Book review: Yanis Varoufakis, Another Now

I did not start reading this book (below left) as a piece of science fiction, I actually thought it was a straight political and economic manifesto by a radical thinker. Bless him (not in a God sense), he has tried another route into our consciousness.

Another Now cover

His construct is the following – three different people, all disaffected by the present, meet or are introduced to one another with the express – and contrived – purpose of “trialogueing” the ideas that are obviously keeping Varoufakis awake at night. One of his characters, Costa, is an IT expert liberated from daily work by having anticipated 2008 and bet against it (or for it, whichever way one thinks). Costa was working on an alternate reality that one could choose to enter but only in the Hotel California sense (“you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”). Having created his new reality in a game called Freedom, he finds that holed up in it is another being, Kosti (also from Crete), who shares Costa’s DNA and past. Kosti inhabits a world know as the Other Now, in contrast to that which Costa inhabits; namely, Our Now.

Kosti engages with Costa until he becomes bored, at which point Costa visits once again his two other protagonists, an ageing Marxist academic who gave up on politics to create tapestries (Iris) and a libertarian banker (Eva) who became disillusioned about finance after the collapse of Lehman Brothers bank in 2008. This is the date, conveniently, that the fork in the realities occurred. So, these three characters interrogate the alternate future and its mechanisms.

So what is the alternate system that so successfully functions in Other Now that Our Now should aspire to? And how? I am loath to be a spoiler, but the object of the book is to achieve a mobilisation and create a coalition for change. Unless blogs like this share the ideas, then it really is just a limited work of science fiction. So here goes.

  1. elimination of retail and investment banks
  2. universal basic income (UBI)
  3. employee ownership of firms and the elimination of hierarchies
  4. socialisation of land

1 and 2: The elimination of retail banks is linked to the form and function of the UBI. The UBI in this alternate world has three components in a Personal Capital (PerCap) account. First, Accumulation made up of basic pay and democratically-allocated work bonuses; Second, Legacy – which is paid on birth, but not redeemable until adulthood and a plan for using it! Third, Dividend, which is the UBI element funded by a tax on corporations at 5 per cent of gross revenues. The payments are stored in an electronic wallet and transfers are made independent of retail banks. Borrowing is replaced by a peer-to-peer lending scheme rather than by banks as we currently know them. That does not quite amount to the elimination of the need for retail banks, but comes close. Investment banks disappeared because they no longer trade their complex derivatives and create fictitious money. They are reduced merely to lenders and have no advantage over peer lending.

3: Each employee is given one share of equal value to all other shares in the company on Day 1, or when they join. The stock market has been dispensed with by the radical activists who brought about the change (see below). Firms become democratic with no senior bosses telling others what to do. And the surpluses created by firms are allocated by peer assessment on a points system. Those who are particularly creative and/or productive are recognised by their peers and given credit points that equate with a portion of the excess. These points can also be used by future employers to assess the suitability of a candidate.

4: Landlords received inflated unearned income. The socialisation of land in Other Now resulted in a new commons being created through Ground Trusts/Commons (gComms). By law all freehold land passed to the gComms. Leases were awarded to landlords and democratic businesses were also privileged. Two zones – one for commercial housing, the other for commercial businesses, enable communities to extract maximum rents in these areas to pay for social housing.

Getting there

The mechanisms for getting there are radical. In the Other Now, movements such as Occupy Wall Street were not defeated as they were in Our Now. They were transformed into a guerrilla groups that organised successful payments strikes (delaying instalment payments on bank loans and utilities such as water and electricity) that brought down the banks and caused the nationalisation of the utilities. Guerrilla groups targeted firms with poor employee relations and environmental records sufficient to get pension funds to divest. Another guerrilla group set about big tech – succeeding in bringing down Facebook and gaining property rights over data for users of social networks. Those companies that avoided attack by these guerrilla groups did so only by investing in green technologies, leaving stock markets and transferring full voting shares to their employees.

International organisations such as the IMF were completely reformed. Instead of being an organisation that gave loans to defaulting nations in exchange for the privatisation of public assets, the International Monetary Project (IMP) has a remit to stabilise the world economy and invest in countries or regions without indebting them. The resources for this come from levies on exports and capital transfers.

Yanis Varoufakis

Core to the success of the system and the security against exploitation and a return to some oligarchical system is transparency. The very systems that were turned on citizens to monitor and punish were instead directed at the powerful. An appropriately-named piece of software, the Panopticon Code, developed by a guerrilla group of coders, infected every computing device on the planet. Suddenly everyone could see everything about one another and particularly those “clinging to power”. As a reader, one can see that Varoufakis is perhaps not so keen on this as an absolute (everyone’s secrets are exposed with the negative impacts that would entail), but the longer-term impact on the Other Now was a democratisation of society on a global scale. Corporations were held in check by their internal democracy and Citizens’ Juries (with the power to dissolve bad companies). These, of course, required a high-level of engagement by the population to enact and maintain. A socialworthiness index (as a replacement for credit ratings and the agencies that generate them) helped to divert resources towards the good things in life that were not captured by GDP (a real bugbear of mine).

On immigration, states in the Other Now recognised the contribution of immigrants to host economies and also supported the communities in which they lived including providing sufficient school places, healthcare services and housing (the latter helped by the socialisation of land and management by gComms).

Other Now is a modern app-based world. There’s an app for PerCap and its funds. There’s an app for social media data trading – after all users of social media services were given property rights over their data. They now trade data with social media firms and receive payment for them. This had tragic implications – which are for readers of the book to discover (p169). Using an app and receiving the payment in the PerCap app! The proliferation of apps is an indicator of a vibrant digital sector, freed from the constraints of the former Techno-feudalism endured by Our Now citizens.

Why Other Now is not better than Our Now

Other Now is no Utopia. Varoufakis uses Iris to detail its residual failures that the elimination of capitalism did not banish. And in 2022, Other Now does have its own financial crisis caused by imperfections in the regulatory framework around gComms and PerCap. Again, I will not spoil it because this is the part where Varoufakis loses himself in his story telling. There is nothing original in what happens next – I am pretty sure that any seasoned SciFi fan would work this out before Varoufakis had written it, after all, he’s an academic economist. But we are asked, through his characters, whether we would elect to transfer to Other Now or stay in Our Now. This is an existential question. The identity of the characters prepared to transfer and which not, and their reasons for the choice, again, are not a surprise.

I bought the book without reading the cover. Fortunately. Readers know that fiction – and particularly science fiction -are not my thing. Varoufakis demonstrates that they are not his either, but he has a fair shot at it – and certainly his main points about the nature of change – and critically the process of change – are well made. Probably better in this format than a straight monograph, of which there are many. I come away with some ideas of my own. But also with a dilemma. Not only should I go to Another Now if I had the chance; but seeing as though I don’t have that option, should I try to create Another Now? Now. The answer…I am not into tapestry.

Picture: Twitter

I walked out of a speech by George Monbiot

Monbiot

Many years ago when I first migrated to the South Coast, I joined the Green Party. It was, I thought not unreasonably, a quick and easy way to meet some like-minded people, one of whom became a close friend, now sadly deceased. I canvassed a number of local elections and proudly watched the party increase its support and eventually run the Council.

The party had few famous inspirational leaders, but I believed in localism and supported the local nominee for the parliamentary seat against the Party’s eventual decision to nominate its biggest name, the then MEP, Caroline Lucas. I’m still not reconciled to that. En route to the constituency being the first to elect a Green to the Westminster parliament, the local party organised many events and invited speakers, one of whom was George Monbiot. I regarded Monbiot as being a windbag with a platform in the Guardian newspaper. I helped set up the event on the day and then left immediately prior to his arrival on the stage.

Demo, Hull

I am someone who spent his formative years on demos. Every weekend I was somewhere – outside a factory farm, animal experimentation laboratory, and most memorably a weekend at Porton Down in Wiltshire. The overnight demo (right) was outside the Reckitt factory in my hometown of Hull. At these events, particularly the mass gatherings in London and other cities around the country, I heard many – what I thought were – inspirational speeches. The late Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, was a regular and particular favourite.

As I grew older, I began to get bored with speeches. If I attended a demo – whether it be against war in Iraq, the Pope’s visit, Fridays for the Future or more local industrial disputes – I have not stayed for the speeches.

In recent years, I started reading Monbiot’s Guardian columns again. My new-found environmental zeal directed at climate change extended my reading. Monbiot is an advocate of re-wilding, unloosening the shackles of the National Curriculum to enable flexibility in the classroom and an opportunity for children to experience the outdoors and flora and fauna. He’s also a Marxist, which brings me to the point of this blog entry.

head portraits,RHUL

I’m a regular reader of Chris Grey’s Brexit Blog. It is classic, longhand academic musings about the labyrinthine journey to Brexit. This week, Grey (left) takes on Monbiot using his highly effective academic spray that puts the targets to sleep before killing them painlessly. The article in question this week was Monbiot’s “follow the money” piece, published in the Guardian on 25 November 2020. Monbiot argues that there are two types of capitalists: warlords (disaster capitalists as well as the zealous free-marketeers/deregulators) and the housetrained (one-nation, post-war consensus Tories). Brexit is being defined by the Warlords and the campaign was funded by offshore, dirty money such as that supplied by Robert Mercer, Christopher Harborne and Jeremy Hoskin. The piece flows with allusions to “false consciousness” but, according to Grey, leads to a cul-de-sac. That is because the remain side also received money from the likes Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Sainsbury’s. With Sainsbury’s being exposed this week as contributing to deforestation in Brazil, this money is hardly clean, housetrained or otherwise.

What really caught my attention, however, was Grey’s reference to Stuart Hall, the hugely influential cultural sociologist writing in the 70s and 80s. Hall’s contribution is to point out that the follow the money approach, whilst not invalid, is not causal. Grey quotes Hall: “material interests … are not escalators which automatically deliver people to their appointed destinations, ‘in place’, within the political ideological spectrum”. It is the culture war, the tangibility of the intangible “sovereignty”. If Monbiot is right, Biden might have defeated Trump by something more than he did.

Grey concludes: “So whilst the debate about the relationship between economics and culture is a perennial one, and discussing…in general I think of them as inextricably bound threads, not base and superstructure. I prefer both/and explanations to either/or explanations, prefer contingency to determinism, and see as much cock-up as conspiracy.” 

Monbiot is a journalist. His epistemology – through training and the graft of weekly newspaper column writing – is different from that of the academic. I cannot speak for Monbiot, but I doubt that he is in too much of a disagreement with Grey; but Grey’s argument would be subject to some editorial scrutiny. Monbiot does well to get “false consciousness” into an opinion column in a liberal newspaper, let alone trying to introduce Stuart Hall. Grey’s critique demonstrates two different epistemologies – those of journalism and academia.

There is no revolution coming. The housetrained capitalists are the best we have – and may be re-asserting themselves in the United States. We should focus on the Green economy, not the economic system. We need somehow to inspire youth. Get them interacting with nature and help them develop a desire to dig down, literally and metaphorically, into the knowledge of these complex systems, by whatever means. Taking on Chris Grey is a bit of a cul-de-sac.

Climate watch: if you don’t think it matters to you, think again

Trying to introduce climate change into a business degree curriculum is not easy. One of the motivations for business students is to make money – lots of it – when they leave university. And the programmes sell themselves, understandably, on that dream. This is amusingly detailed by Martin Parker is his book, “Shut down the Business School“.

Michael StephensSo, I was interested, during one of my morning engagements with a podcast, The Bunker Daily, that has successfully displaced the BBC’s Today programme from my listening diet. The Daily on 26 November 2020, was anchored by the erudite Arthur Snell, who interviewed Michael Stephens (left) from the Foreign Policy Research Institute. They talked about the Middle East and how President Biden is going to engage with the region, especially in light of Trump’s and Kushner’s new relationship with Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. All very interesting.

Snell tried to wrap up the interview with a question about the future. Interviewees often shy away from predictions of this kind, but Stephens did not. He talked about climate change in the region. 7 million people live in the Nile Delta and are in danger of being flooded out of their homes within 10 years’. He went on to say that across the region, critical infrastructure – oil production, for example – is exposed to extreme and unsustainable heat. Temperatures in Israel, he said, are now averaging 37 degrees Celsius in the summertime. 37 degrees is, seemingly, a temperature that tourists determine is too hot and choose other destinations, impacting directly on tourist economies.

There are population movements in poorer countries where rainfall is in decline and the land is unable to sustain its populations. This migration inevitably involves Europe’s borders. The relatively modest numbers of migrants so far have led to ugly far-right nationalists taking power in some countries and regions. More can be expected if climate change is not arrested. That is not me saying that migration is bad; only that bad people can use it in their culture wars to claim power and sustain it.

Critical, argues Stephens, is that the countries of the Middle East diversify their economies away from fossil fuels. And we, in the West, need to help them do it. Though our Finance Minister has just cut the UK aid budget in solidarity.

Pic: FPI

Book Review: Banking on it by Anne Boden

Banking on it book cover

Anne Boden, a 50-something female banker with a long career at RBS decides to leave. She gets headhunted to work at the failed Allied Irish Bank (one of the major casualties of the financial crisis in 2008). Whilst she is terribly excited about the innovations in technology deployment at the bank, as chief operating officer, actually, her day job was making people redundant. She left after 18 months.

Boden comes across as someone who doesn’t sit still for long. She mused over her future and decided to set up her own retail bank. Only this one would not have any legacy systems, branches, and crucially, it would not have an IT department. It would be an IT department. The bank would be, as the book cover suggests, an industry disruptor – a business that would strip down products to the basics. No frills. And what it did do, it would do better than any other retail bank. It would interface with customers through a mobile phone app. The core product would be the notoriously unprofitable current account; rendered profitable by a low cost base and intelligent rates for borrowing and saving.

There is much to recommend in this book. We know the ending – Starling Bank was launched and is on the cusp of profitability. It is award winning – though I am never really sure what that means. And as we might expect, the journey to this point has been fraught, involved near bankrupting herself, two unexplained burglaries and a big fall out with the core team about strategy. As a 50-something bloke, the idea of a 50-something becoming a successful entrepreneur is inspiring. I am myself embarking on ventures that perhaps should have been done a number of years ago. But there you go. What this story tells us that there is never a wrong time, but don’t expect to have a life if you try. And if one is going to set up a bank, expect to have to do a deal with the Devil (more of this later).

Here are a few things of note for budding entrepreneurs:

  • Silicon Valley’s investors may not be receptive to non-Silicon Valley start-ups;
  • contingency fees from consultancies and lawyers may not be honoured by investors;
  • even if one thinks that the idea is original, it is not. Someone else is working on it simultaneously and they may be competing for finance with you;
  • scalability will be important – can the business be expanded/grow without adding costs? (p33);
  • build a network full of goodwill (being 50-something can help, providing one has not hacked people down on the way up in a previous life) – (p63)
  • if the business is a disruptor, the incumbents will not sit back and watch (p66); but in mature industries – like banking – they might not know how to respond (p251-2);
  • watch out for a coup attempt – those brought in to develop the business may see themselves as better able to build the business and launch. The leader of the coup will require the rest of the team to choose between you and them (pp125-6);
  • the media will pounce on stories about a coup/disagreements. PR needs management;
  • failure is normal for entrepreneurs. Investors value experience. In Silicon Valley, recording failure is part of the culture. The place where this is done is medium.com (p138);
  • it is possible to lose a whole team, be close to ruin, but start again and learn from the mistakes – primarily, getting the right people. The signs are there if one cares to look;
  • it is staggering how much can be done just using email;
  • so-called Real Options are revealed sooner than expected, but must be embraced. Setting up the businesses is only the start;
  • the team that launched the product is not necessarily the team to see it in to the future;
  • potential stakeholders/investors are watching – keep an eye on the email. Unfamiliar names may not be all bad.

Talking of bad. The bank got approval from the UK banking regulator to trade. I’m not quite sure how this works, but it does involve a lot of meetings, paperwork, disappointment and finance. It may not matter where the finance comes from. In Starling Bank’s case, Boden got an email from a mysterious investor, Harald McPike. Austrian, apparently. The eventual deal was done in the Bahamas on board a 92 metre yacht. £48m was pledged in exchange for 2/3 of the equity. So, essentially, Starling Bank is owned by a secretive financier based in the Bahamas.

That led me to a wider question about motives. Boden sees her core customers as younger types who live largely from their mobile phones. I get that. But why did the bank need to ape existing ownership models; namely venture capital based in the Bahamas? In these post-financial-crisis days, surely more of the same, albeit on a mobile, is falling short of truly disrupting? Why not a co-operative or other mutual model? Democratise banking and roll back the bank-as-an-end-in-itself principle.

There is absolutely no sense that Boden (left) might have had any reservations about the source of her capital, and that the profits would be offshored. It is not only McPike, she also sounded out Jared Kushner’s brother, Josh, in New York and John Thain famous seemingly for spending $141k on rugs for his office whilst he was at Merrill Lynch.

And what about ethical standards? The only mention of ethics was in a discussion as to whether it was ok to buy a competitor’s domain name (p197)! The website does have an ethics statement which explicitly excludes certain business customers such as arms traders. There is a commitment to planting trees, some reference to energy and supply chains. Nothing, though, that says, “this is the bank for me”.

Pic: Anne Boden, Charlottelorimer 

The welcome return of a pack of 20

It is not entirely clear why cigarette advertising in Germany has been absent for most of the year. Obviously the pandemic has been significant – fewer people out-of-doors to see the posters. The marketing of e-cigarettes, too, is part of the story. The new modes of delivery are often owned by the same companies and the campaign budgets are being redirected.

So, it was a absolute delight – and surprise to see that Gauloises, the French brand owned by Imperial Tobacco – back on the streets. And what is more, still marketing under the Vive le Moment tag. And normal packets, too.

Of course the poster is the tried-and-tested. An attractive young woman (not yet with the mouth ulcers, discoloured teeth and diseased skin) sits with her feet up in a yard to an urban apartment – in Paris obviously. She is holding a cigarette that has just been lit. The tagline is “Für Momente, die dir gehören” – roughly translated as “for the moments you own”.

Classic advertising. But I tell you, for those moments, my thoughts do not turn to products that have a concentration of toxic chemicals in them. With the virus around there is enough trying to kill me without cigarettes adding to it. Or is it that the relatively young, need a helping hand with this death thing as the virus does not seem to be enough? 

Book Review – Jason Hickel, Less is More: How Degrowth will Save the World

Book cover

“Degrowth the economy” has a ring of “defund the police” about it. It sounds bad, counter-intuitive and a threat to security. Surely, if we degrow, we become poorer and less able to provide services that society needs?

These are obvious questions, the answer probably starts with the issue of notions of rich and poor. As much of my most recent reading has highlighted, for as long as wealth is measured in terms of money and its exchange value; i.e. the amount of stuff we can buy with it, the poorer we become as a species. But that is largely what GDP is, a measure of value in terms of the quantified and expressed in units, usually a currency, that are convertible and comparable with other currencies.

Hickel’s final chapter is thought provoking. He’s an anthropologist, not an economist; it is that multi-disciplinarity that is so helpful in debates about economies and climate change. Hickel takes us into the disappearing world of indigenous peoples living in the forests of South America and Asia. These people live in very close proximity to nature, are reliant on it and are deeply conscious that over-exploitation will lead to shortages. Take too many fish and they will not reproduce in sustainable numbers. Sustainable here means the same for the fish as those who rely on them for food.

These indigenous people do this by viewing the natural world not as “other”; in our “developed-world terms, as objects to be exploited. Rather, the natural world is full of subjects that, for some indigenous peoples, have souls. Having a soul (note that is not humans granting other living things a soul, rather other things having immanent souls). Hickel (below right) is not just talking about higher mammals; this stretches to plants (way more sophisticated than we give them credit for) and (even the) micro-organisms that digest our food and manufacture the nutrients that make us work.

Of course, if we have a view of the world where other living things have souls – though that does not make them the same as us – then it necessitates a less exploitative relationship with “other”. As we have seen so often in the developed human world, if we ascribe other living things object status rather than subject status, they become eminently exploitable. And in any way that the exploiter sees fit. We do this to the indigenous people (Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil seeks to exterminate indigenous Amazonian people to exploit their lands); but our favourite economic system – capitalism – was based on subject-object distinctions. Colonialisation is a case in point. Indigenous people find themselves objects even if they themselves had seen the colonialists as subjects (albeit with weapons). 

If anyone thinks that it is not possible to ascribe subject status to things that are not human, one does not have to go much further than the US Supreme Court that interpreted the Constitution to include corporations as having the same liberties as individuals – at the time, of course, white males with property. That said, that decision was much to the chagrin of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, who could see the dangers (Mintzberg, 2015).

And so to capitalism. Capitalism is a system dependent on unsustainable exploitation of resources. Our measure of GDP does this for us. It is the measure that tells us that we are in growth, recession or depression; but perversely, we can increase it by wrecking a ship full of oil because GDP measures the “clean-up” operation but not the damage done by the oil on the landscape, the wildlife and the eco-system more generally. 

Governments revel at levels of 3 per cent growth and we are amazed and envious when countries achieve 8 per cent and more. We must process what that means. At a rate of 3 per cent per year, an economy will effectively double in 30 years. That is double the resource extraction, too. As we now know, this is unsustainable. We need, argues, Hickel, to degrow.

Capitalism extracts from us more and more work. We once thought that technology would enable us to spend less time working. But it has not proved to be the case. The machines, like the one I am using now, makes it possible for me to do things that my predecessors would have given to others to do. In my work at a university, I am an imperfect IT technician as well as a lecturer. I do administration, too, all facilitated by technology and all displacing work from – and for – others who are not rewarded with more leisure time, but rather with unemployment and poverty. The excess goes to owners and executives.

Hickel reports that if we have more time, we use it not to consume more, but to spend time with family and friends. We also volunteer more. We are healthier. And we emit less greenhouse gas. Actually, we take more short flights when we work long hours as we seek, through the logic of capitalism, to “make the most” of the free time that we have. That has become synonymous with consumption. And what’s more “…nearly a third of all labour we’ve rendered, all the resources we’ve extracted, all the CO2 we’ve emitted over the past half century has been done to make rich people richer.” (p29) That stays with me as a thought.

This is what degrowth means that:

  • we work less but are more productive in the process; remove the scarcity of jobs that leads to people working longer and for lower wages. There is actually no scarcity of work in modern economies; 
  • we should advertise less and reduce the creation of wants over needs;
  • built-in obsolescence in products is ended – everything is repairable;
  • we share more (shift from ownership to usership). Equally, expand the commons – land, in particular. 
  • ecologically damaging industries are scaled back (e.g. red meat production);
  • we invest in meaningful jobs and guarantee them (in line with Stephanie Kelton’s thinking
  • we reduce inequality – more equal societies consume less and are less wasteful. The people are happier;
  • debt is cancelled for poor countries (so-called Jubilee). In order to pay the debt, countries exploit natural resources unsustainably;
  • we end debt-based currency – banks create currency from every loan they make. Compound interest is also ended;
  • we broaden democracy and participation, end lobbying/political advertising. Elite control of news media is ended. Industrial democracy becomes the norm in firms. Monopolies are broken up;
  • the power structures in key global institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are flattened.

Degrowth book coverLike all of the books I review, there is much more to them than the contents of this blog post. Hickel has a style that is satisfying. As an academic, he eschews too much anecdote and comprehensively gives citations and endnotes. This contrasts with Rutger Bergmann who is equally erudite, but less academically rigorous. However, it is annoying that Hickel’s book does not have an index, but that is labour-intensive, I know. My next task is to backtrack a little on degrowth with D’Alisa et al (left). 

Hickel photo – Goldsmiths College

Mintzberg, H (2015), Rebalancing Society.

Climate Watch: we must not give up!

These are very hard times. The role of climate change in starting and propagating the Californian wild fires continues to be denied in the USA, despite being undeniable. However, here is a link to an even-more under-reported cause of the fires which links the establishment of a federal forestry system back in the 1930s (actually earlier, but the outlawing of burning arrived later) and the loss of indigenous fire-prevention knowledge and action. Seemingly in the past, California’s indigenous population burned the forests’ dangerous undergrowth to avoid wildfires in the dry season. Evidence shows that trees were injured in the process, but not fatally so.

The Amazon continues to burn, and now the Pantanal Wetlands burn, too. Both have deliberate human causes. The Amazon fires are directly related to our increased consumption of meat, particularly beef. Beef cattle are poor converters of plant protein into meat protein, but that does not stop humanity ramping up consumption at the expense of the natural environment. Bio-diverse rain forest gives way to diversity-free  soya plantation.

An example of this meat-fixation nonsense is the report this week of pig farms in China that have buildings that are 7-storey high! A single farm now produces one-million pigs per year to meet growing demand for pork. The implications for waste and use-and-abuse of anti-biotics are significant. The Economist highlighted this 6 years’ ago!

The Economist is at it again in this week’s special climate edition. The Leader article says that decarbonising energy will “avoid the chaos of unchecked climate change , including devastating droughts, famine, floods and mass dislocation. Once mature, it should be more politically stable, too, because supply will be diversified, geographically and technologically. Petrostates will have to attempt to reform and, as their governments start to depend on taxing their own citizens, some will become more representative. Consuming countries which once sought energy security by meddling in the politics of oil producers, which instead look to sensible regulation of their own power industry. The 21st Century should be less economically volatile. Electricity prices will be determined not by a few big actors but by competition and gradual efficiency gains.” One has to marvel at the Economists’ perpetual belief in – and defence of – capitalism.

The optimist in me, however, says this has a lot to recommend it; the pessimist says, capitalism is the cause and cannot solve the problem. Just look at the pig farm. It’s like a doubling down. Simply, though, capitalism cannot countenance de-growth. I am currently reading Jason’s Hickel’s book (right) of that title. A review will follow.

55 – the magic death number

Cigarette advertising is back in Germany. Two campaigns – Winston and now Camel – have something in common, the number 55. It is the number of death sticks that can be squeezed into a packet that is just short of the size of a brick. The two brands also have their brand management by Japan Tobacco in common. Let’s see if 55 catches on.

Book review: Stephanie Kelton, the Deficit Myth

Without my reliable book seller, I would probably not have read this book. It arrived one day through my Covid-barrier letterbox. Once I had started reading, it completely changed my way of thinking and boosted my mood amidst the gloom that is modern politics and economics. Kelton demonstrates that, contrary to the British Prime Minister’s assertion, there actually is a magic money tree. I am going to resort to bullet points here. Here’s what Kelton tells us:

  • we do not pay tax to pay for services, we pay tax to “provision” the economy
  • governments do not tax and spend, they spend and tax
  • governments’ budgets do not work like household budgets
  • countries that have currency sovereignty (i.e. “issue” their own currency), cannot run out of money
  • the role of fiscal policy is to manage inflation, not the deficit.
  • austerity is both unnecessary and damaging economically and socially
  • deficits are a sign of a healthy economy – economies that are balanced are not innovative
  • a negative balance of payments does not mean that foreign powers have power over countries whose currencies they keep
  • currency “holders” convert their cash into interest-bearing bonds
  • countries with currency sovereignty can, and should, have full employment
  • the resources are there for countries with currency sovereignty to transform to carbon-zero economies.

That is almost enough for one book. There are plenty of reviews of this book for my readers can draw on, for example, Despan, 2020. As ever, there is no substitute for reading the book oneself. But let me take just a few of these bullet points and metabolise them.

Take Covid-19, the British Government has found £30bn to fund the furlough/job retention scheme to enable employers to retain staff when revenues are hard to generate. The Government found money to build emergency hospitals; purchase PPE (albeit inefficiently); and even pay us to eat out. The government has not disclosed how these initiatives will be paid for. The Conservative Government has spent millions of pounds on Brexit, most notoriously a £13.8m contract to a ferry firm without ferries. Oh, and those expensive nuclear weapons. Essentially, the Treasury is paying by creating money. Though by contrast, it would seem that Government spending on welfare payments to poorer people, on education, social care, etc., have to be justified and balanced by tax revenue.

Tax, more generally, is not as it seems. Kelton makes the argument that the reason that we pay tax is not to fund spending, but rather for provisioning. Governments need people to be economically active, to make things, to provide services, for progress. Tax, therefore, is the incentive for people to be economically active by ensuring that people have to give their labour and time in exchange for currency (money). There is a secondary purpose to tax, that of wealth redistribution. The obscene wealth concentration in the hands of a few known-individuals – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel – does not serve society at all. The rich who get more money tend to save it rather than spend it. Give poor people money and they will spend it in the real economy. Take a $1bn off Jeff Bezos in tax and he is left with $109bn. Would he really notice? Plus, how much has Bezos increased his wealth during the pandemic which has necessitated large-scale public spending commitments? What can civil society do with $1bn? Rather a lot, I think.

People will argue – particularly in the USA – that rich people are serious philanthropists. Bill Gates’ foundation gives billions to the fight against malaria. Warren Buffet has endorsed Gates and will donate his fortune to Gates’ foundation upon his death. There are two problems – at least – with that argument. Many billionaires have become so rich by exploiting workers, communities and natural resources. Suddenly to give excess money “away” to causes that they decide are worthy seems wrong. They distribute excess money (they do not become St Francis of Asissi). They live well and maintain their political influence. And who is to say the causes selected by philanthropists are worthy and the most efficacious? Where is the transparency, the democracy, the accountability?

Back to Kelton’s main arguments, government deficits are, by definition,  surpluses or credits to others. I buy something (debit) and give money to someone else (credit) in return for something that I actually want. But unlike governments, my debit does have to be covered either by savings or borrowing. Governments only get into trouble when they borrow in currencies that are not their own. Cases such as Argentina are often floated as examples of how deficits are bad. Notwithstanding the fact that Argentina’s 2001 inflation-led crisis caused a default on foreign debt, it did reconfigure its economy to one that focused on domestic growth and full employment. Its government moved away from US dollars both in cash terms and also uncoupling interest rates to a foreign currency.

Inflation, unemployment and climate change

Inflation is a problem for economies. In my lifetime I have seen high inflation; though nothing compared to the hyper-inflation suffered by Germany in the 1930s which still scars the landscape and leads to economic conservativism within the country and forces austerity on countries such as Greece that share the currency (the Euro). Inflation is usually controlled by notionally-independent central banks. They increase interest rates to dampen down demand. 2 per cent inflation seems to be a common target in modern economies. Overshoot and the central bank will raise interest rates. That will also impact on the unemployment rate – but modern economy managers trade off inflation and employment. Higher unemployment is a price worth paying for keeping down inflation, unless you are, of course, someone being made unemployed. This trade-off can be seen at work in a recent article by Gordon Brown, UK PM during the financial crisis of 2008. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, he writes: “Now I am the first to say that the Bank needs a more demanding constitution, one that imposes a dual mandate: to take unemployment as seriously as inflation. This should be matched by an operational target stating that interest rates will not rise or stimulus end until unemployment falls to pre-crisis levels.” (Guardian, 15 September 2020).

Kelton argues convincingly that countries with sovereign currencies can run their economies with a “good jobs guarantee”. Monetary policy has it that there is a natural level of unemployment – NAIRU. The Economist Martin Goodfried puts a figure on it: 7 per cent! In the USA, that might be as many as 12 million Americans “naturally” without work and a whole lot more who are under-employed. To keep that number of people unemployed is not some law of economics (there are no laws of real economics), it is purely a political decision predicated on a non-existent law of rising wages caused by too much employment and hence bargaining power of labour leading to inflation. When wages rise, interest rates should increase to prevent inflation from occurring.

Mainstream economics has it that unemployment benefit is sufficient to provide for the needs of people without work. Critically for the neo-liberal economists, the rate needs to be set sufficiently low so as to provide the incentive for the unemployed to take any paid work rather than be idle. The gig economy is, arguably, the result of this mentality; that is insecure and sporadic work. However, this argument is pretty phoney – most people are motivated by a sense of purpose, much of which comes from engaging in meaningful work. But the rich – for example, those who earn six-figure sums – do not work harder the more they receive in salary and bonuses. They merely accumulate believing themselves to be worth the money they are paid. Moreover, they bias the policy of their firms in order to maximise the benefits they receive. For example, if remuneration is linked to share price, CEOs may engage in share buy-backs rather than invest in innovation and new products.

Kelton identifies seven deficits that do matter. These are: employment, infrastructure, education, climate, democracy, health and savings. Let me take a couple of those deficits, starting with employment. Kelton argues that progressive governments would use the state apparatus to employ all unemployed labour on a wage that sustains individuals and families until full employment returns in the natural economic and business cycles. A good job guarantee (the good is important here) can maintain aggregate demand even in a downturn because everyone who wants to work can do so. This potentially makes the downturn of shorter duration. All citizens would be covered (not everyone is eligible for unemployment benefits either because they have not paid-in to the insurance system, or they have exhausted their “entitlement”) and purposeful work is at the heart of such a programme. Moreover, skills are retained and/or enhanced. Kelton argues further that these public works should be based in communities and the work itself should focus on developing communities – whether it be public service, caring (for elderly and children alike) or business development/entrepreneurship. It is also clear that such a job-guarantee programme could be beneficial as societies pursue environmental sustainability. It is also feasible for people to change their own direction from accumulation to sharing and “de-growth”.

That leads to the second deficit that matters, climate change. Kelton rehearses many of the arguments made by key writers in this field such as Mike Berners-Lee, David Wallace-Wells, Tim Lang, Bruno Latour, etc. If governments persist with a neo-liberal, deficit-avoidance economic mindset, then climate change will impact human society at the upper, catastrophic-end of the climate-modelled scenarios. There is no financial block on investment in green technologies. It is political. Sovereign currency issuers such as the USA and the UK can generate the financial resources needed to eliminate carbon as the source of all energy and limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.

In conclusion, Kelton is a credible critic of existing monetary policy. She demonstrates how we can as a society have the things we need. Society has never been provided for by taxation. It has always been spend and tax, not tax and spend. Tax does not provide the resources for public spending, it is primarily a tool of redistribution. Some rich people are not keen on that, for some reason.

Updated, 15 September 2020 to incorporate quote by Gordon Brown

Cigarette advertising post-Covid lockdown

The last post I made on cigarette advertising in Germany was 10 February, just before Germany went into lockdown. Even then, I thought that cigarette advertising was on the wane and we were unlikely to see big cigarette campaigns by the big brands. One of the reasons for this was the growth of e-cigarettes. Campaign budgets were being transferred from authentic killing to massaged killing. The clearest indicator of that is the warning at the bottom of each advertisement. Traditional cigarette advertising (bottom right) says “smoking is deadly”. Advertising for the new delivery method of super-heated tobacco says “this way of smoking can damage your health and make you dependent”. And to demonstrate how cool we are – and is this method of killing or maiming otherwise healthy people, let’s have a picture of an attractive women who nicely illustrates the product “glo”. The important thing for the tobacco company behind it, British American Tobacco, is that it is real tobacco from real tobacco plants, with real killer chemicals.

I have been out-and-about in Munich recently. Finally, I found a couple of cigarette advertising posters. Take the first one (right), I may have got the translation wrong, but maybe the packet is big enough to act as a parasol? Ho ho ho! There is some double meaning there that defeats me with my limited translation skills. Actually, I think one could actually live in the box, let alone use it as a parasol.

The second poster (left) goes for the time theme. If I am reading it right, there are so many cigarettes in the packet that in getting through them one has the time to name some woman? Again, this may well be marketing genius, but I am happy with my failure to appreciate perceived marketing cleverness on products that are designed to kill and maim.