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.)