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 TeasersMichael Hudson Blogview

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us once again.

On September 15, 2008, the financial meltdown began with the bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers. That was 10 years ago. The shock waves that hit the economy threw 9 million families out of their homes who could not afford to pay their rising mortgages. So Congress and the president in the 1990s killed Glass-Steagall, written in 1933 to save us from the excesses of the financial industry. And then Congress gave us Dodd-Frank in the wake of the 2008 crisis that bailed out Wall Street, but not America. And now Trump seems to continue the process with killing Dodd-Frank and completely turning over the keys to Wall Street.

Our guest today says in part we must wipe out debt and not bail out the banks. So with that, let me welcome back to Real News Michael Hudson, research professor of economics at the University of Missouri Kansas City, and a research associate at the Levy Economics Institute at Bard College. His latest book is J Is for Junk Economics. Michael, welcome, good to have you with us.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Good to be here.

MARC STEINER: So let’s start there, with this whole idea of what we did wrong in 2008, why we got it wrong, and what we should have done, from your perspective.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, you’re talking about September 15. And last weekend, the 10-year anniversary, all that you read in The New York Times and other newspapers was a celebration: We did everything right. We bailed out the banks. There is very little discussion of the fact that this was a disaster for the economy. Nobody has related the fact that we bailed out the banks on their own terms to the fact the economy has not recovered. People simply talk about how slow the recovery has been since 2008.

To put this issue in perspective, almost all of the growth in GDP – the measure they look at – is taken the form of higher bank earnings, which they call financial services, meaning penalty fees, late fees, and interest rates over and above the banks’ cost of funds; and rising rents that homeowners would have to pay themselves if they rented instead of owned their homes. You mentioned 9 million homeowners lost their homes. They now have to rent. Rents are rising, debts are rising. Corporate debt, municipal debt, and student debt are way higher now than 2008.

Most of this is because of the way in which President Obama doublecrossed his voters and said, I’m not representing you, I’m representing my donors. He invited the bankers to the White House and said, don’t worry, folks, I’m the only guy standing between you and the mob with pitchforks. Just like Hillary called Donald Trump supporters “deplorables,” he called his supporters the mob with pitchforks. And he stuck it to them.

In my book Killing the Host you have Barney Frank saying that he got the agreement of Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson to write down the mortgages to realistic charges: namely, number one, what the mortgage borrowers could afford out of their income, and number two, the carrying charge of the mortgage would be the going rent rate, which is what mortgages historically have tended to approximate.

Obama said, no, I’m representing the bankers, not the debtors. He appointed bank lobbyists such as Tim Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury. Obama basically followed everything that President Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury Rubin recommended to him. He was handed a list of the people that Wall Street wanted to appoint. And then he washed his hands of it. Instead of doing what normally happens in a crisis – writing down the debts, and writing off the bad savings and the bad loans as a counterpart to the debts, and taking over the insolvent banks – he kept the bad debts on the books.

There was a big argument in the administration. Surprisingly enough, the good guys were the Republicans in this. Sheila Bair was a Republican from the Midwest, and she said, look, Citibank is not only insolvent, it’s a basically a financial fraud organization. We should take it over. It doesn’t have any money. But Obama said, wait a minute, Geithner is a protege of Rubin, and he’s become head of Citigroup. We’ve got to bail out Citigroup. So what Obama did was take the banks that have been the most fraudulent, that have paid the largest amount of civil fines for financial fraud, and said, these are the banks we want to be the leaders. We’re going to make them the biggest banks, and we’re going to make them stronger. And we’re not going to forgive any loans. We’re going to leave the loans in place, unlike what’s happened for the last few hundred years and crashes.

So this crash of 2008 was not a crash of the banks. The banks were bailed out. The economy was left with all the junk mortgages in place, all the fraudulent debts. Then, to further help the banks recover, the Federal Reserve came in and pushed quantitative easing, lowering the interest rates so much that banks could make the widest profit they ever made in history – the margin between the lending rate on mortgages, 5-6 percent; student loans, 9 percent; credit card loans, 11-29 percent; and the banks’ borrowing charge, which is 0.1 percent. The banks became enormous profit centers, leading the stock market gains.

Over the weekend, the newspapers said, look at the wonderful success. The stock market’s up, the One Percent are richer than ever before. Let’s look at the good side of things. There was no analysis at all as to why the economy is not recovering, and whether this failure to recover is a backwash of the way in which the crisis was handled- by bailing out the banks, not the economy.

MARC STEINER: Let me take a step backwards here. First of all, very quickly for us, define quantitative easing.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Quantitative easing occurs when the Federal Reserve spent $4.3 trillion on buying the bad debts and the bank assets and creating bank reserves. Essentially it’s like printing money. You’ve heard the phrase ‘money-dropping helicopters.’ But the helicopters only fly over Wall Street. So the Federal Reserve created $4.3 billion on the accounts of the banks, and let the banks get through the fact that they’d made recklessly bad loans and suffered reckless losses. Sheila Bair, in her autobiography, wrote about how Citibank was the most mismanaged bank in America. Not quite as fraudulent as Countrywide or Bank of America, but simply incompetent by making bad gambles under Prince, who ran the thing. They were bailed out and then subsidized. The larger the fines for fraud, the more subsidy they got and the bigger they grew. Crime pays.

MARC STEINER: Let’s talk a bit about what could have been the alternative. To me that’s what is a gripping story we never wrestled with, nor talk about very much. Right?

MICHAEL HUDSON: Isn’t that amazing. Over the weekend, not a single paper that I know said that there were many alternatives at the time. The alternative that was talked about, mainly by Republicans, was to say, OK, these mortgages were fraudulently written. That’s why the whole media were using the word ‘junk mortgages.’ So we should write down the mortgage to the ability of mortgagee to pay, out of 25 percent of their income, or whatever. Or, the carrying charge of their mortgage would be the same that they could pay to rent. In other words, if someone’s paying $1200 a month in mortgage payments, but for $600 a month they could rent out the identical house next door, you reduce the mortgage to the realistic value. Because the banks hired crooked appraisers and their own crooked firms to do false valuations on these loans they made in order to sell them the gullible people, like German Landesbanks.

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Financial Bailout, Financial Debt, Wall Street 
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Wall Street did not let the Lehman Brothers crisis go to waste. The banks that have paid the largest fines for financial fraud are now much bigger and more profitable. The victims of their junk mortgage loans are poorer, and the economy is facing debt deflation.

Was it worth it? What was not saved was the economy.

Today’s financial malaise for pension funds, state and local budgets and underemployment is largely a result of the 2008 bailout, not the crash. What was saved was not only the banks – or more to the point, as Sheila Bair pointed out, their bondholders – but the financial overhead that continues to burden today’s economy.

Also saved was the idea that the economy needs to keep the financial sector solvent by an exponential growth of new debt – and, when that does not suffice, by government purchase of stocks and bonds to support the balance sheets of the wealthiest layer of society. The internal contradiction in this policy is that debt deflation has become so overbearing and dysfunctional that it prevents the economy from growing and carrying its debt burden.

Trying to save the financial overgrowth of debt service by borrowing one’s way out of debt, or by monetary Quantitative Easing re-inflating real estate, stock and bond prices, enables the creditor One Percent to gain, not the indebted 99 Percent in the economy at large. Therefore, from the economy’s vantage point, instead of asking how the banks are to be saved “next time,” the question should be, how should we best let them go under – along with their stockholders, bondholders and uninsured depositors whose hubris imagined that their loans (other peoples’ debts) could go on rising without impoverishing society and preventing creditors from collecting in any event – except from government by gaining control over it.

A basic principle should be the starting point of any macro analysis: The volume of interest-bearing debt tends to outstrip the economy’s ability to pay. This tendency is inherent in the “magic of compound interest.” The exponential growth of debt expands by its own purely mathematical momentum, independently of the economy’s ability to pay – and faster than the non-financial economy grows.

The higher the debt/income ratio rises, the more interest, amortization payments and late fees are extracted from the economy. The resulting debt burden slows the economy, causing defaults. That is what happened in 2008, and is accelerating today as debt ratios are rising for corporate debt, state and local debt, and student debt.

Neither legislators, academics nor the public at large recognize a corollary Second Principle following from the first: An over-indebted economy cannot be saved unless the banks fail. That means writing down the financial claims by the One to Ten Percent – in other words, the net debts owed by the 99 to 90 Percent. Wiping out bad debts involves writing down the “bad savings” that are the counterpart to these debts on the asset side of the balance sheet. Otherwise the economy will suffer debt deflation and austerity.

“Recovery” since 2008 has been much slower than earlier recoveries because debt deflation is siphoning off more and more personal and corporate income. To make matters worse, the bailout’s policy of Quantitative Easing to re-inflate asset prices has reduced rates of return for pension funds, insurance companies and employee retirement savings. This means that more state and local government income must be diverted to meet retirement commitments.

Something has to give, and it is not likely to be the savings of the donor class at the top of the economic pyramid. As a result, the economy at large is threatened with an exponentially expanding erosion of disposable income and net worth for most people and companies. Investment managers are warning of a financial meltdown, given today’s historically high price/earnings ratios for stocks and also for rental properties.

What is not acknowledged is that such a crisis is a precondition for today’s economy to recover from the rising debt/income and debt/GDP ratios that are burdening the United States, Europe and other regions. At least the United States has been able to monetize its budget deficits and subsidize banks to carry its rising debt overhead with yet new debt. The Eurozone has banned budget deficits of over 3 percent of GDP, imposing austerity that leaves the only response to over-indebtedness to be Greek-style austerity: depopulation, shrinking living standards, wipeouts of retirement income and pensions, mortgage defaults, shortening lifespans, and mass selloffs of public infrastructure to foreign financial appropriators.

None of this was spelled out in the September 15 weekend marking the tenth anniversary of Lehman Brothers’ failure and subsequent rescue of Wall Street. President Obama, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and their fellow financial lobbyists at the Federal Reserve and Justice Department are credited with saving “the economy,” as if their donor class on Wall Street was a good proxy for the economy at large. “Saving the economy from a meltdown” has become the euphemism for saving bondholders and other members of the One Percent from taking losses on their bad loans. The “rescue” is Orwellian doublespeak for expropriating over nine million indebted Americans from their homes, while leaving surviving homeowners saddled with enormous bubble-mortgage payments to the FIRE sector’s owners.

What has been put in place is not a restoration of traditional status quo, but a reversal of over a century of central bank policy. Failed banks have not been taken into the public domain. They have been enriched far beyond their former levels. The perpetrators of the collapse have been rewarded, not penalized for lending more than could possibly be paid by NINJA borrowers and speculators whose mortgage applications were doctored by systemic fraud at Countrywide, Washington Mutual, Bank of America, Citigroup and their cohorts.

The $4.3 trillion that could have been used to save debtors was given to the banks and Wall Street firms whose recklessness and outright fraud caused the crisis. The Federal Reserve “cash for trash” swaps with insolvent banks did not restore normalcy or the status quo ante. What occurred was a financial revolution by stealth, reversing the traditional responsibility of creditors to make prudent loans.

Quantitative Easing saved creditors and the largest stockholders and bondholders by lowering the interest rates by enough to make it profitable for new loans to inflate asset prices on credit. This revived the value of collateral backing bank loans and bondholdings. “Saving” the economy in this way actually sacrificed it. That is why our “recovery” is only “on paper,” a result of calculating GDP to include bank earnings and hypothetical homeowner windfalls as rents are soaring.

Among Democrats, the most extreme tunnel vision denying that debt is a problem comes from Paul Krugman: Writing that “The purely financial aspect of the crisis was basically over by the summer of 2009,”[1] he criticized what he called the “bizarre Beltway consensus that despite high unemployment and record low interest rates, debt, not jobs, was the real problem.”

 
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Introduction and Transcript:

Left Out, a podcast produced by Paul Sliker, Michael Palmieri, and Dante Dallavalle, creates in-depth conversations with the most interesting political thinkers, heterodox economists, and organizers on the Left.

In this episode of The Hudson Report, we speak with Michael Hudson about the implications of the flattening yield curve, the possibility of another global financial crisis, and public banking as an alternative to the current system.

‘The Hudson Report’ is a Left Out weekly series with the legendary economist Michael Hudson. Every week, we look at an economic issue that is either being ignored—or hotly debated—in the press that week.

Paul Sliker: Michael Hudson welcome back to another episode of The Hudson Report.

Michael Hudson: It’s good to be here again.

Paul Sliker: So, Michael, over the past few months the IMF has been sending warning signals about the state of the global economy. There are a bunch of different macroeconomic developments that signal we could be entering into another crisis or recession in the near future. One of those elements is the yield curve, which shows the difference between short-term and long-term borrowing rates. Investors and financial pundits of all sorts are concerned about this, because since 1950 every time the yield curve has flattened, the economy has tanked shortly thereafter.

Can you explain what the yield curve signifies, and if all these signals I just mentioned are forecasting another economic crisis?

Michael Hudson: Normally, borrowers have to pay only a low rate of interest for a short-term loan. If you take a longer-term loan, you have to pay a higher rate. The longest term loans are for mortgages, which have the highest rate. Even for large corporations, the longer you borrow – that is, the later you repay – the pretense is that the risk is much higher. Therefore, you have to pay a higher rate on the pretense that the interest-rate premium is compensation for risk. Banks and the wealthy get to borrow at lower rates.

Right now what’s happened is that the short-term rates you can get by putting your money in Treasury bills or other short-term instruments are even higher than the long-term rates. That’s historically unnatural. But it’s not really unnatural at all when you look at what the economy is doing.

You said that we’re entering into a recession. That’s just the flat wrong statement. The economy’s been in a recession ever since 2008, as a result of what President Obama did by bailing out the banks and not the economy at large.

Since 2008, people talk about “look at how that GDP is growing.” Especially in the last few quarters, you have the media saying look, “we’ve recovered. GDP is up.” But if you look at what they count as GDP, you find a primer on how to lie with statistics.

The largest element of fakery is a category that is imputed – that is, made up – for rising rents that homeowners would have to pay if they had to rent their houses from themselves. That’s about 6 percent of GDP right there. Right now, as a result of the 10 million foreclosures that Obama imposed on the economy by not writing down the junk mortgage debts to realistic values, companies like Blackstone have come in and bought up many of the properties that were forfeited. So now there are fewer homes that are available to buy. Rents are going up all over the country. Homeownership has dropped by abut 10 percent since 2008, and that means more people have to rent. When more people have to rent, the rents go up. And when rents go up, people lucky enough to have kept their homes report these rising rental values to the GDP statisticians.

If I had to pay rent for the house that I have, could charge as much money as renters down the street have to pay – for instance, for houses that were bought out by Blackstone. Rents are going up and up. This actually is a rise in overhead, but it’s counted as rising GDP. That confuses income and output with overhead costs.

The other great jump in GDP has been people paying more money to the banks as penalties and fees for arrears on student loans and mortgage loans, credit card loans and automobile loans. When they fall into arrears, the banks get to add a penalty charge. The credit-card companies make more money on arrears than they do on interest charges. This is counted as providing a “financial service,” defined as the amount of revenue banks make over and above their borrowing charges.

The statistical pretense is that they’re taking the risk on making loans to debtors that are going bad. They’re cleaning up on profits on these bad loans, because the government has guaranteed the student loans including the higher penalty charges. They’ve guaranteed the mortgages loans made by the FHA – Fannie Mae and the other groups – that the banks are getting penalty charges on. So what’s reported is that GDP growth is actually more and more people in trouble, along with rising housing costs. What’s good for the GDP here is awful for the economy at large! This is bad news, not good news.

As a result of this economic squeeze, investors see that the economy is not growing. So they’re bailing out. They’re taking their money and running.

If you’re taking your money out of bonds and out of the stock market because you worry about shrinking markets, lower profits and defaults, where are you going to put it? There’s only one safe place to put your money: short-term treasuries. You don’t want to buy a long-term Treasury bond, because if the interest rates go up then the bond price falls. So you want buy short-term Treasury bonds. The demand for this is so great that Bogle’s Vanguard fund management company will only let small investors buy ten thousand dollars worth at a time for their 401K funds.

The reason small to large investors are buying short term treasuries is to park their money safely. There’s nowhere else to put it in the real economy, because the real economy isn’t growing.

What has grown is debt. It’s grown larger and larger. Investors are taking their money out of state and local bonds because state and local budgets are broke as a result of pension commitments. Politicians have cut taxes in order to get elected, so they don’t have enough money to keep up with the pension fund contributions that they’re supposed to make.

This means that the likelihood of a break in the chain of payments is rising. In the United States, commercial property rents are in trouble. We’ve discussed that before on this show. As the economy shrinks, stores are closing down. That means that the owners who own commercial mortgages are falling behind, and arrears are rising.

Also threatening is what Trump is doing. If his protectionist policies interrupt trade, you’re going to see companies being squeezed. They’re not going to make the export sales they expected, and will pay more for imports.

Finally, banks are having problems of they hold Italian government bonds. Germany is unwilling to use European funds to bail them out. Most investors expect Italy to do exit the euro in the next three years or so. It looks like we’re entering a period of anarchy, so of course people are parking their money in the short term. That means that they’re not putting it into the economy. No wonder the economy isn’t growing.

Dante Dallavalle: So to be clear: a rise in demand for these short-term treasuries is an indication that investors and businesses find too much risk in the economy as it stands now to be investing in anything more long-term.

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Debt, Federal Reserve, Unemployment, Wall Street 
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The recently elected neoliberal government of Mauricio Macri has decided to seek a $50 billion IMF credit line, which will only enable more capital flight for the upper class and greater unpayable debt for the rest of the population, says the economist Michael Hudson.

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

For several months now. Argentines have been taking to the streets to protest against neoliberal austerity measures of President Mauricio Macri. The most recent such protest took place on July 9 on Argentine’s Independence Day. There have also been three general strikes thus far. In the two years since he took office, President Macri has laid off as many as 76,000 public sector workers, and slashed gas and water and electricity subsidies, leading to a tenfold increase in prices in some cases.

The government argues that all this is necessary in order to stem inflation and the decline of the currency’s value. Last month, Macri received the backing of the International Monetary Fund. The IMF agreed to provide Argentina with a $50 billion loan, one of the largest in its history. In exchange, the Macri government will deepen the austerity measures already in place.

Joining me now to analyze Argentina’s economic situation and its new IMF loan is Michael Hudson. Michael is a distinguished research professor of economics at the University of Missouri Kansas City. Welcome back, Michael.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Good to be back, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Michael, why is it that Argentina needs such a huge credit line from the IMF?

MICHAEL HUDSON: For precisely the reason that you explained. Its neoliberal policy aims at rolling back the wage increases and employment that Mrs. Kirschner, the former president, achieved. So it’s part of the class war to shrink the economy. To lower wages, you have to cut back business so as to cut back employment. Like almost all IMF loans, the purpose is to subsidize capital flight out of Argentina before this austerity occurs, so that wealthy Argentinians can take their money and run before the currency collapses.

The loan will indebt Argentina so much that its currency will continue to go down and down, chronically wrecking the economy. That’s what the IMF does. That’s its business plan. It makes a loan to subsidize capital flight, emptying out the economy of cash, leading the currency to collapse, as it has recently collapsed. As soon as the $50 billion was expended, wasted in letting wealthy Argentinians take their pesos, convert them into dollars, move them offshore – to the United States, to England, to the Dutch West Indies, and offshore banking centers – then they let the currency collapse.

The IMF model’s basic assumption, which it’s announced for the last 50 years, is that when you depreciate a currency, what you’re really lowering is the price of labor. Raw materials and capital have an international price. But when a currency goes down, it makes imports much more expensive, and that causes a price umbrella over the cost of living. Labor has to pay a higher domestic price for grain, food, oil and gas, andfor everything else.

So what Macri has done is to agree with the IMF to wage class war with a vengeance. Devaluation leaves Argentina so hopelessly indebted that it can’t possibly repay the IMF loan. So what we’re seeing is a replay of what happened in 2001.

 

SHARMINI PERIES: Exactly. I was going to ask you, now, that was only 17 years ago, Michael. Argentinians do have memory here. They know what happened. They experienced it as well. Now, that was back in 2001 during the economic crisis when unemployment had increased so dramatically. That country went through a series of presidents and went through a series of crises. And we saw images very similar to what we have seen in, in Greece not too long ago. Now, tell us more about that history. What exactly happened during that crisis, and then eventually how did Nestor Kirschner relieve the economy and come out of that crisis?

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, the IMF staff said, “Don’t make the loan. There’s no possible way Argentina can pay it. It’s all going to be made to the oligarchy for capital flight. You’re giving the IMF money for crooks, and you’re expecting the Argentine people to have to pay.” So Argentina very quickly was left broke.

Although that was 17 years ago, for the last 17 years the IMF has had a slogan: “No more Argentinas.” In other words, they said, they were never going to make a loan that is only given to oligarchs for capital flight. That’s what happened when it lent to Ukraine, to the Russian kleptocrats, and to the Greek banks to move offshore. Yet here again, we’re having a replay.

After Mrs. Kirschner came in, it was obvious to everybody, as it had been to the IMF staff (many of whom had resigned) that Argentina couldn’t pay. So about 80 percent of Argentina’s bondholders agreed to write down the debt to something that could be paid. They saw that either it’s a total default because they can’t pay, or they would write it down very substantially to what could be paid, because the IMF really made an incompetent – not incompetent, but outright corrupt – insider deal.

Unfortunately, the oligarchy had a fatal clause put in the original bond issue, saying that Argentina would agree to U.S. arbitration under U.S. law if there was any dispute. Well, after the old Argentine bonds depreciated in price – the bonds that were not renegotiated as part of the 80 percent – you had vulture funds buy them up. Especially Paul Singer, the Republican campaign donor who tends to buy politicians along with foreign government bonds. He sued, demanding 100 percent on the dollar, not the 40 cents or whatever they’d settled for. The case was assigned to the senile, dying Judge Griesa in New York City. He who said there was something about a clause that said investors have to be treated symmetrically. Argentina had said, “That’s fine, we’ll pay the other 20 percent the same as what the 80 percent of all agreed to. The majority rules.” But Griesa said, “No, you have to pay the 80 percent all the money that the 20 percent demands. That’s symmetry.” He let the hedge funds win. That set Argentina on the road to go bankrupt again, wreck the government, and bring back the oligarchy.

That ruling caused turmoil. The United States State Department set out to support the oligarchy by doing everything it could to destabilize Argentina. The Argentine people voted in a government that was supported by the United States, hoping it would be nice to them. I don’t know why foreign countries think that way, but they thought maybe if they voted neoliberal, the United States would agree to forgive some of its debt.

Well, that’s not what neoliberals do. Macri did just what you said at the beginning of the program. He announced that he was going to cut employment, stop inflation by making the working class bear all of the costs, and would borrow – actually, it was the largest loan in IMF history – the $50 billion to enable the Argentine wealthy class to move its money offshore. That’s what the IMF does.

 

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. So let’s imagine you are given the opportunity to resolve this issue. How would you advise the Argentine government in terms of what can they do to stabilize the economy, given the circumstances they’re facing right now?

 

It doesn’t have to be this way

 
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Left Out,, a podcast produced by Paul Sliker, Michael Palmieri, and Dante Dallavalle, creates in-depth conversations with the most interesting political thinkers, heterodox economists, and organizers on the Left.

The Hudson Report is a weekly series produced by Left Out with the legendary economist Michael Hudson. Every episode we cover an economic or political issue that is either being ignored—or hotly debated—that week in the press.

In this episode, Paul Sliker speaks with Michael Hudson about the economic and political implications of the International Monetary Fund’s $50 billion loan to Argentina, which is the largest IMF credit line in history. You can find the audio version here.

http://democracyatwrkleftout.libsyn.com/the-hudson-report-argentina-gets-biggest-imf-loan-in-history

Paul Sliker: Michael Hudson welcome back to the Hudson report.

Michael Hudson: It’s good to be back. Much has happened while I was away for a few weeks.

Paul Sliker: Michael, Argentina recently agreed to a $50 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. That’s the largest ever in IMF history. It is supposed to run for 36 months. Argentina began talks with the IMF last month, after three central bank rate hikes. Despite pushing borrowing costs above 40%, this failed to stop the fall in the peso, which has now fallen by 25% against the US dollar this year.

This agreement brings back a dark history for most Argentinians regarding the IMF’s role there during their devastating economic crisis in 2001-2002. The IMF imposed severe austerity measures, as usual. That’s its basic anti-labor policy, so Argentina’s decision to return to the IMF has triggered huge national protests over the past few weeks.

Despite this being the biggest loan in IMF history, we don’t really hear anything about it in the US media, except for the typical brief reporting in the financial press. There’s no real political or economic analysis of this especially on the Left, which one would think would be more sympathetic to the Global South, as well as countering IMF austerity philosophy.

Before we get into the current massive deal with the IMF – you are one of the world’s leading experts on IMF and World Bank loans. When you were at Chase Manhattan Bank’s economic research department, your role was a balance of payments specialist, and your task was to establish the payment capacity of Argentina, Brazil and Chile. To give people a general understanding of the historical context leading up to what’s going on today, can you give us some history about the last Argentine economic crisis in the early 2000s, and the IMF’s role at that time?

 

Michael Hudson: The reason there is so little discussion of Argentine or other Third World debt problems is that hardly anybody studies balance of payments (BOP) any more. There’s no course in balance-of-payments accounting or even in National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) at any U.S. university. The right-wing Chicago School propagandists keep claiming that if a country’s currency is depreciating, it must be because its prices are going up. But that gets the line of causality inside out. For debtor countries such as Argentina or other Latin American countries, the balance of payments has little to do with domestic prices, domestic wage rates or domestic cost of production. The balance-of payments – and hence, the exchange rate – is swamped by debt service.

Debt service is paid on what’s called Capital Account. Politically, government debt denominated in dollars is run into by these countries to cover their trade deficit that results from structural factors, such as their agreement not to grow their own food but to rely on U.S. grain exports, and to let U.S. investments in their countries avoid paying taxes. These are structural factors, not wage and price factors.

Argentina is the poster child for countries that have totally screwed up their economy. Their predatory right-wing oligarchy has managed to steer their country from the most prosperous in the world in the late 19th century to one of the the poorest and most debt-strapped countries. This is a political problem. But the oligarchy blames labor and says that it has to be paid even less.

In 1990, I helped organize the first Third World bond fund. It was issued by Scudder, Stevens & Clark. At that time in 1989-1990 Argentina was paying 45% per year on dollar bonds. Brazil was paying the same. Now just imagine: 45% a year. That doubles your money in two years! No country can possibly pay that for long. But it was clear that the Argentine dictatorship – bolstered by a US-backed assassination program against labor leaders, land reformers and left-wing professors – would continue paying for at least five years. So that was the fund’s time frame.

Despite these high interest rates, we weren’t able to sell the bond fund to any American or any Europeans. But Merrill Lynch, which underwrote the bond fund, sold all its shares in Latin America. The fund was organized and the Dutch West Indies, so it was an offshore fund. Americans (including myself) were not allowed to buy it.

So who did buy it? The bond buyers turned out to be the wealthiest families in Brazil and in Argentina. I think I’ve discussed this before on your show. Argentina’s foreign debt was owned almost entirely by the domestic Argentine oligarchy – the very richest class. They moved their money out of domestic currency into dollars, buying dollar bonds because they knew that they were going to authorize the high interest being paid – to themselves, masquerading as “Yankee dollars”.

This is the oligarchy that followed the 1973 US-Chilean military coup that assassinated Allende and installed Pinochet. The US mounted a mass assassination and terrorism campaign throughout Latin America. In Argentina it was called the Dirty War. The Americans came in and applied the Chicago School economic principle that you can only have a free market if you’re willing to assassinate labor leaders, land reformers and university professors. Tens of thousands of Argentine reformers were tortured and killed to put the oligarchy in power and slash taxes on high incomes. Their tax laws make Donald Trump look like a moderate. And like most financial elites, they took the money and ran, putting their takings offshore in Argentina dollar bonds. Politically they denounced Yankee bondholders for forcing huge debt payments at 45% a year driving the currency down, but the wealthiest families themselves were the “Yankees” who were actually collecting. The real American Yankees simply didn’t trust the Argentines!

When Scudder went around and talked to US investors in 1990, they said that the Argentinian politicians are crooks, and were not going to invest in a kleptocracy whose intention was to cheat us just like they cheat their own people!

Now, fast forward to 2001. The IMF came in and followed US Defense Dept. and State Department directions to support the oligarchy and its terrorists. The CIA feared that otherwise Argentina might have a democracy as the wave of “free market” assassinations had died down.

The IMF staff saw that it was obvious that Argentina was unable to take on any more debt. Nonetheless, they lent Argentina enough money so that the wealthiest Argentines could have a high enough exchange rate for the Argentine peso to take their money out of the country and move into dollars. It was a huge subsidy for capital flight out of Argentina into dollar-denominated Argentine debt to the IMF and other bondholders.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Argentina, IMF 
The Hudson Report
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Left Out, a podcast produced by Paul Sliker, Michael Palmieri, and Dante Dallavalle, creates in-depth conversations with the most interesting political thinkers, heterodox economists, and organizers on the Left.

The Hudson Report is a new weekly series produced by Left Out with the legendary economist Michael Hudson. Every episode we cover an economic or political issue that is either being ignored—or hotly debated—that week in the press.

Paul Sliker: Michael Hudson welcome back to The Hudson Report.

Michael Hudson: It’s good to be back. I’m just home from China, getting over jetlag.

Paul Sliker: You recently gave a paper at Peking University about the economy and what sorts of policies they should implement and what to avoid.

But Michael, because we only have a short amount of time in these weekly segments, I want to look specifically at housing in China, and then compare that to what’s going on here in the U.S. In your speech you argued that China’s most pressing policy challenge is to keep down the cost of housing and that the policies best suited to avoid what you call the “neo-rentier disease.” Can you give us a picture of what’s going on currently with housing in China, and then explain what you mean by “neo-rentier disease” and how the Chinese can avoid it.

Michael Hudson: To put this in international perspective, you could say that international competition is based on labor’s cost of living in each country. The most important expense in every country’s cost of living today is housing. What makes a country competitive in manufacturing or other sectors comes down to how much it costs to pay for housing.

20 or 30 years ago only 10 percent to 12 percent of one’s income had to go for housing. That’s about the ratio in Germany today. But in America today it’s over 40 percent in the big cities. It’s also over 40 percent in London, and and it’s rising throughout Europe. But this is not a force of nature. It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s largely because banks have found that they can do to housing the same thing they’ve done to education: Housing is an excuse to get people into debt.

The most important way to get people into debt for housing is to take control of the government with your lobbyists to un-tax housing. The property tax is way less than the rise in land prices. That leaves the rising rental value available to be paid to the banks. The reason why housing prices are going up is because a house is worth whatever a bank will lend. And they are lending more and more, to enable new borrowers to bid up property prices.

You’d think that China would have learned this by looking at the West, or at least by reading Volume 3 of Capital. In fact the Peking University meeting, the Second World Conference on Marxism, David Harvey gave the opening and closing speech. His point was that the Chinese should read Volume III of Capital to understand why and how the volume of debt and credit grows exponentially. As banks get richer and richer, the One Percent get richer. They need to nurture more and more markets for their credit and debt creation. So they lend on easier and easier terms, at a rising proportion of the home’s value. So it’s bank credit that has been inflating the price of housing.

David Harvey asked how China can let the price of housing go up so high in Shanghai (the most privatized city) that almost everybody who has a house is a millionaire. How can China expect to remain competitive in exporting industrial products when the cost of housing is so high?

Unfortunately, his talk and mine were almost the only economic talks at the meeting in Peking. As one of the Russian attendees pointed out to me, “Marxism” is the Chinese word for politics. “Marxism with Chinese characteristics” means to doing what they want politically. But economically they’ve sent their students to the United States, to attend business schools to learn how U.S. financial engineering practices.

Shanghai is where Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys came in the 1970s and early 80s, because the Chinese government worried that if western Marxists came over, they would tend to interfere with domestic Chinese politics. So actually, China had less exposure to foreign Marxian economics than to U.S.-style neoliberal teaching.

I gave the same basic talk in neighboring Tianjin, which is a more interesting city in many ways. It’s where Chou En-Lei went to school. Talking to women students (about 80 percent of the economics students were women, because it’s considered a social science there) about how they planned to get an apartment, I was told that they would have to marry a boy whose parents gave him an apartment. I didn’t meet any male student who said he would have to marry a woman with her own apartment. It’s a male’s role to have an apartment for his wife. So if you can’t find a guy with his own apartment this is not going to lead to a happy married life, and there may be no marriage at all.

Some of the students that I talked to three years ago are graduating now, but are still not married. So I asked where they were going to live. One of the problems I found out – in addition to what we just talked about – was that in order to prevent a rural exodus to the big cities, people from the provinces or from small towns are not allowed to get a passport to live in these cities. They’re only allowed to buy apartments in their home town. China is trying to prevent overcrowding and the development of slums. As a result, in order to get an apartment the student decided to teach at a university or the high school that provides its own housing.

So China’s corporations, public universities and other institutions are doing much what the Russian Soviets did: Employers provide their own workers with housing.

Meanwhile, you’ve had a move in the last three years under President Xi against corruption. The way they’ve moved against corruption is to put in a bureaucracy to prevent it. That is a natural step in any country. The bureaucracy has put a short lease on what governments can spending. So most universities, if they have big conferences, need a private-sector participant to share in the cost, especially if they bring people over from abroad. At the worse, this shifts corruption from the public sector to the private sector.

Meanwhile, there’s a shift going on in China now, and the political attitude of the students I talked to is quite different from what it was a decade ago, when students really thought that they could change the country and get rid of corruption. OK, they’ve cracked down on corruption. They put in bureaucracy. But now they’re faced with a problem that their students have all been sent to America to study economics and come back and ask “How do we get a free market?”

I couldn’t believe that students in China were asking me about a free market. But that idea led President Xi a few months ago to say they’re thinking of letting in American and European banks. Well, I think this would be a disaster. If you let in the American and foreign banks, their product is debt! What are they going to lend money for?

The answer is that they’re going to lend more money to buy apartments than other Chinese banks are willing to lend. That’s how banks increase their market share – a race to the bottom, into deeper and deeper debt. The new banks will lend on easier terms, with lower down payments. That provides buyers with even more credit to bid up the price of real estate. The effect will be to start pricing China out of the market.

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: China, Housing 
The West’s Finance-Capitalist Road
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May 5-6, 2018 Lecture
Second World Marxism Conference
Peking University, School of Marxist Studies

Volumes II and III of Marx’s Capital describe how debt grows exponentially, burdening the economy with carrying charges. This overhead is subjecting today’s Western finance-capitalist economies to austerity, shrinking living standards and capital investment while increasing their cost of living and doing business. That is the main reason why they are losing their export markets and becoming de-industrialized.

What policies are best suited for China to avoid this neo-rentier disease while raising living standards in a fair and efficient low-cost economy? The most pressing policy challenge is to keep down the cost of housing. Rising housing prices mean larger and larger debts extracting interest out of the economy. The strongest way to prevent this is to tax away the rise in land prices, collecting the rental value for the government instead of letting it be pledged to the banks as mortgage interest.

The same logic applies to public collection of natural resource and monopoly rents. Failure to tax them away will enable banks to create debt against these rents, building financial and other rentier charges into the pricing of basic needs.

U.S. and European business schools are part of the problem, not part of the solution. They teach the tactics of asset stripping and how to replace industrial engineering with financial engineering, as if financialization creates wealth faster than the debt burden. Having rapidly pulled ahead over the past three decades, China must remain free of rentier ideology that imagines wealth to be created by debt-leveraged inflation of real-estate and financial asset prices.

Western capitalism has not turned out the way that Marx expected. He was optimistic in forecasting that industrial capitalists would gain control of government to free economies from unnecessary costs of production in the form of rent and interest that increase the cost of living (and hence, the break-even wage level). Along with most other economists of his day, he expected rentier income and the ownership of land, natural resources and banking to be taken out of the hands of the hereditary aristocracies that had held them since Europe’s feudal epoch. Socialism was seen as the logical extension of classical political economy, whose main policy was to abolish rent paid to landlords and interest paid to banks and bondholders.

A century ago there was an almost universal belief in mixed economies. Governments were expected to tax away land rent and natural resource rent, regulate monopolies to bring prices in line with actual cost value, and create basic infrastructure with money created by their own treasury or central bank. Socializing land rent was the core of Physiocracy and the economics of Adam Smith, whose logic was refined by Alfred Marshall, Simon Patten and other bourgeois economists of the late 19th century. That was the path that European and American capitalism seemed to be following in the decades leading up to World War I. That logic sought to use the government to support industry instead of the landlord and financial classes.

China is progressing along this “mixed economy” road to socialism, but Western economies are suffering from a resurgence of the pre-capitalist rentier classes. Their slogan of “small government” means a shift in planning to finance, real estate and monopolies. This economic philosophy is reversing the logic of industrial capitalism, replacing public investment and subsidy with privatization and rent extraction. The Western economies’ tax shift favoring finance and real estate is a case in point. It reverses John Stuart Mill’s “Ricardian socialism” based on public collection of the land’s rental value and the “unearned increment” of rising land prices.

Defining economic rent as the unnecessary margin of prices over intrinsic cost value, classical economists through Marx described rentiers as being economically parasitic, not productive. Rentiers do not “earn” their land rent, interest or monopoly rent, because it has no basis in real cost-value (ultimately reducible to labor costs). The political, fiscal and regulatory reforms that followed from this value and rent theory were an important factor leading to Marx’s value theory and historical materialism. The political thrust of this theory explains why it is no longer being taught.

By the late 19th century the rentiers fought back, sponsoring reaction against the socialist implications of classical value and rent theory. In America, John Bates Clark denied that economic rent was unearned. He redefined it as payment for the landlords’ labor and enterprise, not as accruing “in their sleep,” as J. S. Mill had characterized it. Interest was depicted as payment for the “service” of lending productively, not as exploitation. Everyone’s income and wealth was held to represent payment for their contribution to production. The thrust of this approach was epitomized by Milton Friedman’s Chicago School claim that “there is no such thing as a free lunch” – in contrast to classical economics saying that feudalism’s legacy of privatized land ownership, bank credit and monopolies was all about how to get a free lunch, by exploitation.

The other major reaction against classical and Marxist theory was English and Austrian “utility” theory. Focusing on consumer psychology instead of production costs, it claimed that there is no difference between value and price. A price is whatever consumers “choose” to pay for commodities, based on the “utility” that these provide – defined by circular reasoning as being equal to the price they pay. Producers are assumed to invest and produce goods to “satisfy consumer demand,” as if consumers are the driving force of economies, not capitalists, property owners or financial managers.

Using junk-psychology, interest was portrayed as what bankers or bondholders “abstain” from consuming, lending their self-denial of spending to “impatient” consumers and “credit-worthy” entrepreneurs. This view opposed the idea of interest as a predatory charge levied by hereditary wealth and the privatized monopoly right to create bank credit. Marx quipped that in this view, the Rothschilds must be Europe’s most self-depriving and abstaining family, not as suffering from wealth-addiction.

These theories that all income is earned and that consumers (the bourgeois term for wage-earners) instead of capitalists determine economic policy were a reaction against the classical value and rent theory that paved the way for Marx’s analysis. After analyzing industrial business cycles in terms of under-consumption or over-production in Volume I of Capital, Volume III dealt with the precapitalist financial problem inherited from feudalism and the earlier “ancient” mode of production: the tendency of an economy’s debts to grow by the “purely mathematical law” of compound interest.

Any rate of interest may be thought of as a doubling time. What doubles is not real growth, but the parasitic financial burden on this growth. The more the debt burden grows, the less income is left for spending on goods and services. More than any of his contemporaries, Marx emphasized the tendency for debt to grow exponentially, at compound interest, extracting more and more income from the economy at large as debts double and redouble, beyond the ability of debtors to pay. This slows investment in new means of production, because it shrinks domestic markets for output.

 
• Category: Economics, Ideology • Tags: Debt, Housing, Marxism, Neoliberalism, Rentier 
The history of debt cancellation and Jesus's economic justice activism 
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Left Out, a podcast produced by Paul Sliker, Michael Palmieri, and Dante Dallavalle, creates in-depth conversations with the most interesting political thinkers, heterodox economists, and organizers on the Left.

The Hudson Report is a new weekly series produced by Left Out with the legendary economist Michael Hudson. Every episode we cover an economic or political issue that is either being ignored—or hotly debated—that week in the press.

In this episode we discuss the ancient history of debt cancellation, the untold life of Jesus as an economic justice activist, and more largely Professor Hudson’s forthcoming book, “…and forgive them their debts,” out in summer 2018.

Michael Palmieri: Professor Michael Hudson welcome back to another episode of The Hudson Report.

Michael Hudson: It’s good to be back here.

Michael Palmieri: I know we usually cover topical or current event that’s been either ignored or hotly debated in the weekly news cycle. But I thought it would be much more interesting this week to talk about your forthcoming book “…and forgive them their debts credit and redemption through the Bronze Age to the Jubilee Year” scheduled to be released early summer 2018. And I thought it was interesting in two ways, one–Easter’s three weeks passed and yet a lot of your work is centered around Christianity and the life and activism of Jesus. The second reason is that you’ll be leaving for the next few weeks to teach at Peking University in China.

But can you explain or maybe give a little bit of a summary as to what the book looks at and describe it. I know it’s focused on the origins of debt and debt forgiveness. But can you elaborate a bit more?

Michael Hudson: It’s a history of the origins of interest bearing debt – the origins of interest and Sumer in the third millennium BC, in an epoch when most debts were owed to the palace, either for taxes or for fees for services. Periodically for a thousand years, from Sumer, Babylonia, and other Near Eastern countries, when new rulers took the throne, they would begin their reign with a debt amnesty.

We’re familiar since medieval times for European rulers often freeing the prisoners when they came to power. But the amnesties in Sumer and Babylonia extended to everything that was owed to the palace. They were general cancellations of personal debts, mainly agrarian debts by cultivators – citizens who also manned the military.

The idea was to restore the economy to the stability that existed before widespread debts ran up during the preceding ruler’s reign. What was “restored” was an idealized “original” or “normal” state in which nobody owed debts to the palace.

These debt remissions extended in due course to debts owed to palace collectors – and, by Babylonian times (from about 2000 to 1600 BC), to debts owed to individual creditors. Most agrarian and personal debts were cancelled, but not debts among businessmen that were owed to each other. They were left in place.

The guiding logic of these debt cancellations was spelled out by Egyptians. If rulers had not cancelled these debts, they would have faced a situation in which indebted cultivators were falling into permanent bondage. Their labor would have been pledged to their creditors, and thus would not be available to perform the corvée labor that had to be mobilized each year to build basic infrastructure – walls, temples, palaces and other basic construction that was public or communal in character.

Also if the debtors on the land had to pay private creditors, they wouldn’t be able to pay their stipulated fees or taxes run up to the palace. So for two thousand years throughout the Bronze Age (circa 3200 to 1200 BC), there was a tension between the rulers and the emergence of a private wealthy class of creditors who used their money to try to become landowners. By about 1800 BC you had cultivators pledging their land to creditors and losing it. You begin to find large aggregations of landholdings, all at the expense of palace authority and its ability to levy taxes on labor, crops or money.

The big picture therefore is that for thousands of years you have a tension between centralized authority, which needed to preserve economic balance and wanted the population (and hence, the army) to keep growing, and wealthy creditors, traders and land buyers who made gains by impoverishing the rest of the population. That was the same dynamic found in early Greece and Rome. In fact, it’s a dynamic that you still have today.

The difference is that today’s governments have been taken over and captured by creditor interests. The result is that today’s ethic is the opposite of the first few thousand years of debt. Today’s ethic, ever since Rome, is a sanctity of debt, not of its cancellation. All debts have to be paid – regardless of how this may impoverish and polarize society.

But in Sumer, Babylonia, Egypt and the Biblical lands there was a royal understanding that if poor cultivators – the 99 percent – had to pay the debts that they ran up, they would fall into bondage to the 1 percent, and forfeit their land to their creditors. Rulers sought to prevent this from happening, because if they had not intervened, they would have a citizenry available to serve in the army. They wouldn’t have taxes. They would have had a kind of Margaret Thatcher type economy – and quickly been conquered by outsiders or overthrown from within.

Michael Palmieri: This gets us to where we began in the first episode of The Hudson Report. We spoke about the ACLU report called ‘A Pound of Flesh,’ about the “modern-day debtors’ prisons” that are beginning to pop up throughout society.

Michael Hudson: Shakespeare’s famous “pound of flesh” owed by the Merchant of Venice actually was a zero interest loan. So debt problems arose even before interest came to be charged. But obviously, once you begin to charge interest, debt expands exponentially at a geometric rate. Babylonian scribes were taught to calculate these doubling times. So one of the aims of my book is to explain how interest began.

There’s no question that when it began, the objective was not to find a way to impoverish society, polarize it and impose austerity. But that’s how matters ended up. Interest was innovated in the Sumerian temples and palaces, basically in the form of trade credit. The palace consigned export and import trade to entrepreneurs. Sumer – present-day Iraq – had very rich soil, deposited by rivers over the millennia. But it didn’t have hard stone, metal or gems. So Sumer had to trade in order to get the copper and tin that gave their name to the Bronze Age.

This trade had to be financed on credit. The palace and the temples employed war widows, children, the blind and other people who couldn’t make a go of things on the land. They were set to work to weave textiles or make other handicrafts, which were turned over to traders. These traders exported these handicrafts northwest to Turkey and eastward across the Iranian plateau. That’s how the Sumerians obtained the tin, copper and other raw materials, like stone and silver.

There was a transmutation of this practice of charging interest to creditors to merchants who could pay. Interest began to be charged on debts in general, including advances of fees owed to the palace by cultivators on the land. That’s where problems arose, especially when there was a crop failure or when members of a family got sick.

Most of these debtors didn’t actually borrow money. They simply ran up debts and arrears. Most debts thus did not result from loans, but were unpaid bills, headed by those that were owed to the palace or its collectors.

 
• Category: Economics, History • Tags: Banking System, Debt 
The Hudson Report
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Left Out, a podcast produced by Michael Palmieri, Dante Dallavalle, and Paul Sliker, creates in-depth conversations with the most interesting political thinkers, heterodox economists, and organizers on the Left.

We’re excited to announce our new weekly series called The Hudson Report with the legendary economist Michael Hudson. Every episode we’ll pick Professor Hudson’s brain for 10 or 15 minutes on an economic issue that is either being ignored—or hotly debated—that week in the press.

Michael Hudson is a Distinguished Research Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He counsels governments around the world on finance and tax policy and has served as an economic adviser to the US, Canadian, Mexican, and Latvian governments. Michael is a financial analyst and a veteran of Wall Street, an economic historian and one of the world’s leading experts on the history of private property, debt, and real estate and the origins of economic civilization in the Ancient Near East. He’s widely credited with being one of the few economists who foresaw the financial crisis of 2007-08. His new book, …and forgive them their debts: Credit and Redemption From Bronze Age Debt Remissions to the Jubilee Year, releases in May of 2018.

LISTEN to this week’s first episode of The Hudson Report on modern-day debtors’ prisons in America and debt in antiquity:

*If you’re enjoying Left Out, please consider becoming a supporter on Patreon. Your small donations are crucial to keeping this show alive.

[FULL TRANSCRIPT]

Paul Sliker: So Michael, in conjunction with Harvard University’s Peabody Museum you headed up an archaeological research team on the origins of private property, debt, and real estate and the origins of economic civilization in the ancient Near East. You actually have a new book coming out in May called ‘…and forgive them their debts: Credit and Redemption From Bronze Age Debt Remissions to the Jubilee Year’. And speaking of debt that’s a perfect segue into the topic of our first discussion here. A new ACLU report just got released called A Pound of Flesh: The Criminalization of Private Debt, that shows that thousands of debtors are arrested in jail each year in the U.S. because they owe money–and millions more are threatened with jail. The debts can be as small as a few dollars and can involve every kind of consumer debt from medical bills to car payments to student loans to credit card debt.

It goes sort of something like this… cities and private collections agencies have teamed up to bring back a system of modern day debtors’ prisons to skirt around federal law that has prohibited debtors’ prisons since 1833. And it’s also in clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. And these agencies and their hired lawyers will send out a notice to someone who’s missed a payment. That person won’t show up to court. They get a notice of contempt and then it goes on their record and an arrest warrant is issued for their failure to appear in court. And this takes some pretty big cooperation or coordination with the prosecutors and the judge. One of the most alarming things is that there’s sort of a business relationship or a quid pro quo between collection agencies and the prosecutors.

So my question for you Michael is, as an economist and someone who is an expert on the history of debt, can you give us your reaction to this report?

Michael Hudson: Well I think much of the modern variable is the privatization of prisons. If you have a privatization of prisons you run them for profit. And what do you need in order to run the prison for profit? Well, you need inmates. So the first question is how are you going to get inmates. And that’s what brings us back to the issue of debt.

So far for the last 20 or 30 years most of the inmates have been racial minorities on drug deals…marijuana and other drug deals putting them in. But now that’s being phased out because they realize how destructive and racist it is. So they want an equal opportunity source of inmates and debt is a major source of the inmates to be employed to make a profit. Now in a way this goes back to the very origins of debt. I’m a little surprised that the title that the ACLU gave its report A Pound of Flesh. That obviously refers to Shylock’s loan–and that was a zero interest loan. And that misses the whole point. The whole point of debt is interest!

We’ve done a number of books recently through the Harvard group. One is on labor in the ancient world, where we look at the origins of how labor was mobilized in the Neolithic and the early Bronze Age in Egypt. And originally there were no workers for hire. There was no labor for hire… you couldn’t say well I’m a cultivator on the land and I need to make some money so I think I’ll go into town and get a job. The governments could mobilize labor to work on public building projects and that’s how the infrastructure was built up. How would individual merchants or even temples or palaces get labor? The only way of doing it was to make an interest bearing loan to a cultivator where the interest was paid in the form of labor and where the worker himself or his family member –his son, his daughter or a household servant– was pledged as collateral. The collateral was supposed post to work off the interest. The original way of getting labor for hire was to make a loan, and it was paid as interest, not to pay wages. Wages only developed maybe in the second millennium very largely on the basis of what labor had to be paid or supported when it was pledged for debt. So the idea of working off a debt by one’s labor and in the form of being a bondage pledged to one’s creditor is a very old idea.

What’s fairly new in history is that there are public institutions–public jails–that you’d be pledged for if you couldn’t pay a debt. Instead of being pledged to the creditor to work off the debt you would be–especially in England it was known from the medieval times through pretty recent times–they still have the debtors’ prisons open and if you couldn’t pay a debt you’d be consigned to a debtors’ prison. You’d have to pay for your own food and board and you’d be charged for the support. And the only way if you didn’t have any money to pay for your own food–or if you didn’t have friends who would bring by food for you–would be to stick your hands out of the grate for alms. Many people who were Almsgivers would go by the debtors’ prison supporting the debtors so they wouldn’t simply starve to death.

Paul Sliker: And Michael I want to talk a little bit about about the reasons for why debts have been written down over the course of history. So I mean, you know, according to your work from my perception, writing down debts obviously reduces the overall economy’s financial costs… so the perception of this long term macroeconomic dynamic explains why debtors’ prisons have been closed and things like bankruptcy laws have become increasingly humanitarian to enable debtors to make a fresh start and become economic actors and start spending into the economy again.

So what are the reasons why they’re sort of trying to bring back these arrangements particularly here in the U.S. today?

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Financial Debt 
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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or known as the OECD, predicted on Tuesday that Trump’s tariffs on aluminum and steel imports could initiate a wave of protectionism and slow global economic growth. The tariffs have already spurred various countries to announce retaliatory measures. For example, the European Union plans to impose tariffs on Harley Davidsons and blue jeans. China has also promised to retaliate. Meanwhile, US companies that use steel and aluminum as raw materials for their production processes already report significant cost increases by as much as 40%.

Joining me now to analyze Trump’s tariffs is Michael Hudson. Michael is a distinguished research professor of economics at the University of Missouri Kansas City. He’s the author of several books, the most recent among them is J is for Junk Economics. Michael, welcome back.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Great to be here again, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Michael, what do you think of Trump’s tariffs on aluminum and steel, will they protect US manufacturing industries?

MICHAEL HUDSON: On the one hand, it’s supposed to protect and rebuild US manufacturing. But to really rebuild manufacturing, you need much more than a tariff against foreign goods. You need public infrastructure, and that’s not going to happen. You also need a different tax system, and that’s not going to happen. You need a more competitive economy; that’s not going to happen. So I think there’s not really any attempt to repeat how America built up manufacturing by what Henry Clay called the American System in the 19th century: infrastructure, public investment, tariffs and an industrial banking system.

We’re still in a Thatcherite economic policy, so I think what Trump really wants to do is use diplomatic leverage and economic threats against Canada and Mexico. I think what is on his mind is “We’ll let Mexico’s steel in, but it’ll have to build the wall and pay for it. If it doesn’t do that, then we’re going to punish it. For Canada, you’re going to have to surrender to all of our renegotiated NAFTA demands. You have to buy more American cars. You have to do whatever we tell you to, otherwise we’re going to create unemployment in your steel industry.”

That’s called national security somehow. But how can it really be national security if he’s willing to let in most of the aluminum and most of the steel if Canada and Mexico do things that have nothing to do with national security at all?

His policy is what we call an internal contradiction that doesn’t make sense. Canada has already announced that it is not going to renegotiate NAFTA and let the tariff be used as a threat. The Canadians are getting fed up with American pushing special interest favoritism against it. The Mexican president refused to come up a few weeks ago when it was obvious that Trump was going to make demands on Mexico that were so much against its national interest that they just canceled.

SHARMINI PERIES: So then why is US manufacturing, steel manufacturing in particular, predicting a 40% increase in prices?

MICHAEL HUDSON: It’s not just a prediction, Sharmini. The Financial Times just had a chart, and steel prices have already gone up 40%. Aluminum prices have already gone up one-third. If you look at the forward market, the prices are already up. We don’t have to say this is a dire prediction, it’s already happening.

SHARMINI PERIES: Michael, historically tariffs and protectionist policies have been used by countries as a strategy to industrialize. Can this strategy work again in light of the fact that US has been de-industrializing for several decades now?

MICHAEL HUDSON: It can’t work again, for a number of reasons. For one thing, from the very beginning of the 19th century, ever since Henry Clay put forth the American System in the 1840s of internal improvements, protective tariffs, and a national bank and financial policy to fund an industry, those three had to go together. In order to make industry competitive, you need not only tariffs to block imports, you need to support manufacturing by infrastructure investment, roads, canals, an educational system.

By the end of the 19th century, you had the Conservative Party in Britain, Benjamin Disraeli, saying “Health is everything. We have to have a health policy to promote our workforce.” In Germany, Bismarck said “We need a pension system. We need an industrial banking system to fund Germany. We need government spending on infrastructure, on railroads.” You had European, French, German and English investment in public spending. But Trump is a Thatcherite. You cannot have a Thatcherite economy, which is basically an asset-stripping economy, you cannot have a tax policy like Trump has, which is basically a financialization policy, and at the same time, have an industrial policy.

In fact, what Trump is saying is that he wants this to be the first salvo in a trade war against the whole world that has a mixed economy. He’s announced pretty much that within the World Trade Organization he’s going to promote blockages against any country where the government plays a role. For instance, if they tax companies that pollute with a pollution tax, any government that regulates, any government that provides subsidized services like subsidized education, subsidized healthcare, subsidized roads and railroads, this is somehow not a free market economy.

A free market economy is an austere economy sort of like Thatcherism. This aim is to dismantle industry, and Trump is essentially saying “Any economy that has an industrial strategy, we’re going to exclude from the American-centered way of reorganizing society.” Basically, this means that either you’re going to join the neoliberal Thatcherite block, or the rest of the world is going to be a state socialist or other socialist, or just plain mixed economy block.

But no other country outside of the neoliberal countries is going to say “Okay. We’re going to privatize our education just like America’s doing. We’re not going to give free education or subsidized roads. We’re not going to regulate industrial monopolies.” No country is going to go along with this attempt to essentially declare war on countries that are not “free enterprise economies,” meaning financialized economies.

SHARMINI PERIES: Michael, legally, trade policies are supposed to be coordinated through Congress. However, Trump is sidelining Congress and saying that he has the right to negotiate and to do his wheeling and dealing from The White House. We just saw a recent decision where he’s denied the $177 billion Broadcom takeover of Qualcomm that he considers this a national security threat. We don’t know whether it is or not but let’s take it for granted that it is. This kind of wheeling and dealing and sidelining Congress, does that concern you?

MICHAEL HUDSON: Yes, for two reasons. Number one, it’s the imperial presidency. It’s an attack on the American Constitution. You’re right, Congress is supposed to be in charge of trade policy, just as it’s supposed to be in charge of declaring war, but the president can say that there’s a national security emergency. The problem with this is that ever since the World Trade Organization was created anew in the 1990s, no country, not even the United States, has used the national security excuse to impose tariffs. George W. Bush thought about it, but then he was told that there was no persuasive basis for it.

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Donald Trump, Free Trade 
Michael Hudson
About Michael Hudson

Michael Hudson is President of The Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trends (ISLET), a Wall Street Financial Analyst, Distinguished Research Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri, Kansas City and author of The Bubble and Beyond (2012), Super-Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire (1968 & 2003), Trade, Development and Foreign Debt (1992 & 2009) and of The Myth of Aid (1971).

ISLET engages in research regarding domestic and international finance, national income and balance-sheet accounting with regard to real estate, and the economic history of the ancient Near East.

Michael acts as an economic advisor to governments worldwide including Iceland, Latvia and China on finance and tax law.