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The global financial crisis, climate change, poverty and BP: the extent of the problem is clear. But what is the best way to solve it? This was the question asked at the first Steady State Economy Conference held in Leeds on June 19.
The conference was organised by Economic Justice for All (EJfA), a Leeds economics and sustainability debating group and the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE), with the aim of coming up with some concrete policy recommendations.
“If the leaders of the main political parties in the UK are not thinking seriously about an alternative to economic growth, then we the people must urgently start and develop the discussion,” Dr Lorna Arblaster, of EJfA, explained.
It was a discussion that was urgently needed. The conference attracted over 250 academics, economists, community organisations, activists, NGOs and business people who played as much a part in making the day a resounding success as the keynote speakers: Peter Victor, author of Managing Without Growth and Professor in environmental studies, York University, Canada; Andrew Simms, Policy Director at nef; Dan O’Neill, European Director of CASSE; and Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity Without Growth and professor of sustainable development, University of Surrey.
Peter Victor opened the conference by challenging our “fear of a no growth disaster” and reminding us that until 1950 there was no discussion of economic growth as something to strive for.
“Can we have full employment, no poverty, fiscal balance, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions without relying on economic growth?” he asked. “You bet!” was his resounding reply, which he backed up with a detailed computer model.
Participants were then asked to put forward alternative policy recommendations in expert-led workshops on how this could be done in the UK.
These included eight policy-focused workshops: limiting resource use; stabilising population; reforming the monetary system; maintaining low unemployment; distributing income more fairly; changing business practices; measuring quality of life and achieving a successful UK transition within a globalised economy, as well as two process workshops: changing consumer behaviour and engaging politicians and the media.
Well-being and work-life balance were key themes of the day as was reconnecting with ourselves, reconsidering what it means to be human and deciding what we really want from our lives. And as Andrew Simms reminded us, not forgetting to have fun.
The conference was just the start. The ideas and proposals which were discussed in the workshops will be collated into a manifesto, which will outline how to achieve a steady state economy in the UK and will form the basis for the movement’s next step.
So what of Leeds now that the steady state caravan has left? There’s a buzz in the city; people who missed the conference feel that they’ve lost out and others who had never heard of a steady state economy have seen the local media coverage. With all the crises and government cuts they may even be starting to question whether there is another, better way.
Lindsay Mackie is a consultant at nef. She is leading nef’s post office campaign and works on Clone Town and Ghost Town Britain.
I’ve always been keen on scanning the skies for new forms of avian life. And as I twitch with other bird watchers, I’ve registered the dark and looming shape of the deficit hawk.
This creature seems to be a bit picky about what it will devour. It swoops hungrily on some prey and whimsically leaves other, fleshy and well padded beasts well alone. It seems to be concentrating its attentions on our publicly owned pastures, leaving the private estates well alone.
Enough with the metaphor. What is happening is that the response to the financial crisis is being dictated by those, in Government and outside it, who believe that the words ‘bloated’ and ‘public sector’ belong together and that the crisis cannot be resolved without first cutting back – 20 % is being mooted – on our public sector. The deficit hawks are currently in control of the skies.
Since the banking crisis began nef has been clear that we cannot resolve our economic crisis without first reforming the banking system. We know that the banking system has decoupled over the past decade from the productive economy. That linkage has to be restored but with a banking system radically re-formed.
The Government seems to agree: Vince Cable said last week that ‘ we have a seriously dysfunctional banking system’. And in case anyone forgets that our crisis came about through banking failure these figures will remind them:
- UK government support package for banks totalled £1.3 trillion
- Combined losses of ten major international stock markets reached $9.5 trillion between the start of 2007 and 2009 , or over 10 per cent of global GDP
We now urgently need another linkage between the programme of public service cuts and the demands we must make of the banking system. These principally refer to availability of credit but also to the establishment of a Universal Banking Obligation which means that the banks offer a service to the millions of people who currently have either no bank account or who cannot get even small amounts of credit for the kinds of economic activity that will help our economy to grow (money for training, for education, for house maintenance, for energy saving).
Only radical reform of the UK banking and financial sector can deliver institutions capable of investment and lending that is economically and socially productive. And a concentration on cutting public spending without this reform will be disasterous for our country.
Image by The Original Ki via Flickr
Listening to the debate on bankers’ bonuses over the past week is enough to make anybody seasick. It veers terrifyingly from righteous vengeance to doom-laden warnings. The Chancellor says he “won’t be held to ransom” by the RBS directors. Then we hear that taxing wealth-creators is bad and counter-productive.
Rather than being dogmatically for or against bonuses, we should take a step back and ask: what is the point of a bonus?
Bonuses are incentives. And we know that incentives are powerful and do work. So while there is a question about size – City bonuses are obscenely large and out of all step with pay in the much vaunted “real world” – the most overlooked question seems to be: are we using bonuses to incentivise the right kinds of actions and behaviours in the City?
Put like that, it is obvious that there are fundamental flaws with the City bonus systems. The current bonus system in the financial sector encourages the behaviour that wrecked our economy. My own experiences as an investment banker echo the observation by Lord Turner and now many others: much of it is indeed socially useless. It also has the potential, as we’ve seen, to bring the economy to its knees. It is dangerous and useless primarily because the opaque bonus system breeds short-termism and speculation. It pushes bank staff into overstretching their institutions’ capacity to bear risk. My experience is that even if traders want to invest long-term, they find they can’t because they are not paid to. When I traded shares for an investment bank, the managers’ patience for losing money was counted in days, not weeks or months.
A recent Harvard Law School study documents how executives from America’s two biggest failed banks were rewarded hugely for their efforts in the years leading up to the crisis. We now know that they were being paid so handsomely to bankrupt their own institutions and threaten the world economy.
I have just taken part in a Royal Society of Arts debate about whether the bonus system could possibly exist in an effective finance sector. The City insiders who defended the system inadvertently revealed the two reasons why this debate continues going in circles. First, they over-estimate the contribution of the sector’s high-paid. Second, they believe, wrongly, that bonuses reward good performance.
Even the Bischoff Report, commissioned by the government, makes this same mistake. It assumes that because the financial sector is vital that the bonuses must be vital and, crucially, that there is nothing wrong with the way bonuses are structured.
In reality, the sector’s contribution to the economy is not dependent on the bonuses likely to suffer from a windfall tax. Most bonuses that non-bankers receive (including doctors, teachers and many other private sector employees) are no more than a portion of overall annual pay.
A windfall tax will send a strong signal that bonuses have gotten too big. But a windfall tax is not enough. Incentives, rules and regulation are not encouraging the behaviour our businesses and economy need. They have encouraged the banks to become casinos and their staff to bet the house and our economy.
For banks, just as for bankers, it isn’t that incentives are the problem. Bad incentives are the problem.
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”
“Progress is the realisation of Utopias.” Can you imagine Peter Mandelson saying that to the CBI? Would Gordon Brown produce such a quip at the World Economic Forum? Even Barack Obama might have problems with this level of political lyricism. Progress might be the realisation of ambition, enterprise, or even dreams, but not utopias.
Utopianism tends to be a pejorative term these days. It’s associated with religious and political myths which we now might find naive and old-fashioned: be it the New Jerusalem of Christianity or the promised revolution of Marxism. The quotation from Wilde comes from his 1891 essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism‘, a political polemic with a curiously evangelical and redemptive tone.
We’ve witnessed too many failed or dangerous utopias to be taken in by such rhetoric anymore. How many of the 20th century’s worst atrocities started with a vision of a perfected world? And even when they haven’t ended in totalitarianism, utopian mindsets have collided with the wall of reality sooner or later. The global financial crisis of the last eighteen months has put paid to the neoliberal belief that history “ended” with the rise of free market capitalism.
Today we’re inclined to agree with the political philosopher John Gray, who writes that “utopia is the projection into the future of a model of a society that cannot be realized.”
And yet, somehow, I still have some sympathy with Wilde’s vision. Even once we accept the danger of utopianism and see through its mirages, we still need to chart a course for our societies to follow. We will always need some sort of compass to guide us.
The sociologist Stephen Lukes came up with the idea of a ‘concrete utopia’. Unlike John Gray’s definition, the concrete utopia is based on ‘the knowledge of a self-transforming present, not an ideal future’.
There is no doubt that we are currently in a ‘self-transforming present’. Thanks to a century and a half of industrialisation powered by fossil fuels, the world’s climate is changing – not somewhere else or at a future date, but right here, right now. The biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression has shaken all economic and political orthodoxies. And as inequality has risen in developing countries, so too has social instability and unrest. If we do nothing about these things, the present will transform itself for the worse. nef has calculated the costs of carrying on with ‘business-as-usual’ until 2050: the UK will be faced with a £1.6 to £2.5 trillion bill for climate change, and a £4.5 trillion bill for social problems arising from income inequality.
In order to steer clear of these threats, we’ll need something like a concrete utopia. Our new report The Great Transition attempts to put in place some clear steps towards the kind of economy which works for people and the planet. The Great Transition is undoubtedly utopian in spirit: we call it ‘the tale of how things turned out right’. But its recommendations are based right here in the present moment. There are things we can do immediately to tackle climate change, restore economic stability and create a more equal human settlement.
For the concrete utopian, it isn’t enough just to draw utopia onto Wilde’s map. First, you have to do some scouting, to see if that country actually exists, to glimpse its shores, even from afar. At nef, we’ve been able to do so through the vast array of practical projects we’ve been involved with over the years. Timebanking, complementary currencies, new methods of participation and democracy, Transition Towns, our BizFizz project for budding entrepreneurs, co-productive public services and barter economies all constitute, as we said in our pamphlet From the Ashes of the Crash, part of a ‘sleeping architecture of a new, diverse and resilient local financial system’, human-scale and low-carbon. And it’s on these foundations that we’ll start to build our concrete utopia.
If you’d like to glimpse the beginnings of the Great Transition, and help make it a reality, make sure you head along to The Bigger Picture: Festival of Interdependence, this Saturday 24 October, at the Bargehouse, South Bank, London.
Large parts of the City have grown too big and need to be cut down to size, if necessary by imposing new taxes, according to the chairman of the Financial Services Authority.
Lord Turner of Ecchinswell, an influential figure in the reform of banking rules in London and beyond, said that the City had grown “beyond a socially reasonable size”, accounting for too much of national output and sucking in too many of Britain’s brightest graduates.
“I think some of it is socially useless activity,” he said, adding that the financial sector had “swollen beyond its socially useful size” and seemed to make excessively large profits.
Lord Turner named fixed-income securities, trading, derivatives and hedging as areas that have grown beyond socially optimal levels, adding that fund management and share trading might also have grown too big.
Lord Turner added that he would favour City-specific taxes if his proposed new rules on capital failed to shrink investment bank balance sheets and curb the more useless or reckless trading. “If increased capital requirements are insufficient, I am happy to consider tax on financial transactions, Tobin taxes,” he told a discussion organised by Prospect magazine.
nef has been long been proposing that regulators curb the power of the financial sector with taxes, and using the revenue generated to finance more socially beneficial schemes. Back in 2001, when the current recession was just a glint in the speculator’s eye, we wrote a report with War on Want in which we proposed a “Robin Hood Tax” or Tobin Tax to divert funds away from the global currency market into funds for peace and international development.
When the report was released, nef Policy Director Andrew Simms argued that a tax of this kind would be “an automatic and politically painless way to help pay for international targets on sustainable development”. Today, when the voting public are still furious about continued bonuses and profiteering in the City, the tax would not only be politically painless, but politically therapeutic. And there are even more uses for the money raised: it could be used to power a Green New Deal, create an adaptation fund for poor countries who are feeling the effects of climate change, kickstart a Post Office Bank which would help small businesses and financially excluded communities… the list could go on.
We’ve also repeatedly said that the banks need cutting down to what Turner calls a “socially reasonable size”. Our post-crunch reports From the Ashes of the Crash and I.O.U.K. both propose de-merging the biggest banks, and separating speculative trading from the retail, high-street banking that all of us rely on.
Such proposals remain radical, but they’re no longer marginal. In an FT column that begins “The Climate Camp has come to Canary Wharf”, Turner is nicknamed “Swampy” for his ideas, but the article concludes that
Lord Turner has a perfect right to start stirring up discussion about how to shrink a wholesale financial sector that has, he says, “swollen beyond its socially useful size”… Let the debate begin.
The topic of the day is unemployment. At the moment, more people in the UK are unemployed than they were before Labour came into power. Not a nice reflection on the track record of the current Government. Why were so many jobs lost? Of course, the financial crisis. Always the financial crisis. However, looking at the types of jobs that are lost, many of those would have been low-skill jobs in the service sector that are expendable when the going gets tough. Demand for dry cleaners, office cleaners, caterers and sandwich sellers disappears quickly when the people demanding these services (i.e. those working in financial institutions) find themselves out of a job as well. So, all we have to do is make sure these financial wizards get their jobs back, so that those caterers and cleaners can get back on track, right? Wrong. What the crisis very clearly shows is that a lot of the employment created through the bubble was fleeting, just as the billions or even trillions of pounds that have now vanished into thin air. The jobs were not embedded in the real economy, the manufacturing of goods or the provision of services that we all need every day – for example good quality child care. Instead, people worked hard for measly incomes, were mostly unable to save, and loose the few assets they have, e.g. cars (which are often needed in order to get a new job). At the same time, they can’t honour credit commitments any more, meaning they are frequently over-indebted – or have already applied for personal insolvency. The latest stats show another increase in this
So what we need to do as part of the recovery is create jobs that allow people to build greater resilience against such crises in the future. There is little point in having millions of people relying on the hire and fire jobs that are so dependent on the economic cycle. In addition, people need help in building savings, skills and aspiration – now more than ever. However, as we discovered in recent research, many efforts to build assets and thus to improve crisis resilience are eroded during the current crisis. Governments across the EU are cutting back social support to the unemployed, and cancel grants to organisations that seek to help people in dire straits. Instead of nurturing the efforts of aspiring entrepreneurs and savers, there is little to no effort to help people help themselves. Particularly in the UK, asset erosion is happening on a large scale. Banks repossess houses at the earliest possibility instead of trying to find a solution with the client. Even worse, debt is sold off to debt collection agencies that sometimes use threats and psychological warfare to recover money, with an added fee on top. Credit card companies often refuse negotiations with debt advice organisations and insist on immediate payments. None of these practices are challenged by Government. Everything plays second fiddle to the financial institutions – it’s for them to get their books back in order, and the quickest way of doing this is to get rid of bad debt. In the long run, this practice entrenches existing and new poverty.
Our research found that organisations such as Toynbee Hall and Fair Finance see a huge increase in demand for their services. Scarily enough, many of the people now seeking advice and help are those that were considered well-placed in society: low- and middle-income families with a house and a steady income. Despite this increase in demand, not a penny of the stimulus packages has been allocated to these and other organisations to meet the increased demand. The consequences: bankruptcy and hardship. Poverty and destitution. This will cost a lot more in the future to rectify than investing in advice and support services now. The overwhelming majority of people wants to work and is seeking work – but they have to have the ability to do so. An undischarged bankruptcy, homelessness and a pile of debt and worries will not be helpful to this end.
Our report thus calls on the Government to support asset building efforts and to recognise how helpful they can be in helping people through tough times. Asset building should be part of mainstream politics, not a niche as they are now.
It is always better to make people self-reliant rather than having to feed them in times when money is tight. Cutting budgets for asset-building activities now is the worst way of going about it.
Barclays is said to be already recovering from the credit crunch whilst most of its clients, and the population at large, still are not even seeing a sliver of the light that could indicate the end of the tunnel is in sight. Small businesses still face cuts in their existing overdraft and credit facilities despite of the fact that their businesses are structurally sound. People with consumer debt still face increased interest rates. Personal insolvencies, as a result of redundancies, are at an all time high (link to insolvency services). Mortgage holders see their interest rates rising. Banks reposess houses more quickly than ever, and debt collectors are also becoming more aggressive.
So what does this increase in banking profits actually mean? Are we seeing a rehabilitation of our broken financial system? Or are we simply on the way to returning to business as usual, with the toxic loans written off?
The simple answer is – no-one knows for sure. There was certainly a gradual return of confidence, meaning that people will want to invest again. But there remains also a certain amount of question marks. As Robert Peston from the BBC argues, banks are reducing the amount of money they lend, so that they simply have more on their books.
In addition, however, the way that banks post their profits can change quickly as they can use different methods of valuing their assets. Asset valuation is not an exact science, and there are various ways of doing so.
Be that as it may, everyone is sighing a breath of relief that at least two banks don’t appear to go the way of Northern Rock (although there are interesting ideas around to breathe new life into it. That relief could be (and in certain quarters, is) giving way to complacency and a return to BAUBAB: Business As Usual and Bonuses Are Back. Despite Barclay’s assurances that bonus payments are reformed, an average of bonus £100,000 for staff at Barclay’s Capital still makes me think that this is more cosmetic.
We probably will have to repeat this until we’re blue in the face – but banking reform has not gone anywhere near enough to create a stable financial system in which systemic crises such as the current one are less likely to happen. And anyone who thinks that the crisis is over forgets that for the millions of unemployed, and those steeped into debt, it’s only the beginning.
The financial crisis which erupted almost two years ago has led to the biggest shake up in economic policy since the Oil Crisis of the 1970s. Neoliberal economics lies in tatters, with the UK Conservative party dismissing the notion of the ‘utility-maximising rational actor’ as a fantasy and Martin Wolf of the FT pronouncing the end of the dream of global free market capitalism. The question is what will come next.
Sadly, there are few signs of a new approach which takes seriously the ‘triple crunch’ of the financial, environmental and energy crises. Rather, governments are turning back to tried and tested state-led growth strategies to reflate national economies, pumping liquidity into credit markets and creating new or bringing forward existing public spending plans. In other words, there has been a return to post-war Keynesianism – the doctrine that the state could and should regulate the market and step in to boost demand whenever required. This thinking lies at the heart of Obama’s $787 billion fiscal stimulus package, as well of those of Europe and China. China is embarking on what is possibly the biggest Keynesian experiment in history, with the government attempting to create a welfare state virtually overnight so as to maintain demand as well as pumping billions of yuan into mainly state owned industries, as Newsnight’s Paul Mason recently revealed.
Aside from the fact that the proportion of this new funding that will be spent upon green investment is rather small (very small in the case of the UK), there are bigger questions about whether this whole approach will prevent another, bigger financial crisis and help us move towards to the low carbon, low throughput ‘steady-state’ economy required to prevent catastrophic climate change.
As Walden Bellow, the Phillipino intellectual and activist, points out in a recent article, today’s crisis requires us to move beyond Keynesian demand management at the national level to address global problems of inequality, overproduction and over-consumption. For Bellow:
“The challenge to economics at this point is raising the consumption levels of the global poor with minimal disruption of the environment, while radically cutting back on environmentally damaging consumption or overconsumption in the North. All the talk of replcaing the bankrupt American consumer with a Chinese peasant engaged in American-style consumption as the engine of global demand is both foolish and irresponsible.”
These are issues nef has addressed in our interdependence reports but currently they are not even on the ‘any other business’ agendas of the finance ministries of the world’s great powers. Rather, we are seeing a return to a ‘Growth as Usual’ policy which flies in the face of global inequalities and serious attempts at a transformation to a low carbon economy. It is about time that economists began to look at some of Keynes’ less well known policies, such as that economies should be primarily concerned to consume only what they are able to produce, outlined in his essay on “National Self-Sufficiency“. Globalisation, in particular the globalisation of capital flows, is a major part of the reason we are in this mess – a bit of de-globalisation will be required to get us out of it.
“Future students of history will be shocked and angered by the fact that in 1945 the same monetary system that had driven the world to despair and disaster [in the Great Depression], and had almost destroyed the civilisation it was supposed to stand for, was revived on a much wider scope.”
So wrote the French economist Jacques Rueff in 1964. It feels much the same now: we would be insane to go back to the same disastrous banking pattern we had before the bail-out, but – thanks to the government – we probably will.
Only a miserable 0.6 per cent of the government’s stimulus package is going on green measures, to genuinely shift the way the economy works.
Lord Mandelson has come out as a born again defender of the financial status quo.
But worst of all, the latest Bank of England assessment shows that, despite everything, business lending to small and medium-sized businesses is down again. Differential interest rates and fees are both still rising.
It has become a lot more expensive to borrow money, even for the lucky few who make it through the approval stage.
One of the many tragedies about the Westminster expenses scandal, as Vince Cable pointed out last week, is that it robs MPs of the moral authority to tackle our dysfunctional banking system.
Ministers daren’t say anything too interesting, or too bold, in case heir colleagues assume they are throwing their hand into the ring for the Labour leadership. It is a miserable prospect, and it may guarantee a swift return to banking business-as-usual.
To start with, it is time we broke the all-party consensus that somehow the government can use their holdings in the big banks to kick-start local lending again. It hasn’t worked, and seems unlikely to work any time soon.
This is not only because banks won’t lend, but because they can’t lend using their current infrastructure and systems.
They have been consolidated to the point where they point towards the speculative economy and have little local lending infrastructure left. Their lending decisions are taken by computerised systems which, because we are in a recession, naturally recommend against.
There are no longer bank managers, or local staff with the authority to pick out the success stories, using their knowledge of their local economy.
Our businesses are now in a far weaker position than American or German competitors, and potential competitors, because we have no equivalent lending infrastructure. There are only 170 branches per million people in the UK, compared to 520 in Germany and 960 in France.
Now that the elections are over, this is what politicians need to do immediately:
- Break up the banks in government ownership, not just by dividing domestic high street banks from risky investment banks, but to rebuild an effective local lending infrastructure to kick-start local enterprise.
- Launch a new bank based in post office branches, along the lines of the successful postbanks on the continent and in New Zealand, using the latest mobile phone technology.
- Invest in a new generation of community financial institutions, funded by the big banks, as they are in the USA, under a British version of the Jimmy Carter’s Community Reinvestment Act.
Why is this still not top of the agenda? I think this is partly because, in this country at least, people don’t understand the money system. Their mental map of it is nearly a century old: safe reliable Captain Mainwaring and vaults full of money.
I was assured some years ago by the Washington correspondent of a national newspaper (admittedly it was the Sun) that all money is based on gold. It hasn’t actually been since 1931.
This is my excuse for writing an accessible guide to the way money works: Money Matters: Putting the Eco into Economics.
I hope (no small ambition this) that it might help dispel some of the bizarre mystique that bankers continue to exercise over the minds of the English. Because what we really need to do is abandon the idea that our current useless system was somehow placed there by God, and demand the new local banking infrastructure we need.
Here at nef, we like to talk about the triple crunch: the interlinked crises of climate change, economic meltdown and diminuishing supplies of fossil fuels. But that’s not the whole story. The breakdown in economic consensus in the wake of the credit crunch points towards other crunches: evapourating trust in established politics and a coming ‘social’ crunch, as the gap between rich and poor gets wider.
Our friends at Compass will be exploring these latter aspects of our current predicament at their major conference No Turning Back happening later this month. The aim is to forge a new political and economic settlement for the 21st century with democracy, equality and sustainability at its heart.
nef will be joining the fray. Our policy director Andrew Simms will proudly commit what he calls ‘the final heresy’ by questioning the justifications behind economic growth. Juliet Michaelson, a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being and one of the brains behind our National Accounts of Well-being, will be talking about work, happiness and democracy. And finally Dr Stephen Spratt, nef‘s chief economist, probably won’t be grieving too much as he joins a panel on The Death of the Free Market.
Non-nef highlights include Jon Cruddas MP, Chukku Umana, Billy Hayes of the CWU, Prof Richard Wilkinson and Dr Kate Pickett (authors of The Spirit Level), Polly Toynbee and John Harris of the Guardian, Nick Hildyard from The Corner House, and plenty more besides.
Tickets for the conference are going quickly, so make sure you book as soon as possible if you want to be there.