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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Why not put Council owned land into a Community Land Trust?

It's local body election time.

I was privileged to speak with Emer O'Siochru of FEASTA recently. Twenty years ago she was a cofounder of the Irish Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability. She has campaigned for proportional representation. For three years she worked for a Site Value Tax but it was not successful. She is now working on Community Land Trusts.

We spoke about the challenge of connecting Community Land Trusts with local government so that local government could receive income from land rents. Suddenly there it was. She said in Dublin local government and central government owned a third of the land and so why couldn't that land all go into a Community Land Trust?

Imagine all of us trying that campaign together so that local government all over our countries would be lobbied to do this. Oh yes there would be obstacles. There will only be a few people you know, for instance, in your local Community Board area who understand that allowing property owners to profit from the rising value of their land is depriving society of its rightful income. So for a start there will only be a few to work with. But you only need three or four keen people.

The idea is that instead of Council selling off their land to developers, the council would continue to own the land but the lessee would be able to build a house on it. This is leasehold land. But every year the rent should be reassessed. This could be done by setting up a Land Rental Index to adjust the rent according to the change over that year. Our land is valued every three years anyway. All it means is that a sample of properties would be assessed for their annual rent. You start with an index of 100 and next year it might go up to 102 if there had been development in the district. Or if you live in Westport of Wairoa where land values are declining, the rental would drop.

The main obstacle the Council would raise in New Zealand would be that Council wouldn't know how to levy rates because it wouldn't know how much to charge. You see in the Kapiti Coast District Council where I live, rates are on Capital Value plus several Fixed Annual Charges for services. They wouldn't be able to separate out land from improvements. The rating system on Capital Value discourages building because the more you spend on building the bigger your rates bill. So some campaigner will stop at this point and work to change the rating system. Rating should be based on land value only or Unimproved Value. And fixed annual charges are regressive because the poor pay as much as the rich, which means it is a larger proportion of their income.

The advantage for lessees is that you only need to pay for the house not for the land. Since land comprises more than 60% of the property value in Auckland and usually over 40% in smaller areas, houses themselves become vastly more affordable. The lease would also have to be fair and it would be best for a 75 year period, a lifetime. It is just that the rent must be adjusted yearly to avoid any crazy leaps as in Auckland.

Of course this would all work better if the people who pay rent on their land are also able to escape income tax and GST. They go together. But this problem is for another day.

But somewhere someone will be successful. One day.

Deirdre Kent 

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The Rise and Rise of Evonomics

It’s not often that a blog takes off at speed but http://evonomics.com is an exception to this.

Like us they want a new view of economics.

legs-up-taking-a-photo

Here's what the About page says in part: "Today’s economic ideas will create the world we live in tomorrow.

Good economic thinking, widely shared, understood, and implemented in public policy, can make the world a far better place. We’re committed to helping that happen.....Evonomics was launched in October 2015 by founding editor Robert Kadar and co-founder Joe Brewer. Steve Roth, an early and active advisor and participant, serves as publisher. It seems to have a struck a nerve, rapidly attracting hundreds of thousands of page views a month. Evonomics has become an amplifier and soundboard for new economic thinking, expanding the reach of that thinking to a broad community of citizens, thinkers, influencers, and policymakers."

It looks as though it comes out of Seattle. Not unsurprising, as Seattle seems to have much in common with Vermont.

Yes it is impressive and very professional. Blogs by Joe Stiglitz, David Sloan Wilson, Tom Streithorst,  Lyn Stout, George Blackford, Philip Kotler, John Perkins, Amna Silim, John Komlos, Steve Roth, Peter Barnes, George Monbiot, Paul Ormerod, Frances Coppola.

Advisors include Steve Keen, Sarah Van Gelder, Yanis Varoufakis, Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, Sally J Goerner, Francis Coppola, Robert Schiller. And these are only a few.
 
Apart from economists, advisors are pyschologists, journalists, evolutionary biologists, ecological economists, civic entrepreneurs, sociologists, scientists, lawyers, historians, authors and so on.
 

The layout of the front page is simple and it works. Only two items in the menu, graphics to die for, photos of bloggers and advisors on the right column and wherever you go you are invited to receive the newsletter, loud and clear. Simplicity is the hallmark. Simple title indicating it is the next evolution of economics. Facebook, twitter and search and one partner (there are blogs by David Sloan Wilson of the Evolution Institute). And there it all is.

Being a keen tweeter I have enjoyed scrutinising the pattern of their tweets and the people they follow.

Deirdre Kent

Auckland home owners are “richer” than last year by $64 billion

The average price for an  Auckland home is now just over $1 million. The media focuses, as they usually do, on how impossible it is nowadays for young people to buy a house, with a side mention of how difficult it is for nurses, service workers and teachers to buy a house, and how the Auckland problem is spilling over to the entire country. There has also been a great deal of publicity in the last six months about homelessness, with a marae in Auckland shaming the Government into action by opening its doors to the homeless for the winter.

But there is another big issue that is almost never mentioned – the lost potential public revenue from land rent. Land rent is what the occupier would pay to the public if the public owned the land. Many have explained that the rise in value of homes is really the accumulated land rent over that period. It is also called the capital gain or unearned windfall.

QV HOUSE PRICE INDEX AUG16

Recent figures from Quotable Values New Zealand allow us to work out the on-paper profit for our country's homeowners and for Auckland's homeowners. This of course is just on-paper, but because it represents their realisable assets it does allow homeowners to do other things e.g. borrow more for other purposes. This calculation acknowledges that the figures are the houses that are sold only. Houses sold in that period were more like one tenth of the housing stock. But if my neighbour's house sells for $1million and ours is similar we know ours could sell for a similar price. Our house value is what a valuer would estimate or better still what the market would pay. Valuers value by looking at what did sell in the district and making comparisons. The bank recognises this as the value of our asset.

And the fact that I had a huge mortgage didn't really make any difference. Supposing I only have $200k and buy a $900k house, selling it a year later for $1 million. I make a profit of $100k because my deposit of $200k was turned into $300k.

Let's first take Auckland where the figures are the most dramatic. 

House prices rose nearly 16% last year. The average uplift in Auckland house prices in that period was $138,781.

Since land values are created by the community around them, by the governments and communities that serve that site, the uplift belongs to the public purse. Rise in property prices are virtually all attributable to the rise in land prices. Schools, hospitals, infrastructure are built by government, central and local, and the private land owner reaps the profit. Businesses arrive, clubs start. Without a community around it, land has little value. (Even agriculture requires transport infrastructure. Land for conservation is usually publicly owned). 

The total uplift for Auckland properties was 461,669 (the number of residential properties in Auckland Council) multiplied by $138,781, or $64 billion.

Sold Home For Sale Sign and House

Now supposing this uplift was publicly captured month by month in the form of a full land rent, as it should be. What would the council do with it?

1. They could give half to the government straight away, leaving $32 billion.

2. They could put aside about $20 billion for infrastructure building and upgrading including rapid transit, and debt relief, leaving $12 billion still to be shared.

3. Sharing the rents is important. So the $12 billion could be given out as a Citizens Dividend to every man, woman and child in Auckland. The population of Auckland is about 1.58 million, making about $7,600 per person. For a family of five that would be $38,000.

That should help a few homeless families!

New Zealand homeowners are $138 billion richer than last year 

There are at least 1,771,2000 residential homes in NZ (2013 census). The average uplift in NZ house prices was the difference between the Aug 2016 price and the August 2015 price, which as $78,196.

So multiplying these two, New Zealand homeowners on paper have assets worth about $138 billion more than last year. The tax take last year was $66.6 billion. So it is more than double the tax take. All this is privately captured when it really should be going to the state. In comparison to the $138 billion uplift for NZ, the GDP last year was about $170 billion.

However there are several political obstacles stopping us from applying these solutions in our current context:

• Aucklanders pay rates. However Auckland Council was introduced by legislation when amalgamation took place. This mandated that the rates were levied on capital values, thus requiring legislation for a change to rating system on land values. There is only miniscule awareness of this as a political issue.

• The viability these days of a centrally imposed land tax is not good, given the fact there are at least three bank lobbyists for every legislator and neoclassical economics is in full bloom. Nowadays the power of the landed and moneyed elite is so much greater in relation to the 99% than it has ever been.

• It has been legally impossible to impose land tax in NZ since 1992, though the PM seems not to know this because it was he that suggested putting a land tax on property bought by foreigners earlier in 2016. The idea died within a day or two. However this law could easily be reversed.

• No politician wanting to be re-elected would advocate a measure that was going to bring down house prices and leave homebuyers with negative equity. A 5-6% land tax would actually be for politicians and doing it gradually wouldn’t work either.

• Imposing a land value tax must go hand in hand with dropping of income tax so this has to be incorporated into the solution.

But all is not lost! The obstacles are not insuperable. Think about the untenable current situation of housing prices and its destructive consequences of widening the wealth gap. We have to start on other ground breaking solutions. Let’s be pioneering here.

A little history might give hope. New Zealand had a Liberal Government in the 1890s that imposed a land tax to break up big land holdings. Then it extended, but unfortunately it was at a higher rate per acre for large landholdings than for smaller ones, which was essentially unfair. This resulted in a new political party dominated by larger farmers. But land tax never reached more than 20% of the tax take, and income tax was gradually increased and extended. The same Liberal Government did however enact legislation to empower local government to hold a referendum where ratepayers could choose between land value rating systems and capital value. This was in place for 80 years and always resulted in the more equitable the public choosing land value rating systems. Cities like Wellington and Napier built on this rating system are compact.

If money buys lobbying power, then we have to be more strategic and try different tactics. This might point to governance reform giving much more power to local authorities and to even smaller governance units. Given that the banks have a vested interest in profiting from the buying and selling of land and from the private ownership of natural resources and infrastructure, a host of local innovative actions may be the surprise option. And this would require huge resistance from local communities that are determined to share land values and preserve natural resource values.

Maybe the old system should be left alone to collapse and die, and the new paradigm system reinvented at local level. We need to ask how land trusts can connect with localised governance units whose revenue is derived land and resource rents. But where would the money come from to buy the land? Maybe we need to create a local currency designed to circulate at an optimal speed. Maybe when there is surplus locally it can be steered from the periphery to the centre of government.

Certainly clever, innovative thinking is called for and it should be all hands on deck for that task!

A currency for Christchurch taken seriously

John Campbell introduced the piece on RNZ's Checkpoint with the remark, "A separate currency for Christchurch could be real. Is the city serious about it? Are they for real?". He said he had done his own research and found the Bristol Pound in UK. And the Totnes Pound and the Brixton Pound.

Chair of the council's Finance Committee Raf Manji explained there were 2,500 community currencies operating round the world, talked of his preference for the Bristol Pound because of its convertibility. Treasury and RBNZ need to be involved. Our plan is to launch it at the 2017 Social Enterprise World Forum. http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/201795721/christchurch-could-soon-have-its-own-currency

Dairy debt dilemma needs solving

1436821666128At the end of 2014 we published a blog asking Why our are farmers farming for capital gain?

In it Andrew Gawith, then Director of Gareth Morgan Investments described the economics of farming in New Zealand as ‘speculative’ as the financial benefits are almost entirely dependent on capital gains. Other than dairy, income is puny and unreliable, he said. Now the focus goes plainly on dairy debt as the price the farmer receives is plummeting and the banks have been recklessly lending, knowing they are only lending on the promise of capital gain. And our country has no capital gains tax and no land tax, so it is a great place to pour investment money from China and other countries. The TPP, if ratified, will not allow our country to ban the sale of land to foreigners.

Gawith pointed out that in the twenty years between 1990 and 2010 the real after-tax return to farmers was something in the order of 7 percent to 8 percent a year,’ and that this was double the return of sharemarkets.

He said farming was the most popular business for banks to lend to. ‘While other areas of economic endeavour are starved of capital, banks have very nearly drowned farming with debt. The ease with which farmers can get capital has helped push up the price of land.’

So with farmers drowning in debt, they can't withstand the drop in dairy prices from a high of over $8 per kilo milk solid to below $4 by March 2016.

Dairy debt was around $32 billion in 2013, up from $8 billion in 2003, which makes a quadrupling in a decade! And by March 2016 it is $37.8 million. Gawith said in 2010 that dairy debt represents two thirds of all outstanding farm debt. According to Federated Farmers in February 2016, one in ten dairy farmers were feeling pressure from their banks. During the time of growing stress the Minister of Agriculture kept urging banks to cooperate with dairy farmers. The price of dairy land averages $39,367 per hectare, and in Taranaki the average value is even higher. Dairy farmland in New Zealand is reported to be the dearest in the world.

Farming is very capital intensive, with only mining and utilities more so. According to an NZIER study, ‘Around three-quarters of value added in agriculture is from capital (land, plant and machinery). This is higher than the economy wide average of around 50%.”

Janette Walker, a rural debt mediator, told John Campbell on Monday 8 March that 85% of dairy farmers are not going to make a cent for the next two years and if land prices drop it will be a train wreck. Overseas land buyers are circling. Banks have lent too much for too long, based on capital gain. They completely missed the cashflow issue. Supply companies, vets, contractors and lawyers are watching closely as they are unsecured creditors.

Paul Glass of Devon Funds Management told a September conference that for every $3.90/kilo dairy farmers get in payout they have $19 debt/kilo on average. For years Glass had been concerned about the high level of debt carried by not only dairy farmers but also by Fonterra, our major dairy company.

Actions required

If dairy farming turns out to be the cause of our country’s Minsky moment, how can we avert a crisis? One Northland dairy farmer who was selling up told Checkpoint that government should let innovations emerge at local level, they were too dependent on outside advisors coming in.

Now the government could do what they did for central Christchurch land after the February 2011 earthquake to avoid a slump in land price – buy up land from distressed dairy farmers. But they shouldn't borrow from a bank for the money. They could issue Treasury Notes; that has been done in other countries before in crises.

There is something else a government could do and that is QE for the People. Give out new money (Treasury Notes) in the form of a Citizens Dividend. This is on condition that any debt must be paid off first.

Or the banks could become shareholders in the businesses they lend to until it is clear which way the business will go.

Given the importance of private debt before a crisis, whatever action taken should not add to overall private debt.You need to reduce the debt level without reducing aggregate demand at the same time. 

But none of this is likely to happen. Pigs might fly. If government will not act and get together with banks and farmers, and the most valuable farm land is in danger of being bought up by overseas buyers, then it is up to local government to do something big.

The first option is that they distribute a Citizens Dividend. To prepare for this all local authorities, and all agencies of local authorities like Community Boards should by now be compiling a list of their citizens, just as Alaska and British Columbia do. Alaska does it to share in the bounties of oil revenue, BC does it to share out the proceeds of their carbon tax. In the case of Alaska, they give the dividend to all citizens who have lived there for a year. They need to buy up the land of distressed dairy farmers with a new currency issued on a par with the national currency. The difference is that it needs to be designed differently as well. If we can’t get to this stage in one leap, then let’s stop there. The next locally created currency will have to take this next leap. Or a Maori incorporation that includes dairy farms could issue a new currency after persuading local businesses to accept it.

They need to buy up the land of distressed dairy farmers with a new currency issued on a par with the national currency. The difference is that the currency needs to be designed differently as well to include a circulation incentive. If we can’t get all the way to this stage in one leap, then let’s stop there. The next locally created currency will have to take this next important step. Or a Maori incorporation that includes dairy farms could issue a new currency after persuading local businesses to accept it.

Whatever happens we must find a way to keep our precious dairy land in our country's ownership. It either has to be owned by government, local government or by a Maori entity, be it an iwi or an incorporation. Whichever body does it, their new income will be derived from land rent. At that stage a lifetime lease contract must be arranged to ensure security of guardianship.

The public must thenkeep a close watch the on public bodies because they will find themselves under political pressure to reduce land rents and effectively hand out free lunches. (this happened in Canberra and government leasehold land rents have been progressively reduced in New Zealand). To ensure this doesn't happen, it is important to give the new currency special benefits to ensure it circulates without deadweight taxes – trades in it should have no income tax or GST. The currency should be designed as a means of exchange only and for this, it is important to build in an incentive for it to circulate quickly.

But this is a whole new matter. It will require some staunchness on the part of local government when accosted by national government. However, considering it now attracts a full land rent, which is fairly high, it is only fair that the new currency must have tax advantages over the national currency to compensate.

Did banks apply for a patent to use money?

new-nz-moneySo is money part of the commons?

Money is a clever human invention designed to be a medium of exchange. Everyone agrees to accept money because they know that other people trust it too. Unfortunately many centuries ago, governments started to accept bank credit as money. And when they accepted bank money for taxes, they either consciously or unconsciously gave banks a patent banks didn’t apply for or pay for. Nor did they check whether the invention was a working model. If they had done so they would never have granted the patent.

So we somehow allowed money to be lent into circulation with interest, causing a competitive system and a scarcity mentality where some amount of bankruptcy is inevitable. What’s more the patent had no termination date.

Banks continue this privilege of creating the country’s money supply (in the case of New Zealand it is at least 98.5% of our total money supply). So we gave banks the monopoly on money creation, didn’t tell the people and didn’t charge the banks a bean.