Economics

The researcher Diego Viana is a social currency enthusiast. By mixing philosophy and economics, his main fields of study, the Brazilian academic believes that we, as a society, need to rethink the current strategy to develop a more equal and fair system focused on people and its needs. In this interview for the Horyou blog, Viana comments Bitcoin, the role of social currencies within capitalism and the challenges surrounding them. He also gives his impressions on Horyou’s Spotlight, the first social global currency for economic inclusion, which was created to distribute wealth and promote a fair redistribution system. After participating in the IVth International Conference of Social and Complementary Currencies, in Barcelona, Viana gave this interview to the Horyou blog.

Diego Viana
Diego Viana

– What does your research consist of?

The basic question I’m concerned with is how our notions of what money is and what it does, associated to the architecture surrounding it, affect the ways we live, the habits we assume, the tasks we undertake. This research takes place within a philosophical framework in which the reasoning is focused more on how things come about than on how they can be defined. In other words, it’s a question of operations, not so much of essences.

From a practical point of view, the difference is that I try to understand money according to the movements in which it appears, rather than an understanding of its nature. This means that different kinds of movements (or operations) imply different notions of money. This in turn implies that money is necessarily much more than a tool to make exchange easier or smoother, it is the core operator of a whole system that defines how exchange actually takes place, and what roles we play when we engage in it.

It is very hard for us to understand this difference if we remain stuck in the contemporary idea of money, in which our savings, our shopping and our wages are all denominated in the same currency, which is also the currency of taxes, public investment, high finance, speculation… This has not always been the case and won’t necessarily be the case in the future: different elements can be used for different forms of interaction that today are performed by money. By the way, sociologists such as Viviana Zelizer have demonstrated that even our general purpose money is earmarked in its actual uses, according to gender, age, profession etc. This is an issue in which social currencies play a decisive part; more generally, I like to use the term “monetary invention”, because these currencies aren’t necessarily designated for a social use, there can be innumerable reasons to create other forms of currency. The important question regarding monetary invention is: what kind of operations and systems are we forging when me introduce and develop new monetary forms? if we don’t deal directly with this question, we’ll be turning in circles.

social currency

– Do you believe that social currencies are important tools for tackling inequalities and promoting economic inclusion?

Absolutely. This is exactly what I believe. But we must pay attention to the architecture that comes with the currencies, that is, the architecture that makes a certain currency act the way it does, otherwise the currency in question might serve very different purposes.

First of all, let us remember that the hegemonic money in our days is designed in such a way that it will almost necessarily generate more inequality: just think about Piketty’s research, or how the Troika acted regarding Southern Europe, or how the IMF acts regarding developing countries. In the post-war period, consider how complex the economic and social had to become in order to reverse, or at least mitigate, this tendency towards inequality. And consider how quickly the very same system turned back to economic and political concentration once the Welfare State began to be imploded.

Now let’s bring up Bitcoin, for example. One of the founding ideas of this digital currency is that there will be a limited amount of it, to make sure there won’t be a tendency towards runaway emission, since it is a system that works supposedly without human intervention. The result is that those who already own Bitcoins will have less and less incentives to spend it, and those who mined them early on will always have an advantage over those who adopted Bitcoin at later stages, or who obtain them by actually buying Bitcoins on the online markets. This design doesn’t favor inclusion or equality at all, quite the reverse.

So when the chips are down, the point is that currencies aimed at economic inclusion must be thought in such a manner that they will upend certain mechanisms associated to the hegemonic forms of money: a preference for accumulation and speculation, for example, or the need to work ever harder, even though the increased productivity has ceased to bring greater welfare. This has been tried and tested in many ways, but as long as they are simply correctives to general purpose money, these efforts fall short.

So in my view the great challenge is to articulate the community of social and complementary currencies in such a way that it will be preferable, for all those who don’t directly benefit from the speculation and accumulation promoted by contemporary money, to adopt other monetary forms. And also, as it goes, to generate forms of money that can’t be taken over by the banking system, a.k.a. “Big Money” (such a lovely nickname).

– Can social currencies thrive under capitalism?

There is much that can be done with social currencies under capitalism, from easing the connection between small businesses to the enforcement of local economies. But of course, these are all limited in scope, as I said in the examples above, since capitalism itself will only interact with them as long as they can be seen as assets available for monetization from the hegemonic banking system.

If by thriving we mean surviving and having a certain role in the wider world, sure, social currencies can complement capitalism quite well. But if we have greater ambitions for social currencies, for example, opening doors for a more sustainable, fair and humane world, then we must think of social currencies as inventing new forms of organizing the economies of collective living, beyond the mere exploitation and competition of capitalism. In this sense, to thrive means to overcome capitalism and cannot be done under it, except in the sense of underground, sapping its foundations.

– What are the main challenges you see for the global spreading of social currencies?

Aside from the challenges I mentioned above, I’d also bring up, firstly, the continued tendency to view social currencies, or complementary currencies, as merely a local feature, a strategy to improve the living conditions of this or that group or region. I’d also mention the difficulties concerning communication and, more important still, technologies: not every group of people involved in monetary invention has the ability to use technologies that articulate social currencies globally. But once more, there would have to be the desire to do just that: spread social currencies globally, in the sense of being articulated, perhaps convertible among themselves. After all, there already are social currencies all over the globe. The only question is whether this is part of a wider project or not. I would like it to be, for certain.

Spotlight, the first global social currency for economic inclusion, created by Horyou
Spotlight, the first global social currency for economic inclusion, created by Horyou

– Spotlight is a global social currency that aims to use internet interactions to promote wealth redistribution. Do you believe the Internet and social networks have a critical role for the success of social currencies?

This is easy to ascertain: since the digital technologies of blockchains and others came about, the attendance to social currency conferences has grown at an accelerated pace. To this I could add that even the smallest and most limited social currency initiatives seem to have projects for becoming digital these days. Also, barter clubs or time banks, which used to be associated to neighborhoods and other small territories, can now function in much wider contexts. Cellphones can be used for microcredit and social networks dedicated to lending and donating have been created.

Once again, it is a question of who holds the knowledge, thus the power, and above all how many participants actually share the conception of what can be done with a social currency and what it is being generated for. This is why, for example, the fact I mentioned above, about so many small social currencies going digital, is neither good nor bad in itself. But it does express a certain awe and amazement with technologies that is certainly not desirable. Technologies should be envisaged as the opening of possibilities to act, not as panaceas.

In the digital realm, the destiny of social currencies is inseparable from the destiny of the commons. For now, the commons are losing the war, as the plutocracy takes up more and more power. Let’s see if we can rethink the strategies and turn this over.

Diego Viana is a researcher at Diversitas (FFLCH-USP) and Iconomia (ECA-USP) Laboratories. PhD candidate at FFLCH-USP, Master in Philosophy (Nanterre) and economist (FEA-USP). Also a regular contributor for the press, most notably Valor Econômico and Página 22, in Brazil.

Eric Lonergan first grabbed my attention when I came across an interview with him in an Irish Sunday newspaper. As somebody who also read philosophy and political economy at University, I’m always intrigued as to how I often look at economic issues through a completely different lens than some of my contemporaries who have studied pure finance or mathematics. Horyou, although not solely profit seeking, is an enterprise like any other with respect to having financial costs, so it is keenly aware that money, whether used for social or personal interest, is a tool of mobilization. In the interview I read, I learned that Eric Lonergan has just written a book on the philosophy of money and society’s relationship with it it. And I found myself nodding along with much of Eric’s hypotheses, so I was delighted when he agreed to sit down for a chat.

Eric Lonergan
Eric Lonergan

1) You did your undergraduate degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford and your masters in economics and philosophy at the London School of Economics. Subsequently, working as a hedge fund manager, do you find yourself reading certain situations or analyzing things differently to your colleagues who might have studied pure finance?

One of the challenges with education in areas like economics and finance is that you have to learn the conventional wisdom before you can identify what’s wrong with it. So I spent a lot of my time studying mainstream economics and finance – much of which has some insight. Even advocates of ‘efficient markets’ like Eugene Fama, have useful observations. That said, the most useful studying I have done, ironically, was philosophy. I learned that virtually all theories are flawed, as is a lot of ‘expert opinion’.  Financial markets are similarly unforgiving. Pure finance typically ignores the most important aspect of markets – human behavior and psychology.  

2) In your recent, highly acclaimed book ‘Money’, you make the point that money as a function should be looked at as a tool to live rather than an ability to accumulate. Was this view formed from your academic study or from seeing money at work in the real world?

Part of the reason I wrote ‘Money’ was to broaden our understanding of money and finance. One of the intellectually fascinating aspects of money is that it underpins human progress, but it is also a source of many problems. I tried to explore this theme more broadly. Finance connects us all at a real human level – pensions are inter-generational transfers, mortgage lending connects depositors and young households etc. And at the other extreme, millions of people are inter-connected through global financial markets. I have seen both sides at work in the real world. At a positive level, global investors can try and set high standards for global governance, encourage long-term thinking in policy-making, and finance international trade and the exchange of technology and ideas. These are all positive forces. The other side of this interdependence is that you can have destructive financial panics – which I witnessed first-hand in the late 1990s, during the Asian crisis, and again in 2008. The challenge for policy-makers is to harness the benefits of trade and finance and mitigate these risks – which primarily means developing policies to prevent or shorten recessions.  

3) There are hundreds of stories of people leaving finance post crises, when the greed of the system was exposed, including Horyou’s own CEO who held director positions at JP Morgan and Bank of China. As someone who still works in the industry, have you seen a definite culture shift/change in priorities? How does conversation within the industry compare to pre-financial crisis?

I do think there has been a cultural shift, encouraged also by a major shift in the regulatory environment, which should be welcomed by the industry. But it would be naive to think that an industry mainly focused on making money will foster a culture of generous, socially-minded, individuals! The main challenge for the regulators, who have a difficult task, is to ensure that the incentives of participants in the industry are aligned with doing the right thing, and ultimately the interests of broader society. 

Money: The Art of Living
Money: The Art of Living

4) Horyou have just launched their global social currency “Spotlight”, which matches investors to social enterprises they want to support. We see that there is a huge appetite for impact investing, green finance etc. What are your views on these areas? Will environmental/social returns ever override profits for investors or as consumers become more discerning and regulations tighten, do you think they even have a choice to ignore more sustainable investment patterns?

My thinking on this has been heavily influenced by knowing and working with Nigel Kershaw from the Big Issue, and one of the UK’s leading social entrepreneurs and thinkers. I think social enterprises will grow in importance. In contrast to many charities, which have to devote considerable resources to fund-raising, social enterprises can be self-sufficient. And they can have an economic advantage – there is little doubt, I think, that consumers will continue to be more discerning in considering the broader effects of their actions and those of the enterprises they interact with.

5) What are the main areas you are seeing investment opportunity in, in the short term?

I try always to think in terms of the ‘long term’ – there is a lot of distracting noise in the short-term. I think one of the most interesting aspects of public markets currently – a huge fad – is what I call ‘volatility aversion’. Investor obsession with recent historic volatility as a measure of risk is causing huge anomalies in pricing. The most straightforward manifestation of this is the equity risk premium – the difference in implied returns from equities compared with government bonds. Global equities are currently priced to deliver far superior returns to government bonds over the next five to 10 years.

6) Finally, Horyou support people making impact on society for good. What impact or contribution do you want to be remembered for/still want to achieve? 

I’m too much of a philosopher to want to be remembered for anything – I’m not sure that’s a helpful ambition! I would be very happy if I could contribute to the development of policies that shorten the duration of recessions.

Eric Longeran has an interesting way of looking at the world. I could be accused of bias, considering we share many of the same views on the concept of money within society, but the more we watch economies evolve each day, the more we realise how we view money and our propensity to spend or save, is actually very much driven by human sentiment and social pressures, be it from our neighbour or the data we see in the markets. There is nothing to say that these views are right or wrong, but it is becoming more apparent that the discipline of economics is moving away from linear models and learning to adapt to the uncertain world we live in today.

Written by Dearbhla Gavin

China panel discussion
China panel discussion

Last Friday night,students, professors and a distinguished line up of speakers gathered at my alma matter, Trinity College, Dublin for the annual Trinity Economic Forum.

The premise of the forum is that it takes students away from their books and allows them to think about and discuss economics in the context of what is happening in the world today.

The students that would attend are most likely interested in how the world works and could very likely go into policy or industry themselves, making a very real impact on society,so I thought it was an important event for Horyou to be at, to see the concerns and values of the next generation.

The agenda was “Taking Economics Forward.” Ireland has recovered from its economic collapse and is now on course to be the fastest growing economy in Europe.

However, the last few years have taught us that in an increasingly globalized and connected world, what happens ten thousand miles away can impact at home, so I found the line up to definitely be more internationally focused than other years.

The night began with Economist and former WEF Young Global Leader David Mc Williams addressing the audience on what economics really means. He alluded to his own time studying at Trinity and the fact that students are still reading from the text books that he did in the 1980’s. He expressed concern that the curriculum hasn’t changed as the world has changed and that models, albeit important frameworks, don’t capture the realities and disparities of economies today.

Economist David Mc Williams addressing the audience
Economist David Mc Williams addressing the audience

He ended with a plea for the economists of tomorrow to use the theory they are learning and contextualize it. Learn to think for themselves, look around and most importantly, use their voice to contribute to the study and understanding of economics in a way that makes a positive impact on society.

Next on the agenda was an engaging panel discussion on China. As the second largest economy in the world and a place in which many of us rely on to both produce and consume, what happens in China reverberates across the world.

As it is going through a period of transition, changing from investment led to consumption led economy, a lot of people and especially the markets are unsure about the future of China as a world superpower. Linda Yueh, University of Oxford fellow and BBC correspondent said that “this stumbling is unsurprising, it is taking a fifth of the world’s population and making them prosperous.”

Thinking about it in simple terms, if China’s manufacturing sector can stabilize, it can provide jobs for its population and produce goods for the west. If the earnings of its enormous population are good enough, there will be a demand for products and services from the west. The outcome of this East – West supply and demand axis is crucial to understanding the importance of China in the world economy.

The evening ended with panels on Britain and the EU, the migration crisis and what this means for the social stability of Europe, and where Ireland lies in respect to all of this.

The quality of the subjects, contributions and speakers would deserve attention beyond the actual on site attendance on a Friday evening. It would indeed be of relevance that college students everywhere and beyond the sacrosanct textbooks discuss and exchange opinions on world events that will very definitely impact all of our lives.

Horyou is built on the principles of communication for social good, which is why forums such as the Trinity Economic Forum are a good opportunity to share ideas and opinions, challenge the status quo and exercise democracy and, most importantly, progress as a society.

By Dearbhla Gavin

Finland Finance Minister Alexander Stubbs
Finland Finance Minister Alexander Stubbs

The 46th World Economic Forum kicked off in sub zero temperatures outdoors and equally freezing atmosphere indoors among the delegates as they woke up to news of more turmoil in the stock markets, which set the agenda for quite a pessimistic day all round. On that same note, China managed to infiltrate almost every discussion and opinions were divided as to what extent a stalled economy in the Middle Kingdom would contaminate the rest of the world.

On the optimistic side and in response to the holders of the view that the overreacting markets would ask for subtle policy changes to stabilize, Stephen A Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone, supported the idea that China with its huge population will continue to both produce and consume, which implies that supply and demand will be maintained and the markets will again reach equilibrium.

Away from the stock markets and onto the environment, I was interested to hear the views of UN Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, one month after COP 21 in Paris that Horyou covered. Unsurprisingly, Christina stated that getting everyone to agree was the easy part but that what the world is in need for clear goals and even clearer strategy on how to reach them.

Alluding to the importance of citizen participation and ‘solidarity’, one of Horyou’s key values, she said that ‘everyone on the planet needs to rethink how they live their lives; and that goes for big business as well as individual consumers’.

On the subject of geopolitics, it struck me that the entire concept of Davos could well be challenged this year. Rumors of excessive parties and elitism notwithstanding, it has always been a platform where the powerful can gather calmly and on common ground to make decisions. However, this year things look different as the world had never been more split over our priorities and our problems, as well as who or what to blame and, most importantly, the proposed solutions.

There are so many powers coming to Davos with different ideologies regarding the various geopolitical conflicts. When we are supposed to be at a new frontier of global growth and development, are we to see phantoms of times past reemerging? Alexander Stubbs, the Swedish Prime Minister spoke of global stability in the wake of critical shifts. However and thankfully, for all of the worry, there was a lot of reason to be hopeful and believe in Davos.

Chief Operating Officer of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg
Chief Operating Officer of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg

Musician Will I Am and Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg both spoke sincerely on the opportunity that lies in connectivity. On a mission to utilise technology for another ‘education’, yet another Horyou key value,Will I Am believes that a bright future lies in giving kids the opportunity to explore the STEM subjects and in using technology as an aid to learning. Sandberg, meanwhile, passionately alluded to experiences of people in developing countries whose lives were transformed when they were given access to the Internet and how this gave them a stake in society they never even dreamed to have.

There was also a lot of positive vibes from this year’s upbeat Young Global Leaders who were driving conversations on renewable energies, sustainability and the future of science. And a key point I took away from their discussions is that good people doing good need to know each other; they need to connect and work together to make an even bigger impact on society.

So, the night falls leaving in the air a mixture of caution, uncertainty, hope and fear; opinions are divided but the good news is they are voiced. We definitely leave curious.

We look forward to seeing how the rest of the week will unfold.

By Dearbhla Gavin

WorldEconomicForum_1

The 46th World Economic Forum kicks off at altitude in Davos this week. With only the most powerful on stage and the rest of the world wondering whether it is just a networking event for the 1%, the truth is that there has been no better time for the WEF and its platform in a world in vital need for peace, dialogue and solutions to critical economic, social, environmental and technological issues.

Ahead of the main event, The World Economic Forum released a list of what it has found to be the greatest risks to the stability of the world on all the above accounts in the next five years. Although not included in the main agenda, the list’s findings are likely to be central to most discussions over the next few days.

worldeforum_inforgraphic

The top five outlines risks are large-scale involuntary migration mostly from regions at war or suffering severe unrest, extreme weather events, failure of climate change mitigation and adaption, interstate conflict and natural catastrophes. It is worth noting that, for the first time in history, three out of the five risks are related to the environment. Also, one of the main things that unfolded during the environmental crises of the last few years is the role that governance plays in both cause and solution.

The impact of government policy, business strategy and citizen action on the environment is slowly being understood. It is a virtue of our increasingly connected world where nothing can now be treated in isolation, which reinforces the importance of the WEF as a place to communicate as one.

60 million people, the size of the UK population, have been displaced as a result of climate change. When one loses everything, there is an erosion of trust between ruler and ruled, a situations which threatens to undermine the entire social fabric of a society.

wef_table

As these environmental crises and social tensions intensify, the inevitable related policy changes is bound to impact business profit margins which, in turn, can put a blanket drag on the economic activity with increased unemployment that feed social tensions. Which is why the environment, business, society and security will be addressed jointly. it is hoped that through collective discussion among all stakeholders, the much needed consensus can be reached and mitigation of these risks be put into place.

The World Economic Forum refers to this as the ‘resilience imperative. It emphasizes the absolute necessity of cross industry collaboration to contain the risks in the coming year.

In a nutshell, the cooperation of every nation in adapting the terms of the COP21 agreement will be necessary to contain climate change. Also on the agenda, the slowing growth of China will be closely followed. Why? Because it is one of the largest consumers of goods and services and because it is a country that so many economies rely on for trade. What happens in China will reverberate across the world. Another consequence of global connectedness.

Those are the most likely challenges we will face. We will keep a close eye on the World Economic Forum’s proceedings this week hoping for some solutions.

By Dearbhla Gavin

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