Growth without growth - a journey down the rabbit hole. Part 2

Wednesday, 22 June 2011 at 17:47
The following will probably make more sense if you've already read part 1, in which I talked about ways that people approach meeting their needs, some pressing issues in the world and the state of wealth inequality.

Now let's talk about the 'money system', that component of the global socioeconomic system that I suggested lies at the heart of many of the worlds ills. I'd like to be clear that this really is about the predominant implementation of money in the world and the particular way it spreads through an economy, rather than 'money in general'.

As before, there are a few details to get through, and subjects like banking and economics are ones often euphemistically described as 'dry'. But if you consider how many days of your life are determined by the need to work within these systems, then isn't it worth spending a fraction of one day learning how they really operate? Beside the direct benefit to you, it might be argued that as a responsible citizen it's your duty to understand how these incredibly powerful components of your country work.

What Is Money?

First, it's probably helpful to get clear on that question. The merriam-webster dictionary defines money as: "something generally accepted as a medium of exchange, a measure of value, or a means of payment". So, money is a token of 'value' that can be exchanged for goods that are needed or desired. In the case of paper money, the token has negligible direct value, you cannot eat it or build a house from it, for example. It's value comes only from it being accepted as a medium of exchange. This applies even more so to electronic money.

In an economic system with predominantly one legal tender and where money has negligible intrinsic value, the effective value of a given amount of money can be easily controlled through its supply. This is the system currently in effect in most of the economically developed world.

The Value of Money - Inflation and Deflation

What does 'effective value of money' mean? If money becomes widely hard to acquire (jobs are hard to get, or wages get lower, not much loans available) and you depend on it to meet your basic needs, then your quality of life drops sharply. A given amount of money M is now relatively very valuable compared to what it was before. But when money becomes easy to acquire (plenty of jobs, better pay, or loans readily available), then your quality of life - at least in terms of meeting your basic needs and affording material luxuries - rises. That same quantity of money M as before is now relatively much less valuable, as now you have plenty of it.

There is a natural mechanism which somewhat balances the contracting or expanding availability of money. When money is scarce, the prices of goods tend to drop, so that trade is able to continue. This is called 'deflation'. When money is plentiful the prices of goods tend to rise, to maximize profits, or simply to preserve the relative wealth of the seller - so that they don't become poor, relative to the increasing wealth of others. This is called 'inflation'. A characteristic of deflation is decreasing trade, and a characteristic of inflation is increasing trade.

In any economic system where there is a significant divide between the financial wealth of one portion of the population from another, the process of inflation or deflation does little to protect the poorer portion. This is because in a free market, prices will tend to settle around what the market - as a whole - can bare, in order to maximize profits and protect relative wealth. That will tend to leave those with less than average wealth feeling the brunt of any price changes. The wealth gap between rich and poor tends to widen most in times of inflation. Theoretically it could happen that technology and commoditization lead to essential goods always remaining affordable, regardless of the wealth gap. However, in countries like the UK, USA and most if not all of the OECD, benefit systems, food stamps and tax credits are necessary to stop many millions of people from starving.

Money Is Debt - Debt Is Money

So far, so simple. But where does money come from? Sure, a tiny fraction of it is printed by the mint, but in general who decides how much money is created, who owns the money originally, and who is the money first given to?

Here's where things get a little strange. What I've learnt from my research is relatively straightforward to grasp, providing you pay attention to the details. As they say 'the devil is in the details'. The dominant method for money creation in the global socioeconomic system is debt. In this system, when money is created an equal amount of debt is created at the same time. How does that work? The following is part of the mainstream economics theory (Keynesian economics, and the money multiplier theory).

Let's start at the 'Central Bank' (Bank of England, or BoE in the UK, Federal Reserve, or the Fed, in the USA, and many variations of that theme in other countries).

The Central Bank

The Central Bank issues new money. But it doesn't give it away, it merely lends it - with interest. This is where money begins. Economists refer to this money as M0. Paper money is printed on the order of the Central Bank. Electronic money (the bulk of money these days) is also created by the Central Bank, simply by wiring it to its destination, as an entry in a database. For reasons we'll discover later, M0, the money the central bank creates, is also referred to as 'high-powered money', and whenever this central bank money is created, since 1694, an equal amount of national debt is created at the same time.

Once the Central Bank has created the money it lends it to commercial banks and to the government (where it requires more money than provided by taxes). The government gives the Central Bank 'government bonds' (promises to repay the money, with interest) and spends the new money as governments do. The commercial banks give the Central Bank IOUs and then lend their new money out to individuals and businesses, or use it to cover their shortfall and balance their books. Businesses pay wages, trade is facilitated with the flow of money and so the money makes its way around the economy, going in and out of banks and returning through the tax system. The large majority of money in the economy is created by commercial banks when they issue new loans, not by the central bank.

Generally the Central Bank is a corporation. In the UK it is a chartered corporation, founded in 1694 in order to fund a war against the French. It's an interesting story, and the BoE is a model for other Central Banks, so here's a little of the history.

In 1694 a group of private bankers and businessmen lead by William Paterson, offered the government a loan of £1.2 million of gold to finance the war, in return for the incorporation of The Bank of England, which they would own.

One part of the deal was that just the loan interest would be paid off (£100,000 per year), for an 11 year period, at which point the original capital (£1.2m) could be repaid, or the bank's royal charter renewed and the loan continued. You can read a partial form of the 1694 charter here. William Paterson referred to the Bank of England as "the fund for perpetual interest" (source). This is where the UK's 'national debt' began.

The other part of the deal was that the new BoE, would have the right to issue currency notes to anyone who wanted to borrow money, backed by the new national debt of £1.2 million, and charge interest on that as well. They were effectively lending the same money twice - at the same time; once to the government directly, then at the same time to the public in the form of tradeable IOU notes (paper money), which were backed up by the government's promise to eventually repay their debt in gold. Crafty, no?

The BoE's history, like many Central Banks, includes several failures due to it lending more paper money than it had in gold (the currency was originally 'gold backed') and leading to it being rescued by the government, or bigger banks, when people realized they couldn't get their gold back.

In 1815, at the conclusion of the Battle of Waterloo, there was an effective takeover by the Rothschild banking dynasty. At the time, Rothschild had been funding both sides of the expensive war (a common practice of banks, continued to this day, in which they guarantee big profits no matter the outcome). Their superior communications network was able to deliver news of the Duke of Wellington's victory back to Nathan Rothschild (the head of the UK branch of the family) before anyone else knew what had happened. Nathan then encouraged rumours of England's defeat and began to sell Bank of England stock and government bonds (i.e. government debt). When the prices had crashed through the floor, his agents bought back up the government debt and stock.

As each BoE charter was renewed over the centuries, the BoE became more embedded and powerful within the UK economy and beyond.

So that should give you a picture of the roots and leading personalities of one of the oldest and most influential central banks. In 1946 though, in what might appear a significant change, the BoE was nationalised. What did that mean?

Did You Expect Nationalization To Make Much Difference?

Well, you can read the Bank of England Act 1946 here, but essentially the government took ownership of the corporation. All the BoE shares were transferred to a representative of the Treasury, and the prior share holders given the equivalent in government bonds. These bonds would pay interest annually and be redeemable after 20 years (i.e. 20 years of guaranteed interest, with the option for the government to then pay the original capital of the bond to cancel the debt, or renew the charter and continue paying interest). So it appears in terms of the BoE being a "fund for perpetual interest" for private businessmen, nothing much had changed, even though the government now owned the BoE. In 1997 the BoE, while remaining a public owned company, gained independence from parliament to set interest rates, and to determine monetary policy (including the issuing of new money).

Now, since the BoE is owned by the people that means new money can be created without creating pubic debt right? You'd have thought so, but actually no, when the BoE generates money it does it by purchasing government bonds (and since 2009 also about 50p in every £100 of new cash in select corporate bonds). The BoE purchasing a government bond involves it literally writing the money onto the government balance sheet, in return for the government's promise to repay it, with interest. Strange, but true. New money is created by increasing the national debt with the flick of a pen (or a few key strokes).

But, surely, if the government now own the BoE, they can just take the bond debts that they owe to themselves and write them off, thus getting rid of the national debt? Again, you would have thought so, but actually no, because the bonds are sold on to private investors, companies, banks and pensions funds.  You can see how the debt ownership is distributed here (XLS file), but some of the big holders in 2010 are pension funds and insurance companies with a combined 29%, and foreign investors with around 32% (amounting to £309 billion in 2010). The Central Bank takes the money from those sales. Some of that money goes back to the Treasury (25% profits, in the case of the BoE, post tax, see the 1946 charter) - effectively reducing the national debt interest rate - while the rest gets re-loaned, as stipulated in the original 1694 charter. Thus the government still accumulates debt with the creation of money and so, as from the very beginning, the national debt continues to be a fund for perpetual interest for private businessmen.

As for how the BoE states its purpose today, this is described in terms of 'stability' - maintaining stable prices and currency and a stable financial system. (Stable prices, means stable at the target of 2% annual inflation).

The story of the Federal Reserve is also very interesting, but I'll save that for another time.

It's also worth noting that the 20th century saw the creation of an international banking system, made up of the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) from 1930, the World Bank from 1944 and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from 1945. These institutions were designed to spread the availability of loans (to finance development) and facilitate international trade. Mainly in the case of BIS, the purpose was also to provide a central bank for the national central banks. The existence of these institutions don't really change the mechanisms of the system, they just add another layer on the top.

The Commercial Banks

The story gets stranger once you follow the money to the commercial banks (i.e. all the banks which rely on the central bank for their money supply, and for being their 'lender of last resort' in case of failure).

People and businesses pay money into banks for safe keeping and to gain interest. The interest comes from the bank taking that same money and lending as much of it as possible to other parties at a higher rate of interest, and giving the depositor a fraction of the profit. But, as already mentioned, banks can and do also borrow money from the central bank and other market sources to help cover their operational requirements, and also to be able to lend it on, at a higher rate of interest.

When you deposit money at a commercial bank you are effectively lending them money, and they count it as a liability - something they are liable for and need to pay back with interest. When you borrow from a commercial bank they count your loan as their asset, because for them the interest payments are their source of income.

Commercial banks are essential to the smooth operation of any economy with a debt based money system. This is because they provide the credit that fuels the economy, as well as enabling the easy flow of money from one point to another.

The vast majority of money in the economy is created by the commercial banks in the form of new loans (a large portion of that being morgages).

The Magic Money Multiplier

So let's just look at what's happening there in commercial banks in a bit more detail with a simple example:

Fred walks into Bank One with £100 in his pocket and wishes to deposit it. Bank One takes the cash and credits it to his account. With £100 added to its books the bank then lends Sam, who wants to borrow some money, that £100. But this time rather than give Sam cash directly, the bank just credits Sam's account with the loan. Sam takes his debit card and buys some groceries and a few plastic shiny things from Charlie's shop, for the sum of £100. Charlie's account, which also happens to be at Bank One, gets duly credited with £100 pounds.

Here's where the banking magic happens. As a result of Fred's original deposit, Bank One now counts two deposits of £100 (Fred's and Charlie's), and one loan of £100 (Sam's). The bank now loans Charlie's deposit to Bob. Now the bank is earning two sets of interest on £100 from Sam and Bob (and also paying two sets of lower interest to the two depositors Fred and Charlie). If Bob now spends his loan at some other business, or even gives it away to a friend, also with a Bank One account, that £100 then get's counted as yet another deposit, which can then be lent out again, perhaps to a business or another person, and so on.

In the above way, in this system, starting from a single deposit the bank can multiply money indefinitely, and charge interest from each new loan it makes from the 'multiplied money'. Looking at the whole economy, of course, there is also Bank Two and Bank Three and so on, and deposits and loans can be distributed and transferred between them. This simply means that the money multiplying mechanism is distributed amongst the commercial banks - the overall effect is the same.

As a result of the commercial banks ability to massively expand the supply of money through loans or shrink the supply of money by making loans less available (or less affordable), they have a potentially huge control of inflation or deflation.

Cash Shortage And The Different Types Of Money

But what about the cash, surely there wouldn't be enough to go around and cover all the loans and deposits, if all this money is just created on a balance sheet? That's right, there isn't enough cash to cover it all, but since cash transactions account for a much smaller sum in terms of total value, than chequebook or electronic transactions the system operates smoothly, under 'normal' conditions. The bank keeps enough cash around to cover normal operational requirements and keep the ATM machines full and the rest gets loaned on and multiplied. It's only when you get a 'run on the bank' and everyone wants their cash at the same time that problems arise. (Although the risk of bank runs are mitigated now to some extent by the central bank's 'lender of last resort' status, which promises to protect customers deposits - up to a certain amount.)

In practice, some cash and electronic money is kept out of bank accounts which can be loaned on, some money goes overseas or is destroyed, and some loans default. From the example above, when (or if) Sam and Bob find the money to pay their loans plus interest back, then that 'multiplied money' or 'chequebook money' ceases to exist somewhere in the system. Or rather, it gets cancelled out until the banks finds someone else to lend the money (which is someone else's deposit) to. Also banks generally have either a fractional reserve requirement (by law they need to keep a fraction of all deposits as reserves) or a capital reserve requirement (they need to keep a certain sum of money handy). All of this prevents the original M0 money supply being multiplied to infinity.

But nonetheless the money supply is multiplied and economists refer to the phenomenon as the 'multiplier effect'. The resulting pool of money being traded is referred to as M2 in the USA and M4 in the UK. According to this National Statistics report (p266) in the UK M4 has swollen from around 4 times the size of M0 in 1969 to over 28 times the size of M0 in 2005 (in 2006 the BoE stopped publishing figures for M0). In the USA in 2010, M2 was around 10 times the size of M0. There is a lot of loaning going on.

So, money is classified according to how it is created. M0 is the 'base money', the total amount created by the central bank. It is also referred to as 'high-powered money', because it can be multiplied via the commercial banks. M2 and above includes M0 together with all the 'chequebook money' created by the commercial banks. Read more about the types of money here.

The bigger question is, how does all the interest on those loans ever get paid?

Paying Back the Interest

Let's go back to our earlier example of Fred, Sam, Charlie and Bob, where Fred's initial deposit of £100 through just a few transactions leads to there being an additional £200 on the bank's books and in the economy, and two loans of £100 for the bank, each earning it interest. The question is, how can all that interest ever be paid off? Let's explore some options for Sam and Bob to repay their debt to the bank:

Earning more money: They could, for instance, get promoted, work more hours or take a second job, or start a new successful trade, and in that way pay their debt back.
Spending less of their income and saving: They could make sacrifices and spend less of their income on other things in order to have the money available to make the repayments.
Becoming lenders (or loan-sharks) themselves: They could also start lending other people more needy than themselves money - at a higher rate of interest than their own debts. Then, providing they got their payments, they'd be able to repay their debts from the debts of other people.

In any case the fact remains, they must find more money than they originally took out in the loan - because of the interest charged. What happens if you apply that fact to the whole economy and all the loans underpinning economic activity?

Remember when money is created by the Central Bank, debt is created at the same time. As a consequence, debt spreads throughout the economic system, as commercial banks borrow from various sources of money and lend it on at a higher rate of interest. Looking at national debt now (alongside the sum of personal debt), some taxes go to paying it off - currently about 10% of all tax revenue in the UK goes to just paying the interest off, which amounts to about 50% of the entire UK education budget, every year. Also public spending can be cut to a point. But in the end there's no escaping the fact that:

£money supply + accruing interest > £money supply

Commercial banks only multiply money by lending it multiple times, thus creating more debt, and more interest to eventually be paid, so they cannot invent the money to pay off debt. Ultimately the only ways of addressing this - in the present system - are threefold:
  • Create more money. Obviously this isn't really a solution. New government bonds can be created to generate cash to cover the interest payment, but this just defers the problem and makes it bigger too. Beside the fact that the debt increases, there is also runaway inflation to worry about, so the rate at which new money is created has to be carefully regulated.
  • The lenders at the top of the lending chain spending their money. Where the financial system has a certain fraction of pre-existing debt free money (which if you remember the story of how the BoE was created in 1694, will be roughly equal to M0), then those in possession of that money -starting with those that buy government bonds in large quantities - can spend some of it back out into the economy. Here it gets passed around for products, paid as wages and so on. Through the trickle down effect (see part 1) it spreads out and can eventually work it's way through the tax and banking systems and get paid back as interest payments for both personal and national debt. (Almost like free money.) This is an ongoing, continual process, i.e. because of the interest there's never enough money for everyone in debt to pay it all back in one go, instead work must be exchanged for money which is used to pay taxes and the earned interest of the bond holders re-spent into the economy multiple times for the debt to be whittled down.
  • The indebted giving up real assets. This is where those in debt give up more of their real assets such as time, labour, land, property and other material resources, in order to cancel their debt. This giving up of assets could result in earning more money to pay off debt (or at least the interest). Or where they can't earn money and have to default on the loan, then they can simply give up whatever asset they used to secure the debt (if it was a secured loan, like a mortgage), for instance their family home. Incidentally in 2008/09 there were over 86,000 home repossessions in the UK, that's about 5 repossessions every hour around the clock, every day, over those 2 years. That's a lot of assets!
Oh, there's also the possibility of raising taxes, but that's never popular. What ends up happening for the most part is a combination of all three above options. Through the 2nd option, where those at the top of the lending chain spend at least their received interest payments back into the economy, it's potentially possible for overall debt to be reduced, or even eliminated. However, while the debt in an economy may sometimes shrink, in the current global socioeconomic system it's not practically possible for this debt to be eliminated.

This CIA fact book list shows 132 countries that all have national debt. (The international tax haven Monaco isn't on the list, but if it was it would be no 1, with a national debt of almost 2000% GDP.)

To show how national debt mounts up, here are two charts of national debt as a fraction of GDP, for the UK and USA. (Gross Domestic Product is the market value of all final goods and services produced within a country within a certain period.)



Notice how wars and (currently) to a lesser extent financial crisis, rack the debt right up. Notice also that the only time America has been free of national debt in the above chart is around 1835, when President Andrew Jackson managed in his career long battle to 'kill the central bank'. A quote by former former Governor of the Federal Reserve, Marriner Eccles, sums the current situation up: "If there were no debts in our money system, there wouldn't be any money."

That's a little about national debt, but now let's return to the personal debt of individuals and businesses.

Going back to the example of Fred, Sam, Charlie and Bob, what would happen if somehow Sam and and Bob were able to pay their debts off? Now Bank One has Charlie and Fred's deposits of £100 it needs to pay interest on, but Sam and Bob are no longer paying for that (plus profit), because they've paid their loans off. The bank is now losing money on those deposits.

Now supposing, by some miracle, that everyone in the economy is able to pay all their debts, mortgages n'all, off and no-one else wants to borrow money. Now the banks are really in trouble, right? Well, with no-one to loan to, they'd have to stop paying customers interest, obviously. But where does that money to pay the debt off come from? It has to come from the M2 money supply, i.e. M0 plus the multiplied chequebook money. Effectively - once the limited cash supply has been used to cover some of the debts - for every debt that's paid off, there is a deposit of equal value somewhere that is removed from a bank account. E.g. Charlie writes Sam a cheque for £100 to paint the shop, and Sam adds £10 from his other earnings to that to pay his debt off, including the interest. That extraction of deposits by Charlie and the debt payment by Sam results in cancelling of that money. Neither Charlie, Sam or the bank have it any more; it no longer exists. This means M2 shrinks by £100.

The end result is that if all the debt in the economy is paid off, then the M2 money supply would shrink to M0 - the money originally created by the Central Bank. What do you think that would do to the economy? For starters, trade and industry would collapse, only a fraction of people would have money to buy food. Bad news. But wait, what about the capital debt plus interest on M0? Remember there's a government bond to account for every pound of that money.

What Would It Take To Pay Back Everything?

Here's where it gets really crazy. Taking our hypothetical situation, where everyone has paid their personal and business financial debts off and all that's left is M0 in the economy (along with general pandemonium), the only way for M0 to get paid off (without creating more debt) would be for everyone to be taxed of all their money which would then be given to the government bond owners, every last penny of it. Yes, the only people with any money at all in the economy, if absolutely all debt was to be paid off, would be the government bond holders*.

What are the implications for the above thought experiment? One important understanding of the system is that as debt is paid off, money concentrates in fewer and fewer hands. (In terms of balance sheet wealth it's better to be debt free than in debt, but if you're only way of living, or continuing business, is on credit, then that's an issue for you.) The natural companion to that understanding is that when money is in demand and loans readily available, those who acquire debt can get by through being sufficiently 'productive' (working harder, longer, better) or by giving up other assets to the lenders. In this way power accumulates in the hands of the lenders. In other words, debt as the foundation of money creates inequality; especially where interest accrues on that debt.

From what has been discussed so far, the conclusion seems inescapable: The current economic system literally depends on people getting and staying in debt (which, in the system, is how money is multiplied into existence to facilitate normal economic activity) Continual debt ensures inequality. Wealth is merely lent to the large majority, but it must always be returned, and with interest.

Put differently, it could never be possible for material wealth to be evenly accessible and enjoyed, because the current system is literally built on a perpetual chain of debt.

Casting your mind back to part 1, where do the underpinnings of this system sit in those two approaches to meeting needs? While there can be tremendous innovation and collaboration in industry and trade, the very heart of the money system, which ensures the continuation of inequality through debt, seems to me as firmly planted in the 'threat-focused' camp as anything possibly could be. I believe a result of that 'poisoned core' is that this mode of thinking permeates out through much of society, and the fact that many people struggle, while great wealth is hoarded by others, simply helps to perpetuate it. This is why I think piling blame or hatred on 'the rich', the bankers or the industrialists is ultimately not helpful. A paradigm shift is required to create a broader paradigm shift. But more on that later.

Note that today the system requires no evil banking empire to maintain, nor Bilderberg or lizard related conspiracy theories**. The mechanisms of debt based economy are now globally institutionalized, enshrined in law, and taught as the gospel of 'progress'; they are now part of a machine that needs no master. For instance, let's say you or I were to do well in business or finance and build a small fortune of perhaps £1 million. We could then live out the rest of our lives quite comfortably by just living on the interest payments of that money, deposited in savings accounts or invested in high quality bonds, e.g. government bonds (provided we left enough of the interest accruing to keep up with inflation). We would then be in, qualitatively, the same position as the big bankers; someone else's labour would from then on be paying for our income. If we manage to be one of the few that can be in that position, then the economy literally works for us.

Having said that, there's still room for a ruling class, to ensure legislation and politics stays favourable to the 'money machine', by controlling the flow of money, inflation and deflation, or by kicking off conflicts to increase debt. But I'm not sure it's necessary. Every relatively wealthy person who believes in the system as a 'good thing' (and also some that aren't wealthy, but still believe) and votes, donates or lobbies accordingly, or exchanges a few words at the golf club, helps to maintain that system. It's true that, in the majority of the world's countries where this system is adopted, income tends to be very unevenly distributed (perhaps roughly in proportion to M2/M0, I wonder), with a small percentage taking the lion's share of wealth. But in total numbers of people that's still a lot of rich folk; and money talks.

I'll wrap up this section with a quote attributed to a former director of the Bank of England, Josiah Stamp:
"Banking was conceived in iniquity and was born in sin. The bankers own the earth. Take it away from them, but leave them the power to create money, and with the flick of the pen they will create enough deposits to buy it back again. However, take away from them the power to create money and all the great fortunes like mine will disappear and they ought to disappear, for this would be a happier and better world to live in. But, if you wish to remain the slaves of bankers and pay the cost of your own slavery, let them continue to create money."

The title of this piece says 'growth without growth'. So where does the idea of growth come into the story? The mainstream economists and bankers 'solution' to giving more wealth to more people and reducing the effective burden of debt is called economic growth. What is it, and how is it supposed to help the population as a whole?

Here's a hint: Debt obligations spur on 'productivity' - more work being done, and occasionally technological innovation happens that potentially benefits everyone.

* Actually, since 2009, the BoE has backed a tiny (0.5%) amount of new money with corporate bonds. Other Central Banks do similarly. So, if all debt were to be paid back, a fraction of the money would end up with those corporate bond owners.
** A recurring theme of the author David Icke.

To be continued

-- I know I promised solutions in part 2, but then I didn't expect to be writing so much. So, part 3 will explore what economic growth really means, where the drive for it comes from, and what some alternatives look like. In the mean time I'd love to hear your thoughts on the above!

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