The financial “wealth creation” game is over. Economies emerged from World War II relatively free of debt, but the 60-year global run-up has run its course. Finance capitalism is in a state of collapse, and a new wave of credit cannot revive it. A quarter to a third of U.S. real estate has fallen into Negative Equity, so no banks will lend to them. The United States cannot “inflate its way out of debt,” because this would collapse the dollar and end its dreams of global empire by forcing foreign countries to go their own way. There is too little manufacturing to make the economy more “competitive,” given its high housing costs, transportation, debt and tax overhead.
The economy has hit a debt wall and is falling into Negative Equity, where it may remain for as far as the eye can see until there is a debt write-down. Mr. Obama’s “recovery” plan based on infrastructure spending will make real estate fortunes for well-situated landlords along the new public transport routes, but there is no sign of cities sharing in this price gain by levying a windfall property tax. Their mayors would rather keep the cities broke than to tax real estate and finance. The aim is to re-inflate property markets to enable owners to pay the banks, not help the public sector break even. State and local pension plans will remain underfunded while more corporate pension plans go broke.
One would think that politicians would be willing to realize that debts that can’t be paid, won’t be. But the debts are being kept on the books, continuing to extract interest to pay the creditors that have made the bad loans. The resulting debt deflation threatens to keep the economy in depression until a radical shift in policy occurs – a shift to save the “real” economy, not just the financial sector and the wealthiest 10% of American families.
There is no sign that Mr. Obama’s economic advisors, Treasury officials and heads of the relevant Congressional committees recognize the need for a write-down. After all, they have been placed in their positions precisely because they do not understand that debt leveraging is a form of economic overhead, not real “wealth creation.” But their tunnel vision is what makes them “reliable” to Wall Street, which doesn’t like surprises. And the press prefixes each new pessimistic statistic with the labels “surprising” and “unexpected.” It’s safe to be surprised; suspicious to have expected bad news and to be a “premature doomsayer.” One must have faith in the system above all. And the system was the Greenspan Bubble. That is why “Ayn Rand Alan” was put in charge in the first place.
The government is trying to recover the happy Bubble Economy years by getting debt growing again, in the hope of re-inflating real estate and stock market prices. After all, everyone loved the Bubble Years as long as they lasted. Using debt leverage to bid up the book-price of fictitious capital assets, they were the Golden Age of finance capital’s world. Voters thought they had a chance to become millionaires, and the Bubble made Wall Street richer than ever before – while almost doubling the share of wealth held by the wealthiest 1% of America’s families. For Washington policy makers, they are synonymous with “the economy” – at least the economy for which national policy is being formulated these days.
The Obama-Geithner plan to restart the Bubble Economy’s debt growth so as to inflate asset prices by enough to pay off the debt overhang out of new “capital gains” cannot possibly work. But that is the only trick these ponies know. We have entered an era of asset-price deflation, not inflation. Economic data charts throughout the world have been plunging vertically downward since last autumn. U.S. consumer prices experienced their fastest plunge since the Great Depression of the 1930s, along with consumer “confidence,” international shipping, real estate and stock market prices, oil and the exchange rate for British sterling. The global economy is falling into depression, and cannot recover until debts are written down.
Instead of taking steps to do this, the government is doing just the opposite. It is proposing to take bad debts onto the public-sector balance sheet, printing new Treasury bonds to give the banks – bonds whose interest charges will have to be paid by taxing labor and industry.
The oligarchy plans to bail out its own financial position
In periods of looming collapse, wealthy elites protect their funds like rats fleeing a sinking ship. In times past they bought gold when currencies started to weaken. (Patriotism never has been a characteristic of cosmopolitan finance capital.) Since the 1950s the International Monetary Fund has made loans to support Third World exchange rates long enough to subsidize capital flight. In the United States over the past half-year, bankers and Wall Street investors have tapped the Treasury and Federal Reserve to support prices of their bad loans and financial gambles, buying out or guaranteeing $12 trillion of these junk debts. Protection for the U.S. financial elite thus takes the form of domestic public debt, not foreign currency. It is all in vain as far as the real economy is concerned. When the Treasury gives banks newly printed government bonds in “cash for trash” swaps, it leaves today’s unpayably high private-sector debt in place. All that happens is that this debt is now owed to (or guaranteed by) the government, which will have to impose taxes to pay the interest charges.
The new twist is a variant on the IMF “stabilization” plans that lend money to central banks to support their currencies – for long enough to enable local oligarchs and foreign investors to move their savings and investments offshore at a good exchange rate. The currency then is permitted to collapse, enabling currency speculators to rake in enough gains to empty out the central bank’s reserves. Speculators view these central bank holdings as a target to be raided – the larger the better. The IMF will lend a central bank, say, $10 billion to “support the currency.” Domestic holders will flee the currency at a high exchange rate. Then, when the loan proceeds are depleted, the currency plunges. Wages are squeezed in the usual IMF austerity program, and the economy is forced to earn enough foreign exchange to pay back the IMF.
As a condition for getting this kind of IMF “support,” governments are told to run a budget surplus, cut back social spending, lower wages and raise taxes on labor so as to squeeze out enough exports to repay the IMF loans. But inasmuch as this kind “stabilization plan” cripples their domestic economy, they are obliged to sell off public infrastructure at distress prices – to foreign buyers who themselves borrow the money. The effect is to make such countries even more dependent on less “neoliberalized” economies.
Latvia is a poster child for this kind of disaster. Its recent agreement with Europe is a case in point. To help the Swedish banks withdraw their funds from the sinking ship, EU support is conditional on Latvia’s government agreeing to cut salaries in the private sector – and not to raise property taxes (currently almost zero). The problem is that Latvia, like other post-Soviet economies, has scant domestic output to export. Industry throughout the former Soviet Union was torn up and scrapped in the 1990s. (Welcome to victorious finance capitalism, Western-style. ) What they had was real estate and public infrastructure free of debt – and hence, available to be pledged as collateral for loans to finance their imports. Ever since its independence from Russia in 1991, Latvia has paid for its imported consumer goods and other purchases by borrowing mortgage credit in foreign currency from Scandinavian and other banks. The effect has been one of the world’s biggest property bubbles – in an economy with no means of breaking even except by loading down its real estate with more and more debt to foreign banks to get the foreign currency to finance its import dependency on foreign suppliers.
Instead of helping it and other post-Soviet nations develop self-reliant economies, the West has viewed them as economic oysters to be broken up, indebting them in order to extract interest charges and capital gains, leaving them empty shells. This policy crested on January 26, 2009, when Joaquin Almunia of the European Commission wrote a letter to Latvia’s Prime Minister spelling out the terms on which Europe will bail out the Swedish and other foreign banks operating in Latvia – at Latvia’s own expense:
Extended assistance is to be used to avoid a balance of payments crisis, which requires … restoring confidence in the banking sector [now entirely foreign owned], and bolstering the foreign reserves of the Bank of Latvia. This implies financing … outstanding government debt repayments (domestic and external). And if the banking sector were to experience adverse events, part of the assistance would be used for targeted capital infusions or appropriate short-term liquidity support. However, financial assistance is not meant to be used to originate new loans to businesses and households. …
… it is important not to raise ungrounded expectations among the general public and the social partners, and, equally, to counter misunderstandings that may arise in this respect. Worryingly, we have witnessed some recent evidence in Latvian public debate of calls for part of the financial assistance to be used inter alia for promoting export industries or to stimulate the economy through increased spending at large. It is important actively to stem these misperceptions.
Riots broke out last week, and protesters stormed the Latvian Treasury. Hardly surprising! There is no attempt to help Latvia develop the export capacity to cover its imports. After the domestic kleptocrats, foreign banks and investors have removed their funds from the economy, the Latvian lat will be permitted to depreciate. Foreign buyers then can come in and pick up local assets on the cheap once again.
The practice of European banks riding the crest of the post-Soviet real estate bubble is backfiring to wreck the European economies that have engaged in this predatory lending to neighboring economies as well. As one reporter has summarized: In Poland 60 percent of mortgages are in Swiss francs. The zloty has just halved against the franc. Hungary, the Balkans, the Baltics, and Ukraine are all suffering variants of this story. As an act of collective folly – by lenders and borrowers – it matches America’s sub-prime debacle. There is a crucial difference, however. European banks are on the hook for both. US banks are not. Almost all East bloc debts are owed to West Europe, especially Austrian, Swedish, Greek, Italian, and Belgian banks.
This was the West’s alternative to Stalinism. It did not help these countries emulate how Britain and America got rich by protectionist policies and publicly nurtured industrialization and infrastructure spending. Rather, the financial rape and industrial dismantling of the former Soviet economies was the most recent exercise in Western colonialism. At least U.S. investors were smart enough to stand clear and merely ride the stock market run-up before jumping ship. But now, the government’s plan to “save” the economy is to “save the banks,” along similar lines to the West trying to save its banks from their adventure in the post-Soviet economies. This is the basic neoliberal economic plan, after all. The U.S. economy is about to be “post-Sovietized.”
The U.S. giveaway to banks, masquerading as “help for troubled homeowners” The Obama bank bailout is arranged much like an IMF loan to support the exchange rate of foreign currency, but with the Treasury supporting financial asset prices for U.S. banks and other financial institutions. Instead of banks and oligarchs abandoning the dollar, the aim is to enable them to dump their bad mortgages and CDOs and get domestic Treasury bonds. Private-sector debt will be moved onto the U.S. Government balance sheet, where “taxpayers” will bear losses – mainly labor not Wall Street, inasmuch as the financial sector has been freed of income-tax liability by the “small print” in last autumn’s Paulson-Bush bailout package. But at least the U.S. Government is handling the situation entirely in domestic dollars.
As in Third World austerity programs, the effect of keeping the debts in place at the “real” economy’s expense will be to shrink the domestic U.S. market – while providing opportunities for hedge funds to pick up depreciated assets cheaply as the federal government, states and cities sell them off. This is baldly called letting the banks “earn their way out of debt.” It’s strangling the “real” economy, because not a dollar of the government’s response has been devoted to reducing the overall debt volume.
Take the much-vaunted $50 billion program designed to renegotiate mortgages downward for “troubled homeowners.” Upon closer examination it turns out that the real beneficiaries are the giant leading banks such as Citibank and Bank of America that have made the bad loans. The Treasury will take on the bad debt that banks are stuck with, and will permit mortgagees to renegotiate their monthly payment down to 38% of their income. But rather than the banks taking the loss as they should do for over-lending, the Treasury itself will make up the difference – and pay it to the banks so that they will be able to get what they hoped to get. The hapless mortgage-burdened family stuck in their negative-equity home turns out to be merely a passive vehicle for the Treasury to pass debt relief on to the commercial banks.
Few news stories have made this clear, but the Financial Times spelled out the details buried in small print. The Treasury has not yet decided whether to write down the debt principal for the estimated 15 million families with negative equity (and perhaps 30 million by this time next year as property prices continue to plunge). No doubt a similar deal will be made: For every $100,000 of write-down in debt owed by over-mortgaged homeowners, the bank will receive $100,000 from the Treasury. Government debt will rise by $100,000, and the process will continue until the Treasury has transferred $50,000,000 to the banks that made the reckless loans.
There is enough in the $50 billion bailout program for just 500,000 of these renegotiations of $100,000 each. It may seem like a big amount, but it’s only about 1/30th of the properties underwater. Hardly enough to make much of a dent, but the principle for further bailouts has been put in place. It will take almost an infinity of them, as long as the Treasury tries to support the fiction that “the miracle of compound interest” can be sustained for long. The economy may be dead by the time saner economic understanding penetrates the public consciousness.
In the mean time, bad private-sector debt will be shifted onto the government’s balance sheet. Interest and amortization currently owed to the banks will be replaced by obligations to the U.S. Treasury. It is paying off the gamblers and billionaires by supporting the value of bank loans, investments and derivative gambles, leaving the Treasury in debt. Taxes will be levied to make up the bad debts with which the government now is stuck. The “real” economy will pay Wall Street – and will be paying for decades!
Calling the $12 trillion giveaway to bankers a “subprime crisis” makes it appear that bleeding-heart liberals got Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into trouble by insisting that these public-private institutions make irresponsible loans to the poor. The party line is, “Blame the victim.” But we know this is false, but the bulk of bad loans are concentrated in the largest banks. It was Countrywide and other banksters that led the irresponsible lending and brought heavy-handed pressure on Fannie Mae. Most smaller, local banks didn’t make such reckless loans. The big mortgage shops didn’t care about loan quality, because they were run by salesmen. U.S./post-Soviet Convergence?
It may be time to look once again at what Larry Summers and his Rubinomics gang did in Russia in the mid-1990s and to Third World countries during his tenure as World Bank economist to see what kind of future is being planned for the U.S. economy over the next few years. Throughout the Soviet Union the neoliberal model established “equilibrium” in a way that involved demographic collapse: labor flight, shortening life spans and bad health, lower birth rates, alcoholism and drug abuse, psychological depression and suicides, unemployment and homelessness for the elderly (the neoliberal mode of Social Security reform).
Back in the 1970s, people speculated whether the US and Soviet economies were converging. Throughout the 20th century, of course, everyone expected government regulation, infrastructure investment and planning to increase. It looked like the spread of democratically elected governments would go hand in hand with people voting in their own economic interest to raise living standards, thereby closing the inequality gap.
This is not the kind of convergence that has occurred since 1991. Government power on behalf for the people is being dismantled (but not “socialism for the rich”), living standards have stagnated and wealth is concentrating at the top of the economic pyramid. Economic planning and resource allocation has passed into the hands of Wall Street, whose alternative to Hayek’s “road to serfdom” is debt peonage for the economy at large. There does need to be a strong state, to be sure, to keep the financial and real estate rentier power in place. But the West’s alternative to the old Soviet bureaucracy is financial planning. In place of dysfunctional bureaucratic overhead, we have a highly sophisticated financial and real estate overhead (all of which is counted as part of GNP as if it were output, not a charge against production).
Stalinist Russia and Maoist China achieved high technology without land-rent, monopoly rent and interest overhead. To purge rentier income was the historical aim of classical political economy, and it became the foundation of socialist reform proposals. The purpose was to create a Clean Slate financially, bringing prices in line with technologically necessary costs of production. From the Enlightenment writings of John Locke through Progressive Era reformers, the aim was to provide everyone with the fruits of their labor rather than letting banks and landlords siphon off the economic surplus.
Ideas of economic efficiency and “wealth creation” today are an utterly different kind of “free market economics” from that of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and other classical economists. Commercial banks lend money not to increase production but to inflate asset prices so that they can get more loan fees and interest to inflate their “bottom line” in the process of financing the bid-up of property prices. Some 70% of bank loans are mortgage loans for real estate, and most of the rest is for corporate takeovers and raids, to finance stock buy-backs or simply to pay dividends. Asset-price inflation obliges people to go deeper into debt than ever before to obtain access to housing, education and medical care. The economy has thus been “financialized” not industrialized (in fact, it has been de-industrialized) . This has been the plan as much for the post-Soviet states as for North America, Western Europe and the Third World.
But we are far from having reached the end of the line. Celebrations that our present financialized economy represents the “end of history” are laughably premature. Today’s policies look more like a dead end. But that does not mean that they won’t lead us down a path toward a new Dark Age, as occurred in the fall of the Roman Empire,. That’s what tends to happen when oligarchies do the planning, as history amply shows.
Is America a Failed Economy?
It may be time to ask whether neoliberal pro-rentier economics has turned America and the West into a Failed Economy. Is there really no alternative? Have the neoliberals made the shift of planning from governments to the financial oligarchy irreversible?
Let’s first dispose of the Foundation Myth still guiding the United States and Europe. Free-market economists pretend that prices can be brought into line most efficiently with technologically necessary costs of production under capitalism, and indeed, under finance capitalism. The banks and stock market are supposed to allocate resources most efficiency. That at least is the dream of self-regulating markets. But it is only public relations patter talk to get a generation of increasingly indebted voters not to act in their own self-interest.
Industrial capitalism always has been a hybrid, a symbiosis with its feudal legacy of absentee property ownership, oligarchic finance and public debts rather than the government acting as net creditor. The essence of feudalism was extractive, not productive. Their common denominator of the economic doctrines of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and the last great classical economist, Marx, was to view rent and interest as inherently extractive, not productive. That is why feudal realms created industrial capitalism as State Policy in the first place – if only to increase its war-making powers. The question must now be raised as to whether only socialism can complete the historical task that classical political economy set out for itself – the ideal that Progressive Era individualists hoped that American capitalism might be able bring about without having to take the radical step of shedding its legacy of commercial banking indebting property and monopoly ownership of infrastructure that rightly should be in the public domain. This was the great debate of a century ago. It needs to be revived today.
Today it is easier to see that the Western economies cannot go on the way they have been. They have reached the point where the debts exceed the ability to pay. Instead of recognizing this fact and scaling debts back into line with the ability to pay, the Obama-Geithner plan is to bail out the big banks and hedge funds, keeping the volume of debt in place and indeed, growing once again through the “magic of compound interest.” The result can only be an increasingly extractive economy, until households, real estate and industrial companies, states and cities, and the national government itself are driven into debt peonage.
Today’s neoliberal ideology paints a false picture of what the classical economists and American Progressives envisioned as free markets. They were markets free of economic rent (rentier income, including monopoly price gouging) and interest (and of taxes that support an aristocracy or oligarchy). Progressives and socialists alike sought to free economies from these overhead charges. The alternative to today’s neoliberal ideology is a century and a half old, classical political economy and its successor Progressive Era ideals and socialism sought to nationalize the land (or at least to fully tax rentier income as the fiscal base). Governments were to create their own credit, not leave this function to wealthy elites via a bank monopoly on credit creation. Today’s Obama-Geithner rescue plan is just the reverse.
 Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “If Eastern Europe falls, world is next,” The Telegraph, February 14, 2009.
 Krishna Guha, “US closes in on subsidy plan to stop foreclosures,” Financial Times, February 13, 2009.
Michael Hudson is a former Wall Street economist specializing in the balance of payments and real estate at the Chase Manhattan Bank (now JPMorgan Chase & Co.), Arthur Anderson, and later at the Hudson Institute (no relation). In 1990 he helped established the world’s first sovereign debt fund for Scudder Stevens & Clark.
Dr. Hudson was Dennis Kucinich’s Chief Economic Advisor in the recent Democratic primary presidential campaign, and has advised the U.S., Canadian, Mexican and Latvian governments, as well as the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). A Distinguished Research Professor at University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC), he is the author of many books, including Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire (new ed., Pluto Press, 2002) He can be reached via his website, www.michael- hudson.com and his email mhmichael-hudson. com .
“When it comes to cleaning up the Greenspan Bubble legacy by writing down homeowner mortgage debt, the Treasury proposal offers homeowners $50 billion – just [half of one percent] of the $10 trillion Wall Street bailout to date, and less than half the amount given to AIG to pay its hedge fund speculators on their derivative gambles.
The Treasury has handed out $25 billion to each and every big bank, so just two of these banks alone got as much as the reported one-quarter of all homeowners in America suffering from Negative Equity on their homes and in need of mortgage renegotiation. Yet today’s economic shrinkage cannot be reversed without a recovery in consumer demand.
The economy has lost the “virtual wealth” in higher-priced homes and the stock market, and must rely on after-tax earnings. But I see little concern for wage earners in the Treasury plan. Without debt relief, consumer spending and business investment will not recover
Every day, I read another economist, journalist, or government official opining on how best to achieve economic recovery in this country or that. Needless to say, the remedies all contradict each other. But almost all of these pundits seem to me to live in fantasyland. They actually seem to believe their remedies will work in some relatively short period of time.
The fact is that the world is only at the beginning of a depression that will last for quite a while and will get far worse than it is now. The immediate issue for governments is not how to recover but how to survive the growing popular anger they are all, without exception, facing.
Let us start with the economic realities of the present. Just about everybody throughout the world - governments, enterprises, individuals - has been living above their income for the last 10-30 years, and doing it by borrowing. The world went giddy with inflated earnings and inflated consumption. Bubbles have to burst. This one has now burst (or actually several bubbles have burst). The impossibility of continuing on this path has sunk into consciousness, and suddenly everyone has gotten scared that they are running out of real money - governments, enterprises, individuals.
When that fear takes over, people stop spending, or lending. And when spending and lending declines significantly, enterprises stop producing or slow down. They may close down entirely, or at least fire workers. This is a vicious cycle, since closing down or firing workers leads to lower real demand and causes further reluctance to spend or to lend. It's called depression, and deflation.
For the moment, the United States government, which is still in a position to borrow money and print money, intends to throw some new money into circulation. This might work if the government threw an awful lot, and threw it wisely. But quite probably, it won't do it wisely. And quite probably throwing the amount that might work amounts to little more than creating another bubble. And the dollar might then really fall much faster than other currencies, pulling down the last important prop to the world-economy.
In the meantime, there is less and less money for daily consumption of all kinds for the bottom 90% of the world's population (and it's not so good for the top 10%). People are getting restless. Just in the last month, we have seen people in the streets protesting economic difficulties in a growing number of countries - Greece, Russia, Latvia, Great Britain, France, Iceland, China, South Korea, Guadeloupe, Reunion, Madagascar, Mexico - and probably a lot more that haven't been noticed by the world press. In fact, it's been relatively mild up to now, but the governments are all on edge.
What do governments do when their primary concern is dealing with internal unrest? They really have two choices - shoot the protestors, or appease them. Shooting works only up to a point. For one thing, the agents of force must themselves be well-enough paid to be willing to do it. And when there is a serious economic downturn, arranging this is not all that easy for the regimes.
So the regimes begin to appease their populations. How? First of all, by protectionism. Everyone has begun to complain about the protectionism of other countries. But the complainers are all practicing it themselves. And they will do a lot more of it. The free market economists all tell us that protectionism makes the overall economic situation still worse. That's probably true, but politically quite irrelevant, when there are people in the streets wanting jobs - now!
The second way governments appease when there is unrest is by social-democratic welfare measures. But to do that, governments need money. And governments get money from taxes.. The free market economists all tell us that raising taxes (of any kind) during an economic downturn makes the overall economic situation still worse.. That may be true, but in the short run that's also irrelevant. As it is, in a downturn, tax receipts fall. Governments can't keep up even with current expenditures, not to speak of paying for increased expenditures. So they will tax in one way or another. Or they will print money.
Finally, the third way they appease is by a healthy dose of populism. The real income gap between the top 1% and the bottom 20% both within countries and worldwide has grown enormously in the last thirty years. The gap will now be reduced to the more "normal" gap that existed in 1970, which is still very large, but somewhat less scandalously large. Hence, you have governments talking now of "income caps" for bankers, as in the United States and France. Or you can prosecute people for corruption, as in China.
It's a bit like being in the path of a tornado. The worst can come upon governments suddenly. When that happens, they have only minutes to take shelter in their cellars. The tornado then passes, and if one is still alive, one comes out to survey the damage. The damage will turn out to be very extensive. Yes, one can rebuild. But then the real argument begins - about how one rebuilds, and how fairly one shares the benefits of rebuilding.
How long will this gloomy picture prevail? No one knows or can be sure, but it will probably be a good number of years. In the meantime, governments will face elections, and voters will not be kind to the incumbents. Protectionism and social-democratic welfare serve governments the way the cellar does during a tornado. The quasi-nationalizati on of banks is another way of taking shelter in the cellars.
What we the people have to think about and prepare for is what we do when we emerge from the cellar, whenever that is. The fundamental question is how are we going to rebuild.. That will be the real political battle. The landscape will be unfamiliar. And all our past rhetorics will be suspect. The key thing to realize is that rebuilding can take us into a far better world - but it can also take us into a far worse one. In either case, it will be a far different one.
by Immanuel Wallerstein
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Here is an extract of an article by Chris Ayres the Los Angeles Correspondent for The Times after years on the brink, it has finally come to this: California is going out of business.
"How did this happen? Sure, the economy is bad. But this is a state whose money comes from the most bankable economic assets on Earth - the Long Beach ports, the Central Valley agricultural region, the defence contractors out in the Mojave desert, Silicon Valley, Napa Valley... Hollywood. How do you tax all this and end up amassing debts at the present rate of $1.7 million per hour?
Perhaps it has something to do with the man running the place. And I am ashamed to say that, yes, when the actor most famous for playing a killer robot in a so-so B-movie ran for governor, I was behind him. I defended his fiscally conservative, socially moderate agenda and loveable tendency to work movie tag lines into important policy debates. I believed in Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the “governator”. And like the five million Californians who voted for him, I'm feeling a bit silly now.
It was all talk in the end. For all Mr Schwarzenegger's swagger, he didn't have the faintest idea how to run a state that is at the mercy of laws put on the books at every election by the voters themselves, through a system of utter madness known as “direct democracy” (imagine, if you will, an army in which the troops can overrule the general, mid-battle, with a show of hands).
Still, nothing justifies the fact that Mr Schwarzenegger - who once railed against “economic girlie men” - has allowed California's budget to grow by 40 per cent to a morbidly obese $144 billion since 2004, setting the stage for a calamity of asteroid-hitting-the-Pacific proportions the moment tax revenues began to fall.
So what now?
The governor wants to raise taxes - exactly the same thing that his predecessor tried to do before being terminated by a certain Hollywood action star - while his fellow Republicans are objecting, without suggesting anything cleverer. Until a solution is found, California is done, dead, kaput. It is, as John Cleese might have put it, an ex-state. In the meantime, I suggest we put Mr Schwarzenegger on an aircraft, fly him back to Austria and ask politely for a refund."
Bubble Economy 2.0: The Financial Recovery Plan from Hell Michael Hudson
Martin Wolf started off his Financial Times column today (February 11) with the bold question: “Has Barack Obama’s presidency already failed?” The stock market had a similar opinion, plunging 382 points. Having promised “change,” Mr. Obama is giving us more Clinton-Bush via Robert Rubin’s protégé, Tim Geithner. Tuesday’s $2.5 trillion Financial Stabilization Plan to re-inflate the Bubble Economy is basically an extension of the Bush-Paulson giveaway – yet more Rubinomics for financial insiders in the emerging Wall Street trusts. The financial system is to be concentrated into a cartel of just a few giant conglomerates to act as the economy’s central planners and resource allocators. This makes banks the big winners in the game of “chicken” they’ve been playing with Washington, a shakedown holding the economy hostage. “Give us what we want or we’ll plunge the economy into financial crisis.” Washington has given them $9 trillion so far, with promises now of another $2 trillion– and still counting.
A true reform – one designed to undo the systemic market distortions that led to the real estate bubble – would have set out to reverse the Clinton-Rubin repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act so as to prevent the corrupting conflicts of interest that have resulted in vertical trusts such as Citibank and Bank of America/Countrywide /Merrill Lynch. By unleashing these conglomerate grupos (to use the term popularized under Pinochet with Chicago Boy direction – a dress rehearsal of the mass financial bankruptcies they caused in Chile by the end of the 1970s) – the Clinton administration enabled banks to merge with junk mortgage companies, junk-money managers, fictitious property appraisal companies, and law-evasion firms all designed to package debts to investors who trusted them enough to let them rake off enough commissions and capital gains to make their managers the world’s highest-paid economic planners.
Today’s economic collapse is the direct result of their planning philosophy. It actually was taught as “wealth creation” and still is, as supposedly more productive than the public regulation and oversight so detested by Wall Street and its Chicago School aficionados. The financial powerhouses created by this “free market” philosophy span the entire FIRE sector – finance, insurance and real estate, “financializing” housing and commercial property markets in ways guaranteed to make money by creating and selling debt. Mr. Obama’s advisors are precisely those of the Clinton Administration who supported trustification of the FIRE sector. This is the broad deregulatory medium in which today’s bad-debt disaster has been able to spread so much more rapidly than at any time since the 1920s.
The commercial banks have used their credit-creating power not to expand the production of goods and services or raise living standards but simply to inflate prices for real estate (making fortunes for their brokerage, property appraisal and insurance affiliates), stocks and bonds (making more fortunes for their investment bank subsidiaries) , fine arts (whose demand is now essentially for trophies, degrading the idea of art accordingly) and other assets already in place. The resulting dot.com and real estate bubbles were not inevitable, not economically necessary. They were financially engineered by the political deregulatory power acquired by banks corrupting Congress through campaign contributions and public relations “think tanks” (more in the character of Orwellian doublethink tanks) to promote the perverse fiction that Wall Street can be and indeed is automatically self-regulating. This is a travesty of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.” This hand is better thought of as covert. The myth of “free markets” is now supposed to consist of governments withdrawing from planning and taxing wealth, so as to leave resource allocation and the economic surplus to bankers rather than elected public representatives. This is what classically is called oligarchy, not democracy.
This centralization of planning, debt creation and revenue-extracting power is defended as the alternative to Hayek’s road to serfdom. But it is itself the road to debt peonage, a.k.a. the post-industrial economy or “Information Economy.” The latter term is another euphemistic travesty in view of the kind of information the banking system has promoted in the junk accounting crafted by their accounting firms and tax lawyers (off-balance- sheet entities registered on offshore tax-avoidance islands), the AAA applause provided as “information” to investors by the bond-rating cartel, and indeed the national income and product accounts that depict the FIRE sector as being part of the “real” economy, not as an institutional wrapping of special interests and government-sanction ed privilege acting in an extractive rather than a productive way. “Thanks for the bonuses,” bankers in the United States and England testified this week before Congress and Parliament. “We’ll keep the money, but rest assured that we are truly sorry for having to ask you for another few trillion dollars. At least you should remember our theme song: We are still better managers than the government, and the bulwark against government bureaucratic resource allocation.” This is the ideological Big Lie sold by the Chicago School “free market” celebration of dismantling government power over finance, all defended by complex math rivaling that of nuclear physics that the financial sector is part of the “real” economy automatically producing a fair and equitable equilibrium.
This is not bad news for stockholders of more local and relatively healthy banks (healthy in the sense of avoiding negative equity). Their stocks soared and were by far the major gainers on Tuesday’s stock market, while Wall Street’s large Bad Banks plunged to new lows. Solvent local banks are the sort that were normal prior to repeal of Glass Steagall. They are to be bought by the large “troubled” banks, whose “toxic loans” reflect a basically toxic operating philosophy. In other words, small banks who have made loans carefully will be sucked into Citibank, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo – the Big Four or Five where the junk mortgages, junk CDOs and junk derivatives are concentrated, and have used Treasury money from the past bailout to buy out smaller banks that were not infected with such reckless financial opportunism. Even the Wall Street Journal editorialized regarding the Obama Treasury’s new “Public-Private Investment Fund” to pump a trillion dollars into this mess: “Mr. Geithner would be wise to put someone strong and independent in charge of this fund – someone who can say no to Congress and has no ties to Citigroup, Robert Rubin or Wall Street.”
None of this can solve today’s financial problem. The debt overhead far exceeds the economy’s ability to pay. If the banks would indeed do what Pres. Obama’s appointees are begging them to do and lend more, the debt burden would become even heavier and buying access to housing even more costly. When the banks look back fondly on what Alan Greenspan called “wealth creation,” we can see today that the less euphemistic terminology would be “debt creation.” This is the objective of the new bank giveaway. It threatens to spread the distortions that the large banks have introduced until the entire system presumably looks like Citibank, long the number-one offender of “stretching the envelope,” its euphemism for breaking the law bit by bit and daring government regulators and prosecutors to try and stop it and thereby plunging the U.S. financial system into crisis. This is the shakedown that is being played out this week. And the Obama administration blinked – as these same regulators did when they were in charge of the Clinton administration’ s bank policy. So much for the promised change!
The three-pronged Treasury program seems to be only Stage One of a two-stage “dream recovery plan” for Wall Street. Enough hints have trickled out for the past three months in Wall Street Journal op-eds to tip the hand for what may be in store. Watch for the magic phrase “equity kicker,” first heard in the S&L mortgage crisis of the 1980s. It refers to the banker’s share of capital gains, that is, asset price inflation in Bubble #2 that the Recovery Program hopes to sponsor.
The first question to ask about any Recovery Program is, “Recovery for whom?” The answer given on Tuesday is, “For the people who design the Program and their constituency” – in this case, the bank lobby. The second question is, “Just what is it they want to ‘recover’?” The answer is, the Bubble Economy. For the financial sector it was a golden age. Having enjoyed the Greenspan Bubble that made them so rich, its managers would love to create yet more wealth for themselves by indebting the “real” economy yet further while inflating prices all over again to make new capital gains.
The problem for today’s financial elites is that it is not possible to inflate another bubble from today’s debt levels, widespread negative equity, and still-high level of real estate, stock and bond prices. No amount of new capital will induce banks to provide credit to real estate already over-mortgaged or to individuals and corporations already over-indebted. Moody’s and other leading professional observers have forecast property prices to keep on plunging for at least the next year, which is as far as the eye can see in today’s unstable conditions. So the smartest money is still waiting like vultures in the wings – waiting for government guarantees that toxic loans will pay off. Another no-risk private profit to be subsidized by public-sector losses.
While the Obama administration’ s financial planners wring their hands in public and say “We feel your pain” to debtors at large, they know that the past ten years have been a golden age for the banking system and the rest of Wall Street. Like feudal lords claiming the economic surplus for themselves while administering austerity for the population at large, the wealthiest 1% of the population has raised their appropriation of the nationwide returns to wealth – dividends, interest, rent and capital gains – from 37% of the total ten years ago to 57% five years ago and it seems nearly 70% today. This is the highest proportion since records have been kept. We are approaching Russian kleptocratic levels.
The officials drawn from Wall Street who now control of the Treasury and Federal Reserve repeat the right-wing Big Lie: Poor “subprime families” have brought the system down, exploiting the rich by trying to ape their betters and live beyond their means. Taking out subprime loans and not revealing their actual ability to pay, the NINJA poor (no income, no job, no audit) signed up to obtain “liars’ loans” as no-documentation Alt-A loans are called in the financial junk-paper trade.
I learned the reality a few years ago in London, talking to a commercial banker. “We’ve had an intellectual breakthrough,” he said. “It’s changed our credit philosophy.” “What is it?” I asked, imagining that he was about to come out with yet a new magical mathematics formula?
“The poor are honest,” he said, accompanying his words with his jaw dropping open as if to say, “Who would have guessed?”
The meaning was clear enough. The poor pay their debts as a matter of honor, even at great personal sacrifice and what today’s neoliberal Chicago School language would call uneconomic behavior. Unlike Donald Trump, they are less likely to walk away from their homes when market prices sink below the mortgage level. This sociological gullibility does not make economic sense, but reflects a group morality that has made them rich pickings for predatory lenders such as Countrywide, Wachovia and Citibank. So it’s not the “lying poor.” It’s the banksters’ fault after all!
For this elite the Bubble Economy was a deliberate policy they would love to recover. The problem is how to start a new bubble to make yet another fortune? The alternative is not so bad – to keep the bonuses, capital gains and golden parachutes they have given themselves, and run. But perhaps they can improve in Bubble Economy #2.
The Treasury’s newest Financial Stability Plan (Bailout 2.0) is only the first step. It aims at putting in place enough new bank-lending capacity to start inflating prices on credit all over again. But a new bubble can’t be started from today’s asset-price levels. How can the $10 to $20 trillion capital-gain run-up of the Greenspan years be repeated in an economy that is “all loaned up”?
One thing Wall Street knows is that in order to make money, asset prices not only need to rise, they have to go down again. Without going down, after all, how can they rise up? Without a crucifixion for the economy, how can there be a resurrection? The more frenetic the price fibrillation, the easier it is for computerized buy-and-sell programs to make money on options and derivatives.
So here’s the situation as I see it. The first objective is to preserve the wealth of the creditor class – Wall Street, the banks and the other financial vehicles that enrich the wealthiest 1% and, to be fair within America’s emerging new financial oligarchy, the richest 10% of the population. Stage One involves buying out their bad loans at a price that saves them from taking a loss. The money will be depicted to voters as a “loan,” to be repaid by banks extracting enough new debt charges in the new rigged game the Treasury is setting up. The current loss will be shifted the onto “taxpayers” and made up by new debtors – in both cases labor, onto whose shoulders the tax burden has been shifted steadily, step by step since 1980.
An “aggregator” bank (sounds like “alligator,” from the swamps of toxic waste) will buy the bad debts and put them in a public agency. The government calls this the “bad” bank. (This is Geithner’s first point.) But it does good for Wall Street – by buying loans that have gone bad, along with loans and derivative guarantees and swaps that never were good in the first place. If the private sector refuses to buy these bad loans at prices the banks are asking for, why should the government pretend that these debt claims are worth more. Vulture funds are said to be offering about what they were when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt: about 22 cents on the dollar. The banks are asking for 75 cents on the dollar. What will the government offer? Perhaps the worst alternative is that is now being promoted by the banks and vulture investors in tandem: the government will guarantee the price at which private investors buy toxic financial waste from the banks. A vulture fund would be happy enough to pay 75 cents on the dollar for worthless junk if the government were to provide a guarantee. The Treasury and Federal Reserve pretend that they simply would be “providing liquidity” to “frozen markets.” But the problem is not liquidity and it is not subjective “market psychology.” It is “solvency,” that is, a realistic awareness that toxic waste and bad derivatives gambles are junk. Mr. Geithner has not been able to come to terms with how to value this – without bringing the Obama administration down in a wave of populist protest – any more than Mr. Paulson was able to carry out his original Tarp proposal along these lines.
The hardest task for today’s banksters is to revive opportunities for creditors to make a new killing. (It’s the economy that’s being killed, of course.) This seems to be the aim of the Public/Private investment company that Mr. Geithner is establishing as the second element in his plan. The easiest free lunch is to ride the wave of a new bubble – a fresh wave of asset-price inflation to be introduced to “cure” the problem of debt deflation.
Here’s how I imagine the ploy might work. Suppose a hapless family has bought a home for $500,000, with a full 100% $500,000 adjustable-rate mortgage scheduled to reset this year at 8%. Suppose too that the current market price will fall to $250,000, a loss of 50% by yearend 2009. Sometime in mid 2010 would seem to be long enough for prices to decline by enough to make “recovery” possible – Bubble Economy 2.0. Without such a plunge, there will be no economy to “rescue,” no opportunity for Tim Geithner and Laurence Summers to “feel your pain” and pull out of their pocket the following package – a variant on the “cash for trash” swap, a public agency to acquire the $500,000 mortgage that is going bad, heading toward only a $250,000 market price.
The “bad bank” was not quite ready to be created this week, but the embryo is there. It will take the form of a public/private partnership (PPP) of the sort that Tony Blair made so notorious in Britain. And speaking of Mr. Blair, I am writing this from England, where almost every America-watcher I talk to has expressed amazement at Obama’s performance last week idealizing England’s counterpart to George Bush when it comes to unpopularity contests. Blair’s tenure in office was a horror story, not something to be congratulated for. He privatized the railroads and entering into the disastrous public/private partnership that doubled, tripled or quadrupled the cost of public projects by adding on a heavy financial overhead. If Obama does not realize how he shocked Britain and much of Europe with his praise, then he is in danger of foisting a similar public/private financialized “partnership” on the United States
The new public/private institution will be financed with private funds – in fact, with the money now being given to re-capitalize America’s banks (headed by the Wall St. banks that have done so bad). Banks will use the Treasury money they have received by “borrowing” against their junk mortgages at or near par to buy shares in a new $5 trillion institution created along the lines of the unfortunate Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac. Its bonds will be guaranteed. (That’s the “public” part – “socializing” the risk.) The PPP institution will have the power to buy and renegotiate the mortgages that have passed into the hands of the government and other holders. This “Homeowner Rescue Trust” will use its private funding for the “socially responsible” purpose of “saving the taxpayer” and middle class homeowners by renegotiating the mortgage down from its original $500,000 to the new $250,000 market price.
Here’s the patter talk you can expect, with the usual Orwellian euphemisms. The Homeowners Rescue PPP will appear as a veritable Savior Bank resurrected from the wreckage of Bubble #1. Its clients will be families strapped by their mortgage debt and feeling more and more desperate as the price of their major asset plummets more deeply into Negative Equity territory. To them, the new PPP will say: “We’ve got a deal to save you. We’ll renegotiate your mortgage down to the current market price, $250,000, and we’ll also lower your interest rate to just 5.50%, the new rate. This will cut your monthly debt charges by nearly two thirds. Not only can you afford to stay in your home, you will escape from your negative equity.”
The family probably will say, “Great.” But they will have to make a concession. That’s where the new public/private partnership makes its killing. Funded with private money that will take the “risk” (and also reap the rewards), the Savior Bank will say to the family that agrees to renegotiate its mortgage: “Now that the government has absorbed a loss (in today’s travesty of “socializing” the financial system) while letting let you stay in your home, we need to recover the money that’s been lost. If we make you whole, we want to be made whole too. So when the time comes for you to sell your home or renegotiate your mortgage, our Homeowners Rescue PPP will receive the capital gain up to the original amount written off.”
In other words, if the homeowner sells the property for $400,000, the Homeowners Rescue PPP will get $150,000 of the capital gain. If the home sells for $500,000, the bank will get $250,000. And if it sells for more, thanks to some new clone of Alan Greenspan acting as bubblemeister, the capital gain will be split in some way. If the split is 50/50 and the home sells for $600,000, the owner will split the $100,000 further capital gain with the Homeowners Rescue PPP. It thus will make much more through its appropriation of capital gains (the new debt-fueled asset-price inflation being put in place) than it extracts in interest!
This would make Bubble 2.0 even richer for Wall Street than the Greenspan bubble! Last time around, it was the middle class that got the gains – even if new buyers had to enter a lifetime of debt peonage to buy higher-priced homes. It really was the bank that got the gains, of course, because mortgage interest charges absorbed the entire rental value and even the hoped-for price gain. But homeowners at least had a chance at the free ride, if they didn’t squander their money in refinancing their mortgages to “cash out” on their equity to support their living standards in a generation whose wage levels had stagnated since 1979. As Mr. Greenspan observed in testimony before Congress, a major reason why wages have not risen is that workers are afraid to strike or even to complain about being worked harder and harder for longer and longer hours (“raising productivity” ), because they are one paycheck away from missing their mortgage payment – or, if renters, one paycheck or two away from homelessness. This is the happy condition of normalcy that Wall Street’s financial planners would like to recover. This time around, they may not be obliged to make their gains in a way that also makes middle class homeowners rich. In the wake of Bubble Economy #1, today’s debt-strapped homeowners are willing to settle merely for a plan that leaves them in their homes! The Homeowners Rescue PPP can appropriate for its stockholder banks and other large investors the capital gains that have been the driving force of U.S. “wealth creation,” bubble-style. That is what the term “equity kicker” means.
This situation confronts the economy with a dilemma. The only policies deemed politically correct these days are those that make the situation worse: yet more government money in the hope that banks will create yet more credit/debt to raise house prices and make them even more unaffordable; credit/debt to inflate a new Bubble Economy #2.
Lobbyists for Wall Street’s enormous Bad Bank conglomerates are screaming that all real solutions to today’s debt problem and tax shift onto labor are politically incorrect, above all the time-honored debt write-downs to bring the debt burden within the ability to pay. That is what the market is supposed to do, after all, by bankruptcy in an anarchic collapse if not by more deliberate and targeted government policy. The Bad Banks, having demanded “free markets” all these years, fear a really free market when it threatens their bonuses and other takings. For Wall Street, free markets are “free” of public regulation against predatory lending; “free” of taxing the wealthy so as to shift the burden onto labor; “free” for the financial sector to wrap itself around the “real” economy like parasitic ivy around a tree to extract the surplus. This is a travesty of freedom. As the putative neoliberal Adam Smith explained, “The government of an exclusive company of merchants, is, perhaps, the worst of all governments.” But worst of all is the “freedom” of today’s economic discussion from the wisdom of classical political economy and from historical experience regarding how societies through the ages have coped with the debt overhead.
How to save the economy from Wall Street
There is an alternative to ward all this off, and it is the classic definition of freedom from debt peonage and predatory credit. The only real solution to today’s debt overhang is a debt write-down. Until this occurs, debt service will crowd out spending on goods and services and there will be no recovery. Debt deflation will drag the economy down while assets are transferred further into the hands of the wealthiest 10 percent of the population, operating via the financial sector. If Obama means what he says, he would use his office as a bully pulpit to urge repeal the present harsh creditor-oriented bankruptcy law sponsored by the banks and credit-card companies. He would campaign to restore the long-term trend of laws favoring debtors rather than creditors, and introduce legislation to restore the practice of writing down debts to reflect the debtor’s ability to pay, imposing market reality to debts that are far in excess of realistic valuations. A second policy would be to restore the power of state attorneys general to bring financial fraud charges against the most egregious mortgage lenders. The Bush Administration got these prosecutions thrown out of court by claiming that under an 1864 National Bank Act clause, the federal government had the right to override state prosecutions of national banks. Bush then appointed a non-prosecutor to this enforcement position.
On the basis of reinstated fraud charges, the government might claw back the bank bonuses, salaries and bank earnings that represented the profits from America’s greatest financial and real estate fraud in history. And to prevent repetition of the past decade’s experience, the Obama Administration might help popularize a new psychology of debt. The government could encourage “the poor” to act as “economically” as Donald Trumps or Angelo Mozilo’s would do, making it clear that debt write-downs are a right.
Also to ward off repetition of the Bubble Economy, the Treasury could impose the “Tobin tax” of 1% on purchases and options for stocks, bonds and foreign currency. Critics of this tax point out that it can be evaded by speculators trading offshore in the rights to securities held in U.S. accounts. But the government could simply refuse to provide deposit insurance and other support to institutions trading offshore, or simply could announce that trades in such “deposit receipts” for shares would not have legal standing. As for trades in derivatives, depository institutions – including conglomerates owning such banks – can simply be banned as inherently unsafe. If foreigners wish to speculate on financial horse races, let them.
Financial policy ultimately rests on tax policy. It is the ability to levy taxes, after all, that gives value to Treasury money (just as it is the inability to collect on debts that has depreciated the value of commercial bank deposits). It is easy enough for fiscal policy to prevent a new real estate bubble. Simply shift the tax system back to where it originally was, on the land’s site-rental value. The “free lunch” (what John Stuart Mill called the “unearned increment” of rising land prices, a gain that landlords made “in their sleep”) would serve as the tax base instead of burdening labor and industry with income taxes and sales taxes. This would achieve the kind of free market that Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and Alfred Marshall described, and which the Progressive Era aimed to achieve with America’s first income tax in 1913. It would be a market free of the free lunch that Chicago Boys insist does not exist. But the recent Bubble Economy and today’s Bailout Sequel have been all about getting a free lunch.
A land tax would prevent housing prices from rising again. It is the most hated tax in America today, largely because of the disinformation campaign that has been mounted by the real estate interests and amplified by the banks that stand behind them. The reality is that taxing land appreciation rather than wages or corporate profits would save homeowners from having to take on so much debt in order to obtain housing. It would save the economy from seeing “wealth creation” take the form of the “unearned increment” being capitalized into higher bank loans with their associated carrying charges (interest and amortization) .
The wealth tax originally fell mainly on real estate. The most immediate and politically feasible priority of the Obama Administration thus should be to repeal the Bush Administration’ s drastic tax cuts for the top brackets and its moratorium on the estate tax. The aim should be to bring down the polarization between creditors and debtors that has concentrated over two-thirds of the returns to wealth in the richest 1% of the population.
If alternatives to the Bubble Economy such as these are not promoted, we will know that promises of change were mere rhetoric, Tony Blair style. Mr. Geithner may have given the game away in his February 10 statement that “Access to public support is a privilege, not a right.” The literal meaning of “privilege” is “private law” (Lat. leges), a law to benefit individuals as a special interest separate from the public interest. The problem is that Mr. Geithner is seeking to save a system that creates no real jobs products. The debt that banks sell is not really a “product.” Extracting interest and receiving public bailouts to make financial gamblers whole is extractive, not productive.
The banking system often has been characterized as parasitic. The metaphor is appropriate on more than one plane. Most people think of parasites simply as leeches, draining nourishment from the host. But biological nature is more complex. In order for parasites to succeed they must first numb the host’s pain-warning system so that they can get a foothold. They then take control of the host’s brain. The trick the host into believing that the parasite is part of its own body, and indeed even its child, to be nurtured, protected and given preference. They turn the host into a zombie. So the problem we are facing is not “zombie banks,” but the ability of Wall Street to create a zombie economy.
This is what the financial sector has done vis-à-vis the economy at large. It depicts itself and the rest of the symbiotic FIRE sector as part of the “real” economy, so that its extraction of interest, economic rent and monopoly prices is payment for providing a “service”: the privilege of credit creation, landlordship and “corporate management. Like his predecessor Hank Paulson, Mr. Geithner claims that recovery cannot occur until the banking system is put back on its feet in sufficiently solvent and indeed, prosperous condition to “get credit flowing again,” he said. “Without credit, economies cannot grow at their potential.” But is the solution really to create yet more debt for the already debt-ridden U.S. economy? It was the Greenspan debt bubble that brought it to a halt! Interest and amortization charges on new debt will eats into the ability of consumers and companies to spend and invest. Claiming that economic recovery must be led by renewed debt creation threatens only to deepen debt dependency and further erode discretionary consumer spending power.
When it comes to cleaning up the Greenspan Bubble legacy by writing down homeowner mortgage debt, the Treasury proposal offers homeowners $50 billion – just 0,5 percent of the $10 trillion Wall Street bailout to date, and less than half the amount given to AIG to pay its hedge fund speculators on their derivative gambles. The Treasury has handed out $25 billion to each and every big bank, so just two of these banks alone got as much as the reported one-quarter of all homeowners in America suffering from Negative Equity on their homes and in need of mortgage renegotiation. Yet today’s economic shrinkage cannot be reversed without a recovery in consumer demand. The economy has lost the “virtual wealth” in higher-priced homes and the stock market, and must rely on after-tax earnings. But I see little concern for wage earners in the Treasury plan. Without debt relief, consumer spending and business investment will not recover.
This debt dimension is what the Treasury’s “recovery” plan leaves out of account. It seeks to recover the debt-bubble economy, not the real economy of production and consumption.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------  Martin Wolf, “Why Obama’s new Tarp will fail to rescue the banks,” Financial Times, Feb. 11, 2009.  “Geithner at the Improv,” Wall Street Journal editorial, February 11, 2009.
Michael Hudson is a frequent contributor to Global Research. Michael Hudson is a former Wall Street economist specializing in the balance of payments and real estate at the Chase Manhattan Bank (now JPMorgan Chase & Co.), Arthur Anderson, and later at the Hudson Institute (no relation). In 1990 he helped established the world’s first sovereign debt fund for Scudder Stevens & Clark. Dr. Hudson was Dennis Kucinich’s Chief Economic Advisor in the recent Democratic primary presidential campaign, and has advised the U.S., Canadian, Mexican and Latvian governments, as well as the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). A Distinguished Research Professor at University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC), he is the author of many books, including Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire (new ed., Pluto Press, 2002) He can be reached via his website, www.michael- hudson.com and his email mhmichael-hudson. com .
Much is to be gained by viewing the contemporary crisis as a surface eruption generated out of deep tectonic shifts in the spatio-temporal disposition of capitalist development. The tectonic plates are now accelerating their motion and the likelihood of more frequent and more violent crises of the sort that have been occurring since 1980 or so will almost certainly increase. The manner, form, spatiality and time of these surface disruptions are almost impossible to predict, but that they will occur with greater frequency and depth is almost certain. The events of 2008 have therefore to be situated in the context of a deeper pattern. Since these stresses are internal to the capitalist dynamic (which does not preclude some seemingly external disruptive event like a catastrophic pandemic also occurring), then what better argument could there be, as Marx once put it, “for capitalism to be gone and to make way for some alternative and more rational mode of production.”
I begin with this conclusion since I still find it vital to emphasize, if not dramatize, as I have sought to do over and over again in my writings over the years, that failure to understand the geographical dynamics of capitalism or to treat the geographical dimension as in some sense merely contingent or epiphenomenal, is to both lose the plot on how to understand capitalist uneven geographical development and to miss out on possibilities for constructing radical alternatives. But this poses an acute difficulty for analysis since we are constantly faced with trying to distill universal principles regarding the role of the production of spaces, places and environments in capitalism’s dynamics, out of a sea of often volatile geographical particularities. So how, then, can we integrate geographical understandings into our theories of evolutionary change? Let us look more carefully at the tectonic shifts.
In November 2008, shortly after the election of a new President, the National Intelligence Council of the United States issued its delphic estimates on what the world would be like in 2025. Perhaps for the first time, a quasi-official body in the United States predicted that by 2025 the United States, while still a powerful if not the most powerful single player in world affairs, would no longer be dominant. The world would be multi-polar and less centered and the power of non-state actors would increase. The report conceded that US hegemony had been fading on and off for some time but that its economic, political and even military dominance was now systematically waning. Above all (and it is important to note that the report was prepared before the implosion of the US and British financial systems), “the unprecedented shift in relative wealth and economic power roughly from West to East now under way will continue.”
This “unprecedented shift” has reversed the long- standing drain of wealth from East, Southeast and South Asia to Europe and North America that had been occurring since the eighteenth century (a drain that even Adam Smith had noted with regret in The Wealth of Nations but which accelerated relentlessly throughout the nineteenth century). The rise of Japan in the 1960s followed by South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong in the 1970s and then the rapid growth of China after 1980 later accompanied by industrialization spurts in Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia during the 1990s, has altered the center of gravity of capitalist development, although it has not done so smoothly (the East and South-East Asian financial crisis of 1997-8 saw wealth flow briefly but strongly back towards Wall Street and the European and Japanese banks). Economic hegemony seems to be moving towards some constellation of powers in East Asia and if crises, as we earlier argued, are moments of radical reconfigurations in capitalist development, then the fact that the United States is having to deficit finance its way out of its financial difficulties on such a huge scale and that the deficits are largely being covered by those countries with saved surpluses – Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan and the Gulf states – suggests this may be the moment for such a shift to be consolidated.
Shifts of this sort have occurred before in the long history of capitalism. In Giovanni Arrighi’s thorough account in The Long Twentieth Century, we see hegemony shifting from the city states of Genoa and Venice in the sixteenth century to Amsterdam and the Low Countries in the seventeenth before concentrating in Britain from the late eighteenth century until the United States eventually took control after 1945. There are a number of features to these transitions that Arrighi emphasizes and which are relevant to our analysis. Each shift, Arrighi notes, occurred in the wake of a strong phase of financialization (he cites with approval Braudel’s maxim that financialization announces the autumn of some hegemonic configuration). But each shift also entailed a radical change of scale, from the small city states at the origin to the continent-wide economy of the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century. This change of scale makes sense given the capitalist rule of endless accumulation and compound growth of at least three per cent for ever. But hegemonic shifts, Arrighi argues, are not determined in advance. They depend upon the emergence of some power economically able and politically and militarily willing to take on the role of global hegemon (with its costs as well as its advantages). The reluctance of the United States to assume that role before World War II meant an interregnum of multi-polar tensions that could not halt the drift into war (Britain was no longer in a position to assert its prior hegemonic role). Much also depends on how the past hegemon behaves as it faces up to the diminution of its former role. It can pass peaceably or belligerently into history. From this perspective the fact that the United States still holds overwhelming military power (particularly from 30,000 feet up) in a context of its declining economic and financial power and increasingly shaky cultural and moral authority, creates worrying scenarios for any future transition. Furthermore, it is not obvious that the main candidate to displace the United States, China, has the capacity or the will to assert some hegemonic role, for while its population is certainly huge enough to meet the requirements of changing scale, neither its economy nor its political authority (or even its political will) point to any easy accession to the role of global hegemon. Given the nationalist divisions that exist, the idea that some association of East Asian Powers might do the job also appears unlikely as does the possibility for a fragmented and fractious European Union or the so-called BRIC powers (Brazil, Russia, India and China) to stay on a common path for long. For this reason, the prediction that we are headed into another interregnum of multi-polar and conflictual interests and potential global instability appears plausible.
But the tectonic shift away from United States dominance and hegemony that has been under way for some time is becoming much clearer. The thesis of both excessive financialization and “debt as a principal predictor of leading world powers’ debilitation” has found popular voice in the writings of Kevin Phillips. Attempts now under way to re-build US dominance through reforms in the architecture of both the national and the global state-finance nexus appear not to be working while the exclusions imposed on much of the rest of the world in seeking to re-shape that architecture are almost certain to provoke strong oppositions if not overt economic conflicts.
But tectonic shifts of this sort do not come about as if by magic. While the historical geography of a shifting hegemony as Arrighi describes it has a clear pattern and while it is also clear from the historical record that periods of financialization precede such shifts, Arrighi does not provide any deep analysis of the processes that produce such shifts in the first place. To be sure, he cites “endless accumulation” and therefore the growth syndrome (the three per cent compound growth rule) as critical to explaining the shifts. This implies that hegemony moves from smaller (i.e. Venice) to larger (e.g. the United States) political entities over time. And it also stands to reason that hegemony has to lie with that political entity within which much of the surplus is produced (or to which much of the surplus flows in the form of tribute or imperialist extractions). With total global output standing at $45 trillion as of 2005, the US share of $15 trillion made it, as it were, the dominant and controlling share-holder in global capitalism able to dictate (as it typically does in its role as the chief shareholder in the international institutions such as a the World Bank and the IMF) global policies. The NCIS report in part based its prediction on loss of dominance but maintenance of a strong position on the falling share of global output in the US relative to the rest of the world in general and China in particular.
But as Arrighi points out, the politics of such a shift are by no means certain. The United States bid for global hegemony under Woodrow Wilson during and immediately after World War I was thwarted by a domestic political preference in the United State for isolationism (hence the collapse of the League of Nations) and it was only after World War II (which the US population was against entering until Pearl Harbor occurred) that the US embraced its role as global hegemon through a bi-partisan foreign policy anchored by the Bretton Woods Agreements on how the post-War international order would be organized (in the face of the Cold War and the spreading threat to capitalism of international communism). That the United States had long been developing into a state that in principle could play the role of global hegemon is evident from relatively early days. It possessed relevant doctrines, such as “Manifest Destiny” (continental wide geographical expansion which eventually spilled over into the Pacific and Caribbean before going global without territorial acquisitions) or the Monroe Doctrine which warned European Powers to leave the Americas alone (the doctrine was actually formulated by the British Foreign Secretary Canning in the 1820s but adopted by the US as its own almost immediately). The United States possessed the necessary dynamism to account for a growing share of global output and was quintessentially committed to some version of what can best be called “cornered market” or “monopoly” capitalism backed by an ideology of rugged individualism. So there is a sense in which the US was, throughout much of its history, preparing itself to take on the role of global hegemon. The only surprise was that it took so long to do so and that it was the Second rather than the First World War that led it finally to take up the role leaving the inter-war years as years of multipolarity and chaotic competing imperial ambitions of the sort that the NCIS report fears will be the situation in 2025.
The tectonic shifts now under way are deeply influenced, however, by the radical geographical unevenness in the economic and political possibilities of responding to the current crisis. Let me illustrate how this unevenness is now working by way of a tangible example. As the depression that began in 2007 deepened, the argument was made by many that a full-fledged Keynesian solution was required to extract global capitalism from the mess it was in. To this end various stimulus packages and bank stabilization measures were proposed and to some degree taken up in different countries in different ways in the hope that these would resolve the difficulties. The variety of solutions on offer varied immensely depending upon the economic circumstances and the prevailing forms of political opinion (pitting, for example, Germany against Britain and France in the European Union). Consider, however, the different economic political possibilities in the United States and China and the potential consequences for both shifting hegemony and for the manner in which the crisis might be resolved.
In the United States, any attempt to find an adequate Keynesian solution has been doomed at the start by a number of economic and political barriers that are almost impossible to overcome. A Keynesian solution would require massive and prolonged deficit financing if it were to succeed. It has been correctly argued that Roosevelt’s attempt to return to a balanced budget in 1937-8 plunged the United States back into depression and that it was, therefore, World War II that saved the situation and not Roosevelt’s too timid approach to deficit financing in the New Deal. So even if the institutional reforms as well as the push towards a more egalitarian policy did lay the foundations for the Post World War II recovery, the New Deal in itself actually failed to resolve the crisis in the United States.
The problem for the United States in 2008-9 is that it starts from a position of chronic indebtedness to the rest of the world (it has been borrowing at the rate of more than $2 billion a day over the last ten years or more) and this poses an economic limitation upon the size of the extra deficit that can now be incurred. (This was not a serious problem for Roosevelt who began with a roughly balanced budget). There is also a geo- political limitation since the funding of any extra deficit is contingent upon the willingness of other powers (principally from East Asia and the Gulf States) to lend. On both counts, the economic stimulus available to the United States will almost certainly be neither large enough nor sustained enough to be up to the task of reflating the economy. This problem is exacerbated by ideological reluctance on the part of both political parties to embrace the huge amounts of deficit spending that will be required, ironically in part because the previous Republican administration worked on Dick Cheney’s principle that “Reagan taught us that deficits don’t matter.” As Paul Krugman, the leading public advocate for a Keynesian solution, for one has argued, the $800 billion reluctantly voted on by Congress in 2009, while better than nothing, is nowhere near enough. It may take something of the order to $2 trillion to do the job and that is indeed excessive debt relative to where the US deficit now stands. The only possible economic option, would be to replace the weak Keynesianism of excessive military expenditures by the much stronger Keynesianism of social programs. Cutting the US defense budget in half (bringing it more in line with that of Europe in relation to proportion of GDP) might technically help but it would be, of course, political suicide, given the posture of the Republican Party as well as many Democrats, for anyone who proposed it.
The second barrier is more purely political. In order to work, the stimulus has to be administered in such a way as to guarantee that it will be spent on goods and services and so get the economy humming again. This means that any relief must be directed to those who will spend it, which means the lower classes, since even the middle classes, if they spend it at all, are more likely to spend it on bidding up asset values (buying up foreclosed houses, for example), rather than increasing their purchases of goods and services. In any case, when times are bad many people will tend to use any extra income they receive to retire debt or to save (as largely happened with the $600 rebate designed by the Bush Administration in the early summer of 2008).
What appears prudent and rational from the standpoint of the household bodes ill for the economy at large (in much the same way that the banks have rationally taken public money and either hoarded it or used it to buy assets rather than to lend). The prevailing hostility in the United States to “spreading the wealth around” and to administering any sort of relief other than tax cuts to individuals, arises out of hard core neoliberal ideological doctrine (centered in but by no means confined to the Republican Party) that “households know best”. These doctrines have broadly been accepted as gospel by the American public at large after more than thirty years of neoliberal political indoctrination. We are, as I have argued elsewhere, “all neoliberals now” for the most part without even knowing it. There is a tacit acceptance, for example, that “wage repression” - a key component to the present problem - is a “normal” state of affairs in the United States. One of the three legs of a Keynesian solution, greater empowerment of labor, rising wages and redistribution towards the lower classes is politically impossible in the United States at this point in time. The very charge that some such program amounts to “socialism” sends shivers of terror through the political establishment. Labor is not strong enough (after thirty years of being battered by political forces) and no broad social movement is in sight that will force redistributions towards the working classes.
One other way to achieve Keynesian goals, is to provide collective goods. This has traditionally entailed investments in both physical and social infrastructures (the WPA programs of the 1930s is a forerunner). Hence the attempt to insert into the stimulus package programs to rebuild and extend physical infrastructures for transport and communications, power and other public works along with increasing expenditures on health care, education, municipal services, and the like. These collective goods do have the potential to generate multipliers for employment as well as for the effective demand for further goods and services. But the presumption is that these collective goods are, at some point, going to belong to the category of “productive state expenditures” (i.e. stimulate further growth) rather than become a series of public “white elephants” which, as Keynes long ago remarked, amounted to nothing more than putting people to work digging ditches and filling them in again. In other words, an infrastructural investment strategy has to be targeted towards systematic revival of three percent growth through, for example, systematic redesign of our urban infrastructures and ways of life. This will not work without sophisticated state planning plus an existing productive base that can take advantage of the new infrastructural configurations. Here, too, the long prior history of deindustrialization in the United States and the intense ideological opposition to state planning (elements of which were incorporated into Roosevelt’s New Deal and which continued into the 1960s only to be abandoned in the face of the neoliberal assault upon that particular exercise of state power in the 1980s) and the obvious preference for tax cuts rather than infrastructural transformations makes the pursuit of a full-fledged Keynesian solution all but impossible in the United States.
In China, on the other hand, both the economic and political conditions exist where a full-fledged Keynesian solution would indeed be possible and where there are abundant signs that this path will likely be followed. To begin with, China has a vast reservoir of foreign cash surplus and it is easier to debt finance on that basis than it is with a vast already existing debt overhang as is the case in the US. It is also worth noting that ever since the mid 1990s the “toxic assets” (the non performing loans) of the Chinese Banks (some estimates put them as high as 40 per cent of all loans in 2000) have been wiped off the banks’ books by occasional infusions of surplus cash from the foreign exchange reserves. The Chinese have had a long-running equivalent of the TARP program in the United States and evidently know how to do it (even if many of the transactions are tainted by corruption). The Chinese have the economic wherewithal to engage in a massive deficit-finance program and have a centralized state- financial architecture to administer that program effectively if they care to use it. The banks, which were long state owned, may have been nominally privatized to satisfy WTO requirements and to lure in foreign capital and expertise, but they can still easily be bent to central state will whereas in the United States even the vaguest hint of state direction let alone nationalization creates a political furor.
There is likewise absolutely no ideological barrier to redistributing economic largesse to the neediest sectors of society though there may be some vested interests of wealthier party members and an emergent capitalist class to be overcome. The charge that this would amount to “socialism” or even worse to “communism” would simply be greeted with amusement in China. But in China the emergence of mass unemployment (at last report there were thought to be some 20 million unemployed as a result of the slow-down) and signs of widespread and rapidly escalating social unrest will almost certainly push the Communist Party to massive redistributions whether they are ideologically concerned to do so or not. As of early 2009, this seemed to be directed in the first instance to revitalizing the lagging rural areas to which many unemployed migrant workers have returned in frustration at the loss of jobs in manufacturing areas. In these regions where both social and physical infrastructures are lagging, a strong infusion of central government support will raise incomes, expand effective demand and begin upon the long process of consolidation of China’s internal market.
There is, secondly, a strong predilection to undertake the massive infrastructural investments that are still lagging in China (whereas tax reductions have almost no political appeal). While some of these may turn into “white elephants” the likelihood is far less since there is still an immense amount of work to be done to integrate the Chinese national space and so to confront the problem of uneven geographical development between the coastal regions of high development and the impoverished interior provinces. The existence of an extensive though troubled industrial and manufacturing base in need of spatial rationalization, makes it more likely that the Chinese effort will fall into the category of productive state expenditures. For the Chinese, much of the surplus can be mopped up in the further production of space, even allowing for the fact that speculation in urban property markets in cities like Shanghai, as in the United States, is part of the problem and cannot therefore be part of the solution. Infrastructural expenditures, provided they are on a sufficiently large scale, will go a long way to both mopping up surplus labor and so reducing the possibility of social unrest, and again boosting the internal market.
These completely different opportunities to pursue a full-fledged Keynesian solution as represented by the contrast between the United States and China have profound international implications. If China uses more of its financial reserves to boost its internal market, as it is almost certainly bound to do for political reasons, so it will have less left over to lend to the United States. Reduced purchases of US Treasury Bills will eventually force higher interest rates and impact US internal demand negatively and, unless managed carefully, could trigger the one thing that everyone fears but which has so far been staved off: a run on the dollar. A gradual move away from reliance on US markets and the substitution of the internal market in China as a source of effective demand for Chinese industry will alter power balances significantly (and, by the way, be stressful for both the Chinese and the United States). The Chinese currency will necessarily rise against the dollar (a move that the US authorities have long sought but secretly feared) thus forcing the Chinese to rely even more on their internal market for aggregate demand. The dynamism that will result within China (as opposed to the prolonged recession conditions that will prevail in the United States) will draw more and more global suppliers of raw materials into the Chinese trade orbit and lessen the relative significance of the United States in international trade. The overall effect will be to accelerate the drift of wealth from West to East in the global economy and rapidly alter the balance of hegemonic economic power. The tectonic movement in the balance of global capitalist power will intensify with all manner of unpredictable political and economic ramifications in a world where the United States will no longer be in a dominant position even as it possesses significant power. The supreme irony, of course, is that the political and ideological barriers in the United States to any full-fledged Keynesian program will almost certainly hasten loss of US dominance in global affairs even as the elites of the world (including those in China) would wish to preserve that dominance for as long as possible.
Whether or not true Keynesianism in China (along with some other states in a similar position) will be sufficient to compensate for the inevitable failure of reluctant Keynesianism in the West is an open question, but the unevenness coupled with fading US hegemony may well be the precursor to a break up of the global economy into regional hegemonic structures which could just as easily fiercely compete with each other as collaborate on the miserable question of who is to bear the brunt of long-lasting depression. That is not a heartening thought but then thinking of such a prospect might just awaken much of the West to the urgency of the task before it and get political leaders to stop preaching banalities about restoring trust and confidence and get down to doing what has to be done to rescue capitalism from the capitalists and their false neoliberal ideology. And if that means socialism, nationalizations, strong state direction, binding international collaborations, and a new and far more inclusive (dare I say “democratic”) international financial architecture, then so be it.
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