Kate Raworth’s “Doughnut Economics” is a great starting point for new thinkers

Kate Raworth is an author who can’t be ignored. Google her book “Doughnut Economics” and you get 155,000 results. In September 2020 Goodreads had 549 reviews and Amazon 469 ratings. Her book is lucid and accessible and I love her chapter headings. She has an extraordinarily comprehensive list of references.(Some chapters have 90-100)

This is a comprehensive review of orthodox economics over a few centuries. Her “doughnut” metaphor describes the realm of a living habitat for humans as being only in the doughnut. We have to be lifted out of poverty to reach a certain minimum standard of living, yet not consume so much of the earth’s resources so that we are breaching planetary boundaries. Her doughnut is unforgettable and will go into future economics textbooks. She describes a social floor for wellbeing and an ecological ceiling. 

To illustrate her strong call to rethink economics she packs her chapters with a dense and interesting mix of facts and trends within economics thinking. The strength of this book is that because of Raworth’s deep understanding of the history of economic thinking she is acutely aware she is just but one thinker in a chain, and that there will be another generation of thinkers beyond her. She regularly invites her readers to think our way out of this mess and tempts us with numerous leads. She is an advocate of drawing diagrams. 

However naturally there are omissions and blind spots. 

Naturally when reading a new book on new economics (I have written two) I go straight to their bibilography and there I find a good list on the topic of money and an excellent one on tax –Gaffney and Harrison, Henry George, Michael Hudson, JS Mill, Ricardo, Josh Ryan-Collins and Peter Barnes. I also find Michel Bauwens on the commons and Janine Benys on biomimicry.

So here is what I think a list of what the next generation of thinkers could productively focus on:- 

First Omission – asking what is the root cause of the growth imperative?

One of the more irksome features of her discussion is that she never really asks what causes the growth imperative. She doesn’t appear to stress that it is built into the system. While she cites many who write on money creation including Benes and Kumhof, Charles Eisenstein, Michael Hudson, Steve Keen and Bernard Lietaer but never seems to use the phrase “interest-bearing debt” or explore the consequences of issuing money this way. She dabbles but pulls back when it comes to probing important leads. I urge thinkers to read Chapter 2 of economist Richard Douthwaite’s book The Growth Illusion, where after a discussion about the consequences of issuing money as interest bearing debt, he concludes. “In our present economic system, the choice is between growth and collapse, not growth and stability…The alternative is slums, dangerous roads, old factories, cramped schools and stunted lives.” Douthwaite, like Raworth, was a development economist who spent years on overseas aid work,  and in the process he had to spend time relearning and unlearning economics. 

Second Omission – the role of power

When I was a  full time advocate in the smokefree campaign in the 1980s, I watched public opinion change over a decade of debate and conflict. I was high profile in the media for a decade. On non-smokers’ rights I was a controversial figure in many households, workplaces and clubs. The health lobby, equipped with all the scientific facts, gradually and painfully learnt the reality of political power. We started to understand the subtle influence of the tobacco industry, and came to realise that the frustrating reluctance of politicians to move was because they were waiting for public opinion to change. So I always notice when an academic advocates for change and appear to imply it happens without pain and struggle. The famous quote of Mahatma Gandhi, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” is relevant here. So even a passing reference to the role of power and the agony of the political struggle would have been helpful here.

Third Omission – the importance of currency design 

Kate Raworth leads us to the insightful author Silvio Gesell, summarises his argument for a demurrage currency, chooses the best quotes from him, and then pulls back. I urge the next generation of thinkers to follow through this clue, because the design of money changes everything, from purchasing behaviour to investment patterns. If Keynes called Gesell ‘an unduly neglected prophet’ we should really pay attention. She has a whole chapter called ‘Design to Distribute’, but completely omits the critical nature of currency design. 

She has read Bernard Lietaer, or at least one of his books, but the next thinkers should read the more of Lietaer and think deeply about his argument that the design of money affects human economic behaviour and that there are good examples in history of a dynamic, successful societies where dual currencies contribute to this result.

Fourth Omission – Energy Decline

I am not sure I do it justice either, but those who understand that because of peak oil the net energy in the industrial system must decline, also know that we have to live with progressively less net energy. That is a big concept because economic growth has for decades been closely correlated with energy growth. 

When it comes to discussing the regenerative circular economy,  where the essential concept is to ensure we can unmake everything we make. I am not sure how this fits with the Second Law of Thermodynamics says that processes that involve the transfer or conversion of heat energy are irreversible. … It  also states that there is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state. As energy is transferred or transformed, more and more of it is wasted. So the circular economy is not that simple.

I am rather inclined to agree with a University of Otago scientist Craig Anderson who recently wrote on an email discussion, “Concepts like Doughnut Economics will not achieve what we need – they sound lovely and the heart is definitely in the right place – but these concepts are still not yet grounded in the realities of the remaining resource base and energy constraints.”

Fifth Omission – Land Tax reform

She has spent a few pages on Henry George who would replace income tax with land value tax and on the origins of the board game Monopoly. This occurs under the chapter heading Design to Distribute. But she doesn’t really convey that land tax is the most powerful way to distribute wealth. Those wanting to take this topic further should learn about the value of inner city land, not just rural land and learn from Georgist organisations like Progress in Australia for more information. A discussion of the relative merits of capital gains tax, land value tax, death duties, wealth taxes, estate taxes would have been useful.

This book is a must read for any critic of orthodox economics. Raworth concludes, “We are all economists now”. So if we are to survive, we can’t avoid this discipline. 

 

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It’s our Superpower to create money says Reserve Bank chief economist

On Tuesday 19th May John Campbell, host of TVOne Breakfast, interviewed  Yuong Hu, Chief Economist of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand and asked him about printing money. If the Reserve Bank is going to buy billions of dollars in Government bonds where does the money come from?

Q. Is Quantitative Easing the same as printing money?

A. Well the process is very similar. But rather than being bedazzled by the term Quantitative Easing (and us economists love throwing around these fancy terms), it might help if I can set the scene. I think the name of the game is still the same. We want to lower interest rates. The economy is taking a big hit right now. It needs all the support it can get. And the central bank can provide that support by pushing interest rates low and keeping them low. So we have got to find different ways of getting interest rates down. Quantitative Easing is a fancy name. You probably would have heard of the OCR. That is a more traditional way of doing monetary policy but we are now using Quantitative Easing. A good analogy would be the OCR is like 10 man rugby – very traditional but Quantitative Easing is (inaudible) backline.

Q. Are you printing money? Are you somewhere out the back with the printer?

A. Metaphorically we are. That’s one of our special powers. Central banks can print money or create money. These days it’s done electronically. We’re in a digital world. It’s not analogue. We are not physically up there turning the crank and the handles and money coming out. If I can I can use a simple analogy. There are retail interest rates like mortgage rates and these set at a margin  above the wholesale interest rates. We pay the retail price. We are  trying to do with Quantitative Easing is to lower the wholesale interest rates in the economy, in this case Government Bond rates. Then banks can pass on the lower rates and this will lead to lower mortgage rates and lower business rates.

Q. Yes but can I come back to my obsession? But you are creating money. Who gives you the right to do that? Who says you can?

A. Well the Government does. I mean it’s written. It’s our superpower if you like. Legislation says that. All central banks have that power, just like Government has the power to levy taxes and change taxes. Central banks have the power to create money.

Q. When the Government eventually repays you what happens to the money?

A. It gets unprinted. When that money gets repaid, it sits on the Reserve Bank’s balance sheet and we just metaphysically destroy it by undoing it with a few keystrokes.

Q.  It just ceases to exist. Boy. You can see how people get confused by this, can’t you?

A. I think people get confused by the Quantitative Easing. To the uninitiated it feels astounding, but central banks actually do this on a daily basis. We have been in the business of creating money for years. There is nothing untoward about it. We have done this for many decades. It’s just that it has grabbed all the headlines. It’s like finding out you can lift the line-out jumper.

End of interview

My take on this is that he didn’t spell out the mechanism by which interest rates are lowered. I understand from a letter that Grant Robertson wrote to Amanda Vickers that buying bonds on the secondary market, that is from banks in NZ and overseas, pension funds and other institutions is the method they prefer because it lowers interest rates, or is supposed to.

However my belief is they should buy bonds directly from Treasury because it then Treasury has a debt to another branch of Government and the debt can just lie on the books. There is no need for repayment. This is the big difference between what they are doing now and what would be best for taxpayers. I read that Grant Robertson and those in RBNZ have not ruled out this possibility. It is just that they had better get on with it because one bank economist estimated the other day that RBNZ is buying at a rate of $1.1 billion a week.

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