Money versus Wealth
by David C. Korten
Instead of creating wealth, our money system is depleting our real wealth: our communities, ecosystems, and productive infrastructure.
A quick hint. The problem most definitely is not a lack of money. The world is awash in it. The world's 450 billionaires alone have combined financial assets greater than the combined annual incomes of half of humanity.
The problem is this: a predatory global financial system, driven by the single imperative of making ever more money for those who already have lots of it, is rapidly depleting the real capital the human, social, natural, and even physical capital on which our well-being depends.
The truly troubling part is that so many of us have become willing accomplices to what is best described as a war of money against life. It starts, in part, from our failure to recognize that money is not wealth. Wealth is something that has real value in meeting our needs and fulfilling our wants. Modern money is only a number on a piece of paper or an electronic trace in a computer that by social convention gives its holder a claim on real wealth. In our confusion we concentrate on the money to the neglect of those things that actually sustain a good life.
It is striking how difficult our very language makes it to express the critical difference between money and real wealth. Picture yourself alone on a desert island with nothing to sustain yourself but a large trunk filled with bundles of hundred dollar bills. The point becomes immediately clear.
During a visit to Malaysia some years ago I met the minister responsible for forestry. In explaining Malaysia's forestry policy he observed that the country would be better off once its forests were cleared away and the money from the sale was stashed in banks earning interest. The financial returns would be greater. The image flashed through my mind of a barren and lifeless world populated only by banks with their computers faithfully and endlessly compounding the interest on the profits from timber sales.
The importance of the difference between money and wealth is not limited to people who find themselves stranded on desert islands. It is basic to understanding why the more money we have as a nation the less we can afford. It is as well a key to understanding the underlying pathology of the global economic system.
In a healthy economy, money is not the dominant value, nor is it the sole or even dominant medium of exchange.
Think of a modern money economy as comprised of two related subsystems. One creates wealth. It consists of factories, homes, farms, stores, transportation and communications facilities, the natural productive systems of the planet, and people going to work in factories, hospitals, schools, stores, restaurants, publishing houses, and elsewhere to produce the goods and services that sustain us. The other creates and distributes money as a convenient mechanism for allocating wealth. In a healthy economy the money system serves as dutiful servant of wealth creation, allocating real capital to productive investment and rewarding those who do productive work in relation to their contribution.
In a healthy economy, money is not the dominant value, nor is it the sole or even dominant medium of exchange. Indeed, one of the most important indicators of economic health is the presence of an active economy of affection and reciprocity in which people do a great many useful things for one another with no expectation of financial gain. Such voluntary sharing creates and maintains the fabric of trust and mutual caring of which the social capital of any healthy family, community, or society is comprised.
Pathology enters the economic system when money, once convenient as a means of facilitating commerce, comes to define the life purpose of individuals and society. The human, social, and natural capital on which the well-being of any society depends becomes subject to sacrifice on the altar of money making. Those who already have money prosper at the expense of those who don't. It is a social pathology called finance capitalism.
When financial assets and transactions grow faster than growth in the output of real wealth, it is a strong indication that the global economy is getting sick. A study by McKinsey and Company found that from 1980 to 1992 financial assets in the developed countries of the OECD grew twice as fast as their underlying economies and bullishly predicted that future financial growth would be three times real output growth. [William Greider, One World, Ready or Not; New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997, page 232.] Indeed, as the Malaysian minister noted, in the global economy money is growing a great deal faster than the trees.
Furthermore, the biggest profits are going to those who deal in pure finance. For 1996, the shareholders of the seven largest US money center banks reaped an average total return of 44 percent. Mutual funds specializing in finance averaged a 26.5 percent return, besting all other industry categories by a wide margin. Funds specializing in much-touted technology stocks came in a poor second at 21 percent.
The growing dominance of money is also revealed in the increasing monetization of human relationships. Not long ago, even in the most supposedly advanced countries, half of the adult population worked without pay to maintain home and community. These are among the most fundamental and important of functions in a healthy economy. Now, it typically takes two adults holding two to three paid jobs between them to support a household. Child and home care is either left undone or hired out. Community service becomes the work of public employees to the extent there is public money to pay them. As the social capital of caring relations is depleted, family and community life fall into disarray.
The speculative financial bubble, which involves bidding up the price of an asset far beyond its underlying value, is little more than a sophisticated variant of the classic pyramid scam.
Pyramids, bubbles and the global casino
Albania recently suffered a national crisis brought on by the collapse of fraudulent pyramid schemes. Westerners wise in the ways of the market were bemused by the naiveté of the Albanians who fell for "investment" schemes promising returns as high as 25 percent a month with no real business activity behind them. During the course of the nationwide speculative frenzy, farmers sold their flocks and urban dwellers their apartments to share in the promised bonanza of effortless wealth. The inevitable collapse sparked widespread riots, arson, and looting when the Albanian government failed to make up the losses.
Those inclined to laugh at the innocence of the Albanians should first consider their own response to proposals that social security contributions be invested in a stock market that even Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan says is substantially over valued. The speculative financial bubble, which involves bidding up the price of an asset far beyond its underlying value, is little more than a sophisticated variant of the classic pyramid scam.
Investing in a bubble is a form of gambling and it isn't entirely naive. Who cares if there is nothing behind it? The bubble is the action. The trick is to place big bets and get out before it bursts. It is a game of nerves. The action gets especially exciting when banks are willing to accept the inflated assets as collateral and lend new money into existence to stake further play, which pushes prices ever higher. This process of borrowing into bubbles with newly created money is key to making financial wealth increase faster than real wealth. Furthermore, when a leveraged bubble bursts and banks are left with substantial portfolios of uncollectible loans, governments are almost forced to step in with a bailout to stop a banking collapse as the US government did in the case of the Great Depression and the more recent Savings and Loan crisis. This amounts to another money transfer, this time from taxpayers to those with money.
Betting on financial bubbles is only one of the lucrative games that attract players to the global finance casino. There are as well opportunities to speculate on short-term price movements, buy and sell simultaneously in different markets to profit from minute price differences, and bet on derivatives contracts. While economists have become exceedingly facile in rationalizing how such activities actually benefit society, in truth they are more accurately described as forms of legal theft by which a clever few expropriate rights to the real wealth of society while contributing more to its depletion than to its creation.
Consuming capital to make money
William Greider, in his newly released book One World Ready or Not, observes that corporations get caught in the trap of having to compete for investment funds against the often more lucrative financial games of the world of pure finance. With the rare exception of companies with a hot product or distinctive market niche, in an unregulated global economy most corporations have little choice but to use their economic and political power to externalize ever growing portions of their costs onto the community. The dynamics of a competitive global economy favor the cost externalization process because they pit workers and communities against one another in a deadly race to the bottom. By competing for the jobs corporations offer, workers and communities are compelled to deplete real wealth to make corporations more profitable.
Responding to the pressures of financial markets, corporations:
- Deplete social capital by moving production to places where they can pay less than a living wage or use the threat of moving jobs to break up labor unions and bargain down wages. Gains from productive activity are thus shifted from working people to money people. Furthermore, the stress of attempting to maintain self and family on insecure jobs paying less than a family wage results in family breakdown and violence, depleting the social capital of society.
- Deplete human capital by hiring young women in places like the Mexican maquiladoras under conditions that lead to their physical burnout after three or four years. Once eyesight problems, allergies, kidney problems, and repetitive stress injuries deplete their efficiency, they are replaced by a fresh supply of younger women. Such practices destroy lives and deplete society's human capital.
- Deplete the Earth's natural capital through strip mining forests, fisheries, and mineral deposits, dumping wastes, and aggressively marketing toxic chemicals.
- Deplete institutional capital by fighting environmental and other regulations essential to the long-term health and viability of society. Corporations further demand direct public subsidies, subsidized infrastructure, and relief from their fair share of taxes. This shifts a greater share of the tax burden onto working people and undermines the credibility and performance of government in its essential functions, thus eroding the legitimacy of democratic government.
- Deplete business capital. Corporate managers are forced into a short-term view even in regard to their own operations. They cut investment in research and training essential to their own future prospects. As they downsize, the sharp employee quickly learns to use the job only to build a resume to attract a higher bidder. These actions erode the corporation's own human, intellectual, social, and physical capital.
Intent on making ever more money for those who already have money even at the cost of depleting the natural, human, institutional, and social capital on which the very survival of society depends the money system becomes like a cancer that consumes its host and ultimately destroys itself.
The CEO of a publicly traded corporation who fails to maximize profits because of a moral aversion to engaging in such predatory practices is almost certain to be eliminated by the system, even if he they are almost all men runs an otherwise profitable operation. Where the shareholders don't step in, a corporate raider most surely will.
The money system becomes like a cancer that consumes its host and ultimately destroys itself.
Pacific Lumber Company for years pioneered the development of sustainable logging practices on its substantial holdings of ancient redwood timber stands in California. It also provided generous benefits to its employees, fully funded its pension fund, and maintained a no-layoffs policy during downturns in the timber market. This made it a good citizen. It also made it a prime takeover target. Corporate raider Charles Hurwitz gained control in a hostile takeover. He immediately doubled the cutting rate of the company's holding of thousand-year-old trees, reaming a mile-and-a-half corridor into the middle of the forest that he jeeringly named "Our wildlife-biologist study trail." He then drained $55 million from the company's $93 million pension fund and invested the remaining $38 million in annuities of the Executive Life Insurance Company which had financed the junk bonds used to make the purchase and subsequently failed.
The remaining redwoods are now the subject of a last-ditch effort by environmentalists to save them from clearcutting.
Professional buy-out artists are drawn like bees to honey by a socially responsible firm that internalizes its environmental costs, pays union wages, invests in worker training, fully funds its pension fund, and pays its full share of taxes. In a system that puts short-term profits first, these are inefficiencies to be eliminated.
Over the last several years, the biggest corporations have performed as the financial markets have demanded increasing their profits by an average of 20 percent a year. In 1996, the 30 US corporations whose stock prices comprise the Dow Jones Industrial Average returned to their shareholders an average of 28.2 percent for the year, a substantial increase from the five-year average of 18.3 percent. Each such increase further lifts the floor under investor expectations and increases the pressure on top managers to maintain such returns in the future by any means.
The global corporation is arguably the most powerful instrument for concentrating power and wealth ever devised. Indeed, of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are corporations. The economy of Mitsubishi is larger than that of Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country and a land of enormous natural wealth.
Because we have so little experience in designing money systems to create societies that benefit people and nature, we will need to be creative.
Healing the money system
To heal society we must heal the money system. This will involve a two-fold process of reducing money's importance in our lives and restoring its appropriate role in service to the creation and protection of real wealth.
- It will be necessary to de-myth money. I earned MBA and PhD degrees from one of the world's leading graduate schools of business, but I was never taught the difference between making money and creating wealth, nor how to distinguish between productive and predatory investments. Such lessons should be a basic part of education for business or responsible citizenship.
- We need to reweave the social fabric. In a society in which relationships are defined by love, generosity, and community, the importance of money in mediating personal exchange and allocating resources is likely to decline markedly. This will require reducing monetary dependence and restoring non-monetary exchanges through a process that selectively delinks individuals, families, and communities from dependence on the predatory institutions of a global economy, downscaling consumption to reduce dependence on paid work, increasing reliance on local products to meet basic needs, and strengthening the engagement of all persons in the productive life of family and community.
- The truly monumental task will be to redesign the money system to make money the servant of the creation and protection of real wealth. Among other things, corrective measures will need to:
- make speculation unprofitable;
- limit the growth of financial bubbles;
- increase incentives for cooperation among people and communities;
- reward productive work and investment;
- create a just distribution of claims to real wealth;
- provide incentives for patient and locally rooted investment in real assets; and
- strengthen the social fabric of family and community.
A common currency exclusive to the members of one city or geographic region is one means of moving towards these goals. Another is to introduce zero- or negative-interest money. We should also consider whether it makes sense for private banks, rather than government or communities, to create money, and seriously consider substantial taxes on short-term speculative gains.
The purpose of such measures is not to promote global growth and competition, but rather to create healthy and prosperous societies that provide economic security and just rewards for productive contribution to their members, have a strong and caring social fabric, and live in balance with their natural environment. Because we have so little experience in designing money systems to create societies that benefit people and nature, we will need to be creative; there are no tested guidelines.
Many of the best minds of our time are engaged in finding ways to use the finance system to claim ever more of the world's real wealth for those who already control much of it. But there are also those who are concerned with how we might redesign money to serve a society that works for all people and preserves the natural environment. The articles that follow contain some of their thinking and experimentation.
David Korten has an MBA and PhD from Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, has served on the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Business, and has spent many years in Asia on assignment from the Ford Foundation and the US Agency for International Development. He is the author of When Corporations Rule the World (Berrett-Koehler and Kumarian Press, 1995), president of the People-Centered Development Forum, and chair of the board of Positive Futures Network, publisher of YES! To subscribe by phone, call 1-800-YES-4451