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Primer from Michael Hudson

Economist Michael Hudson writes in Economic Perspectives from Kansas City before Obama’s State of the Union address.  What works for a sovereign government in control of its own money is rather different than the Irish conundrum floating in EMU.  Still, his clear description of the two co-existing economies and how they interact is worth remembering in formulating policies that deliver for citizens equally.   Here are the core points;-

The word “recession” implies that economic trends will return to normal almost naturally

Any dream of “recovery” in today’s debt-leveraged economy is a false hope. Yet high financial circles expect Mr. Obama to insist that the economy cannot recover without first reimbursing and enriching Wall Street. To re-inflate asset prices, Mr. Obama’s team looks to Japan’s post-1990 model. A compliant Federal Reserve is to flood the credit markets to lower interest rates to revive bank lending –interest-bearing debt borrowed to buy real estate already in place (and stocks and bonds already issued), enabling banks to work out of their negative equity position by inflating asset prices relative to wages.

The promise is that re-inflating prices will help the “real” economy. But what will “recover” is the rising trend of consumer and homeowner debt responsible for stifling the economy with debt deflation in the first place. This end-result of the Clinton-Bush bubble economy is still being applauded as a model for recovery.

We are not really emerging from a “recession.” The word means literally a falling below a trend line. The economy cannot “recover” its past exponential growth, because it was not really normal. GDP is rising mainly for the FIRE sector – finance, insurance and real estate – not the “real economy.” Financial and corporate managers are paying themselves more for their success in paying their employees less.
This is the antithesis of recovery for Main Street. That is what makes the FIRE sector so self-destructive, and what has ended America’s great post-1945 upswing.

There are two economies – and the extractive FIRE sector dominates the “real” economy

When listening to the State of the Union speech, one should ask just which economy Mr. Obama means when he talks about recovery. Most wage earners and taxpayers will think of the “real” economy of production and consumption. But Mr. Obama believes that this “Economy #1” is dependent on that of Wall Street. His major campaign contributors and “wealth creators” in the FIRE sector – Economy #2, wrapped around the “real” Economy #1.

Economy #2 is the “balance sheet” economy of property and debt. The wealthiest 10% lend out their savings to become debts owed by the bottom 90%. A rising share of gains are made in extractive ways, by charging rent and interest, by financial speculation (“capital gains”), and by shifting taxes off itself onto the “real” Economy #1.

John Edwards talked about “the two economies,” but never explained what he meant operationally. Back in the 1960s when Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, the term meant affluent vs. poor America. For 19th-century novelists such as Charles Dickens and Benjamin Disraeli, it referred to property owners vs. renters. Today, it is finance vs. debtors. Any discussion of economic polarization betweens rich and poor must focus on the deepening indebtedness of most families, companies, real estate, cities and states to an emerging financial oligarchy.

Financial oligarchy is antithetical to democracy. That is what the political fight in Washington is all about today. The Corporate Democrats are trying to get democratically elected to bring about oligarchy. I hope that this is a political oxymoron, but I worry about how many people but into the idea that “wealth creation” requires debt creation. While wealth gushes upward through the Wall Street financial siphon, trickle-down economic ideology to fuel a Bubble Economy via debt-leveraged asset-price inflation.

The role of public spending – and hence budget deficits – no longer means taxing citizens to spend on improving their well-being within Economy #1. Since the 2008 financial meltdown the enormous rise in national debt has resulted from reimbursing Wall Street for its bad gambles on derivatives, collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps that had little to do with the “real” economy. They could have been wiped out without bringing down the economy. That was an idle threat. A.I.G.’s swap insurance department could have collapsed (it was largely in London anyway) while keeping its normal insurance activities unscathed. But the government paid off the financial sector’s bad speculative debts by taking them onto the public balance sheet.

The economy is best viewed as the FIRE sector wrapped around the production and consumption core, extracting financial and rent charges that are not technologically or economically necessary costs.
Say’s Law of markets, taught to every economics student, states that workers and their employers use their wages and profits to buy what they produce (consumer goods and capital goods). Profits are earned by employing labor to produce goods and services to sell at a markup. (M – C – M’ to the initiated.)

The financial and property sector is wrapped around this core, siphoning off revenue from this circular flow. This FIRE sector is extractive. Its revenue takes the form of what classical economists called “economic rent,” a broad category that includes interest, monopoly super-profits (price gouging) and land rent, as well as “capital” gains. (These are mainly land-price gains and stock-market gains, not gains from industrial capital as such.) Economic rent and capital gains are income without a corresponding necessary cost of production (M – M’ to the initiated). “Banks have lent increasingly to buy up these rentier rights to extract interest, and less and less to promote industrial capital formation. Wealth creation” FIRE-style consists most easily of privatizing the public domain and erecting tollbooths to charge access fees for basic necessities such as health insurance, land sites, home ownership, the communication spectrum (cable and phone rights), patent medicine, water and electricity, and other public utilities, including the use of convenient money (credit cards), or the credit needed to get by. This kind of wealth is not what Adam Smith described in The Wealth of Nations. It is a form of overhead, not a means of production. The revenue it extracts is a zero-sum economic activity, meaning that one party’s gain (that of Wall Street usually) is another’s loss.

Debt deflation resulting from a distorted “financialized” economy

The problem that Mr. Obama faces is one that he cannot voice politically without offending his political constituency. The Bubble Economy has left families, companies, real estate and government so heavily indebted that they must use current income to pay banks and bondholders. The U.S. economy is in a debt deflation. The debt service they pay is not available for spending on goods and services. This is why sales are falling, shops are closing down and employment continues to be cut back.

Banks evidently do not believe that the debt problem can be solved. That is why they have taken the $13 trillion in bailout money and run – by it out in bonuses, or buying other banks and foreign affiliates. They see the domestic economy as being all loaned up. The game is over. Why would they make yet more loans against real estate already in negative equity, with mortgage debt in excess of the market price that can be recovered? Banks are not writing more “equity lines of credit” against homes or making second mortgages in today’s market, so consumers cannot use rising mortgage debt to fuel their spending.

Banks also are cutting back their credit card limits. They are “earning their way out of debt,” making up for the bad gambles they have taken with depositor funds, by raising interest rates, penalties and fees, by borrowing low-interest credit from the Federal Reserve and investing it abroad – preferably in currencies rising against the dollar. This is what Japan did in the “carry trade.” It kept the yen’s exchange rate down, and it is lowering the dollar’s exchange rate today. This threatens to raise prices for imports, on which domestic consumer prices are based. So easy credit for Wall Street means a cost squeeze for consumers.
The President needs a better set of advisors. But Wall Street has obtained veto power over just who they should be. Control over the President’s ear time has been part of the financial sector’s takeover of government. Wall Street has threatened that the stock market will plunge if oligarch-friendly Fed Chairman Bernanke is not reappointed. Mr. Obama insists on keeping him on board, in the belief that what’s good for Wall Street is good for the economy at large.

But what’s good for the banks is a larger market for their credit – more debt for the families and companies that are their customers, higher fees and penalties, no truth-in-lending laws, harsher bankruptcy terms, and further deregulation and bailouts.

This is the program that Mr. Bernanke has advised Washington to follow. Wall Street hopes that he will be kept on board. Mr. Bernanke’s advice has helped bolster that of Tim Geithner at Treasury and Larry Summers as chief advisor to convince Pres. Obama that “recovery” requires more credit.

Going down this road will make the debt overhead heavier, raising the cost of living and doing business. So we must beware of the President using the term “recovery” in his State of the Union speech to mean a recovery of debt and giving more money to Wall Street Jobs cannot revive without consumers having more to spend. And consumer demand (I don’t like this jargon word, because only Wall Street and the Pentagon’s military-industrial complex really make demands) cannot be revived without reducing the debt burden. Bankers are refusing to write down mortgages and other debts to reflect the ability to pay. That act of economic realism would mean taking a loss on their bad debts. So they have asked the government to lend new buyers enough credit to re-inflate housing prices. This is the aim of the housing subsidy to new homebuyers. It leaves more revenue to be capitalized into higher mortgage loans to support prices for real estate fallen into negative equity.

The pretense is that this is subsidizing the middle class, but homebuyers are only the intermediaries for government credit (debt to be paid off by taxpayers) to mortgage bankers. Nearly 90 percent of new home mortgages are being funded or guaranteed by the FHA, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – all providing a concealed subsidy to Wall Street.

Mr. Obama’s most dangerous belief is the myth that the economy needs the financial sector to lead its recovery by providing credit. Every economy needs a means of payment, which is why Wall Street has been able to threaten to wreck the economy if the government does not give in to its demands. But the monetary function should not be confused with predatory lending and casino gambling, not to mention Wall Street’s use of bailout funds on lobbying efforts to spread its gospel. (link to full article)

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