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]

Illustration for the first edition of Utopia

Welcome to Utopia

Until very recently nearly everyone lived in abject poverty. Most people had barely enough food to survive. In 1651 the philosopher Thomas Hobbes depicted the life of man as poor, nasty, brutish, and short.1 Yet, a few centuries later a miracle had happened. Nowadays more people suffer from obesity than from hunger while the life expectancy in the poorest countries exceeds that of the Netherlands in 1750, the richest country in the world in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

In 1516 Thomas More wrote his famous novel about a fictional island named Utopia. Life in Utopia was nearly as good as in the Garden Of Eden. The Utopians worked six hours per day and took whatever they needed. Utopia means nowhere but the name resembles the word eutopia which means a good place. The pun may have been intended by More. His book inspired writers and dreamers to think of a better world while leaving the hard work to entrepreneurs, labourers and engineers. Today many people have more than they need but still we work hard and feel insecure about the future.

Why is that? The answer lies within the dynamic of capitalism. The capitalist economy must grow. It is not enough that people just work and buy the products they need. They must work harder to buy more, otherwise businesses will go bankrupt, investors will lose money, and people will be unemployed and left without income. To forestall this disaster, we are made to believe that buying more stuff makes us happy.2

Capitalism brought us prosperity so most of us won’t ask questions like why are there still poor people or are there limits to our desires? It might feel like biting the hand that feeds us. And answers aren’t easy to come by. Alternatives to capitalism made people poor. Capitalism may have helped to reduce poverty more than anything else. But the dynamic of growth appears to be halting when people are going into debt to buy stuff.

Perhaps before long we live inside our own make-believe fairy tale virtual realities writing our own life’s stories. In that case we won’t need a lot of stuff any more. Finally there could be enough for everyone, and perhaps far more than that. Machines may do more jobs so more people might have more leisure time. That might happen because we ourselves may live inside such a virtual reality already. So in the future there may be no economy or even money but for now we may need a way to make the economy flourish without the need for growth in order to make this possible.

Featured image: Illustration for the first edition of Utopia by Thomas More.

1. Leviathan. Thomas Hobbes (1651).
2. A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.