Here is a NYT article by Eric Zencey on economics, that I feel may inspire our more techo nerds as it did me.
Frederic Soddy, born 1871, and a Nobel laureate in chemistry, has taken a scientific view of the political economy and made some interesting predictions that seem to have been borne out by 20th century experience and recent events.
He offered a perspective on economics rooted in physics that make sense to Occams. I can’t improve on the article so I will just give some hilights for those who don’t want to read the whole thing.
Soddy criticized the prevailing belief of the economy as a perpetual motion machine, capable of generating infinite wealth â€” a criticism echoed by his intellectual heirs in the now emergent field of ecological economics.
The dollars aren’t real wealth, but only symbols that represent the bearer’s claim on an economy’s ability to generate wealth. Debt, for its part, is a claim on the economy’s ability to generate wealth in the future. “The ruling passion of the age,” Soddy said, “is to convert wealth into debt” â€” to exchange a thing with present-day real value (a thing that could be stolen, or broken, or rust or rot before you can manage to use it) for something immutable and unchanging, a claim on wealth that has yet to be made. Money facilitates the exchange; it is, he said, “the nothing you get for something before you can get anything.”
The amount of wealth that an economy can create is limited by the amount of low-entropy energy that it can sustainably suck from its environment â€” and by the amount of high-entropy effluent from an economy that the environment can sustainably absorb. Debt, being imaginary, has no such natural limit. It can grow infinitely, compounding at any rate we decide.
Whenever an economy allows debt to grow faster than wealth can be created, that economy has a need for debt repudiation. Inflation can do the job, decreasing debt gradually by eroding the purchasing power, the claim on future wealth, that each of your saved dollars represents. But when there is no inflation, an economy with overgrown claims on future wealth will experience regular crises of debt repudiation â€” stock market crashes, bankruptcies and foreclosures, defaults on bonds or loans or pension promises, the disappearance of paper assets.
Soddy distilled his eccentric vision into five policy prescriptions, each of which was taken at the time as evidence that his theories were unworkable: The first four were to abandon the gold standard, let international exchange rates float, use federal surpluses and deficits as macroeconomic policy tools that could counter cyclical trends, and establish bureaus of economic statistics (including a consumer price index) in order to facilitate this effort. All of these are now conventional practice.
Soddy’s fifth proposal, the only one that remains outside the bounds of conventional wisdom, was to stop banks from creating money (and debt) out of nothing.
Banks would support themselves by charging fees for safekeeping, check clearing and all the other legitimate financial services they provide. They would still make loans and still be able to lend at interest “the real money of real depositors,”
If such a major structural renovation of our economy sounds hopelessly unrealistic, consider that so too did the abolition of the gold standard and the introduction of floating exchange rates back in the 1920s. If the laws of thermodynamics are sturdy, and if Soddy’s analysis of their relevance to economic life is correct, we’d better expand the realm of what we think is realistic.
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