The Key to a Sustainable Economy Is 5,000 Years Old

We are again reaching the point in the business cycle known as “peak debt,” when debts have compounded to the point that their cumulative total cannot be paid. Student debt, credit card debt, auto loans, business debt and sovereign debt are all higher than they have ever been. As economist Michael Hudson writes in his provocative 2018 book, “…and forgive them their debts,” debts that can’t be paid won’t be paid. The question, he says, is how they won’t be paid.

Mainstream economic models leave this problem to “the invisible hand of the market,” assuming trends will self-correct over time. But while the market may indeed correct, it does so at the expense of the debtors, who become progressively poorer as the rich become richer. Borrowers go bankrupt and banks foreclose on the collateral, dispossessing the debtors of their homes and their livelihoods. The houses are bought by the rich at distress prices and are rented back at inflated prices to the debtors, who are then forced into wage peonage to survive. When the banks themselves go bankrupt, the government bails them out. Thus the market corrects, but not without government intervention. That intervention just comes at the end of the cycle to rescue the creditors, whose ability to buy politicians gives them the upper hand. According to free-market apologists, this is a natural cycle akin to the weather, which dates all the way back to the birth of modern economics in ancient Greece and Rome.

Hudson counters that those classical societies are not actually where our financial system began, and that capitalism did not evolve from bartering, as its ideologues assert. Rather, it devolved from a more functional, sophisticated, egalitarian credit system that was sustained for two millennia in ancient Mesopotamia (now parts of Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait and Iran). Money, banking, accounting and modern business enterprise originated not with gold and private trade, but in the public sector of Sumer’s palaces and temples in the third millennium B.C. Because it involved credit issued by the local government rather than private loans of gold, bad debts could be periodically forgiven rather than compounding until they took the whole system down, a critical feature that allowed for its remarkable longevity. Continue reading

Universal Basic Income Is Easier Than It Looks

Calls for a Universal Basic Income have been increasing, most recently as part of the Green New Deal introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and supported in the last month by at least 40 members of Congress. A Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a monthly payment to all adults with no strings attached, similar to Social Security. Critics say the Green New Deal asks too much of the rich and upper-middle-class taxpayers who will have to pay for it, but taxing the rich is not what the resolution proposes. It says funding would primarily come from the federal government, “using a combination of the Federal Reserve, a new public bank or system of regional and specialized public banks,” and other vehicles.

The Federal Reserve alone could do the job. It could buy “Green” federal bonds with money created on its balance sheet, just as the Fed funded the purchase of $3.7 trillion in bonds in its “quantitative easing” program to save the banks. The Treasury could also do it. The Treasury has the constitutional power to issue coins in any denomination, even trillion dollar coins. What prevents legislators from pursuing those options is the fear of hyperinflation from excess “demand” (spendable income) driving prices up. But in fact the consumer economy is chronically short of spendable income, due to the way money enters the consumer economy. We actually need regular injections of money to avoid a “balance sheet recession” and allow for growth, and a UBI is one way to do it. Continue reading

How to Fund a Universal Basic Income Without Increasing Taxes or Inflation

The policy of guaranteeing every citizen a universal basic income is gaining support around the world, as automation increasingly makes jobs obsolete. But can it be funded without raising taxes or triggering hyperinflation? In a panel I was on at the NexusEarth cryptocurrency conference in Aspen September 21-23rd, most participants said no. This is my rebuttal.

In May 2017, a team of researchers at the University of Oxford published the results of a survey of the world’s best artificial intelligence experts, who predicted that there was a 50 percent chance of AI outperforming humans in all tasks within 45 years. All human jobs were expected to be automated in 120 years, with Asian respondents expecting these dates much sooner than North Americans. In theory, that means we could all retire and enjoy the promised age of universal leisure. But the immediate concern for most people is that they will be losing their jobs to machines.

That helps explain the recent interest in a universal basic income (UBI) – a sum of money distributed equally to everyone. Continue reading