A letter to my family on peak oil and the global economy

Tim turned 16 the other day. By the time Tim is 30 the world will be producing only half the oil it is producing now and when he is 40 it will be producing less than a third.

Since I found out about peak oil in 2004 I have bothered you with my dire predictions. I know we got the timing wrong, and I know we have subsequently found shale oil and the global economy has continued on a business as usual path. You think I was wrong, do you?

Well here we are at 2017 and the article I have just read several times explains why the timing was wrong. We didn’t allow for fracking and we didn’t factor in the financing of oil. But now we are stuck. You tell me where the Nafeez Ahmed article falters. He quotes from an HSBC report and that is the sixth to biggest bank in the world. The HSBC article quotes from the International Energy Agency and from a Swedish University’s energy programme. Ahmed quotes further from a recent Cornell University paper which in turn quotes a paper from the Italy’s premier agency for government research.

I know very few of you will want to read the Ahmed paper. After all it is holiday season and we all have books to read, swimming to enjoy, bike rides and tramps to accomplish and screens to attend to.

So let me summarise this paper a little, adding an odd bit for explanatory reasons:

Conventional oil peaked in 2005. Unconventional oil (shale oil, deep sea oil) peaked in March 2015. Oil is the most dense energy form human beings have ever found and nothing has yet replaced it. Consequently it is closely correlated with economic growth and population growth. The current economic system requires constant economic growth. Oil has fuelled the growth in global wealth.

Ten years ago some of you replied, “Don’t worry, we will find something”. Oh yes we found fracking, and China went back to coal. But we also had already found debt instruments. If you don’t understand what these are you are in good company. Not even the heads of hedge funds or big banks know what strange derivatives (bets) are being invented by their traders sometimes. Ahmed says simply “the world is borrowing from the future to sustain our present consumption levels”. I know the shale oil companies were largely funded not from banks but from selling bonds. Ordinary people bought company bonds and got paid very high interest rates. The interest rates have risen so high that many shale companies are going broke paying them.

As oil exploration is yielding fewer and smaller fields and the oil is getting deeper and more expensive to extract, the oil companies abandon uneconomic fields. This happened around New Zealand and we attributed it largely to the actions of Greenpeace. But it was more than that. It costs them too much to extract it. Oil prices have recently climbed to just over $50 a barrel and companies need about $60 to break even. So they borrow. The trouble is this debt doesn’t produce real wealth.

Remember back in 2008 just before the Global Financial Crisis we had soaring oil prices? Oil went to $150 a barrel. Since nearly all goods are transported and the transport cost went up there was less money left for the rest of the economy. So we had a huge recession. So if oil prices are too high we get a recessionary effect that destabilises the global debt bubble. That debt is now higher than the pre-2008 crisis. If oil prices are too low we get too much debt which brings with it huge bank risks.

The economy can’t grow without oil. So we are stuck. The article says “the economy can quite literally never recover unless it transitions to a truly viable new energy source which can substitute for oil.”

Ahmed won’t of course have read my essay that I just submitted to the Next System Project essay competition where I propose an entirely new way of constructing a political economy so that we are not dependent on oil or on money as debt. (More of this later, I have just entered it into their international competition)

Ahmed says that because on 1 Jan 2018 there are new regulations coming into force in the finance industry, there will be a massive collapse shortly after that. He called it in 2008 and he is calling it now.

So while you are reading soothing headlines about how the economy is ‘in recovery’ or angsting over Donald Trump’s appointment of Exxon Mobil chief as Secretary of State or yet another climate change denier to a key position, think about your preparation for next year. The economy can't recover, given its present structure and its geophysical limitations. Where will you get your food? Cash? Petrol? Will your local authority be able to maintain a good supply of drinkable water or a sewerage system if they are in increasing debt? What about power?

Now there will be those who say this is wonderful for climate change. Yes it may be the only thing that makes our planet habitable. But it is an awful way for billions of us to learn. Actually the people who will be best off will be those who are already scraping a subsistence living. But that is another matter.

If only half the today’s global oil supply is available to Tim when he is 30, what is the future for your grandchildren? Or your old age? Can you devote an hour of your precious time to getting a handle on the reality of all this? We are so privileged in New Zealand and have had it so good for so long. I have missed out on a share price boom I know. Yes I got the timing wrong. Yes I have been a doomster. But please think for yourself now. You are educated, you probably have unlimited data for your computer, use it. Plan now for a massive, tightly interconnected, global financial collapse now. You might have a year.

The Precariat , Trump and cheap-to-extract Energy

When job figures in the US came out in early November 2016 the unemployment rate was 4.9 percent and hardly anyone worried. For economists a 5% unemployment rate is a really good figure. But remember the new definition of who is employed? Employment in most developed nations these days is "at least one hour of work done in the past week by a person aged 16 or older". So the "employed" includes all those who lack job security, and those with intermittent employment or underemployment and the resultant precarious existence.

This is what the Democrats missed. There is many a commentator who has observed that the urban privileged are completely out of touch with those who experience the worry of a day to day precarious existence, always uncertain whether they can pay their bills. This is the precariat. Professor Guy Standing, in a book published well before Brexit and Trump's election warned that the rapid growth of the precariat is producing instabilities in society. He warns it is a dangerous class because it is internally divided, leading to the villainisation of migrants and other vulnerable groups. And, lacking agency, its members may be susceptible to the siren calls of political extremism.

Something familiar there? While they might not call it the precariat, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage all appeal to this group. So while the question is legitimate, the solutions of Trump and Farage are wrong, wrong, wrong.

The tragedy is that just as politicians miss the precariat, economists miss energy. And strangely they are related. Here is how:

Oil is a remarkably dense energy source with one barrel of oil supplanting eleven years of human labour. Graph its use with the rise in GDP and they are in complete lockstep. The economy as it is currently structured is utterly dependent on growing supplies of cheap to extract energy. Only a fool would deny it is extremely unwise to build an economic system that relies on ever growing expansion in oil supply. In real terms energy supply is already on the decline due to the expanding internal energy requirements of the oil industry.

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The cost of oil exploration and extraction is rising and with it debt

Actuary Gail Tverberg writes that peak oil didn’t play out as expected because we didn’t factor in the financing of the oil industry. As the cheap-to-extract oil ran low, the cost of extracting non-conventional oil grew higher. This meant the firms had to go into more debt in the form of bank debt, bonds and derivatives. Eventually the debt overwhelms the oil companies and the layoffs begin. In order to pay interest on all their debt, indebted firms have had to keep wages low. The same happens for all firms that extract commodities, because they all require cheap-to-extract energy. The last step is that these low wages reduce the general demand for goods.

Nicole Foss points out that if demand collapses, the money supply declines and a deflationary spiral begins that few notice. 18 months after the decline in oil prices started, by February 2016 Bloomberg Business reported there had been 250,000 oil jobs lost and apparently each of these jobs supports over three basic wage jobs.

Tverberg says, "Why is the price of oil so low now? In fact, why are all commodity prices so low? I see the problem as being an affordability issue that has been hidden by a growing debt bubble. As this debt bubble has expanded, it has kept the sales prices of commodities up with the cost of extraction, even though wages have not been rising as fast as commodity prices since about the year 2000. Now many countries are cutting back on the rate of debt growth because debt/GDP ratios are becoming unreasonably high, and because the productivity of additional debt is falling."

So the drop in oil prices leads us to an underlying problem. The world is reaching the limit of its debt expansion. This is what is called Debt Deflation.

So even though we are living in a time of energy constraints, our blinkers don't allow us to see that. Risk analyst David Korowicz wryly observes,"The irony is that people may rarely notice they are living under energy constraints. Energy retraction from the global economy can be achieved by production declines or collapses in demand, though as we have seen, they are deeply inter-related. We may experience energy use collapse not as an energy constraint, but as a systemic banking collapse and vanished purchasing power."

So here is the source of the vanished purchasing power of the precariat. In a post election blog energy analyst Richard Heinberg observes that the problems won't go away when Trump is elected. In the face of the door being closed to national action on climate change, build community resilience is his message. "The most promising responses to our twenty-first century crises are showing up at the community level anyway. It’s in towns and cities across the nation, and across the world, where practical people are being forced to grapple with weird weather, rising seas, an unstable economy, and a fraying national political fabric."

None of these arguments will be known to the incoming president, though some advisors may try to educate him.Good luck to them. He is an anti-science president. If he slaps tarriffs on as he has promised, purchasing power will decline still further and accelerate the already active deflationary spiral.

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Trump's attitude to women seems the same as his attitude to the environment – if it's there, it is there for my use. Coal stocks soared on his election and renewables dropped. However, oil stocks didn't rise much, possibly a sign that reality of constraints are already priced into the market. 

An interesting question with Trump is how committed he actually is to his own ideas, from the potentially sensible to the crazy.   He is a “top of the head” sort of a guy, who changes position and contradicts himself on exposure to new things (or simply because he finds himself in a new context). Is the Presidency just a vanity project for him, in which he will blow with any policy wind he encounters? His victory speech, and his abandonment of the “Lock her up” approach, suggested that.

At the worst, if his “vision” as expressed during the campaign carries through, the US (and to a lesser extent the world) are in for an appalling time – racist, misogynist, anti-environment, pro-individualist, pro-violence and so on. And if the Republican Party as a whole gets the bit between its teeth, the US Government will be gutted and corporates will simply finish their take over. At the best, there’s no doubt he has created more space for these sorts of behaviours at the fringes in the short term. In between, as seems more likely, the direction as a whole will probably be negative, but it’ll be muddled and maybe not so fast moving.

There are a few bright spots, less likelihood of a war with Russia and above all, an increased energy and commitment of climate change activists. Our lives depend on it. He has focussed our minds. There is no spare planet. Somehow we must find a way.

How to start a whole system shift in the political economy

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If we don't like predatory capitalism and we don't like socialism, what do we want? This is what Gar Alperovitz of The Next System has asked. Many in the climate emergency movement have also called for ideas for a new economy. While some of the ideas are expanded elsewhere, here is a summary of what we believe is necessary:-

1. Leave the existing currency alone. It is what Bernard Lietaer calls a yang currency and needs to be balanced with a yin currency. So many things are wrong with the system it is quicker and better to start again. But the trick is to find how.

2. Elect a Community Board. Appoint hapu and/or iwi representatives. This board guides the process of decentralisation of energy and many other systems previously centralised and vulnerable to shock. They decide what is important for your area in the way of infrastructure for your local resilience – a functioning water system, a port, a roading system, a local radio station, a micro electricity grid, Local Area Networks for internet. They are responsible for planning and community development.

3. Elect a Currency Board, responsible for designing and issuing the currency and keeping it stable. It will eventually become a community bank. These people must be willing to communicate with and cooperate with all the other neighbouring Currency Boards. You can see how important the elections are! This Committee will create a new natural currency that decays by design. They will decide if it will be digital or notes. They will ensure the notes are secure and decide on the rate of decay of the currency and how much to issue in order to avoid inflation.

4. Elect a Land and Resources Board and appoint hapu and/or iwi representatives with knowledge of local land stories, Treaty settlements, sensitive land that is not back under iwi control. These people work with any existing land trusts and decide on what land to buy to put into the Community Land Trust. They first seek council cooperation to put council owned land into their trust. They also work with any local cooperative to ensure the land they use goes into the CLT. Then they make recommendations to the Monetary Committee for suitable properties to buy up with new money. They also monitor local resources – water, fish, forests, minerals and set rules for sustainable use of the commons.

A Lot of Elections are needed

It seems like a lot of elections, but they are important because you need plenty of elected people to act as checks and balances on the other boards. This is big stuff you are dealing with. Each small board has a range of vital functions we are not used to at this level, and it is critical to avoid corruption.

Decide that your Community Board will function as a self-governing local entity, possibly serving a population of 5000 – 25,000 people. Know that you can both make and enforce your local rules, especially rules relating to your currency and your rental gathering. Resist interference from national government in matters you believe are just local matters. Tell them to go away. You will help them later when your own currency and revenue schemes are scaled up. (See Declaration of Interdependence for rights and responsibilities of local communities)

Put it into action

The next phase is for the Currency Board to spend the new currency into existencein one of four ways: 

a. to pay for labour and materials for adapting and maintaining infrastructure – the ones decided by the Community Board. Or you could spend it into existence to pay part of the salary of bank staff. Or a Citizens Dividend for a start? Or all three?

b. To pay part of the salary of  staff in the new currency.

c. To distribute a small Citizens Dividend. 

d. To buy land for the Community Land Trust.

If you can employ staff, get them to persuade your local businesses to accept the new currency for payment.

The Land and Resources Board will decide which land you want to put into community ownership first. Is it bare land or already built on? Will you insist on compulsory purchases? Is there a local factory or business in your district that has privatised part of your commons? (minerals, intellectual property, water, knowledge, public infrastructure). What powers do you want to purchase land of those who are polluting the biosphere?

5. Employ a valuer to set up a Land Rental Index. Accept only the new currency as payment.

6. Compile and maintain of directory of local citizens, including all children. Each will be eligible to share the rents from the use of the commons.

7. Have your Community Board communicate at the earliest possible juncture with neighbouring governance units. Ask yourself at what stage will you need to cooperate with other boards for roading, sewerage, water supply, transport, stormwater infrastructure. Be sympathetic to your local council when they have rating (local tax) arrears and use it as a bargaining tool, so your citizens can pay their rates in the new currency.

8. Employ participatory budgeting. The decision about whether to spend new revenue on infrastructure, administration or on Citizens Dividends will be done at a public meeting only. Establish the principle of community participation in budgeting right from the start. There will always be a tension between building essential infrastructure and giving out Citizens Dividends. Some get really attached to their dividends. Since Alaska doesn’t have participatory budgeting and people love their dividends so much, Alaska’s system isn’t funding enough infrastructure.

Adapting to Geophysical Reality

No species survives unless it is good at adapting to its environment. And environments can change very fast. This article addresses the adaptations we must make to a rapidly warming world, to living with a low carbon economy and to major collapse of the global economy.

Getting to a low fossil fuel economy fast
climate_0Climate change has been humanity’s wake up call. Energy is at the heart of everything we do. For centuries we have used the energy of the sun in one form or another. It was only when we discovered oil, a form of stored sunlight compacted for millions of years, that economic growth really took off.

How dense is oil? Richard Heinberg explains that to push your car for 30 miles would take 6-8 weeks of hard labour, but you can put a gallon of petrol in your car and get there quickly for a few dollars .

We use fossil fuel energy not just to power our cars and tractors, but power our assembly lines, make our cement, plastic, pharmaceuticals and paints. As the low hanging fruit becomes exhausted, the cost of digging out fossil fuels rises and the unconventional oil, gas and coal is of not such high quality. Despite the financial challenges, oil companies continue to forecast increases in extraction.

When climate scientist Bill McKibben first wrote in 1989 on the coming climate challenge, he didn’t foresee the pace of change. He continues to be astonished at the rapidity of loss of Arctic ice, increasingly devastation cyclones and other extreme weather events. In a talk to the Oberlin College and Conservatory conference in Ohio, After Fossil Fuels: the Next Economy, he said we now have a very limited timeframe.

Founder of the Carbon Tracker, Mark Campanale, reminded listeners that economist Nicholas Stern had estimated that to get to two degrees of warming the world needed to spend $90 trillion in infrastructure for a low carbon economy. Campanale had calculated that there is only a 50% chance of getting there in the time estimated by major governments signing the Paris Agreement using their scenarios. There is so much unburnable carbon in the reserves of oil, gas and coal companies, that even if there was no further digging or mining activity than there is now, we would still overshoot the 2 degrees.

To put this $90 trillion in investment needed in perspective, the world GDP is $70 trillion and the total value of the stock of all the companies in the world is only $60 trillion. Campanale, a sustainable investment analyst, noted that some investors are saying it will all blow over and it is cyclical. So they keep their shares in fossil fuel companies until this happens. All the oil companies and OPEC forecast continual growth of fossil fuel extraction.

Two weeks before this conference Bill McKibben had post an article Recalculating the Climate Math, in which he wrote that scientists now think that 2 degrees is too much; moreover, the amount of fossil fuels in the currently operating plants worldwide would actually bring us above 2 degrees. So the amount of CO2 we can burn has to be reduced from 943 to 800 gigatons. And if we are going to get to 1.5 degrees, a goal set in Paris, we will need to close all the coal mines and some of the gas fields we're currency operating long before they are exhausted. He finishes by saying ‘And if we don’t get it right, then all of us—along with our 10,000-year-old experiment in human civilization—will fail.’

And as for living with less oil, gas and coal, that is huge too. There are so many challenges, from how to power industrial machinery to how to transition from kerosene as aviation fuel, it hardly bears thinking about. There is no doubt however that we will have to grow our food more locally, to travel less and to have more localised economies. The permaculture movement can teach us how to build houses with less cement. There will be stranded assets like oil tankers and bankruptcies galore in the huge fossil fuel industry, let alone the huge losses on high-risk energy bonds in the fracking industry.

All the more reason why we have to think up the new economic system fast. Innovation to transition to a low carbon economy can only happen if investment is directed there and new companies have no deadweight taxes, only resource taxes.

We also need to adapt to an economy that will collapse.
Actuary Gail Tverberg, who through the years has predicted many changes that have come to pass, says the global economy can’t grow fast because the cheap-to-extract energy is depleting. She describes a situation where growth is slowing, global trade isn’t growing and central bankers can’t solve it even with historically low interest rates. More energy is needed now to extract energy, it takes energy to make and transport goods, and it takes an increasing amount of energy to create a growing amount of goods and services. Less cheap to extract energy produces less productivity growth and this translates into stagnant wages which no longer allow non elite workers to buy big ticket items like cars and houses. So the economy declines further.

She maintains this means commodity prices can’t hold up, so producing them eventually becomes uneconomical. And we are on a downward spiral. ‘This situation could lead to catastrophe because metals, agriculture and energy are all essential to the economy’. The rate of return on investment falls, new debt goes into buying assets and eventually, when commodity prices fall, asset prices fall. The price of agricultural land will fall. This leads to debt defaults and bank failures, affecting banks, insurance companies and pension plans. The lack of new loans will depress demand further. She predicts oil may fall below $20 a barrel.

Most investors and financial advisors are unaware that the price of commodities (in New Zealand it has largely been about the price of whole milk powder) is cyclical so it will turn around. But they haven’t factored in energy.

At the end of this long article in October, 2016 she concludes there is no way out of the problem over the long term. We will have reached our ‘Minsky Moment’.

Adapting to sudden financial collapse will be humanity’s biggest challenge.

Continuing War
1024_wepost3While most societies have lived with war, we now have the added factor that there is a scramble for the last remaining fossil fuel reserves. Investigative journalist and international security scholar Nafeez Ahmed has explained the conflict in Syria in those terms, saying that there is competition for the offshore oil and natural gas reserves between the world’s biggest oil companies and that is why they court Assad. When civil war broke out the plans of Shell and oil majors were unexpectedly suspended. When it is resolved they will be able to continue. American firm, Genie Oil and Gas has been granted exploration rights in the Golan Heights. Among Genie’s board members are Rupert Murdoch, Larry Summers, Dick Cheney.

American Shale Oil, a subsidiary of Genie candidly admits on its website: ‘The peaking of world oil production presents the US and the world with an enormous challenge, Aggressive action must be taken to avoid unprecedented economic, social and political costs.’

In addition there are two proposed gas pipelines to get gas for Europe that are on hold. One is from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to Europe. This was signed by Assad and backed by Russia. The other is from Qatar’s North Field through Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey.

A Russian oil and gas company began oil prospecting operations in September 2015, the same area scoped by French firm CGGVeritas.

John Fullerton on the Regenerative Economy

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Occasionally you strike a book or long article that you really want to pay attention to. For me I have discovered John Fullerton's white paper called Regenerative Capitalism How Universal Principles and Patterns will Shape our New Economy. It is 120 pages long and very dense, dated April 2015.

I found Fullerton through watching a large part of After Fossil Fuels The New Economy, a filmed seminar from Oberlin College, Ohio held in early October. (Try 1 hour 5 mins into this particular section, as it is long) I was excited because here was someone saying what we have been saying. I knew that people rarely are the sole inventors of new ideas. He wrote we need to design an economy according to nature's principles. He knows that creativity and regenerative potential happens at the edges, a teaching from permaculture. He even quotes evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris.

He appeared with Juliet Schorr, a sociologist, former economist, who agreed with him yet reminded him that power and conflict must not be omitted and that one must not be attached too strongly to a metaphor.

When I looked at his acknowledgements I got quite excited. Here was a former JP Morgan banker listing Fritjof Capra, Janine Benyus, Hazel Henderson, David Korten, Thomas Berry, Buckminster Fuller, Jane Jacobs, Dana Meadows, EF Schumacher and Gar Alperovitz. Reading the text over the next few days I found he even knew a little of Bernard Lietaer and Elinor Ostrom and his scientific advisor is engineer Sally Goerner a student of flow and energy network sciences. She taught him about the optimum balance between efficiency and resilience. Goerner was a co-author with Bernard Lietaer in their Club of Rome book on Money and Sustainability.

Reading Charles Eisenstein's book Sacred Economics was punctuated for me with long pauses while I digested one amazing sentence after another. Fullerton had this same effect on me in that he was articulating ideas only half formed in my mind, and doing so with such eloquent language. Then again, because he is qualified in finance and business, I learnt from his perspective. People who have voluntarily opted out of Wall Street to think and read and explore new ideas are very precious to the new economy movement and Fullerton is one of these.

John Fullerton has outlined eight principles for what he calls a Regenerative Economy and has expanded them in his white paper. He says his experiences with regenerative entrepreneurs as well as his exploration of systems theory, biomimicry, ecology and the physics of flow networks has led him to this list. Briefly, an economy must be or must demonstrate:

1. In Right Relationship – realising we are part of an interconnected web of life.
2. Views Wealth Holistically – realising there are multiple forms of capital.
3. Innovative, Adaptive, Responsive. This applies to individuals, businesses, society, governments and is the way for maximum fitness. It means the end of rigid hierarchical systems that control today’s centralised states.
4. Empowered participation. Everyone matters and the health of any human economy is dependent on everyone’s unique contribution to the health of the whole.
5. Honours Community and Place. Diversity and richness are essential to system vitality. Each human community embodies a mosaic of traditions, beliefs and potentialities, each uniquely shaped by long-term pressures of geography, history, culture, environment and changing human needs.
6. Edge Effect Abundance. The most innovation and abundance of life happens at the edges of systems e.g where rivers meet the ocean.
7. Robust Circulatory Flow. "Just as human health depends on robust circulation of oxygen, nutrients etc, so too economic health depends on robust circulatory flows of money, information, waste, resources, goods and services to support exchange, flush toxins, and nourish every participant at every level of our human networks."
8. Seeks Balance. There is a delicate balance between resilience and efficiency. Small, diverse and flexible will lead to stagnation while big, efficient and focused will lead to collapse. There is a window of vitality half way.

He doesn't really address tax reform in a big way, or the need to share the rents though he appears to have read Peter Barnes. He approves of progressive taxation, financial transaction tax and wants aggressive inheritance taxes. So there is  more thinking to be done there. Like many others he probably conflates land with capital. Yes university teaching has been very successful in getting rid of land as a factor of production. Well done neoclassical economists – your strategy worked brilliantly. 

I think he would love to read Silvio Gesell's book The Natural Economic Order to learn about the design of naturally circulating money. That would set him thinking. And perhaps some of Lietaer's books, particularly where he describes how Gesell's ideas were put into practice in Dynastic Egypt, Central Middle Ages and in Great Depression towns in Europe.

Oh, and how he would love to read Reinventing Organisations by Frederic Laloux!

Deirdre Kent

@deirdrekent

Lessons from Singapore’s political economy

Marina Bay Financial Centre, Singapore

Marina Bay Financial Centre, Singapore

In his excellent TED talk, renowned inequality researcher Richard Wilkinson showed that of all OECD countries, Singapore had the worst inequality, ahead of Portugal, US, New Zealand, UK. Gini coefficients are the standard measure of income inequality. A score of 1 is the worst and 0 is the best. Because it is taken on the average not the median income, extremes of wealth will raise it.

I had always believed that Singapore was a model where there was little poverty and not much inequality. It is commonly cited as one of the more ‘georgist’ places in the world in terms of them shifting burdens on land, socialising its value and untaxing labour and capital.

But there are myths about the “Singaporean miracle”. In the absence of any constraint on the movement of global capital, any billionaire can set up residence and tap into the low tax regime. And they do. High net individuals and multinational corporations hide their wealth there. The tax benefits include a 20% top income tax, and a 17% top company tax. Even New Zealand has a billionaire living there – Richard Chandler.

We have insisted that both the land issue and money issue need to be addressed together, not separately, and Singapore is a clear example of what happens when you do one but not the other. The late Adrian Wrigley of the Systemic Fiscal Reform in Cambridge said, ‘If we just have resource taxes including land tax, where people pay for the privilege of monopolising their part of the commons, but have no monetary reform then money will concentrate with banks. Banks will row the economy between easy money and tight money causing booms and busts. They will put up interest rates for ‘riskier’ loans. They buy patents, radio spectrums, copyrights and trademarks.’ They bribe governments.

Whether Singapore, a country of 5.5 million, has done all this I don’t know, but it is a low tax regime and it certainly featured in the Panama Papers. It has even been labelled as a tax haven. For example, companies like TrustNet, now headquartered in Singapore, has branch offices in 16 other locations. It describes itself as a ‘one-stop shop,’ employing lawyers and accountants who help “high net worth” clients manage their money and business activities. The main product it sells is secrecy. It is easy to set up a company because only one shareholder and one director is needed. There is no need to disclose the beneficial owners of Singapore corporations to the authorities. Hopefully the international crackdown on tax sheltering will do something to change it, but given the nature of the tax regime in most countries, I can’t see much hope. They haven’t yet understood it is better to rely on land as a source of income, as land will not get up and walk away.

Big Australian mining companies have large workforces in Singapore. BHP has more staff there than its Melbourne headquarters. There are about 600 employees and 400 contractors in Singapore. Apart from being a marketing hub, it also has its business information systems based there. Rio Tinto employs more than 300 staff in Singapore. Companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto have all admitted in hearings as part of the Senate inquiry into corporate tax avoidance that they are under audit by the ATO for their use of Singapore ‘marketing’ and ‘service’ hubs, where they route hundreds of millions of dollars of income.

So I wonder about Singapore. Could it be a perfect example of what Adrian warned? While 90% of the land is now government owned, the banks have too much power.

Singapore is not just banking hub, it is shadow banking hub. There are about 125 commercial banks in Singapore, only five of which are local. Although banks lend a lot of money into existence in Singapore and their loans go towards construction of capital, rather than simply bidding up the price of land (as we see in Auckland, for example), that is not all that banks do. They sell derivative contracts over the counter – bets on interest rates or other securities. Derivatives leverage up money creation up to 100 or more times. Trading in derivatives contracts happens round the clock. Singapore is a leading global commodities hub with 14,000 people employed and annual turnover of some US $1 trillion in the commodities sector.

The majority of people who live there find Singapore is an extremely attractive place to live and operate from. It is safe, clean, and green with superb infrastructure. The unemployment rate in Singapore is just 1.9% (June 2016), down from 6% in 1986. Bear in mind though, the definition ‘employed’ includes those employed part time, probably as little as an hour a week.

Unlike New Zealand they don’t have a Universal Superannuation. Many of Singapore’s elderly didn’t save enough while working, but they live longer. Some were born when there was no access to education. What’s more, the Singapore language policy marginalised many of them only able to speak languages other than Mandarin and English. While the cultural norm of caring for the elderly seems to have almost vanished, the government still argues that children should take care of their parents. Many elderly are on the government allowance of $450 a month, reliant on charity for food and health care. Living in tiny apartments as small as 30 square metres, they clean tables at hawker centres, collect cardboard for money, scrub apartment blocks or slog in the hot sun as security guards. Security guards and cleaners are among the worst paid.

In response, there is now a plethora of government assistance, making for growing administrative costs of welfare, when it would have been so much better to have shared their land rents with all their citizens in the first place.

So Singapore can only stop its own rent from being stolen by the global elite; it can't stop the global elite from setting up shop there and stealing the rent of other places. Local rent-sharing can only raise the local floor. But Singapore doesn’t do enough rent-sharing, hasn’t controlled its banking industry and doesn’t exist in isolation from the global capitalist economy. Hence its inequality.

So maybe we’ve seen only part of the equation. Taking land into public ownership stops private landowners from pocketing land rent, but it doesn't restore the universal individual right to share the land value. The Singapore government has built great infrastructure and housed almost all its people, but it could easily share the remaining public money with its citizens. The Citizens Dividend enables everyone to collect rent, rather than just landowners. But without democratising the budgeting process, ordinary people are not receiving their fair share.

Singapore has the highest per capita of millionaires of any country. One in six households are millionaire households. The mobility of capital and people across borders means that the borders of the country are constantly being crossed. So it is no good just having one country in the world with land owned by the government while billions of dollars slosh around the globe every hour.

Billionaires can sit in Singapore and draw rent from land in the rest of the world. Aetas Global Markets provides funds for commodities projects. Many international firms are sited in Singapore. Global Capital firms like Knight Frank invest on behalf of what they call Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWI) in property round the world. Genesis Global Capital appears to choose cities in the early stage of a property boom in Brazil and Germany. The Strait Times reports in March 2016 that the financial services sector is a key driver of Singapore’s growth.

Henry George defined poverty as the ‘fear of want’, the ‘relentless hell waiting beneath civilized society’. He believed that removing this fear would not only help the poor, but transform our culture and society.

Former Singapore resident Zbigniew Dumienski said, ‘The only group that I would consider as poor are the old people with no children. When they worked they didn't have to contribute towards any retirement scheme (CPF) and might not have accumulated enough money to enjoy a peaceful retirement. This is why you often see old people selling tissues or cleaning tables in Singapore. They do receive some support from the state though, plus many of them own their apartments. In fact, I've met income-poor people who would choose to live in a tent/on the streets so that they can live off renting their apartment to other people.’

The situation of the 870,000 foreign workers (Feb 2016) in Singapore is contentious. Many immigrants like the safety and enjoy the food. While it is good if your employer is fair, it is not so good if you are exploited. There are construction workers from India, Bangladesh, China and Nepal and maids from the Philippines, Myanmar and Indonesia who earn much less than an average Singaporean. Some live in dormitory ghettos provided by the government. Migrant workers are not given basic protections such as a minimum wage, standardised working hours and a right to unionise, so this puts a downward pressure on wages, raising inequality. There are reports of maids being ripped off by recruiters, and sometimes being beaten or raped. Live-in nannies are often on 24/7 standby and earn $5 an hour. If they have their passports stolen by their employers they can’t go home. However many eventually earn enough to take back home and live a life with more choices. With 40% of Singapore's inhabitants being foreigners by 2013, immigration is increasingly becoming a big political issue.

So despite the hope of eliminating poverty, the ugly side of global capitalism is becoming increasingly apparent.

Climate change do the math

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Portrait of Bill McKibben, author and activist. photo ©Nancie Battaglia

Portrait of Bill McKibben, author and activist. photo ©Nancie Battaglia

No species survives unless it is good at adapting to its environment. And environments can change very fast.

Climate change has been humanity’s wake up call. Energy is at the heart of everything we do. For centuries we have used the energy of the sun in one form or another. It was only when oil was discovered, a form of stored sunlight energy compacted for millions of years, economic growth really took off.

How dense is oil? Richard Heinberg explains that to push your car for 30 miles would take 6-8 weeks of hard labour, but you can put a gallon of petrol in your car and get there quickly for a few dollars .

We use fossil fuel energy not just to power our cars and tractors, but power our assembly lines, make our cement, plastic, pharmaceuticals and paints. As the low hanging fruit becomes exhausted, the cost of digging out fossil fuels rises and the unconventional oil, gas and coal is of not such high quality. Despite massive financial challenges, oil companies continue to forecast increases in extraction.

When climate scientist Bill McKibben first wrote in 1989 on the coming climate challenge, he didn’t foresee the pace of change. He continues to be astonished at the rapidity of loss of Arctic ice, increasingly devastation cyclones and other extreme weather events. In a talk to the Oberlin College and Conservatory conference in Ohio, After Fossil Fuels: the Next Economy, he said we now have a very limited timeframe.

Founder of the Carbon Tracker, Mark Campanale, reminded listeners that economist Nicholas Stern had estimated that to get to two degrees of warming the world needed to spend $90 trillion in infrastructure for a low carbon economy. Campanale had calculated that there is only a 50% chance of getting there in the time estimated by major governments signing the Paris Agreement using their scenarios. There is so much unburnable carbon in the reserves of oil, gas and coal companies, that even if there was no further digging or mining activity than there is now, we would still overshoot the 2 degrees.

To put this $90 trillion in investment needed in perspective, the world GDP is $70 trillion and the total value of the stock of all the companies in the world is only $60 trillion. Campanale, a sustainable investment analyst, noted that some investors are saying it will all blow over and it is cyclical. So they keep their shares in fossil fuel companies until this happens. All the oil companies and OPEC forecast continual growth of fossil fuel extraction.

Two weeks before this particular conference Bill McKibben had posted an article Recalculating the Climate Math, in which he wrote that scientists now think that 2 degrees is too much warming. Moreover burning the fossil fuels in the currently operating plants worldwide would actually bring us above 2 degrees. So the amount we can burn has to be reduced from 943 to 800 gigatons of CO2. And if we are going to get to 1.5 degrees, a goal set in Paris, we will need to close all the coal mines and some of the gas fields we're currency operating long before they are exhausted. He finishes by saying ‘And if we don’t get it right, then all of us—along with our 10,000-year-old experiment in human civilization—will fail.’

The conference also had wonderful contributions from those involved with the divestment movement.

I have watched a considerable amount of this conference on youtube. While it is great as far as it goes, it would be even greater if this movement was linked to the very exciting currency design movement and the movement to reform the tax system so that taxes come from largely from ground rents. Imagine if they knew that dual currencies can lead to innovation and prosperity if the domestic currency  is designed to decay naturally. Yes imagine them knowing that the design of the currency actually affects whether you think long term or short term. Imagine them realising that it is critical to neutralise those who oppose carbon taxes because they fear job losses and there is finally a way of getting a basic income through rent sharing and this gives them safety from redundancy. Imagine if they asked and really understood what caused the economic growth imperative and how to fix this. Imagine if they realised the political impossibility of centralised solutions to  many issues. But insofar as it goes, it has contributed heaps. And it is very exciting that the critical topic is being discussed – how to design the next economy. This is what the New Economics Movement has been doing now for a considerable time.

Deirdre Kent
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