By David Korten
Wall Street is bankrupt. Instead of trying to save it, we can build a new economy that puts money
and business in the service of people and the planet—not the other way around.
Whether it was divine providence or just good luck, we should give thanks that financial collapse hit us before the worst of global warming and peak oil. As challenging as the economic meltdown may be, it buys time to build a new economy that serves life rather than money. It lays bare the fact that the existing financial system has brought our way of life and the natural systems on which we depend to the brink of collapse. This wake-up call is inspiring unprecedented numbers of people to take action to bring forth the culture and institutions of a new economy that can serve us and sustain our living planet for generations into the future.
The world of financial stability, environmental sustainability, economic justice, and peace that most psychologically healthy people want is possible if we replace a defective operating system that values only money, seeks to monetize every relationship, and pits each person in a competition with every other for dominance.
Not long ago, the news was filled with stories of how Wall Street’s money masters had discovered the secrets of creating limitless wealth through exotic financial maneuvers that eliminated both risk and the burden of producing anything of real value. In an audacious social engineering experiment, corporate interests drove a public policy shift that made finance the leading sector of the US economy and the concentration of private wealth the leading economic priority.
Corporate interests drove a policy agenda that rolled back taxes on high incomes, gave tax preference to income from financial speculation over income from productive work, cut back social safety nets, drove down wages, privatized public assets, outsourced jobs and manufacturing capacity, and allowed public infrastructure to deteriorate. They envisioned a world in which the United States would dominate the global economy by specializing in the creation of money and the marketing and consumption of goods produced by others.
As a result, manufacturing fell from 27 percent of US gross domestic product in 1950 to 12 percent in 2005, while financial services grew from 11 percent to 20 percent. From 1980 to 2005, the highest-earning 1 percent of the US population increased its share of taxable income from 9 percent to 19 percent, with most of the gain going to the top one-tenth of 1 percent. The country became a net importer, with a persistent annual trade deficit of more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars financed by rising foreign debt. Wall Street insiders congratulated themselves on their financial genius even as they turned the United States into a national economic basket case and set the stage for global financial collapse.
All the reports of financial genius masked the fact that a phantom-wealth economy is unsustainable. Illusory assets based on financial bubbles, abuse of the power of banks to create credit (money) from nothing, corporate asset stripping, baseless credit ratings, and creative accounting led to financial, social, and environmental breakdown. The system suppressed the wages of the majority while continuously cajoling them to buy more than they could afford using debt that they had no means to repay.
The operating system of our phantom-wealth economy was written by and for Wall Street interests for the sole purpose of making more money for people who have money. It makes cheap money readily available to speculators engaged in inflating financial bubbles and financing other predatory money scams. It makes money limited and expensive to those engaged in producing real wealth—life, and the things that sustain life—and pushes the productive members of society into indebtedness to those who produce nothing at all.
Money, the ultimate object of worship among modern humans, is the most mysterious of human artifacts: a magic number with no meaning or existence outside the human mind. Yet it has become the ultimate arbiter of life—deciding who will live in grand opulence in the midst of scarcity and who will die of hunger in the midst of plenty.
The monetization of relationships—replacing mutual caring with money as the primary medium of exchange—accelerated after World War II when growth in Gross National Product, essentially growth in monetized relationships, became the standard for evaluating economic performance. The work of the mother who cares for her child solely out of love counts for nothing. By contrast, the mother who leaves her child unattended to accept pay for tending the child of her neighbor suddenly becomes “economically productive.” The result is a public policy bias in favor of monetizing relationships to create phantom wealth—money—at the expense of real wealth.
In a modern economy, nearly every relationship essential to life depends on money. This gives ultimate power to those who control the creation and allocation of money. Five features of the existing money system virtually assure abuse.
1. Money issuance and allocation are controlled by private banks managed for the exclusive benefit of their top managers and largest shareholders.
2. Money issued by private banks as debt must be repaid with interest. This requires perpetual economic growth to create sufficient demand for new loans to create the money required to pay the interest due on previous loans. The fact that nearly every dollar in circulation is generating interest for bankers and their investors virtually assures an ever-increasing concentration of wealth.
3. The power to determine how much money will circulate and where it will flow is concentrated and centralized in a tightly interlinked system of private-benefit corporations that operate in secret, beyond public scrutiny, with the connivance of the Federal Reserve.
4. The Federal Reserve presents itself as a public institution responsible for exercising oversight, but it is accountable only to itself, operates primarily for the benefit of the largest Wall Street banks, and consistently favors the interests of those who live by returns to money over those who live by returns to their labor.
5. The lack of proper regulatory oversight allows players at each level of the system to make highly risky decisions, collect generous fees based on phantom profits, and pass the risk to others.
A Values-Based Operating System
To get ourselves out of our current mess and create the world we want, we must reboot the economy with a new, values-based operating system designed to support social and environmental balance and the creation of real, living wealth. We have seen what happens when government and big business operate in secret. The new system must be open to public scrutiny and democratic control. Globalization and the harshest form of capitalism have eroded the bonds of community and created vast gaps in wealth between the richest and the poorest. The new system must be locally rooted in strong communities and distribute wealth equitably.
Our environment and our infrastructure have paid a terrible price for the belief that private interests must always win over public ones. A viable system must balance public and private interests. Unregulated speculation is at the root of the current crisis. Society is better served by a system that favors productive work and investment, limits speculation, and suppresses inflation in all forms—including financial bubbles.
The following are five essential areas of action.
Government-Issued Money. There is urgent need for government action to create living wage jobs, rebuild public infrastructure, and restore domestic productive capacity. It is folly, however, for government to finance those projects by borrowing money created by the same private banks that created the financial mess.
The government can and should instead issue debt-free money to finance the stimulus and meet other public needs. Properly administered, this money will flow to community-based enterprises and help revitalize Main Street market economies engaged in the production of real wealth.
Community Banking. Under the bailout, the government is buying ownership shares in failed Wall Street banks with the expectation of eventually reselling them to private interests. So far, the money has disappeared or gone to acquisitions, management bonuses, office remodeling, and fancy vacations with no noticeable effect on the freeing up of credit.
A better plan, as many economists are recommending, is to force bankrupt banks into government receivership. As part of the sale and distribution of assets to meet creditor claims, these banks should be broken up and their local branches sold to local investors. These new, individual community banks and mutual savings and loan associations should be chartered to serve Main Street needs, lending to local manufacturers, merchants, farmers and homeowners within a strong regulatory framework.
Real-Wealth Investment. Gambling should be confined to licensed casinos. Contrary to the claims of Wall Street, financial speculation does not create real wealth, serves no public interest, and should be strongly discouraged. Tax the purchase or sale of financial instruments and impose a tax surcharge on short-term capital gains. Make it illegal to sell, insure, or borrow against an asset you do not own, or to issue a financial security not backed by a real asset. This would effectively shut down much of Wall Street, which would be a positive result.
The money that has been used for speculation must be redirected to productive investment that creates real wealth and meets our essential needs—responsibly, equitably, and sustainably—using green technologies and closed-loop production cycles. We can begin by eliminating subsidies for carbon fuels and putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions. We can revise trade agreements to affirm the responsibility of every nation to contribute to global economic security and stability by organizing for sustainable self-reliance in food and energy and managing its economy to keep imports and exports in balance. If we Americans learn to live within our means, we will free up resources others need to feed, clothe, and house themselves and their families. The notion that reducing our consumption would harm others is an example of the distorted logic of a phantom-wealth economy.
Middle Class Fiscal Policy. The ruling financial elites have used their control of fiscal policy to conduct a class war that has decimated the once celebrated American middle class and led to economic disaster. Markets work best when economic power is equitably distributed and individuals contribute to the economy as both workers and owners. Massive inequality in income and ownership assures the failure of both markets and democracy.
To restore the social fabric and allocate real resources in ways that serve the needs of all, we must restore the middle class through equity-oriented fiscal policies. There is also a strong moral argument that those who profited from creating our present economic mess should bear the major share of the cost of cleaning it up. It is time to reinstitute the policies that created the American middle class after World War II. Restore progressive income tax with a top rate of 90 percent and favor universal participation in responsible ownership and a family wage. Because no one has a natural birth entitlement to any greater share of the real wealth of society than anyone else, use the estate tax to restore social balance at the end of each lifetime in a modern equivalent of the Biblical Jubilee, which called for periodically forgiving debts and restoring land to its original owners.
Responsible Enterprise. Enterprises in a mar-ket economy need a fair return to survive. This imposes a necessary discipline. Service to the community, however, rather than profit, is the primary justification for the firm’s existence. As Wall Street has so graphically demonstrated, profit is not a reliable measure of social contribution.
Enterprises are most likely to serve their communities when they are human-scale and owned by responsible local investors with an active interest in their operation beyond mere profit. Concentrations of corporate power reduce public accountability, and no corporation should be too big to fail. The new economy will use antitrust to break large corporations into their component parts and sell them to responsible local owners. There are many ways to aggregate economic resources that do not create concentrations of monopoly power or encourage absentee ownership. These include the many forms of worker, cooperative, and community ownership and cooperative alliances among locally rooted firms.
Current proposals for dealing with the economic collapse fall far short of dealing with the deep conflict of values and interests at the core of the current economic crisis. We face an urgent need to expand and deepen the debate to advance options that go far beyond anything currently on the table.
The World We Want
The world of our shared human dream is one where people live happy, productive lives in balance with one another and Earth. It is democratic and middle class without extremes of wealth or poverty. It is characterized by strong, stable families and communities in which relationships are defined primarily by mutual trust and caring. Every able adult is both a worker and an owner. Most families own their own home and have an ownership stake in their local economy. Everyone has productive work and is respected for his or her contribution to the well-being of the community.
In the world we want, the organization of economic life mimics healthy ecosystems that are locally rooted, highly adaptive, and self-reliant in food and energy. Information and technology are shared freely, and trade between neighbors is fair and balanced. Each community, region and nation strives to live within its own means in balance with its own environmental resources. Conflicts are resolved peacefully and no group seeks to expropriate the resources of its neighbors. Competition is for excellence, not domination.
The financial collapse has revealed the extreme corruption of the Wall Street financial system and created an extraordinary opening for change. We cannot, however, expect the leadership to come from within the political system. There is good reason why both the Bush and Obama administrations, different as they are, have responded to the Wall Street crash with bailouts for the guilty rather than face up to the need for a radical restructuring of the financial system. No president can stand up against Wall Street absent massive popular demand.
To move forward, we the people must build a powerful popular political movement demanding a new economy designed to serve our children, families, communities, and nature. It begins with a conversation to demystify money and expose the lie that there is no alternative to the present economic system. It continues with action to rebuild our local economies based on sound market principles backed by national political action to transform the money system and broaden participation in ownership. This is our moment of opportunity.
David Korten wrote this article as part of The New Economy, the Summer 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. David is co-founder and board chair of YES! His most recent book is Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. YES! is a non-profit, ad-free national publication that offers positive solutions for creating a just and sustainable world. To subscribe, visit www.YesMagazine.org/ subscribe or call (800) 937-4451.