Doughnut Economics – Quam Oeconomica

The Search for Oeconomica Phase III

The essence of Kate Raworth’s excellent book, Doughnut Economics, is that economics has to move from an understanding of the world in 18thor 19thC terms (based on a mechanical set of analogies) to a 21stC understanding based on how we understand evolution, our knowledge of systems theory and complexity.


In simple terms, the book suggests, that in order to develop from a perpetual journey to increase GDP and move to a world economy that “Thrives in balance”, we focus on critical issues such as inequality, changes in banking, CO2, new metrics and many other changes via a vast number of small experiments that will, under conditions of complexity, generate changes in our direction and potentially move us from this Phase of our economic experience (Phase II) via a phase transition to another. However, the range of changes that may be needed (this vast number of small experiments) do not appear to be extremely hopeful and each one is tiny compared to the enormous background material in which it exists. Any one may be successful or not and many, if successful together, may generate enough traction to propel society to the phase transition that it needs. However, it, or they, may not!


The dynamic set of changes that forged the industrial revolution, the move from a rentier society based around the ownership of land, to a capitalist-driven society based on the ownership of ideas, of speeding up production, of creating demand for goods and services, took on the form of a phase transition (if the continued use of analogies can be permitted). This dramatic change occurred over many years, but traction was firmly in place by the 1830’s in England. Years after this, by the time Karl Marx was writing das Kapital, capitalism had transformed the countries of western Europe and would do the same for the USA and elsewhere. While land remains a high value commodity, the demand for goods and services and the ability to pay for them has transformed most of the world and continues to do so.


However, this phase transition (Phase II) remains, even today, in a variety of stages of development. In the USA and western Europe, it is well entrenched. In India and China, it is feverish in its intensity. In sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan, it is well hidden. This means that prescriptions for moving beyond this Phase are unclear as different sections of the globe are at such different stages. No mention was made in the book of the Maslow hierarchy (that provides at least some analysis of the individual’s search for sustenance, from meeting purely physical needs to those of mental well-being) and it would be useful to seek some sort of understanding based on regional access to the Phase Transition of the industrial revolution before experimentations can be determined as useful.


This is because, while so much attention is given in the media, universities and in books, to the second and third industrial revolutions (supposed to be via computing and then via robotics, AI and bio-engineering), the real focus of Doughnut Economics is beyond this towards a third Phase – a post-capital-only phase. In driving towards that new Phase (if humans are to make it successfully), Doughnut Economics properly focuses on the Georgescu-Roegen notion of entropy being sufficiently understood so that the world  focuses on energy use and utilisation as the crucial underlaying of society, rather than the traditional notion of productivity (the making of goods and services in progressively more ‘economical’ ways). This is right but it is debatable whether this is the prime driver for change, at least from a human viewpoint. Humans exhibit potentially destructive tendencies when caught in a particular way of thinking. Kate Raworth described this in within the book (Easter Island as one example) and it seems that humans need to actually see and feel danger before they react. A good analogy is how the UK reacted to Germany before 1939. Rearmament did not take place until the enemy was rampaging through Europe. Why? Possibly, because the human tendency is not to give up on ways of life (having reached a reasonable plateau) unless forced by external change. Complexity theory would suggest that a plateau of living is only change when externalities require it – with ‘require’ being highly operative.


Phase II was driven by, as the book states, the notion of economic gain for those in charge of capital and ideas, focused on the desire of perceived need. This economic gain argument has been transformed over the last 200 years to permeate all of society not just through the notion of GDP at the macroeconomic scale but through accounting at the micro-level. Thus, financialization of the world at both micro- and macro-scales underpin everything that we do. Everything is priced and our utility (our desire for something) is only respected when it has a number against it. Recently, a charity worked out the value we place on parks. This notion of £974 per person per year is then used somehow to justify spending on parklands. The whole notion of natural capital flows from a need to show value of the aspects of life that make life worth living so that even companies and accountants can evaluate them in discounted cash flow techniques. This is where Phase II shows it has conquered the world or it may be showing that Phase II is nearing its end.


Changing this is an enormous challenge but Doughnut Economics, while preparing the way, seems to suggest that the world can be redirected by an understanding by economists about how the world is different to their theories and through the use of diagrams.


A more detailed analysis of the changes that induced the phase transition in England in the industrial revolution to Phase II would indicate the scale of the challenge now. The doughnut diagram is highly useful and the concepts that underpin Doughnut Economics are highly positive in that they speak in the language of the new century, even if hampered by the limits to our knowledge that such analogies provide.


However, if a phase transition in our model of living is required, and the book strongly argues in that way, then we need to assess how this can be done successfully in a world that it markedly at variance region by region and where, as a result, different nations and regions will adopt different attitudes. For example, those countries lower on the Maslow hierarchy (if it or something similar can be utilised on a national scale) will retain their pursuance of basic needs via growth in GDP for far longer than those countries that have reached higher levels of economic maturity, where post-quantitative norms may be considered. If this is the case, and it is highly likely to be, then how do the latter set of nations decide how to remain sufficiently competitive in productive means, assuming that they will not simply give up their desire to at least maintain a level of economic security in a world that will reward economic gains for many years because it is measurable?


Doughnut Economics posits, amongst many other things, repeated changes in GDP, up, down, level in no particular order and through a variety of changes in taxation from income and employment to energy usage or externalities. However, different countries will adopt different measures and taxes and there will be a vast range of unintended consequences in such a complex environment that will continue to drag down the impact of the desired moves to a new phase.


Of course, we do not even know what a new phase will look like. Doughnut Economics suggests some thoughts on this and they relate to the quality of life beyond the quantity of life that mature economies are building, where, having gained the basics (food, shelter, clothing), we have moved towards the second tier of luxuries (goods and services) and towards Maslow’s higher tiers of self-actualisation (although we would need to see this is national terms rather than individualistic).


What can economists and accountants (macro and micro) do for this future? Perhaps the role for such narrow providers of data is disappearing in the same way that the role of horses changed when the motor car appeared. To take us to the next Phase needs a whole new school of thought that understands the different levels of Phase II that has been achieved on a global scale and will address the new mix of qualitative and quantitative requirements of Phase III (against the background of natural resource despoliation and global warming). If the concept of ‘natural capital’ is the last cry of Phase II as an attempt to take a grip of the natural world by the accountants of Phase II, then Phase III has to develop a new breed of expert that can show how humans can retain the dynamism that ‘gain’ provided for many (although by no means all or even the majority) and moves us away from numeric (or financialized) gain towards a qualitative framework, from the historical meaning of economics – the art of managing a household (which, arguably, humans now understand) – to the art of managing quality of life.


This is likely to be back to the area of ‘political economics’, the relationship between the production of goods and services and the society within which they are produced and then forward towards an inclusion of the qualitative aspects of life (as individuals and communities) – ‘quam oeconomica’.


Hard Times – from 1854 to 1504 (Dodd-Frank)

Masters and “Quiet Servants”

Charles Dickens wrote “Hard Times – For These Times” (usually known as “Hard Times”) in 1854. This was a bleak analysis of mid-19th Century factories and the mechanistic drive for material reward.

The world of the Industrial Revolution saw immense material improvement within a 19th Century mindset that saw business develop on the back of “resources” – whether they were natural resources (like coal) or human resources – Dickens’s “quiet servants”. Resources were resources and how they were discovered, whose they were, the conditions under which they were mined, how they were shipped or the conditions under which they were placed into the manufacturing process were not much of a consideration.

Britain and other developing nations of the time grew wealthy on their own drive, ingenuities, financing and trading and manufacturing instincts but the whole process would have collapsed if access was not obtained to raw materials from the rest of the world and the use of “human materials” from all over (including their own countries). The terms “human resources” is still with us along with natural resources – but the “quiet servants” grew louder.

Gradually, from 1833 when Britain enacted laws that children under nine should not work in factories, throughout the second half of the 19th Century and into the 20th, our human resources (people working in factories and mining, for example, in the industrializing nations) campaigned and secured rights over income, health and safety, length of the working day and age restrictions.

Developed countries worked out that, to work well and succeed, we had to develop ways that we all could share to some extent in the benefits that material gain provided. This is the basis of free and fair societies based on successful economies.

From nation to global

The last thirty years has seen a vast shift from developed nations using the rest of the world merely to buy from and sell to, to a shift to manufacturing and now development and R&D throughout the world. Trade has grown internationally and the so-called integrated “global economy” is in place. We are no longer merely the industrialised west and the under-developed rest, but an inter-connected web of nations within one, world economy.

Yet, the strains are clearly showing. Allied to the vast changes in internet communications (similar to the vast increase of communications that shaped 18th Century politics and the 19th Century – the telegraph and the phone), all peoples of the world now see themselves as part of this world (or global) economy in the same way that 19th and early 20th Century factory workers saw themselves vis a vis factory owners. They then, understandably, demand rights and safeguards.

This is now happening on a world scale as we develop our global nation (economically).  The changes are profound and, if done properly, will be of enormous benefit.

21st Century Responses

This week saw the approval after two years of the US SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) of articles 1502 and 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The two measures could have major implications for all of us in that (properly implemented) they set a real standard for the globalized economy in two, crucial areas:

  1. the willingness of all of us to buy items cheaply no matter how the raw materials were obtained
  2. the willingness of all of us to buy items from wherever in the world, no matter what corruption was employed in their provision.

Article 1502 refers to the mining of key raw materials in Africa such as tantalum, tungsten, gold and tin. It will (after an implementation period) require all suppliers and manufacturers to state that their products do not contain raw materials that financed war or bloody conflict. So many years after blood diamonds were headlined, there is now a statute that demands that companies step back and consider what they are buying. Manufacturers that buy such raw materials have had to count the cost of reputational disaster if they continue to sidestep basic human responsibilities in this global market. Now, there will be a legal imperative in the USA.

Article 1504 is the Cardin-Lugar rule which sets rules for country-by-country reporting of companies in the extractive industries concerning the revenues and profits they make in all countries where they do business (on a project by project basis).

Both articles require all companies that are listed in the USA to comply (although not immediately), wherever those countries are based. The European Union is expected to pass similar laws.

The implementation of the two articles will help to drive change on a global scale, where individual nations (e.g. where the resources are extracted) are unable to do so. Why? For several reasons:

  1. Developing nations (especially resource-rich and economically poor) are prone to corruption and often unable or unwilling to enact these laws themselves;
  2. Developing nations (especially in parts of Africa) use resource revenues to fund conflicts and wars;
  3. Corporations operating in those areas need to show global sensibilities – where treatment in their overseas subsidiaries and employees is brought up to levels that we believe are credible and reasonable. It is hard to do that without legal change as competition is too high to expect corporate ethics (whatever that means) to work on its own.

To Ayn Rand libertarians Dodd-Frank is an economic travesty and many in the US are waiting for Romney and Ryan to get elected and reverse these laws. That would be the travesty. It is enough that in developing nations, the gaps between the rich and the rest are widening; it is enough that nations like Greece are now collapsing economically. There is potential for real strife in nations where inequality is too widespread.

But, we now live in a global economy where we are all dependent on each other. That means simply that best practice (that works on a national scale) has to be introduced globally wherever feasible. The intricate balance of trade, manufacturing, design and the need for natural resources (as well as the need to work together on climate change issues or disease control, for example) dramatically increase the need to treat the global economy as one economy – which it is. This means that national rights have to be respected but that is not enough.

Article 1504, for example, takes the trust element away from many nations like Equatorial Guinea, where the leadership is a kleptocracy and where riches from oil revenues do not go to the people in any meaningful form. Country by country reporting will, eventually, put an end to opaque deals between companies and those who have taken over the ownership of natural resources in those countries by showing transparently what profits are made and revenues generated on a project by project basis. Citizens in those countries will begin to be able to see how those revenues are used or not. Information is valuable and a first step to more equitable conditions.

21st Century Ethics

As we enter the fifth year of the post-sub prime recession (with economic collapse in Greece and high youth unemployment in Spain), we remain much more concerned with ourselves than with people and nations thousands of miles away. The change that global economics has wrought, however, is that we can no longer ignore the plight of those so far away even if we (wrongly) wish to do so. Their plight is ours just as the impoverishment (economically and educationally) of our inner cities is a blight and our plight.

The Chinese view things differently, of course. A thousand years of relative impoverishment has left it hungry for economic growth and its hunger leads it to plunder the natural resources of Africa. China’s legalist centre, its Confucian heart and its loathing of western imperialism means that it is content to leave governance issues aside. Its own internal corruption (the corruption of a centrist and legalist government, where bribes are the common currency of the status quo) means that it is unlikely to require good governance in return for its acquisition of raw materials. In fact, its non-linkage of governance requirements gives China a distinct trading advantage in Africa.

It is to be hoped that this is a short-term business expedient and a long-term mistake for the Chinese. Just as the best manufacturers in the 19th and early 20th Century were leaders in improving conditions for their employees (notably, Henry Ford who wanted his own staff to be able to afford to buy his cars) and just as the US spearheaded safety rules in the 20th Century, it is likely that the best companies will understand that improving the safeguards overseas (whether in their own companies or those of suppliers) will be important, medium-term investments.

Reputational loss is now potentially huge (as Apple realized when suicides at one of its biggest suppliers in China, Foxconn, began to rise and changes in working practices were required by Apple). The raw materials that we require for so many of the goods that we buy are obtained under horrendous conditions in Africa. It is not just blood diamonds but all those naturally occurring elements that the SEC has just regulated into law.

In addition, the country-by-country reporting will shine a light on the regimes that take in billions of dollars of income and disburse so little to their people. Pressure will mount from outside and inside.

Organisations like One, Transparency International, Global Witness and Enough and the Publish What You Pay coalition deserve huge credit for a relentless drive over many years to enact such positive changes. The US Congress deserves huge credit for bringing it into law in the powerhouse of the US economy. The EU should follow and they should all work within the OECD and elsewhere to ensure that these measures, providing an ethical underpinning to the global economy, are made global.

We live in a globalized economy and comparative advantages should be developed through intelligence, hard work and ingenuity – not via the impoverishment or hardship of our global neighbours.  The bringing into implementation of Dodd-Frank’s articles 1502 and 1504 suggests that the global economy is waking up to the fact that our “quiet servants” deserve respect wherever they are – close to home or further away. The global economy (and climate change and air travel and the internet….) means we are all neighbours now.