In a recent Washington Post article titled Europe's ominous reckoning, economist Robert Samuelson correctly argued that "Ireland's economic crisis is … not about Ireland." What he seems to not recognize is that "Europe's ominous reckoning" is not about Europe.
The reckoning will be global because the money and banking regime is global — and deeply flawed.
Discussions about possible solutions to the debt crisis tend to degenerate into ideological bickering because ideologies provides an inadequate framework in which to understand the nature of the problem and discover real effective solutions. Fiscal conservatives want to cut social spending so as to avoid raising taxes on the rich and privileged class. Political liberals have largely caved in to the same interests because they think that supporting the privileged class's agenda is their only hope of gaining power. They will pay lip service to a social agenda and throw a few crumbs to the masses in an attempt to get elected, but they will ultimately advance the same elitist agenda, as have Presidents Clinton and Obama. Progressives argue that budgets can be balanced by cutting the military budget and raising taxes on the rich, but they remain impotent because political power has been so thoroughly centralized that popular progressive agendas have not a prayer of being implemented. Even if they were, they would simply make matters worse because under the present money and banking regime, a balanced government budget is not possible. How can the debate move beyond ideologies, and common ground be found?
Samuelson, like almost all conventionally trained economists, blames the woes of Ireland, and every other country, on failures in policy. He says, "Most European economies suffer from the ill effects of some combination of easy money, unsustainable social spending and big budget deficits," but he fails to address the deeper questions of why? Why has money been easy? Why is social spending unsustainable? Why have budget deficits been too big?
It is not only a problem of European economies, it is a problem for virtually all national economies. As Samuelson points out, even the most prosperous countries have accumulated enormous debts. The governments of Germany and France, for example, have, respectively, gross debts of 76 percent and 86 percent of GDP (GDP is a measure of total economic output). The debt of the United States government is projected to exceed 100% of GDP within the next couple of years. And this picture does not even include the debts of lower levels of government — states, counties, and municipalities — or all of the private sector debt that burdens companies and individuals.
If the world has become so prosperous and productive, why all this debt, and why does it continue to grow ever more rapidly?
It is not a matter of policy, i.e., how we operate a flawed system. The problem is structural and systemic. The system is designed to create debt, and ever more of it. Like a pernicious cancer, debt is a parasite that is killing us, and in the end a parasite will die along with its host. How much of our well-being shall we sacrifice to keep feeding this cancer? Are we willing to starve ourselves and our children, to endure cuts in spending for education and public services, to sacrifice our hard-won freedoms, in order to sustain a system that despoils the earth, destroys the social fabric, and creates ever greater economic inequities?
A few have been calling for "debt forgiveness," a remedy analogous to cancer surgery. That may be a good start, but even that does no go far enough. We can excise the cancer, but if we do not recognize and eliminate its fundamental cause it will simply grow back. We can restart the game of Monopoly, but the outcome of the next round will be very much like that of the previous round unless we change the rules — or choose to play a different game.
The fact is, there is a debt imperative that is built into the global system of money and banking, and debt is eating us alive. As I wrote in my first book more than 20 years ago, our money system, based as it is on banks' lending money into circulation at compound interest, requires debt to grow with the passage of time. Virtually all of the money today is created when banks make "loans." The compounding of interest on these loans means that debt must grow as time goes on, not slowly, but at an accelerating rate. Ever greater amounts of money must be borrowed into circulation for this system to continue. When the private sector debt can no longer be expanded, government assumes the role of "borrower of last resort." That is why government budget deficits have become chronic and continue to grow. In the latest cycle of Bubble and Bust, governments are rescuing the banks by taking "toxic" debt off their hands and giving them government bonds in return. In this way, the system can be sustained a little bit longer, but at costs that have yet to be tallied.
The current global predicament is the late-stage symptom of this fundamental flaw. Every political currency collectivizes credit. It is our credit that supports each national currency. We have allowed the banks to control our credit and we pay them interest for the "privilege" of accessing some of it as bank "loans."
What must be done? The answer is simple, but few have been willing to hear it: interest must be eliminated from the money system to put an end to the growth imperative. To modern economists, such a proposition is heresy, foolish even, unthinkable! Interest to them is an essential inducement to save and invest and a necessary means of regulating credit and the economy. Nonsense, I say, a gross error and delusion fostered by incessant propaganda, media hype, and financial mumbo-jumbo. In an economy that is free from inflation, preservation of one's capital is sufficient motivation for saving, and return on productive investments can be had in the form of ownership shares (so called equity investment) instead of interest on debt. Such equity investments share both the rewards and the risks inherent in a productive enterprise, making the relationship between the user of funds and the provider of funds more harmonious and fair. As for regulating credit, we don't need interest to do that; we can merely decide to withhold or offer credit, to whom, for what purpose, and in what amounts.
We need to learn to play a different game. We need to organize an entirely new structure of money, banking, and finance, one that is interest-free, decentralized, and controlled, not by banks or central governments, but by businesses and individuals that associate and organize themselves into cashless trading networks. This is a way to reclaim "the credit commons" from monopoly control and create healthy community economies.
In brief, any group of traders can organize to allocate their own collective credit amongst themselves, interest-free. This is merely an extension of the common business practice of selling on open account — "I'll ship you the goods now and you can pay me later," except it is organized, not on a bilateral basis, but within a community of many buyers and sellers. Done on a large enough scale that includes a sufficiently broad range of goods and services spanning all levels of the supply chain from retail, to wholesale, to manufacturing, to basic commodities, such systems can avoid the dysfunctions inherent in conventional money and banking and open the way to more harmonious and mutually beneficial trading relationships that enable the emergence of sustainable economies and promote the common good.
This approach is no pie-in-the-sky pipedream, it is proven and well established. Known as mutual credit clearing, it is a process that is used by scores of commercial "barter" companies around the world to provide cashless trading for their business members. In this process, the things you sell pay for the things you buy without using money as an intermediate exchange medium. It's as simple as that. According to the International Reciprocal Trade Association (IRTA), a major trade association for the industry, "IRTA Member companies using the "Modern Trade and Barter" process, made it possible for over 400,000 companies World Wide to utilizetheir excess business capacities and underperforming assets, to earn anestimated $12 billion dollars in previously lost and wasted revenues."
Perhaps the best example of a credit clearing exchange that has been successful over a long period of time is the WIR Economic Circle Cooperative. Founded in Switzerland as a self-help organization in 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression, WIR provided a means for its business members to trade with one another despite the shortage of official money in circulation. Over three quarters of a century, in good time and bad, WIR has continued to thrive. Its more than 60,000 members throughout Switzerland trade about $2 billion worth of goods and services annually.
Yes, it is possible to transcend the dysfunctional money and banking system and to take back our power from bankers and politicians who use it to abuse and exploit us. We do it, not by petitioning politicians who are already bought and paid for by an ever more powerful elite group, but by using the power that is already ours to use the resources we have to support each other's productivity and to give credit where credit is due.
Image by amagill, courtesy of Creative Commons license.