Emission rights for women

One fact which is occasionally trotted out is that the current population of the world, at six billion, is five times what the world can cope with, if all of them had the same standard of living as the West. To be sure the six billion figure quoted is several years old, and the actual figure today is about 6.8 billion. And not everybody needs to live in quite the wasteful way that is meant in the reference to the Western standard of living. But even so, if we are really to bring everyone up to a reasonable standard of living, with clean water, enough food, a good infrastructure, and connection to the Internet, then I think we can agree that we’re going to put a strain on the resources of this little planet.

I remembered this when I saw an interesting article in the debate column of one of our local newspapers recently which carried the title “With today’s birthrate we will soon be 134,000 billion”. Soon in this case was the year 2300.

Of course one could never actually reach that number. Thomas Malthus’ four horsemen would see to that, long before we even reached a trillion. But the shock effect was probably successful in getting more people to read the article than might otherwise have done so.

The author’s main point was that the global birthrate, currently 2.6 children per woman, according to UN statistics must be reduced. If the birthrate were reduced to 2.35, the global population in 2300 would only be 36 billion, still unrealiseable. A birthrate of 2.1 would give us a global population of nine billion in 2060, after which it would level off. And finally a birthrate equivalent to that in Sweden and the UK, 1.85, would, according to the author, reduce the population to 2.3 billion by 2300, still double the number the world can support, but nonetheless only a third of what it is now. (I must admit I have my reservations about the arithmetic.*)

But reducing the birthrate is going to meet with opposition from a great many directions. Most notably, of course, from a silly old man who lives in twenty-first century Rome, but thinks he lives in first century Galilee. As long as the catholic church makes it a sin to restrict one’s family size, we have a big problem on our hands. However, the pope is not alone in his anathema for family planning, of course, The same can be attributed to all of the three world religions which stem from Abraham: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All of them want to conquer the world by overwhelming it by sheer force of numbers. The problem is that they might just succeed, if we can’t persuade them to listen to reason.

A milder form of the opposition to birthrate reduction was a proposition weathered by the local Christian Democratic party here in Sweden a year or two ago which, if I remember the details correctly, would give families a state subsidy of 10000 crowns (at today’s rates about $1400) for each new child. Whether it was a one-off payment or a yearly one to age 18, I can’t remember, and it is irrelevant since the idea was quietly buried, but not before it had been discussed on the television sofa. I vividly remember two of the panelists that morning pompously consigning the plan to the waste basket, but, in the next breath proclaiming that “we need a larger population in this country, but that’s not the way to go about it”.

I wondered which “we” it was who needed a larger population, and how they had the gall to see the citizens as some kind of tame resource, like the slaves of the American south, to be bred for “our” purposes. Assuming it had something to do with industrial production, it fell short of rationality, for at the time there was near record unemployment, so that one could say that what “we” wanted was actually fewer resources. And if “we” really needed a larger population, why not offer the chance to, say, a million Chinese farmers, who would probably jump at the chance to move to the freedom of the West, and improve their own welfare at the same time as they generated value for the local population. China would never notice the loss.

It occurred to me that some present or future Dan Brown or John Grisham could write a story about a lone campaigner for the idea of emission rights for women, whereby all women had the right to give birth to one child, but must persuade another woman to abstain, if they wanted a second, or third child. Presumably money would change hands, which would give a new meaning to human value. And if the woman who abstained subsequently decided she wanted a child, she, too would have to negotiate with another woman to give up her “emission right” in order to restore the abstainer’s original right. The problem is one can see that the hero of the story would probably have been assassinated before page eleven, and where is your story then?

* I can see that, if two people produce 1.85 babies, then the population should eventually reduce, when the parents die. My problem with the maths is that China, with it’s modified one child policy, claims to have a birthrate of 1.8, and yet the population of China has increased from just under one billion in 1978 when the policy was introduced to 1.35 billion in 2008.

Making TBTF even bigger

One of the headlines in the Swedish newspapers today is about how Finnish Sampo’s Chairman, Björn Wahlroos, is out to create a scandinavian superbank. His first target is Swedish Swedbank, which should be going pretty cheaply just now since it is the bank most at risk from shaky over-investments in the Baltic states. If Estland and Latvia decide to put the blame for their rocky economies where the bulk of it should lie, and say “screw you, Jack” to their creditors, Swedbank is quite likely to go belly up.

Not that it is that possibility that worries me. What I see is the plan to make banks that are “too big to fail” into even bigger banks that are “even too much bigger to fail” when what the world needs most is the exact opposite, big banks being turned into smaller banks that are “small enough to fail”. And small enough to give the consumer a little healthy competition.

Is there really no-one in all the governments of the world who can stand against this process of globalisation and its other face, oligopolisation, and say “enough”? Globalisation is like capitalism and, for that matter communism. They are good ideas in theory, but none of them takes account of the human factor.

Globalisation, say its proponents, is the best thing that could happen for developing countries. Bullshit. The best thing that could happen for developing countries is help to develop their own companies, based in their own countries and subject to those countries’ laws and economic needs, not gangs of capitalist vikings (sorry, Iceland!) coming in, ripping up everything that’s not tied down and some things that are, and taking it away to their longships for transport to the Netherlands Antilles where it is resold to the home office at many times the purchase price, thus reducing the actual displayed profit in the home country. After some twenty years of rampant globalisation, how much really have the developing nations been lifted from their former poverty? And how much more powerful have the global companies become? How many global companies now have an economy larger than all but the largest countries? They didn’t put all that money into the development of the developing countries.

Somehow we have to find a way to build ethics into our legal systems, both nationally and globally, so that activities such as the Icelandic banks engaged in, selling loans tied to foreign currency to their countrymen and at the same time selling the home currency short, all of which was legal but not ethical, can be punished. It would be especially nice if the punishment fitted the crime, such as confiscation of a multiple of the amount of the profit. I would like to see some university – how about my old alma mater, the University of Iceland – introduce a compulsory course in both the law and economics faculties on ethical practices and ethical legal systems.

"By the rude bridge..."

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The quote is from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn”, composed in 1836 for the commemoration of one of the starting events of the American War of Independence. But the flags in my picture are Icelandic flags. And what, you may ask, is the connection between the American War of Independence and the Icelandic flag?

Quite simply that perhaps someday some future Icelandic skáld will write an ode to the Icelandic citizens who may cast their vote in next Saturday’s referendum on the IceSave law. I say “perhaps” and “may” since forces no less powerful than those which faced the embattled farmers are now working to ensure that the Icelandic citizens will not be allowed to cast their vote on Saturday. I fear those forces may win.

I have been at a loss to explain the eagerness with which Icelandic politicians – and, more surprisingly, their British and Dutch counterparts – have striven to find a solution to the IceSave issue and thus avoid the referendum. After leisurely arguing in parliament for most of the past year, as soon as the President refused to ratify the law, the politicians of all parties suddenly began feverish activity to render the referendum unnecessary. Possible solutions have included a newer and marginally better agreement resulting in a new law; rescinding the old law; secret talks with the US and British ambassadors to Iceland reported on Wikileaks, just to name those that have become public knowledge.

In my innocence I assumed that it was as simple as political bloodymindedness on the part of our elected leaders that, when they have told us what we are to do, they’re damn well not going to let us have an alternative opinion. But it is much bigger than that. The answer finally came out in The Financial Times leader of February 26. The final paragraph says:

“London and the Hague have also created an immediate danger. Treating their claims as sovereign obligations means an eventual Icelandic rejection could make investors see sovereign defaults as less unthinkable than before. And the wrath of the Icelandic public raises the prospect of citizens elsewhere* refusing to pay for public debts seen as someone else’s fault. A UK government at the mercy of bond markets should watch its step.”

Even here the real message is hidden. The Financial Times sees a danger to the heavily-indebted UK if its creditors see that a country’s citizens may refuse to accept unreasonable charges made on them. But the creditors, read banks, are even more afraid that, if the citizens begin to question the reasonableness or even legality of such charges, they may equally begin to question the hypothesis which they have been sold by so many governments that the banks are too big to be allowed to fail, and that nothing can be done to change that.

It is my simple contention that they cannot allow that to happen, and thus, by whatever means, legal or illegal, the referendum next Saturday will be stopped. I hope, for the sake of the citizens of many other countries, that the Icelanders manage to hold out for five more days.

* Like, say, the citizens of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, currently being beggared by the claims of Swedish banks.

© James Wilde 2015