Global Warming Heat Meter

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Economic Thought of Frederick Soddy by Herman E Daly

Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.
- Thomas S. Kuhn,
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions(1962), page 89.

I. Introduction

Frederick Soddy (1877-1956) is best known as a pioneering chemist who collaborated with Rutherford in studying radioactive disintegration, predicted the existence of and coined the name for isotopes, and was a major contributor to the modern theory of atomic structure. For these achievements he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1910 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921. He was a member of the Swedish, Italian, and Russian acadamies of science. During his career he held university positions at McGill, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and from 1919 onward, Oxford (Fleck 1957).

Although an enthusiastic believer in scientific progress and in the possibility of a society in which the fruits of scientific knowledge would be shared by all, Soddy was acutely aware that history supported the view that science has proved as much a curse as a blessing to humanity. Nor could he accept the comfortable view that scientists have no responsibility for the uses to which their work is put. Even though others (bankers and economists) bore, in his view, a far greater burden of guilt for the misuse of knowledge, scientists could not plead innocent. The world's real problem was faulty economics, not faulty chemistry, and for the second half of his nearly eighty years economics replaced chemistry as the center of his intellectual life.

Soddy realized earlier than most the theoretical possibility of atomic energy. Since his own work had contributed to the discovery that this vast energy potential existed, it was natural for him to ask, "what sort of a world it would be if atomic energy ever became available" (
Wealth, page 28). His answer (written in 1926) was clear:

If the discovery were made tomorrow, there is not a nation that would not throw itself heart and soul into the task of applying it to war, just as they are now doing in the case of the newly developed chemical weapons of poison-gas warfare ... If [atomic energy] were to come under existing economic. conditions, it would mean the reductio ad absurdum
of scientific civilization, a swift annihilation instead of a none too lingering collapse [Wealth, page 28].

For Soddy, the problem was to change economic conditions in order eventually to make the world safe for atomic energy and other fruits of science. There must be something radically wrong with economic thought and institutions in order for the gift of scientific knowledge to have become such a threat. Soddy was thus led to a radical critique of economics.

It is interesting that Soddy's concern about the destructive potential of atomic energy was considered extreme at the time. Another Nobel laureate, Robert A Millikan, commented:

... since Mr Soddy raised the hobgoblin of dangerous quantities of available subatomic energy [science] has brought to light good evidence that this particular hobgoblin - like most of the bugaboos that crowd in on the mind of ignorance - was a myth ... The new evidence born of further scientific study is to the effect that it is highly improbable that there is any appreciable amount of available subatomic energy for man to tap[Millikan, page 121].

Millikan, of course, turned out to be wrong, but the underlying faith that he went on to express is still held by many, namely that one may "sleep in peace with the consciousness that the Creator has put some foolproof elements into his handiwork, and that man is powerless to do it any titanic physical damage" (
ibid). As R L Sinsheimer recently noted, "Scientific endeavor rests upon the faith that our scientific probing and our technological ventures will not displace some key element of our protective environment and thereby collapse our ecological niche" (Sinsheimer, page 24). It now seems evident that the only protective element the Creator put into his handiwork is man's capacity for moral insight and restraint, which is far from foolproof. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that Soddy was the true prophet and that the scientific establishment, represented by Millikan, was whistling in the dark.{1} Far from believing in providential "foolproof elements" built into creation, Soddy was convinced that the economic system contained built-in elements for assuring the destruction of creation, once science gave man the power. The key problem therefore was to discover and correct the errors in our economic thinking and institutions, a task which Soddy tackled with both moral fervor and the systematic logic of an experienced scientist.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Soddy the economist is that he started his inquiry with a mind both highly intelligent and completely free from the preconceived paradigm of the orthodox economists, for whom he had an undisguised contempt. The contempt was mutual. With the significant exception of Frank Knight, to be discussed later, Soddy's work was ignored by economists. Unlike the American positional astronomer, Simon Newcomb, who also came to economics from the physical sciences, Soddy came as a critic, not a student, and remained an outsider. Newcomb liked economics, did not believe that his pre-World War One America was in mortal danger from an increasingly powerful but misdirected application of science, and wrote a fairly orthodox
Principles of Political Economy(1885) which demonstrated that he had done his economics homework, and had earned the right to try to make economics just a bit more scientific. Soddy, on the other hand, considered economics a pseudoscience in need of a totally new beginning. John Ruskin, not Ricardo, Mill, or Marshall, was his inspiration.

The not surprising consequence of this approach was that Soddy was and continues to be written off as a crank. In fact, Soddy's economics seems to have been something of an embarrassment to everyone but Soddy. The
Times Literary Supplement(page 565), in reviewing his major economic work (
Wealth, Virtual Wealth, and Debt) remarked that it was sad to see a respected chemist ruin his reputation by writing on a subject about which he was quite ignorant. Nor had the verdict changed thirty years and several books later, when in 1956 an obituary in
Sciencelamented that, "Some ... knew him only as ... a 'crank' on the subject of monetary policy ... His fanatical devotion to schemes of this sort, derided by the orthodox economists, ... was surprising to many who knew him first as a pioneer in chemical science" (Russell, page 1069). This neglect of Soddy's economics is unfortunate because, although Soddy is admittedly unconvincing in his frequent attribution of war and all other evils to fractional reserve banking, he nevertheless has much to teach us, and in fact anticipated the recent contribution of N Georgescu-Roegen (1971) in providing economics with a partial foundation in thermodynamics, the physics of usefulness.

The fact that Soddy might have learned more from economists than he did does not mean that economists have nothing to learn from Soddy. The approach here taken is to think of him somewhat as an intelligence from Mars which looked at economic issues in a different way, and to try sympathetically to understand him and render him intelligible to modern economists. In what follows I attempt to summarize and explain Soddy's critique of economics.

II. The Neglected Physical Basis of Economics

Soddy's basic philosophical approach to economics might be called materialism without reductionism. We must recognize the fundamental dualism of the material and the spiritual and resist "monistic obsessions" (
Cartesian Economics, page 6). Economics occupies the middle ground between matter and spirit, between the electron and the soul:

In each direction possibilities of further knowledge extend ad infinitum, but in each direction diametrically away from and not towards the problems of life. It is in this middle field that economics lies, unaffected whether by the ultimate philosophy of the electron or the soul, and concerned rather with the interaction, with the middle world of life of these two end worlds of physics and mind in their commonest everyday aspects, matter and energy on the one hand, obeying the laws of mathematical probability or chance as exhibited in the inanimate universe, and, on the other, with the guidance, direction and willing of these blind forces and processes to predetermined ends[ibid].

Soddy rejects the monism of "Ultra-Materialism":

I cannot conceive of inanimate mechanism, obeying the laws of probability, by any continued series of successive steps developing the powers of choice and reproduction any more than I can envisage any increase in the complexity of an engine resulting in the production of the "engine-driver" and the power of its reproducing itself. I shall be told that this is a pontifical expression of personal opinion. Unfortunately, however, for this argument, inanimate mechanism happens to be my special study rather than that of the biologist. It is the invariable characteristic of all shallow and pretentious philosophy to seek the explanation of insoluble problems in some other field than that of which the philosopher has first hand acquaintance[ibid, page 7].

Yet a proper materialism must be one of the foundation stones of economics. In fact, "without phosphorus no thought" (
Story of Atomic Energy, page 129) is an axiom that all philosophers and ethicists should be required to memorize. What mechanical science teaches economics is that

life derives the whole of its physical energy or power, not from anything self-contained in living matter, and still less from an external deity, but solely from the inanimate world. It is dependent for all the necessities of its physical continuance primarily upon the principles of the steam-engine. The principles and ethics of human law and convention must not run counter to those of thermodynamics[Cartesian Economics, page 9].

The last sentence is very significant because it provides the basis for many of Soddy's criticisms of the economy as a presumed perpetual motion machine. For men, like other heat engines, the physical problems of life are energy problems. Pre-nineteenth-century man lived on energy revenue (sunlight captured by plants, the "original capitalists"). Present-day man augments this revenue by consuming energy capital (coal, the "stored sunlight of palaeozoic summers"). While man can use fuel-fed machinery to lighten labor, he can feed his internal fires only with new sunshine, or rather the energy of new sunshine as transformed through the good offices of the plant. Life thus depends on a continuous flow of energy, and hence the enabling requisites of life must partake of the nature of a flow rather than only a stock. There are limits to the degree that this flow can be stored for future use. A significant part of the requisites of life must come to us as a current flow or "revenue" that cannot in any physical sense be converted to a stock and indefinitely stored for later use. Like the manna which God sent to the Hebrews in the wilderness, the revenue is renewed daily, must be gathered in amounts sufficient for the day (neither too much nor too little), and breeds worms and becomes foul if accumulated too much in excess of current needs (
Exodus16: 17-20). Stocks of assets, to the extent that we can maintain them against the ravages of entropy, are aids and accessories in improving our ability to tap the energy revenue, but the revenue itself cannot be significantly increased, and it cannot be saved except to a limited degree. Indeed, the very maintenance of our accumulated stock of physical wealth against the destructive force of entropy requires the renewing power of the low-entropy "revenue" flow. True, nature has stored energy in coal, but it took geologic epochs of time, and we are only able to unstore it. Furthermore the "flamboyant period" of using up the capital stock of coal was perceived by Soddy as a "very passing phase", after which the constraints imposed by living on energy revenue would be more clearly seen and unmistakably felt.

For Soddy the basic economic question was "How does man live?" and the answer was "By sunshine". The rules that man must obey in living on sunshine, whether current or palaeozoic, are the first and second laws of thermodynamics. This in a nutshell is "the bearing of physical science upon state stewardship". Wealth is for Soddy "the humanly useful forms of matter and energy" (
The Arch Enemy, page 6). Wealth has both a physical dimension, matter-energy subject to the laws of inanimate mechanism, and a teleological dimension of usefulness, subject to the purposes imposed by mind and will. Soddy's concept of wealth reflects his fundamental dualism and his belief that the middle world of life and wealth is concerned with the interaction of the two end worlds of physics and mind in their commonest everyday aspects. That Soddy concentrated on the physical dimension in order to repair the consequences of its past neglect should not be allowed to lead one to suppose that he proposed a monistic physical theory of wealth, a misinterpretation which, we will see, was fostered by Frank Knight.

III. The Major Confusion: Wealth Versus Debt

The fundamental error of economics is the confusion of wealth, a magnitude with an irreducible physical dimension, with debt, a purely mathematical or imaginary quantity. The positive physical quantity, two pigs, represents wealth and can be seen and touched. But minus two pigs, debt, is an imaginary magnitude with no physical dimension:

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 ... For sufficient reason, the process of compound interest is physically impossible, though the process of compound decrement is physically common enough. Because the former leads with the passage of time ever more and more rapidly to infinity, which, like minus one, is not a physical but a mathematical quantity, whereas the latter leads always more slowly towards zero, which is, as we have seen, the lower limit of physical quantities[Wealth, page 70].

The ruling passion of the age is to convert wealth into debt in order to derive a permanent future income from it - to convert wealth that perishes into debt that endures, debt that does not rot, costs nothing to maintain, and brings in perennial interest (
Money Versus Man, page 25). No individual could amass the physical requirements sufficient for maintenance during his old age, for like manna it would rot. Therefore he must convert his non-storable surplus into a lien on future revenue, by letting others consume and invest his surplus now in exchange for the right to share in the increased future revenue. The revenue is "a river of perishable and consumable wealth, steadily flowing to waste whether consumed by human beings or by rats and worms" (
Inversion of Science, page 24). But since future annual revenue is limited, there is a corresponding limit on the extent to which present surpluses can be exchanged for perennial streams of future revenue. Soddy emphasizes that the present surplus accumulation can never be changed into future revenue in any physical sense, but only exchanged for it under social conventions. Although it may comfort the lender to think that his wealth still exists somewhere in the form of "capital", it has been or is being used up by the borrower either in consumption or investment, and no more than food or fuel can it be used again later. Rather it has become debt, an indent on future revenues to be generated by future sunshine. "Capital", says Soddy , "merely means unearned income divided by the rate of interest and multiplied by 100'' (
Cartesian Economics, page 27).

Although debt can follow the law of compound interest, the real energy revenue from future sunshine, the real future income against which the debt is a lien, cannot grow at compound interest for long. When converted into debt, however, real wealth "discards its corruptible body to take on an incorruptible" (
Money Versus Man, page 28). In so doing, it appears "to afford a means of dodging Nature" (page 24), of evading the second law of thermodynamics, the law of random, ravage, rust, and rot. The idea that people can live off the interest of their mutual indebtedness (
Wealth, page 89) is just another perpetual motion scheme - a vulgar delusion on a grand scale. Soddy seems to be saying that what is obviously impossible for the community - for everyone to live on interest - should also be forbidden to individuals, as a principle of fairness. If it is not forbidden, or at least limited in some way, then at some point the growing liens of debt holders on the limited revenue will become greater than the future producers of that revenue will be willing or able to support, and conflict will result. The conflict takes the form of debt repudiation. Debt grows at compound interest and as a purely mathematical quantity encounters no limits to slow it down. Wealth grows for a while at compound interest, but, having a physical dimension, its growth sooner or later encounters limits. Debt can endure forever; wealth cannot, because its physical dimension is subject to the destructive force of entropy. Since wealth cannot continually grow as fast as debt, the one-to-one relation between the two will at some point be broken - that is, there must be some repudiation or cancellation of debt. The positive feedback of compound interest must be offset by counteracting forces of debt repudiation, such as inflation, bankruptcy, or confiscatory taxation, all of which breed violence. Conventional wisdom considers the latter processes pathological, but accepts compound interest as normal. Logic demands, however, that either we constrain compound interest in some way, or accept as normal and necessary one or more of the counteracting mechanisms of debt repudiation. {2} As Soddy put it,

You cannot permanently pit an absurd human convention, such as the spontaneous increment of debt [compound interest], against the natural law of the spontaneous decrement of wealth [entropy][Cartesian Economics, page 30].

The perpetual motion delusion of living on debt has arisen in the following way, Soddy says:

Because formerly ownership of land - which, with the sunshine that falls on it, provides a revenue of wealth - secured, in the form of rent, a share in the annual harvest without labor or service, upon which a cultured and leisured class could permanently establish itself, the age seems to have conceived the preposterous notion that money, which can buy land, must therefore itself have the same revenue-producing power[Wealth, page 106].

If debt and money are the units of measure by which we account for and keep track of the production and distribution of physical wealth, then surely the units of measure and the reality being measured cannot be governed by different laws. Soddy's "acid test is that no monetary accountancy be allowed that could not be done equally well by physical counters" (
The Arch Enemy, page 24). If wealth cannot grow at compound interest for long, then debt should not either. If wealth cannot be created
ex nihilothen how can we allow money (debt) to be created ex nihilo (and just as easily destroyed)? Worse, how can we tolerate the fact that money is both created
ex nihiloand lent at compound interest, while at the same time serving as a unit of measure for wealth which is incapable of either of those "conjuror's tricks"? This brings us to money, the topic which most occupied Soddy's attention.

IV. The Monetary Flaw

The main defect in the economic system was, for Soddy, the practice of fractional reserve banking whereby the private banking system was enabled to create money, thus appropriating what he called the Virtual Wealth of the community, which it then lent at interest. The concept of "virtual wealth" plays a key role in Soddy's analysis. Essentially it is the aggregate value of real wealth which individuals in the community voluntarily abstain from holding in order to hold money instead. In order to escape the inconvenience of barter everyone must hold money, which could be exchanged for real wealth, but is not. In Soddy's words, "This aggregate of exchangeable goods and services which the community continuously and permanently goes without (though
individualmoney owners can instantly demand and obtain it from other individuals) the author terms the Virtual Wealth of the community" (
Role of Money, page 36).

If everyone tried to exchange his money holdings for real assets it could not be done, because all real assets are already owned by someone, and in the final analysis someone has to end up holding the money. So Virtual Wealth does not really exist as actual wealth over and above the value of real assets, which is why it is called Virtual. Yet people behave as if Virtual Wealth were real, because at an individual level money is easily exchangeable for physical assets. The phenomenon of Virtual Wealth must occur in a monetary economy, unless the money is itself a commodity that circulates at its commodity value.

The value of each unit of money, or the inverse of the "price-index", is simply the Virtual Wealth divided by the total aggregate of money held.

Soddy gives the following summary of the nature and importance of Virtual Wealth:

Money is now a form of national debt, owned by the individual and owed by the community, exchangeable on demand for wealth by transference to another individual. Its value or purchasing power is not directly determined by any positive or existing quantity of wealth, but by the negative quantity or deficit of wealth, the ownership and enjoyment of which is voluntarily abstained from without the payment of interest, by the owners of the money, to suit their individual business and domestic affairs and convenience. The aggregate of this deficit is called the Virtual Wealth of the community, and it measures the value of all the money owned by the community, which is forced by the necessity of exchanging its produce to act as though it possessed this amount of wealth more than it actually does possess. The Virtual Wealth of a community is not a physical but an imaginary negative wealth quantity. It does not obey the laws of conservation, but is of psychological origin[Wealth, page 295].

Virtual Wealth varies with the size of population and national income and the business and payment habits of the community. It is only when Virtual Wealth is constant that we can equate the value of a unit of money to the ratio of Virtual Wealth to aggregate money held. Soddy believed that Virtual Wealth, though not constant, was far less variable than the money supply.

Who benefits from Virtual Wealth? In a sense the whole community does, since it is the price of avoiding barter, or more precisely the price of avoiding the waste of a full commodity currency which uses costly resources (gold) to perform a function that could be performed by paper or by abstract accounting units. In another sense, Virtual Wealth is like seigniorage, the difference between the monetary value and the commodity value (cost of production) of the money token. With the advent of credit money the commodity value of the token becomes nil and seigniorage or Virtual Wealth is the full monetary value of the money issued - or rather the equivalent in forgone utility. The analogy with seigniorage suggests a further answer to the question of who benefits from Virtual Wealth. It is the issuer of fiat money, whoever first puts it in circulation, that gets the seigniorage. The ancient prerogative of the crown has been usurped, not by the modern State, the crown's legitimate heir, but by the private banking system, which "has corrupted the purpose of money from that of an exchange medium to that of an interest-bearing debt'' (
Wealth, page 296). Moreover the very existence of the bulk of our money depends upon this debt never being liquidated. The very existence of money now becomes a source of private income, and the total money supply becomes a "concertina" expanding to fuel a boom, and contracting with debt repayment and default thereby reinforcing a slump.

Soddy's concept of Virtual Wealth bears an interesting relation to the modern debate about whether fiat money is a part of the net wealth of the community. Pesek and Saving (1967) argue that it is, whereas others, such as James Tobin (1965), argue that it is not. Soddy says that fiat money is Virtual Wealth. Individuals voluntarily hold money balances rather than an equivalent value in real assets in order to escape the enormous inconvenience of barter. Virtual Wealth is the utility cost of holding money. The fact that the benefits are worth more than the costs does not make the costs disappear, and does not convert money into wealth. The social institution of money may be regarded as a form of collective patrimony in the same sense as an efficient legal code or an advanced technology. But the money commodity itself need not be, and in the case of fiat money is not, a productive asset. Indeed, the very advantage of fiat money is to free resources from being tied up in money so that more real assets may be produced with the resources. We count the extra real assets made possible by fiat money as a part of the aggregate wealth of the community, but not the paper chits themselves. Soddy's notion of Virtual Wealth is actually very close to what James Tobin terms the "fiduciary issue":

The community's wealth now has two components: the real goods accumulated through past real investment and fiduciary or paper "goods" manufactured by the government from thin air. Of course, the nonhuman wealth of such a nation "really" consists only of its tangible capital. But, as viewed by the inhabitants of the nation individually, wealth exceeds the tangible capital stock by the size of what we might term the fiduciary issue. This is an illusion, but only one of the many fallacies of composition which are basic to any economy or society. The illusion can be maintained unimpaired as long as the society does not actually try to convert all of its paper wealth into goods[Tobin, page 676].

For Soddy, banks do not really make loans, because a loan implies that the lender gives up what the borrower receives. When a bank lends money it gives up nothing, creating the deposits
ex nihiloup to the limit set by reserve requirements. {3} The real "lender" is the community at large whose money balances lose in purchasing power with the issue of new money. We know the new money will be spent and increase demand, because the borrower who gets it would not pay interest just to increase his idle balances. Prices are bid up since
ex nihilocreation of money (demand) can increase much more rapidly than can the
ex materiacreation of new physical wealth (supply). But the more direct line of causation is simply that relatively constant Virtual Wealth divided by more pounds means each pound is worth less. Money should not bear interest as a condition of its existence, but only when genuinely lent by an owner who gives it up to a borrower. Banks are like counterfeiters who lend false money, accept their own false money in repayment and destroy it, but receive the interest in real money transferred to them by the rest of the community, and which is not destroyed. Banks create and destroy money with no understanding of the "laws that correlate its quantity with the national income" (
Wealth, page 296). Also by continually changing the value of money as they create and destroy it, the banking system converts the pound sterling into a rubber yardstick, in effect making a mockery of all physical measurement standards, since "yards per pound" or "gallons per pound" become variable magnitudes, even though yards and gallons be fixed.

At first sight it may seem odd that one who analyzes the economy with the concepts of physical science should focus so much on money, instead of real resources, matter, energy, and the rest. But, of course, it is precisely the fact that money seems to have escaped the laws of conservation and entropy that led Soddy to conclude that the flaw in the system must lie with the "conjuror's tricks" of modern bankers, who

have been allowed to regard themselves as the owners of the virtual wealth which the community does not possess, and to lend it and charge interest upon the loan as though it really existed and they possessed it. The wealth so acquired by the impecunious borrower is not given up by the lenders, who receive interest on the loan but give up nothing, but is given up by the whole community, who suffer in consequence the loss through a general reduction in the purchasing power of money[Wealth, page 296].

A further contradiction arises from the interest-bearing national debt being used as collateral security by bondholders who borrow from banks. Banks create a deposit (new money) for the borrowing bondholder and charge him interest. The public is taxed to enable the government to pay interest on the bond to the bondholder who, in effect, passes the interest on to the bank. Soddy draws the conclusion that "taxes are thus paid to the bank for doing what the taxes were imposed to prevent being done, namely, the increase of the currency. Otherwise, there would have been no reason for the State to borrow at interest if it had not wished to prevent the increase of the currency" (Wealth, pages 195, 298). Soddy considers this the final
reductio ad absurdumof the monetary system.

V. Reform Measures

Three basic reforms are suggested by Soddy to restore honesty and accuracy to the economic system: a 100 percent reserve requirement for banks; a policy of maintaining a constant price-index; and freely fluctuating exchange rates internationally.

With a 100 percent reserve requirement banks could no longer create money, and that basic function, along with the seigniorage prerogative, or the ownership of Virtual Wealth, would be restored to the State, which would again become the sole "utterer" of money. Banks would have to exist by charging for their legitimate services, that is, those that do not require the creation of money.

What principle is to govern the State in issuing money? Money is to be created or destroyed by the State as needed in order to keep the purchasing power of money constant. A price index will be devised by the National Statistical Authority. If the index has a tendency to fall over time, the government will finance its own activities by printing money. Alternatively it might lower taxes, or use the newly created money to redeem interest-bearing national debt. In other words deflation would be corrected by some form of money-creating government deficit. If the index shows a rising tendency the government will raise taxes (or issue interest-bearing national debt) and not spend the revenue. Inflation would be corrected by a money-destroying government surplus. Soddy makes an analogy between the price index and the governor on a steam engine. Both provide a mechanism of stabilizing feedback. The then existing system suffered from destabilizing feedback, since the money supply would expand during a boom and contract during a slump, thereby reinforcing the original tendency.

Equilibrium in balance of payments with the rest of the world would be achieved by freely fluctuating exchange rates which would tend to establish a kind of purchasing power parity among currencies. International flows of gold and the consequent inflationary and deflationary pressures on national economies would thereby be eliminated, thus easing the task of keeping the internal purchasing power of the currency constant. Furthermore, the need for tariffs and other interferences with free trade designed to correct international payments imbalances, major causes of international conflict, would have been eliminated.

Soddy's proposals have nothing in common with those of Silvio Gesell or Major Douglas, or other famous "monetary cranks". Soddy respected these men for raising important questions, but concluded that in their proposals for reform they were just as guilty of appealing to "conjuror's tricks" as were the orthodox money men. Far from advocating "funny money schemes", Soddy considered the existing canons of sound finance to be elaborate mystifications obscuring the most blatant "funny money" practices carried on in the interest of the bankers and their class, to the detriment of society. These socially dishonest though perfectly legal practices, along with the attempt to convert wealth into debt internationally and live off the interest received from other countries, plus the waning of the "flamboyant period" of energy capital consumption, of which "imperialism marks its final bid for survival" (
Cartesian Economics, page 12), would lead inexorably to international conflict and to the misuse of the gifts of science in warfare.

Reform of both economic understanding and the economic system in the light of physical and moral first principles is the sine qua non of a civilization capable of using knowledge for good rather than evil. "Let us have an end of the pretence that economics should not be concerned with morals" (
Role of Money, page 214). As a minimum morality, economics must surely insist on a system of honest weights and measures underlying exchange; yet the current monetary system with its fluctuations in purchasing power subverts honest measure and gives a false accounting of the physical realities underlying the production and distribution of wealth.

VI. The Relevance of Soddy's Economic Thought Today

Soddy's insistence that the first and second laws of thermodynamics must be the starting point of economics (
Role of Money, pages 4, 5) is a fundamental insight the relevance of which has grown as we have come to discover that neither the sources of low entropy inputs nor the sinks for high entropy waste outputs are infinite. Probably the most important economic treatise of the last forty years is Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen's
The Entropy Law and the Economic Process(1971), which demonstrates that the economic process is entropic in its physical coordinates; that wealth is an open system, a structure maintained in the midst of a throughput that begins with the depletion of low entropy matter-energy and ends with the return of an equal quantity of polluting high entropy matter-energy back to the environment; that in contrast to the reversibility of mechanical phenomena, entropic phenomena are characterized by irreversibility, a fatal weakness of the mechanistic epistemology of standard economics; and that there is a critical asymmetry between our two sources of low entropy. The last point refers to the fact that solar low entropy (Soddy's revenue) is nearly infinite in total amount but strictly limited in its rate of flow to earth, whereas terrestrial low entropy (concentrated minerals in the earth's crust) is strictly limited in total amount, but can be used up at a rate of our own choosing. Economic development since the industrial revolution has been in the direction of ever less reliance on the abundant solar flow and towards dependence on the relatively scarce terrestrial stock. This is what Soddy called the "flamboyant period", destined to be short-lived.

Evidently Georgescu-Roegen was unaware of the writings of Soddy on this subject, because he never cites Soddy. No one is more scrupulously honest and painstaking in citing the work of others than Georgescu-Roegen, and this omission is pointed out only to indicate the extent of Soddy's obscurity as an economist. Similar comments apply to Kenneth Boulding, {4} who has also related economics to thermodynamics, without mentioning Soddy, and to the present author as well. This omission is understandable because after all Soddy was a chemist not an economist, and his economic writings all bore titles indicating only the monetary nature of his economic work, or such uninformative titles as
Cartesian Economics. Only the subtitle of the latter, "The Bearing of Physical Science Upon State Stewardship", gives any hint of the nature of his most important and original contribution to economics. But the fact remains that Soddy anticipated the basic insights of Georgescu-Roegen and Boulding regarding the relation of economics and thermodynamics, and deserves recognition as a pioneer in a line of thinking which I believe will one day be dominant.

Soddy was also a pioneer in recognizing the moral responsibility of science, and in realizing ahead of others that new knowledge, while it might not be permanently "forbidden", can certainly be "inopportune" under existing social and moral conditions, even to the extent of being lethal to the civilization that made it possible (Sinsheimer, page 24).

Was Soddy successful in his effort to discover the flaws in the economic system that corrupted the fruits of science and led to war? Would 100 percent reserves, a constant price index, and flexible exchange rates make the world safe for atomic energy? Is it true that whether science emancipates or destroys humanity depends on a "minor technical point in a banking system", as Soddy claimed (
Inversion of Science, page iv)? One may reasonably doubt it. In fact it seems that at this point Soddy himself was "seeking the solution to insoluble problems in some field other than that of which the philosopher has firsthand acquaintance" - to recall his own jibe at the mechanistic biologists. But the fact that Soddy exaggerated the efficacy of his suggested reforms does not mean that his analysis is unimportant. Neither the specific proposals nor the reasoning underlying them can be fairly dismissed as those of an outsider or a monetary crank who just does not understand economics. {5} Flexible exchange rates have come into being already, and Soddy was arguing their virtues at a time when most economists were wedded to the gold standard. The new humility born of the theoretical anomaly of simultaneous inflation and unemployment and the demonstrated inability of orthodox "monetary cranks" to deal with persistent inflation could conceivably lead to a reconsideration of the constant price-index and 100 percent reserve requirements. Of course some of these policies have had other champions besides Soddy, some with very respectable academic credentials, such as Henry Simons and Irving Fisher (see Simons 1948 and Fisher 1935).

It is curious that Irving Fisher never mentions Soddy in his writings on 100 percent money. Soddy, however, in a pamphlet written in 1943 refers to Fisher: "Some years later, after the great depression in the USA, an American economist, Professor Irving Fisher of Yale University, put forward a scheme which in its original form was practically identical [to Soddy's "pound for pound banking" plan] and which he termed 100% money" (
The Arch Enemy, page 11). Soddy's plan was published in 1926, Fisher's in 1935. Soddy seems to regard the near identity of plans as an interesting and encouraging coincidence and in no way suggests that Fisher had copied or even been influenced by him.

Although a great enthusiast for science and technology, Soddy could not share the popular obsession with unlimited growth. Even if continual economic growth were possible, it would at some point become senseless. On this point Soddy quotes John Ruskin, whom he greatly admired as an economist: "Capital which produces nothing but capital is only root producing root; bulb issuing in bulb, never in tulip; seed issuing in seed never in bread. The Political Economy of Europe has hitherto devoted itself to the multiplication ... of bulbs. It never saw or conceived such a thing as a tulip" (
Money Versus Man, page v).

Soddy held that "economic sufficiency is the essential foundation of all national greatness and progress" (
Money Versus Man, page 12). But sufficiency means "enough" and growth beyond "enough" is just "seed issuing in seed never in bread". Soddy does not define "sufficiency", but it is clear that any definition must respect the limits of energy revenue from the sun as captured by plants, and the entropic limits on the possibility of storing up wealth for future use, as well as the teleological constraint implied by a defined (that is, limited) purpose from which low entropy matter-energy derives its value dimension, and thus becomes wealth. Not all matter-energy is capable of becoming wealth; only low entropy matter-energy has the physical potential for usefulness, for receiving the imprint of information and purpose. Since the entropy law says in effect that potential gets used up, then scarcity must increase over the long run. But what bothered Soddy was not the scarcity implications of entropy, since he believed that science could more than offset increasing scarcity for a very long time yet. The truly scarce factor for Soddy was not low entropy, but our ability to keep from blowing up scientific civilization with the increasing power that science made available. We persist in applying those powers toward the impossible goal of making the real world of matter-energy conform to the purely mathematical law of compound interest. This leads to debt cancellation, conflict, and war. Orthodox growth economics notwithstanding, the best evidence is that the earth is not growing at all, much less at a rate equal to the rate of interest. The attempt to pit an absurd human convention against a natural law is not only foolish, but highly dangerous.

The absurdity of infinite growth has been the most carefully ignored anomaly in the paradigm of modern economics. As Soddy put it,

If Christ, whose views on the folly of laying up treasures on earth are well known, had put by a pound at this rate, it should now be worth an Octillion, and Tariff Reform would be of little help to provide that, even if you colonized the entire stellar universe ... It is this absurdity which inverts society, turns good into evil and makes orthodox economics the laughing stock of science. If the consequences were not the familiar atmosphere of our daily lives they would be deemed beyond the legitimate bounds of the most extravagant comic opera[Inversion of Science, page 17].

A contemporary unsympathetic reviewer, economist A G Silverman, was at least forthright enough to face the issue and to attempt a reply:

In criticism of the above theory, it may be asked how can the receivers of interest, if they live on this income, take advantage of the law of compound interest; and if they reinvest this "unearned" income why cannot the law of compound interest approximately hold for physical capital as well as debt [Silverman, page 277]?

The first question is sensible but irrelevant because Soddy never suggested that one could take advantage of compound interest without reinvesting at least part of the interest income. The second part of the question, however, reveals that the questioner had no conception of the difference between physical and purely mathematical quantities, and must have made Soddy despair of ever communicating with economists. Perhaps by "approximately" Professor Silverman meant "for a limited time period". But then we must ask what happens at the end of that limited time period, and how long it is.

Probably the most favorable review that Soddy got from an economist came from none other than Frank Knight, who began by confessing that

Somewhat to the reviewer's surprise this book [Wealth, Virtual Wealth, and Debt]
has proven well worth the time and effort of a careful reading. Surprising because, in general, when the specialist in natural sciences takes time off to come over and straighten out the theory of economics he shows himself even dumber than the academic economist, and because, in particular, Soddy's Pamphlet on Cartesian Economics
which we read some years ago did not promise to set a new precedent in this regard[Knight, page 732].

Knight went so far as to call the book (page 732) "brilliantly written and brilliantly suggestive and stimulating". I would like to be able to appeal to the authority of Frank Knight to support my own favorable evaluation of Soddy's economics, but unfortunately our particular appreciations of Soddy conflict. Knight considers Soddy's practical theses concerning money to be "highly significant and theoretically correct" (
ibid), a judgment with which I do not basically disagree, but consider a bit too kind, since Soddy certainly exaggerated the significance of his practical theses, however correct they may be. Concerning the physical basis of economics and the relation to thermodynamics, however, Knight is very negative (

His effort to establish a conception of physical wealth, subject to a principle of conservation and interpretable in relation to physical energy, must be briefly dismissed.

Knight's grounds for dismissal are opaque:

Magnitudes of wealth and productive capacity ... change absolutely whenever a human being changes his (or her!) mind; and the mass-energy relations of mind-changes are as unimportant in this connection as they are obscure - if their very existence is anything but a metaphysical inference based on the monistic bias of the scientific intellect[Knight, page 732]

Whatever that may mean, it is surely odd that anyone who read
Cartesian Economics(recall the first two quotations in Section III above) could even obliquely accuse Soddy of "monistic bias". Furthermore Soddy had no theory of conservation of the
valuedimension of wealth (which may change with mental states), but only insisted that the physical dimension of wealth is subject to the laws of thermodynamics regardless of mind changes or financial conventions, and that this fact is not trivial. If the fact that magnitudes of wealth and productive capacity change absolutely whenever a human being changes his mind were the whole truth, then how easy it would be to make everyone wealthy - all we would need do to double wealth would be to change our minds! Then wealth could grow as fast as debt, since it would be free from its physical body. It would be quite unfair to accuse Knight of such simple-minded angelism, but it strikes me as equally unfair of Knight to treat Soddy as a simple-minded physical reductionist. It is true that Soddy emphasized the physical aspect of wealth in order to correct for its neglect by economists, a procedure which, if Knight's attitude is representative, Soddy was certainly justified in adopting.

In view of the fact that Soddy's critique of money stemmed directly from his prior physical analysis, it is strange that Knight could so categorically reject the latter while enthusiastically embracing the former, although it is conceivable that one could arrive at the right monetary conclusions for the wrong physical reasons. Knight offers the following support for Soddy's views on money:

In the abstract, it is absurd and monstrous for society to pay the commercial banking system "interest" for multiplying severalfold the quantity of medium of exchange when (a) a public agency could do it at negliglible cost, (b) there is no sense in having it done at all, since the effect is simply to raise the price level, and (c) important evils result, notably the frightful instability of the whole economic system [ibid]

Knight deserves much credit for having been the only reputable economist to have taken Soddy seriously, even though in my opinion he missed Soddy's main contribution. But then so did everyone else until now, when, in the light both of Georgescu-Roegen's masterly reuniting of economics with its physical base and of the current recognition of the critical importance of energy, the prior contribution of Soddy has become visible enough for anyone to see. Soddy was in many ways fifty years ahead of his time.


1. In fairness to Millikan it should be noted that in concluding his vigorous defense of science he did temper his optimism with the following caution: "I am not in general disturbed by expanding knowledge or increasing power, but I begin to be disturbed when this comes coincidentally with a decrease in the sense of moral values. If these two occur together, whether they bear any relationship or not, there is real cause for alarm" (Millikan, page 129).

2. This point has been forcefully made by biologist Garrett Hardin. See his (with Carl Bajema)
Biology: Its Principles and Implications, third edition (San Francisco, 1978), page 257.

3. When a bank lends to A it forgoes the opportunity of making the same loan to B, so in that sense there is an opportunity cost in allocating the virtual wealth among borrowers, but there is no opportunity cost to the bank in acquiring the Virtual Wealth in the first place.

4. In fact, Boulding told me he was very much aware of Soddy the scientist, having slept through his chemistry lectures at Oxford, but knew nothing of his economic writings. As for sleeping through chemistry lectures, even the writer of one obituary tribute remarked that it would be idle to pretend that Soddy was a successful classroom teacher.

5. For such a dismissal see A G Silverman (1927).


The author is grateful for support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund during the period in which this article was written. Helpful comments on an earlier draft were received from T Beard, W Campbell, E Cook, G Hardin, S Farber, G Smith, and an anonymous referee. The author, of course, is solely responsible for all contents of the article.


Irving Fisher.
100% Money. New York, 1935.

Alexander Fleck. "Frederick Soddy".
Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 3 (1957): 203-16.

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen.
The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971.

Frank H Knight. Review of Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt.
Saturday Review of Literature, 16 April 1927, page 732.

R A Millikan. "Alleged Sins of Science".
Scribner's Magazine87, no 2 (1930): 119-30.

B P Pesek and T R Saving.
Money, Wealth, and Economic Theory. New York, 1967.

Alexander S Russell. "F Soddy, Interpreter of Atomic Structure".
Science, 30 November 1956, pages 1069-70.

A G Silverman. Review of Wealth, Virtual Wealth, and Debt.
American Economic Review, June 1927, pages 275-78.

Henry Simons.
Economic Policy for a Free Society. Chicago, 1948.

Robert L Sinsheimer. "The Presumptions of Science".
Daedalus, Spring 1978, pages 23-35.

Frederick Soddy.
Science and Life. London, 1920.

Frederick Soddy.
Cartesian Economics. London, 1922.

Frederick Soddy.
Wealth, Virtual Wealth, and Debt. London, 1926, 1933.

Frederick Soddy.
Money Versus Man. New York, 1933.

Frederick Soddy.
The Role of Money. London, 1934.

Frederick Soddy.
The Arch Enemy of Economic Freedom(pamphlet). Oxford, 1943.

Frederick Soddy.
The Story of Atomic Energy. London, 1949.

Times Literary Supplement, London, 26 Aug. 1926, page 565.

James Tobin. "Money and Economic Growth".
Econometrica33, October 1965.

No comments:

Post a Comment