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Soddy’s Ecological Economy: NY Times

An op-ed in the New York Times Saturday draws our attention to an obscure Great Depression-era economist whose theories presaged those of today’s ecological economists.

Frederick Soddy, a former scientist, applied the laws of thermodynamics to economics: as energy cannot be created or destroyed, so it is with wealth. Money represents real goods, and we must stop banks from creating money—and debt—out of nothing.

Frederick Soddy, born in 1877, was an individualist who bowed to few conventions, and who is described by one biographer as a difficult, obstinate man. A 1921 Nobel laureate in chemistry for his work on radioactive decay, he foresaw the energy potential of atomic fission as early as 1909. But his disquiet about that power’s potential wartime use, combined with his revulsion at his discipline’s complicity in the mass deaths of World War I, led him to set aside chemistry for the study of political economy — the world into which scientific progress introduces its gifts. In four books written from 1921 to 1934, Soddy carried on a quixotic campaign for a radical restructuring of global monetary relationships. He was roundly dismissed as a crank.

He offered a perspective on economics rooted in physics — the laws of thermodynamics, in particular. An economy is often likened to a machine, though few economists follow the parallel to its logical conclusion: like any machine the economy must draw energy from outside itself. The first and second laws of thermodynamics forbid perpetual motion, schemes in which machines create energy out of nothing or recycle it forever. Soddy criticized the prevailing belief of the economy as a perpetual motion machine, capable of generating infinite wealth — a criticism echoed by his intellectual heirs in the now emergent field of ecological economics. […]

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 do this by lending out most of their depositors’ money at interest — making loans that the borrower soon puts in a demand deposit (checking) account, where it will soon be lent out again to create more debt and demand deposits, and so on, almost ad infinitum.

One way to stop this cycle, suggests Herman Daly, an ecological economist, would be to gradually institute a 100-percent reserve requirement on demand deposits. This would begin to shrink what Professor Daly calls “the enormous pyramid of debt that is precariously balanced atop the real economy, threatening to crash.”

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,” in Professor Daly’s phrase, people who forgo consumption today by taking money out of their checking accounts and putting it in time deposits — CDs, passbook savings, 401(k)’s. In return, these savers receive a slightly larger claim on the real wealth of the community in the future.

In such a system, every increase in spending by borrowers would have to be matched by an act of saving or abstinence on the part of a depositor. This would re-establish a one-to-one correspondence between the real wealth of the community and the claims on that real wealth. (Of course, it would not solve the problem completely, not unless financial institutions were also forbidden to create subprime mortgage derivatives and other instruments of leveraged debt.)

Read the whole article here.

We are Farmily: Everyday Life on Sole Food Street Farm

Food is the medium. The message is nourishment in its most elemental and spiritual form.That’s how author Michael Ableman sees the role of Sole Food Street Farm and the food it sells to markets, restaurants, and individuals.In the following excerpt from his new book, Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier, […] Read More

Bullshit. *Charisma, Icon, Intelligence, Empty Sandwich

How does the word “bullshit” connect to Charisma, Intelligence and the notion of The Empty Sandwich?To find out the answer to this question we meandered through David Fleming’s Lean Logic. A dictionary unlike any other, Lean Logic encourages readers to actively and intellectually engage with its entries. These entries are often cross-referenced so that you […] Read More

From Farm-to-Table to Farm-to-Everything

No longer restricted to the elite segments of society, the farm-to-table movement now reaches a wide spectrum of Americans from hospital and office cafeterias to elementary schools and fast-casual restaurants.Nearly a century ago, the idea of “local food” would have seemed perplexing, since virtually all food was local. Today, most of the food consumed in […] Read More

The Three Cs of Farm-to-School

Most people know about the three “R’s” – reading, writing, and arithmetic. But, have you heard about the three “C’s”?If you, or your kid, is at a school that takes part in the Farm-to-School movement, then you may already know about them.October is National Farm-to-School month, and in their book Farm to Table, authors Darryl […] Read More

Born on Third Base: A Q&A with Author and Inequality Activist Chuck Collins

As inequality grabs headlines, steals the show in presidential debates, and drives deep divides between the haves and have nots in America, class war brews. Does it have to be this way?Can we suspend both class wars long enough to consider a new way forward? Is it really good for anyone that most of society’s […] Read More
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