Monday, February 09, 2009
Is A Capitalist Meltdown Upon Us?
I'll only be 53 on my next birthday in late July, yet it already seems like I've lived a tiring amount of history. Only 20 years ago, the world saw the meltdown of Soviet-style communism -- and many observers, largely neo-conservatives, interpreted that as an ideological culmination, "the end of history." There was even an influential book written with that title. (Does anyone remember that author now? And, does he want to remember that book? Yeah, I know -- Francis Fukuyama.)
It appears that reversals of fortune can happen quickly. Now it looks like the allegedly venerable ideology of "free-market" capitalism is on the ropes, and in serious danger of going down. Who would have thought it?
Die-hard Marxists did. I've never been one of them, even as a long-ago radical all of 23 years old. I still know three people who have continued to call themselves Marxists in total defiance of dismissal or ridicule, and they are probably gloating a lot now. The economic train wreck they kept dogmatically predicting finally seems to be in front of us.
But even as America sleepwalked through our Second Gilded Age (circa 1981-2005), I grew skeptical of the Marxist vision. "Historical inevitability" always sounded like a religious tenet, without the pure superstition; and Marxism itself, a sort of quasi-religion for embittered atheists.
We should be as cautious about awarding hard-line socialists a victory here, as much as "we" (in the editorial sense) should have checked for our wallets the minute Reagan started talking about trickle-down and Phil Gramm started talking about deregulation. The past century should have taught us that the answer lies in between.
Starting with the excesses of laissez-faire: America has, for the past 30-ish years, seen the roller-coaster ride that happens with that sort of economic policy. An elite grows very rich, a minority near the bottom slips much further down, and most people tend to stagnate in the middle.
There are cycles of boom and bust. The booms are good for most people, but especially good for a few. The latter group inevitably forms a "Why Should I Have To Pay Taxes?" lobby and gets bonanzas from lawmakers eager to please. And since these are the people of ostentation and material success, their influence is great among fashionable "thinkers" of the day.
Now the big bust is upon us. It's a bit like 1933 all over again -- not as grim or total in devastation, but it's likely to get worse. President Barack Obama has warned us that this is so.
But history, with its entire lesson, should be heeded, and it seems like Obama is one who will do so.
There were very good reasons for the meltdown of the Soviet empire 20 years ago. Contrary to right-wing mythology, Reagan and his military buildup had little to do with it. Post-Soviet Russian economists recall the problems as internal, and any intellectually honest person knew what they were. There's no need for me to recite the litany here -- Americans heard it all for decades.
But let's face it, die-hard socialists out there -- state-run enterprises have a poor track record. The employees seem to lack incentives to produce. Cooperatives tend to degenerate into personal conflict, power struggles and chaos. And as for the concentration of power in the hands of "vanguard revolutionaries" -- the horrors and enormities of that have been abundant just in the past century.
I don't think it's hard to argue for a sense of balance and measure. In America, it seems like the compromising wheeler-dealers -- the FDRs, the Trumans, the LBJs, the Ted Kennedys -- got more done for working Americans than any of our homegrown radicals ever did.
But there is little doubt that there's been a sea change, and it's been back toward socialist thinking. The Nobel Prize committees have not been known for their sympathy toward socialist-leaning economists, yet Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz has more or less come out in favor of the nationalization of U.S. banks. That would be a major step toward socialism of some fashion. Why not? We've just given the bastards $700 billion in taxpayer money to keep them in business. Here's a link to the interview with Stiglitz.
And, it appears that such state power would be the only thing to force the shameless swine who run these enterprises to behave themselves. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., made a speech on the Senate floor about the Wall Street oinkers who had themselves awarded $18.4 billion in bonuses while their enterprises got in on the aforementioned $700 billion, because of reckless and disastrous mismanagement. Here's another link to reports on this issue, and to a video of McCaskill's speech. Be patient, the video seems very rough.
So, what should be the ultimate American destination, in an era of "capitalist" meltdown? The Swedes, with a hybrid socialist-capitalist system, don't seem to do badly, with avowed Socialists predominantly in power since 1929. Their booms are smaller, but so are their busts. Their people don't live in fear of homelessness or inability to afford basic health care. Right-wing humorist P.J. O'Rourke, when asked about the Swedes' seeming happiness with their stable system, said that they are all insane -- but that their insanity is distributed equally among the people.
It's a funny line. But there's nothing funny about facing a mortgage foreclosure, or about the welfare rolls shrinking even as joblessness is rapidly expanding. With a growing U.S. underclass, it may be time to take a second look at the socialist mind-set -- despite the old Marxist baggage. Nobody requires us to go to extremes.
Manifesto Joe is an underground writer living in Texas. Check out his blog at Manifesto Joe's Texas Blues.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
The Great Depression of 2008
Until last week, most economists were divided on whether the U.S. was in a recession or not. Now, with the ailing mortgage agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on the ropes, it's clear that what's unfolding is far worse than any recession.
As Britain's normally staid The Telegraph newspaper notes, the U.S. could be on the verge of a new Great Depression. That might seem far-fetched until you consider that last month, the Dow suffered its worst June since 1930.
But The Telegraph is hardly alone in using such apocalyptic language these days. The "D" word is starting to be mentioned more and more in the business media, as well as by economic commentators. As David Bullock, managing director of investment fund Advent Capital Management, put it in a comment to The New York Times on Tuesday, "We are closer to the Depression scenario than not."
Yes, a real Depression, complete with tent cities now springing up in what once were prosperous suburbs.
This doom-and-gloom language in describing the U.S. economy first began to pick up steam after investment bank Bear Stearns had to be bailed out by the government in May. In describing the bailout, the Associated Press said that Bear Stearns was "On the verge of a collapse that could have shaken the very foundations of the U.S. financial system."
The current crisis with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is infinitely larger than Bear Stearns. The two companies either hold or guarantee a staggering $5.3 trillion worth of mortgages. Indeed, the investment magazine MoneyWeek has noted that the crisis is big enough to doom the dollar.
As MoneyWeek notes:
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac might have been deemed too big to fail---but who's big enough to bail out the U.S.? When investors start seriously asking themselves that question, expect the dollar to plunge.
Make no mistake, a catastrophic U.S. economic collapse is on the way. Such is the inevitable fate of any Ponzi scheme economy that has been running on nothing more than smoke and mirrors (and oceans of foreign capital) now for many years.
Of course, those who are poor or working class know first-hand that the U.S. economy has been in increasingly serious trouble since around 1980. Wages have been steadily declining for everyone but the very rich. And working class people now toil more hours for less pay than their counterparts in any other First World nation. (They have to, as a 40-hour workweek no longer is enough to put groceries on the table).
But as long as America had a tiny elite of prosperous super wealthy, we could always point to them and try to convince ourselves that our economy couldn't be all bad. After all, we would note, there are some people out there making a fortune. All it takes is hard work and ambition, right?
Today, with the stock market in the toilet, and the Fed having to step in to bail out the financial sector, it should be clear to anyone that the U.S. economy is in crisis.
If the U.S. economy actually produced anything of value, this would be nothing more than just another typical downturn in the economic cycle.
The problem is, the U.S. economy no longer produces anything of value. Our economic activity basically consists of importing trillions of dollars from central banks in East Asia---which we then use to prop up our Ponzi scheme economy. The ocean of foreign capital that flows into our nation daily is used to pay for the shopping habits of U.S. consumers.
In fact, in recent years, the Great American Consumer has been hailed by U.S. economists as the "locomotive" of the world economy. There was only one problem: U.S. consumers had zero savings and were depending on foreign capital to finance their shopping binges.
Now, with the stock market crisis and the ongoing housing mortgage crisis, nobody is in much of a mood to do any spending these days. And with the dollar rapidly declining, it's only a matter of time before the East Asian central banks start to unload their depreciating greenbacks (which will accelerate the dollar's fall even further in a vicious cycle).
The frightening thing is that East Asian central banks haven't even begun seriously dumping their dollars and yet the dollar is already plunging.
And the dollar has already lost an astonishing 40 percent against an index of U.S. trading partners' currencies over the past seven years.
The key numbers which measure the current U.S. economic crisis are so far off the chart that it is difficult to even fathom them. As economics writer Eamonn Fingleton has noted, the U.S. current account deficit (the widest and most meaningful measure of our trade position) now represents an astounding 6.5 percent of our gross domestic product.
As Fingleton notes, only one other major nation has ever exceeded this figure: Italy in 1924. That was just before Benito Mussolini seized dictatorial power.
This BBC report takes a look at tent cities that are starting to spring up outside Los Angeles:
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