Today few people in the West know of the 7th century Indian mathematician… Brahmagupta. This is a pity because he has a fair claim to have made the most important discovery in the history of mathematics.
Brahmagupta discovered nothing. More specifically he was the first mathematician to recognize the significance of zero – that it was a distinct number in its own right. Brahmagupta did not stop at nothing, he also saw that zero could be split into two equal but opposite components.
Zero, according to Brahmagupta, was the number which resulted from adding any number to its negative partner.
Zero is the sum of five and minus five, fifty and minus fifty, or of any… number and its negative partner.
Zero = X – X
This insight allowed Brahmagupta to become the first person to understand how to calculate with negative numbers. Today most of the rules laid out by Brahmagupta for calculating with zero and negatives still form the bedrock of modern mathematics…
Brahmagupta’s conceptual trick, splitting nothing into two equal but opposite components, continues helping us make sense of the world in surprising ways. On the biggest of all scales cosmologists use it as a way to conceptualize how the universe was created from nothing, in the big bang, and may one day return to nothing, in a big crunch. On the smallest scale particle physicists use Brahmagupta’s idea to explain how matter is created from nothing. Particles… can be created from nothing provided they are created together with their equal and opposite anti-particles.
Scientists at the CERN particle collider now routinely create particles and their anti-particles – electrons and positrons for example…
Surprising as it may sound Brahmagupta’s mathematics and the process of creating matter and anti-matter can help us think more clearly about the workings of our modern monetary system. It may even help us understand where macroeconomic policy is going wrong.
The connection between the mathematics of zero and that of finance becomes apparent when one looks at the language originally used by Brahmagupta to describe his mathematical laws. The following are three examples of his laws:
A debt minus zero is a debt.
A fortune minus zero is a fortune.
A fortune subtracted from zero is a debt
Note that Brahmagupta chooses to call his positive numbers fortunes and his negative numbers debts. He recognized, as do modern day accountants, that the combination of a fortune with an equally sized debt was exactly zero.
Recognizing that equally sized fortunes and debts sum to zero and therefore can be created from zero is the key to demystifying our banking and monetary system.
It is often said that banks have the power to create money from thin air and that this is the source of their fantastic profits. Although this is true it is, quite literally, only half of the story.
The scientists at CERN can create matter from nothing only if they also create its offsetting opposite anti-matter. Similarly banks are only able to create money from thin air provided they create, at the same time, the offsetting opposite amount of anti-money, otherwise known as debt.
In short our modern banks are the particle accelerators of the financial system. They conjure money and anti-money, fortunes and debts, from nothing.
It is informative to extend this analogy a little further. When particles and anti-particles are created from nothing energy is ‘consumed’ and when they later recombine to annihilate one another this energy is then re-released. There is an… opposite process of energy capture and release associated with the creation and destruction of money and debt.
When a bank makes a loan it splits zero into a fortune (money) and its equivalent debt. This process releases new spending power into the economy [and can produce] a burst of economic energy. Conversely when, at a later date, the money is recombined to annihilate the debt, both money and debt vanish and an equivalent amount of spending power, economic energy, is withdrawn from the economy.
This analogy fails to explain whether or not economic “energy” is created through creating money (debt) because it doesn’t always work. For example, if the amount of money doubles, but everyone is already fully employed, no new energy would be created. All that new money would just cause prices to increase.
Similarly, if new money is created and given to people who will hoard it, no energy will be released. That is what happened when the Fed nearly quintupled the monetary base by loaning over four trillion dollars to US banks. The banks just hoarded the money and zero energy was released (and zero inflation). Money/debt creation is only useful if it motivates people to do more work.
And reducing debt/money doesn’t necessarily reduce economic energy either. For example, bankruptcy eliminates debt/money and it should ideally increase work. Someone whose debts are too large to possibly repay can get dispirited and give up. Forgiving those debts can create the freedom to start anew. This is similar to an ancient Biblical idea called a Jubilee, which was considered as wonderful as the word sounds. It wasn’t a destruction of economic energy.
Every person’s debt is another person’s asset (savings) so we also need to look at the other side of debt forgiveness to see what happens to energy there. Eliminating someone’s savings could also increase work. For example, people who inherit great wealth typically work less as a result. Eliminating some of the financial savings of extremely wealthy people can increase their productivity too, depending upon the circumstances.
In conclusion, it is hard to say whether or not ‘economic energy’ is created by creating money because the economics of debt/savings is a lot more complex than the analogy of matter/antimatter.