THE LONG FINANCE AUTUMN CONFERENCE
The conference combines elements of both the Long Finance and Grand Challenges agendas to focus on how to address development challenges in straitened economic times. It draws particularly on the themes of the Green Growth and Global Health challenges. The event provides a platform for informed and robust discussion to highlight the most important issues and to offer possible solutions that can have an impact at a policy level.
We consider how the challenge of achieving sustainable global prosperity impacts on developing nations, extending the discussion around sustainable growth beyond the economic issues of GDP and a low-carbon economy and engaging with some of the fundamental questions concerning societal infrastructure, what prosperity means and how we can evaluate and measure wellbeing in a meaningful way.
Sponsored by University College London. Supported by the City of London Corporation, Gresham College, Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment, Tomorrow's Company, UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association and Z/Yen Group.
More information about Long Finance at www.longfinance.net
14 November 2012
Measures Beyond Money:
Professor Michael Mainelli
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Long Finance. The Long Finance initiative began with a conundrum – “when would we know our financial system is working?” I want to spend a moment retracing our steps.
When Ian Harris and I founded Z/Yen in 1994, we started writing about systemic weaknesses - accounting, sustainability, transparency, credit ratings, liquidity, regulation, you name it. Today you Long Finance members are a movement of nearly 10,000, some 600 online, with a list of influential publications on potential reform ranging from Confidence Accounting to index linked carbon bonds, insured utility banks, pensions indemnity assurance, restructuring mortgage markets. At this morning’s Meta-Commerce workshop you looked at money, externalities and social issues, discussing sociology and technology, trust and equity.
At our Spring 2011 Long Finance conference, Dr Tim Morgan talked about “dangerous exponentials” – related to the famous IPAT equation – that environmental impact = population x affluence x technology. The planet is only so big, can only burn so much hydocarbons and can hold only so many humans. We can debate these exponential curves, but global warming activist or sceptic, it’s clear that some of our exponential curves must break. Today we intend to explore problems we face measuring ourselves beyond money as these curves expand outward through time.
When we look at the various interactions of the crises since 2007, we see that our values change rapidly. Digging a bit deeper, our values are really just our monetary system. And as our predominant monetary system is fiat currency, we are trading tax debts amongst ourselves and our children. One of our biggest problems, partially addressed in our Eternal Coin thinking, is that we don’t actually have a theory of value. Could we ever build a coin that kept its value forever? Today we intend to explore some other thinking about eternal values.
Since the 1990s significant efforts in the social, environmental and economic sciences, as well as within governmental and supranational institutions, have centred on how to complement well-established national account indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP). Attention has focused particularly on how well-being can be measured in a comprehensive sense that captures the social, environmental and economic dimensions which feed into it.
Research conducted by the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress provide important insights on the multidimensionality of well-being, how to achieve sustainable development and how to measure national performance.
Nobel Prize winner Simon Kuznets was instrumental in helping the US Department of Commerce develop GNP in the 1930’s but he criticised GNP as a proxy for standard of living, pointing out that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income”. While GDP has often been used to assess material well-being its relevance has been increasingly questioned in recent years. Since GDP is a market production measure it has been suggested that other national account indicators relating to income and consumption should also be taken into account. The understanding of well-being has also evolved to encompass objective components in the form of conditions and capabilities as well as subjective components relative to individual perceptions of well-being. While indicators relating to education and health, for instance, can be used to assess objective well-being, subjective well-being is measured by assessing individuals’ perceptions of states of being.
As originally postulated in 1994 by Serageldin & Steer, well-being arises from the presence of key capital stocks and the flow of benefits (or goods and services) that these provide to society. The so-called capital stock model identifies four types of capital that contribute to well-being:
Physical capital – assets used to produce goods and services, including machines, factories, buildings and infrastructure;
Natural capital – the environment, including natural resources;
Human capital – the health and productive potential of people, including health and education;
Social capital – the social networks and institutions supporting an efficient, cohesive and functioning society, including norms and trust.
Financial capital is often cited as a fifth type of capital (comprising stocks, bonds, currency deposits), though there is debate as to whether it should stand alone or be viewed with the financial system as part of social capital.
Whether positive levels of well-being can be sustained over time depends on whether these key capital stocks are maintained and can be passed on to future generations. Many aspects of the capital stock model are debated. These include both the theoretical conception of the model and its practical implementation through the measurement of capital stocks and flows.
The degree of substitutability between the different types of capital is contentious and has led to two distinct conceptions of sustainability: weak and strong. Because certain benefits are essential to life (e.g., clean water, a stable climate etc), there are also difficulties in defining critical thresholds for each type of capital, beyond which capital should not be depleted or degraded.
A big concern is the appropriate unit of measurement for the different types of capital and the subsequent comparability of these units. For example, the use of money as a single unit is problematic given the lack of market values or established indirect valuation techniques for some forms of capital. Equally, there is an ethical debate underlying the principle of measuring capital stocks and flows – treating nature as just another form of capital – as though humans are indifferent to its existence as long as their well-being is otherwise assured. Further, money is an anthropomorphic, self-referential measure. I always love Henny Youngman’s quip – “What’s the point of happiness? Happiness can’t buy you money.”
Once you look through the lens of Long Finance, you realise that many of today’s sustainability issues arise because society’s core risk/reward transfer system, finance, isn’t yet capable of handling long-term risk/reward transfers.
These issues are the issues we hope to discuss today. We’ll begin with a fascinating presentation on how the US Environmental Protection Agency and others continue to develop the 1950s thinking of Howard T Odum and his concepts of emergy. Denis White will lay out the background to emergy, including comparisons with other measures of well-being. Could emergy be an “eternal coin” for some of us? After our first panel and break, Professor Paul Ekins will warm us up for a second panel on green growth, including the policy and science challenges. As ever, we count on the interaction with you, the participants and the panel – so be sharp.
Time is short; our programme is long. So, as we say in Commerce, “To business”.
© Professor Michael Mainelli, 2012
Serageldin I. & A. Steer “Epilogue: Expanding the Capital Stock” in Serageldin & Steer (Eds) Making Development Sustainable: from Concepts to Action, The World Bank, Washington D.C. (1994)
See for example, UN, “Measuring Sustainable Development”, Report of the Joint UNECE/OECD/Eurostat Working Group on Statistics for Sustainable Development, United Nations (2008); P.Ekins et al, “The Four-Capital Model of Sustainable Development Evaluation” in European Environment, vol 18, pp-63-80 (2008)
UN, “Measuring Sustainable Development”, Report of the Joint UNECE/OECD/Eurostat Working Group on Statistics for Sustainable Development, United Nations (2008)