The only known photograph of Chief Seattle

Towards a spirit of connectedness

A world without hope?

A plan like this should begin with a vision about the greener pastures the flock might enjoy if it is to follow its lead. At first sight the prospect doesn’t seem great. Only, the alternatives appear worse. So what will our future look like? And what direction should we take? Can we have a sustainable and humane society? And what is wrong with our current way of living? 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. Here are the first words of his 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, Seattle never said this. It is fake history. The speech has been made up by a screenwriter in 1971. Still, it strikes at the heart of the matter. Nothing is sacred anymore. 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 attitude is killing us. 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 down in our hearts but it is hard to deal with it. What can we do? The people from the environmentalist group Strohalm worked for decades on 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 their lessons from history and were part of a small group of people that kept on caring and never gave up. Here is another 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 Strohalm issued a booklet named To a Philosophy of Connectedness. It lays out their vision for a future society that is both sustainable and humane. It gives possible steering mechanisms that can help to achieve such a society. It is a vision that long seemed unattainable, not because it is impossible to do, but because vested interests stand in the way. And Seattle also never said:

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 was an active member of the environmentalist movement. In this way I became familiar with Strohalm. For a long time I believed them to be naive dreamers. Most people I know do not like environmentalists. And indeed, they weren’t always realistic as they were decades ahead of their time. I kept on supporting their work because there is no alternative. You can’t allow realism to stand in the way of what needs to be done. And so this vision is here because of the hard work of environmentalist groups 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 and our place in the universe. There is no other choice. Small steps can’t save us anymore. We need to fundamentally change ourselves and the way we live. The planet we live on is given to us on loan to live off and not ours to destroy. Sadly, the fate of our planet does not compel us to do the right thing so God may be needed to make it happen.

As long as we do not completely change our approach to the major issues 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 but you may find it difficult to admit. It can make you feel hopeless. 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 markets competition is a steering mechanism. Competition promotes efficiency and progress but it also causes 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 because it can be sold at a profit. Some corporations faced with intense competion see little room to treat their employees well or to 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, you are part of the problem like many others, and that includes me. It may be strange to realise that you have enough, or even have far more than enough, and that you can do with less, older models, poorer service and higher prices, so that local businesses may 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. There is no need for poverty. The end of our way of living is here. Communism and state planning have failed. Capitalism and free markets have failed too, 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 change much either. Many people nowadays are cynical.

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 not without hope.

There is 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 because 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 and are willing to help then it may work but it may still require using force against people who do not wish to comply.

This is not the time to act as if the current order can be sustained. The limits of our planet should be respected. Administrating these limits would require a global government and the same laws everywhere around the planet. It can only work if people, communities and businesses help to make it become reality. It can work when we want to make it work whatever it takes. It all begins with 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 doesn’t make us happier. And it can promote envy of those who do not have that stuff and want it too, even though they do no need it either. Our current economic system needs growth. We must buy to keep the economy from collapsing.

That is why fundamental change freaks us out. 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. Making that happen is not going to be easy but I hope you agree that we should try.

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.

Jeep Grand Cherokee

The law of diminishing marginal utility

Imagine that you are very fond of pizza and also very hungry. If I offer you a pizza, you will be very grateful. If after you have finished eating your pizza I offer you a second pizza, you will not decline the offer but you will be a bit less grateful. If I offer you a third you might still eat it in order not to offend me. The fourth pizza you would decline. Perhaps you would come up with some lame excuse like nausea to explain your peculiar behaviour. Before the fifth pizza is offered, you may already have left my home in a hurry.

Welcome to the law of diminishing marginal utility. It is an important law in economics. It states that the more you have of something the less useful an extra unit is to you.

This law can be expressed in terms of money. If you are at a pizza restaurant, you might be willing to pay € 12 for the first pizza. After eating it you are not so hungry anymore and you might not be willing to pay € 12 for a second pizza. But if the restaurant owner offers you a discount of € 6 on the second pizza, you might accept the offer. A third pizza you may only eat if it is on the house. A fourth pizza you won’t eat unless the restaurant owner offers you € 6 to eat it. Eating a fifth pizza might cost the restaurant owner € 12.

What might strike you is that the fourth and fifth pizza have a negative value to you. You are not willing to eat them unless you are paid for it.

The law comes with another consequence. If you have enough now, you may think about the future and save money for unexpected expenses and retirement. As we get wealthier, getting more stuff becomes less important to most of us while certainty about the future becomes more important. At some point we do not want more stuff and the law of diminishing marginal utility becomes an obstacle to economic growth.

If you are happy with what you have and care about the future, you may save too much for the economy to grow and capitalists won’t make enough money because they must at least make the interest rate. The law of diminishing marginal utility is therefore a grave threat to capitalism. And so is interest. This is where the advertisement industry comes in. The trick of advertising is to make us unhappy with what we have and to make us desire more. Buying this or that will make us happier, advertisements promise us.

Fashionable items with a limited life-span are part of the solution too. It is not always possible to make us desire more stuff, but it is still possible to make us desire new stuff. The dress you bought last year is out of fashion now. In order not to look stupid you have to buy a new one. And then there is technological development. Next year there will be a newer model, and by the way, the software on the old model won’t be supported any more. And of course, luxury items do their bit. Why go for a Volkswagen Polo if you can afford if you can afford a car with a low marginal sports utility value like the Jeep Grand Cherokee?

Yes, the Jeep Grand Cherokee is an ugly monster, but it is bigger than the Volkswagen Polo and if you can afford to drive it, why not? There is a reason why not.

We humans use far more resources than our planet can offer. That’s why capitalism is a grave threat to humanity. Capitalism nowadays is like making us eat the fifth pizza and pay extra for it even though that creates a health hazard while many people are hungry. And there may be no food tomorrow because we have eaten too much today. The Jeep Grand Cherokee is like the fifth pizza. We work hard to buy stuff we do not need. This is how humanity is committing suicide. This can’t go on. There is one obstacle. Businesses must make at least the interest rate, and interest rates below zero are still unthinkable.

In other words, we must learn to care about the future and interest rates may need to go below zero. We must learn to be happy with what we have and settle for less when possible. This may be a grave threat to capitalism for what will happen if we stop spending on excesses? Economists fear that the economy will collapse and that we will be without jobs when business profits decline and interest on debts can’t be paid. That doesn’t have to happen when interest rates are negative. In that case debts don’t have to be repaid and businesses with little or no profits can survive.

That may seem strange but it is already happening. The law of diminishing marginal utility is kicking in, and it is kicking in big time.

This law affects capital too. If there is only one pizza factory that can supply every pizza addict with one pizza per day, it would almost certainly make a profit. A second factory might make a profit but it might not. And what is more, if the second factory comes into operation, the supply of pizza increases, and according to the law of supply and demand, the price of pizza would drop. That would also cut into the profits of the first factory.

A third factory would almost certainly be loss-making and it would make the other factories loss-making too. At some point there is little use for more capital. That causes the demand for capital to drop and interest rates to go negative. Traditional economics would consider this unhealthy or temporary.

That doesn’t need to be and it can be desirable. Three pizza factories fiercely competing and without profits might be better for consumers than one that is profitable if we assume that pizza is a necessity. Everyone must eat something. There could be an ample supply of investment capital at negative interest rates so profits may not be needed for pizza factories to stay in business.

A problem is that excess investment capital can go to businesses that suicide humanity by using scarce resources to produce stuff we do not need. Negative interest rates can help to make the economy sustainable but only if the excesses do not happen. This would require governments to ban or tax excesses or to regulate their production so that these products don’t have a harmful impact. That would make them a lot more expensive.

But the fun driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee, apart from being it big, is that you can afford it, so the fun will even be greater when it is three times as expensive.

When people start saving more and businesses hardly make profits then where does the money go? It can be used to make the economy sustainable. It can go to people in need who still have use for money. The money can help to reduce poverty and it can be used to address pressing needs in society. And we could have far more leisure time. What’s the point of working so hard for things we do not need? We may only have to work for twenty hours per week and still have a good life. It seems possible that humanity will survive capitalism and that capitalism will be transformed into an economic model that can endure for the foreseeable future.

Featured image: Jeep Grand Cherokee. Jeep (2019). [copyright info]

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.

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]

Was Marx right about capitalism destroying itself from within?

One of the core tenets of Marx’s work is that capitalism will be undone by internal contradictions that would manifest as ever-greater crises that would eventually destroy the system from within. If it turns out the current version of global capitalism is indeed unraveling due to its internal contradictions, it would be valuable to understand this now rather than later.

Read more:

Since the failure of communism Marx has been politically incorrect even though what he had to say about capitalism could be of great value.

There are two trends within capitalism, which are wealth creation and wealth concentration. Wealth concentration at some point may hamper wealth creation if the people at the bottom have not enough money to spend to make capital profitable.

The oversupply of capital or the lack of demand caused by lagging wages Marx foresaw may be the primary cause of the low and negative interest rates we have now. After the next recession we may never see positive interest rates again.

Read more:


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.