Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Economic War against the Common Man

What really happened
Exerpts of a brilliant economic analysis follows, read the full essay here: http://www.marketoracle.co.uk/Article9986.html

Iceland’s financial crisis today is less an issue of international law as of outright lawlessness perpetrated by the purveyors of so-called free market democracy. Nations pressing Iceland for payment impose one set of laws for others while following quite a different set for themselves. Preaching to Iceland about international law, the United States and Great Britain themselves have broken the clearest of international laws – those against waging aggressive war. Their propagandists are skillful at using the language of capitalism and morality, yet they are neither capitalist nor moral. Their financial strategy is to play an ages-old psychological game. Make countries like Iceland feel guilty about being debtors rather than recognizing they have been victims of an international Ponzi scheme. In a nutshell, the game is to lay down “laws” for debtors in the form of destructive austerity programs fashioned by irresponsible and indeed, parasitic creditors. This “aid advice” ends in outright asset stripping, both public and private.

Asset stripping to pay debts has caused collapse time and again in history, but is strangely downplayed in today’s academic curriculum as an “inconvenient truth” as far as vested financial interests are concerned. Income is siphoned off by a scheme that is elegant and simple. Hapless victims – and now entire economies, not just individuals – are maneuvered onto a debt treadmill from which there is no escape. Creditors pile on credit and let the debts grow at the “magic of compound interest,” knowing that their loans cannot be repaid – except by asset sell-offs. No economy’s productivity can keep pace with exponentially compounding debt. Whatever was owned (and indeed, financed originally by public debt but now paid off) is stripped away for interest payments that never end. The aim is for these payments to absorb as much of the surplus as possible, so that the national economy in effect works to pay tribute to the new global financial class – bankers and money managers of mutual funds, pension funds and hedge funds.

The product they are selling is debt. They build up their own wealth by indebting others, and then forcing sell-offs to buyers who take on their own debt in the hope of making asset-price gains as property prices are impossibly inflated relative to the wages of living labor. This has become the new, euphemistically dubbed post-industrial form of wealth creation – a strategy that is now collapsing economies throughout the world.

The second important principle is how radically today’s post-capitalist order has inverted traditional ways of making money. Instead of making profits on new capital investment, the easiest path to quick riches in today’s global financial system is to foreclose at pennies on the dollar, and make a “capital gain” by flipping property onto world financial markets that are being inflated by central banks. While financial spokespersons promise that “there is no such thing as a free lunch,” today’s hit-and-run financial bubble, fraud and insider privatizations culminating in public-sector bailouts (“socializing the risk” while privatizing the profits and capital gains) – has become all about obtaining a free lunch.

But it is a zero-sum gambling game, with losers on the other side of the table from the winners. One party’s gain is another’s loss – and indeed, this kind of game ends up shrinking the economy by diverting resources away from real investment in tangible capital formation. Unlike industrial capitalism, which employs labor and invests in capital equipment to turn raw materials into salable commodities, today’s post-industrial financialized system only offers the virtual (and temporary) wealth of asset bubbles. Its financial managers claim to be acting in the tradition of classical economists and share their concept of free markets, but in actuality they have been part of an intellectual fraud that depicts their system as something other than the financialized wealth extraction on the real economy of production and consumption that it is. Financialized wealth is extractive, not productive. That is because loans, stocks and bond securities are claims on wealth, not real wealth itself.

Fortunately, this need not happen in countries that do not impose debt leveraging on themselves, but only in countries that let the public utility of money and credit creation be privatized in the hands of a cosmopolitan financial class.

Consider the role of banking in this neo-feudal order. Banks do not create credit to finance manufacturing – that is done mainly out of retained earnings and equity. Banks create credit primarily to lend against collateral already in place – loans that simply extract money from the economy. This is an inherently destructive act, one that is anti-capitalist in the sense that it undercuts industrial growth in favor of interest extraction and short-term speculative gains.

The trick is to get this policy welcomed as if it were progress, as “post-industrial” rather than a lapse backward. Only today is it becoming apparent that the collateral-based lending of banks “creates wealth” mainly by inflating asset-price bubbles, especially in real estate. Bankers calculate how much debt a given flow of residential or commercial real estate income can support, and create enough credit to make a loan large enough to absorb this surplus revenue. Bankers do the same with industry by lending corporate raiders enough money in take-over “junk” bonds to turn profits into a flow of interest payments for themselves, and with capital gains for the raiders. Central banks fuel this process by swamping economies with easy credit (that is, debt) that keeps the financial sector fat while impoverishing the increasingly indebted nation.

Finance thus is the historical antithesis of property, sanctifying its own right to expropriate indebted property owners. Originally denounced by Christianity, Judaism and Islam, interest-bearing debt has sanctified itself as the predominant form of wealth. This is not what the classical economists and democratic political reformers expected to see. They explained how to avoid this economic dystopia by appropriate government tax policy and regulation to minimize the economic role and political power of post-feudal bankers and rentiers. (Rentiers are people who live off interest and rents, that is, off absentee incomes paid on a regular basis.)

Bankers managed to convince ambitious fortune-seekers that the way to wealth and economic growth lay in debt leveraging, not in staying free of debt. Selling debt as their product, banks and speculators at the world’s financial core needed to prepare for what they must have known would lead to economic collapse and destroyed economies throughout history. They prepared the path to ruin by ideological engineering aimed at shaping how populations think about history, so as to accept debt pyramiding as a good economic strategy.

Turning economic power into political power - Creditors in most countries have been able to turn their economic power into political power with the aim of shifting the tax burden off themselves and onto labor and industry. The final coup de grace occurs when they get the government to bail them out from their losses on bad loans. In the United States, Congress has tripled the national debt in less than a year to bail out creditors with little thought of helping debtors, or even of prosecuting the massive financial fraud involved in its subprime real estate bubble and the sale of junk mortgages to gullible foreign buyers.

Allowing economies to be crippled with interest payments was unthinkable until recently. To achieve so radical a break in the public’s idea of prosperity and self-reliance, it has been necessary for creditors to wipe out knowledge of how legal systems have been amended to put creditor interests above those of debtors over the past eight centuries – and how the leading classical economists and Enlightenment cultural and religious leaders sought to subordinate creditor interests to those of growth and prosperity for the economy at large. But the new banking class has been clever enough to hire the best propagandists money can buy while remaining blind to the havoc they are wreaking with people’s lives.
The trick is to fool debtors into thinking that “free markets” means paying one’s debts. Creditors can succeed in letting debt leveraging and “the magic of compound interest” empty out economies only by diverting attention from what Adam Smith and other classical economists warned against. For them, a free market was one free of debt – especially foreign debt. In The Wealth of Nations (especially Book V, chapter 3), Smith warned against creditors becoming “free” enough to disable the ability of governments to protect citizens from creditors – especially the Dutch, who were the major investors in British monopolies created to be sold to pay for that nation’s seemingly eternal wars with France. The problem was that creditors sought to extract the wealth of nations for themselves, not to create wealth. Their greed was destructive to society as a whole, because it was easier to simply strip assets than to create real capital.
The tacit assumption is not that bankers’ exorbitant greed is achieved at the expense of the economy at large, but that the financial sector’s prosperity is a precondition for the economy to grow. The bankers try to cap matters by trotting out poor retirees (like the widows and orphans of old – presumably those living on “fixed incomes” in the form of trust funds) whose meager savings should be supported. Doing so just happens to save the financial oligarchy of billionaires at the top of the economic pyramid, but not the proverbial victims.
The use of human shields such as union members concerned about the investments of their pension funds to protect the wealth of the kleptocrats is likewise shameless. Wall Street sages in the United States, for example, shed crocodile tears over the fate of the working people suffering from the stock market collapse, knowing full well that financial assets are heavily concentrated at the top of the economic pyramid, with workers having, only a meager share of those stocks and bonds. Ignored is the fact that the government could bail out failing pension funds (like Social Security) directly at just a small fraction of the cost of propping up the assets of the affluent.

The best path for nations is to put their own economic growth before the interests of creditors. For many generations this ethic supported a set of political checks and balances that kept the growth of international debt in terms considered to be tolerable – much too heavy by the free-market standards of Smith and John Stuart Mill, but not so high as to prompt widespread defaults and debt repudiation.

This ethic has changed in recent years. Countries have accepted creditor propaganda that debts are a “point of honor,” much as the poor believe that paying their debts – even when they are in negative equity – is the “honest thing to do.” Obviously this ethic is not self-applied to the world’s largest financial institutions or real estate speculators. But Iceland accepted it in what is a characteristic of small, closely-knit communities where the word of neighbors is their bond. The root of Iceland’s ethic is mutual aid and prosperity for all. It is a fine, highly socialized attitude, and therefore tragic that it has helped lead the nation to fall prone to the snake oil of debt peonage.

Having stuck Third World countries with debts beyond their ability to pay, the IMF and World Bank used their creditor leverage to force governments to impose draconian austerity plans that had the effect of preventing growth toward industrial and agricultural self-sufficiency, thereby also crushing prospects for competitiveness. The IMF and World Bank then demanded that debtor countries sell off their public infrastructure, land, subsoil rights and other assets to pay the debts that these institutions sponsored so irresponsibly. (If IMF loans were not simply irresponsible, then they knowingly crippled debtor-country economies.) It is an age-old story of conquest, now accomplished without conventional warfare.

Psychologists have explained the creditor proclivity for violence by the tendency for rentiers to fight for unearned income – inheritance, or other “free wealth” that they have obtained without effort of their own. People who work for a living and are able to support themselves believe that they can survive, and so there is less of the kind of panic that creditors and other free lunchers feel at the thought that their extractive revenue may end. They fight passionately against the prospect of having to live on what they produce or earn by their own merits. So the last thing that rentiers really want is a free market. In a shameless irony, they tend to accuse populations of being terrorists if they seek to defend themselves against predatory creditors and land-grabbers!

This is just the opposite of the free markets that were promised them back in 1990-91. Instead of economic growth, the “real” economy of production and consumption shrunk, even as foreign financial inflows inflated property prices for housing and office space, fuel and public utilities. Real estate and utility services hitherto provided freely or at subsidy to the economy at large were turned into a predatory vehicle for foreigners to extract income, putting the domestic population on rations, much as what occurs under military occupation. Yet the public media, academic centers and parliaments have persuaded populations that this is part of a natural order, even the product of how a free-market is supposed to operate, rather than a retrogression back to quasi-feudal institutions. The simplistic idea is that making money is itself “capitalist” ipso facto, regardless of whether industrial capital is being created or dismantled and stripped.

Most societies throughout history have sought to provide credit legally in ways that do not permit creditor oligarchies to emerge. Today’s creditor advocates are at war with the spirit of this idea. And in taking this position, they reject the thrust of the Enlightenment’s anti-usury laws, classical political economy’s distinction between productive and sterile investment, the St. Simonian attempt at financial reform, and the Progressive Era’s attempt to mobilize national credit to fund productive industrial investment rather than being extractive, benefiting only the few. The classical idea of economic freedom itself was formulated as the antithesis to feudal-epoch finance. And the ideal of freedom from predatory finance is what is being threatened today, as if society has forgotten how long and hard the reform struggle has been.

The common thread in these ideas is that people deserve to receive the fruits of their labor. This means bringing prices in line with actual labor-costs of production. It also means that one’s wealth should be limited to only what one creates – not land and natural resources, or monopoly privileges to extract income via control of roads, the right to create money and other natural monopolies. The aim of social reform for many centuries has been to purge capitalism of its legacy of absentee rentier property ownership patterns and creditor-oriented laws inherited from medieval times. The way to do this is to treat banking like transportation and the broadcasting spectrum, as a public utility to form a just fiscal base, not something to be privatized so that individual rentiers can tax society at large for what rightly is a public utility.
The problem goes to the very foundation of economic theory. Any set of statistics reflects categories in economic theory, and in recent years the Chicago School has taken the lead in what is now a nationwide trend to exclude the history of economic thought from the academic curriculum. One can get all the way through a Ph.D. without having surveyed the evolution of classical economics from the Physiocrats through Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and the Progressive Era reformers. The essence of social reform throughout the Enlightenment, and indeed extending all the way back to the Church Schoolmen is no longer taught – the distinctions between earned and unearned income and wealth, and productive and unproductive (or “sterile”) employment and investment. Post-classical thought insists that all income is productive in proportion to whatever it earns – including the collection of economic rent or extortion of monopoly super-profit, or financial charges for interest and credit card fees, and the exorbitant salaries and bonuses that financial managers pay themselves. All revenue – and therefore, all wealth – appears to be “earned.” By their definition. This denies the concept of “investment in zero-sum activities that merely transfer income into the unproductive sector’s pockets, in contrast to creating income.

As a guide to policy reform, classical economics aimed at creating an economic and fiscal system that would bring market prices in line with technologically necessary costs of production. All such costs ultimately are reducible to labor. The necessary complement to the labor theory of value (adjusted for different grades of labor, the cost of their education and the linkage between wage levels and productivity) was the analysis of economic rent – an institutional add-on reflecting property ownership patterns, financial charges and taxes, not inherent costs of production. The classical reform program was to minimize the cost of production and of living, making economies more competitive by purifying industrial capitalism and removing its remaining feudal legacies, above all the right of hereditary absentee owners (landlords) to siphon off a rental charge for access to land for sites supplied by nature and given value by local public spending (e.g., “location, location, and location,” as real estate agents explain matters to prospective buyers) – and the right of bankers to charge for creating credit that governments could freely create themselves.Fighting against progressive reforms, banks and other financial institutions have sought to preserve their special privileges by law, minimizing taxes on themselves by shifting the burden onto labor and industry. What they have achieved by financializing economies is (1) to raise the cost of living and the cost of doing business; (2) to free their major customers – mortgage borrowers – from taxation so as to leave as much surplus as possible available to be paid as interest; (3) to collect revenue hitherto used to finance the public sector by capitalizing it into interest charges and to inflate the price of housing and other real estate and privatized monopolies; (4) to effectively shift taxes onto labor and industry, thereby raising prices and undermining the competitive power of financialized economies. This is a travesty of classical “free market” policy. It is a policy for predators that mainly burdens economies with high interest and fees while also making the tax burden more oppressive while they reap the benefits.

John Maynard Keynes believed that the proper task of governments was to prevent over-indebtedness from leading to economic depression. He concluded his General Theory (1936) with a call for “euthanasia of the rentier.” Hoping to make credit productive, not extractive, his followers have advocated making banking a public utility so as to steer debt creation to fund growth in the means of production, not economic overhead by inflating property bubbles. Radical as this may appear today, this was the aim of the 19th century classical economists, and underlay the financial reforms that shaped the 20th-century economic takeoff. Only quite recently has the global financial press rediscovered this logic in the wake of today’s bubble meltdown.

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