think of the planet Earth as our main capital and believe that we have to keep that capital in tact and that we have to sustain ourselves from the interest of this capital then economics can help us to survive. We must reduce our consumption to the point that the planet can regenerate itself. A true capitalist doesn’t consumes his or her capital either. He or she lives of the interest and saves whatever he or she can for the future.

Traditional capital can help with that. For instance, internet and video conferencing allow us to meet other people without travel. If most traffic is to disappear that would greatly reduce resource consumption and pollution but that may only happen if travel is restricted. Knowledge to make artificial meat from plants can reduce the need for fertilisers and pesticides. If we don’t have to feed livestock any more, lower yields in agriculture are acceptable. This can help to make agriculture in harmony with nature.

We may need more traditional capital in order to sustain ourselves within the limits of the planet even though much of our existing capital may prove to be worthless. For instance, if research is done to make artificial meat taste better then people will find it easier to switch. In that case factory farms may become redundant. We may need massive investments in renewable energy and recycling as well as pollution reduction. If we set limits on our resource consumption and pollution then the capital that can make us live within these limits can be profitable.

As capital represents wealth, lower interest rates can increase wealth. That is because investments must at least generate returns equal to the interest rate. If returns are lower then it makes no sense to invest as it would be better to put the money in a bank account. Hence, with lower interest rates more investments are profitable and more capital can exist. It may explain why wealthy countries often have the lowest interest rates.

The requirement of making at least the interest rate in the market has enormous consequences. A corporation that makes a product people like can go bankrupt when potential customers don’t have enough money and the corporation can’t make enough profit. In other words, if an investment in this corporation yields less than the interest rate in the market, it must fail. That’s why corporations don’t make products for poor people. There is no profit in that. Some economists think this is healthy and natural.

In a similar vein a coal fired power plant that returns 6% is considered efficient and useful while a windmill that makes 2% is seen as inefficient and wasteful at an interest rate of 4%. This logic can be suicidal because of climate change. Something is terribly wrong with this. But if investments don’t make the interest rate in the market, no-one would make them voluntarily. Nowadays windmills and solar energy are profitable because the technology has improved and interest rates have fallen.

In a market economy capital exists for profit. Capital can exist for other motives too. A community can make an encyclopedia or a software product freely available on the Internet. A government can build a road or operate a library or a hospital. But history has demonstrated that people are motivated by money and profit and that a market economy is an effective way to build capital. In order to live within the limits of the planet and to end poverty, markets may need more guidance from governments.

With lower interest rates it may be possible to make investments in ending poverty and making societies sustainable profitable so that people will make these investments voluntarily. Perhaps it is better to make a distinction between what should be done, for instance making the economy sustainable and ending poverty, and what can be done, which depends amongst others, on the interest rate. At an interest rate of 0% the windmill could be profitable and fossil fuels can be phased out. That’s why lower interest rates can be beneficial.

Indeed, there are other measures for usefulness than profitability. Perhaps the requirement to make a specific interest rate may not seem particularly useful to humankind but it can help to allocate capital more efficiently. Hence, for the benefit of humankind capital markets must continue to exist and interest rates may need to be as low as possible to generate the investment capital needed for making the economy sustainable and ending poverty.

Governments should guide this process by defining what is legal and what is not. The investment options for capitalists depend on the products and services that are legal. As the number of options are reduced, for instance by banning resource consuming non-essential consumption, the remaining alternatives can become more attractive, most notably when the excess of investment capital drives interest rates lower so that sustainable production processes with low returns become feasible.

If there is a market

Banning harmful products can elicit black markets, most notably when these products are addictive or save you from a lot of trouble or hard work and if you can use them without being noticed. It would be hard to stop the use of alcohol and drugs because people will use these products anyway. It may be easier to limit air travel as it will be difficult to fly a plane without being noticed.

Black markets and fraud are likely to arise if limits are set on the extraction of resources like fossil fuels and basic materials. The price of these resources could rise and it could be lucrative to extract more than is allowed. It might a good idea to look for places where effective control can be established. That may be on the demand side by banning or limiting certain activities or on the supply side by monitoring production.

Distortions in the markets for resources can produce losses or profits. Governments may need to take ownership of resources and compensate the owners. A government can then contract a miner to mine resources based on quota under specific regulations, and the miners can then be paid for extracting the resources. If markets become distorted by forward-looking planning then governments must intervene.

Perhaps different arrangements are possible. When interest rates are negative then future income discounted against the interest rate will have a higher net present value so it can make economic sense to keep resources in the ground.

Global competition drives down prices and it allows developing nations to build their economies too. Free trade can benefit humankind because it allows people and countries to specialise in what they do best so more and better products can be made at lower prices. Regulations aim to increase the quality of products by setting minimum standards. Regulations can favour large scale operations if they require large investments.

If the economy is to become sustainable the energy cost of producing items as well as the cost of transport may change and affect the scale of production. Regulations can stand in the way of scaling down and localising production but in many cases regulations, for instance regulations about food safety, exist for good reason. Investments to make production processes sustainable may be costly and may also favour economies of scale.

Confidence in money and trust in the financial system

Confidence is key in the capitalist economy because credit is based on confidence. The availability of investment capital comes from confidence in financial system and the economy. Actions that erode trust affect the available credit. Bank failures shatter confidence and stop the circulation of money. The Great Depression really took off after banks went bankrupt. The financial crisis of 2008 escalated once Lehman Brothers was allowed to go bankrupt.

To ensure that businesses can prosper credit must be available. A lack of trust in financial markets results in a destruction of capital. It is not a coincidence that economic crises are often preceded by a financial crisis. That’s why governments and central banks stand behind the financial system and support it at all cost. That’s why we seem to be hostage of the financial system. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Interest on money and debts makes the financial system unstable and prone to crisis because incomes fluctuate while interest payments are fixed. And because there is currency at an interest rate of zero, investors can flee to the safety of currency at no cost whenever there is some trouble. But interest rates are poised to go negative. This may be the opportunity to make the financial system more robust by charging a holding fee on currency and banning positive interest rates on money and debts.

Trust in the financial system and debts is reflected in the interest rate. If the interest rate is negative then investors prefer a certain loss to other investment alternatives. That might happen because of confidence in the currency as a store of value, for instance when inflation is non-existent. It is imperative that governments promote confidence in their currencies by limiting their primary deficits to the point that they are paid from the interest received on their debts.

Interest is the price paid for distrust so governments must be reliable and transparent to inspire confidence in financial markets. If a government is not honest to its creditors then the interest paid on its debts can rise. People like entitlements and do not like taxes so citizens may elect politicians who promise more entitlements or lower taxes. The interest rate on government debt can therefore also reflect the confidence of creditors in the citizens of a country.

A robust financial system that inspires confidence can meet the challenges that lie ahead as they will on the one hand require an unprecedented amount of capital in form of knowledge, new products and new ways of producing and distributing them, while on the other hand there will be severe shock and dislocations in the economy that only a robust financial system can withstand.

A holding fee on currency can ensure liquidity in financial markets so that the economy will not fall apart in times of economic stress. The situation in Wörgl demonstrated that even a deep depression can soon end with negative interest rates. The transformation to a sustainable economy requires an unprecedented amount of low yielding capital that may only be made profitable when interest rates are negative.

Investment guidance policies

For markets to do their job properly, capitalists should deploy their capital in the way they see fit within the options that are available. Additional measures may be needed to guide investments into desired directions like developing countries, recycling, and affordable housing. Wealthy individuals should realise they have a moral duty to make their capital contribute positively to society and the well-being of others. And even if the wealthy do not live up to their moral obligations, the laws and the financial system must channel their efforts in the right direction.

Financing the challenges of the future by investors may work better than financing them from taxes. Investors tend to chose the options that generate the most profits. In doing so they may be able to realise these goals more efficiently and generate more investment capital for the purpose. Favouring desired investments, for instance by excluding them from a wealth tax, can be a way to make them more attractive.

Products should cause as little harm as possible to the planet. Nature should be able to regenerate itself and undo the harm done. To make that possible, corporations should be responsible for the lifecycle of their products. Even when they work with contractors, the responsibility should remain with the corporation that markets a product.

During the neoliberal area businesses were often allowed to regulate themselves. This is didn’t work out well as businesses can gain an advantage from evading responsibilities in the form of reduced costs and higher profits. Governments have a responsibility to make and enforce the law. That may not be enough so journalists and activists have a duty to press businesses into sticking to the rules and governments into enforcing them.

Summary

This is an economic model meant to identify the economics to make the economy sustainable and to end poverty. There will probably be consequences that aren’t fair and they should be addressed where possible. Capital represents wealth. To make the economy sustainable we need a different view on wealth as it not being the amount of assets you currently have but the time your assets can support your lifestyle.

The planet should be seen as our main capital, not the buildings, machines, technology and knowledge to make the products and services we use. If we use more than nature can replenish, we use more than the interest of our main capital, and we become poorer as a consequence, even when the interest rate on traditional capital is positive.

To make the economy sustainable and to end poverty while maintaining an acceptable standard of living requires an unprecedented amount of traditional capital. The effort can better be financed from investments than taxes. Lower interest rates can make investments in making the economy sustainable and ending poverty more attractive.

Limiting our production and consumption will depress interest rates. Low interest rates require trust in the financial system and currencies. The financial system is based on debt, hence the integrity of debtors. A maximum interest rate of zero can improve the quality of debts. A holding fee on currency can ensure liquidity in financial markets.

Instead of spending on frivolous consumption everyone who can afford it should become a capitalist and invest in his or her own future. That can help to make the economy sustainable and to end poverty. Governments can support this process by legislation that bans harmful products and supports investments in areas that are beneficial.

Featured image: Doughnut economic model. Kate Raworth (2017).

1. Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist. Kate Raworth (2017). Vermont: White River Junction.
2. Political economy. Wikipedia. [link]
3. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.

The only known photograph of Chief Seattle

Towards a spirit of connectedness

A world without hope?

What will the future look like? What direction should we take? There is so much wrong with our current way of living that it is hard to get proper handle on it. So what is wrong with us? Perhaps the answer can be found in a speech the native American Chief Seattle allegedly gave in 1854 when the United States government wanted to buy the land of his tribe. These are the first words of that speech.

How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clear and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.

Only Chief Seattle never spoke those words. It is fake history. This speech has been made up by a screenwriter in 1971. Still it strikes at the heart of the matter. Nothing is sacred any more. The pursuit of money destroys our values and our planet. For instance, it is argued that if we don’t allow the airport to expand, money and jobs will be lost. That kind of thinking is killing us in the end. The speech contains some more interesting words.

This we know – the Earth does not belong to man – man belongs to the Earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.

Whatever befalls the Earth – befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life – he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

We know this deep in our hearts but it is hard to deal with it. The people from the Strohalm Foundation have worked for decades to define an outline for the society of the future. They were not hindered by established interests nor did a lack of perspective deter them from continuing their search. They tried to learn from history and were part of a small group of people that kept on caring and never gave up. Here is another interesting take-away from the speech.

Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see. One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover – Our God is the same God. You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land, but you cannot.

In 1991 the Strohalm Foundation issued a booklet named To a Philosophy of Connectedness. It lays out a vision for a future society that is both sustainable and humane. It gives possible steering mechanisms that can help to achieve a durable and more humane society. It is a vision that long seemed unattainable, not because it is impossible to do, but because vested interests stood in the way.

That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are slaughtered, the wild horses tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. The end of living and the beginning of survival.

In 1994 I became familiar with the Strohalm Foundation. For a long time I believed them to be naive as I considered myself to be realistic. Most people I knew did not really like environmentalists. I kept on supporting their work because there seemed to be no alternative. You cannot allow realism to stand in the way of what needs to be done. And therefore this vision exists because of the hard work of environmentalists like Friends of the Earth and the Strohalm Foundation.

A new perspective

We need a new starting point, a new foundation for our culture, our beliefs and thinking about our place in the universe. There is no other choice. Small steps can’t save us. We need to fundamentally change ourselves and the ideas we currently have. The planet we live on is given to us by God and not ours to destroy. Sadly, the fate of our planet does not compel us enough to do the right thing so God comes in handy here.

As long as we do not completely change our approach to the major problems of our time, our societies will not become more humane and respectful of our planet. As long as production and consumption increase, new problems emerge faster than old problems can be solved with laws, technology, targets and other solutions.1

We are not confronted with an array of regrettable separate incidents, but with a culture that is on the loose. It is a throw-away culture in which not only materials and energy are wasted. Human relationships and values end up on the waste dump too.1

You probably know that in your heart but find it difficult to admit. Admitting this can give you a feeling of hopelessness. And so you may be inclined to ignore this, to focus on smaller and more concrete problems, or to withdraw yourself1 by fleeing into cynicism, new age spiritualism or conspiracy theories.

Most of us believe that massive structural changes are impossible and that we can’t influence the course of history in a meaningful way. And so we choose to manage existing developments with smaller measures. That may not help us in the end.

There is another way of looking at the situation. It is the rational way. Acknowledging a problem is already solving it half. Our feeling that nothing will ever help can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Still most of us want a solution and help to make it happen. As soon as there is a perspective for change, many of us will let go of their cynicism and help to make it happen.1 And then change can happen very fast.

Twenty years could be all we have left. And twenty years may be all we need.

Natural World Order

You go to your job and perhaps you achieve something there. Your activities do not only have the intended consequences but many others as well. If you succeed and get a promotion, a colleague might get jealous. If you go to your job by car, the exhaust gases can make other people sick.1 The unintended consequences of your actions hardly play a role in your decisions but they change our reality in unexpected ways.

The world is so complex that the models we use can’t get a hold on what is going on. It appears that we can’t change the future in a meaningful way. At best we can anticipate what is going to happen. The failure of communism demonstrated that centralised planning does not create a happy society. That left us with capitalism and markets. They brought us prosperity while our living conditions are being destroyed.

Nature can us show a way out. Organisms start relationships with each other. These relationships can become permanent if one organism makes something another organism needs and the other way around so that both benefit. For instance, plants and animals have such a relationship. Plants produce oxygen that animals need while animals produce carbon dioxide that plants need.1

Plants and animals are part of a self-sustaining cycle. They are connected. They are parts of a whole. If plants die then animals including humans die too. There are many of such relationships in nature. Such a natural order emerges spontaneously but it takes a long time. It starts with individual organisms starting relationships. These relationships can grow to a global scale as long as the external conditions allow for it.1

External conditions are like a dictate. If there were no fossil fuels then we can’t burn them. If there was no technology to build cars, we can’t drive them. External conditions are usually taken for granted but when they suddenly change then we must adapt and that can be brutal. For instance, the spread of the corona virus brought long-distance travel to a standstill. And climate change can become far worse than that.

Make no mistake. Running into the limits of our planet will be more brutal than anything that ever happened before in the course of human history. That leaves us with no other choice than setting global limits on human activities before the planet does it for us. But the sudden stop of air travel also teaches us that we don’t really need it. And there are many more things we do not need.

People, businesses and governments must deal with these limits. Once they are in place, communities, governments and businesses all over the world can reorganise themselves via communities, so that the Natural World Order will arise more or less spontaneously. Humans can make this happen fast because they can quickly change the ways they cooperate by changing their cultures. That doesn’t require planning every detail but it does require altering the steering mechanisms of our societies and economies.

One of the most important things we must change is the way we look at wealth and conspicuous consumption. Wealthy people are seen as great examples and their consumption is seen as good for the economy. If conspicuous consumption is frowned upon, there is less fun in being extremely rich, and a lot of crime becomes pointless. For example, what’s the point of risking your life by being drug dealer if you can’t drive around in your expensive cars any more? This way looking at wealth and consumption is essential to make the Natural World Order come to pass.

Steering mechanisms

Money is now the most important steering mechanism in society. Realising goals of any kind usually requires the cooperation of others and therefore money. That is understandable. Everyone needs money but it may be better that we are motivated more by our job or our contribution to society and less by money. Economic decisions are affected by interest as well. Interest is a steering mechanism. High interest rates promote short-term decisions while low interest rates promote long-term decisions. So how does that work?

If the interest rate is 5% then € 1,00 next year is worth € 0,95 now. That makes you prefer to get € 1,00 now rather than next year, even when you need the money next year simply because you can receive interest and will have € 1,05 next year. Interest reduces the value of future income and therefore the future itself. Interest makes people and businesses prefer the present to the future and short-term gains at the expense future generations.

This is why a sustainable economy requires low or even negative interest rates. Ending growth also requires negative interest rates otherwise the interest on debts can’t be paid. Interest is any return on capital so interest doesn’t depend on money but on capital. As the wealthy own most capital, interest is a flow from everyone else to the wealthiest. A humane society may therefore need to end positive interest rates. Central banks do not determine interest rates in the end. The supply and demand for money and capital do. But ending interest may soon be possible.

In a free market competition is a major steering mechanism. Competition promotes efficiency and progress but it also causes many problems. Competition affects economic decisions.1 It can force corporations to produce as cheaply as possible or to produce stuff that no-one really needs only because it can be sold at a profit. Many corporations see little room to treat their employees well or to take care for the environment.

If you desire that latest model, the best service, the lowest price, and want more money to buy even more stuff, then you are part of the problem like nearly everyone else, and that includes me. It may be strange to realise that you have enough, or even have more than enough, and that you can do with less stuff, older models, poorer service and higher prices, so that local businesses may be able to survive.

Another important steering mechanism is the distribution of cost. Short-term gains are for corporations while societies deal with the long-term cost like pollution and unemployment. Education and health care are public costs that corporations often do not pay for. Taxing systems do not take into account the limits of the planet. They need to be changed in order to attribute the true cost to the products and services people buy.

Shifting taxes from labour to raw materials and energy can help. This measure can induce people to use items longer and promote repair and recycling. Corporations must be responsible for the entire life-cycle of the products they produce. Non-essential products that are harmful can be banned completely. The advertisement industry can be regulated to stop people from buying items they do no need.

Laws are a steering mechanism too. What is legal isn’t always fair. Unethical behaviour is often not punished by the law. A greater role for ethics in law is needed, most notably in matters of business. Savvy people and corporations use loopholes to their advantage or bribe politicians into changing the law into their favour. Exploiting people, misusing public funds, and harming the planet should be sufficient ground for persecution and conviction, even if the specific activity is not declared illegal.

Most people take the existing steering mechanisms for granted. A few people like the anti-globalists and religious extremists think of an alternative. Only most people would not like a reign of terror. And so we limit ourselves to taking small measures in order to reduce the fall-out. It is hard to believe that the steering mechanisms themselves can be changed. Perhaps technology will save us, we hope. That may not be the case.

The throw-away culture

Science, technology, society and culture are closely interconnected. It is fair to say that we live in a technological society and a throw-away culture. If we have a problem then we look at scientists and engineers to solve it. Even our emotional problems we address with therapy sessions and pills. This is also true for environmental problems.

A good example is perhaps a report of the Dutch research agency TNO in the 1980s about replacing milk bottles by milk cartons. Milk bottles were used many times while cartons are thrown away. The discussion that followed was about the number of times a bottle was reused, which determines whether or not the bottle is better for the environment. That depended, amongst others, on the number of times a bottles was reused.

These discussions can be useful. What was not discussed however, was the throw-away culture. Milk bottles were part of a culture of reuse that was disappearing. The cartons are part of the new throw-away culture. Discussions are about quantity, objectivity and efficiency, but not about fundamental questions about the way we live.

The things we use deserve more respect. Valuable resources and energy have been used to make them. We should not depart from them until they are worn out completely. If they are broken we should fix them until they can’t be fixed any more. And why should we buy frivolous items or make long distance trips for recreational reasons?

The fourth way

The damage done to our planet is escalating. There is a lot of excess. Nowadays there are more obese people than hungry ones. So poverty can be ended. The end of our way of living is here. Communism and state planning have failed. Capitalism and free markets have failed too, perhaps even more miserably, but most people have yet to find out. Many countries have combined state planning with market economies and called it a third way. That didn’t help. But what can you expect from a compromise between two failures?

It is not surprising that people distrust stories that have a claim to the truth like religions, ideologies and science. But it is the absence of great stories we can believe in that makes our societies directionless. Individuals and their desires are now at the centre stage. So is there anything left that binds us together? Sure there is. A soon as a crisis emerges people join and help each other. The future is certainly not without hope.

There is an alternative, a fourth way. It can be called the Natural World Order. It is setting limits on a planetary level and letting people deal with them via communities, governments and markets. It is not clear from the outset what will happen if we do this. This can’t be planned from the top. Developments can take different turns. For instance, if energy is to become expensive, international trade would diminish and local products would be favoured. If most people know what needs to be done then they are willing to contribute but it does require using force against people who do not comply.

This is not the time to put more lipstick on the dying pig that the failing current order is. This is not the time to make it appear as if the current order can provide for us in the future. The limits of our planet should be respected. Administrating these limits would require a relatively small global government, but only if people, communities, businesses and governments all over the world, help to make the Natural World Order become reality. The Natural World Order needs massive support. It can only work when the vast majority of people believe in it and want to make it work whatever it takes. And that begins with everyone who has enough admitting that enough is enough.

We want more stuff because the advertisement industry tells us that we need this or that product or that this or that product will make us happier while in reality we don’t need it and it also doesn’t make us happier. Our current economic system needs growth. We must buy more stuff to keep the economy from collapsing. That is why real change is scary and can easily freak you out. The reason for this predicament is interest on money and debts. We need growth to pay for the interest otherwise the interest on debts can’t be paid and the financial system breaks down. The first priority is therefore ending interest payments on money and debts. Luckily financial markets allow it for the first time in human history.

Negative interest rates can be a steering mechanism on the global level that channels money from those who have enough to those in need and are willing to make good use of it, for instance by starting a business in developing countries. It doesn’t mean that poverty suddenly vanishes once interest rates go negative, but it does mean that the economy and the financial system can be made more favourable to the poor, most notably to those who are willing to enterprise in places where there is not enough.

Negative interest rates may signal the end of scarcity and the beginning of abundance. Eve and Adam didn’t know of scarcity in the Garden of Eden. They had everything they needed. There is enough for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed. And so we may enter the Final Gardens of Paradise that await for us at the End of History. This may be God’s plan for the future. Time will tell. This is the vision. Making it happen is not going to be easy. I hope you agree that we should try. So let me be your guide.

Featured image: the only known photograph of Chief Seattle taken in 1864

1. Naar een filosofie van verbondenheid. Guus Peterse, Henk van Arkel, Hans Radder, Seattle, Pieter Schroever and Margrit Kennedy (1990). Aktie Strohalm.

Morality clause

Legal is not always fair

What is legal isn’t always fair. The role of morality in law may be too small. People have different views about what is right and what is wrong so the prevailing liberal view in many Western societies is that people should be free to do as they please unless their actions harm others. Even that view can justify a greater role of ethics in law as humanity is on suicidal path. If moral views converge in the future the role for ethics in law can grow.

For now we need to focus on what is most important as we could easily get trapped in issues of secondary importance. Moral issues can be contentious and people reason according to their beliefs and political views. The following arguments people with different political views use against each other illustrate that:

  • Leftists might be concerned with the rights of criminals in jail but not of the rights of unborn children who are innocent of any crime.
  • Conservatives might be concerned with the fate of unborn children but as soon as they are born in misery their compassion suddenly vanishes.

It is easy to simplify matters in this way. This is how issues are framed. And as soon as you are dragged into a dispute it is hard to stay moderate. Moral issues are often complicated. Euthanasia can be an act of compassion but it can be turned into a way of getting rid of undesired people. Perhaps criminals have had a poor life and never realised that they had a choice but making them suffer can give victims a sense of justice.

Leftists and conservatives have different moral views and can be passionate about them. This is difference of opinion rather than an absence of morals from one or both sides. Rational debates might help to clarify these matters and balance the laws on these issues.

In some areas ethics are needed urgently. Research has shown that CEO is the job with the highest rate of psychopaths while lawyer comes in second,1 possibly because traders in financial markets were not included in the survey. Media came in third because it was a British research. Salespeople make a rather unsurprising fourth position.

Vulture capitalism

Rural areas in the United States are turning into an economic wasteland. Closed down factories and empty malls dominate the landscape. Communities are ravaged and drug abuse is on the rise. One reason for this to happen is that jobs are shipped overseas. Several factors contributed to this situation, but a major cause is CEOs not caring for people and communities. In many cases other solutions were possible.

Paul Singer is wealthy hedge fund owner. He made a fortune by buying up sovereign debt of countries in trouble such as Argentina and Peru at bargain prices and starting lawsuits and public relation campaigns against those countries to make a profit on these debts at the expense of the taxpayers of these countries.2

In the United States Singer bought up stakes of corporations in distress. He then fired workers so that the price of his shares rose. In the case of Delphi Automotive he and other hedge fund managers took out government bailouts, moved jobs overseas, and cut the retirement packages of employees so they could make a huge profit.2

Vulture capitalists prey on patients too. They buy patents on old drugs that are the standard treatment for rare life-threatening diseases, then raise the price because there is no alternative. Martin Shkreli was responsible for a 6,250% price hike for the anti-retroviral drug Daraprim. Many people died because of his actions.3 Perhaps he should be in jail for being a mass murderer but he is not because what he did is legal.

Profiteering at the expense of the public

In the years preceding the financial crisis of 2008 there was a widespread mortgage fraud going on in the United States. Few people have gone to jail because much of what happened was morally reprehensible but legal. Financial executives and quite a few academics share this view.4 And so nothing was done. Perhaps fraud can be proven some day but that may take years if it ever succeeds.

Healthcare is another domain for fraudsters and unscrupulous corporations. Patients are often not in a position to bargain. Perhaps that is why privatised healthcare performs poorly compared to government organised healthcare. In 2015 the Dutch government introduced the Social Support Act, making municipalities responsible for assisting people who are unable to arrange the care and support they need themselves.5

The municipalities were ill-prepared so fraudsters took advantage of the situation. Most businesses are legitimate but several private contractors enrich themselves at the expense of taxpayers and people in need. The Dutch prosecution is overwhelmed by fraud cases and it is not always possible to get a conviction because of loopholes in the law. Until these loopholes are fixed, several schemes remain legal.6

In the United States hospital bills are feared. A routine doctor visit for a sore throat can result in a $ 28,000 medical bill.7 And so many people in the US go without healthcare because they can’t afford it. Efforts to reform healthcare in the US haven’t succeeded, perhaps because those who send $ 28,000 bills for sore throats have plenty of money to bribe politicians into keeping the US healthcare system as it is.

Attributes of the law

First we have to recognise why it is so hard to prevent these things from happening. On the political front it is because once politicians are elected, they can do as they please until the next election. Lobbyists prey on them. Citizens have few means of correcting politicians, except in Switzerland. The Swiss have direct democracy. Swiss citizens can intervene in the political process when they see fit and fix laws if they think that is needed. Direct democracy might help to fix many of these issues.

Laws are often made with the best intentions but it is not possible to test them in a simulation to see how they will work out in practice. So once laws are enacted, unexpected problems pop up. The process of law-making is slow and it can take years before issues are fixed, at least if they are fixed at all because law-making is often political process, and that can make it rather complicated.

Even more importantly, the underlying principles of law benefit the savvy. The system of law is the way it is for good reasons. No-one should be above the law and people as well as businesses should not be subject to arbitrariness. The rule of law implies that every person is subject to the law, including lawmakers, law enforcement officials, and judges. It is agreed that the law must be prospective, well-known, general, treat everyone equal, and provide certainty. Only, in reality not everyone is treated equally.

Laws being prospective means that you can only be convicted for violation of laws in force at the time the act was committed. Legal certainty means that the law must provide you with the ability to behave properly. The law must be precise enough to allow you to foresee the possible consequences of an action. Businesses prefer laws to stable and clear. Corporations invest for longer periods of time. If laws change they may face losses. If laws are not clear, investments won’t be made, and a country may end up poorer.

With the rise of neo-liberalism came the era of shareholder capitalism. Making profits became a goal in itself. Greed was considered good. Wall Street traders and CEOs were seen as heroes even when they were just psychopaths outsourcing jobs for profit. There was little consideration for the planet, people and communities. Consumers preferred the best service at the lowest price so businesses were pressed into cutting costs and moving jobs to low-wage countries. Ethics in business were a marginal issue at best.

A bigger role for ethics

More and more people believe that ethics should play a bigger role in business. Activists pressure corporations. That may not be enough. Corporations must be competitive and can’t make real changes if that increases their costs. Levelling the playing field with regulations is an option but that may not be sufficient. The law needs a morality clause, making unethical behaviour unlawful, even though the action itself is not explicitly stated as forbidden in the law. That increases the cost of unethical behaviour.

A randomly selected jury of laypeople could make verdicts in these issues. Perhaps it is better that the legal profession stays out of these matters because it is not a legal matter in the first place. There are a few issues that come with a morality clause. Ethics in business can be a political issue. People may differ on what kind of behaviour is ethical and people may differ on what kind of unethical behaviour should be punished.

Introducing a morality clause to enforce ethical behaviour in business affects legal certainty. It will be harder for businesses to predict whether or not a specific action is legal. Business owners may incorrectly guess moral sentiment and believe they did nothing wrong. The uncertainty that comes from that might reduce the available investment capital for questionable activities. But that may not be so bad. And if immoral profits and bonuses from the past are to be confiscated, it affects the prospectiveness of the law.

International treaties like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have been set up to accommodate the unethical practises of corporations and to protect those corporations from making those unethical practises unlawful. Because that is often what reducing the regulatory barriers to trade like food safety laws, environmental legislations and banking regulations often amounts to in practice.

In most cases it can be known on beforehand what actions are unethical. For instance, investors in corporations that extract fossil fuels should know that burning fossil fuels causes climate change. They are gambling with the future humanity. So if some countries decide to outlaw the use of fossil fuels then these investors should not be compensated.

Perhaps you have serious doubts about this proposal as it upsets the very foundations of the current system of law. And I can imagine that you think: “Where does this end?” But there is something very wrong with the current system of law. Business interests often take precedence. So do you want the law to protect the psychopaths who maximise their profits at the expense of people and the planet? And do you really think that the law can be made without failures so that corporations and savvy people can’t exploit them?

Featured image: Of course the laws are always functional. Loesje. Loesje.org.

1. The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success. Kevin Dutton (2012).
2. The death of Sidney, Nebraska: How a hedge fund destroyed ‘a good American town’. Charles Couger, Alex Pfeiffer (3 December 2019). Fox News. [link]
3. Vulture capitalists prey on patients. The Sacramento Bee (22 September 2015). [link]
4. How Mortgage Fraud Made the Financial Crisis Worse. Binyamin Appelbaum (12 February 2015). New York Times. [link]
5. Social Support Act (Wmo 2015). Government of the Netherlands. [link]
6. Gemeenten starten onderzoek naar Albero Zorggroep. Eelke van Ark (31 October 2019). Follow The Money. [link]
7. How a routine doctor visit for a sore throat resulted in a $28,000 medical bill. CBS News (31 December 2019) [link]

Beautiful countryside in southern California

Capital for the future

Making the economy sustainable may require an unprecedented amount of capital in the form of knowledge and outfits like solar panels, sustainable farms and energy-efficient transportation systems. It is hard to imagine that it can be done. And imagining it is still a lot easier than really doing it. It is going to require some economic magic to divert investment capital from destructive activities to the future of humanity. We may need more useful capital and less consumption.

Perhaps the invisible hand can be of some help. It is easier to finance a great endeavour from investments than from taxation because nobody wants to pay taxes but everybody is happy to invest. It is the secret of the success of the European empires that conquered the world after the Middle Ages. England, France, Spain and the Netherlands were much poorer and smaller than China, India or the Ottoman Empire, but they didn’t finance their conquests with taxation, but with the use of investment capital.1

Europe won out because European conquerors took loans from banks and investors to buy ships, cannons, and to pay soldiers. Profits from the new trade routes and colonies enabled them to repay the loans and build trust so they could receive more credit next time.1 The same logic may need to be applied to making the economy sustainable. The challenge is so enormous that it may never be possible to finance it by taxes. Nowadays interest rates are so low because there is plenty of investment capital.

It’s the economy stupid!

It is often argued that the economy is unsustainable because of short-term thinking. The economy must grow in order to have positive returns on investments. And it is believed that returns on investments need to be positive otherwise the economy would collapse. The economic time horizons of individuals are reflected in their time preferences. The time horizon of the economy as a whole is reflected in the interest rate.

The lower the interest rate, the longer the time horizon of the economy could be. The following example from the Strohalm Foundation can illustrate this:

Suppose that a cheap house will last 33 years and costs € 200,000 to build. The yearly cost of the house will be € 6,060 (€ 200,000 divided by 33). A more expensive house costs € 400,000 but will last a hundred years. It will cost only € 4,000 per year. For € 2,060 per year less, you can build a house that lasts three times as long.

After applying for a mortgage the math changes. If the interest rate is 10%, the expensive house will not only cost € 4,000 per year in write-offs, but during the first year there will be an additional interest charge of € 40,000 (10% of € 400,000).

The long-lasting house now costs € 44,000 in the first year. The cheaper house now appears less expensive again. There is a yearly write off of € 6,060 but during the first year there is only € 20,000 in interest charges. Total costs for the first year are only € 26,060. Interest charges make the less durable house cheaper.2

Without interest there is a tendency to select long-term solutions. Interest charges make long-term solutions less economical. Interest promotes a short-term bias in the economy. It may explain why natural resources like rainforests are squandered for short term profits. If interest rates are high, it may be more profitable to cut down a rainforest and to put the proceeds at interest rather than to manage the forest in a sustainable way.

Only, things are not as simple as the example suggests. For example, the building materials of the cheap house might be recycled to build a new house. And technology changes. For example, if cars had been built to last 100 years, most old cars would still be around. This could be a problem as old cars are more polluting and use more fuel. Nevertheless, the example shows that long-term investments can be more attractive when interest rates are lower.

This also applies to investments in renewable energy. For instance, a solar panel that costs € 100, lasts 15 years, and generates € 150 worth in electricity in the course of these 15 years, is feasible at an interest rate of 5% but not at an interest rate of 10%. Many investments in making the economy sustainable may have low returns and are only feasible when interest rates are low. Low and negative interest rates can also deal with low economic growth. That may be needed for living within the limits of the planet.

Living within the limits of the planet

When interest rates are negative, the time horizon of the economy could go to eternity so that it makes sense to invest in making the economy sustainable. A few examples from history can illustrate this. In the Middle Ages some areas in Europe had currencies with a holding fee like Natural Money. As there hardly was economic growth, interest rates were negative. It was the era of Europe’s great cathedrals. These cathedrals were built for eternity. As better investment opportunities were absent, wealthy towns people spent their excess money on cathedrals.3 For similar reasons, the people of Wörgl planted trees as the proceeds of the wood were expected to occur in the distant future.3

A bit of calculus shows why. At an interest rate of 5%, putting € 1 in a bank account turns into € 1,05 after a year, so you would rather have € 1 now than in one year’s time, even when you need the money in one year’s time. That’s because you can put the money on a bank account at interest. At an interest rate of 5%, € 100 in one year’s time is worth € 95.25 now. The distant future has even less value. The same € 100 in one hundred year’s time is worth only € 0.59. And € 100 after 1000 years has no value at all in the present.

At an interest rate of -5%, you would prefer to have the money when you need it, otherwise you would end up with less. At an interest rate of -5%, € 100 in one year’s time would be worth € 105. The same € 100 in one hundred year’s time would be worth € 13,501 now. And € 100 after 1000 years would be worth more than everything there is in the present. Income in the distant future is also very uncertain, so it is unlikely that investors will shift their time horizon to 1,000 years, but this logic may help us to come into terms with the limits our planet poses on human activities.

Living within the limits of the planet may require unprecedented investments in the future. These investments may require low or even negative interest rates as their returns may be low. Only low and negative interest rates can make these investments economical. Everyone who has money to save can help by shifting money from consumption to saving and investing. The more people act like capitalists, the lower interest rates may go, and the more sustainable the economy may become.

Capitalists think that money spent on a frivolous item is money wasted, because when you invest your money, you will have more money that you can invest again. Capitalists hardly care about interest rates. They will save and invest anyway because of their capitalist spirit. Rich people may be encouraged to save even more if luxuries that use a lot of natural resources and energy aren’t available any more. One can think of luxury yachts, private jets, but also of travel by airplane for holidays. When energy becomes a constraint, local products may replace long-distance trade.

Featured image: Beautiful countryside in southern California. James McCauley (2005). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

1. A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
2. Poor Because of Money. Henk van Arkel and Camilo Ramada (2001). Strohalm.

Clutching at a straw

When I was eighteen years or so I once read The Limits of Growth. That’s depressing stuff, most notably if you’re young and expect to live for another sixty years or so. Doom seemed imminent and I would probably live to see it happen. That was the moment when my views about the future turned grim. Before that I hardly had views about the future at all. A few years later I became an environmentalist and a member of Friends of the Earth in Groningen. Friends of the Earth does research and tries to convince people that they should change their lifestyles. Friends of the Earth also lobbies with politicians and pressures corporations. And sometimes we protested.

One day we blocked the entrance of Groningen Airport to protest against the government subsidies for the airport. The city council felt that Groningen needed an airport but Groningen wasn’t big enough to make it profitable. When we were sitting there, the police came to remove us, and it suddenly became clear to me that activism didn’t help. Politicians will be voted out of office when they are serious about solutions. Businesses will go bankrupt if they take appropriate action unless all other businesses do the same. The required measures are extremely costly and will affect our lifestyles so profoundly that it would never happen in the current political and economic system.

Once being over a cliff, a cartoon character can only clutch at a straw. And only in cartoons the straw might hold. Friends of the Earth in Groningen worked together with the Strohalm Foundation. The meaning of the Dutch word strohalm is straw. According to Strohalm, the economy must grow because of interest, and that’s destroying the planet. It is ‘grow-or-die’ because interest rates need to be positive. Any solution begins with ending interest, they believed, and interest causes a lot of other problems too, like poverty and financial instability. Strohalm’s idea was banning interest and charging a fee on money as Silvio Gesell had proposed, so that it would be attractive to lend out money without interest.

Economists didn’t take interest-free money seriously. If you can receive interest elsewhere then why would you lend out money without interest? And if you can borrow money at an interest rate of zero, you would borrow as much as you can and put it in a bank account at interest. Therefore, interest-free money with a holding tax would never work, at least so it seemed, and it didn’t take long before I realised that too. Only, that wasn’t satisfactory. Accepting doom is like committing suicide. If interest is the root of many social and environmental problems, and may destroy human civilisation, you can’t ignore that. And perhaps it could work. During the Great Depression it had been tried in a small Austrian village and it was a stunning success.

For years I used public transport as much as possible, but at some point I began to realise that it was all pointless. More and more people started driving SUV’s. They didn’t care. It didn’t matter what I do. A car can make your life more comfortable and I had no higher morals than other people.

A few years later, in 1998, I became a freelance IT specialist. I made a lot of money so I had money to invest. My first investments were small and not very successful. That was because I believed that the profits of corporations matter. But investments in loss-making internet startups did very well while profitable corporations did poorly. And so I came to believe that I had to stay informed about the developments in the financial markets. In 2000 I joined the investment message board Iex.nl.

On the message board was a day trader who shared all kinds of conspiracy theories with us. For instance, if the markets were about to collapse, a secret group called Plunge Protection Team would come to the rescue. He was ridiculed, but after the internet bubble popped, markets often miraculously recovered when they were about to crash.

And gold often crashed because of sudden selling. The day trader believed central banks wanted to keep confidence in their currencies. If the gold price were to rise, he claimed, people would lose trust in central bank currencies. This was new to me, and probably it wasn’t true, but I already had bought some gold because I didn’t trust financial markets and the people operating them. I was not good picking stocks, and I was too risk averse to be very successful in the stock market, but the gold turned out to be a good investment as I held on to it for decades.

In 2001 after the Internet bubble had popped I pitched the idea of interest-free money on the message board. My lack of knowledge was eclipsed by my zeal and lengthy discussions followed. On the Internet people from different backgrounds and different knowledge can be in one virtual room and participate in a discussion. I was rebutted time after time, but as these discussions went on, my knowledge of the financial system increased and I became aware of the issues that had to be resolved in order to make interest-free money work.

As a gold investor I became familiar with the Austrian School of Economics. This group questions money creation by banks and the need for central banks. They pointed at the inflation caused by money creation and central banks. At some point all the debt banks create would eventually collapse the financial system and money would be worthless, they believed.

And so two opposing fringe ideas, interest-free money with a holding tax and Austrian School, were challenging each other in my mind, which may be how Hegelian dialectic is supposed to work. In 2008 this resulted in a resolution and the idea of Natural Money was born. The economy can do better without interest so returns for investors can be higher. As positive interest rates are not allowed, the money may rise in value, so that interest-free money can give better returns. Hence, interest-free money was possible, perhaps even inevitable. In the following decade I integrated modern main stream economics into the theory of Natural Money. This research can be found on the website Naturalmoney.org.

Featured image: Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. Warner Bros. [copyright info]