Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

In the course of understanding the global economic system, one must begin with an understanding of the nature of money and how it became the dominant force it is today. Griffiths and Wall (1997) documented four functions that any commodity must fulfill in order to function as money; the four functions are[1]:

  1. It must act as a unit of account.
  2. It must act as a standard of deferred payments.
  3. It must act as a store of value.
  4. It must act as a medium of exchange.

The earliest transactions were made with a simple exchange of goods of equal value that is known as barter trade. This was a physical constraint and as commerce increased, man began to use other items of intrinsic value such as shells, precious metals as a medium of exchange. Later, metal coins became the primary medium of exchange and it was the first attempt to standardise the unit of exchange. Eventually, it was found that it is more convenient to use paper money as a medium and keep the precious metals in vaults. In essence, paper money is a bill that was the equivalent of a receipt showing that the bearer was good for the money because it represents a certain amount of precious metal. But that was in the old days. In truth, the paper bills we hold today are nothing more that expensive pieces of paper that have no intrinsic value. What give value to paper money today are the shared expectations of two transacting parties, if that expectation breaks down, we are back to good old barter trading. The event I am building up to is the abolishment of the Gold Standard in 1971 by the Nixon administration.

In 1944, the Bretton Woods institutions – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) or the World Bank was created. The fixed exchange rate era started when countries agreed to create a new global financial system where the participating nations pegged their currencies to the greenback at a fixed rate. In return, the US government guaranteed to exchange US dollars on demand for gold at USD35 per ounce. Therefore, holding the US dollar was as good as holding gold in your hands. Not surprisingly, many countries chose to hold their foreign exchange reserves in US dollars than in gold. All was well for more than twenty years, until it became clear that the US was unable to fulfil its role because they were simply printing more dollars than they can back by gold in order to finance their military and economic expansion. Now that was the crunch, if everyone holding US dollars was to go to the US government to redeem their gold, and there is more dollars than gold, what would the excess money be? Exactly! Nothing more than worthless pieces of paper! From then on, money became totally delinked from anything of real value, except that we all have the shared expectation that the opposite party would accept them in good faith for exchanges in goods and services. Therefore, this is the picture, much of the function of the modern capitalistic world is based on wealth creation, and wealth is based on monies, and monies is now based on shared expectations…it seems that we are treading on very thin ice here.

Historically, ‘great’ currencies were associated with ‘great’ nations. In the 19th century, the sterling pound was the dominant currency. The pound had a long history of stability with Britain’s monetary policy tied to gold. The biggest contributing factor was the fact that the Imperial British Empire stretched forty percent of the world. After the First World War, the American ‘greenback’ grew in dominance just as Britain’s power began to diminish which partially lead to the decline of the pound. After World War II, the sheer size of the American financial market (which was not devastated during the WWII) and the stability of the US dollar formed the foundation for the dollar’s dominant role as the leading currency. This was, as mentioned before, the Bretton Woods institution era where the fixed exchange rate regime was in place and gold price is fixed at US$35 per ounce. The fixed exchange rate regime was highly successful for over twenty years where there was strong non-inflationary growth, low unemployment and stable financial markets. However, finally the system broke down partially due to the financing of the Vietnam War by the US government. Therefore, in 1971, the US dollar left the gold standard and subsequently other currencies left the US dollar. The breakdown of the Bretton Woods system had one major impact; it took the leadership of the monetary system away from government or sovereign states and gave it to the free world market. Since then, the international monetary system had increasingly become highly unstable and volatile.

Gold has occupied a less important role in the international monetary system since the abolishment of the Gold Standard. The price of gold in the post Bretton Woods system were allowed to fluctuate just as exchanges rates of major currencies. In general, the movement of gold prices serves as a barometer of confidence in the international monetary order; the higher the confidence, the lower the gold prices-and vice versa (Walters and Blake, 1992). For example, in the period of 1978-1980, value of gold increased dramatically[2] during periods of uncertainty about the stability of international currencies. In the period between 1983 and 1985, gold prices fell[3], as there was a general confidence in US dollars as the primary currency of the international monetary system. The volume of gold has remained virtually steady throughout the period between 1971 to 1989, but the value of gold, as dictated by its market price, had risen more than 700%[4]! As a barometer, it speaks volumes about the general confidence level of the international monetary system in the post Bretton Woods era.

I am not proposing a return to the gold standard; in fact, it is a bad idea. We must remember that gold, for all its value because of its scarcity, is nothing more than useless lumps of metal. The demand and supply of gold has nothing to do with the needs of the global economy. Moreover, a return to a gold standard would have all the disadvantages of a rigid fixed exchange rates. The point I am hoping to emphasise is that while a free-floating exchange rate system has its advantages, it creates risks and uncertainties for the international traders and investors. It also sets a stage for monetary managers free to be irresponsible.

With the emergence of the digital currency (e.g. Bitcoin), it will undoubtedly change the international monetary scene. However, there are some key questions; will it stabilise or destabilise the already highly volatile international monetary system? If digital currency becomes generally accepted (let’s use this term loosely) into the mainstream, will a digital currency like Bitcoin become a major contender to replace, say…the US dollar as the global dominant currency? Whether the answer is yes or no, there are many crucial questions. Will national sovereignty of the countries be undermined? What will the far-reaching economic and political consequences on countries still using traditional currencies? Is digital currencies evolutionary or revolutionary?

These are questions that only time can answer. But if history has taught us anything about money, it all boils down to one simple word – Trust.



Griffiths, A. and Wall, S., 1997, Applied Economics, 7th ed., Longman, London.

Walters, R. S. and Blake, D. H., 1992, The Politics of Global Economic Relations, 4th ed., Prentice Hall, New Jersey.


[1] For full explanations of the four functions of money, see Griffiths and Wall (1997, pp. 437)

[2] Source: International Monetary Fund, International Financial Statistics, June 1989.

[3] Source: International Monetary Fund, International Financial Statistics, June 1989.

[4] Source: International Monetary Fund, International Financial Statistics, June 1989.


According to Krugman (1997) there are three kinds of economic writing, they are: Greek-letters, Up and Down, and Airport. The first type, Greek-letters, is mainly academic writings, which very often involve some form of mathematical formulation. This form of writing is incomprehensible even to the average intelligent person because it involves specialised knowledge of the subject matter. To make matters worse, it is often not written in plain words but in pages and pages of mathematics which makes it inaccessible to the general public. Seen in its proper role, as a servant, not a master, mathematics is an invention which can increase enormously the productivity of thinking (Ormerod, 1994). However, he warned, economics must drive mathematics, rather than the other way round. The second type, Up and Down, is what we see in everyday financial news reporting. Reports like ‘the Dow Jones moved up XXX points within fifteen minutes of market opening’, ‘share price of XXX suffered a setback of XXX percent due to announcement of worse than expected quarterly profits’ etc. The truth is, unless one is directly involved or waiting for these reports, they are downright boring and make excellent lullabies. The third type of economic writing, Airport, is on the so-called Best-seller’s list. They are for those bored businessmen who have nothing to do in the airport while waiting for a flight. These types of books usually have an eye-catching title and tend to dramatise whatever economics they are writing about in order to chalk up sales. In these books, it seems only two extremes exist, an end-of-the-world Armageddon-type economic situation and economics in the perfect and ideal world. Full blame cannot be put onto the authors for sensationalising economics because a book that says economic policies can sometimes work and sometimes not work, given a certain sets of conditions, would probably not make it on the Best-sellers’ List. Finally, Krugman conceded that there is not much economic writing today to attract the intelligent reader who does not want to do a Ph.D. Galbraith (1987) added ‘It must be said, much past writing on the history of economic ideas has been aggressively dull.’ So has economics isolated itself from the rest of the living world?

Economists often seek to mystify rather than enlighten the general public, and nowhere is this accomplished better than economic data[1] (Ormerod, 1994). Mark Twain once defined three kinds of liars, ‘Liars, damn liars and statistics’. For example, the economic accounting systems by which economic growth is measured make no comparable adjustment for the depletion of social and natural resources. The clean-up costs of the oil-spill caused by Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska would count as net contributions to economic output. This is simply absurd because it defies logic. Disasters, caused by man or nature, are tragic for both the people and the environment, but yet in economic terms, they are often counted as good for the economy. In this case, economic accounting principles must change in order to accommodate plain and simple logic.

Rationality is another economic concept that proves to be very elusive. In modern economics, each individual is a Rational Economic Man that seeks self-interest with guile. Similar to the view of Mrs. Thatcher, economic sees no such thing as society, but only individuals that constitute it. But as mentioned before, according to Adam Smith, there is such a thing called society. For Smith, the value system of the society acts as a restraint on individual behaviour. In orthodox theory, consumers have preferences that are represented by a utility function, and they choose in a way that maximises their utility subject to a budget constraint. Similarly, firms are modelled as profit maximisers subject to constraints by their technological production possibilities set. To any normal persons, these sets of conditions can be a bitter pill to swallow because consumers do not go shopping with their utility curves in mind, either does the manager who negotiate a deal would necessarily put profit as the first priority[2]. This is not to say that economic models built upon the Rational Economic Man is always wrong, but the real world is far more complex than economic theory allows. For example, modelling expectations is very much an area of controversy, simply because there is a variety of alternatives other that rational expectation. To name a few, there are static expectations, adaptive expectations, extrapolative expectations, regressive expectations, perfect foresight etc., all of which can be modelled mathematically. Some of these models do not have any economic justifications, while others have a theoretical viewpoint. However, it does not mean that expectations are not time-variant, or in other words, individuals may change their expectation model (if they have one) from time to time. But what it does mean is that the Rational Economic Man in economic theory does not apply to human beings in a society.

Conventional economic theory still assumes that the national economy of a sovereign state as the primary unit for effective economic policies. However, in reality, there are four economic units that exist, which are inherently intertwined with each other. First, and obviously, the National State, where the traditional definition of national boundary applies. No government would be willing to relinquish the control over the ‘national’ economy; even though, increasing the effectiveness of the overall decision-making process of the next economic unit overshadows economic and political policies of the sovereign state.

Second, looking at the Regional Economic Unit, there are two spheres that need clear definition. The first sphere is the Supranational Economic Unit. When we look at the world map today, we can easily distinguish pockets of these regional economic units. In Europe, we have the European Economic Community (EEC); in Asia, there is the Asia-Pacific Economic Community (APEC), Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia Free Trade Agreement (AFTA); in North America, there is the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and so on. Moreover, in this post-World War II and post-Cold War era, it makes more sense for nations to put more emphasis on economics, and especially within a certain region. With the break-up of the Warsaw Pact, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) now looks like a dinosaur biding its time because of its non-economic orientation. The second sphere is what Ohmae (1995) would define as the Region State. Region states are economic not political units. They may lie within the borders of an established nation state, but they are powerful engines of development because their primary orientation is toward – and their primary linkage is with – the global economy (Ohmae, 1995). Region states make effective ports of entry for the nation state into the global economy and for the firm wishing to gain entry to the domestic market. Therefore, these region states must have the necessary infrastructure in communications, transportation and professional services (e.g. financial services) needed to participate in the global economy. It would be almost nonsensical for a firm to target the whole of China when launching a product, given China’s varying demographics between its cities/regions. Therefore, the logical point of entry would be to first target or concentrate its sales in a certain city/region (e.g. Shanghai) where the firm would achieve the economies of service. This is the only sensible approach where the strategy is to build an organisation for a region state alone, with the capability to build future linkages to other regions states if and when the management decides to expand into other region states.

Third, the global financial economy, where money, investments and interest rates dominate. With the advent of modern information technology, there are no real boundaries anymore. It was in the last twenty to thirty years where we saw the emergence of numerous financial products like derivatives, real options etc that was unheard of previously, made possible by technology. Finally, there is the transnational enterprise (TNE), which I find the most curious out of the four economic units. Curious because the TNE is a unit that seeks to maximise profits and/or markets as its only primary motive, almost anything else seems to be secondary, and this is all in the name of the shareholders’ value. Curious because the TNE is not accountable to the general public and the interest of the living environment. Given that some of the top TNEs have sales turnover or market capitalisation greater than Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of many countries, the TNEs simply cannot afford to be ignored. For example, the total sales of the Mitsubishi Corporation is greater than the GDP of Indonesia, a country of more than 200 million people, the fourth most populous country in the world, a country with an enormous wealth of natural resources. In 1999, If you could empty the wallet and pockets of every person in the United States, turn upside down the register in every store, smash the piggy banks, look under the mattresses and behind the couches, and pluck every dollar from every foreign black market, you would end up with US$450.6 billion in loot[3]. That booty would still not be enough to buy Microsoft Corp. The software company ended 16th July 1999 trading with a market value of US$507 billion, the first time any company has passed the half-trillion dollar level and only eight countries in the world have economies larger than the software giant[4].

The last three economic units, the regional economic unit, the global financial economy and the transnational enterprise, arguably, can or have the potential to undermine the effectiveness of economic policy-making and even the political status of the first economic unit, the sovereign state. This is the reality, something we cannot deny or ignore, but this is not the scary part. The scary part is there seems to be no transnational laws enforced by credible global institutions to dictate what these economic units can or cannot do.

In the present economic environment, in order for an economic theory to function properly, it must be able to integrate the four units mentioned above. The theory must also have a unifying principle(s) which can fairly predict and control the behaviour of the five spheres of micro-economy, macro-economy of the sovereign state, macro-economy of the regional economic state, the transnational enterprise economy and the world economy. This is an impossible task, given the magnitude of each sphere, and on top of that the theory must clearly define the inter-relationships between each sphere. These relationships are simply too complex to be analysed…too complex to be described…too complex to be forecasted. Unfortunately, an economic theory needs to simplify. If no such theory is formulated, we may be looking at the end of the road for ‘economic theory’. In its place, there would only be economic theorems, which are reactive rather than, proactive in nature. They would only explain be able to explain economic phenomenon on hindsight and solve specific problems, rather than serve as a foundation on what economic policies are based on.

Different schools of economic thought would obviously have very different ideas of what the government should or should not do for the economy[5]. But increasingly, governmental economic policies are becoming more ‘preventive’ or ‘proactive’ that would resist economic crises rather than managing or curing them. In business terms, this means that economic policies will no longer put emphasis on controlling the ‘weather’ of its economy, but rather they would be aimed with the purpose of maintaining the ‘climate’ of its economy. There is a simple analogy, controlling the economic weather would mean that when a person gets sick, a doctor would prescribe some medicine to treat the illness according to the symptoms. Maintaining the business ‘climate’ means that the doctor would advise the patient to take some form of preventive health measures like ‘eat more fruits, exercise more, have a healthier lifestyle’ to improve the overall health, so that the probability of illnesses striking decreases. Optimally, economic policies should be able to handle both the ‘weather’ and the ‘climate’ because not matter how healthy a person is, he or she will get sick at some point in their lives. Therefore, it is important for an economy not only to maintain a healthy climate based on some fundamentals, but also be able to prescribe the [6] form of medicine so as to get the economy out of its rut when a crisis happens. Economic policies are bound to be doomed if they are able only to do one and not the other; this can be reflected by non-re-election of the government in a democratic society or violent overthrows in any form of society.

No economic theory can fully explain the main economic events (e.g. the gross over-valuation and under-valuation of the US dollar in the 1980s, levels of inflation and unemployment) that happened from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s. There is no need to detail the events that happened during this period here; any standard economic history text would suffice. All the talk of the ‘natural unemployment rate’, ‘inflation rates’, ‘supply of money’, ‘Thatcherism’, ‘Reaganism’ and all that jazz in this period. In the meantime, while the economists from different schools battle it out, reality is outgrowing economic theory at a tremendous pace. It is no wonder that there is a sense of apathy in the general public towards economics because they sense that economic theory can no longer explain the new realities.

For all that is said and done, is economic theory is dead? The answer is an emphatic ‘NO!’ If it was, how can we explain its popularity? Why would I even bother to study economics in the first place? However, survivability of economic theory depends on its ability to learn from its past experiences, its ability to live in the present and its ability to alter its course to adapt to the future. For Adam Smith, observations from the real world comes first, economic theory comes second. Economics must shed its holier-than-thou image by returning to this principle, rather than sticking to some absurd unobservable concept that even though may make ‘economic sense’, but not common sense. In order for economics to survive, it needs an audience and a paying one at that. If economists surround themselves with economic theories and concepts without truly relating to the ‘real’ world, the ‘real’ world (i.e. the audience) will eventually turn its back on economics. The last thing the world really needs is an armchair economist talking about the ills of the world using economic jargon, while in the meantime, millions in Third-World countries go to bed hungry.



Galbraith, J. K., 1987, A History of Economics – the Past as the Present, Penguin Books, London.

Kreps, D. M., 1990, A Course in Microeconomic Theory, Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hertfordshire.

Krugman, P., 1997, The Age of Diminished Expectations, 3rd ed., The Washington Post Company.

Ohmae, K., 1995, The End of the Nation State, Harper Collins, London.

Ormerod, P., 1994, The Death of Economics, Faber and Faber, London.

[1] For a general discussion on the measurement of a country’s prosperity, Ormerod’s (1994) ‘The Death of Economics’ seems a good place to start.

[2] Kreps (1990) summarised the three rationales behind using rationality. First, consumers are presumed to act as if they maximise their utility function. However, he does admit that a lot of data collected falsify these models. Therefore, we have to fall back onto the second presumption that individual behaviour is not important; instead the aggregate of many individuals matter. The third line of defense is the most subtle but nevertheless important. It presumes that we can still learn and gain insights from models that suffer from systematic violations that do not cancel out.

[3] Source: Washington Post, Bloomberg News, 19 July 1999.

[4] Source: The Straits Times, Singapore Press Holdings, 19 July 1999.

[5] There is simply not enough space here to outline the different schools economic thought in this essay; it would need more than a book to do it. Therefore, I hope to get away with it from just one sentence.

[6] Again, different schools of thought would have very different prescriptions to one economic situation. There is no one universal treatment or cure for an economic crisis. Like in the field of medicine from different cultures, there are very different ways of treating one single illness and there is no one ‘correct’ medicine.

Kenneth Boulding (1968) suggested that the problems that mankind is facing now results from humans acting like cowboys on a limitless open frontier, when in truth, we live in a finite world with a finely balanced life-support system.

The life of a cowboy in a borderless frontier is very different from that of an astronaut in an enclosed spaceship. Cowboys of the American Wild West lived in a scarcely populated world blessed with resources that seems to last indefinitely. Everything is there for the taking, if the cowboy needed something, he would just step out and takes what he needed. Even the presence of the indigenous native Indians with rights to their homeland would not deter the cowboy. Armed with a gun and some bullets, the cowboy would disregard these property rights and claim the land as theirs. In the modern concrete jungle, the survival of the fittest still rules, everyone would have to compete with one another in the search of fortune. Never mind the rich who deprive the poor of a decent meal because the poor are lazy and hopeless. Never mind the gain of one be the loss of another because they are myopic and lacking in vision. Never mind the increasing gap between the rich and the poor as long as we know our next meal will be on the table…who cares? If our position is in danger, we must be prepared to fight and defend; or better still, since offence is the best form of defence, we must try to take what others have so they cannot attack. The measure of well being of the society is the aggregated level of present consumption regardless of who owns what and how. I was once asked this question, ‘Well, which side do you want to be on?’ That struck me like a clap of thunder because one cannot choose who or where one is being born to. Therefore, whether one is born with a silver spoon or an empty bowl is really up to fate and where we end up depends on what we do along the way with fate. But since fate have dealt some with fortune and some with a raw deal, I do feel that simply by being more ‘fortunate’, that is a social responsibility towards the less ‘fortunate’.

The astronaut lives with other crewmembers in an enclosed capsule with finite supply resources. Everything within the spaceship has to be maintained in equilibrium and in balance. Nothing is thrown away and wasted because they will never get it back; everything is recycled or reused. The crew member function as a team, the team is weakened is when one member is weak. There is no competition, only co-operation within the team and each functions in the interests of others. Consumption of resources is done with the consideration of other members and the provision of future needs. The measure of well being in the spaceship is measured in the level of physical and mental health, the maintenance of resource levels, and the life-support system on which they all depend on.

The truth is simple; cowboys will not survive in a spaceship. The reality is, societies today are practising cowboy economics in this spaceship called Earth. We have treated natural resources like cowboys, free for the taking. Increasing our consumption level without regard of future provisions. Mother Earth has endowed us with her precious natural resources, but these resources are not infinite. Unless we respect what Mother Nature has given us, we will continue to live in fear that she will strike us with the fury of an angry mother of a prodigal son. For us, humankind, the prodigal son, we have to live in the tragic consequences of our wicked ways. Eventually, we will over-stress our life-support systems resulting in the breakdown of our lives and homes. There will be increased competition between crewmembers for the decreasing levels of resources that may very well lead to social breakdown and eventual violence.

The second truth is this, mankind must abandon their cowboy economics and come to terms with the fact that we live in a world with a limited frontier. If we stay on our present course, we will continue to plunder our land and seas while creating a bigger hole in the sky (the ozone layer). We will continue to weaken the foundation on what life is based on, non-market social relationships of love and care for every living person on this planet we call home. On this course, the human civilization will not be able to survive as long as a fraction of what the dinosaurs had (that is assuming we do not kill ourselves with weapons of massive destruction first). By deliberately altering our image of reality, we have the power to change the world…and change we must. We must protect nature from its worst enemy, us, even though it will be ‘uneconomic’.


Boulding, K., 1968, ‘The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth’, Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy, John Hopkins University Press.