It is “budget time” again!
That is the season when the persons displayed on television screens as representatives of those who have no representation engage in the theatrical display of subordination to those who actually own things, like the countries we happen to inhabit. Although there have been a few publicised investigations and even some occasional criminal charges against (usually septuagenarians) some conspicuous miscreants, there has been no action which could restore some health or sanity to what most of us consider the daily economy. In some countries, like where I live, people go on strike. There is little indication that the fundamental message of the strikers gets heard. Perhaps that is also why the television seems obsessed with the marketing of hearing aids. There is a hearing aid for every occasion, except sessions of the national assembly, where such technology might really help.
One way of dealing with the hearing impaired is repetition. In scientific terms this means increasing the rate of signal in proportion to noise in the hope that the essential message is received. Although I wrote a version of this paper in 2014, four years later I cannot help feeling some repetition would do no harm. If every budget season one has to listen to the same set of distortions, then it is only fair to reproduce the corrections.
Like the absurd climate debate, which never includes the “carbon footprint” of the largest military machines, the budget debates (essentially interchangeable) never discuss the cost of subsidising international banks and corporations to facilitate their extraction of wealth from the national economy. There is no intelligent, let alone honest, discussion of what is meant by “public debt”—or why the taxpayers must bear losses to guarantee tax-exempt profits for investors.
I always ask myself when someone says or writes “loss”, where did the money go? Even when a ship is lost at sea there is generally wreckage. Of course, the ocean is bigger than the economy and it is possible that a ship’s remains disappear beyond recovery. The price of abandoning the very modest social gains of the New Deal in the US and social democracy in Europe with the ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan has been enormous, not only for US and European working people but, for the rest of the world. In fact, the meter is still running with no indication of when it will stop.
The crisis no one cares to talk about any more comprises trillions in losses. If these losses are real, then that means the value has been forfeited in favour of someone else. E.g. after the Great War France and Britain were essentially bankrupt: they owed nearly everything to US banks. Without economic manipulation, war and terror, India would probably have occupied the same status vis a vis Great Britain in 1945 that Brazil gained vis a vis Portugal after the Napoleonic Wars. The claims against the productive capacity and assets of Old Europe were held by identifiable third parties, representing, then as now, a tiny band of bankers. Of course, those claims were so great that no normal income streams from taxation could satisfy them. Control of Britain was effectively ceded to the US, while India was wracked by civil war rather than collecting the wartime debt Britain owed to her.
The other meaning of loss is the inability to sustain a certain valuation of an asset or income stream. The nature of the initial valuation is then the problem. The continuous attempts in the IFRS (international accounting standards) to skirt around the issue of essentially fraudulent valuation illustrates that even the private sector’s notion of “value”, whether book value or fair value, is the product of casuistry.
Since European “banking” was reorganised on the US Federal Reserve model by creation of the European Central Bank, it is instructive to consider how grand theft in the state-banking sector of the US functions. In other words, the “losses” hidden on the books of the USG banks, “Fannie” and “Freddie”, are either notional or they reflect claims that were satisfied in favour of third parties beyond the capacity of those institutions to generate income. Again we know who those third parties are. The “losses” are essentially sacrificed sovereignty.
Government institutions pledge to private persons (corporations and foreign exchange pirates) the State’s capacity to pay, derived from the ability to tax the working population, beyond any realistic possibility to extract that income. This was called “tax farming” in the bad old days of “colonialism”. Frequently punitive military force was sent into any country that was not delivering enough booty (aka interest on foreign debt). In fact, as retired general of US Marines infamously confessed that was his main job in the Corps—protecting corporate plunder.
This is essentially the same principle imposed through the ECB—except that some nominal account has to be taken of national political systems. Since in Europe the State was far more frequently the owner of capital infrastructure, absorbing the cost of its operation and regulating labour as civil servants, considerable ideological work had to be performed to cultivate the generation, which privatised most of the national capital assets held by European states. The fact that since 1945 the US has controlled the international payments system has reduced the need for military intervention. Decisions taken in New York, London, Frankfurt or Brussels can deprive a country of any affordable means to engage in the most basic financial transactions. The entities involved are privately owned and therefore cannot be coerced except by measures that would “threaten private property”.
Just as the railroads and banks obtained control over most of the continental US by defrauding the US government in the 19th century, the surviving banks have defrauded most of the American population of its home equity today. Although it was established that a conspiracy of UK-based clearing banks illegally fixed the LIBOR/ EURIBOR rates, this had no serious consequences. If one considers very carefully that nearly all mortgage and commercial financing agreements base their interest computations on one of these benchmarks, the true scope of the fraud becomes apparent. Everyone who made an interest rate agreement assuming the “free market” condition of the underlying rate was cheated. It could be argued that the interest rate clauses of innumerable contracts were void due to fraud. A perusal of public debt instruments would no doubt reveal even more catastrophic deception.
The endless wars, funded by plundering the public treasury and the wealth of other countries, are part of that income extraction, too. Now the US government and those of its vassals are little more than one large mercenary enterprise, together as NATO, the most heavily armed collection agency on behalf of third party creditors on the planet. It does not matter who occupies the mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Of course, there is plausible denial for any of the beneficiaries of this plunder since populations weaned on soap operas and “crime drama” are incapable of examining, let alone comprehending, the most obvious operations of US corporations and their agents– who almost never appear as criminals on television. The “crime drama” narrative dominates almost every bandwidth on the critical spectrum and as a much younger US director, Michael Moore demonstrated in Bowling for Columbine, corporate crime does not make acceptable television. The most elemental sociological truths, plain to anyone who has ever belonged to a club or worked in middle management of a company, namely that “democratic” and “meritocratic” decisions are regularly subverted by scheming among the ambitious at the expense of the docile– become discredited when the insight is applied to the polity as a whole. People who do not think twice about making a phone call to a “friend” to influence a decision in their social club or place of employment, become incredulous at the suggestion that the chairman of a major investment bank would dictate policy to the head of state whose election he had financed.
In short, the debate about the current global economic “crisis” is obscenely counterintuitive and illogical to the point of incoherence. Who is willing to “follow the money”? This dictum, popularised in the Woodward and Bernstein fairy tale of US President Richard Nixon’s demise– All the President’s Men— appears utterly forgotten, despite recurring astronomic fraud perpetrated by US corporations since the so-called “S&L scandal”– crimes for which no more than a handful of people were indicted, let alone tried or sentenced. Only one corporation was deprived of its right to do business, Arthur Andersen, and this was patently done to spare all the politicians from the reigning US president, most of the US Congress, and untold state and local officials who had been bribed or otherwise influenced by Enron.
If the stories reported by Pete Brewton in 1992, the documented history of the OSS “China insurer” AIG, and the implications of the 2002 Powers Report on the Enron collapse are taken seriously, then Houston lies on a financial fault line more devastating than the San Andreas. That fault line runs from Texas through Virginia to the bedrock of Manhattan. The economic earthquakes that have persisted since 1980 are both literally and figuratively the result of deployment of the US atomic arsenal and the policies that gave rise to it. The US dollar’s continued, if fluctuating, strength as a reserve currency is based on drugs, weapons, and oil– all traded in US dollars. However, this material reality is also based on an ideological or dogmatic constitution. The seismic activity induced by US corporations created gaping holes in the global economy– holes which could only be breached by the financial instruments developed in the weapons laboratories of Wall Street based on the same conceptual models as the neutron bomb and today’s nano-munitions developed at Lawrence Livermore. Indeed, the theory has been almost universally accepted that people are always to blame for the problems of government and Business is the sole and universal solution to all problems. Hence tax monies will only be spent on weapons, war, and subsidies for corporations—the things Business needs.
A considerable obstacle to any change in the US, short of its destruction, is the fact that as Michael Hudson and former assistant Treasury secretary under Reagan, Paul Craig Roberts, write repeatedly, the US government has absolutely lost whatever legitimate function it may ever have had as an instrument of popular will. In other words, the efforts of working people, whether immigrant or ex-slave to remake the plutocratic regime of the 19th century into a State responsive to their needs were frustrated by the massive assaults on labour, combined with the ideological warfare of the “Progressive” movement. The latter, funded heavily by the newly created super-philanthropies, including those of Rockefeller, Sage, Peabody, and Carnegie, predated CIA-style front organizations and infiltration. They helped turn popular sovereignty movements into the kind of technocratic organisations which prevail today– dependent on corporate donations and led by the graduates of cadre schools like the Ivy League colleges, Oxford and the LSE. With few exceptions the only remnants of the “popular will” in the US are those that drive lynch mobs, reincarnated in “talk radio” today.
The main work of the USG and the corporations for which it stands has been to undermine any notion that the State is rightfully an expression of the popular will for the realisation of popular welfare. The State has been reduced to a protection racket. By the time Ronald Reagan, imitating Margaret Thatcher, pledged to “get government off the back of the people”, the only “people” who counted were corporations and those in thrall to them.
It is easy to forget that the US was actually founded on the basis of a kind of white (in that sense “enlightened”), oligarchic absolutism– the British parliamentary dictatorship minus hereditary monarch. Its moral vision predated the Thirty Years War and, until John Kennedy was elected president, its hypocrisy was that of Cromwellian fanatics. In revolutionary France and countries that were inspired by France, as opposed to the American independence war, struggle continued on the premises that the State is not the King (in whatever incarnation) but created by the citizens (not the possessive individual) for the maintenance of the common weal– including the nutrition, health, housing, education of its people. The opposition to destruction of the public sector or public services and the debate that continues in Greece, France, Italy, and to a lesser extent Germany, defies comprehension in North America and Great Britain because of some unfortunate residues of that revolutionary vision of the State so violently opposed by Britain and the US ever since 1789– except when the resulting instability provided business opportunities. (Thatcher did not restore the spirit of Churchill to power—but that of Wellington.)
Moreover as Coolidge once said, “the business of America is business”. If a policy or action of government cannot be expressed in terms of someone’s maximum private profit then it is indefensible in the US. The conditions of the Maastricht Treaty establishing the euro and the ECB are an attempt to impose those same ideological and political constraints on the European Union enforced by adoption of the Federal Reserve Act in the US. The Federal Reserve is essentially a technology for naturalising usury and endowing it with supernatural legitimacy. But just as it has been argued in some quarters that the US Federal Reserve triggered the Great Depression– for the benefit of the tiny bank of banking trusts– the European Central Bank, urged by the right-wing government in Berlin, is being pressured to follow the same rapine policies as the FED is pursuing today. Of course, there are other countries ruled by financial terrorism or where banking gangs have turned their entire arsenal against sovereign peoples.
The “Crisis” is not really about the “debt” or the heinous losses. It is a crisis of sovereignty. The failure of popular sovereignty means that a microscopic bacterial colony of the immeasurably rich can make war on the rest of the world, destroying the common weal and commerce at home and everything else abroad. Germany’s citizens have been bludgeoned since 1945 by Anglo-American propaganda and the occupation forces to persuade them that they– not the great banking and industrial cartels on both sides of the Atlantic– were responsible for Adolph Hitler’s rise to power. When in 1968, student leaders like Rudi Dutschke tried to remind Germans that their democracy was destroyed before Hitler’s putsch and that they had the right and opportunity to demand a democratic Germany after the war, those young people were harassed and even killed. (Dutschke was shot in the head by an unemployed labourer. That “lone” killer later died in prison with a plastic bag over his head.) Attempts to create a truly popular democratic government in Germany have been frustrated by foreign intervention since the French Revolution. Nevertheless people in Germany still believe that the State is there to provide services to the people– and not to fight wars to further foreign trade as suggested by Horst Köhler before he was relieved of his duties (ostensibly resigning) as German federal president.
There is no doubt in Germany that former Chancellor Schroeder’s refusal to follow the US into Iraq—whatever motivated it—enjoyed the widest support, even among those who tend to believe anything the US government says. The resignation of former IMF director and Federal President Köhler expressed the sensitivity of the situation then. On one occasion he referred to the great banking interests as “monsters” and then broke the silence on the German war efforts in Central Asia by explicitly articulating what had been Chancellor Merkel’s, silent but deadly policy of supporting US counter-terror in Afghanistan. Köhler was not opposed to the future escalation of German belligerence, but by his calling a spade a spade on national radio, the right-wing government in Berlin almost had to defend its unconstitutional deployment of German soldiers in public. Already that April Angela Merkel had been forced to sacrifice an army general and a cabinet minister when it became known that German combat aircraft were also bombing civilians like their US counterparts—and trying to keep the fact a secret.
In the midst of the financial crisis, that is the plunder and pillage of the accumulated reserves of Europe’s working population after those of the US are exhausted, it is impossible to ignore the restoration of Asian political and economic prominence. This process started in the 1960s when Britain and the US launched their wars to secure footholds and control of the vast resources of Indonesia and Indochina. Although only partly successful, the destruction of national independence movements throughout South Asia created the conditions for de-industrialising Europe and North America. Mistakenly much of the North American and European Left judged the losses in Korea and Vietnam as defeats for US power. Such judgments have been based on assessments of the official war aims and not on any analysis of the underlying corporate and financial policy objectives. The long-term results of those wars included creation of the massive debt system that is at the root of financial collapse for the majority of US Americans. Of course, China remains the great unconquerable threat to continuation of US hegemony. The balance of power in Asia may be very delicate indeed.
Continental Europe remained somewhat insulated from those seismic forces until 1989. The “velvet” invasion of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union led by US capital, aided as usual by the combined secret services and economic “consultants” of Shock Therapy, began the destruction of the economic base for European social democracy and “real socialism”. The debt machine created to exploit Eastern Europe was applied in Germany first– destroying the GDR and financing that destruction with EU-generated debt, culminating in the euro. Introduction of the euro effectively destroyed half of the purchasing power of working people in the Euro Zone overnight, creating the conditions for consumer borrowing which had prevailed in the US since the late 60s and eroding wages and benefits drastically.
The final loss of control over archaic legislative instruments (whether in the US or Europe) is not only assured by the system of bribery that turns those in office into indentured servants of corporations. Full investigation of the Enron scandal would have proven once and for all that there is almost no one in the US Congress not owned by some corporation. Similar conditions have come to prevail in European legislatures where for decades US academic and policy exchange programmes have trained the political class to work first and foremost for Business.
The loss is also assured by the now entrenched belief that the only legitimate human goal is individual personal profit. As Hudson has suggested, this is the “theology of the Chicago School”. Since Margaret Thatcher was appointed to convert Britain to that dogma, nearly the entire political, academic and “civil” culture has been saturated with people who cannot think in any other terms– even when they assert that they are still social democrats or democratic socialists. The latter insist that “social policy” is merely a palliative to prevent the poor and destitute from becoming unsightly spectres in urban entertainment centres. They all have become positivists– reifying the prevailing economic relations and worshipping quantitative methods– subordinating human agency to pseudo-science and thinly disguised opportunism. The only kindness this ethical standpoint can express is “charity”. Charity, however, has nothing to do with the common weal or the State as an embodiment of the popular will. In fact, it is just as parasitic as the belief from which it springs. If those whom John Pilger called “the new rulers of the world” consent to relieve us– that is to allow us anything resembling our dignity and subsistence wages– then it will scarcely exceed the infamous “dimes” with which John D. Rockefeller cloaked his cynicism in piety and charity. Nowhere is the cynicism more profound than in the expression “giving back”. Of course, the pennies “given back” are microscopic compared with the billions “taken” in the first place. But those shiny pennies and dimes are enough to keep embedded intellectuals loyal to Bill Gates or George Soros. For a few dollars more they will even protect the likes of Blankfein or Buffett.
“Charity” is the gratification a person finds when scratching a mosquito bite. One feels better while scratching– although this provides no relief. The cause of the itch is the substance injected by the mosquito while sucking the blood from its victim. Of course, some mosquitoes offer only token charity and the itch disappears. But there are mosquitoes that carry other parasites– the effects of their charity can last forever, or at least until the victim dies.