The study of Economics has never lacked its 'heretics' - those who, from outside the academic specialty, have often enough brought to the subject a fresh viewpoint, inspired not so much by theory as by a practical observation of the realities of trade and commerce, and a keen sense of the human element in what is otherwise a rather abstract discipline.
Among these pioneers, few have been so distinguished, from the point of view of academic credentials in other fields, as Frederick Soddy. Soddy was a world renowned researcher in the study of the chemistry of radioactive materials. His studies with Rutherford at McGill University between 1902 and 1904 had added the word 'isotope' to the vocabulary of chemistry, had disclosed the immense stores of energy contained within every atom, and had ultimately earned him a Professorship of Chemistry at Oxford University, and the 1921 Nobel Prize in chemistry, awarded him in 1922.
Soddy himself was inspired by his experiences of the first World War to develop great concern on a subject that concerns scientists perhaps more today than it did at that time - the possibility that his invention could be used for destruction. He trod new ground when he began to apply his scientific mind and method to the investigation of the economic forces that could cause this to be so. (1)
The most comprehensive summary of his economic thought is a book of remarkable originality, first published in 1926. Its title: 'Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt'. Its subtitle - 'The Solution to the Economic Paradox'.
Soddy's assertion of his rightness in a field beyond his normal academic speciality was not well received. One reason, no doubt, was that he was an outsider in a field where policy solutions recommended by orthodoxy - such as Britain's return to the gold standard in 1925 - were causing visible economic distress. Economics was at once searching for new ideas, and sensitive to the criticisms of self appointed 'experts' (such as the new Social Credit movement (2)), whose ideas, while superficially attractive, lacked academic depth. A second and more fundamental reason, though, was that the intellectual rigor of this 'outsider' spared no criticism even of those who were to be the more progressive thinkers of monetary reform. Not only Major C. H. Douglas, founder of `Social Credit', but pioneers of new thought within the economic fraternity of the stature of J. M. Keynes and Irving Fisher felt the sting of his pen. (3) It was simply not Soddy's mode of operation to compromise with the truth as he saw it, for the sake of winning academic allies. As a result he had few of them!
Thus was created the disappointment and bitterness of a man who fell between two stools. On the one hand, the branch of chemistry where his reputation and his qualifications lay now had less to attract his interest. The chemistry of radioactivity had been definitively explored and its research from the standpoint of chemistry, as distinct from physics, had lost much of its former glamour. On the other hand, in the realm of economics and monetary theory, where his work exhibited the genius and the scientific rigor of a true researcher, he had earned the reputation of a heretic and a crank. (4)
This paper has a simple and modest objective. It is to reintroduce a thinker whose reputation and whose research deserve greater respect than they have to now received. In a world where the "economic paradox" still seems some way from solution, Soddy's claim to have found the answer has gone largely ignored. Perhaps, after sixty years, we owe him a hearing.
Frederick Soddy was born in 1877, the youngest son of a London merchant. He obtained a first class honours degree in chemistry at Merton College, Oxford, and after two more years spent in research, travelled to Canada and took a position as a demonstrator at McGill University - where it was his good fortune to meet and work with another expatriate Britisher, Ernest Rutherford. Between 1904 and 1914 he was a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, then a Professor at Aberdeen, finally becoming professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, a post he held until his retirement in 1936. He continued with research and publications into chemistry, mathematics and monetary reform until his death on September 22nd, 1956.
The result of his early research was a new theory on the causes of radioactive decay. His outstanding contribution to chemistry was his explanation, consistent with the periodic table of the elements, of the existence of elements of identical chemical properties, yet different atomic weights, and of a process by which these elements, depending on their origins, transmuted in a sequence ending ultimately in different isotopes of the element lead. By the end of the Great War, and the time of his move to Oxford, much of the mystery of the properties of radioactive elements had been unravelled through his researches. His pioneering work was recognized when he was honoured by being awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, in 1922.
Standing, as he did, at the forefront of investigation into the nature of atomic structure, Soddy very early realized the enormity of the power that was contained within the atom. In a lecture in 1915 he visualised that atomic energy could "virtually provide anyone who wanted it with a private sun of his own." (5)
Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, who felt that it was the task of others to control the use of the fruits of scientific research, themselves morally neutral, he became deeply concerned at the destructive possibilities that lay in the abuse of his discoveries. Recognizing the place of energy in the creation of all wealth, and armed with the knowledge of an energy source a million times more powerful, weight for weight, than coal, he was appalled at the way in which the resourcefulness of science for destruction during World War I could not be mobilized, when the war was over, for peace and prosperity.
"We have to find out how it comes about that science, which, without economic exhaustion, provided the sinews of war for the most colossal and destructive conflict in history, with the manpower of the nations engaged in military service, has not yet abolished poverty and degrading conditions of living from our midst in the piping times of peace." (6)
Unlike many of his contemporaries, who embraced various forms of Socialism or Communism as a solution to the troubles of the times, Soddy saw in the money system the key to the restriction and the abuse of the planet's resources.
"The threatened collapse of our Western civilization has nothing to do with the political issues between capitalism and communism, but is the consequence of its false money system." (7)
In turning to his actual analysis, I will be esentially following the outline of Professor Soddy's book 'Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt' (George Allen & Unwin, 1926). I also highly recommend the recently published symposium 'Frederick Soddy, 1877 - 1956' (D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1986, George B. Kauffman, Ed.), which contains much material not otherwise readily available, both on Soddy's life, his chemistry and his economics. Thaddeus Trenn's contributions to this symposium are of particular value to those interested in Soddy's economic views.
The first 'new path' trodden by Soddy was to define the clear separation between 'Wealth' - a physical phenomenon - and 'Debt', which is a mathematical one. The science of the production of Wealth is the true economics. The handling of Debt is the science of 'chrematistics' (from the Greek, 'chrema': money).
"Debts are subject to the laws of mathematics rather than physics. Unlike wealth, which is subject to the laws of thermodynamics, debts do not rot with old age and are not consumed in the process of living. On the contrary, they grow at so much per cent per annum, by the well-known mathematical laws of simple and compound interest ... It is this underlying confusion between wealth and debt which has made such a tragedy of the scientific era." (8)
"Economics, in a national sense, is concerned with wealth as what is produced by human beings in order to maintain their lives. Chrematistics, the science of wants and demands and of how they exchange one for another, is quite a distinct study, more plainly termed commerce." (9)
Economics, Soddy claims, has confused debt - a claim on wealth - for wealth itself. Modern economics has therefore woven for itself a hopeless tangle, in which money is counted as an asset - that is, as if it were wealth itself - whereas in reality it is a liability - an obligation of the community to provide wealth on demand. A particular result of this is that those who create and deal in money can receive rewards from the economic system as generous as if the money they had invented by the process of banking had been real wealth created by the same sort of human effort as is required, for instance, for the mining of gold.
"It is difficult or impossible to get a physical means of measuring wealth ... but this difficulty must not blind us to the palpable absurdities in conventional economics introduced by always measuring wealth by exchange-value or money price. This may easily result in what could only be regarded as a national calamity appearing to increase the national wealth, or what is in every respect a national blessing appearing to reduce it. Unnecessary middlemen and speculators may much increase the prices of commodities without any addition to the national wealth. Combines of producers and trusts for limiting output and raising prices may reduce the national wealth and increase its monetary value ... Such 'services' as these, which are properly means of acquiring wealth at the expense of the community rather than producing it, are, of course, not physically necessary ingredients of wealth at all." (10)
After separating, therefore, wealth from debt, the next step in solving the 'economic paradox' of poverty in a world rich enough to satisfy mankind's basic wants with ease, is to survey the process by which wealth comes into being.
Starting with a scientist's view of the process of production, Soddy replaces the traditional 'factors of production' of Adam Smith (Land, Labour and Capital), with an alternative three: Discovery, Natural Energy and Human Diligence.
Before wealth can be created by man, man must first find out the means by which to make his efforts valuable in producing wealth, by the process of Discovery. Of discovery, Soddy says:
"We find both in biological and human history, not continuity, but a succession of great discoveries ... which once made, do alter abruptly the whole future trend and mode of existence." (11)
On the subject of energy, of course, Soddy is an expert. He points out that the wealth mankind enjoys is a kind of 'damming up' of the great outpouring of solar energy the world continually receives, so as to make it serve a purpose useful to man before it is dissipated in worthless heat. In modern times, energy stored chemically in past ages in sources such as coal and oil has also become available to enrich mankind: additionally, man has learned to use the material and chemical resources available to him to draw on energy more and more directly, using, for instance, less and less help from the animal and vegetable kingdoms, with a consequent saving of human effort.
Finally, not human labour (for labour generally speaking has been replaced in production by the energy of machines), but human diligence.
"The function of the worker, since the introduction of mechanical power, has totally changed in many industries, and in none is the change unimportant. More and more, he does not work in the physical sense, but is directing an inanimate source of power to do what, left alone, it could not do." (12)
Soddy points out that, though a discovery once made is made for all time, the production of wealth will always require contribution of the second and third factors. 'Perpetual motion machines' do not exist. The machine and the use of power are levers which extend the range of human effort more and more - but never replace it entirely. Consequently, when an investor or speculator makes an income by, say, investing in debt or driving up the price of commodities, the only effect of such efforts is that the investor takes for himself some wealth that has been created by the effort of others. It is the economic power given to such persons to batten on those who do create wealth that causes the 'economic paradox' of poverty in a world technically capable of creating sufficiency for all.
"Never was there an age in history so dowered as ours with all that could have sufficed for a noble and enduring civilization, whereas it is still to ancient civiliations we must go if we wish to find evidence of human effort and imagination being squandered on a national scale on something not strictly utilitarian in purpose. The most gigantic powers await our commands to provide us with all that we require, but we lead a harried, driven life, concerned for the most part with the immediate necessity of keeping the wolf from the door, and destroying our trade rivals." (13)
One particular distinction Soddy makes with regard to wealth is to distinguish "permanent wealth" from wealth that is consumed in the very act of being of value to mankind. "Permanent Wealth" is, for example, the plough. Consumable wealth is the food grown with the plough. While consumable wealth provides value by being consumed, the whole value of permanent wealth is that it should be consumed as slowly as possible, in the mean time making the output from human diligence that much the greater per unit of effort.
The particular importance of this permanent wealth (some would call it 'capital', but Soddy avoids the term), is that it can command a rent, because of its value in the productive process, yet it cannot eliminate all human effort. Because capital is not a 'perpetual motion machine', the creation of debt which claims interest in perpetuity as the price of such capital gives a mathematical illusion of perpetual income, that is not reflected by any physically attainable form of wealth.
"Psychologically, the economic aim of the individual is, always has been, and probably always will be, to secure a permanent revenue independent of further effort, proof against the passage of time and the chance of circumstance, to support himself in old age and his family after him in perpetuity. He endeavours to do so by accumulating so much property in the heyday of his youth that he and his heirs may live on the interest on it in perpetuity afterwards. Economic and social history is the conflict of this human aspiration with the laws of physics, which make such a perpetuum mobile impossible, and reduces the problem merely to the method by which one individual may get another individual or the community into his debt and prevent repayment, so that the individual or community must share the produce of their efforts with their creditor." (14)
Money, then, is not wealth. From the point of view of the community, it is not an asset but a liability. It is a claim against the collective wealth of the community at that time on the market.
"Money is not wealth, even to the individual, but the evidence that the owner of the money has not received the wealth to which he is entitled, and that he can demand it at his own convenience. So that in a community, of necessity, the aggregate money, irrespective of its amount, represents the aggregate value of the wealth which the community prefers to be owed on these terms rather than to own."(15)
One of the characteristics of production is that producers of goods tend to specialize, so becoming the owners of quantities of goods of one particular type for which, after consuming a very modest quantity, they have little personal need. As consumers, however, these same producers need a wide diversity of goods made by other producers. The difference between the 'wholesale' value to the producer of these unwanted goods, and the 'retail' prices these goods will command from persons not in a position to manufacture them, is the justification for exchange, making use of money, and is the source of the value contained in the tokens used as the nation's money supply. The total of this value is the nation's 'Virtual Wealth'. In effect, the size of the Virtual Wealth of a community is an index of the value to each member of the community of the presence of the community there - it is an index of the value of the 'increment of association', and the purchasing power of the totalilty of the monetary stock of the community will always equal this total of Virtual Wealth.
"It is true that the nation must act, and continue indefinitely to act, as if it possessed more wealth than it does possess, by the aggregate purchasing power of its money, but the important thing is that this Virtual Wealth does not exist. It is an imaginary negative quantity - a deficit or debt of wealth, subject neither to the laws of conservation or thermodynamics... It is the quantity of goods that the community abstains from possessing that is definite, and the number of units this definite quantity is worth is all the money, whatever that all may be. "It is the virtual wealth which measures the value of the purchasing power of money, and not money which measures the value of wealth."(16)
In ancient times, of course, the tokens used for money had real cost and it was reasonable to pay a price for their use. Mining gold, for instance, takes effort which must be rewarded. But the development of Banking has enabled Bank Credit (indistinguishable in effect from other forms of money, and identical in effect), to be created at the cost only of pen and ink, and yet reap a reward for its use in the form of an interest charge paid to Bankers, for a value given by the Community rather than by any effort the Banker has put out.
Soddy is open to criticism here. The Banker who extends credit by way of loan is indeed creating credit by manipulating figures on paper, but that credit comes back to the banking system by way of deposits of Bank Credit on which interest has to be paid by the Banker, or the whole system will collapse. Soddy would have been more accurate to tie in the creation of credit by banks with a process by which all those who use the Banking system and the consequent free access to the community's 'Virtual Wealth', with the well known phenomenon by which 'the rich get richer and the poor get poorer'.(17) Not only bankers profit from this, but all who receive interest on their 'money in the Bank', or who can borrow from Banks cheaper than from public savings for investment purposes. All who do business with a Bank, whether it is as depositors obtaining cheap accounting and chequing services, or obtaining interest on money deposits available virtually on demand, or as borrowers enjoying a rate of interest less than that required to cause the investment of real 'savings', are exploiters of the public's Virtual Wealth by this process. Perhaps this is a reason why the financially most sophisticated members of the public are so slow to recognize the problems the Banking system creates.
The argument has reached a point where we have a quantity of wealth of a certain value 'on the market', ready to be exchanged for money from any buyer who is willing to purchase it at a price acceptable to the seller. How great this quantity is depends to some degree on the price level at which this wealth will be bought. If the price level shrinks, a consequence, say, of a limited supply of money tokens, goods may be taken off the market rather than sold below cost, and the Virtual Wealth will also shrink. Cartels, and all similar schames to 'rig the market' by curtailing supply of a commodity have this effect. Increasing the money supply, however, does not necessarily increase Virtual Wealth. Given physical limits on how much wealth can be put on the market in a period of time, an increase in the price level will occur when those limits are reached.
Soddy also considers what is today called the phenomenon of the 'J' curve. The total money supply circulates from consumers to business and then back from business to consumers, conveying effort by consumers into the business sector, and wealth from the business sector to consumers, in a continuous stream, constant if the quantity of money remains constant.
If production is to be increased, a period of time has to go by in which more effort is put into the system by consumers, before the products 'in the pipeline' emerge at the other end. If this increased effort is financed by new credit - say an expansion of the money supply by a bank loan, then the result is an initial period of inflation - a greater supply of money is chasing a supply of goods that has not increased. More than that, this increased money supply is chasing a supply of goods that is actually diminished by the amount of resources diverted to creating the Permanent Wealth needed to sustain the new rate of production.
Solving this paradox is the 'pons asinorum' of the economic process - the 'Riddle of the Sphinx'(18). Given the potential to increase overall output of wealth by the extension of human ability through increased use of machinery and energy, what techniques are required to ensure that this increase takes place, without simply causing an increase in prices, a cycle of 'boom' followed by recession, or other untoward events?
The key lies in the relationship to each other of three processes -
If the interrelationship of these elements is correctly achieved, then increased output at stable prices will result. If, as is so often the case, capital expansion is attempted financed by new (Bank) credit creation, without any abstinence by the consuming public, the result is only an inflation of prices, followed by depression as the loans are repaid.
"Bypassing of the consumer's mart may be effected in various ways, all alike, however, in requiring genuine abstinence from consumption. Someone on the way to the mart to purchase supplies must be induced to lend his money to the industrialist and abstain from his customary consumption to that extent. In either case, the manufacturer increases his production, takes on more workers and diminishes unemployment by passing out the money loaned as wages, etc. (19) "When the loans cease, consumption will not be increased, unless the new workers are continued. Since, before, the money in circulation sufficed to distribute the former flow of wealth, it is obvious that it must now be increased proportionately to distribute the increased flow, and this can be most easily be put into circulation by remission of taxation and paying for Govenment expenditure with the new money issued. If no new money is issued to purchase the wealth for consumption, the whole of the elaborate process is undone. The stocks cannot be sold, the extra wages, salaries, profits, dividends, etc. cannot be paid, the extra hands taken on must again be dismissed, and class hatred ... is the natural outcome." (20)
The totality of the policy suggestions that Soddy puts forward, based on the above analysis, is the following:
Soddy suggests as a means of achieving this, a tax free return being allowed on investments that will be fully amortized over a limited period, whereas those of indefinite length will be taxed, the proceeds of the tax being used to buy up on the open market and discharge such debts as are not self liquidating. In such a way, the financial accounting for investment in capital will be brought into line with the physical reality that capital has a finite life, and depreciates.
To summarize the problems that Soddy identifies is to indicate how little mankind has learned in sixty years. If the National Debt was a burden in 1926, the figures of 1988 are far, far greater, and the percentage of National Product taken by debt charges is greater, directly leading to poverty and the curtailment of social programs. The fluctuation of the monetary mass and so the cycle of boom and recession is as bad as ever - the 'governor' of money supply regulated by the Price Index has never been applied. The poverty of the poor of the world continues - it has been added to by crushing international debts, enforced in the interests of sound Banking by the International Monetary Fund. Nonetheless, the institutions of the Banking world are themselves threatened by massive loan defaults. Without a doubt, the living standards of the world, rich and poor alike, are far below what is technically feasible. Personally and nationally, it is obvious that 'the debt problem' is largely to blame.
Yet the 'science' of economics continues to operate as if the laws of today's banking are the only ones under which a money supply can be provided. And, like the tobacco companies, though the institutions of finance purvey much disinformation to the world as to what is and what is not 'good' for us, the cancer the world suffers from is nonetheless real. Soddy's unpopularity, it appears, comes from the fact that he chose to play hardball in a setting where such a game was unexpected and unpopular. Says Soddy:
"It was indeed a revelation to the author, accustomed to think of the battle for liberty of thought in scientific matters as having been fought and won centuries ago at the time of Galileo and the Inquisition, to find that in economics, as distinct from physics, it has not yet been won at all... If economics were really a science, it would not need to protect itself from criticism by a conspiracy of silence. A responsible criticism would in any scientific subject be met with instant response, and not by the ostrich policy of burying the head in the sand in the hope that that will thereby choke the ears and throw dust in the eyes of the pursuer also." (22)
Perhaps the real challenge of this outsider to the economic world, now as then, is his demand that economics become a genuine scientific discipline, not swayed by fashions, but bowing to truth wherever it leads, regardless of the disapproval of vested interests, whether academic or commercial. Do economists have the courage? Without it, we represent, not a science, but a sham.