4 Book reviews by James Robertson:


From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth

David Korten, Berrett-Kohler, San Francisco, 2009, paperback, 196pp.

A splendid book. Although written for American readers, it is very relevant to other ‘developed’ countries and the world as a whole. “We will need to change virtually every aspect of how we structure and manage our economies. Instead of maximising the rate at which we turn useful resources into toxic trash, we will need to optimise the health and quantity of our stocks of real wealth” (p116).

At its core is a 12-point agenda for a real-wealth economy, including:
(1) Redirecting the focus of economic policy from growing phantom wealth to growing real wealth - by replacing financial indicators like GDP with indicators of real well-being as measures of economic success and failure. As Korten points out, this is inseparably linked with point (12) below.
(4) Reclaiming the corporate charter, to specify and monitor the public purpose and performance of business corporations.
(6) Rebuilding communities with a goal of achieving self-reliance in meeting local needs.
(7) Adopting policies that favour human-scale businesses owned by local stake-holders.
(9) Using tax and income policies to support equitable distribution of wealth and income.

He notes the two following points as “arguably the most important”:
(11) Restructuring financial services to serve the real, not the phantom, economy; and
(12) Transferring to the federal government the responsibility for issuing money. (As Korten says, this is linked with (1) above because, without continuing growth of its money supply and GDP, an economy whose money is based on debt is bound to collapse.)

The book emphasises President Obama’s opportunity to preside over this historic revolution. But the inspiring final chapter, When the people lead, the leaders will follow, has a message for us all. It recognises that to enable Obama to succeed, he will have to “be confronted with a popular demand from below too powerful to be ignored”.

The fact is that, only if we find ways of compelling our leaders to lead, will they be empowered against defenders of the status quo to tackle the fundamental changes necessary for human survival and breakthrough to a new age in world history.

P.S. The next edition of this short, readable book should, in my view, include proposals on the future of the international money system. If left unreformed, it will frustrate the book’s vision of the future.


Thomas Greco, Chelsea Green, Vermont, 2009, paperback, 268 pp.

Tom Greco has been for many years an acknowledged champion of free, decentralised, community currencies. I enthusiastically recommend the second half of his book to anyone who wants to know more about the case for them and the practicalities of setting them up.

I also applaud the first hundred pages. They offer a devastating criticism of the present “monopolistic control over credit, exercised through a banking cartel armed with government-granted privilege” which “allows wealth to be extracted from producer clients and, despite the trappings of democracy, the control of governments to be maintained in the hands of a few. Credit is allocated on a biased basis to favoured clients, including central governments, which distorts both the system of economic rewards and the exercise of political power”.

I agree wholeheartedly with that diagnosis of the problem.

It is when we come to what we should do about it that I question Tom Greco’s realism. He dismisses as unrealistic the aim of transferring to public agencies the function of issuing the public money supply debt-free in the public interest under effective democratic control at national and international levels. He assumes that national political power and global financial interests will successfully combine to stop that happening.

But it is surely even more unrealistic to hope that that problem can be by-passed by persuading people to drop out of the unreformed mainstream money system and rely on “private initiative and the creative application of new technologies and methods” instead. Can pioneers of the new local community currencies develop them quickly and widely enough to liberate millions, let alone billions, of us from our present dependence on the unreformed big banks and big governments to provide for our money needs?

If ever a sizeable number of people did look like succeeding in that, the unreformed big banks and governments would surely combine to stamp them out, as they stopped the growth of complementary currencies in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

A careful reading of the book encourages me to hope that Greco may be shifting from his earlier views on this point. In Chapter 19 on The Role of Governments in Establishing Economic and Financial Stability he does, in fact, set aside his selective pessimism about mainstream monetary reform. He advocates legislation to achieve what are many of its aims. He also hopes not to drive a divisive wedge between would-be allies, but to promote a deeper understanding between ‘reformers’ and ‘transformers’ in pursuing a common fundamental goal - ‘empowerment of people’ (p110).

The ‘both/and’ nature of what we need to do is clear: we need both to support complementary currencies and economic decentralisation; and we need to recognise that that won’t happen without either mainstream monetary reconstruction or the almost total collapse of human society in its present form.


Putting the eco into economics - global crisis and local solutions

David Boyle, Alastair Sawday Publishing, Bristol, UK, paperback, 2009.

This handy new book on money by David Boyle provides an excellent guided tour, covering almost every aspect of the money system.

It contains eight Sections - on Metal Money, Information Money, Measuring Money, Debt Money, Mad Money, Local Money, DIY Money and Spiritual Money. Each Section contains between eight and fifteen two-page, bite-sized chunks, eg on ‘Gold: The barbarous relic’, ‘The lunacy of GDP: Why money isn’t everything’, ‘Great Crashes 5: the 2008 crash’ and ‘Greed therapy: The basis of the problem’

As Charles Middleton of Triodos Bank says in his Preface, it explains clearly, concisely and entertainingly what Boyle thinks has gone wrong with our banking system and financial institutions.

I warmly recommend the book, but with a serious reservation similar to the one on the book immediately above.

Its fatalistic conclusion - that the faults of today’s dysfunctional money system lie much deeper than it is possible for us to change - is very disappointing.


Economy, Society, and Environment

Laszlo Zsolnai (ed), Springer Science-Business Media BV, 2009, hardcover, 309pp.

This book is about ideas and initiatives that lead toward responsible business practices, policies for the common good and ecological sustainability. I warmly recommend it, especially to readers with access to academic or other institutions that can afford to buy it.

Contributions by 27 practitioners and scholars from Europe, America and Asia “represent a diversity of fields including business ethics, philosophy, organizational science, systems theory, finance, management, economics, political science, and ecology”. Its chapter headings include The Good Company, Value Creation as the Foundation of Economics, Buddhist Economics for Business, and Ethical Banking.

My contribution explains why business ethics cannot avoid the question: “Can we resolve the present mismatch between money values and ethical values by reforming the way the worldwide money system now works?”; and answers “Yes, we can and must”. (I will e-mail a copy as a pdf file to anyone who asks me for “Robertson chapter in Ethical Prospects”.)

The Debate in Part 4 of the book corrects Bill Clinton’s slogan “It’s the economy, stupid”. The economy is only a means to achieving a society’s ends. We need to get our politicians, business leaders, and other ‘professionals’ to see that “it’s NOT the economy, stupid, it’s the society”.

I hope Laszlo Zsolnai’s collection of articles here will help to accelerate our understanding of money not as things, but as a system of interconnected systems; that it generates a practical calculus of value that strongly motivates the behaviour and lives of almost everyone in the world; and that our species survival will depend on our reforming it to reconcile the values it imposes on us with the values most of us hold.

-- see these reviews, and more, on James Robertson’s e-newsletter for June 2009, at, where you can also subscribe to receive them by email.