Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Enact the Bank of England

(Creation of Currency) Bill 2010

by gswanson (July 03 2010)

Forcing millions of ordinary people to borrow their means of exchange into existence from the banks at their own risk and expense, in the form of over-priced mortgages and other loans, and then taxing them to service government debt on top of that, severely limits economic independence and freedom of choice. If the definition of a slave is not ill-treatment, but the fact that he or she has no say in their own policy, the decision to tax the people to save the banks, without any offer of a vote or any discussion of alternative means of creating new purchasing power, reduces large swaths of the population to slavery.

The Bank of England (Creation of Currency) Bill 2010 proposes a simple reform which will dramatically reduce taxes, while at the same time expanding and maintaining infrastructure and providing decent public services.

The Bill establishes as its Universal Principle that: "Throughout the entire banking and deposit taking system ... every credit to an account must be matched by an equal debit from a different account". Only the Bank of England will be exempt from this requirement, thereby enjoying sole right to create all of the UK's new money, both cash and non-cash.

Enactment of the Bill will complete the work of The Bank Charter Act of 1844, which made it as illegal for the commercial banks to print notes as it already was for them to mint coins. Under the Act it will also be illegal for them to create non-cash money in the form of "credit". In effect, the money supply will be nationalised without any need to nationalise the banks, which will continue to compete for their profits in the open market – with the difference that they will now confine themselves to borrowing and lending money which already exists.

With money recognised as a public utility, the MPC [Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee] will be responsible for issuing or withdrawing it from circulation directly, instead of depending on the blunt instrument of interest rates to control inflation; and any new money created can be spent into circulation on public works and services as indicated by voters in the usual way, at general elections.

The Bank of England (Creation of Currency) Bill 2010 is online, with detailed explanations and FAQs, at

Why the contribution is important

Nothing is more important to most people than material security. Until we have an adequate income, we have no time to worry much about civil liberties. This Bill offers us a chance to restructure the economy, focussing on the production and distribution of goods and services for all, rather than the multiplication and manipulation of financial units for the benefit of a few.

The most basic civil liberty is a decent standard of living. Establishing a sound financial and economic system should therefore be the priority of any government. The Bank of England (Creation of Currency) Bill 2010 shows how it can be done.

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Bill Totten

Agrarian Anxieties

by Steven Stoll

Harper's Magazine Notebook (July 1010)

While the moderns insure themselves by not thinking at all about the consequences of their innovations for the social order, the premoderns ... dwell endlessly and obsessively on those connections between nature and culture. To put it crudely: those who think the most about hybrids circumscribe them as much as possible, whereas those who choose to ignore them ... develop them to the utmost.

- Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (1993)

Whenever we seek control over our tiny scrap of the universe, we create hybrids - not fuel-efficient cars or cross-pollinated flora but composites of nature and culture that we stitch together, bring to life, and imagine serve us rather than stalk us. The warming atmosphere, our most spectacular hybrid, developed for a century without anyone noticing it, because we took for granted that the earth flourished under industrial progress. Pesticides and antibiotics offer another example, since they stimulate the evolution of chemical-resistant organisms. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico might look like a singular event, but the assumptions that led up to it have existed unexamined for decades. We invent these monsters without intending to and ignore them for as long as possible with the self-deceiving certainty that they cannot or will not harm us. Something peculiar about being modern, reasons the philosopher Latour, has led us to believe that the environment conforms to the social order as part of an elaborate pageant of progress.

It would be easy to argue, as many have, that Judeo-Christian religions, in their insistence that human domination of the planet is by, divine decree, have created these and other hybrids. But reservations about nature-culture hybrids go back to the very origins of this religious tradition. The Bible crackles with alarm over fratricide and genocide, over the violent assemblage of kingdoms as commanded by the warrior-god, and over the accumulation of wealth - all linked to the most destructive and socially transforming technology ever invented: agriculture. People with an oral history of that Great Transition feared that the imperatives of the plow would tear apart an older world or that they already had. This revolution, for centuries exalted as the necessary condition of modern civilization, without which there could be no great cities or accumulation of wealth, looked more like a weapon of mass destruction to people closer to its invention. In their cautionary tales and utopian laws, we moderns might find a way to recognize and control our hybrids before they devour us.

In Eden, that favored couple gather all they need without hunger or toil; they dwell in harmony with all Creation. Their abrupt expulsion from that kindly wilderness is an allegory of the Neolithic transition. No Arcadia awaits them; instead, they and their descendants will scrape, dig, and struggle for every meal. They will stoop with sweat on their faces.

The first couple moves from one allegorical space to another. They beget the material and political archetypes of the Bronze Age: Cain (or Kayin) the farmer and Abel (Hevel) the herder, who then contend over which one will spawn future nations. God loves Abel's burnt offerings but rejects Cain's. No reason is given, but it may well be that Abel's spotless lamb represents a more substantial portion of his good fortune - literally, a greater sacrifice - because it contains more energy and nutrients than a bundle of wheat. God tells Cain to get over it, but Cain broods, and then bludgeons his brother to death. The killing of Abel marks the beginning of the association of shepherds with peace and innocence and of farmers with violence. God knows exactly how to punish the first murderer: "When you wish to work the soil it will not henceforth give its strength to you; wavering and wandering must you be on earth!" Cain cries back that the sentence is more than he can stand. "Whoever! comes upon me will kill me!" But the voice from the void protects him.

Only a God with some pragmatic motive would have let Cain live. God knows that farmers become many and overwhelm hunters and herders with their numbers. The fearsome growth of agrarians - fueled by wheat, rice, and maize and driven by the need for fresh land - pushes them ever farther east of Eden and into bloody territorial wars. Genesis is all about population as destiny. Cain emerges as an ambiguous symbol of the victory of farming over herding. Cursed and indispensable, he wanders away to found the first city and his own branch of humanity - not merely by heredity but by the arts his progeny devises. A seventh-generation descendant, Yuval, invents music. Yuval's half-brother, Tuval-Kayin (who bears the name of his lineage), becomes a "burnisher of every blade of bronze and iron". Cain gives rise to the division of labor and to the agrarian economy that eventually takes over the world.

Then the agrarian God starts over by drowning everyone but the members of one family. His orders to them are unequivocal. As soon as the ark lands on firm ground and releases its smelly cargo, God tells Noah that sowing and harvesting will never again cease and that Noah has a new mission: "Fear-of-you, dread-of-you shall be upon all the wildlife of the earth and upon all the fowl of the heavens ... I now give you all". Seize it! plant it! rule it! "Swarm on the earth and become many on it!" The flood annihilated Cain's descendants but not his errand, which passes to Noah. According to one Jewish legend, Noah invented the plow, scythe, and hoe - the tools for appropriating the landscape. The flood did not just clear away the wicked; it made possible a more aggressive peopling.

Monotheism itself is impossible to separate from the agrarian possession of land. Abraham goes out from his father's house - goes out, that is, from a spiritual universe in which localized gods control rains and harvests to one in which all forces coalesce into an omnipresent power. No matter where Abraham walks, the voice goes with him. Upon his arrival in Canaan, Abraham begins to lay claim to the land by mixing himself with it - not by clearing trees and putting up fences but by performing rites. "Lift up your eyes and see from the place where you are", says God, "to the north, to the Negev, to the east, to the Sea: indeed, all the land that you see, I give it to you and to your seed, for the ages. I will make your seed like the dust of the ground."

With God's promise begins the story of the various ways the Israelites prepare for their takeover. One episode stands above all others for its metaphorical power: the interment of the first matriarch. When Sarah dies Abraham buries her in Canaan rather than take her back to where she was born. In the time before private property, the presence of ancestors' bodies established the closest thing to a legal land claim. Abraham negotiates for a cave in Hebron and then plants his wife (a different kind of seed), thereby turning the region into contested real estate.

The plow, the promise, and the law all come together in General Joshua. With Moses having spoken his last, the Israelites under Joshua cross the Jordan River. Modern interpreters strain to cast what happens next as metaphor, as the victory of the holy over the unholy or as a case of Joshua misunderstanding God's commands. It is no metaphor. Although we know it never happened (it is, by far, the weakest explanation of how Semitic people came to dominate the region), the book of Joshua reads like an eyewitness account. Joshua burns the city of Ai, turning it into "a heap forever, even a desolation, unto this day", then sends his armies to pursue and slay its fleeing inhabitants. The king of Ai hangs, and "at the going down of the sun ... they took his carcass down from the tree, and cast it at the entrance of the gate of the city". The Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites die in the same genocidal fury, to be replaced by a more ecologically intensive agrarian regime. Joshua does Cain's work on a grand scale. Centuries later, the prophet Isaiah echoed that conquest: "You will spread out to the right and left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities".

The gory passages in Joshua, in which an underfed, underequipped, and militarily undertrained people conquer a civilization of urban strongholds, are so embellished that they must have had a political purpose - the Bronze Age equivalent of a whisper campaign intended to intimidate possible rivals. But the conquest story also contains a moral about the ideologies of agrarians: Today's serfs may be tomorrow's conquerors. The Israelites did not learn empire-building in the desert but from their wheat-growing, monument-building, class-dominating former oppressors, the Egyptians. If the Israelites wanted to rule over their own fecund river valley, they would have to possess it as absolutely as the Egyptians did the Nile valley. The legacy of these former slaves, after all, was to swarm the earth.

The uses of farmers as God's instruments, however, runs into opposition in other parts of the Hebrew Bible. A herder, not a farmer, received the Ten Commandments and led the people through the wilderness. Having escaped from the Pharaoh's household, Moses lies low in the desert with a nomadic sheepherding family that includes Tzippora, his future wife. Moses helps his father-in-law by taking the herd to higher altitudes in search of green forage during the summer - just like all Eurasian pastoralists. Before heading back to the lowlands, Moses would have known to burn the meadow to promote vigorous growth for the next year. The burning bush, in other words, is a fire that Moses set himself. As he looks into the heat, the voice hits him - unmistakably real but impossible to grasp. "Put off your sandal from your foot", said the fire to Moses. "The place on which you stand - it is holy ground". The utterance meant that any place could be holy because the god in the fire existed everywhere. The two met again, atop another mountain, and Moses returned from that encounter with a law as peripatetic as himself and his sheep and that applied to everyone everywhere: a powerful tool for constructing religions that spread with their believers.

As the ritual laws develop, the Israelites invent various tough-on-crime measures intended to suppress their capacity for violence toward enemies, animals, and soil. To this end, Leviticus extends the commanded "Sabbath day of rest" as a precaution against the ecological destruction endemic to agrarian societies. In the sabbatical year not a grain or grape was harvested, or even gleaned from the weedy shoots that poked up in formerly planted fields. The inconvenience of spending a year gathering wild emmer wheat in the hills of Galilee had to be balanced against the very survival of the nation: the fallow period restored a degree of soil fertility, preventing starvation and the need to migrate. In a political sense, the sabbatical lived up to its peaceful principle, because a seed-planting people able to remain within their ordained territory had no need to go to war with neighbors.

The sabbatical year was a remarkable innovation. It acknowledges Canaan not as a fantastical vision but as an ecological space with biophysical limits. (Observance of the ritual is well documented between 700 and 163 BC, and some Israeli Jews observe it today.) There is no telling exactly how ancient Semitic farmers subsisted, but even a ritual embrace of gleaning and gathering suggests that they did not see these practices as primitive or backward but as practical strategies during drought and other adverse times.

Channeling God's voice, the authors of Leviticus then moved the sabbatical toward an even more radical confrontation with the cumulative tensions of a farming society. Following every seven sabbatical cycles not only would land lie fallow for a year but a half-century of property sales would be reversed, outstanding debts relieved, and all slaves released. The explanation reads as precisely as a tax code: "In buying [land] from your neighbor, you shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years: the more such years, the higher the price you pay; the fewer such years, the lower the price; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests". The statute effectively abolished whatever notion of property the Israelites might have had. Instead, everyone owned a use right that could be bought and sold until the jubilee suspended the economic rules and reset the game. The jubilee mended social fissures by transferring all property to an indisputable trustee: "The land is Mine", says the voice, "you are but strangers resident with Me".

Although much is unclear about the jubilee year, it constitutes nothing less than the first land-reform measure. The upshot was a legal mechanism for preventing class differences, and breakaway city-states. As people changed over from gathering with a little planting on the side to planting almost full-time, the relationship between land and labor also changed. Slavery, dispossession, empire - all can be understood as rational adaptations to a new world in which the intensive occupation of land became the basis of wealth and sovereignty. The Israelites sensed the opportunity in and the dangers of that new order. They had observed much and learned a few strokes from the Egyptians, but they clearly did not want to set off a process of inequality that might turn them into Pharaohs. The Israelites recognized farming as a potentially devastating hybrid, a regime made from equal parts nature and culture, and they realized that the very thing that made them powerful also made them vulnerable.

We mix ourselves with the environment in everything we do, and not every composite is poised to annihilate us. Gardens represent perhaps the most optimistic example of a negotiated plenty in which we can do some things but not others. Yet this is just the kind of humility that is lacking throughout our own culture. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, now among the largest ever, covering (as of this writing) 10,000 square miles, looks accidental, rather than inevitable, only if we deny that technical complexity combined with greed and arrogance breeds catastrophe. As a survivor of the oil-rig explosion told 60 Minutes: "All the things that they told us could never happen happened". The only way to neutralize our most fearsome hybrid - our warming atmosphere - is to suspend the rules in much the same way the authors of Leviticus did. Think of a carbon tax as a kind of jubilee: like the sabbatical fallow, it would break a pattern that threatens the social order. Making it law demands that we reform our dependence on machines as well as our market behavior; it demands that we circumscribe this and other hybrids as much as possible. Setting an artificial price on emissions might not sound like the timbre of a ram's horn announcing the jubilee, but it would signal that we know how to stop feeding the monster we've created.


Steven Stoll is an associate professor of history at Fordham University and is writing a book about agrarian societies in the Western Hemisphere. His last article for Harper's Magazine, "Toward a Second Haitian Revolution" appeared in the April 2010 issue.

Bill Totten

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Church, the Peak, and My Old Watch

by Ugo Bardi (July 24 2010)

The old pocket watch that I used as a prop for my talk on peak oil to a group of elderly people in a countryside church. It was made in 1946 - the date and the name of the owner are still engraved on the back.

When I arrive, the friend who has invited me tells me that he is sorry, but the room where they usually have these meetings is not available today. So, they have arranged my talk in the church. Will that be all right? I say that it will be all right, of course. It will be the first time I give a talk in a church but, why not? So, my friend takes me inside, where they have arranged the benches in a semi-circle. I will be speaking standing in front of the altar; as if I were giving a sermon. But, again, why not?

As I stand there, people start arriving. Not that I expected a crowd, but it is a sizeable number for a small countryside parish: about twenty people. I didn't expect to see anyone young, either; after all it is a Saturday afternoon and the young people have other things to do than to listen to my talk. Myself and my friend are the only ones in their fifties, it seems. Most of the others seem to be well in their seventies or even in their eighties. Old couples, several old ladies alone. My friend had alerted me: they are people of the parish who have formed this group where they try to learn about energy and sustainability. They are also cultivating a vegetable garden on the parish's land.

Before we start, the priest comes to greet us. He thanks me for having accepted the invitation and he says that we should say a little prayer before starting. I think that the last time I prayed in church must have been when I was - perhaps - twelve years old. But I can't think of a reason why I should not join. We all hold hands together, in a circle, and we say a Pater Noster.

And here I am, in front of these good people. There is no way to show them slides and - even if there were - it would not be the way of speaking to them. Clearly, they are not interested in long lists of oil reserves or in details on future production. But I had suspected what I was going to face and so I am prepared. I take up the old pocket watch that I had taken with me. I show it to them. "It is an old watch", I say. "It belonged to Swiss man. I know that because there is his name engraved inside. You see?" I open the watch, showing to them the engraving inside. "There is a name and a date. This watch was made in 1946."

I continue, "I never met the owner of this watch, but I know who he was. He was a Swiss industrialist who had a hat factory in Florence. He must have liked Italy, because he got old here and he died here; in the 1970s. But it was also because Italy was less expensive than Switzerland and the salary of workers was lower. Some things never change over time; companies go where workers cost less. So, my grandfather used to work for this man, and my aunt took care of him when he was very old and sick. This watch was, I think, a gift of this man to my aunt; and so I have it now. You see, it is a a rare model. It has an internal alarm; it was not common at all to have this feature in a pocket watch. But the owner was a businessman and he probably travelled a lot and stayed in hotels. So, he needed a watch that was also an alarm clock. It is a nice object; I like it a lot and I use it sometimes, not very often because I am afraid of breaking it. But it still works very well."

I look around me. The old people seem to be fascinated. They are old enough to remember that kind of watch and the times when a watch was an expensive object. They are from a generation when you would get your first watch as a gift for the solemn occasion of their first communion.

I keep going. "These watches were not cheap at their time but you didn't need to be rich to have one. A friend of mine has one of these pocket watches that belonged to her grandfather. Not so fancy as this one, of course, but a good watch anyway. And her grandfather was a peasant of the Appennini mountains. He was not rich but he could afford a pocket watch. Today we think that a cheap watch is something that is made in China, costs very little and you throw it away after a few years, when you are tired of it. But are we sure that it is the way a cheap watch should be? What is that makes something cheap or expensive? Of course, it is the work that you need for making it and the materials that you need to make it. This watch that I have here doesn't contain expensive materials: it is only steel, glass and a little enamel, that's it. Its cost would be mainly for making it - paying the watchmakers, that is. So, it was expensive, especially if it was a bit fancy, like this one. But then it would last for a long time and so it made sense to make a little investment in something that you would keep for many years. Even a peasant could do it and this is the reason people had their name engraved on the rear of their watch. It was made to last."

They are listening. I know that they are thrifty and the idea of a watch that lasts a long time makes sense to them. I continue: "Now, think of a modern watch: it takes very little work to make it; it doesn't have all the delicate gears that are inside one of these old watches. But the problem is that a modern watch uses a lot of rare materials that have to come from far away. The battery, for instance, uses a metal called lithium that comes from Bolivia and it is rare. And there is a microprocessor inside, probably has gallium in it. Gallium is another rare metal - very, very rare. There are no gallium mines; gallium is just an impurity of aluminium. And, for the display, you need indium - another rare metal. You probably never heard of these names, but we are using elements of which there is a very small supply on this planet. So far, they haven't been so expensive, but there is not an infinite amount of them. Then, of course, the case of the watch, the strap and other components are made in plastics which is made from crude oil. And to make a watch like this one takes energy. Energy comes mainly from oil and every time we throw away a watch, to make another one we need to use more energy and to dig out more rare materials. And this is a problem because there is not an infinite amount of stuff that we can dig out of the ground."

From then on, it is easy. They are fascinated by the story of crude oil and they listen with great attention when I tell them how it is found, extracted, transported, refined and transformed into many things; from fuel to plastics. I don't tell them much about peak oil; I just mention it in passing. But it is not difficult for them to understand that oil resources are not infinite and not even abundant any more. They were born in a world where nothing was really abundant; a world in which everything had to be used sparingly. I try not to scare them, of course. I tell them that they should try to make up their own minds; "Don't just trust me but try to see all what is happening in light of what I said. Don't you think that these difficult times we are seeing could be due to the fact that mineral resources are slowly running out?" They nod. It makes sense to them.

I look at the time on the old pocket watch: I have spoken for just a little more than half an hour. So far, I didn't see anyone sleeping or distracted, but old people tend to tire rapidly, so it is better to close. I finish my talk with some more considerations on mineral resources and there come the usual applauses.

There comes the time for questions. They are a little shy, but a lady raises her hand. She is probably the youngest in the audience - in her early sixties, I'd say. She says "Professor, we enjoyed very much your talk and I can understand the problems you told us about. But, in practice, what should we do about it?"

I expected this question. I make a point not to tell people what they should do in my talks - not normally, at least. It think it is not so polite; I mean, who am I to tell other people what to do? But if they ask me, well, then I can give my opinion. So, I say, "You see, I speak sometimes to young people. For them, what I told you is very important and also very worrisome. They have to plan ahead for a world in which many things will not be so abundant as they had grown accustomed to. They will see enormous changes during their lifetime and they'll have to adapt to them, starting from scratch. In our case, well, we are not so young any more and we might tend to ignore these things. The world will change; sure, we see it changing already, but what we have done is done, and we can't restart from scratch. So, what can we do?"

I sort out again my old watch, "You see, this old watch is still working, more than seventy years after it was made. Whenever I look at it, I feel a kind of kinship to the man who had left it to me. I am grateful to him because he left me something that still works, that I can use and that I like. And I think he may be happy, too, if he looks at us from above, that his old watch is still appreciated by someone in this world." I pause for a moment to look upwards, as if I were seeing the ghost of the old Swiss man. The people in the audience do the same. There is only the roof of the church, up there, but - who knows? - maybe the owner of the watch is really watching us from above.

I continue. "Now, for myself I think I would like to do something similar - to leave to those who will come after me something that they may use, that will be useful to them. I would like to leave something that lasts a long time and that doesn't need precious resources that can't be replaced. Something 'sustainable' as people say. Of course, I am not saying that we should go back to this old way of making watches - although, who knows? - But, surely, there are things that we can make which are sustainable and that will last a long time. Think of a wind turbine; you have surely seen them. They are big mechanical things, mostly made out of steel; like this watch. If they are well kept and maintained, turbines they can last many decades, like this watch, and why not a century or more? And they can produce good energy for all that time. That is true not just for wind turbine. Solar plants can last a long time and you can insulate your home in such a way that it doesn't need much energy to heat or cool. If you do that, I am sure that the people who'll live in it after you will be happy about what you did. There are many big things that you can do if you are rich and many small things that you can do even if you are not rich. I am sure that you can think of something you can do, and if we leave this kind of things to our descendants they may forgive us for having misused so badly of the mineral resources of this planet."

They all nod. They are thinking about what they can do. I can't say whether they'll be really able do something, but they might.

I finish my talk pointing at one of the windows of the church. I say, "and a vegetable garden is sustainable as well, as the one I have seen when I came here". They smile. One of the old men says, "Yes, we are cultivating it. The young ones don't care too much about it." I say, "They'll learn and they'll be happy that you left it to them". They all smile. Then we all leave for a snack in a room nearby; with food that comes from their garden.


1. What can we leave to our descendants, that is sustainable?

2. Are there ways that we can build things to last longer?

3. Older folks and younger folks sometimes travel in different circles. Are there ways we can learn more from those with years of experience in gardening and other needed skills?

Bill Totten

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Humans Only Have 200 to 300 Years Left on Earth

Former environment minister Michael Meacher on the place of humanity in the universe, intelligent design, the survival of the human race, Gaia theory and uncertainties over climate change

by Tom Levitt (July 22 2010)

Tom Levitt: Your new book is focused on the destination of the human race, but what is our role, if indeed we have one?

Michael Meacher: Well 99.9993 per cent of time since the origin of the universe elapsed before we even came on stage. That doesn't say that it took all that time to produce this wonderful human species but it does seem odd and I think it shows that we are part of a cycle which is continuing. Ninety-nine per cent of all species are extinct - I don't think there is any guarantee of our survival especially if we remain as irresponsible and foolish as we are at the moment.

Irrespective of that I would expect the evolution of life forms to continue alongside and possibly surpass us. But we are an important part of it - we are the first species on earth in all that time that has a sense of morality and spirituality. These are very significant features of the human species which mark us out as very special.

I don't think the whole universe is about us and that's where we come to Stephen Hawkins point about us being exceedingly insignificant because we are on earth - just one of eight planets in a solar system going round a sun which is one star, just an ordinary star, of which there are 200 billion in our galaxy, the Milky Way. And there are about 100 billion galaxies ...

When you think of it in these terms, we are totally insignificant and almost invisible. So you have a contrast and paradox that is the size of universe, beyond our imagination and yet at the same time we are a very unique species. There is something very special about us. You have to somehow combine those two facts. How is it that a species in such a minute part of the universe should turn out to be so significant in the evolution of life forms? I don't think there is any obvious answer.

TL: Does that lead us to believe in a creator?

MM: The religious answer is that God created us in His own image but it does seem very odd that we have a universe of vast size to produce us and that it has taken an inordinately long time to reach this stage of life forms. It doesn't mean it is impossible but it does seem very odd unless you take the view that time is immaterial and we are only at the beginning of it and it will revolve for ever.

I don't believe science has invalidated religion and it can't because they are two utterly different paradigms of existence. Science has enormously increased the wonder of the religious message. It doesn't force us to believe in it but it is compatible with it.

TL: What will happen to humans - can we survive?

MM: We have become very clever in our improvements in technology and engineering over the last 100 years and the level of productivity and extent of exploitation has increased rapidly. But while the earth is extremely bountiful, there are limits to how many resources we can extract without replacing them or enabling them to be recycled and to recover.

We have an overdraft with the earth something in excess of 130 per cent. We currently consume something like thirty per cent over and above what we are replacing and rather like an overdraft at a bank that can't go on.

I don't think we have learnt to keep within the limits. They are quite elastic but there is a point beyond which they will break and then you will get a complete and massive change in the climate in which the survival of human species might not be compatible.

I think with the current rate of exploitation and current disregard for sustainability that our economy and our civiliation has, I think we will easily reach that point in the next 200 to 300 years.

TL: Will we destroy the earth as well as ourselves?

MM: I don't think so. I think James Lovelock's idea - that when an alien virus invades the human body it fights back and usually manages to surround and destroy the alien - is more likely. Earth will do everything it can to survive with us being the virus it is trying to destroy.

Climate change is one way it is doing it. It is changing the climate - the atmosphere, temperature, ocean acidity and sea levels - all massive changes cumulatively saying to us that we cannot go on as we are. And we cannot go on as we are because we will lose the basic resources which are essential to our survival.

TL: Can we reverse this situation and stop ourselves from heading towards extinction?

MM: We can - we are an intelligent species. The question is whether there is the political leadership in countries to act on what the scientists say. It's not perfect - the description of the atmosphere and the interactions between so many parts of the climate is very complex and I don't think the science is 100 per cent there, but it's eighty to ninety per cent of the way there, and is being refined all the time. We certainly know plenty more than is necessary to apply the precautionary principle.

The issue is whether there is the political leadership to guide people. The knowledge is there for them but it is the difficulty in actually getting that change in way of life which political leaders by and large are unwilling to press. They prefer to win elections: people in the west like their comfort zones and way of life and political leaders are not willing to press very far.

I think that will only really change when the human race begins to suffer some of the extremely severe consequences of climate change which may be some decades ahead. We will then realise, as we have with the financial crisis, that we are up against the wall and hitting the buffers and we have got to change.

It would be nice if human beings realised those limits and began willingly to act in accordance with them in order to produce more a harmonious relationship with our environment and greater sustainability. But all the evidence is that we are not willing to do this until forced to. So yes we can change but I doubt whether there is yet the political will.


Destination of the Species: The Riddle of Human Existence is published by O Books, price GBP 9.99 in paperback

Bill Totten

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What Is It?

by James Howard Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency (2005) (July 26 2010)

The New York Times ran a story of curious import this morning: "Mel Gibson Loses Support Abroad" {*}. Well, gosh, that's disappointing. And just when we needed him, too. Concern over this pressing matter probably reflects the general mood of the nation these dog days of summer - and these soggy days, indeed, are like living in a dog's mouth - so no wonder the USA has lost its mind, as evidenced by the fact that so many people who ought to know better, in the immortal words of Jim Cramer, don't know anything.


Case in point: I visited the Slate Political Gabfest podcast yesterday. These otherwise excellent, entertaining, highly educated folk (David Plotz, Emily Bazelon, and Daniel Gross, in for vacationing John Dickerson) were discussing the ramifications of the economic situation on the upcoming elections. They were quite clear about not being able to articulate the nature of this economic situation, "... this recession, or whatever you want to call it ..." in Ms Bazelon's words. What's the point of sending these people to Ivy League colleges if they can't make sense of their world.

Let's call this "whatever you want to call it" a compressive deflationary contraction, because that's exactly what it is, an accelerating systemic collapse of activity due to over-investments in hyper-complexity (thank you Joseph Tainter). A number of things are going on in our society that can be described with precision. We've generated too many future claims on wealth that does not exist and has poor prospects of ever being generated. That's what unpayable debt is. We have such a mighty mountain of it that the Federal Reserve can "create" new digital dollars until the cows come home (and learn how to play chamber music), but they will never create enough new money to outpace the disappearance of existing notional money in the form of welshed-on loans. Hence, money will continue to disappear out of the economic system indefinitely, citizens will grow poorer steadily, companies will go out of business, and governments at all levels will not have money to do what they have been organized to do.

This compressive deflationary collapse is not the kind of cyclical "downturn" that we are familiar with during the two-hundred-year-long adventure with industrial expansion - that is, the kind of cyclical downturn caused by the usual exhalations of markets attempting to adjust the flows of supply and demand. This is a structural implosion of markets that have been functionally destroyed by pervasive fraud and swindling in the absence of real productive activity.

The loss of productive activity preceded the fraud and swindling beginning in the 1960s when other nations recovered from the traumas of the world wars and started to out-compete the USA in the production of goods. Personally, I doubt this was the result of any kind of conspiracy, but rather a comprehensible historical narrative that worked to America's disadvantage. Tough noogies for us. The fatal trouble began when we attempted to compensate for this loss of value-creation by ramping up the financial sector to a credit orgy so that every individual and every enterprise and every government could enjoy ever-increasing levels of wealth in a system that no longer really produced wealth.

This was accomplished in the financial sector by "innovating" new tradable securities based on getting something for nothing. That is what the aggregate mischief on Wall Street and its vassal operations was all about. The essence of the fraud was the "securitization" of debt, because the collateral was either inadequate or altogether missing. That's how you get something for nothing. The swindling came in when these worthless certificates were pawned off on credulous "marks" such as pension funds and other assorted investors.

Tragically, everybody in a position to object to these shenanigans failed to issue any warnings or ring the alarm bells - and this includes the entire matrix of adult authority in banking, government (including the law), academia, and a hapless news media. Everyone pretended that the orgy of mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt and loan obligations, structured investment vehicles, collateralized debt obligations, and other chimeras of capital amounted to things of real value.

Certainly the editors and pundits in the media simply didn't understand the rackets they undertook to report. You can bet that the players on Wall Street made every effort to mystify the media with arcane language, and they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. (Making multiple billions of dollars by trading worthless certificates based on getting something for nothing must be the ultimate definition of succeeding beyond one's wildest dreams.) It's harder to account for the dimness of the news media. I doubt they were in on the caper. More likely there is a correlation between their low pay and their low capacity. But I wouldn't discount the fog of assumptions and expectations about the way the world is supposed to work that can disable even people of intelligence.

I'm as certain as the day is long that the folks on Wall Street, from the myrmidons in the trading pits to the demigods like John Thain, with his thousand-dollar trash basket, knew that they were trafficking in tainted paper. Many of them deserve to be locked up in the federal penitentiary for years on end, and they probably never will because president Barack Obama lacked the courage to set the dogs of justice after them and now it is too late.

The most confused of any putative authorities are the academic economists, lost in the wilderness of their models and equations and their quaint expectations of the way things ought to go if you can tweak numbers. These are the people who believe with the faith of little children that if you can measure anything you can control it. They will go down in history as the greatest convocation of clowns ever assembled, surpassing all the collected alchemists, priests, and vizeers employed in the 1500 years following the fall of Rome.

It's harder to tell whether the elected officials and their appointees in sensitive places like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the FBI had a clue as to the scale of misconduct in the financial sector, or if they were bought off plain and simple, or just too stupid to understand what was going on all around them. The term "regulatory capture" provides valuable insight. How could Christopher Cox at the SEC fail to notice the stupendous malfeasance in the mortgage-related securities rackets. Why isn't he working for fifty cents a day in the laundry of Allenwood Federal Correctional Facility? Why is the grifter of Countrywide mortgage favors, Christopher Dodd, still free to guzzle the fabled bean soup in the Senate lunch room? I could go on in this vein for two hundred pages, but you get the drift.

The collective failure of authority, whether of intention or oversight or mental deficiency boggles the mind. And it leaves us where we are: in a compressive deflationary contraction, aka the long emergency. This is not a cyclical recession. It's the end of one thing and the beginning of another thing, another phase of history in which people will have to learn to live differently or perish. I'm convinced that just about very elected official who can be swept out of office will be swept out of office - even if their replacements turn out to be a very unsavory gang of sadists and morons who will certainly make things worse.

But these dog days of summer nobody will be paying attention, even as the markets themselves roll over and puke, as I rather imagine they will between now and Halloween, if not next week.

Postscript: I have not come to any conclusions about the fate of the Macondo blow-out and the claims of Matthew Simmons, though I have certainly got a lot of mail about it, some of it very intelligent. The BP oil spill has vanished from the news headlines again as the world waits for the final push at the relief wells. We do know that we are entering the heart of the hurricane season and that will make for some excitement.


A sequel to my 2008 novel of post-oil America, World Made By Hand, will be published in September 2010 by The Atlantic Monthly Press. The title is The Witch of Hebron.

Mr Kunstler's biography is at see

Bill Totten

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Closing the Circle

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (July 21 2010)

Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society

A couple of weeks ago, Energy Bulletin revisited some predictions made in 2000 by Amory Lovins {*}, then as now one of the most vocal proponents of technological solutions to the crisis of industrial society. Under prodding by energy analyst Steve Andrews, Lovins insisted among other things that by the year 2010, hybrid and fuel cell cars would account for between half and two thirds of the cars on the road in the United States.


Lovins was completely wrong, as we now know - hybrid cars account for maybe five percent of the current US automobile fleet, and you can look through every automobile showroom in North America for a car powered by fuel cells and not find one - and it's to Andrews' credit that he pointed this out to Lovins at the time. What makes Lovins' failed prediction all the more fascinating is that there was never any significant chance that it would pan out, for reasons as predictable as they were pragmatic. Hybrid cars may cost less to operate but they're much more expensive to build than ordinary cars; fuel cell cars, while they could probably have been made for a more competitive price, could only compete in any other way if somebody had invested the trillions of dollars in infrastructure to provide them with their hydrogen fuel. In both cases economics made it impossible for either kind of car to account for more than a token fraction of the US car fleet by this year, and it makes their chances of being much more popular by 2020, or 2030, or any subsequent year not much better.

Those specific reasons can be usefully subordinated to a more general point, which is that airy optimism about technologies that haven't yet gotten off the drawing board is not a useful response to an imminent crisis in the real world. This is a point worth keeping in mind, because airy optimism about technologies that haven't yet gotten off the drawing board is flying thick and fast just now, especially but not only in the peak oil scene. Mention that industrial society is in deep trouble as a result of its total dependence on rapidly depleting fossil fuels, in particular, and you can count on a flurry of claims that Bussard reactors, or algal biodiesel, or fourth generation fission plants, or whatever the currently popular deus ex machina happens to be, will inevitably show up in time and save the day.

One of the things that has to be grasped to make sense of our predicament is that this isn't going to happen. Some of the reasons that it's not going to happen differ from case to case, though all of the examples I've just given happen to share the common difficulty of crippling problems with net energy. Any attempt at a large-scale solution at this point in the curve of decline faces another predictable problem, though, which was discussed back in 1973 in The Limits to Growth: once industrial civilization runs up against hard planetary limits, as it now has, the surplus of resources that might have permitted a large-scale solution are already fully committed to meeting existing urgent needs, and can't be diverted to new projects on any scale without imposing crippling dislocations on an economy and a society that are already under severe strain.

The green wizardry being developed in these posts thus seeks to craft responses to the crisis of our time that don't ignore the predictable impacts of that crisis. For this reason, we aren't going to be exploring the sort of imaginative vaporware that fills so many discussions about our energy future these days. Instead, the curriculum I have in mind starts with a sufficiently solid grasp of ecology to understand the context of the wizardry that follows, and then moves to practical techniques that have been proven in the real world and can be put to use without lots of money or complicated technology. That may seem dowdy and uninteresting, but that's a risk this archdruid is willing to run; if your ship has already hit a rock and is taking on water, to shift to a familiar metaphor, passing out life jackets and launching lifeboats is far less innovative and exciting than sitting around talking about some brilliantly creative new way to rescue people from a sinking boat, but it's a good deal more likely to save lives.

All this makes a useful prologue to the subject of this week's post. Last week we talked about energy, and explored the way that the laws of thermodynamics shape what you can and can't do with the energy that surges through every natural system. It's easy to make energy interesting, since there's always the passionate hope we all retain from childhood that something might suddenly blow itself to smithereens. Even when it doesn't, watching energy make its way down the levels of concentration toward waste heat is exciting, for most of the same reasons that watching the silver ball bouncing off the bumpers of a pinball machine is exciting.

This week is different. This week we're going to talk about matter, the second of the three factors that move through every natural system, and matter appeals to a different childhood passion, one that most of us somehow manage to outgrow: the passion for mud. Matter is muddy. It does not behave itself. It does not do what it's told. As you found out around the age of two, to your ineffable delight and your mother's weary annoyance, it gets all over everything, especially when stomped. Most people discover this in childhood and then spend the rest of their lives trying to forget it, and one of the ways they forget it in modern industrial cultures is by pretending that matter acts like energy.

Get a piece of paper and a pen and I'll show you how that works. At the top of the paper, draw a picture of Santa Claus in his sleigh, surrounded by an enormous pile of gifts, and label it "infinite material resources". In the middle, draw a picture of yourself sitting on heaps of consumer goodies; put in some twinkle dust, too, because we'll pretend (as modern industrial societies do) that the goodies somehow got there without anybody having to work sixteen-hour days in a Third World sweatshop to produce them. Down at the bottom of the paper, draw some really exotic architecture, with a sign out in front, put up by the local Chamber of Commerce, saying "Welcome to Away". You know, Away - the mysterious place where no one's ever been, but where stuff goes when you don't want it around any more. Now draw one arrow going from Santa to you, and another from you to Away.

Does this picture look familiar? It should. It has the same pattern as a very simple energy flow diagram, of the sort you sketched out last week, with Santa as the energy source and Away as the diffuse background heat where all energy ends up. That sort of diagram works perfectly well with energy. It doesn't work worth beans with any material substance, but it's how people in modern industrial societies are taught to think about matter.

As an antidote to that habit of thinking, after you've drawn this diagram, I'd like to encourage you to crumple it up with extreme prejudice and throw it across the room. It would be particularly helpful if Fido is in the room with you, decides that you've thrown a ball for him to chase, and comes trotting eagerly back to you with the diagram in his mouth, having gnawed it playfully first and reduced it to a drool-soaked mess. At that moment, as you meet Fido's trusting gaze and try to decide whether it's more bother to go get a real ball for him to play with or to take the oozing object that was once your drawing and then wipe a couple of tablespoons of dog slobber off your hand, you will have learned one of the great secrets of green wizardry: matter moves in circles, especially when you don't want it to.

That secret is crucial to keep in mind. Back in my schooldays, corporate flacks trying to head off the rising tide of popular unhappiness with what was being done to the American environment had a neat little slogan: "The solution to pollution is dilution". They were dead wrong, and because this slogan got put into practice far too often, some people and a much greater number of other living things ended up just plain dead. Dilute an environmental toxin all you want, and it's a safe bet that a food chain somewhere will concentrate it right back up for you and serve it on your plate for breakfast. It's hard to think of anything more dilute than the strontium-90 dust that was blasted into the upper atmosphere by nuclear testing and scattered around the globe by high-level winds; that didn't keep it from building up to dangerous levels in cow's milk, and shortly thereafter, in children's bones.

A similar difficulty afflicts the delusion that we can put something completely outside the biosphere and make it stay there. Proponents of nuclear power who don't simply dodge the issue of radioactive waste altogether treat this as a minor issue. It's not a minor issue; it's the most critical of half a dozen disastrous flaws in the shopworn 1950s-era fantasy of limitless nuclear power still being retailed by a minority among us. A nuclear fission reactor, any nuclear fission reactor, produces wastes so lethal they have to be isolated from the rest of existence for a quarter of a million years - that's fifty times as long as all of recorded history, in case you were wondering. In theory, containing high-level nuclear waste is possible; in theory, it's equally possible to drill for oil in deep waters without blowing your drilling platform and eleven men to kingdom come and flooding the Gulf of Mexico with tens of millions of gallons of crude oil.

In the real world, by contrast, it's as certain as anything can be that sooner or later, things go wrong. Despite the best intentions and the most optimistic handwaving, in a hundred years, or a thousand, or ten thousand, by accident or malice or the sheer cussedness of nature, that waste is going to leak out into the biosphere, and once that happens, anyone and anything that comes into contact with even a few milligrams of it will suffer a painful and lingering death. The more nuclear power we generate, the more of this ghastly gift we'll be stockpiling up for the people of the future. If one of the basic concepts of morality is that each of us ought to leave the world a better place for those that come after us, there must be some sort of gold medal for selfish malignity in store for the notion that, to power our current civilization a little longer, we're justified in making life shorter and more miserable for people whose distant ancestors haven't even been born yet.

This extreme case illustrates a basic rule of green wizardry: there is no such place as Away. You can throw matter out the front door all you want, but it will inevitably circle around while you're not looking and come trotting up the back stairs. There's a great deal of Mysticism Lite these days that talks about how wonderful it is that the universe moves in circles; it's true enough that matter moves in circles, though energy and information generally don't, but it's not always wonderful. If you recognize matter's habits and work with them, you can get it to do some impressive things as it follows its rounds, but if you aren't watching it closely, it can just as easily sneak up behind you and clobber you.

The trick of making matter circle in a way that's helpful to you is twofold. The first half is figuring out every possible way it might circle; the second is to make sure that as it follows each of those pathways, it goes through transformations significant enough to make it harmless. I hope I won't offend anyone's delicate sensibilities here by using human feces as an example. The way we handle our feces in most American communities is frankly bizarre; we defecate in fresh drinking water, for heaven's sake, and then flush it down a pipe without the least thought of where it's going. Where it's going, most of the time, is into a river, a lake, or the ocean, and even after sewage treatment, you can be sure that most of what's in your bowel movements is going to land in the biosphere as is, because mushing feces up in water and then dumping some chlorine into the resulting mess doesn't change them enough to matter.

Consider the alternative of a composting toilet and a backyard garden. Instead of dumping feces into drinking water, you feed them to hungry thermophilic bacteria. When the bacteria get through with the result, you put the compost into the middle of your main compost pile, where it feeds a more diverse ecosystem of microbes, worms, insects, fungi, and the like. When they're done with it, you dig the completely transformed compost into your garden, and soil organisms and the roots of your garden plants have at it. When you pick an ear of corn from your garden, some of the nutrients in the corn got there by way of your toilet, but you don't have to worry about that. The pathogenic bacteria that make feces dangerous to human beings, having grown up in the sheltered setting of your bowels, don't survive long in the Darwinian environment of a composting toilet, and any last stragglers get mopped up in the even more ruthless ecosystem of the compost pile.

In the same way, the inedible parts of garden vegetables can be put into the compost pile or, better still, fed to chickens or rabbits, whose feces can be added to the compost pile, so that plant parasites and diseases have less opportunity to ride the cycle back to the plants in the garden. You can cycle other parts of your household waste stream into the same cycle; alternatively, if you need to isolate some part of the waste stream from the rest of it - for example, if somebody in the house is ill and you don't want to cycle their wastes into your garden soil, or if you want to collect and concentrate urine as a rich source of fertilizer - you can construct a separate cycle that takes the separate waste stream in a different direction, and subject it to different transformations, so that whatever cycles back around to you is a resource rather than a problem.

This logic can be applied to every part of the Green Wizard's work. Not everything can be transformed in this way; one of the essential boundaries of appropriate tech, in fact, is the boundary between the kinds of matter you can change with the tools you have on hand, and the kinds you can't, and if you can't change it into something safe, it's a bad idea to produce it in the first place. It really is that simple. So, my apprentice wizards, you have three mystic maxims to contemplate:

Matter moves in circles, especially when you don't want it to;

There is no such place as Away;

If you can't transform it, don't produce it.

Aside from that, for this week's homework, I'd like to ask those of my readers who are pursuing the green wizardry project to replace the pulpy mass Fido's been chewing for the last fifteen minutes with something less soggy and more accurate. Take one material item or substance you currently get rid of, and figure out, as exactly as you can, where it actually goes once it leaves your possession. Don't cheat yourself by choosing something you already know about, and don't settle for abstractions; with the internet at your fingertips, it takes only a modest amount of work to find out which landfill gets your garbage, which river has to cope with your sewage, and so on. Your ultimate goal is to trace your chosen item or substance all the way back around to your own front door - for example, by tracing your plastic bottles to a particular landfill, the polymerizers in the bottles to the groundwater in a particular valley, the groundwater to a particular river, and the river to the particular coastal waters where the local fishing fleet caught the fresh cod you're about to have for dinner.

This may be an unsettling experience. I apologize for that, but it can't be helped. One of the few effective immunizations against the sort of airy optimism critiqued toward the beginning of this post, and in another way a little later on, is to spend time wrestling with the muddy, material details of our collective predicament. If your wizardry is going to amount to more than incantations that make people feel better about themselves while their society consumes its own future, it needs to get into the nitty gritty of the work - first with the mind, then with the hands. We'll pursue one more piece of basic theory next week before proceeding to the first hands-on projects.


John Michael Greer, The Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), has been active in the alternative spirituality movement for more than 25 years, and is the author of more than twenty books, including The Druidry Handbook (Weiser, 2006) and The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age (New Society, 2008). He lives in Cumberland, Maryland.

Bill Totten

Monday, July 26, 2010

Oil is its own master

Energy companies operate in a high-profit, limited-liability world of their own making

by Khadija Sherife (July 11 2010)

Three weeks after the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, executives of the offshore drilling company Transocean celebrated in a luxury hotel in Zug, Switzerland, where the company is based. The owners of the Deepwater rig, which was valued at $650 million before the accident, were expecting the first installment of their insurance payout: $401 million. At a closed meeting they agreed to pay $1 billion in dividends to shareholders.

Oil rigs are classed as ships under international maritime law, and Transocean's lawyers had been able to argue that the company's financial liability should be limited to the post-accident value of the rig, barely $27 million. (The same law - the 1851 Limitation of Liability Act - allowed the owners of the Titanic to pay only $95,000 to its victims, the value of the safety equipment and lifeboats.)

Transocean is trying to emerge from the disaster unscathed, while the multinational operator of the rig, BP, has become the focus of criticism.

The other big oil companies have started to dissociate themselves from BP, suggesting that the Deepwater leak was avoidable and that they would not have gone ahead with drilling that well. The White House has now agreed to a deal with BP to suspend dividends for a year, with the money put in a special account to cover compensation claims.

The oil companies are not happy about the six-month moratorium on deep-water offshore drilling imposed by President Barack Obama: They want to return to business as usual as quickly as possible, even though that business has led to environmental catastrophe.

Flags of convenience

The headquarters of International Registries Inc is in Reston, Virginia, a long way from the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It's a small office: IRI's activities do not require a large staff.

The company offers clients the opportunity to circumvent maritime regulations by registering vessels under the flag of countries with more relaxed laws, such as the Marshall Islands - two chains of coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean with a population of 62,000. IRI boasts of being the most experienced maritime and corporate registry in the world, covering oil drilling as well as transport. Among its clients are Transocean and BP.

Last year the Marshall Islands was ranked the world's fastest-growing maritime registry, with 221 oil tankers sailing under its flag of convenience - four times more than the United States, home to major corporations such as Chevron and ExxonMobil. Like Panama and Liberia, the Marshall Islands is also a "secrecy jurisdiction" - a tax haven and offshore financial center.

To register under the Marshall Islands' flag of convenience, there is no need to set foot on the archipelago. A few faxes or e-mails suffice.

By being registered there, corporations can evade taxes and royalties and circumvent employment laws, environmental legislation and other regulations. Names of directors and shareholders need not be disclosed to IRI and can be kept private in the islands. It is no surprise then that Transocean, the world's largest offshore drilling corporation, has registered 29 of its 83 ships there, with the others sailing under Liberian or Panamanian flags.

Encouraged by US policy

Companies like IRI are the direct heirs of US foreign policy and a tradition that goes back to the end of World War Two, when US demand for oil began to outstrip supply and people realized black gold would become a major strategic resource.

With the support of President Franklin Roosevelt's former secretary of state, Edward R Stettinius, and the huge energy corporation Standard Oil, Liberia set up the world's first open ship registry in 1948. It was run from New York by the firm Stettinius Associates-Liberia Inc. According to historian Rodney Carlisle, Liberia's maritime code was "read, amended and approved by Standard Oil".

Until the 1990s, IRI - the successor to Stettinius Inc - made Liberia a haven for oil companies. But during the country's civil war, President Charles Taylor became too greedy so the company decided to add the Marshall Islands to its portfolio. Within fifteen years, the republic was among the top ranks of tax and regulatory havens.

Registering rigs in the Marshall Islands does not place operators out of reach of US legislation, an official at IRI explained to me: "Whenever a foreign flag [mobile offshore drilling unit] is operating in another country's territorial waters, whatever that country requires in order for that MODU to operate must be adhered to by the MODU's owner".

But that does not seem to cause operators much concern. During a joint investigation hearing into the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon, US Coast Guard Captain Hung Nguyen was shocked to learn from the Mineral Management Service that there was "no enforcement" of oil rigs, and that a rig owner or operator "self-certifies and establishes what they think is adequate". When Captain Nguyen summarized what appeared to be the MMS method of operation - "designed to industry standard, manufactured by industry, installed by industry, with no government oversight of construction or installation, is that correct?" - Mike Saucier, the MMS regional supervisor, said: "That would be correct".

A few years earlier, another inquiry established that MMS had exempted BP from environmental safety regulations. On that occasion, the Department of the Interior's inspector general described the service as marked by a culture of "ethical failure", including acceptance of gifts from energy corporations.

Years of self-regulation

The US system of self-regulation inherited by Mr Obama - who received the most BP funds given to a presidential candidate - was put in place under the administration of President George W Bush. Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force, formed only two weeks into Mr Bush's presidency, quickly approved Executive Order 13211, which, according to the National Resources Defence Council, was "nearly identical in structure and impact" to a document drafted by the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry trade group. The working sessions of the task force were held behind closed doors, with top oil executives, including BP's John Browne, present.

Having obtained a copy of the 13,500 page document by order of a federal judge, the NRDC concluded: "Big energy companies all but held the pencil for the White House task force, as government officials wrote a plan calling for billions of dollars in corporate subsidies and the wholesale elimination of key health and environmental safeguards".

During those favorable years, BP, with 294 subsidiaries in secrecy jurisdictions, decided to increase production while reducing its exposure to risk by outsourcing its drilling operations. It leased Deepwater Horizon from Transocean for $1 million a day up to 2013 and aggressively began to tap offshore fields.

By April 20 this year the rig was near completion, but the cost of the rig led BP managers to ignore Transocean safety procedures. Despite the fact that the blowout preventer was known to be faulty, neither Transocean nor BP put safety above the main objective: "drill baby drill".

Both Transocean and BP no doubt will survive this crisis. The same cannot be said of the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico.


Khadija Sherife is a journalist and co-author of "Aid to Africa: Redeemer or Colonizer?"

Copyright (C) 2010 Le Monde Diplomatique - distributed by Agence Global.

Bill Totten

Fouling All Our Futures

by Serge Halimi

Le Monde diplomatique (July 2010)

Chinese investors and British pensioners did not think on 20 April that the black tide off the coast of Louisiana would reach them so soon. Down in the Gulf of Mexico, eleven workers on an oilrig lost their lives, fishermen in St Louis Bay lost their livelihoods and everyone lost their precious environment and their brown pelicans. Far away from the fouled areas, the Beijing authorities and British pension funds suffered damage of a different kind: 48% of the value of their BP shares was wiped out in just two months. In China - and in Kuwait and Singapore - prime investors would be wise to lose their enthusiasm for western oil companies {*}.

{*} According to Bloomberg, Norway, Kuwait, China and Singapore have lost $5 billion since the black tide hit Louisiana.

The pension funds' plight is of particular interest when European states, under pressure from the financial markets, are "reforming" (that is, cutting) social security. The steady reduction in government spending on health and pensions predictably and purposely forced many workers to turn to private insurance or pension funds. In the UK, the pension funds were naturally tempted by the $59 billion in annual dividends offered by BP, star of the London Stock Exchange. Eventually they came to depend on BP for one sixth of their income.

The return on the pension funds was all the more attractive because BP cut costs, by neglecting security measures where costly. But the US is not a no-go area or a little country whose president must always kowtow to a foreign multinational. It can defend itself against the destruction of its flora and its shores, and insist the polluter pays - $4,300 for every barrel of oil (159 litres) spilled at sea. This oil slick, which may turn out to be seventeen times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, might cause BP's shareholders to regret the minor savings their company made in order to increase its profits.

The absence of state-funded retirement means that the prosperity of UK workers in their old age is inexorably bound up with the fate of their pension funds. They are naturally dismayed by US retaliatory measures that have affected the value of BP stock and already substantially reduced the company's credit rating. When President Barack Obama announced that the company would pay for all the damage caused by its recklessness, the former Labour minister Tom Watson expressed his concern: "This is now a serious crisis facing millions of pensioners in the UK".

Take millions of men and women seeking security after working all their lives and turn them into greedy robots, closer to the directors of BP than the fishermen of Louisiana. That is the nature of the system, kept going by the misplaced loyalties which one crisis after another expose.


Translated by Barbara Wilson

(c) Le Monde diplomatique - all right reserved

Bill Totten

Sunday, July 25, 2010

How Brokers Became Bookies

The insidious transformation of markets into casinos

by Ellen Brown (July 12 2010)

You all are the house, you're the bookie. [Your clients] are booking their bets with you. I don't know why we need to dress it up. It's a bet.

- Senator Claire McCaskill, Senate Subcommittee investigating Goldman Sachs {1}

Ever since December 2008, the Federal Reserve has held short-term interest rates near zero. This was not only to try to stimulate the housing and credit markets but also to allow the federal government to increase its debt levels without increasing the interest tab picked up by the taxpayers. The total public US debt {2} increased by nearly fifty percent from 2006 to the end of 2009 (from about $8.5 trillion to $12.3 trillion), but the interest bill {3} on the debt actually dropped (from $406 billion to $383 billion), because of this reduction in interest rates.

One of the dire unintended consequences of that maneuver, however, was that municipal governments across the country have been saddled with very costly bad derivatives bets {4}. They were persuaded by their Wall Street advisers to buy municipal swaps to protect their loans against interest rates shooting up. Instead, rates proceeded to drop through the floor, a wholly unforeseeable and unnatural market condition caused by rate manipulations by the Fed. Instead of the banks bearing the losses in return for premiums paid by municipal governments, the governments have had to pay massive sums to the banks - to the point of pushing at least one county to the brink of bankruptcy (Jefferson County, Alabama).

Another unintended consequence of the plunge in interest rates has been that "savers" have been forced to become "speculators" or gamblers. When interest rates on safe corporate bonds were around eight percent, a couple could aim for saving half a million dollars in their working careers and count on reaping $40,000 yearly in investment income, a sum that, along with social security, could make for a comfortable retirement. But very low interest rates on bonds have forced these once-prudent savers into the riskier and less predictable stock market, and the collapse of the stock market has forced them into even more speculative ventures in the form of derivatives, a glorified form of gambling. Pension funds {5}, which have binding pension contracts entered into when interest was at much higher levels, need an eight percent investment return to meet their commitments. In today's market, they cannot make that sort of return without taking on higher risk, which means taking major losses when the risks materialize.

Derivatives are basically just bets. Like at a racetrack, you don't need to own the thing you're betting on in order to play. Derivative casinos have opened up on virtually anything that can go up or down or have a variable future outcome. You can bet on the price of tea in China, the success or failure of a movie, whether a country will default on its debt, or whether a particular piece of legislation will pass. The global market in derivative trades is now well over a quadrillion dollars - that's a thousand trillion - and it is eating up resources that were at one time invested in productive enterprises. Why risk lending money to a corporation or buying its stock, when you can reap a better return betting on whether the stock will rise or fall?

The shift from investing to gambling means that not only are investors making very little of their money available to companies to produce goods and services, but the parties on one side of every speculative trade now have an interest in seeing the object of the bet fail, whether a company, a movie, a politician, or a country. Worse, high-speed program traders can actually manipulate {6} the market so that the thing bet on is more likely to fail. Not only has the market become a casino, but the casino is rigged.

High frequency traders - a field led by Goldman Sachs - use computer algorithms to automatically bet huge sums of money on minor shifts in price. These bets send signals to the market that can themselves cause the price of assets to shoot up or tumble down. By placing high-volume trades, the largest speculative traders can thus intentionally "fix" prices in any direction they want.

"Prediction" Markets

Casinos for betting on what something will do in the future have been elevated to the status of "prediction" markets, and they can cover a broad range of issues. MIT's Technology Review launched a futures market for technological innovations, in order to bet on upcoming developments. The NewsFutures and TradeSports Exchanges enable people to wager on matters such as whether Tiger Woods will take another lover, or whether Bin Laden will be found in Afghanistan.

A 2008 conference {7} of sports leaders in Auckland, New Zealand, featured Mark Davies, head of a sport betting exchange called Betfair. Davies observed that these betting exchanges, while clearly gambling forums, are little different from the trading done by financial firms such as JPMorgan. He said:

I used to trade bonds at JPMorgan, and I can tell you that what our customers do is exactly the same as what I used to do in my previous life, with the single exception that where I had to pour over balance sheets and income statements, they pour over form and team-sheets.

The online news outlet Slate {8} monitors various prediction markets to provide readers with up-to-date information on the potential outcomes of political races. Two of the markets covered are the Iowa Electronic Markets and Intrade. Slate claims that these political casinos are consistently better at forecasting winners than pre-election polls. Participants bet real money 24 hours a day on the outcomes of a range of issues, including political races. Newsfutures and Casualobserver are similar, smaller exchanges.

Besides shifting the emphasis to gambling ("Why Vote When You Can Bet?" says Slate's "Guide to All Political Markets"), prediction markets, like the stock market, can be rigged so that they actually affect outcomes. This became evident, for example, in 2008, when the John McCain campaign used the InTrade market to shift perception of his chances of winning. A supporter was able to single-handedly manipulate {9} the price of McCain's contract, causing it to move up in the market and prompting some mainstream media to report it as evidence that McCain was gaining in popularity.

Betting on Terrorism

The destructive potential of prediction markets became particularly apparent in one sponsored by the Pentagon, called the "policy analysis market" (PAM) or "terror futures market". PAM was an attempt to use the predictive power of markets to forecast political events tied to the Middle East, including terrorist attacks. According to the New York Times {10}, the PAM would have allowed trading of futures on political developments including terrorist attacks, coups d'etat, and assassinations. The exchange was shut down a day after it launched, after commentators pointed out that the system made it far too easy to make money with terror attacks.

At a July 28 2003 press conference Senators Byron L Dorgan (Democrat, North Dakota) and Ron Wyden (Democrat, Oregon) spoke out against the exchange. Wyden stated, "The idea of a federal betting parlor on atrocities and terrorism is ridiculous and it's grotesque", while Dorgan called it "useless, offensive and unbelievably stupid".

"This appears to encourage terrorists to participate, either to profit from their terrorist activities or to bet against them in order to mislead US intelligence authorities", they said in a letter to Admiral John Poindexter, the director of the Terrorism Information Awareness Office, which developed the idea. A week after the exchange closed, Poindexter offered his resignation.

Carbon Credit Trading

A massive new derivatives market that could be highly destructive economically is the trading platform called Carbon Credit Trading, which is on its way to dwarfing world oil trade. The program would allow trading in "carbon allowances" (permitting companies to emit greenhouse gases) and in "carbon offsets" (allowing companies to emit beyond their allowance if they invest in emission-reducing projects elsewhere). It would also allow trading in carbon derivatives {11}; for example, futures contracts to deliver a certain number of allowances at an agreed price and time.

Robert Shapiro, former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration and a cofounder of the US Climate Task Force, has warned {11}, "We are on the verge of creating a new trillion-dollar market in financial assets that will be securitized, derivatized, and speculated by Wall Street like the mortgage-backed securities market".

Eoin O'Carroll {12} cautioned in the Christian Science Monitor:

Many critics are pointing out that this new market for carbon derivatives could, without effective oversight, usher in another Wall Street free-for-all just like the one that precipitated the implosion of the global economy ... Just as the inability of homeowners to make good on their subprime mortgages ended up pulling the rug out from under the credit market, carbon offsets that are based on shaky greenhouse-gas mitigation projects could cause the carbon market to tank, with implications for the broader economy.

The proposed form of cap and trade has not yet been passed in the US, but a new market in which traders can speculate on the future of allowances and offsets {11} has already been launched. The largest players in the carbon credit trading market include firms such as Morgan Stanley, Barclays Capital, Fortis, Deutsche Bank, Rabobank, BNP Paribas, Sumitomo, Kommunalkredit, Credit Suisse, Merrill Lynch and Cantor Fitzgerald. Last year, the financial services industry had 130 lobbyists working on climate issues, compared to almost none in 2003. The lobbyists represented companies such as Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase.

Billionaire financier George Soros {13} says cap-and-trade will be easy for speculators to rig. "The system can be gamed", he said last July at a London School of Economics seminar. "That's why financial types like me like it - because there are financial opportunities".

Time to Board Up the Casinos and Rethink Our Social Safety Net?

Our forebears considered gambling to be immoral and made it a crime. As the Industrial Revolution and the ascendance of capital changed religious mores, gambling gradually gained acceptance, but even within that permissive paradigm, derivative trading was originally considered an illegal form of gambling. Perhaps it is time to reinstate the gambling laws, board up the derivatives casinos, and return the stock market to what it was designed to be: a means of funneling the capital of investors into productive businesses.

Short of banning derivatives altogether, the derivatives business could be slowed up considerably by imposing a Tobin tax {14}, a small tax on every financial trade. "Financial products" are virtually the only products left on the planet that are not currently subject to a sales tax; and at over a quadrillion dollars in trades annually, the market is huge.

A larger issue is how to ensure adequate retirement income for the population without forcing people into gambling with their life savings to supplement their meager social security checks. It may be time to rethink not only our banking and financial structure but the entire social umbrella that our Founding Fathers called the Common Wealth. The genius of Social Security was its recognition of the basic economic truth that real "security" rests on the ability of a society to provide for and take care of those who, because of age, health or economic conditions, cannot take care of themselves.

Deficit hawks cry that we cannot afford more spending; but according to Richard Cook, a former US Treasury Department official, the government could print and spend several trillion new dollars into the money supply without causing price inflation. Writing in Global Research {15} in April 2007, he noted that the US Gross Domestic Product in 2006 came to $12.98 trillion, while the total national income came to only $10.23 trillion; and at least ten percent of that income was reinvested rather than spent on goods and services. Total available purchasing power was thus only about $9.21 trillion, or $3.77 trillion less than the collective price of goods and services sold. Where did consumers get the extra $3.77 trillion? They had to borrow it, and they borrowed it from banks that created it with accounting entries on their books. If the government had replaced this bank-created money with debt-free government-created money, the total money supply would have remained unchanged. That means a whopping $3.77 trillion in new government-issued money could have been fed into the economy in 2006 without inflating prices. Different proposals have been made concerning how this money should be distributed, but at least some of it could be used to provide adequate social security checks, relieving the pressure to gamble with our savings.

The Federal Reserve has funneled $4.6 trillion {15} to Wall Street in bailout money, most of it generated via "quantitative easing" (in effect, printing money); yet hyperinflation has not resulted. To the contrary, what we have today is Depression-style deflation. The M3 money supply shrank in the last year by 5.5 percent, and the rate at which it is shrinking is accelerating {15}. The explanation for this anomaly is that the Fed's $4.6 trillion added by quantitative easing fell far short of the estimated $10 trillion needed to "reflate" the money supply after the "shadow lenders" {16} disappeared. When these investors discovered that the "triple-A" mortgage-backed securities they had been purchasing from Wall Street were actually very risky investments, they exited the market, credit dried up, and the money supply (which today consists almost entirely of credit or debt) collapsed.

The only viable way to reflate a collapsed money supply is to put more money into it; and creating the national money supply is the sovereign right of governments, not of banks. If the government wants to remain sovereign, it needs to reassert that right.


{1} Washington Post (April 27 2010)

















Ellen Brown developed her research skills as an attorney practicing civil litigation in Los Angeles. In Web of Debt (2007), her latest of eleven books, she turns those skills to an analysis of the Federal Reserve and "the money trust". She shows how this private cartel has usurped the power to create money from the people themselves, and how we the people can get it back. Her websites are,, and

Niko Kyriakou contributed to this article.

Bill Totten

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Dollar Hegemony and the Rise of China

by Michael Hudson (July 12 2010)

Hudson to Premier Wen Jaibao (March 15 2010)

Dear Premier Wen Jiabao,

I write this letter to counteract some of the solutions that Western politicians are recommending for China to cope with its buildup of excess foreign-exchange reserves. Raising the renminbi's exchange rate against the dollar will not cure the China-US payments imbalance. The dollar glut will continue, and so will the currency fluctuation among the dollar, euro and sterling, leaving no stable store of value. The cause of this instability is that each of these three currency areas has grown top-heavy with by debts in excess of the ability to pay.

What then should China should it do with its buildup of excess reserves, if not recycle its inflows into their bonds? Four possibilities have been suggested: (1) to revalue the renminbi, (2) to flood China's economy with credit (as Japan did after the Plaza Accord of 1985), (3) to buy foreign resources and assets, and (4) to use excess dollars to buy back foreign investments in China, given US reluctance to permit Chinese investment in America's own most promising economic sectors.

I explain below why China's best course is to avoid accumulating further foreign exchange reserves. The most workable solution is to use its official reserves to buy back US and other foreign investments in China's financial system and other key sectors. This policy will seem more natural as a response to an escalation of US protectionist moves to block Chinese imports or block China's sovereign wealth funds from buying key US assets.

China's excess reserves will impose a foreign-exchange loss (as valued in renminbi)

Every nation needs foreign currency reserves to ward off currency raids, as the Asia Crisis showed in 1997. The usual kind of raid forces currencies down. Speculators see a central bank with large foreign currency holdings, and seek to empty them out by borrowing even larger sums, selling the target currency short to drive down its price. This is the tactic that George Soros pioneered against the British pound when he broke the Bank of England.

Malaysia's counter-tactic was not to let speculators cover their bets by buying the target currency. Its Malaysia's success in resisting that crisis showed that currency controls prevent speculators from "cashing out" on their exchange-rate bets, blocking their attempt to drive down the currency's value.

China's case is the opposite. Speculators are trying to force up the renminbi's exchange rate. Foreign inflows into China's banks - especially those owned by US, British or other foreign companies - is flooding China with foreign currency. Its central bank finds itself obliged either to recycle this inflow back abroad, or to let the renminbi rise - and ultimately take a loss (as measured in yuan) when its currency rises against its holdings in dollars, sterling and euros. Speculators and other foreigners holding Chinese assets will get a free currency ride upward.

The effect within China's economy will be to load it down with debt, while obliging it to buy foreign securities denominated in dollars that are falling in price. So the question is, how can China best cope with the foreign exchange flowing into its economy?

China's major response has been to invest in the mineral resources and other imports it will need to sustain its long-term growth. But this option is limited by foreign protectionism against overseas investment in minerals and agricultural land, and by speculators from foreign countries using their own free credit to buy up these resources. So excess foreign exchange is continuing to build up.

Traditionally, central banks used their payments surpluses to buy gold as "money of the world". Gold has the advantage of serving as a store of value, enabling central banks (in principle) to avoid taking a loss on their dollar holdings. Settling payments deficits in gold also has the global advantage of limiting the ability of other countries to run chronic payments deficits - especially war spending throughout history. This is why US diplomats oppose a return to gold.

In the 1960s foreign governments asked the US Treasury to provide a gold guarantee. The excess dollars thrown off by America's overseas military spending in Southeast Asia and Europe ended up in the central banks of France (which dominated banking in Indo-China), Germany (as exporter and host to the major European military base), and Japan (for rest and recreation). France and Germany cashed in these dollars for gold, whose price came under pressure as US monetary gold stocks were depleted. To deter the central banks of France (under General de Gaulle), Germany and other countries from cashing in their dollars for gold, the US Treasury gave a gold guarantee so that if the dollar lost value, these central banks would not lose.

Today, the United States is unlikely to give a gold guarantee, or to expect Congress to agree to such an arrangement. (Often in the past, US presidents and the Executive Branch have made agreements on foreign trade and finance, which Congress has refused to confirm.) It could guarantee China's official dollar holdings vis-a-vis a basket or whatever the Government of China preferred to hold its reserves, from euros to a new post-Yekaterinburg currency mix. But no currency today is stable. All the major Western currencies are buckling under the burden of unpayably large debts. The US Treasury owes $4 trillion to foreign central banks, but there is no foreseeable way in which it can make good this foreign debt, given its chronic structural deficit of foreign military spending, import dependency and capital outflows. That is why so many countries are treating the dollar like a "hot potato" and trying to avoid holding them. And holding euros or British sterling does not provide a better alternative.

Most central banks today hold down their exchange rates by recycling their dollar inflows to buy US Treasury IOUs. This recycling enables the United States to finance its overseas military spending and also its domestic budget deficit (largely military in character) since the 1950s. So Europe and Asia have used their foreign exchange earnings to finance a unipolar US buildup of military bases to surround them.

This situation is inherently unstable, and hence self-terminating. The era is ending where international reserves are based on the unpayably high debts of any single government, especially when these debts are run up for military purposes. Certainly the US dollar cannot continue to fill this role, given the chronic US payments deficit. For most years since 1951, US overseas military spending (mainly in Asia) has accounted for the largest part of this deficit. And increasingly, the US trade balance has fallen into deficit (except for agriculture, entertainment and military arms). Most recently, capital outflows have accelerated from the United States, especially to China and Third World countries. US money managers have concluded that the US and other Western economies are entering a period of debt-burdened, permanently slower growth. So they are looking to China, hoping to obtain its surpluses for themselves by buying out its banking and industry.

This relationship is too one-sided to continue for long. The question is, how can it best be resolved? Any solution will involve China's avoiding further accumulation of foreign exchange as long as these take the form of "free loans" back to the US and European governments.

China's exchange rate vis-a-vis the dollar

American China bashers blame China for being so strong. They urge it to raise the renminbi's exchange rate to be less competitive. And indeed, over the past three months China's currency has risen by more than ten percent against the euro and sterling as one euro-using government after another is facing insolvency.

The dollar's recent strength does not reflect intrinsic factors, but merely the fact that the euro and sterling are even more highly debt leveraged. The main problem areas to date have been Greece, Ireland, Spain, Italy and Portugal, but much larger problems are soon to come from the Baltics, Hungary and other post-Soviet economies. For a decade, they financed their structural trade deficits by borrowing in foreign currency to fuel a real estate bubble. This foreign-currency inflow (from Austrian banks to Hungary and Romania, from Swedish banks to the Baltic States) inflated prices for their housing and office buildings. But now that their real estate bubbles have burst, there is no foreign lending to support their currencies. As their real estate sinks into negative equity, the banking systems of Sweden and Austria face widespread defaults.

The EU and IMF have pressured post-Soviet governments to borrow to bail out EU banks. This shifts the bankruptcy from the private sector to the public sector ("taxpayers"), imposing a severe economic depression on these countries. Governments are slashing spending on education, health care and infrastructure so deeply as to cause personal and business mortgage defaults, emigration, and even shortening life spans.

This shrinkage is the end-result of the neoliberal Washington Consensus imposed on these countries since 1991, aggravated by the global financial bubble since 2000. It is an object lesson for what China needs to avoid.

The United States for its part is manipulating its currency to keep the dollar low, by flooding its economy with low-interest credit. This manipulation runs counter to normal practice over the past five centuries. Any economy running a balance-of-payments deficit traditional has raised interest rates to attract foreign loans and slow domestic spending. But the US Federal Reserve is doing just the opposite. Low interest rates to keep the real estate bubble from bursting further have the effect of aggravating rather than curing the trade deficit and capital outflow.

Yet more dollars are ending up in the hands of foreign central banks. Foreign economies are expected to recycle these inflows into yet more purchases of US Treasury securities, saving US taxpayers and investors from having to finance this deficit themselves.

Revaluing the renminbi would exacerbate China's financial problem, not stabilize its trade

US economic diplomats argue that increasing the renminbi's exchange rate will help restore balance to China's balance of payments with the United States. But the US payments deficit is structural, and hence not responsive to price changes. As noted above, a major payments outflow is overseas military spending. Another growing outflow is on capital account, to buy up foreign companies, stocks and bonds. US investors themselves are abandoning the US economy, looking mainly to China for higher yields - and for a foreign-exchange windfall gain.

The US strategy is to buy up Chinese assets yielding twenty percent or more annually, while China recycles these dollars to Washington and Wall Street at interest rates of only about one percent (for Treasury securities) and absorbs losses in many private-sector investments. (This is the strategy that "worked" with Japan after 1985.) Revaluing the renminbi would provide a windfall for US hedge funds and speculators. Anticipations of revaluation already are spurring higher capital outflows to China.

A higher exchange rate for the renminbi also would result in even more dollar outflows from the United States to Asia on trade account, by obliging American consumers to pay a higher dollar price. Contrary to what most "free trade" assumptions, the fact is that most trade is not responsive to small shifts in currency values. (Economic jargon calls this "price-inelastic".)

This became clear in the 1980s when a rising exchange rate for Japan's yen did not reduce that nation's trade balance. US consumers simply paid more. This is why, despite the recent 21% appreciation in the renminbi, China's trade balance increased rather than shrank. Likewise, Japan's yen has soared since autumn 2009, yet it is still accumulating reserves.

Even if China revalues the renminbi, its export prices will not rise proportionally. This is because imports of raw materials, much machinery and other components of most exports have a common world price (typically denominated in dollars). So a higher renminbi will lower the dollar price of these imports.

About half the price received for exports covers the price and markup spent on these imports with a common world price. So if China's currency rises by ten percent against the dollar, the price of imports embodied in these exports (as valued in renminbi) will fall by ten percent. Half the export price will be unaffected, so overall export prices might rise by five percent.

Given the fact that trade patterns are deeply entrenched, a quantum leap in revaluing the renminbi would be needed to reduce China's trade surplus. Small revaluations would not "solve" the problem that US diplomats are demanding. Unless revaluation is enormous - in the neighborhood of forty percent - raising the exchange rate thus will tend to increase rather than reduce China's trade surplus. The moral is that if the aim is really to change export patterns, there is no point in devaluing except to excess (that is, about forty percent). This was the principle that US President Franklin Roosevelt followed in 1933.

Creating more domestic credit at low interest rates would destabilize China

The follow-up to a renminbi revaluation is likely to be what it was in the Plaza and Louvre accords that US diplomats forced on Japan after 1985. Payments-surplus economies are told to restore "equilibrium" by easing credit to spur a balance-of-payments outflow.

The effect is to create a financial bubble, derailing industrial competitiveness and leaving the banking system in a debt-ridden shambles. Japan was willing to flood its economy with enough credit to destabilize its industry and real estate markets with debt that has remained for the twenty years since its bubble burst in 1990. China should avoid this kind of policy at all costs. To avoid the debt overhead now stifling the Western economies, it should minimize debt leveraging and limit the banking system's ability to create credit to buy assets already in place. Foreign-owned banks in particular need to be restricted from aiding parent-country currency speculation and related financial extraction of revenue from China's economy.

Balancing China's international payments by buying foreign resources and assets

China already is seeking to buy mineral, fuel and agricultural resources abroad to supply the inputs that it needs for its own growth. But these efforts still leave substantial foreign exchange surpluses. Most countries have used these surpluses to buy up key sectors of foreign economies. This is what Britain, the United States and France have done for more than a century.

When the US economy runs payments surpluses with foreign countries, it insists that they pay for their foreign debts and ongoing trade deficits by opening up their markets and "restore balance" by selling their key public infrastructure, industries, mineral rights and commanding heights to US investors. But the US Government has blocked foreign countries from doing the same with the United States. This asymmetry has been a major factor causing the inequality between high US private-sector returns and low foreign official returns on their dollar holdings.

The refusal of the US Government to behave symmetrically by not letting China buy key US companies with the dollar inflows that enter China to buy its own companies, above all its financial and banking sector, is largely responsible for the asymmetrical situation noted above, in which US investors earn twenty percent in China, but China earns only one percent in the US.

Buying back foreign investments in China

The wave of the future is to avoid a buildup of foreign exchange at all. The main way to do this is an option that European governments have discussed: to use their excess dollars to buy out US investment holdings in their countries, at book value. In effect, China would say to the United States:

We have let you invest in out own factories and even our banks, and we have let you participate in our key sectors even where these have special domestic privileges. Your economists advised us that this was the most efficient way to run an economy. But it is not advice that the United States itself has followed. You are not letting us use the dollars that you invest here - and the dollars that China earns by exporting the products of its labor - to buy corresponding investments in your country.

It is of course the sovereign right of every nation to determine who shall own and control its industry, bank credit-creating privileges and other resources. We accept this principle of international law. So by the same token, we are using the surplus dollars to buy out US and other foreign investments in China. We are willing to do this according to international law, and pay the book value that your own accountants report their investments in China as being worth.

This will stabilize international exchange rates by restoring balance to international payments. It is especially natural inasmuch as we understand that the US consumer-goods market is shrinking, obliging us to turn more to our own domestic market.

Obviously, US holders of investments in China would complain that their holdings are worth more than the book value they have declared. Indeed, this is a major reason why current investors in China are trying to prevent the US Government from engaging in more anti-Chinese protectionist policies. But in the event that the government rejects their advice and "goes it alone" by taking anti-China measures, China would be in the position of responding to a US initiative rather than acting independently. And it certainly would have the support of other countries in a similar position vis-a-vis US attempts at politicizing foreign investment.

This problem came up in the 1960s and 1970s, when the US Government directed foreign affiliates of US firms to adopt US Cold War policies to avoid trading with China, the Soviet Union and other targeted economies. Foreign governments pointed out that US directions as to how affiliates incorporated in foreign countries could act, as these were subject to their host-country laws, not those of the United States.

This issue is being revived today with regard to sanctions against Iran and other countries. International law has long backed host countries regarding trade and investment policy, credit policy and so forth. I expect this to become a major factor in foreign repurchases of US investments abroad - in Europe and other Asian countries as well as China.

Perhaps a commission will be necessary to debate a fair price for these future buyouts. But such cases usually take a considerable time to resolve. There are implications of this policy that I would prefer to discuss orally at an appropriate point in time rather than elaborate further at present.

Summary: The inequity of the dollar deficit

China, the rest of Asia and Russia have been financing the US overseas dollar spending to pay for America's military encirclement of the Eastern Hemisphere and for US investors to buy out the crown jewels of Asian industry, financial institutions and public infrastructure. This situation is asymmetrical not only economically, but also politically. In 1823, America's Monroe Doctrine told Europe to keep out of the Western Hemisphere, ending European colonialism and political hegemony in Latin America. The United States replaced the major European powers as investor and political and military influence.

Today, many people in the United States, Canada and Europe wish to see global disarmament in a multi-polar world rather than a unipolar world. They believe that no country should get a free ride or dominate the world militarily. That would not be a free market. In the end, international economic, political and military relations tend to settle at symmetrical common rules for all parties. A generation ago, Harvard economist Albert Hirschman called for US disinvestment in Latin America and third world countries, on grounds of US economic interest itself. Today, the US economy is suffering from chronic domestic budget deficits that are largely military in character, and chronic payments deficits. Scaling back military spending would free resources for use in its own economy, while enabling foreign economies to wind down their own military budgets.

This logic is endorsed by many US citizens and economists. It can be promoted by a system in which no national economy remains in a monetary system based on the military spending of a military nation in chronic deficit and rising debt beyond its foreseeable ability to pay. This kind of free ride characterized the empires of times past, but the present century promises a more fair, equitable and (one hopes) less militarized world.

Michael Hudson
Distinguished Professor of Economics, University of Missouri (Kansas City)
Honorary Professor, Huazhong University of Science and Technology (Wuhan)

Bill Totten