As a monetary adviser, I spent many years questioning bankers on the authenticity of their balances sheets. What stood out most for me in these discussions was this: the social demand for commodities is often claimed by banks as having a direct link with the ecological supply of resources which are extracted, produced and sold as commodities. But this just isn’t true. Bank reserve assets are not discounted to reflect the decline of the world’s non-renewable resources. In fact, as society’s ecological debt continues to mount, no one is actually keeping track.
Consider how odd this is: the demand for goods is used as a proxy for the relative accessibility of non-renewable resources — yet the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels isn’t showing up in the price we pay at the gas pump. Same with water and rare minerals, which are not valued according to their declining availability. Nor does eco-value appear on the spreadsheets of most stock traders, insurance companies or other businesses.
What’s causing such rampant misreporting and misallocation? I’ve come to see this now as more a problem of accountability than accounting. Frankly, the challenge is to admit our mistakes and reconceptualize the modern system of economic valuation, starting with the theory that it’s based on a fundamental law of equilibrium. Take, for example, Adam Smith’s idea that the efforts of individuals in pursuing their own interests naturally benefit society, or the notion that an organic circular flow exists between market prices and people’s incomes. Are these assumptions valid? And what do we mean by economic balance? Is it a principle of physics or biology?
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