the plan for the future
4 November 2008 - 30 April 2018
At some point we may not need more products and services, and even if we believe we do, we may not be able to go deeper into debt to buy everything we desire. As a consequence businesses will find it more difficult to make a profit. Perhaps enough is enough. The writing is on the wall. The financial crisis of 2008 was a warning sign.
The crisis happened because some people couldn't pay the interest on their debts. This nearly brought down the world financial system as well as the world economy. If there had been fewer debts, and if interest rates had been negative, the financial system as well as the economy would have been safe.
Interest rates have gone down in recent decades. In wealthy countries they neared zero in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Most people think they will go up again. But what if the opposite happens? What if negative interest rates become the new normal? That will turn economics upside down. Scarcity is at the basis of economic thinking. It is the belief that we need more stuff and more businesses to make all that stuff available to us.
So what has this to do with interest rates? If we need more stuff, we need investments. To make these investments possible we need savings. And to have savings, we need interest. Consequently investments need to be profitable to pay for the interest. But if we don't need more stuff, a lot of things change. There would be abundance instead of scarcity, and interest rates could go negative.
Negative interest rates may happen first in wealthy countries where people already have enough. Investment money will then look for more profitable alternatives and move into poorer regions so that poor countries can build their economy too. To make that happen, interest rates in wealthy countries must be allowed to go below zero, and people in wealthy countries should not take on more debt to buy stuff they don’t need.
Not allowing for negative interest rates could be a mistake. The alternative may well be an economic crisis like the 1930s. Scarcity will then become a self fulfilling prophecy. The start of the era of abundance could then be pushed a few decades farther into the future. That is, if the economic crisis is not followed by another world war.
Suppose that Jesus' mother had put a small gold coin weighing 3 grammes in Jesus' retirement account at 4% interest in the year 1 AD. Jesus never retired but he promised to return. Suppose that the account was kept for this eventuality. How much gold would there be in the account in 2018? The answer is an amount of gold weighing 11 million times the mass of the Earth. The yearly interest would be an amount of gold weighing 440,000 times the mass of the Earth.
A mere 4% yields an insane amount of gold after 2018 years. Someone has to pay for the interest, in this case the people who borrowed money from the bank. If Jesus doesn't come back to spend his money, that's impossible. At some point the debtors can't pay the interest, let alone repay their debts. They can only borrow more or default. And if they default, there will be a financial crisis. A financial crisis means that borrowers can't repay their debts.
Now you know why financial crises happen. How are they solved? Our money isn't gold and central banks can print as much new money out of thin air as they see fit. With this newly printed money the banks can be bailed out when people want their money. In this way the financial crisis of 2008 was contained. But bailing out banks has downsides. Interest is an incentive for banks to create new debts. And higher interest rates mean greater profits for the banks but also more risks for the taxpayers.
Interest can cause financial and economic crises. This was already known more than 3,000 years ago. Interest can push people into poverty when they are crushed by growing debt burdens and interest payments. Interest was called usury and considered evil. It was forbidden by some major religions like Christianity and Islam. So why do we have interest? The answer is that lending and borrowing wouldn't be possible without it.
Interest may be necessary but it has serious downsides. The 80% poorest people pay interest to the 10% richest people. Interest is everywhere. It is hidden in rents, taxes, and the price of everything we buy. Products on average cost 25% more because of interest. And the poorest people often pay the highest interest rates when they borrow money. Interest is therefore sometimes called a tax on the poor for the benefit of the rich.
A few things have changed over the years. You can lend out your money to a bank but you can still use it anytime. This is very convenient. Banks check the financial condition of borrowers and lend out money to many different people. This reduced risk. Central banks can help out banks if there is no money to pay for the interest. There are even government guarantees on bank deposits. This reduced the risk of losing money to the point that bank deposits are considered to be safer than cash.
So what about the returns on investments? In the past, returns on investments on average have been higher than the rate of economic growth. Because most of those returns have been invested again, the amount of capital has grown faster than the economy, and a growing share of total income was not for wage earners but for investors. This cannot go on forever, because who is going to buy all the stuff the corporations make if wages keep on lagging?
To the left you see how total income and interest income develop with a rate of economic growth of 2% and an interest rate of 5% when interest income starts out as 10% of total income and all interest income is reinvested. After 25 years the economic pie has grown faster than interest income so that wages have risen. At some point interest income starts to rise faster than total income, and wages go down. After 80 years there's nothing left for wages.
This is the main reason why interest rates have gone down in recent years. In the short run, it was possible to prop up business profits by using the lower interest rates to let people go further in to debt to buy the stuff corporations make. In the long run, the growth rate of capital income cannot exceed the rate of economic growth. Furthermore, in the long run the amount of debts cannot grow faster than the economy. That is what the example demonstrates us.
If interest rates go down even further then it may be possible to abolish interest on money and loans altogether. This will be the end of usury. In that case we do not need more debt to pay for the interest on existing debt and there will be no incentive to take excessive risk because there is no reward for taking this risk. That may be the end of financial and economic crises. And so central banks do not need to print more money. In this way inflation will end. Products and services can become cheaper because interest costs will go down. So how can it be done? And is it really possible?
In 1932, in the middle of the Great Depression, the Austrian town of Wörgl was in trouble and prepared to try anything. Of its population of 4,500, a total of 1,500 people were without a job, and 200 families were penniless. The mayor, Michael Unterguggenberger, had a long list of projects he wanted to accomplish, but there was hardly any money to carry them out. These projects included paving roads, streetlights, extending water distribution across the whole town, and planting trees along the streets. The mayor came up with a cunning plan.
Rather than spending the 40,000 Austrian schillings in the town’s coffers to start these projects off, he deposited them in a local savings bank as a guarantee to back the issue of a type of complementary currency known as stamp scrip. The Wörgl money required a monthly stamp to be stuck on all the circulating notes for them to remain valid, amounting to 1% of the each note’s value. The money raised was used to run a soup kitchen that fed 220 families.
Nobody wanted to pay for the monthly stamps so everyone receiving the notes would spend them. The 40,000 schilling deposit allowed anyone to exchange scrip for 98 per cent of its value in schillings but this offer was rarely taken up. That was because it could be spent as one schilling after buying a stamp.
The key to its success was the fast circulation of the scrip money within the local economy, 14 times higher than the Schilling. This increased trade and created employment. At the time of the project, unemployment in Wörgl dropped while it rose in the rest of Austria. Six neighbouring villages copied the system successfully. The French Prime Minister, Édouard Daladier, made a special visit to see the 'miracle of Wörgl'.
In January 1933, the project was replicated in the neighbouring city of Kitzbühel, and in June 1933, Unterguggenberger addressed a meeting with representatives from 170 different towns and villages. Two hundred Austrian townships were interested in adopting the idea. At this point the central bank panicked and asserted its monopoly rights by banning complementary currencies. One can only imagine what had happened if communities all over the world had been free to copy the idea. The Great Depression may have ended in 1933 and World War II may never have taken place.
The Bible features a story about the Pharaoh having dreams that he could not explain. The Pharaoh dreamt about seven fat cows being eaten by seven lean cows and seven full ears of grain being devoured by seven thin and blasted ears of grain. Joseph was able to explain those dreams. He told the Pharaoh that seven good years would come and after that seven bad years would follow. Joseph advised the Egyptians to store food on a large scale. They followed his advice and built storehouses for food. In this way Egypt survived the seven years of scarcity.
What is less known, because it is not recorded in the Bible, is that the storing of food resulted in a financial system. The historian Friedrich Preisigke discovered that the Egyptians used grain receipts for money and had built a sophisticated banking system based on this money. Farmers bringing in the food received receipts for grain. Bakers who wanted to make bread, brought in the receipts which could be exchanged for grain. According to the Bible, Joseph took all the money from the Egyptians. This may have prompted them to look for an alternative.
In this way the grain receipts may have become money. The degradation of the grain and storage cost caused the value of the receipts to decrease steadily over time. The effect was similar to buying stamps to keep the money valid as happened in Wörgl. This stimulated people to spend. The actions of Joseph may have created this money as he allegedly proposed the grain storage and took all the money from the Egyptians.
A few centuries later, during the reign of Ramesses the Great, Egypt was again a leading power. Some historians suggested that Egypt's wealth during the reign of Ramesses was built upon the grain money. The grain money remained in circulation after the introduction of coins around 400 BC, until it was finally replaced by Roman money. The money and banking system were stable and survived for more than a thousand years, probably because there weren't any financial crises caused by interest payments.
Interest rates will probably remain low and may go even lower. There is a trend towards lower interest rates sustained by structural developments. Most notably, capital can't grow faster than the economy in the long run. Wealth inequality and lagging labour incomes limit capital growth and interest rates. This may get worse when machines take over jobs from humans. There are two ways in which the returns of capital can be redistributed. The first way is via taxing and entitlements, for example via a wealth tax and a basic income. The second option is via the markets for money and capital, for example via negative interest rates.
If interest rates go negative then interest-free money with a holding tax, or Natural Money, will be the best solution. Interest-free means that the maximum nominal interest rate on loans is zero. The demurrage is a tax on holding cash that may range from 0.5% to 1% per month. You don't have to pay the holding tax on money lent and other investments, which can make it attractive to lend out money at interest rates below zero. The holding tax doesn’t apply on bank accounts either because it is money lent. And so it can be attractive to put money in a bank account, even when the interest rate is negative, for example -2% or -3%.
The German business man Silvio Gesell was the first to propose a holding tax on money in his book The Natural Economic Order. The money is named Natural Money to honour his legacy. The following points highlight some of the consequences of implementing Natural Money:
The economy will do fine with Natural Money because Natural Money has the following benefits:
In this way Natural Money can improve the economy so that returns on investments will be higher and interest rates will rise. But with Natural Money interest rates cannot exceed zero, so the currency must rise in value, and at such a pace that interest-free money provides better yields than interest-bearing money.
Natural Money can become the money of the future if this is known. And Natural Money can help to solve some serious problems humanity is facing. These were the reasons to start this website in 2008. A lack of awareness appears to be the only obstacle standing in the way of Natural Money. Maybe a new crisis is going to change that. Maybe people need to become really desperate and ready to try anything, just like the people of Wörgl were during the Great Depression. Only then different experiments may be undertaken, and if Natural Money is one of them, it will probably come out on top as the best option.
"Yeah right", you may think, "If Natural Money is so great then why doesn't everyone use it already?" After the Great Depression interest rates never came near zero again, until very recently, so other local currencies weren't as successful as the one in Wörgl. And the success of the Wörgl currency was inflated by the payment of taxes in arrears that generated additional revenues to the town council. The council could spend this money, which provided a stimulus that would have petered out if the money hadn't been banned so soon. Maybe it is too good to be true after all, but there are good reasons to think otherwise.
Economists and central bankers think that low and negative interest rates will be temporary but the graph above tells a different story. It shows the interest rates in the United States between 1961 and 2016. The green line is the real interest rate in the market. The real interest rate is the inflation free interest rate. So if the interest rate of you mortgage is 5% and the inflation rate is 2%, the real interest rate on the mortgage is 3%.
The red line is the natural interest rate. This is the ideal interest rate for optimal economic growth. The natural interest rate is not an interest rate in the market. It is estimated by economists using models. Central banks use the natural interest rate to set the interest rate. If the central bank believes that the economy is overheating, it sets the interest rate above the natural rate. If it believes that the economy is in a slump, it sets the interest rate below the natural rate.
The trend is clear but most economists and central bankers expect that interest rates will go up again. Only, the developments that drove interest rates down may not go away and interest rates may remain low and may even go lower. The trend is clear, but most economists and central bankers expect it to reverse, so that interest rates will go up again. But the factors that drove interest rates down will probably not go away. So why can't economists see what's coming?
That is because we think that interest rates need to be positive. Negative interest rates go against the most basic idea of economics, which the idea of scarcity, which states that we can never have enough stuff and therefore need positive interest rates to make more investments. Yet, we should question this idea at a time when more people are dangerously overweight than underfed. Scarcity certainly doesn’t apply to the wealthy top 1% of people who own most capital and determine interest rates. They can't spend all their money and are running out of things to invest in.
On the other hand, the proponents of interest-free money have ignored some of the most basic economic laws. They opposed interest as a way of making money without a useful contribution to the economy. They complained that projects are feasible only if they yield more than the interest rate on money, so that many projects are not executed and people are unemployed. This goes back to Silvio Gesell who saw interest on money as inefficient  Yet, positive interest rates are a sign of scarcity and lack of capital. It is the accumulation of capital by saving and investing that brings interest rates down.
Two papers have been presented at the IV International Conference on Social and Complementary Currencies: Money, Consciousness and Values for Social Change in Barcelona in 2017. The first paper named The End of Usury explains why interest rates are likely to go lower and become negative and that this may remain so for the foreseeable future. The second paper named Feasibility Of Interest-Free Demurrage Currency clarifies how Natural Money might be implemented world wide and what the possible consequences will be.
This website is frequently updated and reflects the current state of the project. If you only have limited knowledge of the economy and the financial system, you could read Natural Money For Dummies. This document explains what money is, what the role of banks is, why the financial system is the way it is, what the problem of interest is, and why Natural Money can solve it. It is easy to understand and I made some effort to make it an entertaining read. The economic theory of Natural Money is laid out in Natural Money Theory.
1. Poor Because of Money: Our theory on interest, Henk van Arkel and Camilo Ramada, Strohalm, 2001: http://www.naturalmoney.org/ poorbecauseofmoney.html
2. The Future of Money: Creating New Wealth, Work and a Wiser World, pp. 153-155, Bernhard Lietaer, Random House, 2001
3. A Strategy for a Convertible Currency, Bernard A. Lietaer, ICIS Forum, Vol. 20, No.3, 1990: http://www.itk.ntnu.no/...; backup copy: http://www.naturalmoney.org/convertiblecurrency.html
4. Ramesses II - Wikipedia (as on September 3, 2013): http://www.naturalmoney.org/ramesses2.html; current version: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramesses_II
5. This was mentioned on Discovery Channel or National Geographic but I was unable to recover the source
6. The Natural Economic Order, Silvio Gesell, Translated by Philip Pye, Peter Owen Ltd, 1958: http://www.naturalmoney.org/ NaturalEconomicOrder.pdf
7. A Free Money Miracle?, Jonathan Goodwin, Mises.org, 2013: http://www.mises.org/daily/6336/A-Free-Money-Miracle; backup copy: http://www.naturalmoney.org/freemoneymiracle.html