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A few thoughts on David Korten's "10 Common Sense Principles for a New Economy"

I refer to David Korten, a Stanford-trained economist, former professor at Harvard Business School, former adviser to the Ford Foundation and the US Agency for International Development. Korten, a prominent critic of corporate globalization and official aid, is co-founder and board chair of the Positive Futures Network, which publishes the quarterly YES! Magazine, a board member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, and is author of  When Corporations Rule the World (1995 and 2001).

Korten recently published in YES! Magazine his thoughts on how we need to re-organize our economy. Since YES! publishes under a Creative Commons License, I take the liberty of reproducing the article below, with my comments interlaced.

I find hope in the fact that millions of people the world over are seeing through the moral and practical fallacies underlying the Wall Street economy and—by contributing to the creation of a New Economy—are taking charge of their economic lives.
[So far, so good!]

Here are ten common sense principles to frame the New Economy that we the people must now bring forth:

1.  The proper purpose of an economy is to secure just, sustainable, and joyful livelihoods for all. This may come as something of a shock to Wall Street financiers who profit from financial bubbles, securities fraud, low wages, unemployment, foreign sweatshops, tax evasion, public subsidies, and monopoly pricing. 

An “economy” has NO purpose; it is simply shorthand for the interactions of people, acting as individuals and in groups. Securing just, sustainable, and joyful livelihoods for all is indeed a worthy goal for a society to have, among other goals that individuals, groups within the society (including those within government) and the society as a whole may have – which goals cannot all be achieved due to scarce resources and conflict between goals.

While the identification of “Wall Street Financiers” is vague, certainly it is fair criticize our financial system and those who profit from it while generating ill for the rest of society.

2.  GDP is a measure of the economic cost of producing a given level of human well-being and happiness. In the economy, as in any well-run business, the goal should be to minimize cost, not maximize it. 

Korten’s definition of GDP is idiosyncratic and not helpful. GDP is the chief measure of economic performance used by policy makers (determined either as the sum of Consumption (C), Investment (I), Government Spending (G) and Net Exports, or as the sum of income and depreciation). It is certainly a very flawed measure of economic performance, as it fails to measure damage to private and social capital (including damage to the environment), and treats wasteful government spending on wars, pork-barrel spending and building a police state on the same basis as it treats expenditure by the private economy. It does not even attempt to measure of human well-being and happiness, such as differences in income and wealth.

Maximizing GDP – especially as it is now defined – certainly should not be a public policy goal. Korten does not refer to the “environmental” cost of our economic activities; if he intended this criticism I would agree. In fact, GDP treats expenditures to deal with environmental harms as positive contributions to GDP!

3.  A rational reallocation of real resources can reduce the human burden on the Earth’s biosphere and simultaneously improve the health and happiness of all. The Wall Street economy wastes enormous resources on things that actually reduce the quality of our lives—war, automobile dependence, suburban sprawl, energy-inefficient buildings, financial speculation, advertising, incarceration for minor, victimless crimes. The most important step toward bringing ourselves into balance with the biosphere is to eliminate the things that are bad for our health and happiness. 

While I share many of Korten’s concerns here, he has completely failed to define what he means as the “Wall Street economy”, so it is difficult to have productive conversation. GOVERNMENT, not Wall Street, is chiefly or substantially responsible for wars, automobile dependence and suburban sprawl, for building a financial sector that encourages financial speculation, and for the ruinous “War on Drugs” that militarizes our police, keeps blacks in jail and undermines the growth of healthy inner cities. How is Wall Street responsible for energy-inefficient buildings or any other problem Korten identifies, other than financial speculation? Does Korten intend here simply to set up his later criticism of the “money system”? Libertarians would certainly agree that our screwed-up money system is the linchpin of many problems in our society/economy.

Nor is it clear what Korten means by “bringing ourselves into balance with the biosphere” or by a “rational reallocation of resources”, whether these are goals shared by all and are top priorities, or who is supposed to be making rational reallocation decisions. If he is suggesting that governments should have more power, I would disagree.

4.  Markets allocate efficiently only within a framework of appropriate rules to maintain competition, cost internalization, balanced trade, domestic investment, and equality. These are essential conditions for efficient market function. Without rules, a market economy quickly morphs into a system of corporate monopolies engaged in suppressing wages, exporting jobs, collecting public subsidies, poisoning air, land, and water, expropriating resources, corrupting democracy, and a host of other activities that represent an egregiously inefficient and unjust distribution of resources.

“Markets”, loosely defined, are evolved and devised cooperative institutions for interpersonal and inter-group exchange. To maintain efficient cooperation, markets typically employ rules that enforce agreements, provide clarity, limit cheating. Cost internalization (limiting costs shifted to others) and fair sharing of collective costs are a purpose of the rules, but market participants generally have no personal interest in, and markets generally have no rules regarding, “balanced trade” or domestic investment.

Sure, there are a host of problems that can be identified as relating to “corporate monopolies”, but corporations are NOT creations of markets, but creations of governments. It is governments that incentivize moral hazard and risk-shifting, by allowing people to form limited liability business firms that – unlike individuals and partnerships – have unlimited lives and whose owners have no liability for the damage that such firms may do to others. Government action creating corporations has been the trigger fuelling corrupt and damaging behavior, that in turn has fuelled citizens’ demands that government get bigger and create more “rules” to constrain their Frankensteins, who are now bigger and more powerful than government, and far more influential than REAL “persons”. 

Well, it’s not working out very well, is it? The only path I see ahead is to gradually end “limited liability” in corporations, on a number of different fronts.

5.  A proper money system roots the power to create and allocate money in people and communities in order to facilitate the creation of livelihoods and ecologically balanced community wealth. Money properly serves life, not the reverse. Wall Street uses money to consolidate its power to expropriate the real wealth of the rest of the society. Main Street uses money to connect underutilized resources with unmet needs. Public policy properly favors Main Street.

Korten is very right about his last three sentences; the first is spot-on: Wall Street uses money to consolidate its power to expropriate the real wealth of the rest of the society. If one understands modern “fiat money”, it is easily seen as a form of fraud. While I do not see this as a deliberate intention of those working in finance, expropriation of wealth is a natural consequence of the “fiat currency” system that banks developed and that the US government has captured (though governments often deliberately expropriate by inflating their currency – this is clearly seen in Zimbabwe). Until money systems were captured by banks and government, real money was nothing more or less than goods of various types that people found valuable and more convenient than direct barter as a means of exchange.

If fiat money was eliminated (a gradual process would eliminate “legal tender” laws and allow competing currencies), then the natural result would be a shift of power from government and Wall Street to people and local communities.

6.  Money, which is easily created with a simple accounting entry, should never be the deciding constraint in making public resource allocation decisions. This is particularly obvious in the case of economic recessions or depressions, which occur when money fails to flow to where it is needed to put people to work producing essential goods and services. If money is the only lack, then make the accounting entry and get on with it.

This is completely wrong-headed. First, wealth is not created, and long-run human needs are not addressed, simply by continuing to treat money as play money that can be created whenever one wants something – this simply hides the very real theft from the economy as a whole (particularly those least well-off).  If we want honest government that does not favor the wealthy over the middle class or the poor, then we need to end our fiat currency. But as long as we are NOT doing that, then the government should either borrow what it intends to spend, or raise it via donations or taxes – even during down times.

Second, economic recessions or depressions, while not happy times, are generally the product of government playing with money – “easy money” of the kind Korten seems to want – that leads to mal-investment. The recession is actually the process by which the economy “cures” the over-investment, as investments in unsustainable, over-heated sectors go bust and are reallocated to projects that more realistic.

7.  Speculation, the inflation of financial bubbles, risk externalization, the extraction of usury, and the use of creative accounting to create money from nothing, unrelated to the creation of anything of real value, serve no valid social purpose. The Wall Street corporations that engage in these activities are not in the business of contributing to the creation of real community wealth. They are in the business of expropriating it, a polite term for theft. They should be regulated or taxed out of existence.

Generally, agreed, with many quibbles and clarifications. Speculation as used in it’s negative sense is simply making a bet, backed with real money, that an asset (stocks) is worth more than or less than what others think. It sends a useful signal to everyone else that a particular corporations or government may be hiding its real financial and/or business condition. It is government AND banks that generate financial bubbles.

Of course risk externalization is bad, but not only is it inherent in the corporate form, but it is actually encouraged by our systems of financial and corporate regulation, and by government ownership of many resources. Government insurance of banks means government and not depositors must regulate and monitor the risks generated by banks, whose executives and traders are thus playing with “other peoples’ money”. The business models of securities firms and rating agencies has been to find ways around regulations, and to sell risky instruments to regulated entities. Likewise, the regulation of “public companies” has served to raise barriers to entry and to reduce the ability of shareholders to oversee management. The powerful “regulated” companies are always better positioned than consumers and possible upstart rivals to manipulate and take advantage of regulations.

“Usury”? Interest is nothing more than the recognition that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

How to deal with Wall Street? First, end fiat money. While that is progressing, require banks and financial companies to be partnerships instead of limited liability corporations (tighten regulations on the first, relax them on the second), and roll back the counter-productive, easily corrupted effort by government to regulate risks, by limiting deposit insurance.

8.  Greed is not a virtue; sharing is not a sin. If your primary business purpose is not to serve the community, you have no business being in business.

I agree that sharing is not a sin (indeed, it’s necessary for societies to function well, particularly for common resources), but “greed” is a cop-out. While I would support whole-heartedly an effort to eliminate limited liability for corporate shareholders (it was once extremely rare, and required legislative approval on a case-by-case basis of a strong public purpose), people engage in business on an individual basis not expressly “to serve the community”, but to make a living – by providing goods and services that the community members want. If people and firms fail to do that well, they go out of business.

9.  The only legitimate reason for government to issue a corporate charter extending special privileges favoring a particular enterprise is to serve a clearly defined public purpose. That purpose should be clearly stated in the corporate charter and be subject to periodic review.

I have a very similar perspective, but my conclusion is that the government should not be issuing corporate charters at all, and certainly none that limit the potential liability of the shareholders. I don’t trust politicians who are easily influenced by the wealthy to be bestowing special favors to anyone. 

10.  Public policy properly favors local investors and businesses dedicated to creating community wealth over investors and businesses that come only to extract it. The former are most likely to be investors and businesses with strong roots in the communities in which they do business. We properly favor them. 

Muddled, but I largely agree. There are business that “extract wealth”, and damage the local community while benefitting others who have little or no stake in it. This can be addressed by insisting that states end limited liability corporations, which would allow them to apply different standards to corporations based in other states or countries, and finding ways to limit the damage done by Supreme Court decisions that say that corporations have Constitutional rights.

But rather than asking for government “favor”, communities and individuals should insist on reclaiming control over their own destinies, thus limiting the areas of “public policy” that government can screw up – a la BP and offshore drilling), in order to benefit a favored set of interest groups.

Let me conclude by saying that I share David Korten’s concerns about how screwed up our economic priorities are, and appreciate his efforts. However, his “common sense” principles miss the key factors at work in skewing our economy towards Wall Street and “extractive” corporations: fiat money, deposit insurance, limited liability for corporate shareholders, and government ownership of resources. 

David Korten author pic

David Korten is co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, president of the People-Centered Development Forum, and a founding board member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). His books include Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World.

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  1. April 2nd, 2015 at 10:25 | #1

    Misha, thanks for your questions!

    1. I just mean that the root of interest is just the recognition that there is a time value to money, just as there is to other assets. If I am asked to trade something now for something in the future, I will want something in addition for what I am trading away now.

    2. I oppose coercive fiat money systems; I do not oppose voluntary ones. As I noted, a gradual process might be to eliminate “legal tender” laws and allow competing currencies. Bitcoin might emerge as one type of purely voluntary quasi-fiat currency (as it does not represent stake in any physical commodity).

    3. I suggested that we require banks and other “financial companies” — here, I mean mainly securities companies — to be partnerships instead of limited liability corporations (tighten regulations on the first, relax them on the second), and roll back the counter-productive, easily corrupted effort by government to regulate risks, by limiting deposit insurance.

  2. Misha
    February 26th, 2015 at 08:18 | #2

    Thank you yet again. I seem to understand your writing better than his–his sounds “right” on the surface but is somehow so general that, in the end, i often don’t know what he really says. But could u help me understand what u mean by (i tried to googol my questions and i could not find answers for these:
    1. “Usury”? Interest is nothing more than the recognition that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
    2. What is the strategy to end flat money?
    3. What would it mean to relax regulation on financial companies (oops what is an example of a financial company? I googled it and it seemed that banks WERE in that category too, so i am confused)

    Wow, u r winning minds one mind at a time, that must be hard work!:) i appreciate it, though!

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