Is Money Itself a Ponzi Scheme?

Here’s an alternative view of economics that I heard in a talk, written up by Douglas Rushkoff. The most interesting point to me is this one:

Local currencies favored local transactions, and worked against the interests of large corporations working from far away. In order to secure their own position as well as that of their chartered monopolies, monarchs began to make local currencies illegal, and force locals to instead use “coin of the realm.” These centralized currencies worked the opposite way. They were not earned into existence, they were lent into existence by a central bank. This meant any money issued to a person or business had to be paid back to the central bank, with interest.

What does that do to an economy? It bankrupts it. Think of it this way: A business borrows 1000 dollars from the bank to get started. In ten years, say, it is supposed to pay back 2000 to the bank. Where does the other 1000 come from? Some other business that has borrowed 1000 from the bank. For one business to pay back what it owes, another must go bankrupt. That, or borrow yet another 1000, and so on.

An economy based on an interest-bearing centralized currency must grow to survive, and this means extracting more, producing more and consuming more. Interest-bearing currency favors the redistribution of wealth from the periphery (the people) to the center (the corporations and their owners). Just sitting on money—capital—is the most assured way of increasing wealth. By the very mechanics of the system, the rich get richer on an absolute and relative basis.

The biggest wealth generator of all was banking itself. By lending money at interest to people and businesses who had no other way to conduct transactions or make investments, banks put themselves at the center of the extraction equation. The longer the economy survived, the more money would have to be borrowed, and the more interest earned by the bank.

Does that make sense? Opinions please? Counterarguments?

Although Rushkoff has a substantial Google footprint I was unable to turn up a rebuttal. (This may be symptomatic of how thoroughly we talk past each other these days.)

To me it seemed compelling at first blush, but when I tried to convey it to others I was not altogether convincing. On further consideration, I conclude that it MUST be an oversimplification, because a Ponzi scheme can’t work for 400 years, and after all, the system DID succeed in increasing wealth vastly since medieval times.

But there’s a real question here for those of us (like me and Rushkoff) interested in economics, skeptical of it, and not especially well-versed. Is growth built in? Because if it is, we have a problem. Given that wealth has environmental impact, given that there is no particular constraint that causes environmental impact per unit wealth to fall as fast as aggregate wealth increases, we eventually hit a brick wall.

There is certainly a case to be made that eventually is now, and accordingly Obama’s efforts to reboot the economy are doomed to failure. But that’s not what I am trying to address here.

The question I would like to raise is whether unsustainability is built in; whether as Rushkoff suggests we are institutionally incapable of a steady state economy, or whether it might be workable.

The alternative, which I find very intriguing, is the idea that somehow we constrain environmental impact per unit wealth to fall slightly faster than wealth increases. This would be the least disruptive path to sustainability if it were possible. Admittedly this is a vague idea. I got the germ of it from Robert Rohde on a very interesting thread on the globalchange list a couple of years back, when he just calmly asserted that it could naturally emerge that way. Now with all respect to Robert I thought that was a bit, hmm, overoptimistic. But maybe there is a way to make something like that work with some careful design effort.

Maybe we can have a steady state impact constraint atop a nominally growth-based economy by design.

I don’t know of anyone (besides myself) trying to envision how such a thing might be constructed. The concept that sustainability could be constructed as a layer on top of an unsustainable system came to me almost two years ago under the influence of a (mostly very technical) Google talk, but I haven’t made much (OK, any) progress with it. I find it hard to communicate these sorts of ideas to the sorts of people who might be able to get a grip on the details. Maybe it’s just not feasible, but I’d like someone who knows why to acknowledge what I am saying and then reply with an explanation of why it couldn’t be practical.

I have a couple of grounds for skepticism myself.

It seems to me that eventually production is actually negatively correlated to wealth. First of all there is the lawnmower problem.

Then there is the fact that I, for one, measure my own wealth in social and artistic and intellectual experiences. This decreases my net impact but doesn’t really promote growth at all. If the society moves to an economic metric that values low impact wealth, that means information will be monetized (DRM and such). Recent trends are not indicative that this will work. What’s more, there are strong reasons to believe that they shouldn’t. In other words, the attention economy doesn’t map very well onto traditional economics.

Most economists treat these as aberrations, but both of them are core features of my experience, which may have something to do with why I regard economics with considerable skepticism. But maybe these things can be worked around too.

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