The Biggest Ponzi Scheme of Them All

Since Bernie Madoff has put Ponzi schemes back onto the front pages, it’s worth considering whether we are all complicit in the biggest Ponzi scheme of them all, the idea that the global economy can grow indefinitely.

I grew up on the idea that humanity would grow out into space, and that resources were for all practical purposes infinite. It may well be that in some possible worlds, that could still be true, but it’s increasingly looking like we’re going to be stuck here with only one world’s resources to draw on. And while most reasonable people are aware that we’re using up much of our children’s inheritance, and handing them debt in exchange, I don’t think as a society we’ve really come to grips with the consequence of that knowledge.

We’re rather like the investors who were complicit in Madoff’s scheme, playing along while the getting is good. At least some of us know that the game is rigged, but we’re not going to be the first to blow the whistle.

Former World Bank economist Herman Daly wrote a vivid piece on the subject of the Ponzi economy back in October, entitled The Disconnection Between Financial Assets and Real Asssets:

The current financial debacle is really not a “liquidity” crisis as it is often euphemistically called. It is a crisis of overgrowth of financial assets relative to growth of real wealth—pretty much the opposite of too little liquidity. Financial assets have grown by a large multiple of the real economy—paper exchanging for paper is now 20 times greater than exchanges of paper for real commodities. It should be no surprise that the relative value of the vastly more abundant financial assets has fallen in terms of real assets. Real wealth is concrete; financial assets are abstractions—existing real wealth carries a lien on it in the amount of future debt. The value of present real wealth is no longer sufficient to serve as a lien to guarantee the exploding debt. Consequently the debt is being devalued in terms of existing wealth. No one any longer is eager to trade real present wealth for debt even at high interest rates. This is because the debt is worth much less, not because there is not enough money or credit, or because “banks are not lending to each other” as commentators often say.

Can the economy grow fast enough in real terms to redeem the massive increase in debt? In a word, no. As Frederick Soddy (1926 Nobel Laureate chemist and underground economist) pointed out long ago, “you cannot permanently pit an absurd human convention, such as the spontaneous increment of debt [compound interest] against the natural law of the spontaneous decrement of wealth [entropy]”. The population of “negative pigs” (debt) can grow without limit since it is merely a number; the population of “positive pigs” (real wealth) faces severe physical constraints. The dawning realization that Soddy’s common sense was right, even though no one publicly admits it, is what underlies the crisis. The problem is not too little liquidity, but too many negative pigs growing too fast relative to the limited number of positive pigs whose growth is constrained by their digestive tracts, their gestation period, and places to put pigpens. Also there are too many two‐legged Wall Street pigs, but that is another matter.

Growth in US real wealth is restrained by increasing scarcity of natural resources, both at the source end (oil depletion), and the sink end (absorptive capacity of the atmosphere for CO2). Further, spatial displacement of old stuff to make room for new stuff is increasingly costly as the world becomes more full, and increasing inequality of distribution of income prevents most people from buying much of the new stuff—except on credit (more debt). Marginal costs of growth now likely exceed marginal benefits, so that real physical growth makes us poorer, not richer (the cost of feeding and caring for the extra pigs is greater than the extra benefit). To keep up the illusion that growth is making us richer we deferred costs by issuing financial assets almost without limit, conveniently forgetting that these so‐called assets are, for society as a whole, debts to be paid back out of future real growth. That future real growth is very doubtful and consequently claims on it are devalued, regardless of liquidity.

This is economic heresy, something that goes so contrary to our every assumption that we’re convinced it must be wrong. Surely we can go on somehow, and get back to the way it was before the crash! If we can’t, we imagine a dreary world without possibilities, in which there is no motivation, no improvement, and no opportunity.

There is an alternative that Daly, in another piece, calls A Steady State Economy, and that others call “ecological economics“. Here’s Daly:

A failed growth economy and a steady-state economy are not the same thing; they are the very different alternatives we face. The Earth as a whole is approximately a steady state. Neither the surface nor the mass of the earth is growing or shrinking; the inflow of radiant energy to the Earth is equal to the outflow; and material imports from space are roughly equal to exports (both negligible). None of this means that the earth is static—a great deal of qualitative change can happen inside a steady state, and certainly has happened on Earth. The most important change in recent times has been the enormous growth of one subsystem of the Earth, namely the economy, relative to the total system, the ecosphere. This huge shift from an “empty” to a “full” world is truly “something new under the sun” as historian J. R. McNeil calls it in his book of that title. The closer the economy approaches the scale of the whole Earth the more it will have to conform to the physical behavior mode of the Earth. That behavior mode is a steady state—a system that permits qualitative development but not aggregate quantitative growth. Growth is more of the same stuff; development is the same amount of better stuff (or at least different stuff). The remaining natural world no longer is able to provide the sources and sinks for the metabolic throughput necessary to sustain the existing oversized economy—much less a growing one.

I like Daly’s distinction between qualitative development and quantitative growth. The consumption of electronic media perhaps gives a foretaste of an economy in which qualitative complexity might replace quantitative addition as the raw material of exchange. Obviously, we’re not there yet, as we’re still consuming lots of resources to build the substrate for our increasingly intellectual economy, but I love that he’s broken the naive assumption that if we don’t have growth, the only alternative is stasis.

It’s clear that getting to a steady-state economy will be hard, perhaps even impossible (although it’s worth noting that living systems have accomplished that feat.) But what a challenge! How do we keep the dynamism of modern capitalist economies without borrowing from the future? What does it mean to keep the real costs of what we consume on the balance sheet? Will the economy of the future be built on aesthetic value exchange (the whuffie of Cory Doctorow’s imagination), with renewable energy in harness and physical materials seamlessly recycled. Great questions, great opportunities for us to invent the answers!