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Newsletter No. 13 - November 2007

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CONTENTS

1. Financial Turbulence - Northern Rock, etc; and the "Dozy" Treasury

2. Margaret Legum

3. Junior History of Money - for French teenagers

4. Book Review: James Bruges, THE BIG EARTH BOOK: Ideas and Solutions for a Planet in Crisis, Alastair Sawday Publishing, 2007, 288pp, £25.00, hardback.

5. Shorter Book Notes

(1) Elizabeth Bryan, SINGING THE LIFE: The Story of a Family in the Shadow of Cancer, Random House, 2007, 306pp, £12,99, hardback.

(2) John Bunzl, PEOPLE-CENTRED GLOBAL GOVERNANCE - MAKING IT HAPPEN!, ISPO, P.O.Box 26547, London SE3 7YT, UK, 2007, 133pp, £12.50.

(3) Chris Abbott, Paul Rogers and John Sloboda, BEYOND TERROR: The Truth About The Real Threats To Our World, Rider, 2007, 118pp, £4.99. paperback.

(4) Philippe Godard, Autrement Junior Histoire editor (Item 3 above), is himself a prolific writer. A short commentary.

(5) John Pontin and Ian Roderick, CONVERGING WORLD: Connecting Communities In Global Change, Schumacher Briefing No. 13 ,Green Books, 2007, 95pp, £8.00, paperback.

6. Stop Press

PS. New Green Fiscal Commission for the UK

----------

1. FINANCIAL TURBULENCE: Northern Rock and the "Dozy" Treasury

"Banking turmoil hits the streets" - Financial Times, 15/16 September 2007. In the first serious run on a UK bank for 140 years, its customers queued in the streets anxious to get their money out. By the end of October the Bank of England had lent Northern Rock more than £20bn to tide it over negotiations to be taken over before going bust.

This is just one episode in the current worldwide financial turbulence - "credit crunch", stock market jitters, and potential global economic collapse. It still has some way to go. Originally triggered by the banks' and other financial institutions' risky betting on the US "sub-prime mortgage" market, it has not yet run its course.

The enquiry into "Financial Stability and Transparency" launched by the British House of Commons Select Committee on the Treasury raises a long list of questions about what happened and how it can be prevented in future. The Bank of England's Financial Stability Report of 25 October deals with similar points.

The responsible UK authorities, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority, are both accountable to the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer, the elected government Minister in charge. (It was Gordon Brown for the ten years up to the end of June, when he took over from Tony Blair as Prime Minister. Alistair Darling has now inherited the poisoned chalice.)

Unfortunately the post mortems don't face up to the key question: why do we let the lending activities of banks continue to be tied up with the creation of new money that increases the money supply? If banks are allowed to create money to lend to one another to speculate on trading other people's debts, it can be no surprise that the authorities sometimes confront a tangle of inter-bank indebtedness that they can't unravel.

Jonathon Porritt is reported in The Times (2 November) saying to the "Dozy" Treasury, "Wake-up you swanky two-brained people". He was talking about their "perverse reluctance to invest in the environment". He might also have been talking about their failure to reform the present way new money is created and put into circulation.

The proposal for monetary reform made in Monetary Reform: Making it Happen and Creating New Money: A Monetary Reform for the Information Age and in recent articles like The Future of Money: If We Want a Better Game of Economic Life, We'll Have to Change the Scoring System would, among many other beneficial results, specifically disconnect the creation of new money from the borrowing and lending activities of commercial banks.

It would transfer the responsibility of creating it to the central bank as an agency of the state, which would create it debt-free as a new source of public revenue. It would altogether prohibit the commercial banks creating new money, and require them to borrow already existing money in order to make loans to their customers.

(The next issue of the Quarterly Review will include a longer article of mine on this question.)

 

2. MARGARET LEGUM

The death of Margaret Legum on 1st November was a great shock and is a cause of great sadness.

She has chaired the South African New Economics Foundation (SANE) with, as their announcement said, "vitality, goodwill and intellectual incisiveness, commitment and humour, qualities that she embodied throughout her life of service for the cause of economic justice". She will be very greatly missed.

Margaret and her husband Colin, the former Commonwealth Correspondent of the Observer who died in 2003, hosted our stay in Cape Town in 1996, when she and others set up SANE. She stayed with us here in August this year, and three weeks ago she sent us her latest article - which was on "Trade in Food Can Increase Hunger".

When she was here about two years ago she read through an early draft of the English text of my Junior Histoire - see Item 3 below - and made invaluable suggestions, modestly saying that they only reflected what she had learned about journalism from Colin!

Her book, It Doesn't Have to Be Like This, published in this country in 2002 by Wildgoose Books in Glasgow for the Iona Community, is a first-class introduction to the need for and nature of a new economic order and a new economics. Her first book of poetry, "Learning to Saunter", was well received on its publication in June this year in Kalk'n Cheese Press (12 Harris Road, Kalk Bay, 7975, South Africa).

 

3. JUNIOR HISTORY OF MONEY - for French teenagers

My short illustrated book, UNE HISTOIRE DE L'ARGENT: Des Origines à Nos Jours was published in October, the latest in the Autrement Junior Histoire series edited by Philippe Godard.

Autrement was set up in Paris in 1975 - I remember it from the late '70s and early '80s. It now publishes 20 series of books, both for adults and for young people. It observes the world from an independent viewpoint, with an active interest in movements of thought and practice which change the society in which we live.

The text of the book was translated into French by Autrement - then checked by me with some help from a dictionary! Autrement provided the illustrations. All very satisfactory. The English version of the concluding section includes the following passages.

"The origins of money are veiled in myths. Today, for most people, how money works is still shrouded in mystery. .....

The history of money encourages a critical frame of mind. Kings and governments; bankers, traders and merchants; and professionals working for them - all have aimed to develop money to serve their own interests first, rather than the interests of their fellow citizens. ..... Rich countries have developed the international money system to serve their own interests at the expense of poor countries.

It is important to know why the system of money now works as it does. This will have to be changed for it to become a scoring system for a fairer game of economic life which serves the interests of most people. To make that happen is an important challenge for the world of tomorrow. The history of money has not yet finished being written."

Click here to see the book description.

If you know personally any English-language publishers who might be interested in publishing an English-language edition, please suggest to them to contact Autrement or alternatively please let me know about them. (Many parents as well as teenagers themselves might enjoy and benefit from quickly skipping through this book.)

 

4. REVIEW

James Bruges, THE BIG EARTH BOOK: Ideas and Solutions for a Planet in Crisis, Alastair Sawday Publishing, 2007, 288pp, £25.00, hardback.

In this book - very much bigger than The Little Earth Book which he wrote in 2000 and is now in its 4th edition - James Bruges presents a wealth of information, in simple language, easy to read, and beautifully illustrated. It is infused with passion and anger at what we humans are doing to one another and the world - "we have just one last chance to achieve a fair and peaceful civilisation that retains our foothold on earth".

Eighty-one short chapters deal each with a substantial topic (such as "oceans"). They are grouped in four sections, each section subdivided into three or four subsections, and each subsection containing several chapters - on the following pattern:

1. The Elements:- air, e.g. runaway warming; earth, e.g. energy; fire, e.g. nuclear power; water, e.g. oceans, fresh water.

2. Money:- systems, e.g. the banking casino; ideas, e.g. land value tax; community, e.g. Bhutan.

3. Power:- trade, e.g. free trade in practice; war, e.g. the arms trade; corporations, e.g. water distribution; empire, e.g. the US empire.

4. Life:- nature , e.g. soil; food, e.g. food security; science, e.g. commercial eugenics.

The short introductory note on "the purpose of this book" emphasises that global issues should not be viewed in isolation; they all, including our own philosophies, act on one another. This is crucially important, given today's fragmented professional and academic disciplines and lack of joined-up public decision-making at every level. Also important is the stress put on the fact that "a faulty money system is at the root of most of our problems" - a point dealt with in many of the subsequent chapters, in addition to those in the specific section on "Money".

A Stimulus to Discussion

Any good book covering such a range of issues as this should prompt important questions. The Big Earth Book does so. I hope it will encourage seriously educative discussion - in families and schools as well as in business, government, academic and other professional quarters. Here is an important question it provokes for me.

Current conventional wisdom gives priority to global warming over all the other threats to the future of humanity and the planet - such as increasing shortage of water and food, increasing destruction of forests and biodiversity, and increasing conflicts over resources. But is it wise to accept that special emphasis? That will determine whether we should support the two special initiatives to control global warming that the Big Earth Book proposes?

The first involves issuing tradable carbon quotas - in other words, giving everyone a transferable ration limiting the carbon emissions stemming from the actions of people and organisations. One reason to question it is that any scheme based on tradable rations is difficult to administer and enforce; the European Union has had to admit that governments turned its scheme for rationing carbon emissions by big business into a scheme for paying polluters, instead of making them pay.

Another reason is that a scheme specifically limited to carbon emissions may have undesirable side-effects; as the book itself recognises in the chapter on "Biofuels - a dangerous distraction", the conversion of forests and agricultural land to biofuel production is already destroying biodiversity, turning peasant farmers off their land, and worsening the prospects of world food shortage.

A further question is: If a system of tradable rationing is accepted for carbon emissions, how many other common resources - land, food, water, etc - will be found to need similar transferable rationing schemes in order to share their benefits fairly? Do we foresee people and organisations coping with a steadily thickening jungle of separate tradable rationing schemes as part of our everyday lives?The second proposal involves the creation of a new international currency specifically linked to the value of carbon emissions. That appears to ignore the urgent need for a genuinely international currency to replace the US dollar, which will serve all the international purposes of humanity - not just help to limit climate change.

In fact, it would seem that both these proposals could make the money system even more complicated and difficult to understand than it already is, and therefore even more vulnerable to injustice and corruption. That is precisely the reverse of one of the most urgent things we must do - radically reconstruct and simplify the money system worldwide. We absolutely have to make its workings more 'transparent' - no longer veiled in mystifiable complexities, but clearly understandable and acceptable to most people.

(The practical basis of such a reconstruction is suggested in The Future of Money: If We Want a Better Game of Economic Life, We'll Have to Change the Scoring System.

For more arguments against carbon trading and carbon offsets see www.thecornerhouse.org.uk.)

The Message of Hope

Another point for serious discussion arising from the Big Earth Book is the message of hope we want to communicate. The one at the end of the book seemed rather less inspiring than the book deserves.

I think part of the reason is how we think of "development". The chapter in the book on "Oxymoron: sustainable development" seems to suggest that development should be treated as a dirty word. It quotes James Lovelock, "It is much too late for sustainable development; what is needed is a sustainable retreat"; and the chapter's last paragraph equates development with conventional economic growth and consumption.

It is true of course that that is the meaning of economic development which the powerful have successfully foisted on most of us with the help of their professional acolytes. But that is a conceptual corruption, just as mainstream economic policy is a practical corruption. Human development doesn't have to mean that. Indeed it mustn't; the idea that "retreat" is the essence of our foreseeable human future risks being taken for a philosophy of defeat.

When I realised in the 1970s that the positive challenge we face is to advance to a new historical phase in the evolution of human society worldwide, I found it inspiring - and it still inspires me. The "sane alternative" would mean a new path of social and economic development which is enabling and conserving. It would open new frontiers of consciousness and personal development, and a new and better future for the human species and the earth.

That idea (which is in tune with Item 5. (2) below) still gives a message of hope that inspires commitment. Serious thinking today tends to emphasise the threats that confront our human species and our world. Of course we must confront the threats. But, in preparing practical ways to meet them, let's recognise too that they present opportunities to move to a new, more advanced stage of human history.

In Conclusion

Those comments should not be taken as negative responses to The Big Earth Book. I recommend it very warmly. It gives a joined-up account of various threats and opportunities that now confront us; it is also a good book to dip into for information about many different things - like nanotechnology, for example; and its presentation means it would make an attractive coffee-table book for discerning recipients. In short, it will make an excellent all-round Christmas present.

 

5. SHORTER BOOK NOTES

(1) Elizabeth Bryan, SINGING THE LIFE: The Story of a Family in the Shadow of Cancer, Random House, Vermilion, 2007, 306pp, £12,99, hardback. Click here for details and background.

We have known Libby and her husband, Ronald Higgins, for many years and they are dear personal friends. But that only partly explains why I found her book so moving and absorbing.

I couldn't help wondering - would I be able to respond with such positive energy and commitment if anything like she has faced happened to me?

And I marvelled at the combination of personal and professional experience she brings to bear on

  • the new developments in genetic understanding at the frontiers of medical science,
  • the new ethical decisions they are increasingly requiring people to make, and
  • the new challenges they are creating for the caring professions.

(2) John Bunzl, PEOPLE-CENTRED GLOBAL GOVERNANCE - MAKING IT HAPPEN!, ISPO, P.O.Box 26547, London SE3 7YT, UK, 2007, 133pp, £12.50.

For details and to download this book, click here and then scroll right down to the Summary of the third book on the page.

John Bunzl of the International Simultaneous Policy Organisation describes how scientific and philosophical thinkers today understand evolutionary progress. Competition between existing entities tends to threaten their survival; when they do survive, it is due to their co-operating in ways that result in the birth of a new entity at a higher level of capability.He applies this to the current pressures of competition between nations, which compel governments to continue to support the efforts of people and corporations to behave competitively in ways that will eventually lead to the collapse of human civilisation. I see it as a key aspect of what Ronald Higgins described as "The Seventh Enemy: The Human Factor in the Global Crisis" in his 1978 book of that title.

John Bunzl argues that a necessary degree of co-operation to secure the survival of human civilisation will only be achieved by people acting politically on their governments to compel them to change their destructively competitive policies simultaneously. He proposes a peaceful, democratic strategy to bring that about. His book should be read and his strategy is clearly worthy of support.

(3) Chris Abbott, Paul Rogers and John Sloboda, BEYOND TERROR: The Truth About The Real Threats To Our World, Rider, 2007, 118pp, £4.99. paperback.

I am grateful to Andy Roberts of the Oxford Research Group for sending this little book. It places global terrorism in the context of the more basic global threats to humanity's future that help to motivate it: competition over resources; climate change; marginalisation of the majority world; and global militarisation. Useful "Resources for Change" encourage readers to learn and act on all of these.

The book has been highly recommended by Desmond Tutu, Anita Roddick, George Monbiot and others. Click here for the Oxford Research Group background on the book.

(4) Philippe Godard, Autrement Junior Histoire editor (Item 3 above), is himself a prolific writer. For 34 of his titles click here.

One of his themes is Idleness (la paresse). His support for it is reminiscent of Bertrand Russell's "In Praise of Idleness" (1932 ) - "the morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery"; and also of the thinking of Tom Hodgkinson in "The Idler's Companion: An Anthology of Lazy Literature" (1996) and other writings.

In practice, what these hard-working people (!) call "Idleness" and what I have called "Ownwork" have much in common - in particular, freedom - though they seem to differ in their ethical starting point.

The flavour of Philippe's essay on "The Ways of Idleness" in "La Volonté de Paresse" is suggested by the following brief quotations (my translation).

"Our world forbids us to be idle. Work, speed, productivity, and the machine are among its supreme values. Supporters of the system are not content to sing the praises of the productivist economy; they vigorously denounce whatever might interfere with the striving of the Megamachine to pile up useless products. ... Work is destroying the planet and replacing living creatures with inert matter. ... The true riches are in ourselves. The compulsion to work keeps us from them. Idleness offers us the time to fill our lives with the laughter of love and the joys of revolution".

Some of his books - like "Au Travail Les Enfants!" - strongly contest the now dominant view that the aim of education should be to prepare children and young people as employees and shoppers, for lives of production and consumption.

(5) John Pontin and Ian Roderick, CONVERGING WORLD: Connecting Communities In Global Change, Schumacher Briefing No. 13, Green Books, 2007, 95pp, £8.00, paperback.

The idea of the Converging World is based on the principle of contraction and convergence in regard to climate change. That idea has many dimensions: technological change, cultural diversity, differing values, human rights, political power, social struggles and resistance. As the pressures of population and consumption are stretching the planet's capacity beyond its limits, convergence is an urgent necessity. A new charity is being formed to put these ideas into action.

For background about the Schumacher briefings, click here.

For comment on the priority the conventional wisdom is giving to climate change, see Item 4 above, under "A Stimulus to Discussion".

 

6. STOP PRESS

The Corner House has announced what could be a big step towards restricting international business corruption.

On 9 November two High Court judges granted permission to it and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) for a full judicial review against the UK Government's decision in December 2006 to cut short a Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigation into alleged corruption by BAE Systems in recent arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

 

James Robertson

14th November 2007

PS. New Green Fiscal Commission for the UK (19 November 2007)

A potentially very important new development was announced on 14 November – the launch of a Green Fiscal Commission in the UK.                   .  

Its director is Professor Paul Ekins - our old friend, and colleague in the 1980s at The Other Economic Summit (TOES) and the New Economics Foundation. I knew the Commission was being planned. If I had known the launch was imminent, I would have mentioned it in my newsletter of the same date.

The Old Bakehouse, Cholsey
Oxon OX10 9NU, UK
Tel: +44 (0)1491 652346
e-mail: james@jamesrobertson.com

 

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