The lifeblood of the modern world, money, remains a divisive subject and often evokes strong emotions. This is mainly because a good part of the effort in the course of a human life goes into acquiring and maintaining money. Terms such as "inflation" or "high taxes" frequently arouse fear, shame and perhaps even aggressive thoughts.
Impassioned debates about the true value of money are as old as money itself, going back perhaps 5,000 years.
Strong feelings are understandable, but they would be an obstacle to rational decisions when means of payment of a new stage of development are at the door. Nothing we need less than fuzzy emotions.
it would be in the interest of society to focus entirely on functionality and then decide how best to deal with the new possibilities.
What are the prerequisites for money to be functional?
The requirements for money hardly offer any starting points for controversial discussions:
Chart 1: Money: Functional requirements
Regardless of the physical or electronic manifestation, money is, first and foremost, about functioning in almost all aspects of life. The aforementioned criterion can overlap with other terms . It is important, however, to have a reference system to facilitate the assessment of imminent innovations.
The chart intentionally does not refer to the emotionally charged term "value". It is sufficient to rely on “purchasing power”, which users can acquire, store and transfer.
Money is tied to institutions
Money presupposes an institutional framework. Typically, this is a nation state (or several states together) that
• defines what means of payment are permissible,
• who (central banks and commercial banks) is entitled to issue, what kind, and which volume of money (physical or scriptural),
• sets rules for the operations of the money-issuing institutions,
• monitors the money-issuing institutions’ compliance with the rules and
• empowers a central institution to defend the stability of money in accordance with legal requirements.
The new cryptocurrencies that have emerged in recent years are neither issued by a state nor centralised. Their creation and transfer is not governed by rules that national states have stipulated, yet their rules fulfil the criteria of institutional frameworks. State courts can take corrective action in the case of the usual "accidents" in payment transactions (e.g. theft). States also levy taxes on profits generated by trading in cryptocurrencies.
There are libertarians who have a deep aversion to the institutional foundations of means of payment.
So far, no clear counter-model is discernible that would be suitable for a constructive debate about the pros and cons of a functional alternative. It is therefore still appropriate to accept the key role of legal frameworks and central banks.
Central banks follow their mandate to steer the stability of the currencies they issue. They acquire or dispose of certain assets (e.g. precious metals, deposits in other currencies, securities), they steer the money supply/key interest rates and they manage trust.
The sophisticated methodology available today to stabilise purchasing power of legal tender is the result of institutional learning curves during the 20th century, the course of which often had unintended dramatic implications. For example, the belief in the necessity to collateralise money with gold hindered economic growth as the expansion of the money supply became dependent on the production of mining companies. In crisis situations, central banks were compelled to sell their gold holdings. Afterwards, they found it difficult to provide capital to the productive sector of the economy to recover purchasing power for replenishing their gold stocks.
The final demise not only of the gold standard but of any kind of fixed link between the value of currency units and assets came with the "Nixon shock" on 15 August 1971.
Even in the hearts of some experts, the longing for a "brave old world with a gold standard" may occasionally flare up. The practical implications of such a project, however, are not the subject of this article. Nostalgia is an emotion, not a strategy.
The most impressive achievement is the art of central banks, developed through experimentation in the 20th century, to manage the trust of users of payment instruments. Trust is only an emotion, but the central bankers’ words, gestures and subtle changes of parameters can steer markets today such as the Oracle of Delphi or the Roman augurs did in the past. The efficacy of central bankers’ trust management is beyond doubt.
The development of this sophisticated art that initially rose from the upheavals of the World War I and the slow death struggle of the gold standard was described in detail and in a breath-taking manner by Liaquat Ahamed in his book "Lords of Finance: 1929, The Great Depression, and the Bankers who Broke the World".
The culmination of the art of trust management may have been the US Federal Reserve's successful effort to restore trust after the financial market crisis of 2007 and 2008. The meltdown did not occur.
Today there is no small propensity towards monetary malaise. Fears over the stability of assets prices rise when the money supply is allowed to expand, seemingly without limits, and without a plausible connection to the real economy.
The words "helicopter money", "printing press" and the euphemism "quantitative easing" awaken doubts and fears.
Even greater may be the fear of the unknown that may loom if one speaks out against the modern management of trust. There seem to be no alternatives.
At this point it should be emphasised that the concern here is only a growing and hardly explicit uneasiness, because these can be the drivers of new developments. We are not asking whether or not the instruments of central banks are actually reaching their limits.
Clearly there is a growing willingness to consider options that can protect purchasing power from the feared ‘next tempest’.
Technology generates new options
The development of cryptocurrencies that are not dependent on central banks was a first reaction after the financial crisis of 2007/2008. Limiting the number of electronic "coins" issued over the years was and is seen by many as a protection against too much expansion of the money supply, i.e. against inflation.
Some central banks are working on the introduction of Central Bank Digital Money (“CBDC”) which allows transactions between market participants very quickly and without counterparty default risk. Even after technical perfection is achieved, this will be a subset of normal money that is not collateralised.
There are possibilities to hold a precious metal account with a trustee. There are savings plans and pension plans for this. Balances can be transferred to other precious metal accounts or converted into legal tender at any time.
These accounts serve to store purchasing power. However, this approach does not quite meet the practical requirements for the execution of transactions and the “universal acceptance” mentioned in the chart above.
Stablecoins are blockchain-based units whose price is backed by and firmly pegged to generally recognised assets. If these underlying assets are one or more official currencies, the transfer of a coin economically means the transfer of a currency unit. They do not yet meet the "general acceptance" criterion because only a minority of citizens are technically equipped to receive such coins. Their transfer is possible without the possibility of intervention by central banks or states. Therefore, central banks may feel challenged by stablecoins.
What we are proposing appears to be a dramatic change. In fact, it is only an acceleration of standard technical processes.
Before we make a major purchase; buying a house for example, we typically sell other assets. These can be securities or a property. Until savings are used for a transaction, we have effectively collateralised purchasing power with assets of our choice. Then we convert these assets into money in order to be able to make a payment of money.
It wouldn't occur to us to do something like that to pay for a yoghurt in a supermarket. For this, the assets in which we have invested for savings seem too bulky. But in fact it is possible to put each asset into a uniform pool and electronically divide and make it available as small as is practically necessary. It makes no technical difference whether a pool consists of stocks, a cryptocurrency, a set of Fabergé eggs or a building plot on Mars. Machines do not start sweating when you ask them to do very small units!
The only precondition is that the assets are permissible and that the owner's broker can provide the exact corresponding amount of legal tender for them in seconds at a fair price after an immediate transaction. The flow of money is triggered via an app on the owner’s electronic device and then goes into the creditor's POS system.
The radical reduction in the time it takes the broker to convert stored purchasing power into legal tender is, from an economic point of view, identical to the collateralisation of money. The remaining time window of perhaps four seconds for the completion of the process does not change this.
An efficient broker can offset transactions within proprietary portfolios or buy and sell in the market at minimal transaction cost. The broker can do this with any asset which is liquid enough to ensure real time settlement.
The broker’s client can decide according to personal preferences which goals (s)he follows with investments (= storage of purchasing power), e.g. avoiding volatility, the inverse correlation with inflation risks or ethical principles. The client can personally steer the portfolio or follow an algorithmically controlled investment procedure.
Here, new asset classes that have been traded at stable prices in the past, but which were previously out of reach for retail clients, may also come into play via qualified brokers: electricity contracts (a cornerstone of our civilisation) and CO2 emission certificates (sovereign risk).
Prudently used autonomy is protection. Mistakes are the results of personal choices.
Chart 2: Collateralised money
Money backed by collateral disappeared when it reached practical boundaries.
Programmers are now transcending those practical boundaries. It is likely that in the future, much faster distributed ledger technologies will replace the now reliably functioning POS systems. This does not change the fact that collateralised money is set to return before that system change.
We are on the threshold of the introduction of collateralised money. There are no daunting impediments facing the software that is needed for their implementation. Legislators do not need to take action.
This new money will again be inextricably linked to the real economy, more closely than gold ever was. It will allow citizens to mitigate their economic risk. There will not be any compulsion to use it, but the possibilities are plausible and reassuring.
The stumbling block
The issue of immigration is stirring up emotions all over Europe, but in order to consider the appropriate rational response, we need to first distinguish between the different forms of migrations. In fact, only one of the four categories of immigration distinguished below is to be classified as a challenge:
Migration of High-Net-Worth Individuals (HNWI)
Let's start with the probably smallest group of migrants, which is also the least debated: very wealthy people who are able to move from one country to another with ease. Members of this group seldom encounter rejection and in some cases are actively sought after by countries.
HNWI can weigh up their motives and choose their targets according to their criteria. These include, for example,
security for personal life and wealth
quality of life
quality of the healthcare system
landscape or climatic preferences
quality of schools and universities.
Protection of wealth is frequently a major motivation for migration among the super wealthy and countries with low or no income tax are popular in this regard. On the other hand, while certain countries encourage HNWI to migrate to them, the benefits are not always as great as they might expect, especially when the migrant’s assets do not always accompany them to the country they are settling in. Furthermore, with laws that say an individual faces taxation if they spend more than 182 days in a country, those wishing to avoid this, simply rotate through different countries each year thus avoiding paying any income tax at all.
The number of migrants from this group is increasing, and the countries concerned are well known.
This group of migrants does not pose major challenges to European states.
2. Migration within the European Union: everyone with an EU passport
Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Regulation (EU) No 492/2011 on freedom of movement for workers within the Union guarantee the freedom of every EU citizen to take up a job in any other state of the Union and to settle there with their family. This freedom of choice is a cornerstone of the European Union. It has led to significant migratory movements, which, due to the enlargement of the Union into Central Europe, have been accelerating gradually since the 1990s. In most cases, families put down roots in their new place of residence and do not move back to their countries of origin, although they maintain ties there.
The disadvantage of this migration is that citizens whose education took place at the expense of their home states now move to member states with higher wage levels and better career prospects, in effect creating what is known as an internal ‘brain drain’ scenario, where talented workers move out of the country of origin, depleting the national workforce. The receiving states thus strengthen their national economies at almost zero cost to them and at the expense of domestic countries responsible for their education and socialization.
These implications were clear from the outset, but the net benefits from a large economic area with free movement of people, capital and goods outweigh the drawbacks. Free movement has had a predominantly positive impact on the prosperity of citizens. Changing this structure and enacting new restrictions on internal migration would have a negative impact on the powerful new industrial structures that have emerged over the years.
Traditionalists should be very careful when they argue against free migration within the Union as there is a long-standing practice of it within the continent. The last two centuries have seen massive migrations within the area that now makes up the European Union: the countries of origin were mainly Italy, Poland and Greece. These movements are themselves a valuable component of European identity and increased wealth.
3. Migration from outside the European Union: skilled labour
While the world population is still increasing, a simultaneous decline in birth rates has been evident worldwide for many years. The trend is more pronounced in Europe, where population numbers are increasingly moving towards shrinkage.
Clearly it is not possible to fill the gaps in the labour market out of the continent's existing population. This would not change even if Europeans could be persuaded to sharply increase the current birth rate. In that unlikely case it would take at least two decades for a generation to become visible in the labour market.
Many industrial processes and services can be designed through additional automation in such a way that even fewer human resources are needed than now. This may mitigate the bottleneck somewhat, but would not eliminate it.
If there is no quick turnaround, Europe’s economies will inevitably enter a shrinking process.
The only possible countermeasure is to enter the global competition and attract talent for the known gaps in the labour market. This has been crystal clear for a long time, but fear of traditionalist and conservative voters’ sensitivities has led to most governments to only address the issue in the abstract and try to cook the necessary debates on a low flame. Slogans like "We are not a country of immigration" earn significantly more public applause in Europe than "We urgently need lots of immigrants". Yet everyone knows from their own experience that when a tooth hurts, it is better to go straight to the dentist. Postponing the treatment makes the pain worse.
The fight for human talents is not much different from the struggle for other scarce resources such as raw materials or technical components. The difference is that the competition for material things is rarely a source of cultural friction. Imported goods and commodities don’t arouse sensitivities among traditionalist voters. When it comes to human migration however, public decision makers tend to tread more cautiously and thus do not give the issue the visibility which corresponds to its actual relevance.
The Europeans are now operating a "Blue Card" system, which allows people from outside the Union to take jobs offered to them and apply for nationality after five years. This is a relatively arduous path for applicants. The “Blue Card” approach is less attractive than the more successful American "Green Card" system in which holders are granted permanent residency from the outset, and after five years they can apply for US citizenship.
Under the present circumstances the winners in the competition for talent are likely to be those countries that have a tradition of continuous immigration, have a long history of selective immigration and have the lowest bureaucratic barriers for immigrants who fit into their labour markets. These would be, for example, Canada, the USA and Australia.
4. Migration from outside the European Union: refugees, skilled or unskilled
The right to be granted asylum is not only enshrined in national constitutions and laws, it is also based on:
The right to asylum protects people irrespective of their origin who are exposed to political, racial or religious persecution in their home country. These rules, born out of painful historical experiences that includes the societies of Europe itself, are more than set in stone. All European national states are firmly bound by them. Debates about their abolition are as pointless as those about the abolition of gravity. Yet they are common.
The legal criteria do not extend to refugees who seek to migrate to another country for economic or climatic reasons and who are therefore unlikely to be regarded as refugees from a legal perspective. In order not to be classified unfavourably, refugees may exaggerate or embellish stories of persecution in their country of origin. It is difficult for the authorities of the receiving countries to properly verify the truth of such statements.
The examination procedures are complicated and take a long time. Even if an application is rejected, expulsion to the country of origin tends to be the exception. Suffice it to say that the length of procedures creates new social realities as applicants more or less take root, children are born and are shaped by the national school system.
Growing influx of refugees
The number of refugees is considerable and on average it has been increasing strongly over the years. According to Eurostat's findings, the number of asylum seekers in the Union in 2022 was 881,220 persons, up by 64% compared with 2021. Once individuals have been recognised as eligible for asylum, a second wave of immigration begins when family members are allowed to join them.
Some member states of the Union pursue a restrictive policy by enforcing the legal requirements very strictly or selectively, or even by infringing them. This leads to greater refugee flows to those countries that comply more closely with the rules.
As the authorities of the countries with the highest numbers of refugees become increasingly overloaded with examination procedures, processing times are getting longer. The accommodation of asylum seekers in camps is pushing municipal administrations to the limits of their capacity.
Xenophobic currents in the public debate are gaining support. Surprisingly, part of the growing opposition consists of former refugees and their descendants born or raised in the country who have obtained citizenship and successfully achieved social status in their new homeland.
When frightened or even traumatised people from a different cultural background enter a European country for the first time, their first impressions have a powerful influence on how they think and feel. In the case of many refugees, their first experiences are often crowded refugee camps, questioning, long waiting times, further questioning, etc. Bureaucracy weighs them down, and there is no end in sight.
While they are in limbo for a long time, the idea that dealing with bureaucracy is the way to a better life is imprinted in the immigrants' minds. This puts people on the wrong mental tracks and impairs their chances to settle in an industrial society. While they may become adept at filling out forms, they are missing essential cultural impulses and opportunities to learn and improve on valuable skillsets for an industrial economy.
The material interests of the immigration countries
If the member states want to maintain their prosperity, a proper discussion on immigration would mean that all four categories need to be considered.
The first two categories (HNWIs and citizens of other EU countries) do not pose major problems.
The third category ("Blue Card programme") is presently far too small. So a more thorough approach is needed.
This thorough approach could involve giving priority to pre-skilled immigrants from outside the European Union. Labour offices and companies know exactly which human resources are needed. This can be done with low bureaucratic barriers, high-quality language courses to introduce immigrants to the national mentality, help in finding accommodation and schools for children, advice on access to banks and tax advisors, and perhaps even tax holidays for a few years. The threshold before obtaining citizenship should be low for people who prove to be valuable contributors. Employers can be involved in the process of accelerating integration as they themselves have a legitimate interest of their own and will be supportive.
The approach to dealing with the fourth category (asylum seekers) can be to abandon the illusory goal of carefully assessing at the outset whether an asylum seeker has a legal right to stay. Any person whose identity has been verified, who has not already applied for asylum in another member state of the Union and against whom there are no security concerns, should immediately be offered a language course and a first job determined by the labour authorities. This is inconvenient for the applicants, but it provides them with a primary orientation and momentum. It is also more beneficial to their human dignity than the endless dependency on bureaucratic processes. If they prove themselves within a year, for example, they should be given a residence permit and the right to choose a job. This would also give a chance to people who would not be entitled to asylum but who fit into the labour market.
Formal procedures for asylum applications would be resumed only for applicants who cannot be integrated into the country's labour market. Applicants who do not meet the criteria for asylum should be included. Delinquent applicants should be excluded.
For the labour market, the reason for entering the country is not relevant. What counts is a committed and reliable workforce. So the primary responsibility here should lie with labour ministries and administration, while the overburdened immigration authorities are given some air to breathe.
War-disabled, traumatised and seriously ill people should continue to be given special protection and attention. Unfortunately, their number is not small.
Canada, a country with not quite 39 million inhabitants, is an example of a country that derives and updates its demographic needs very accurately from the labour market. There are numerous national and regional programmes that make it easy for needed immigrants to quickly gain a foothold in the country. And the country additionally uses the pool of asylum seekers to enrich the labour market.
“ . . . the Government of Canada is maintaining its target of 485,000 permanent residents for 2024 and completing the final step to reach 500,000 in 2025. Starting in 2026, the government will stabilize permanent resident levels at 500,000, allowing time for successful integration, while continuing to augment Canada’s labour market.”
The demographic gap in European countries is a well-documented fact. The EU's population is ageing and shrinking, and there are not enough people to replace the working population.
This demographic contraction will lead to a decline in economic performance and prosperity. The only way to avoid this is through well-managed immigration.
Traditionalists and xenophobes are against immigration, but they have no realistic solutions to the demographic gap. If we give in to them, we will condemn our economies to decline.
To develop a successful immigration programme, we should look to countries with a long history of immigration . These countries have shown that it is possible to manage immigration in a way that benefits both the host country and the immigrants.