Based on what I have described of Bernanke’s policy failure so far, is it possible to predict anything about the future results of an open ended purchase of financial assets under QE3? I think so, and I share why in this last part of this series.
Tags: Bailout, Ben Bernanke, deflation, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, economy, exchange rates, Federal Reserve, Federal Reserve Bank, financial crisis, great depression, immiseration thesis, inflation, international financial system, International Monetary Fund, Jens Weidmann, Karl Marx, monetary policy, Money, overproduction, recession, Robert Kurz, stupid economist tricks, stupid Washington tricks, The Economy, Wall Street Crisis
I stopped my examination of Bernanke’s approach to this crisis and the problem of deflation after looking at his 1991 paper and his speech in 2002. I now want to return to that series, examining two of his speeches this to discuss the problems confronting bourgeois monetary policy in the crisis that began in 2007-8.
Tags: Bailout, Ben Bernanke, deflation, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, economy, Federal Reserve, Federal Reserve Bank, financial crisis, great depression, Henryk Grossman, inflation, international financial system, International Monetary Fund, Karl Marx, Moishe Postone, monetary policy, Money, national economists club, overproduction, recession, Robert Kurz, stupid economist tricks, stupid Washington tricks, The Economy, Wall Street Crisis
The world market had been shaken by a series of financial crises, and the economy of Japan had fallen into a persistent deflationary state, When Ben Bernanke gave his 2002 speech before the National Economists Club, “Deflation: Making Sure “It” Doesn’t Happen Here”. Bernanke was going to explain to his audience filled with some of the most important economists in the nation why, despite the empirical data to the contrary, the US was not going to end up like Japan.
Tags: Bailout, Ben Bernanke, deflation, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, economy, Federal Reserve, Federal Reserve Bank, financial crisis, gold, Gold Reserve Act of 1934, gold standard, Gold standard dollars, great depression, Henryk Grossman, inflation, international financial system, International Monetary Fund, Karl Marx, Milton Friedman, Moishe Postone, monetary policy, Money, National Bureau of Economic Research, overproduction, Presidential Executive Order 6102, recession, Robert Kurz, stupid economist tricks, stupid Washington tricks, The Economy, Wall Street Crisis, william white
So I am spending a week or so trying to understand Ben Bernanke’s approach to this crisis based on three sources from his works.
In this part, the source is an essay published in 1991: “The Gold Standard, Deflation, and Financial Crisis in the Great Depression: An International Comparison”. In this 1991 paper, Bernanke tries to explain the causes of the Great Depression employing the “quantity theory of money” fallacy. So we get a chance to see this argument in an historical perspective and compare it with a real time application of Marx’s argument on the causes of capitalist crisis as understood by Henryk Grossman in his work, The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown.
In the second part, the source is Bernanke’s 2002 speech before the National Economists Club: “Deflation: Making Sure “It” Doesn’t Happen Here”. In this 2002 speech, Bernanke is directly addressing the real time threat of deflation produced by the 2001 onset of the present depression. So we get to compare it with the argument made by Robert Kurz in his 1995 essay, “The Apotheosis of Money”.
In part three, the source will be Bernanke’s recent speech before the International Monetary Fund meeting in Tokyo, Japan earlier this month, “U.S. Monetary Policy and International Implications”, in which Bernanke looks back on several years of managing global capitalism through the period beginning with the financial crisis, and tries to explain his results.
To provide historical context for my examination, I am assuming Bernanke’s discussion generally coincides with the period beginning with capitalist breakdown in the 1930s until its final collapse (hopefully) in the not too distant future. We are, therefore, looking at the period of capitalism decline and collapse through the ideas of an academic. Which is to say we get the chance to see how deflation appears in the eyes of someone who sees capitalist relations of production, “in a purely economic way — i.e., from the bourgeois point of view, within the limitations of capitalist understanding, from the standpoint of capitalist production itself…”
This perspective is necessary, because the analysis Bernanke brings to this discussion exhibits all the signs of fundamental misapprehension of the way capitalism works — a quite astonishing conclusion given that he is tasked presently with managing the monetary policy of a global empire.
Tags: Bailout, Ben Bernanke, deflation, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, Federal Reserve, Federal Reserve Bank, financial crisis, gold, Gold Reserve Act of 1934, gold standard, Gold standard dollars, great depression, Henryk Grossman, inflation, international financial system, International Monetary Fund, Karl Marx, Milton Friedman, monetary policy, Money, National Bureau of Economic Research, overproduction, Presidential Executive Order 6102, recession, stupid economist tricks, stupid Washington tricks, The Economy, Wall Street Crisis
As a contribution to Occupy Wall Street’s efforts against debt, I am continuing my reading of William White’s “Ultra Easy Monetary Policy and the Law of Unintended Consequences” (PDF). I have covered sections A and B. In this last section I am looking at to section C of White’s paper and his conclusion.
Back to the Future
It is interesting how White sets all of his predictions about the consequences of the present monetary policies in the future tense as if he is speaking of events that have not, as yet, occurred. For instance, White argues,
“Researchers at the Bank for International Settlements have suggested that a much broader spectrum of credit driven “imbalances”, financial as well as real, could potentially lead to boom/bust processes that might threaten both price stability and financial stability. This BIS way of thinking about economic and financial crises, treating them as systemic breakdowns that could be triggered anywhere in an overstretched system, also has much in common with insights provided by interdisciplinary work on complex adaptive systems. This work indicates that such systems, built up as a result of cumulative processes, can have highly unpredictable dynamics and can demonstrate significant non linearities.”
It is as though White never got the memo about the catastrophic financial meltdown that happened in 2008. If his focus is on the “medium run” consequences of easy money that has been practiced since the 1980s, isn’t this crisis the “medium run” result of those policies? Why does White insist on redirecting our attention to an event in the future, when this crisis clearly is the event produced by his analysis.
Tags: Bailout, debt, Depression, economic collapse, economics, fascist state economic policy, Federal Reserve, Finance, financial crisis, Hyman Minsky, inflation, international financial system, Krugman, monetary policy, political-economy, qe3, qu, quantitative easing, Quantitative easing and debt, stupid economist tricks, Wall Street Crisis, william white
To Mr. Tsipras of the Greece party, Syriza,
I read your letter to Angela Merkel today the Guardian and was not impressed. Frankly, I expected a guy who just might be running Greece next year to have a better argument than the one you gave. You stated:
As Angela Merkel visits Athens on Tuesday, she will find a Greece in its fifth consecutive year of recession. In 2008 and 2009, the recession was a spillover from the global financial crisis. Since then it has been caused and deepened by the austerity policies imposed on Greece by the troika – of the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, the European Central Bank – and the Greek government.
These policies are devastating the Greek people, especially workers, pensioners, small businessmen and women, and of course young people. The Greek economy has contracted by more than 22%, workers and pensioners have lost 32% of their income, and unemployment has reached an unprecedented 24% with youth unemployment at 55%. Austerity policies have led to cuts in benefits, the deregulation of the labour market and the further deterioration of the limited welfare state that had survived a neoliberal onslaught.
Yes. The financial crisis and austerity is taking its toll on Greece, but is that piglet Merkel unaware of this? Is she living in a cave? She knows exactly what the toll is on the population — she intends that austerity take that toll. So whining about it like some emoprog is not helpful in the least.
What the fuck are you prepared to do about it?
It is nice to know that Syriza, “respects the ordinary European taxpayer who is asked to shoulder loans to countries in distress, including Greece.” The question, however, is how Syriza proposes to end this burden, since Greece is now Europe’s AIG — a convenient pass-through account for a backdoor bailout of Europe’s banking system. In this shell game, Greece gets all the blame and the banksters get all the fucking money. How do you propose to end this fucking shell game?
And what are you offering to Greece as an alternative to participating in this monstrous scam?
What would you do different?
Europe, you state, “needs a new plan to deepen European integration”, but how does your idea of integration differ from the idea of removing fiscal control completely from the Greece state and handing it to an as yet undetermined new authority? Moreover, how does this differ from “neoliberalism” agenda that is already stripping European nation states of fiscal and monetary sovereignty?
You had a lot of rhetoric about placing priority on the needs of workers, pensioners and unemployed but — really — what does this mean? Do you or do you not intend to let the banks fail? Please, spare us all the Leftist rhetoric about “placing priority on the blah blah blah…”, and “popular struggles radically blah blah blah…”
I mean, really ARE YOU GOING TO LET THE FUCKING BANKS FAIL OR NOT! And if you let them fail, how do you propose to protect the Greece public from the effects of the financial system’s collapse? All in all, your message to Merkel is meaningless trash and bizarre given the fact you will actually have to run the country shortly.
Let me say this to you: the European Left are just a bunch of pussies. To put it in the words of Mobb Deep, an American rap group:
“You’re all up in the game and don’t deserve to be a player.”
The muthafuckas behind the crisis have been running Europe since the days of Rome. Do you seriously believe you are going to appeal to their humanity? These muthafuckas slaughtered 1,000,000 Iraqis — you think they care about Greece suffering? Frankly, Mr. Tsipras, I can’t understand it. Folks on the European Left think there are rules and keep calling for the ref. You are dumb fuckers. Let’s here what the guys behind the scenes think of your rules:
“That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality.” –Spokesperson for the Bush administration
If that is not enough, Draghi told you today what the rules are:
RULE NUMBER ONE: “Revitalizing the cycle of debt is crucial to recovery.”
RULE NUMBER TWO: “It is necessary to reassure banks over the quality of their assets.”
What part of “Fuck You” don’t you folks on the European Left get? You just let that horrid little fucking piglet waltz into Greece like she is visiting one of the provinces. And your only fucking response is,
“This plan will succeed only if popular struggles radically change the balance of forces. These struggles have started already and have led to the rise of left and resistance movements throughout Europe. They keep alive democracy, equality, freedom and solidarity, the most important values of the European political tradition. These values must prevail. Otherwise Europe will regress to a dark past we thought gone for ever.”
What fucking balance? What fucking plan? Holding your fucking dick in your hand and jerking furiously is not a fucking plan. These muthafuckas got a plan for Greece — and it ain’t “democracy, equality, freedom and solidarity”.
Where’s your fucking plan, Mr. Tsipras? Frankly, you will be dead or in hiding six months after you take office; so whatever the plan, it better be quick, painful as hell for capital and irreversible. That means, no matter what, you kill the banks first, and divide their carcasses among the population — you have to keep Germany, France, Britain and the US busy trying to save those fuckers on Wall Street, while you wipe out unemployment. It only takes two steps to do this:
- Renounce all Greece’s debt, public and private, and
- reduce hours of work by half.
Those two moves will immediately trigger the collapse of stock and bond markets world-wide and send those fuckers scrambling. You have to make these fuckers think they are staring into the face of GOD — and that she is pissed beyond all belief. Your aim should be a 1000 point loss on the SP500 the first fucking day in office.
Then you immediately turn to the question of producing contagion — the crisis cannot be limited to Greece; it must spread to Spain and Portugal, Ireland and Italy. Every time they think things can’t get any worse, you have to fuck them again. If a big stick will work in this situation, then you have to use a fucking sledgehammer.
Getting rid of public and private debt is absolutely critical to killing the banks — not one bank should survive anywhere. So, repeat after me
- RENOUNCE THE DEBT,
- SLASH HOURS OF LABOR,
- CREATE CONTAGION
That’s a fucking plan.
Since Occupy Wall Street appears to be undertaking a concerted push toward addressing the growing debt servitude of the mass of working families to Wall Street banksters, I thought it might be interesting to understand how the Federal Reserve is now doubling down on a policy of manufacturing an even greater debt burden for working families under the guise of stimulating the economy.
Comments and suggestions for improvement to this post are welcomed.
Tags: Bailout, debt, Depression, economic collapse, economics, fascist state economic policy, Federal Reserve, Finance, financial crisis, Hyman Minsky, inflation, international financial system, Krugman, monetary policy, political-economy, qe3, quantitative easing, Quantitative easing and debt, stupid economist tricks, Wall Street Crisis, william white
I am adding additional comments to my reading of Weeks’ paper, “The theoretical and empirical credibility of commodity money” (PDF). In my first reading, I identified a problem with Weeks’ presentation of what he asserts is empirical evidence supporting a link between commodity-money and price. In my second reading I explained how Weeks’ real contribution to my understanding is his analysis of the neoclassical theory of money. In this reading, I am trying, based on Weeks’ argument to define exactly what the dollar and other fiat currencies are; and their relation both to commodity money and the circulation of commodities.
The problem posed by most Marxist attempts to analyze fiat currency is that state issued fiat is treated as if it is money when it is not; and prices denominated in a fiat currency are treated as if these prices express the value of commodities, which they do not. For years now Marxists have been asking if money can be a valueless piece of paper in Marx’s theory — the answer is no. This answer is unpalatable to many Marxists because they think it suggests Marx’s theory of money is invalid for purposes of analysis. My assumption in this post is that Marx’s theory is and remains valid AND this valueless currency is not money.
So if the dollar is not money, what is it? Why is it used for transactions? To answer these questions, we have to begin by understanding exactly how the currency works according to neoclassical theory.
Tags: commodity money, economic policy, ex nihilo money, fascist state economic policy, Federal Reserve, inflation, international financial system, john weeks, Karl Marx, labor time, MELT, monetary policy, neoclassical money theory, otma, stupid economist tricks, stupid Washington tricks
(Or, more importantly, why should anarchists, libertarians and Marxists be as well)
So, has any reader of this blog heard that economists have conceded Marx was right after all? Have you at any time during the past 40 years heard an economist admit that Marx was correct in his transformation argument? I am really confused by this, because although Paul A. Samuelson declared Marx’s labor theory of value irrelevant in 1971, it is still being studied by BIS economists today. If I told you Marx’s theory was being studied by economists because Samuelson was a bald-face liar and a practiced dissembler, you would probably just yawn.
Of course, he was lying — he’s an economist. Economists are paid to lie and distort reality. They are employed by Washington not to explain economic processes, but to obscure them. To call an economist a bald-face liar, is simply to state he is breathing — nothing more.
But, to understand why Samuelson was lying, and why it was necessary that his lie stand unchallenged for forty years, we have to figure out the problem posed by Marx’s so-called “transformation problem”.
Marx’s transformation problem could be called the “paradox of capitalist price”, and we could state it thus:
Simple commodity price is an expression of the value of the commodity, but capitalist profit is the expression of surplus value wrung from labor power. To realize the surplus value wrung from the worker, the realized price of the commodity in the market has to include both the quantity of value created when it was produced plus a quantity of surplus value wrung from the unpaid labor time of the worker — capitalist price is the cost of producing the commodity plus the capitalist’s profit.
However, in the classical labor theory of value, the price of the commodity can only express the value of the commodity alone, not surplus value. Thus, for the price of the commodity to include both its value and a quantity of surplus value wrung from the worker, the capitalist price of the commodity must, of necessity, exceed the value of the commodity. The law of value is thus violated by the realization of capitalist surplus value — capitalist prices of commodities must always exceed the socially necessary labor time required to produce them.
The realization of capitalist profit violates the basic rule of classical economic theory: equal exchange of values in the market — but, as we shall see, this is far from a merely theoretical violation.
Now, Marx provides a number of caveats that work to stabilize the capitalist process of production — he called them “countervailing tendencies”, and they include things like the export of capital, etc. If we ignore all of these countervailing tendencies, however, the result is that prices of commodities must rise above their values, or alternatively money must exchange for these commodities below its value. (By money, I mean here only commodity money, i.e., gold or some other metal.)
What must occur when this happens is that money fails to circulate — the economy experiences a so-called credit, or financial, crisis. So, Marx’s labor theory of value explains why the dollar was debased in 1933 by the Roosevelt administration. It explains why your currency today is worthless pieces of paper or dancing electrons on a computer terminal. Marx’s transformation predicts and explains the debasement of the dollar and all other currencies on the planet.
Given this, how does Samuelson say Marx’s theory has no market predictive power? Because he was an economist — not a scientist, but a propagandist on behalf of the fascist state. I thought we already answered this — are you paying attention?
Eventually, Marx’s labor theory of value stated, gold could no longer serve as money because its function as measure of value conflicted with realization of the surplus value wrung from you — the unpaid labor time you work in addition to the value of your wages. At a certain point, the realization of surplus value — converting this surplus labor into profits — becomes incompatible with commodity money. Prices can only increase to reflect the average rate of profit if the currency is removed from the gold standard.
Samuelson once famously declared Marx’s theory could not explain the American and European economies between 1937 and 1971 — but, I just did, so fuck Samuelson!
Moreover, Marx’s transformation states you now work as many as 36 more hours per week than is necessary. The labor theory of value shows 90 percent of the current work week is being performed solely to maintain the rate of profit. Another way to understand this: essentially the labor time that is necessary under a regime of capitalist prices is about ten-fold that needed if capitalism is abolished.
On the other hand, maintaining such a long work week is the sole cause of inflation in our economy — it is labor wasted on a vast scale. This is why in this crisis the sole concern of Washington has been to maintain or increase the rate of inflation. The conversion of surplus value into profits demands the constant increase in the total hours of labor by the working class. While the unpaid labor time of the working class is the sole source of surplus value, the realization of this surplus requires still more unpaid labor time.
Based on the above, we can make four general statements — which can be empirically substantiated — about the implications of Marx’s labor theory of value and the paradox of capitalist prices. If these turn out to be true, Marx’s theory is vindicated and anti-statists have a weapon with which to change the terms of political debate.
If Marx is right, we should be able to prove:
- prices have generally increased faster than value for the past 40 years — this implies not simply that there was inflation, but that this inflation did not in any way result from an increase in the value of commodities, but increased despite a general decline in the value of commodities.
- total hours of work have increased faster than was socially necessary for the past 40 years — this implies the additional hours of work per person did not result from any cause necessary from the standpoint of social needs, but despite growing social needs.
- total employment has increased faster than productive employment in the past 40 years — this implies the employment of labor has become less efficient over time,despite increased addition of labor saving techniques to production. It also suggests growth has been in those part of the economy where productivity is impossible to measure.
- total output has increased faster than total wages in the past 40 years — this implies output has increased most rapidly in precisely those commodities that do not enter into the consumption of the working class.
Basically, these four general statements come down to one thing with regards to the great mass of society: In the past 40 years, people have had to work more hours, and more of them have been forced to work, even as they have become poorer. We should, in other words, be able to demonstrate beyond question that labor no longer adds any value to the economy, and the increase in output, in hours of work, and in additional jobs, does not increase the living standards of the great mass of society. The more work performed, the greater the increase in poverty.
The “paradox of capitalist price” is the paradox of more work for less real income. The paradox suggests only those measures which reduce the size of government can increase the living standards of the mass of working people. Of course, because, this argument is counter-intuitive — since, theory is only necessary when things are not as commonsense suggests they should be — making this argument requires it be buttressed with considerable empirical support from the anti-statist community.
Moreover, Marx’s labor theory of value has an additional aspect which recommends it even over what I just stated. Since, in Marx’s labor theory of value, socially necessary labor time is the material barrier to the realization of a classless, stateless society — which has been the avowed aim of communists for nearly two hundred years — his theory is also the concrete measure of the extent to which the productive capacity of society has developed to make this aim a realistic possibility. Contained in the labor theory of value is also the material measure of the possibility of society to immediately achieve a stateless and classless society on the basis of the principle of “each according to his need.”
I think every anarchist, libertarian and Marxist should understand Marx’s transformation of surplus value into profits and the paradox of capitalist prices, because in it is the entire argument against the existing state, and all the ugly mess bound up with it.
Tags: bank for international settlements, bieri, Bohm-Bawerk, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, great depression, international financial system, Karl Marx, labor theory, monetary policy, necessary labor, Paul A. Samuelson, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, transformation problem, unemployment, Wall Street Crisis, werner sombart
In reality, there was nothing in Bohm-Bawerk’s argument to be disproved. Bohm-Bawerk had indeed cited the essential contradiction at the core of capitalism. His problem, however, was to imagine the contradiction to be a defect of Marx’s theory, and not a fatal flaw laying at the heart of the capitalist mode of production itself.”
Bohm-Bawerk had inadvertently confirmed the rather grim future arrived at by Marx’s theory: Capitalism would kill the so-called free market, and in so doing, would destroy itself. It was, as Marx argued, creating its own gravediggers, a mass of directly social laborers who did not need it, and would see it as an impediment to their very survival, owing to obstacles it put in the way of its own operation.
By the 1970s, economists finally were forced to acknowledge there was in fact no inconsistency in Marx’s argument. Marx had, just as Bohm-Bawerk accused him, arrived at a theoretical description for why prices, although resting on the socially necessary labor time required to produce commodities, nevertheless appeared to reflect the prices of production of these commodities and not their labor times. It was not, as Werner Sombart feared, that from Marx’s labor theory of value “emerges a ‘quite ordinary’ theory of cost of production”, but precisely that Marx’s theory predicted from the first that the value of commodities must appear in the form of prices of production.
Moreover, Marx had demonstrated his proof almost in real time, so to speak, in front of his audience in a painstakingly detailed series of volumes — subject to the critical purview of his opponents. He had, as it were, made the elephant in the room — socially necessary labor time — disappear before the disbelieving eyes of his skeptical audience. It was a performance so dramatic and unprecedented, it took decades for the skeptics even to figure out what they had just witnessed with their own eyes.
The acknowledgement of Marx’s triumph took the form of a paper by Paul A. Samuelson, and was couched in the form of the complaint echoing that leveled against Marx by Sombart, as previously quoted by Bohm-Bawerk :
“…if I have in the end to explain the profits by the cost of production, wherefore the whole cumbrous apparatus of the theories of value and surplus value?”
Taking a cue from Sombart, Samuelson, in a paper titled “Understanding the Marxian Notion of Exploitation: A summary of the So-Called Transformation Problem Between Marxian Values and Competitive Prices”, introduced his so-called erasure method arguing,
It is well understood that Karl Marx’s model in Volume I of Capital (in which the “values” of goods are proportional — albeit not equal — to the labor embodied directly and indirectly in the goods) differs systematically from Marx’s model in Volume III of Capital, in which actual competitive “prices” are relatively lowest for those goods of highest direct-labor intensity and highest for those goods of low labor intensity (or, in Marxian terminology, for those with highest “organic composition of capital”). Critics of Marxian economics have tended to regard the Volume III model as a return to conventional economic theory, and a belated, less-than-frank admission that the novel analysis of Volume I — the calculation of “equal rates of surplus value” and of “values” — was all an unnecessary and sterile muddle.’
Samuelson gave a simple straightforward explanation of his “erasure method”:
I should perhaps explain in the beginning why the words “so-called transformation problem” appear in the title. As the present survey shows, better descriptive words than “the transformation problem” would be provided by “the problem of comparing and contrasting the mutually-exclusive alternatives of `values’ and `prices’.” For when you cut through the maze of algebra and come to understand what is going on, you discover that the “transformation algorithm” is precisely of the following form: “Contemplate two alternative and discordant systems. Write down one. Now transform by taking an eraser and rubbing it out. Then fill in the other one. Voila!
For all his genius, Samuelson argued, Marx had produced a theory which offered no greater insight into the social process of production than was already present in the form of mainstream economics. It could, for this reason, be entirely ignored.
Ignored also, however, would be the entire point of Marx’s “unnecessary and sterile” detour: namely, to demonstrate in comprehensive and theoretically ironclad fashion why the capitalism mode of production is doomed.
This only deepens the mystery of David Bieri’s interest in a theory routinely dismissed by economists as, at best, a vestigial remnant of classical political-economy. Why would this former bureaucrat of the Bank for International Settlements still be reviewing an obscure technical problem of a long dead theory?
Tags: bank for international settlements, bieri, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, great depression, international financial system, Karl Marx, monetary policy, Paul A. Samuelson, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, transformation problem, unemployment, Wall Street Crisis
In the previous blog post, I argued that in each of the three great capitalist catastrophes of the 19th and 20th Centuries — the Long Depression, the Great Depression and the Great Stagflation — economists scurried to bone up on Marx in an effort to understand practical problems of state economic policy confronting them at the time.
Naturally, the connection between these catastrophes and interest in Marx intrigued me, since this guy Bieri is now interested as well. If Bieri were just another Marxian economist I could understand his interest but his connection to the BIS and Bankers Trust, London intrigued me. Bankers Trust, one of the many institutions with which Bieri has been associated, is not exactly your typical local community credit union. It was up to its neck in the dirty dealings that led to financial crisis, and has long been implicated with equally shady dealings in the market in general. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about it:
“In 1995, litigation by two major corporate clients against Bankers Trust shed light on the market for over-the-counter derivatives. Bankers Trust employees were found to have repeatedly provided customers with incorrect valuations of their derivative exposures. The head of the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) during this time was later interviewed by Frontline in October 2009: “The only way the CFTC found out about the Bankers Trust fraud was because Procter & Gamble, and others, filed suit. There was no record keeping requirement imposed on participants in the market. There was no reporting. We had no information.” -Brooksley Born, US CFTC Chair, 1996-’99.
Several Bankers Trust brokers were caught on tape remarking that their client [Gibson Greetings and P&G, respectively] would not be able to understand what they were doing in reference to derivatives contracts sold in 1993. As part of their legal case against Bankers Trust, Procter & Gamble (P&G) “discovered secret telephone recordings between brokers at Bankers Trust, where ‘one employee described the business as ‘a wet dream,’ … another Bankers Trust employee said, ‘…we set ‘em up.”
Perhaps I am just being a tad paranoid, but when a guy with these kinds of connections starts sniffing around dusty old volumes of Capital just before the outbreak of the financial crisis of 2008, I begin to wonder what’s up.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself, am I not? I have not yet even explained what all the fuss is about. This tale begins with a little known simpleton scribbler, whose name is probably unfamiliar to anyone outside of the field of economics: Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk.
Tags: bank for international settlements, bank of international settlement, bieri, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, great depression, international financial system, Karl Marx, london school of economics, monetary policy, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, transformation problem, unemployment, Wall Street Crisis
I’m reading, “The Transformation Problem: A Tale of Two Interpretations”, by David Bieri.
According to his profile,
David studied economics at the London School of Economics and international finance at the University of Durham (UK). In 2006, he started his Ph.D. studies in SPIA.
From 1999 until 2006, David held various senior positions at the Bank for International Settlements, most recently as the Adviser to the General Manager and CEO. From 2002 to 2004, he held the position of Head of Business Development in which capacity he was responsible for new financial products and services and reserve management advisory for central banks. From 2004 to 2005, David worked as an economist in the BIS’ Monetary & Economics Department.
Prior to joining the BIS, David worked as a high-yield analyst at Banker’s Trust in London and in fixed-income syndication at UBS in Zurich.
What caught my attention is the notable resume of this author, which is quite unlike that of the typical Marxian economist. High-yield analyst, central bank bureaucrat, mainstream economist? This is not the sort of person you will find at your local Occupy campsite.
Why, I wondered, is the Bank of International Settlement interested in an obscure technical problem of Marx’s theory? So, I decided to give the paper a read.
Tags: Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, great depression, international financial system, Karl Marx, monetary policy, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, unemployment, Wall Street Crisis
I have been critiquing Barry Eichengreen’s unprincipled attack on Ron Paul and his demand for a return to the gold standard, but, so far, I have danced around the real question posed by this vicious hit piece. Eichengreen’s argument is not about whether or not Ron Paul’s ideas can be compared to the insanity of Glenn Beck, nor is it even about the criticism of the Fascist State proposed by the argument of Frederick Hayek, who plays in this venal attack only the role of betrayer — Ron Paul having based his argument on many of the insights of Hayek, is ultimately betrayed by him when the latter dismisses
the possibility of a return to the gold standard.
Hayek concedes, in other words, to the necessity of totalitarianism.
Ron Paul, having been deserted by Hayek, even before he begins his career as a politician, is left alone in the company of Glenn Beck, who (Beck) is trying to foist gold coin on you at an astounding markup. The implication of this being that if Ron Paul is not himself in cahoots with Glenn Beck, he is just another hopeless sucker to be played. Just another miser looking for a place to safely store up his accumulated wealth from the predations of the investment banksters.
All of this is nothing more than an attempt at misdirection, a ploy to distract you from asking the important question:
What is money?
Ask this question to Ron Paul, and he will tell you gold is money — honest money, not a fiction of money as is ex nihilo currency. When Ron Paul asked Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke if gold was money, the Chairman tried his damnedest to avoid giving a straight answer. The chairman knows that money can perform two useful functions: universal means of payment in an exchange, and store of value. Even if gold is not recognized as the official standard of prices in a country, it can still perform exceptional service as store of value. And, in this function, it entirely fulfills the definition of a money – moreover, it fulfills this function better than any other commodity. And, it certainly fulfills this function better than currency created out of thin air.
Yes. Gold is money. But, of course, that is not the question I am asking:
“What is money?”
Not what thing can serve as money, but what is money itself. No matter what serves as money, or the functions of money it fulfills; what is money itself, i.e., the functions to be filled by the things?
Simply stated: Gold is money, but money is not gold.
People always make this silly argument: “Why can’t dogs, or sea shells or emeralds be money?” Yes. Within limits, anything can serve as money; and, this fact makes the thing serving as money appear entirely accidental and arbitrarily established. So, for instance, whether gold or dancing electrons on a Federal Reserve terminal is money seems simply a matter of convenience and fit.
But, the real questions raised by this is why anything serves as money? That is, why money? This question appears to us entirely irrational. We take the existence of money for granted, and therefore, argue not about money itself, but the things to be used as money. Eichengreen wants us to believe the question, “What thing should serve as money?”, has no deeper significance but for a handful of scam artists and marks like Glenn Beck and Ron Paul. A fifty dollar gold coin (worth some $1900) is inconvenient for daily purchases; we should use dancing electrons on a Federal Reserve terminal.
But, why do we have to use anything at all when it comes time to fill up the SUV for a trip to the corner store? Why isn’t the gas free? In other words, what is money doing coming between us and the things we need?
“Because”, the economist Barry Eichengreen will tell us, “there is not enough of stuff to go around.” Well, how does Barry know this? Does he have some insight into how much of one or another thing is produced in relation to demand for that thing? No. He doesn’t. The function of money is to tell us which things are in shortfall relative to demand because those things have a price in the market place. Prices presuppose the existence of scarcity; of a relation to nature marked by insufficiency of means to satisfy human want. Money is not an attribute of a fully human society, but the attribute of a society still living under the oppressive demands of nature.
So, the question,
“What is money?”
really comes down to
“What is scarcity?”
And, this can now be answered: it is insufficient means to satisfy human needs. But, this answer is still insufficient, because we really have no way to know directly if scarcity exists, right? What we know is the things generally have a price, and we infer from this that things must be scarce. But, this too is a fallacy like “gold is money = money is gold”. I stated that prices presuppose scarcity — but I must now correct myself. Scarcity of means to satisfy human needs is necessarily expressed by prices, but prices do not of themselves necessarily express scarcity of means.
Catelization, monopoly pricing, false scarcity and the Fascist State
We know, for instance, near the turn of the 20th Century, certain big industries learned they could maintain artificially high prices on their products by creating entirely artificial scarcities. We know also how this expertise was put to use and the reaction of society to it. Or, at least, we think we do. Folks like Joseph Stromberg, Murray Rothbard, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy tell a much different story than the official record. That alternative narrative is summed up brilliantly by Kevin Carson in his work here.
But merely private attempts at cartelization before the Progressive Era–namely the so-called “trusts”–were miserable failures, according to Kolko. The dominant trend at the turn of the century–despite the effects of tariffs, patents, railroad subsidies, and other existing forms of statism–was competition. The trust movement was an attempt to cartelize the economy through such voluntary and private means as mergers, acquisitions, and price collusion. But the over-leveraged and over-capitalized trusts were even less efficient than before, and steadily lost market share at the hands of their smaller, more efficient competitors. Standard Oil and U.S. Steel, immediately after their formation, began a process of eroding market share. In the face of this resounding failure, big business acted through the state to cartelize itself–hence, the Progressive regulatory agenda. “Ironically, contrary to the consensus of historians, it was not the existence of monopoly that caused the federal government to intervene in the economy, but the lack of it.”
In fact, these folks argue, cartelization and monopoly pricing wasn’t very successful until the state stepped in at the behest of industry to organize them. Carson again:
The Federal Trade Commission created a hospitable atmosphere for trade associations and their efforts to prevent price cutting. (18) The two pieces of legislation accomplished what the trusts had been unable to: it enabled a handful of firms in each industry to stabilize their market share and to maintain an oligopoly structure between them. This oligopoly pattern has remained stable ever since.
It was during the war [i.e. WWI] that effective, working oligopoly and price and market agreements became operational in the dominant sectors of the American economy. The rapid diffusion of power in the economy and relatively easy entry [i.e., the conditions the trust movement failed to suppress] virtually ceased. Despite the cessation of important new legislative enactments, the unity of business and the federal government continued throughout the 1920s and thereafter, using the foundations laid in the Progressive Era to stabilize and consolidate conditions within various industries. And, on the same progressive foundations and exploiting the experience with the war agencies, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt later formulated programs for saving American capitalism. The principle of utilizing the federal government to stabilize the economy, established in the context of modern industrialism during the Progressive Era, became the basis of political capitalism in its many later ramifications. (19)
But, there’s a problem with this cartel argument by Austrians, like Hayek and Mises, and Marxist-Keynesians, like Baran and Sweezy: Following Rudolf Hilferding, they describe prices realized by cartelization as “tribute exacted from the entire body of domestic consumers.”
The “monopoly capital” theorists introduced a major innovation over classical Marxism by treating monopoly profit as a surplus extracted from the consumer in the exchange process, rather than from the laborer in the production process. This innovation was anticipated by the Austro-Marxist Hilferding in his description of the super profits resulting from the tariff:
The productive tariff thus provides the cartel with an extra profit over and above that which results from the cartelization itself, and gives it the power to levy an indirect tax on the domestic population. This extra profit no longer originates in the surplus value produced by the workers employed in cartels; nor is it a deduction from the profit of the other non-cartelized industries. It is a tribute exacted from the entire body of domestic consumers. (64)
The problem with this theory is this: if we assume a closed system where the wages of the working class are the overwhelming source of purchasing power for the goods produced by industry, with prices of commodities more or less dependent on the consumption power of the mass of workers who produce them, these workers are unable to buy what they produce. The problem cited by Marx that the consumption power of society is an obstacle to the realization of surplus value is only intensified by cartelization.
Cartelization, even if it could be achieved in one or two industries, could not be the principle feature of any closed economy. Moreover, Marx’s theory predicts as productivity increased, and the body of workers needed to produce a given output shrank, this imbalance worsens. Even with the full weight of the state behind it, monopoly pricing would result in the severe limitation of the consumption power of society. This wholly artificial limitation on the consumption power of society would be expressed as a reduced demand for the output of industry and generally falling prices. So, in any case, the attempt to impose a general scarcity on society through cartelization alone must, in the end, fail miserably.
At this point it is entirely necessary to again ask the question:
“What is money?”
But, this time, not in the fashion we previously addressed it,
“Why is money coming between us and the things we need?”
We now can ask it in the form Barry Eichengreen wants us to consider it:
“What thing should serve as the money?”
As we just saw, cartelization must fail, even if it is sponsored by the state, owing to the artificial limits on the consumption of society. The limited means of consumption in the hands of the mass of workers must place definite limits on the demand for the output of industry.
But, what if — and this is only a silly hypothetical — another source of “demand” could be found within society? What if, out of nowhere, government should suddenly find itself in possession of a previously untapped endless supply of gold? What if, no matter how much of this supply of gold was actually spent, the gold coffers of the state remained full to the bursting point. Indeed, what if, for every bar of gold the state spent, 2 or 3 … or one thousand bars took the place of the spent gold?
In this case, the consumption power of society lost by cartelization and monopoly pricing could be made up for by judicious Fascist State spending, for instance on the military or building out an entire highway system or leveling the industiral competitors of entire continents in a global holocaust or pursuing a decades long Cold War/War on Terror/War on Democracy, to offset the limited demand of society. Since all gold bars look pretty much the same, no one need know that the state had a secret vault that produced gold as needed. No one need know that gold had lost its “price” as a commodity, because it was so incredibly abundant as to exceed all demand for it.
Which is to say, no one need know that in gold-money terms, all other commodities, including labor power, were essentially being given away for free.
The only people who would know this would be the men and women who managed the vault. And, since they were getting a cut of every bar spent into circulation, they could be relied on to keep this a tightly held secret.
“What is money?”
Is it gold, a commodity in limited supply, and requiring a great deal of time and effort to produce? Or, is it the dancing electrons on a computer terminal in the basement of the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington, DC? Is it real gold, available in definite limited quantities? Or, is it “electronic gold”, available in infinite quantities? The first choice makes it impossible for state enforced monopoly pricing and cartelization; the second makes it entirely possible.
So far as I know, I am the only one making this argument — Marxist or non-Marxist. But, it is the entire point of Ron Paul’s campaign. It is what makes his campaign a potentially revolutionary moment in American society. Of far greater importance than he imagines, because, like any petty capitalist, he is only looking for a safe place to store his wealth. The radical potential of a demand for the return to the gold standard, even from the mouth of this petty capitalist, this classical liberal is a dagger aimed directly at the heart of the Fascist State, and of its globe-straddling empire.
Tags: Austrian Economics, Barry Eichengreen, Depression, ex nihilo pecunaim, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, gold, Hayek, international financial system, Joseph Stromberg, Karl Marx, Kevin Carson, Libertarianism, monetary policy, Money, Murray Rothbard, Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, political-economy, Ron Paul, Rudolf Hilferding, Tea Party, Wall Street Crisis
Barry Eichengreen makes much of the role the theories of Friedrich Hayek play in Ron Paul’s world view for a reason that becomes immediately clear:
In his 2009 book, End the Fed, Paul describes how he discovered the work of Hayek back in the 1960s by reading The Road to Serfdom. First published in 1944, the book enjoyed a recrudescence last year after it was touted by Glenn Beck, briefly skyrocketing to number one on Amazon.com’s and Barnes and Noble’s best-seller lists. But as Beck, that notorious stickler for facts, would presumably admit, Paul found it first.
The Road to Serfdom warned, in the words of the libertarian economist Richard Ebeling, of “the danger of tyranny that inevitably results from government control of economic decision-making through central planning.” Hayek argued that governments were progressively abandoning the economic freedom without which personal and political liberty could not exist. As he saw it, state intervention in the economy more generally, by restricting individual freedom of action, is necessarily coercive. Hayek therefore called for limiting government to its essential functions and relying wherever possible on market competition, not just because this was more efficient, but because doing so maximized individual choice and human agency.
Yes, folks: Ron Paul is a follower of the very same theories recently endorsed by that cheap huckster of gold coin: right wing conspiracy theorist nut job, Glenn Beck.
Indeed, Ron Paul hails from that portion of the libertarian movement that is a reactive response to the growing role of the state in the economic activity of society. While Marxists predict this increasing state role — demanding only that state power must rest in the hands of the workers whose activity it is — libertarians of Paul’s type reject this role entirely and warn it can only have catastrophic implications for human freedom. Thus, these two streams of communist thought diverge less significantly in their respective diagnoses what was taking place in 20th Century than in their respective solution to it.
As Eichengreen points out, Ron Paul sees in the ever increasing interference by the state in economic activity a danger to individual freedom and a growing threat of totalitarian statist power, in which the state attempts to determine the individual and society rather than being determined by them. This has echoes among Marxists, who themselves had nothing but disdain for nationalization of industry, and by Marxist writers, like Raya Dunayevskaya, who, during the same period Hayek was developing his own ideas, observed an inherent tendency of the state to organize society as if it were a factory floor.
“At the same time the constant crises in production and the revolts engendered befuddle the minds of men who are OUTSIDE of the labor process… where surplus labor appears as surplus product and hence PLANLESSNESS. They thereupon contrast the ANARCHY of the market to the order in the factory. And they present themselves as the CONSCIOUS planners who can bring order also into ‘society,’ that is, the market.”
Paraphrasing Marx, Dunayevskaya points to the inherent logic of this process:
If the order of the factory were also in the market, you’d have complete totalitarianism.”
What Eichengreen wants to treat as an observation specific to the “loony right” turns out to be a view held in common by both the followers of Marx and the followers of the Austrian School. Moreover, it is not just the fringes of political thought who warned of growing convergence between the state and capital, the mainstream of political thought also recognized this inherent tendency, Eichengreen acknowledges, by citing President Richard Nixon’s famous quote, “we are all Keynesians now.” What emerges from this is a very different impression than the one Eichengreen wishes us to take away from his tawdry attempt to discredit Paul by noting his affinity with Glenn Beck for the writings of Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek and the Austrian School within bourgeois economics: As Engels predicted, the state was being driven by Capital’s own development to assume the role of social capitalist, managing the process of production and acting as the direct exploiter of labor power.
While mainstream bourgeois political-economy was treating the convergence of Capital and State power as a mere economic fact, the followers of Hayek and the best of the followers of Marx warn not merely of the effect this process would have on economic activity, but the effect it must have on the state itself — as social manager of the process of extraction of surplus value from the mass of society, the state must become increasingly indifferent to its will, must increasingly treat it as a collective commodity, as a mass of labor power, and, therefore, as nothing more than a collective source of surplus value.
Although lacking the tools of historical materialist analysis, that comes from familiarity with Marx’s own methods, libertarians, like Ron Paul, have actually been able to better understand the implications of increasing state control over economic life than Marxists, who, having abandoned Marx’s methods to adopt spurious theories propagated from whatever academic scribbler, still to this day have failed to completely understand the Fascist State.
Eichengreen, worthless charlatan that he is, deftly sidesteps this critique shared by both Austrians and Marxists of the political impact of growing Fascist State control over the production of surplus value, and instead directs our attention to the entirely phony debate of whether gold as money serves society better than ex nihilo currency to abolish the crises inherent in the capitalist mode of production itself. He begins this foray by admitting the failure of of monetary policy to prevent the present crisis, but poses it as a non sequitur:
Why are Ron Paul’s ideas becoming more popular among voters?
The answer, as is Eichengreen’s standard practice in this bullshit hit piece, is to blame Ron Paul’s popularity on Glenn Beck:
BUT IF Representative Paul has been agitating for a return to gold for the better part of four decades, why have his arguments now begun to resonate more widely? One might point to new media—to the proliferation of cable-television channels, satellite-radio stations and websites that allow out-of-the-mainstream arguments to more easily find their audiences. It is tempting to blame the black-helicopter brigades who see conspiracies everywhere, but most especially in government. There are the forces of globalization, which lead older, less-skilled workers to feel left behind economically, fanning their anger with everyone in power, but with the educated elites in particular (not least onetime professors with seats on the Federal Reserve Board).
Only after we get this conspicuously offensive run of personal attacks on Ron Paul’s reputation, does Eichengreen actually admit: Ron Paul’s ideas are gaining in popularity, because the Fascist State is suffering a crisis produced by a decade of depression and financial calamity:
There may be something to all this, but there is also the financial crisis, the most serious to hit the United States in more than eight decades. Its very occurrence seemingly validated the arguments of those like Paul who had long insisted that the economic superstructure was, as a result of government interference and fiat money, inherently unstable. Chicken Little becomes an oracle on those rare occasions when the sky actually does fall.
Ah! But, even now, Eichengreen, forced to admit, finally, the present unpleasantness, cannot help but label Ron Paul a broken clock for having rightly predicted it in the first place. Okay, fine.
So, it turns out that the banksters really do extend credit beyond all possibility of it being repaid; and, it turns out that this over-extension of credit plays some role in overinvestment and the accumulation of debt, and, it turns out prices spiral to previously unimaginable heights during periods of boom — and, finally, it turns out all this comes crashing down around the ears of the capitalist, when, as at present, a contraction erupts suddenly, and without warning.
This schema bears more than a passing resemblance to the events of the last decade. Our recent financial crisis had multiple causes, to be sure—all financial crises do. But a principal cause was surely the strongly procyclical behavior of credit and the rapid growth of bank lending. The credit boom that spanned the first eight years of the twenty-first century was unprecedented in modern U.S. history. It was fueled by a Federal Reserve System that lowered interest rates virtually to zero in response to the collapse of the tech bubble and 9/11 and then found it difficult to normalize them quickly. The boom was further encouraged by the belief that there existed a “Greenspan-Bernanke put”—that the Fed would cut interest rates again if the financial markets encountered difficulties, as it had done not just in 2001 but also in 1998 and even before that, in 1987. (The Chinese as well may have played a role in underwriting the credit boom, but that’s another story.) That many of the projects thereby financed, notably in residential and commercial real estate, were less than sound became painfully evident with the crash.
All this is just as the Austrian School would have predicted. In this sense, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman went too far when he concluded, some years ago, that Austrian theories of the business cycle have as much relevance to the present day “as the phlogiston theory of fire.”
(I think it is rather cute to see Eichengreen present himself as the disinterested referee between the warring factions of bourgeois political-economy, by gently chiding Paul Krugman for going too far in his criticism of the Austrians — after all, the Fascist State will have to borrow heavily from the Austrian School to extricate itself from its present predicament)
Where people like Ron Paul go wrong, Eichengreen warns, is their belief that there is no solution to this crisis but to allow it to unfold to its likely unpalatable conclusion — unpalatable, of course, for the Fascist State, since such an event is its death-spiral as social capitalist. Apparently, without even realizing it, this pompous ass Eichengreen demonstrates the truth of Hayek’s argument: Fascist State management of the economy, once undertaken, must, over time, require ever increasing efforts to control economic events, and, therefore, ever increasing totalitarian control over society itself.
Eichengreen pleads us to understand the Fascist State does not intervene into the economy on behalf of Capital (and itself as manager of the total social capital) but to protect widows and orphans from starvation and poverty:
Society, in its wisdom, has concluded that inflicting intense pain upon innocent bystanders through a long period of high unemployment is not the best way of discouraging irrational exuberance in financial markets. Nor is precipitating a depression the most expeditious way of cleansing bank and corporate balance sheets. Better is to stabilize the level of economic activity and encourage the strong expansion of the economy. This enables banks and firms to grow out from under their bad debts. In this way, the mistaken investments of the past eventually become inconsequential. While there may indeed be a problem of moral hazard, it is best left for the future, when it can be addressed by imposing more rigorous regulatory restraints on the banking and financial systems.
Thus, in order to protect widows and orphans from starvation, the Fascist State is compelled to prop up the profits and asset prices of failed banksters and encourage the export of productive capital to the less developed regions of the world market — not to mention, leave millions without jobs and millions more under threat of losing their jobs. Eichengreen even has the astonishing gall to state the problem of moral hazard identified by Austrians, “is best left for the future, when it can be addressed by imposing more rigorous regulatory restraints on the banking and financial systems.” Eichengreen takes us all for fools — did not Washington deregulate the banksters prior to this depression, precisely when the economy was still expanding? If banks are deregulated during periods of expansion, and they cannot be regulated during periods of depression, when might the time be optimal to address moral hazard?
The question, of course, is rhetorical — and not simply because Eichengreen is only blowing smoke in our face. Eichengreen actually argues that Fascist State intervention prevented a depression!:
…we have learned how to prevent a financial crisis from precipitating a depression through the use of monetary and fiscal stimuli. All the evidence, whether from the 1930s or recent years, suggests that when private demand temporarily evaporates, the government can replace it with public spending. When financial markets temporarily become illiquid, central-bank purchases of distressed assets can help to reliquefy them, allowing borrowing and lending to resume.
And, here we can see the role of the thing serving as money and its relation to the crises inherent in the capitalist mode of production. Ex nihilo currency does not abolish crises, it merely masks them from view: while ex nihilo dollar based measures of economic activity indicate the economy suffered a massive catastrophic financial crisis in 2008, gold indicates this financial crisis is only the latest expression of an even more catastrophic depression that has, so far, lasted more than a decade.
NEXT: The tale of two monies
Tags: Austrian Economics, Barry Eichengreen, Depression, ex nihilo pecunaim, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, gold, Hayek, international financial system, Karl Marx, Libertarianism, monetary policy, Money, political-economy, Raya Dunayevskaya, Ron Paul, Tea Party, unemployment, Wall Street Crisis
Washington has a problem, and Barry Eichengreen is doing his bit to save it. The problem’s name is Ron Paul, and this problem comes wrapped in 24 carat gold:
GOLD IS back, what with libertarians the country over looking to force the government out of the business of monetary-policy making. How? Well, by bringing back the gold standard of course.
Last week, Eichengreen published a slickly worded appeal to libertarian-leaning Tea Party voters, who, it appears, are growing increasingly enamored with Ron Paul’s argument against ex nihilo money and the bankster cartel through which Washington effects economic policy.
The pro-gold bandwagon has been present in force in Iowa, home of the first serious test of GOP candidates for that party’s presidential nomination. Supporters tried but failed to force taxpayers in Montana and Georgia to pay certain taxes in gold or silver. Utah even made gold and silver coins minted by Washington official tender in the state. But, the movement is not limited to just the US: several member states of the European Union have made not so quiet noises demanding real hard assets in return for more bailout funds for some distressed members burdened by debt and falling GDP.
No doubt, these developments are a growing concern in Washington precisely because demands for real assets like commodity money threaten to blow up its eighty year old control of domestic and global economic activity through the continuous creation of money out of thin air.
Although Eichengreen invokes the difficulty of paying for a fill up at your local gas station, “with a $50 American eagle coin worth some $1,500 at current market prices”; the real problem posed by a gold (or any commodity) standard for prices is that such a standard sounds a death-knell to a decades long free ride for the very wealthiest members of society, and would end the 40 years of steady erosion of wages for working people here, and in countries racked by inflation and severe austerity regimes around the world.
Make no mistake: Ron Paul is now one of the most dangerous politicians in the United States or anywhere else, because his message to end the Federal Reserve Bank and its control of monetary and employment policy has begun to approach the outer limits of a critical mass of support — if not to end the Fed outright, than at least to bring the issue front and center of American politics.
Eichengreen begins his attack on Ron Paul’s call for an end to the Federal Reserve by choosing, of all things, Ron Paul’s own writings as weapon against him:
Paul has been campaigning for returning to the gold standard longer than any of his rivals for the Republican nomination—in fact, since he first entered politics in the 1970s.
Paul is also a more eloquent advocate of the gold standard. His arguments are structured around the theories of Friedrich Hayek, the 1974 Nobel Laureate in economics identified with the Austrian School, and around those of Hayek’s teacher, Ludwig von Mises. In his 2009 book, End the Fed, Paul describes how he discovered the work of Hayek back in the 1960s by reading The Road to Serfdom.
For Eichengreen, Paul’s self-identification with Hayek is a godsend, because, as Eichengreen already knows at the outset of his article, Hayek ultimately opposed the gold standard as a solution to monetary crises:
At the end of The Denationalization of Money, Hayek concludes that the gold standard is no solution to the world’s monetary problems. There could be violent fluctuations in the price of gold were it to again become the principal means of payment and store of value, since the demand for it might change dramatically, whether owing to shifts in the state of confidence or general economic conditions. Alternatively, if the price of gold were fixed by law, as under gold standards past, its purchasing power (that is, the general price level) would fluctuate violently. And even if the quantity of money were fixed, the supply of credit by the banking system might still be strongly procyclical, subjecting the economy to destabilizing oscillations, as was not infrequently the case under the gold standard of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Eichengreen pulls off a clever misdirection against Ron Paul by deliberately conflating the problem of financial instability with the problem of limiting Fascist State control over economic activity. Ron Paul’s argument, of course, is not primarily directed at eliminating financial crises, which occur with some frequency no matter what serves as the standards of prices, but at removing from Washington’s control over economic activity not just at home, but wherever the dollar is accepted as means of payment in the world market — and, because the dollar is the world reserve currency, that means everywhere. But, by conflating the question of Fascist State control over the world economy with solving the problem of financial and industrial crises that are endemic to the capitalist mode of production, Eichengreen takes the opportunity to foist an even more unworkable scheme on unsuspecting Ron Paul supporters: privatize money itself:
For a solution to this instability, Hayek himself ultimately looked not to the gold standard but to the rise of private monies that might compete with the government’s own. Private issuers, he argued, would have an interest in keeping the purchasing power of their monies stable, for otherwise there would be no market for them. The central bank would then have no option but to do likewise, since private parties now had alternatives guaranteed to hold their value.
Abstract and idealistic, one might say. On the other hand, maybe the Tea Party should look for monetary salvation not to the gold standard but to private monies like Bitcoin.
It is cheek of monumental — epic — proportion. Even by the standards of the unscrupulous economics profession — a field of “scholarship” having no peer review and no accountability — the sniveling hucksterism of Eichengreen’s gambit is quite breathtaking. However, not to be overly impressed by this two-bit mattress-as-savings-account salesman, in the next section of this response to Barry Eichengreen, I want to spend a moment reviewing his examination of the problem of financial instability, and the alleged role of gold (commodity) money in “subjecting the economy to destabilizing oscillations… under the gold standard of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”
Part Two: Money and crises
Tags: Austrian Economics, Barry Eichengreen, Depression, ex nihilo pecunaim, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, gold, Hayek, international financial system, Libertarianism, monetary policy, Money, political-economy, Ron Paul, Tea Party, unemployment, Wall Street Crisis
This is my final installment on the hyperinflationists section of theories of the current crisis for now. As I find in any good examination of a theory out there, I come away from this one with a better understanding of some of the problems of capitalism under conditions of absolute over-accumulation. The hyperinflationist argument forced me to confront several problems from the standpoint of the law of value, including, world market prices versus existing prices; ex nihilo currency and price behavior; definitions of price deflation, inflation and hyperinflation; definitions of depressions and recessions; the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency; and the rivalry between the monetary policies of the various nations states in relation to the Fascist State.
One of my conclusions from this examination is that FOFOA, properly understood, should not be in the hyperinflationist camp. I have no idea why he is advocating for dollar hyperinflation, since he, more than any other writer in the hyperinflationist camp, realizes the relationship between the purchasing power of an ex nihilo currency and the circulation of commodities. In 2010, he wrote:
Gold bids for dollars. If gold stops bidding for dollars (low gold velocity), the price (in gold) of a dollar falls to zero. This is backwardation!
Fekete says backwardation is when “zero [gold] supply confronts infinite [dollar] demand.” I am saying it is when “infinite supply of dollars confronts zero demand from real, physical gold… in the necessary VOLUME.” So what’s the difference? Viewed this way, can anyone show me how we are not there right now? And I’m not talking about your local gold dealer bidding on your $1,200 with his gold coin. I’m talking about Giant hoards of unencumbered physical gold the dollar NEEDS bids from.
Don’t let the term “backwardation” throw you. It is one of those insider terms among commodity traders, which, for our purpose, can be safely ignored, since it adds nothing to FOFOA’s essential argument. What FOFOA is saying in this excerpt is that the purchasing power of an ex nihilo currency rests on the willingness of gold owners to accept it as means of payment in exchange for their commodities. Unfortunately, FOFOA limits his argument to gold and misses the significance of his insight. This is because, for reasons previously mentioned, he articulates the viewpoint of the petty capitalist, who, unable to operate independently, must of necessity hand his meager wealth over to Wall Street investment banksters if it is to operate as capital, or, failing this, accept the depreciation of its dollar purchasing power, or, convert it to a hoard of useless gold.
There is, however, no reason to limit FOFOA’s insight to gold. Having been displaced in circulation as money, gold is simply another commodity whose particular use value is that it serve as a store of value. It is excellent in this regard, but broccoli is excellent as a vegetable, while gold is not. The specific quality of gold is its limited use as mainly a store of value, and, in this regard, it has few substitutes, while broccoli has many substitutes. This, however, should not blind us to the fact that it is now an ordinary commodity like any other. The true significance of FOFOA’s insight is that the purchasing power of any ex nihilo currency is directly a function of the willingness of commodity owners to accept it in exchange for their commodities.
If commodity owners are unwilling to accept an ex nihilo currency in exchange for their commodity, or prefer another currency in exchange for their commodity over that particular currency, its purchasing power will quickly fall toward zero — hyperinflation. This is precisely what happened in the case of the Zimbabwe dollar, which was undermined not only by the profligacy of the state, but also, by the preference of commodity owners for dollars and euros as a result of this profligacy. As FOFOA knows, the dollar is not likely to suffer such a fate, since its purchasing power rests on the fact that it is accepted for any commodity on the world market, and, consequently, is “undervalued” against all other ex nihilo currencies. Even if the purchasing power of a single ex nihilo dollar falls, the purchasing power of the total sum of dollars in circulation is not affected — it is still “undervalued” in relation to all other ex nihilo currencies, and must be undervalued as long as the total quantity of all other currencies is greater than zero.
By the same token, FOFOA’s insight demonstrates why, despite the constant depreciation of a single ex nihilo dollar, the sum of existing prices within the world market must be higher than world market prices denominated in dollars. No matter the depreciation of a single ex nihilo dollar, the sum of world market prices must fall toward world market prices denominated in dollars. Thus, the monetary policies of other nations is determined by the monetary policies of the Fascist State. Any nation wishing to pursue a so-called loose monetary policy, as Zimbabwe did, must find its ex nihilo currency displaced by dollars as commodity owners demand dollars in place of the national currency. On the other hand, the “tightening” of monetary policy by other nations cannot save these national currencies, since such “tightening” only leads them to the same fate as gold itself — they are withdrawn from circulation in a deflation of prices.
The end result, in either case, is the demonetization of all ex nihilo currencies except the dollar, and the equalization of the sum of prices within the world market with world market prices denominated in dollars. Hyperinflation and deflation do occur, but they occur in every other ex nihilo currency except the dollar.
From John Williams and FOFOA, I better understand the likely consequence of Fascist State economic policy — the front-loading of a series of events leading to the collapse of ex nihilo currencies by the fall of the sum of prices within the world market to the price level imposed by the dollar. This is because, as opposed to the deflationists, the hyperinflationists show the Fascist State will not sit by and let its dominant position be threatened by mere accounting identities. It will defend that position even at the expense of all other currencies. FOFOA is clearer on this point than Williams, but Williams implies it as well.
Paradoxically, FOFOA’s argument lends support, not for the hyperinflationist camp, but Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). His insight confirms the assumptions of the modern money theorists that the Fascist State faces no external constraint on its expenditures, since all ex nihilo currencies are only worthless dancing electrons on the computer terminals of central banks. The question raised by Fascist State expenditures is not its effect on national accounting balances, but the effect of these expenditures on other ex nihilo currencies. The accelerated spending of the Fascist State drives all of these currencies out of existence.
I look forward to examining this in a similar survey of modern money theory at another time.
Tags: Bailout, budget deficit, commodity money, CURRENT ACCOUNT DEFICIT, debt, deflation, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, ex nihilo money, falling rate of profit, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, FOFOA, great depression, hyperinflation, inflation, international financial system, Karl Marx, law of value, Modern Monetary Theory, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, The Economy, unemployment
In a recent post, Deflation or Hyperinflation, FOFOA begins the meat of his argument with investment adviser Rick Ackerman (who, until recently, predicted this present crisis will end in a debt deflation) by directly addressing Ackerman’s core deflationist argument, which originally was set forth in a 1976 book by C.V. Myers, The Coming Deflation:
My instincts concerning deflation were hard-wired in 1976 after reading C.V. Myers’ The Coming Deflation. The title was premature, as we now know, but the book’s core idea was as timeless and immutable as the Law of Gravity. Myers stated, with elegant simplicity, that “Ultimately, every penny of every debt must be paid — if not by the borrower, then by the lender.” Inflationists and deflationists implicitly agree on this point — we are all ruinists at heart, as our readers will long since have surmised, and we differ only on the question of who, borrower or lender, will take the hit. As Myers made clear, however, someone will have to pay. If you understand this, then you understand why the dreadnought of real estate deflation, for one, will remain with us even if 30 million terminally afflicted homeowners leave their house keys in the mailbox. To repeat: We do not make debt disappear by walking away from it; someone will have to take the hit.
FOFOA’s response to the deflationist argument was both simple and fatal for the deflationist argument:
Yes, someone will pay. But there is a third option that is missing from Myers’ dictum. “The hit” can be socialized…
What the deflationist miss, says FOFOA, is that Washington will never accept the collapse of its failing economic mechanism. It will create whatever quantity of ex nihilo dollars it takes to socialize the losses of financial institutions, pension funds, etc. — even if this threatens the viability of global financial system and the dollar itself.
Like FOFOA, I want to begin this post by directly addressing the core argument of both camps, that this crisis must end either in the deflation or hyperinflation of dollar prices, or both. As FOFOA has argued, the present crisis will likely end in both hyperinflation and deflation at the same time. I agree with this analysis, but I disagree with his targets. Both hyperinflation and deflation of prices will occur, but they are likely to hit every ex nihilo currency on the planet except the dollar. If other currencies survive at all, they will do so only as boutique items marketed to private collectors, like their predecessor, gold. The deflationary/hyperinflationary hit will be not just socialized, but globalized as well.
Is this argument true? I don’t know for sure. To be honest, there are so many variables in the current crisis that any attempt to make a firm prediction must end in embarrassment for someone — a whole lot of “someones”, in fact. But, let’s assess the probabilities determining the outcome of this crisis using Marx’s Law of Value, rather than Austrian economics:
Zero divided by zero equals ?
To be absolutely clear at the outset, there is no difference between the fundamental facts underlying the dollar and the fundamental facts underlying all other national currencies — they are all worthless and possess infinitely more purchasing power than their actual value. From the standpoint of the law of value, any exchange rate between any two ex nihilo currencies is meaningless, since it is merely the ratio between one object that is entirely worthless and another object that is entirely worthless. For the past decade, the purchasing power of the euro has risen against the dollar despite the absolute worthlessness of either currency. The Zimbabwe dollar is collapsing into hyperinflation, but not so far as to actually represent in circulation its actual value — a Zim$1.00 note has exactly the same value as a Zim$1,000,000,000.00 note (and exactly the same value as a one hundred dollar bill for that matter).
Likewise, prices denominated in any ex nihilo currency are meaningless, since they can never rise to actually reflect the values of the commodities which the ex nihilo money denominates. An increase in the purchasing power of an ex nihilo currency would, in any case, conceal the utter worthlessness of the currency. And as to the fall in the purchasing power of any currency, it suffices to state no matter how far the purchasing power of Zimbabwe dollars fall, Zimbabwe dollar denominated prices of commodities never reflect how worthless the currency really is.
What both the hyperinflationist camp and the deflationist camp need to explain is why, despite the absence of value of all ex nihilo currencies, no major currency was put back on the gold standard after Washington closed the gold window in 1971? Why was gold, despite its value as money, relegated to the basements of major central banks or the private collections of hoarders? Why was it necessary for all major trading nations to remove a commodity standard for the general price level from the world economy? The questions answer themselves: a commodity standard for the general price level is incompatible with an economy founded on capitalist social relations at this stage of its development — absolute over-accumulation. The rather stunning fact presented by gold is this: if prices of commodities were denominated in gold, no commodity would be “worth” the gold standard price quoted for it, i.e., the purchasing power of gold as money would be below its value as a commodity — a situation previously found only during over-production of commodities is now a permanent feature of the capitalist mode of production. It is this situation that initially drove gold from circulation as money, that compelled it to strip off its monetary form.
Without understanding this piece of the puzzle, it is not possible to understand the nature of the present crisis, which, despite appearing as the product of a massive accumulation of worthless debt threatening all existing currencies, is actually the cause of this accumulation of fictitious capital. It is futile to try to understand the current crisis by comparing the attractiveness of various existing or imagined alternative ex nihilo currencies on the world market, since each is worthless, and are as prone to sudden and unexpected hyper-depreciation of their purchasing power as the dollar — and which, moreover, owe their role as money to the fact the gold has ceased to be able to function as money. Since there is nothing about the currencies themselves that set them apart from each other or from the dollar, predictions about their respective fates as currencies must rest, not on the respective attraction of the currencies themselves, but solely on the material relation between respective national states — we must ignore the apparent differences in the purchasing powers of various ex nihilo currencies and delve into the actual economic relations between and among the various states.
World market prices versus existing prices
No matter the differences in the exchange rate between dollars and all other currencies, the following conditions hold: on the one hand, world market prices are denominated in dollars, while, on the other hand, the total sum of present prices throughout the world market as a whole are determined by the ratio of the total sum of currencies of every nation to the total quantity of commodities in circulation throughout the world market. If the dollar was the only currency in circulation there would be no difficulty with regards to world prices and existing prices — they would be identical. However, if we have two currencies — we will call them ex nihilo dollars and an ex nihilo “Rest of the World Currency” (rotwocs) — the situation is changed. Although the dollars and rotwocs are identical — i.e., both are worthless — in circulation the effect on the total sum of world market prices is the ratio between all ex nihilo currency in circulation (X dollars plus Y rotwocs) to the total quantity of commodities in circulation throughout the world market.
Despite this fact, world prices are determined by dollars alone, and under the following circumstances: the dollar is not accepted for all commodities because it is world reserve currency; rather, the situation is precisely the opposite: because it is universally accepted in exchange for any commodity, it is the world reserve currency. This means the dollar’s purchasing power is absolute, while the purchasing power of the rotwoc is only relative — the rotwoc can purchase any commodity whose price is denominated in rotwocs, but to purchase a commodity denominated in dollars, it must be exchanged for dollars before the transaction can be completed. If we assume the world market is divided into two zones — a dollar only zone and a combined dollar/rotwoc zone — of equal size, it is obvious that the existing stock of dollars can readily serve as means of purchase in the entire world market, while the existing stock of rotwocs can serve as means of purchase only in the rotwoc zone. The purchasing power of the stock of dollars is, therefore, twice that of the stock of rotwocs, i.e., there are twice as many commodities available to be purchased by dollars as there are by rotwocs.
It should be obvious now that the sum total of all other ex nihilo currencies provide no additional purchasing power to global demand — they are entirely superfluous. On the other hand, the dollar actually exchanges with all other ex nihilo currencies at a rate significantly below its purchasing power throughout the world market — even against ex nihilo currencies that are, at any given moment, appreciating in purchasing power against it. Since the purchasing power of any ex nihilo currency is not inherent in the currency itself, but depends solely on the total quantity of commodities available to be purchased by it, it follows the purchasing power of the ex nihilo dollar is not limited to the commodities available to be purchased in the dollar zone alone, but all commodities that are available to be purchased by it throughout the world market.
On the other hand, it should be equally obvious that the total sum of prices in the world market must be above world market prices. Since world market prices are here determined solely by the ratio of the total sum of ex nihilo dollars in circulation to the total sum of commodities in circulation within the world market, but the actual sum of prices is determined by the ratio between total sum of dollars in circulation plus the total sum of all other currencies in circulation (x dollars plus y rotwocs) to the total sum of commodities in circulation, any quantity of non-dollar national currencies in circulation above zero results in prices that are above world market prices.
The endpoint of this crisis
The question is how all this works out in the crisis as it is now unfolding. While I don’t have a crystal ball, I will attempt to outline a likely course.
As we have seen in this crisis, no matter how profligate the Fascist State is in its spending on a massive global machinery of repression, and on socialization of the losses of incurred by the failed economic mechanism, the more expenditures it undertakes, the greater the pressure on other national monetary authorities to tighten their own monetary policies in response — to impose naked austerity on their citizens, to further constrain domestic prices in the face of rising global prices. Rising global prices translate into a falling rate of profit in the non-dollar states. To offset this falling rate of profit, the domestic labor forces of the various non-dollar states must be squeezed still further, and the resultant surplus product exported. The profligacy of the Fascist State and the austerity regime of these non-dollar states are only two sides of the same process, feeding on each other, each reinforcing the other.
The two do not merely reinforce each other, however, they also act to make their opposite insufficient in resolving the crisis. Insofar as the profligacy of the Fascist State increases, the pressure on the non-dollar states toward domestic austerity increases, and with this also increases its exports. Insofar as exports increase, global overaccumulation is intensified and the world market settles even more deeply into depression. But, as we have already seen, with an ex nihilo currency regime depressions are now associated not with deflation of prices, but the inflation of prices — so actual prices rise still faster in response to domestic austerity.
A straight-line assumption of the crisis indicates constantly rising world market prices, combined with increasing austerity and monetary policy contraction of non-dollar states. However, living processes do not move in a straight line; in any event non-dollar currencies are likely to experience an existential endpoint — separately, or in groups — since the collapse of any one of them involves fewer complications than replacement of the dollar as world reserve currency. Moreover, replacing the dollar with another currency does not solve the problem that these non-dollar currencies are superfluous. Non-dollar currencies are likely finished; nothing in this crisis appears to offer them another fate.
The question provoked by the above is not “What is the fate of the dollar?” Nor, is it, “What is the fate of non-dollar currencies?” Rather, the real question posed by my analysis is this:
“Why should any of these worthless currencies survive?”
Tags: Bailout, budget deficit, commodity money, CURRENT ACCOUNT DEFICIT, debt, deflation, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, ex nihilo money, falling rate of profit, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, FOFOA, great depression, hyperinflation, inflation, international financial system, Karl Marx, law of value, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, The Economy, unemployment
I know I promised to examine John Williams’ argument that hyperinflation hinges on an exogenous political event: the rejection of the dollar as world reserve currency by other nations. I will return to this point. But, before I do, I want to respond to Neverfox, who asked me to evaluate the argument of the writer FOFOA’s theory of the imminent hyperinflation catastrophe:
To summarize the argument of John Williams: The economy is spiraling into a severe depression of the 1930s or 1970s type. To meet its various present public obligations, future promises, and prop up the economic mechanism — which, for the moment, we can call debt-driven economic growth — the Federal Reserve is forced to monetize Washington spending. This monetization is itself producing a collapse in the credibility of the dollar. Sooner or later this loss in credibility will result in the outright rejection of the dollar as world reserve currency, triggering a hyperinflationary depression. In the course of this hyperinflationary event, lasting about six months or so, the dollar will become worthless.
To a great extent, although differing on some subtle points with Williams, FOFOA throws light on Williams’ own thinking. In FOFOA’s description of events, the hyperinflation event is front loaded with the essential dry tender: the accumulation of fictitious assets denominated in dollars over an 80 year period produced as a by product of the economic mechanism — debt fueled economic expansion. The event is triggered by a collapse of debtors’ ability to make good on their debts. This, in turn, is followed by an attempt by the Fascist State to rescue the financial institutions on whose books the fictitious assets reside, which produces a loss of confidence in the currency and its rejection as world reserve currency. It is only at this point, government begins printing money to survive and pay its obligations, generating the onset of extremely rapid price increases and the core hyperinflation event..
A deflationary episode can, and probably will, proceed the actual hyperinflation of prices. The hyperinflation episode does not invalidate the arguments of those who predict a deflationary depression; in fact, the hyperinflationary episode will in all likelihood start out as a deflationary episode. Those predicting a deflationary depression, however, miss the response of the Fascist State. Moreover, the deflation does occur just as those who predict deflation assert; only the deflation takes place in gold terms, not dollar terms. Expressed in gold terms, it is a deflation; however, in dollar terms, it is a hyperinflation. FOFOA believes the difference between a deflation measured in gold and a deflation measured in dollars is key to understanding the hyperinflation that is imminent:
“What’s the difference between a deflation denominated in gold versus dollars?” Well, there’s a huge difference to both the debtors and the savers. In a dollar deflation the debtors suffocate but in a gold deflation they find a bit of relief from their dollar-denominated debts. And for the savers, the big difference is in the choice of what to save your wealth in. This is what makes the deflationists so dangerous to savers.
A deflation imposes an extremely heavy burden on debtors, requiring them to repay their debts with ex nihilo denominated debt whose purchasing power is increasing, and which, therefore, requires increasing amounts of effort to repay. By contrast, a hyperinflation reduces the burden of accumulated debt by depreciating the purchasing power and burden of ex nihilo denominated debt. In the thinking of those predicting deflation, as the debt bubble of the last 80 years bursts, the Fascist State will find it impossible to reflate the debt bubble and will be forced to accept deflation. Thus, a full scale debt deflation depression is in the offing.
FOFOA argues that while it is not possible to reflate the debt bubble, the Fascist State can save the paper assets of financial institutions that are the fictitious claims on these debts. Decades of debt fueled growth has swollen dollar-denominated assets held by these institutions to fantastic dimensions. FOFOA argues the Fascist State will not and cannot let these institutions fail because it is merely the political expression of these financial institutions. The aim of Fascist State intervention is not to save the debtors — which it cannot do even if it wanted to — but, as events of the last three years show dramatically — the Fascist State aims to save the the assets of these institutions. FOFOA quotes another writer from whom he derives his own name, FOA:
hyperinflation is the process of saving debt at all costs, even buying it outright for cash. Deflation is impossible in today’s dollar terms because policy will allow the printing of cash, if necessary, to cover every last bit of debt and dumping it on your front lawn! (smile) Worthless dollars, of course, but no deflation in dollar terms! (bigger smile)
The process of actual hyperinflating prices begins with the attempts to monetize bad debts — to socialize the losses of big capital — not with money printing; the money printing only begins in earnest once monetization of bad debt leads to a loss in the credibility of the dollar.
…it is the US Govt. that will make sure this becomes a real Weimar-style hyperinflation when it forces the Fed to monetize any and all US debt. And as dollar confidence continues to fall, that’s when the debt must go exponential just to purchase the same amount of real goods for the government. One month the debt will be a trillion, the next month it will be a quadrillion just to buy the same stuff as the previous month. How long will this last? Less than 6 months is my guess.
According to FOFOA, on the balance sheets of the failed banks there now is more than enough reserves to fuel a sudden burst of hyperinflating prices should society suddenly lose confidence in the dollar. As this base is pulled into circulation by a general demand for goods in the face of rising prices, the Fascist State will be forced to begin printing money to cover its own obligations. Each month the amount of ex nihilo dollars needed to fill the same demand for government spending increases, and with this increase, the amount of new ex nihilo money created will increase. This compounding growth in the supply of ex nihilo currency will provide added impetus to the explosion of prices. The explosion of prices will not be contained short of a new monetary regime in which assets and debt are somehow tied to gold.
The problem is that the present monetary system, in FOFOA’s view, is that lending and saving both take the same form — either a gold backed system or an ex nihilo money system. FOFOA argues money lent out inevitably dilutes the value of money being saved, since they both come out of the same pot:
The problem is that the expanding money supply due to lending always lowers the value of a unit of currency. Even if it is gold. If I loan you a $1 gold money, you now have $1 gold and I have a $1 gold note. The money supply has just doubled, and the value of $1 gold just dropped in half.
This is a fact of money systems. We can try to get rid of it by outlawing lending, but that is like outlawing swimming in the summertime, or beer drinking.
The solution is quite simple. And I didn’t come up with it. The problem is that at the point of collapse, some of the savers are wiped out, whether gold money or fiat. Think about those at the back of the line during the bank runs of the 1930′s. They didn’t get their gold. They lost their money.
Today we don’t have this problem anymore. The guy at the back of the line gets all his money, it’s just worthless in the end. We solved the problem of bank runs (bank failures) but not the problem of value.
This problem, which is often referred to as debt deflation, is inherent in the prevailing monetary system, and will lead to financial crises even if the United States went back to a gold-backed dollar. He proposes instead to bring gold back into the money system, but within strict limits: split the functions of store of value and credit into two separate monetary systems — ex nihilo for lending, and gold for saving — so that ex nihilo currency lent out will indeed be diluted, but the gold-backed value of saving will freely rise to express this dilution:
The solution is that the monetary store of value floats against the currency. It is not the same thing that is lent! It is not expanded through lending and thereby diminished in value. Instead, as $1 is lent, and now becomes $2 ($1 to the borrower + $1 note to you the lender) and the dollar drops to half its value, the saver, the gold holder will see the value of his gold savings rise from $1 to $2.
I don’t want to get into the weeds on this proposal by FOFOA, since it is entirely beside the point of the examination of non-mainstream theories of the current crisis, and, in any case, a non-sequitur from the standpoint of capital. But, he inadvertently touches on a salient point for my examination: suffice it to say, capital is not and cannot be thought of as the accumulation of gold or any other commodity. It is the process of self-enlargement, or self-expansion, of the capital initially laid out in the capitalist process of production. At any given moment, this capital can take the form of money-capital, fixed and circulating capital, wages, and final commodities, but it is not identical with any of these momentary identities — it is relentlessly converted from one form to another constantly — both serially, and simultaneously in what, over time, comes to resemble a vast cloud of interrelated transactions — as it passes through the process of self-expansion. FOFOA’s proposal imagines the point of self-expansion is precisely what it is not: to assume the form of a hoard of gold — or any other store of value. This is true only insofar as we are thinking of capitals that are no longer capable of functioning as capitals — that are incapable of acting on their own as capitals, owing to the ever increasing scale of capitalist production, which renders these petty capitals insufficient to function on their own as capitals. Unable to operate on their own, they must be placed at the disposal of larger agglomerations of capital in order to continue functioning as capital, resulting in great stress for their owners, who now have to turn their otherwise lifeless hoards over to giant vampire squids of the Goldman Sachs type or cease being capitals at all.
This is, in part, what Marx meant by the concentration of capital, which is not simply the concentration of ownership of the means of production, but also the concentration of owners of capital who can continue to operate independently as capitalists. The existence of even very large savings does not permit these owners to operate independently as capitalists, given the scale of productive undertaking now required. Marx described the process 150 years ago:
A drop in the rate of profit is attended by a rise in the minimum capital required by an individual capitalist for the productive employment of labour; required both for its exploitation generally, and for making the consumed labour-time suffice as the labour-time necessary for the production of the commodities, so that it does not exceed the average social labour-time required for the production of the commodities. Concentration increases simultaneously, because beyond certain limits a large capital with a small rate of profit accumulates faster than a small capital with a large rate of profit. At a certain high point this increasing concentration in its turn causes a new fall in the rate of profit. The mass of small dispersed capitals is thereby driven along the adventurous road of speculation, credit frauds, stock swindles, and crises. The so-called plethora of capital always applies essentially to a plethora of the capital for which the fall in the rate of profit is not compensated through the mass of profit — this is always true of newly developing fresh offshoots of capital — or to a plethora which places capitals incapable of action on their own at the disposal of the managers of large enterprises in the form of credit. This plethora of capital arises from the same causes as those which call forth relative over-population, and is, therefore, a phenomenon supplementing the latter, although they stand at opposite poles — unemployed capital at one pole, and unemployed worker population at the other.
FOFOA’s proposal seems to confirm my identification of the social base of the hyperinflationist camp: a motley collection of petty speculative minnows, who are desperately trying to avoid the predation of the very biggest financial sharks and vampire squids — not to mention the Fascist State itself, which represents the interests of these predatory vermin. The hyperinflationists as a group imagine the dollar has reached the end of the line. They imagine this will lead to a revaluation of gold and the creation of a new monetary system to replace the dollar, driven by the dissatisfaction of the majority of the planet with the monetary policies of the United States.
So, we need to move on and examine this thesis.
Tags: Bailout, budget deficit, commodity money, CURRENT ACCOUNT DEFICIT, debt, deflation, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, ex nihilo money, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, FOFOA, great depression, hyperinflation, inflation, international financial system, Karl Marx, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, The Economy, unemployment
Even if we assume John Williams’ prediction of a hyperinflationary depression turns out to be correct — and the global economy is plunged into an apocalyptic nightmare as prices rise with blinding rapidity, while economic activity shudders to a standstill — his argument for this outcome is so defective as to merely represent the chimes of an otherwise broken clock for the following reasons:
First, his prediction rests on mere accounting identities, and assumes the Fascist State can be counted on, or forced, to observe these accounting identities. As a counter-argument, I offer the historical evidence of Washington’s behavior over the past 80 years, when it routinely ignored whatever accounting identities as were forced upon it by circumstances and left the rest of American society and the global population as pitiful bag-holders of worthless ex nihilo currency. Williams offers no argument why the Fascist State will act differently in this crisis. In all likelihood, Washington will effectively renounce its debts and continue business as usual — leaving China and other exporters to absorb the impact.
Second, Williams does not understand hyperinflation. His definition of hyperinflation is entirely defective, because he doesn’t realize ex nihilo currency is not made worthless by hyperinflation; rather, it is already a collection of worthless dancing electrons on a computer terminal in the Federal Reserve Bank. Ex nihilo currency was worthless the moment the Fascist State debased the token currency from gold in 1933 and 1971. Hyperinflation and inflation are not the more or less sudden depreciation of money, but the more or less sudden depreciation of the purchasing power of an already worthless money.
Third, Williams does not understand depression, and in particular the Great Depression. Depressions are produced by the overproduction of capital — whether this overproduction is momentary or persistent. They are characterized by a general surfeit of commodities, fixed and circulating capital, and a relative over-population of workers. These are periodic occurrences, owing their genesis not to simple fluctuations of economic activity, but to constraints imposed on consumption by the necessity that all productive activity is carried on, not with the aim of satisfying human needs, but for profit. All depressions result in the sudden devaluation of the existing stock of social capital, of the existing stock of variable and constant capital, which is the absolute precondition for the resumption of self-expansion of the total social capital.
Before the Great Depression, this last point always meant a rather pronounced and sudden deflation of prices. After the Great Depression, this devaluation is accompanied, not by a sudden and spectacular collapse of prices, but a sudden and spectacular explosion of prices. The event itself has not changed — it is still a devaluation of the total social capital. What has changed is the expression of this devaluation in a general fall in the price level. I argue the source of this change was the debasement of national currencies during the Great Depression.
What the three points made above tell me is that Williams and the growing community of hyperinflationists do not understand ex nihilo money; they do not understand how prices behave under an ex nihilo regime; and, finally, they do not understand why ex nihilo money was a necessary result of the Great Depression. They are an odd collection of petty speculative capitalists concerned only with preserving their “wealth” through what are likely to be very interesting times.
Understanding ex nihilo money
Like money in general, ex nihilo money, is not simply a “thing” — a currency without commodity backing — rather, it is a social relation that appears to us in the form of this thing. It is a social relation that takes the form of worthless currency because this social relation itself can only take the form of things. The social relation, of course, is a global social cooperation in the act of labor. Since, this social cooperation does not by any means result from conscious decisions of the members of society and proceed with their conscious direction, the requirements of this social cooperation impose themselves on the members of society as necessities — as the law of value, as the value/prices mechanism.
What is peculiar about ex nihilo money as a form of money is that the relation between value and price has been completely severed — the two most important functions of money have devolved on entirely different objects. By debasing the currency from gold money’s function as standard of price was completely severed from its function as measure of value. This much is acknowledged by the hyperinflationist, who place the blame for this separation on the Fascist State; however, historical research shows impetus behind this separation did not first appear as a matter of State policy, but as a matter of financial common sense.
Every depression begins with money exchanging for commodities below its value, or, what is the same thing, with the prices of commodities at their apex for the cycle. Prices near the top of the cycle rise to unsustainable levels, and the competition to dump commodities on the market under favorable price conditions gets fairly intense. Everyone is optimistic about the economic outlook, profits expand, credit flows freely, workers are hired, factories furiously churn out commodities around the clock, the stocks of goods begin to pile up in the warehouses. And, then, BOOM! — depression erupts just as wages, prices, profits and interest are at their highest, and the purchasing power of money is at its lowest.
As the disorder spreads, profits and prices collapse, credit is choked off, debtors default, factories grind to a halt, millions of workers are laid off… yadda, yadda, yadda — we all know the drill. Side by side with this disorder, money is with drawn from circulation. Gold money disappears into hoards, as capitals attempt to avoid the worst of the devaluation of the existing social capital. The competition at this point is not to see who can sell the most commodities, but who can avoid taking any of the losses that the social capital as a whole must suffer. While this total social capital must take the hit, which capitals actually take this hit is a matter of entirely other circumstances.
As Marx put it:
The class, as such, must inevitably lose. How much the individual capitalist must bear of the loss, i.e., to what extent he must share in it at all, is decided by strength and cunning, and competition then becomes a fight among hostile brothers. The antagonism between each individual capitalist’s interests and those of the capitalist class as a whole, then comes to the surface, just as previously the identity of these interests operated in practice through competition.
How is this conflict settled and the conditions restored which correspond to the “sound” operation of capitalist production? The mode of settlement is already indicated in the very emergence of the conflict whose settlement is under discussion. It implies the withdrawal and even the partial destruction of capital amounting to the full value of additional capital ΔC, or at least a part of it. Although, as the description of this conflict shows, the loss is by no means equally distributed among individual capitals, its distribution being rather decided through a competitive struggle in which the loss is distributed in very different proportions and forms, depending on special advantages or previously captured positions, so that one capital is left unused, another is destroyed, and a third suffers but a relative loss, or is just temporarily depreciated, etc.
The total social capital is devalued; and, this devaluation takes place both in terms of the values of the capital — prices fall, etc. — and by a winnowing out of the players — some definite portion of the total social capital is pushed out of productive activity altogether. Capitals go bankrupt, factories are shuttered, the reserve army of the unemployed expands. At the lowest point in the ensuing depression, prices and profits have fallen to their lowest point in the cycle, while the purchasing power of money is at its highest point in the cycle. Assets can be snatched up at bargain basement prices, labor power can be had for a wage below its value. If the capitalist has survived the wash out, he stands to accumulate on a prodigious scale, since unemployed productive capacity is just laying around collecting dust.
There was one problem with this scenario during the Great Depression: the economy hit this point and just laid there like the decaying carcass of a beached whale; the condition for the “‘sound’ operation of capitalist production” were never restored, money just sat in hoards as investors, waiting out the crisis for better times, clung to their useless gold stocks for dear life. There was, as usual, a general over-accumulation of capital, i.e., an overproduction of commodities, an excess of fixed and circulating capital, and an excess population of workers, but these excesses were rather persistent. As with any general over-accumulation, it was not a matter of “consumer confidence” returning, but the necessary actual devaluation of the existing total social capital. Absent this devaluation, attempts to increase production would merely result in an over-supply that further forced down prices and profits. Under these circumstances, a portion of the existing stock of commodity money could not circulate until the devaluation of the existing stock of social capital had taken place.
So, it was not the Fascist State that expelled gold from circulation as money; rather, because gold money could no longer circulate as money, the Fascist State was forced to replace it with ex nihilo currency. The Fascist State debased the currency from commodity money, because the circulation of commodity money had already halted. This action was no American exceptionalism, however; within a short period of time all industrialized nations went off the gold standard domestically.
I want to emphasize an extremely important point here, a point that is vital to understanding the present crisis: going off the gold standard did not simply convert money into a worthless, debased, token — entirely fictitious from the standpoint of the law of value — it also changed the behavior of prices, i.e., the behavior of the purchasing power of the currency itself. On this basis alone the Fascist State could take control of the social process of capitalist production.
The behavior of prices under ex nihilo money
Ex nihilo money is not commodity money, it is not token money, it is not fiat money — it is an altogether different animal entirely. For instance, under a commodity money regime an over-accumulation of capital produced falling prices during depressions, while the purchasing power of the commodity money rose. As I will show, ex nihilo currency inverts this relation after the Great Depression — now prices denominated in the debased ex nihilo currency rise as economic activity contracts, while the purchasing power of the ex nihilo currency falls.
So far as I know, there is no instance of a commodity money suffering a hyperinflation. Hyperinflation does not render a currency worthless; rather, the currency is immediately rendered worthless during debasement from a commodity that can serve as standard of price. Debasement can result in hyperinflation, but hyperinflation is not the necessary result of debasement. Hyperinflation must be defined as the extreme and rapid depreciation of the purchasing power of a currency that is already worthless, that already has been debased. Historically, while hyperinflation follows the debasement of the currency from gold, not every debasement of currency from gold has led to hyperinflation. Hyperinflation is historically associated not with commodity money per se, but with ex nihilo currency.
Here a distinction must be made between money — the commodity which performs the function of universal equivalent — and ex nihilo currency, which has no relation to commodity money at all. While this ex nihilo currency can replace commodity money in circulation like token money under certain definite circumstances, what makes it different from token money is that it has no definite relation with a commodity that serves as money — it is not “honest” money, i.e., tokens whose purchasing power is held within limits governed by the laws governing the circulation of commodity money. However, like the circulation of tokens of money, ex nihilo currency is subject to certain laws, the most important of which is it can only represent in circulation the value of the commodity money it replaces.
When we speak of the purchasing power of ex nihilo money, we are in fact only referring to the quantity of commodity money this ex nihilo currency actually represents in circulation. In this case, the commodity money on which I base my discussion is gold; so, the purchasing power of an American ex nihilo dollar represents the quantity of gold having a price of one dollar. If gold has a price of $22.67 an ounce, the purchasing power of one ex nihilo dollar is equal to the value of 0.044 ounce of gold; if gold has a price of $1525, the purchasing power of an ex nihilo dollar is equal to 0.0006557 ounce of gold. If the price of gold falls from $800 per ounce to $250 per ounce, the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency has risen from 0.00125 ounce of gold to 0.004 ounce of gold. If the price of an ounce of gold rises from $250 to $1525, the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency has fallen from 0.004 ounce of gold to 0.0006557 ounce of gold.
In any case, the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency refers only to the quantity of gold that would otherwise be in circulation circulation had not it been replaced by ex nihilo currency. It does not refer to the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency in relation to any other commodity. But, the quantity of gold in circulation at any point is not given — at one point it may be higher, while at another point it is lower. If, despite these fluctuations, the amount of ex nihilo currency in circulation is unchanged, it will, in the first case, represent more commodity money, and, in the latter case, represent less commodity money. The purchasing power of the ex nihilo currency will rise or fall with the fluctuation of economic activity which it denominates in itself. Since, when actually in circulation, the currency of commodity money is only a reflex of the circulation of commodities — rising and falling with this circulation — the purchasing power of the ex nihilo currency will only represent this quantity of commodity money irrespective of the absolute quantity of ex nihilo currency in circulation.
The circulation of commodity money is only a reflex of the circulation of commodities. Assuming the value of commodities and the velocity of money are fixed, when the circulation of commodities increases, the quantity of commodity money in circulation must increase. When the circulation of commodities decreases, the quantity of commodity money in circulation must decrease. Consequently, a fixed quantity of ex nihilo currency will represent a larger or smaller quantity of commodity money respectively as economic activity expands or contracts. If a fixed quantity of ex nihilo currency is in circulation when the circulation of commodities is increasing, the purchasing power of this fixed quantity of ex nihilo currency must increase. If a fixed quantity of ex nihilo currency is in circulation when the circulation of commodities is decreasing, the purchasing power of this fixed quantity of ex nihilo currency must decrease.
The supply of commodity money and the supply of ex nihilo currency are not the same thing. While the circulation of commodity money is naturally driven by economic activity, the amount of ex nihilo currency available to circulate is always dependent on the State issuance of ex nihilo currency. Moreover, once ex nihilo currency is in circulation, it will tend to remain in circulation. Thus, while the quantity of commodity money in circulation rise or falls with the circulation of commodities, the purchasing power of the ex nihilo currency replacing commodity money tends to increase or decrease with the circulation of commodities instead. For this reason, ex nihilo currency presents us with the paradox that prices tend to fall as economic activity increases and rise with the fall in economic activity.
If all else is given, we are forced to the following conclusion regarding the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency :
- the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency rises during periods of economic expansion, i.e, a given quantity of ex nihilo currency can purchase a greater sum of values. This is precisely the opposite of what we would expect from commodity money. While,
- the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency falls during periods of economic contraction, i.e, a given quantity of ex nihilo currency can purchase a smaller sum of values. Again, this is precisely the opposite of what we would expect from commodity money.
The behavior of prices are the inverse of what we would expect if ex nihilo currency behaved like commodity money. With commodity money, we should expect to find commodities being over-valued during expansions and devalued during periods of contraction. But. with ex nihilo currency, we find instead that commodities are devalued during expansions and over-valued during periods of contraction. Prices denominated in ex nihilo currency fall during expansions and rise during contractions.
When an economic contraction takes place, the sum value of commodities in circulation falls; since the circulation of the commodity money is only a reflex of the circulation of commodities, the circulation of commodity money too must fall. A given supply of ex nihilo currency now represents the value of a smaller quantity of commodity money. The values expressed by commodity prices fall, or, what is the same thing, a given value is expressed in higher ex nihilo currency prices. On the other hand, when an economic expansion takes place, the sum value of commodities in circulation rises; since the circulation of the commodity money is only a reflex of the circulation of commodities, the circulation of commodity money must rise as well. A given supply of ex nihilo currency now represents the value of a larger quantity of commodity money. The values expressed by commodity prices rise, or, what is the same thing, a given value is expressed in lower ex nihilo currency prices. The result is that, absent a commodity to serve as standard of prices, prices denominated in an ex nihilo currency will tend to rise during periods of economic contraction, but fall during periods of economic expansion.
Moreover, in a pure ex nihilo money economy where no commodity serves as standard of prices, prices of commodities are subject to disturbances in the ratio of the existing supply of ex nihilo money in circulation and the quantities of commodities in circulation that are denominated in the ex nihilo currency.
- Should the quantity of commodities in circulation suddenly increase, while the supply of ex nihilo money remains unchanged, the general price level expressed in ex nihilo money will just as suddenly decrease. Should the quantity of commodities in circulation suddenly decrease, while the supply of ex nihilo money remains unchanged, the general price level expressed in ex nihilo money will just as suddenly increase.
- Should the supply of ex nihilo money in circulation suddenly increase, while the supply of commodities remains unchanged, the general price level of commodities expressed in the ex nihilo money will just as suddenly rise. Should the supply of ex nihilo money in circulation suddenly decrease, while the supply of commodities remains unchanged, the general price level of commodities expressed in the ex nihilo money will just as suddenly fall.
In either case, the sum of prices are not related to the sum of values of commodities, but only to the ratio of the sum of ex nihilo money to the sum of commodities in circulation. In fact I question whether money exists at all. Insofar as money function as a measure and store of value, it cannot circulate within society; insofar as is circulates within society and serves as a standard of prices, it cannot be a measure of value. What is left after the debasement of money is money, the social relation, irretrievably broken.
Actually, we’ve been in a depression since 2001
Whatever the outcome of the present crisis, John Williams’ prediction rests on such a defective theory of money and ex nihilo price formation that his prediction is useless to us. Ex nihilo money appears to allow the formation of so-called monopoly pricing in the economy. By restricting production, monopolies can, in fact, pad their profits, even as society descends into abject scarcity and want under an ex nihilo monetary regime. Rising prices during a depression is not a defect of an ex nihilo monetary regime, but the way prices would be expected to behave under that regime as capital is devalued. From the standpoint of the capitalist mode of production, inflation of ex nihilo prices is to be expected, and is the expression of the mode’s attempt to establish the sound basis for its future operation.
When I look at gold prices, I find evidence that the economy actually has been in a depression since 2001. According to my figures, gold prices bottomed in 2001 at around $271.04, and have been rising steadily for most of the decades after this. This is the first time gold prices have risen so consistently since the 1970s great depression/great stagflation. It follows from this that Williams’ depression, at least, has nothing to do with a hyperinflation of prices itself. At the same time, hyperinflation, in his model, does not coincide with a depression, but hinges on an exogenous political event: the rejection of the dollar as world reserve currency by other nations. To this we will turn next.
Tags: Bailout, budget deficit, commodity money, CURRENT ACCOUNT DEFICIT, debt, deflation, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, ex nihilo money, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, great depression, hyperinflation, inflation, international financial system, Karl Marx, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, The Economy, unemployment
I am examining economist John Williams prediction of an imminent hyperinflationary depression published in March, 2011. Williams’ prediction appears to rest on a rather questionable hypothesis that this hyperinflationary depression is made inevitable by mere accounting identities — that is, by the logic of book-keeping, which suggests the Fascist State will be unable to stop a spiral into depression by depreciating the purchasing power of the US Dollar. Efforts to depreciate the dollar, Williams argues, will lead the world to reject the dollar as world reserve currency; setting into motion a series of events leading to it becoming worthless.
I am a bit skeptical on this point for no other reason than I saw the fate of Argentina when it could no longer pay its bills in 1999. I am forced to ask, since the US had not the slightest sympathy for Argentina in 1999, why would it have any sympathy for its own creditors in 2011? Indeed, Washington showed no hesitation in 1933 when it came to dispossessing society of its gold stocks, nor did it hesitate to close the gold window and renounce its obligations under the Bretton Wood agreement in 1971.The Fascist State sets the rules; there is nothing in the historical record to suggest it observes these rules except when those rules favor it.
Nevertheless, I want to give Williams the benefit of the doubt on this. So, I will continue to examine his argument.
Williams on Deflation, Inflation, Hyperinflation and Prices
Williams assumes the standard definition of inflation: a general rise in the prices of commodities. As is typical of this view, he completely neglects both consumption and production of commodities in his definition of inflation. He further defines hyperinflation as a particularly virulent form of inflation where prices rise multiple — hundreds or thousands — times a normal inflation.
Inflation broadly is defined in terms of a rise in general prices usually due to an increase in the amount of money in circulation. The inflation/deflation issues defined and discussed here are as applied to consumer goods and services, not to the pricing of financial assets, unless specified otherwise. In terms of hyperinflation, there have been a variety of definitions used over time. The circumstance envisioned ahead is not one of double- or triple- digit annual inflation, but more along the lines of seven- to 10-digit inflation seen in other circumstances during the last century. Under such circumstances, the currency in question becomes worthless, as seen in Germany (Weimar Republic) in the early 1920s, in Hungary after World War II, in the dismembered Yugoslavia of the early 1990s and most recently in Zimbabwe, where the pace of hyperinflation likely was the most extreme ever seen.
As is the standard thinking on the issue, Williams believes the most significant force behind dollar hyperinflation is the creation of money ex nihilo by Washington, not over-accumulation of capital. While inflation is a moderate expression of the chronic tendency of states with fiat currency to live beyond their means, hyperinflation is only an extreme expression of this chronic tendency.
The historical culprit generally has been the use of fiat currencies—currencies with no hard-asset backing such as gold—and the resulting massive printing of currency that the issuing authority needed to support its spending, when it did not have the ability, otherwise, to raise enough money for its perceived needs, through taxes or other means.
Excessive money creation takes the form of spending by the state that is otherwise unable to borrow from or tax society to the extent needed to fund its operations. In this case, the chief causes identified by Williams are unfunded promises in the form of social programs like retirement, health care and the social safety net, combined with the costs of bailing out the failed economic stabilization mechanism. (Missing, of course, is any reference to either service on the existing public debt, or spending on a massive global machinery of repression.) The point, however, is pretty much unoriginal: inflation begins with government spending, not over-accumulation of capital.
Deflation is simply defined as the opposite of inflation, i.e., “a decrease in the prices of consumer goods and services, usually tied to a contraction of money in circulation“; Hyperinflation is an “extreme inflation, minimally in excess of four-digit annual percent change, where the involved currency becomes worthless.” Thus all three — inflation, deflation and hyperinflation — are merely state driven monetary phenomenon; the result of changes in the supply of money in circulation within the economy provoked by state spending. The source of the changes in the money supply are said to be state monetary and fiscal policy.
However, with regards to hyperinflation, Williams adds one additional, critical, definition, not with regards to prices, but with regards to the currency itself: it becomes worthless. In Williams’ opinion, the currency becomes worthless as a result of rapidly escalating prices. However, both logically and historically the case is precisely the opposite: prices escalate rapidly because the currency is already worthless — because it has already been debased from gold or another money commodity. With the currency debased from gold, prices became a creature of state monetary and fiscal policy pure and simple. Moreover, with the currency worthless as a result of its debasement, prices and their movements no longer transmit meaningful information about market conditions as is generally assumed to be the case.
Williams on Recession, Depression and Great Depression
Williams outlines a similar set of definitions with regards to recession, depression and great depression.
Recession: Two or more consecutive quarters of contracting real (inflation-adjusted) GDP, where the downturn is not triggered by an exogenous factor… Depression: A recession, where the peak-to-trough contraction in real growth exceeds 10%. Great Depression: A depression, where the peak-to-trough contraction in real growth exceeds 25%. On the basis of the preceding, there has been the one Great Depression, in the 1930s. Most of the economic contractions before that would be classified as depressions. All business downturns since World War II—as officially reported —have been recessions.
Williams defines recessions, depressions and great depressions by levels of economic activity. In contrast to his previous definitions for inflation, deflation and hyperinflation, he focuses not on price, but actual output of goods and services. In discussing inflation, deflation and hyperinflation, Williams makes no reference to the general level of production and consumption of commodities; likewise, when discussing recessions, depressions and great depressions, he makes no reference to the general level of prices. But, both recessions and depressions are associated with definite changes in the level of prices in the economy. Historically, depressions clearly have been associated with deflations, or a general fall in the prices of commodities; while recessions clearly have been associated with inflation, or a general rise in prices of commodities.
The significance of this association is revealed if we assume great depressions are associated with hyperinflations — a hyperinflation not understood in the sense of breathtaking annual increases in the price level, but with the currency becoming worthless. Is there a basis for making such an equivalence? Remember, Williams asserts that historically hyperinflation is associated with fiat currencies — currencies that are not backed by some commodity that serves as a standard for prices. These are also currencies that can be created ex nihilo by the state. He associates hyperinflation not just with the general price level rising at a fantastic rate owing to the inability of the state to pay its obligations, but with the nature of the money used to pay those obligations — that is, with the fact that these currencies are not backed by gold or another commodity. It is important to remember in this regard that the US and all industrialized powers debased their monies during the Great Depression. But, just as important, the US also reneged on its obligation to pay its international debts in gold in 1971 — thus imposing on other nations a world reserve currency that was as worthless abroad as it was domestically.
For whatever reason, writers like Williams confuse the issue by treating debasement of the currency and hyperinflation as one and the same thing. In actuality, debasement of the currency — that is, the separation of the currency and gold — has been the signal monetary event of the post-Great Depression period. Hyperinflation — the rapid collapse of the purchasing power of a debased currency — is an entirely rare event. It is not rapidly rising prices that render money worthless, rather, because the money in question is already worthless prices can, under certain circumstances, rise at a fantastic rate.
How is this related to recessions and depressions? Before the Great Depression, and the debasement of the currency, depressions usually resulted in deflations. During the Great Depression, however severe and unprecedented deflation was interrupted by the debasement of all major currencies. In this debasement currency was rendered worthless, i.e., without any definite relation to a commodity which might serve as a standard for the general price level. The definition of worth being simply the dictionary definition of an equivalent in value to a sum or item specified, i.e., a specific quantity of gold or some other money commodity. Gold gave token currency its worth, that is, gave it some definite equivalent to other commodities which could be expressed as prices of those commodities in units of the money. After the Great Depression, and the 1971 abrogation of the Bretton Wood agreement, with money having no definite worth, depressions are now associated not with rapidly falling prices, but with rapidly rising prices — a condition that has been labeled recession.
The economic picture is cleared up once we realize the general price level is irrelevant for analyzing depression-type events after the dollar was debased. Precisely because money was rendered worthless by its debasement, prices, after this debasement, provide little useful information on the actual state of the underlying economy. Prices, at this point, are serving an altogether different function: they are an instrument of state economic policy. On the other hand, hyperinflation of prices does not lead to a worthless currency; instead, the debasement of the currency is a necessary precondition for hyperinflation.
Williams’ historical examples of hyperinflation
While a debased, worthless, currency can lead to hyperinflation, it is obvious that every debasement of the currency does not end in hyperinflation. Today, almost all national currencies are debased, yet hyperinflation occurs only rarely in history. Moreover, the extraordinary hyperinflations of history do not result primarily from the profligacy of the state. The United States, for instance, is by far the most profligate state in history — accounting for nearly half of all military spending. What triggers hyperinflations are definite economic circumstances in addition to this state profligacy.
The economic conditions leading to hyperinflation can be seen most clearly if we compare the current economic environment to historical examples of hyperinflation cited by Williams. Williams’ examination of examples of hyperinflation suffer from defects along the lines of his examinations of inflation/deflation and recessions/depressions. However, while he overlooks obvious connections in the latter cases, in the case of historical examples of hyperinflation he overlooks obvious differences.
Williams recounts the case of the Weimar Republic:
Indeed, in the wake of its defeat in the Great War, Germany was forced to make debilitating reparations to the victors—particularly France—as well as to face loss of territory. From Foster (Chapter 11):
By late 1922, the German government could no longer afford to make reparations payments. Indignant, the French invaded the Ruhr Valley to take over the production of iron and coal (commodities used for reparations). In response, the German government encouraged its workers to go on strike. An additional issue of paper money was authorized to sustain the economy during the crisis. Sensing trouble, foreign investors abruptly withdrew their investments.
During the first few months of 1923, prices climbed astronomically higher, with no end in sight… The nation was effectively shut down by currency collapse. Mailing a letter in late 1923 cost 21,500,000,000 marks.
The worthless German mark became useful as wall paper and toilet paper, as well as for stoking fires.
Germany suffered defeat in a war that left it exhausted and stripped of territory, population and productive capacity by the victors to pay for reparations; it was the scene of intense class conflict and intense economic dislocation. The hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic Germany, therefore, began not with absolute over-accumulation of capital — with overproduction of commodities and a surfeit of labor power — but decidedly the reverse: a massive loss of productive capacity — a loss the government then tried to paper over, without success, by issuing worthless paper. The government sought to stabilize the economy by printing money to offset these crippling economic losses. The subsequent explosion of prices occurs not merely because the Weimar Republic sought to paper over a disaster, but because it was not possible to paper over such catastrophic material losses with money printing. The lesson of the Weimar Republic is obvious: while debasement of the currency can artificially inflate the purchasing power of state issued token currency, it must ultimately fail in an explosion of prices if the state attempts to paper over real material losses.
Where in this litany of disaster are conditions similar to those faced by the United States? Despite Williams’ assertion that, “The Weimar circumstance, and its heavy reliance on foreign investment, was closer to the current U.S. situation…“, in fact, the two have nothing in common. While Germany was systematically stripped of its productive capacity, the US is experiencing capital flight caused by decades of debt-driven inflationary domestic policy, including not only social spending “to assuage social discontent,” but also thoroughly wasteful and excessive national security expenditures and a failed economic stimulus mechanism.
Moreover, it is not merely a question of foreign investors propping up the dollar. While Germany’s ex nihilo currency was not considered money beyond its borders, the dollar is the world reserve currency; commodities world wide are priced in dollars. At the same time, the United States accounts for a quarter of global consumption demand, and this demand takes the form of ex nihilo dollars exclusively. The global producers of commodities are facing severe over-accumulation of capital and insufficient money-demand for their output. They are looking precisely for currencies with the sort of excess money-demand that is typical of inflation driven growth economies. The question is not whether trillions of dollars of social wealth denominated in dollars can withdraw from the dollar in time should there be a crisis; rather, we have to wonder if any exit from the dollar is possible or probable.
Tags: Bailout, budget deficit, commodity money, CURRENT ACCOUNT DEFICIT, debt, deflation, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, ex nihilo money, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, great depression, hyperinflation, inflation, international financial system, Karl Marx, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, The Economy, unemployment
I took some times off to really dig into the competing theories of the present crisis and to see if redwoods are really all that much of a big deal.
- There are a lot of theories about this crisis.
- Most of them are worthless, and
- Redwoods are really huge — I mean HUGE!
John Williams and the imminent hyperinflationary depression
I want to begin this series of posts on various non-mainstream theories of the present crisis by examining some of the assumptions and definition proposed by John Williams, economist at the website Shadow Government Statistics, in his prediction of an imminent hyperinflationary depression. Williams is serious about his prediction — up to, and including, warning his readers to store guns, ammo, gold and six months of basic necessities.
In his recently published special report, Williams — a self-described conservative Republican economist, with libertarian leanings — advances a number of questionable arguments typical of theories of the current crisis floating around out there. The most significant of these questionable arguments is Williams’ assertion that the crisis begins with an unsustainable fiscal and monetary environment, not with over-accumulation. Despite the jarring nature of his prediction, for Williams’ an imminent hyperinflationary depression results purely from rather boring accounting identities:
By 2004, fiscal malfeasance of successive U.S. Administrations and Congresses had pushed the federal government into effective long-term insolvency (likely to have triggered hyperinflation by 2018). GAAP-based (generally accepted accounting principles) accounting then showed total federal obligations at $50 trillion—more than four-times the level of U.S. GDP—that were increasing each year by GAAP-based annual deficits in the uncontainable four- to five-trillion dollar range. Those extreme operating shortfalls continue unabated, with total federal obligations at $76 trillion—more than five- times U.S. GDP—at the end of the 2010 fiscal year. Taxes cannot be raised enough to bring the GAAP- based deficit into balance, and the political will in Washington is lacking to cut government spending severely, particularly in terms of the necessary slashing of unfunded liabilities in government social programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
This crisis, Williams explains, could be avoided if the US were to raise taxes sufficiently, or reduce spending accordingly, or some combination of either; however, these solutions are not possible for purely political reasons. To resolve this impasse, Washington has turned to inflating prices instead.
Key to the near-term timing [of an outbreak of hyperinflation] remains a sharp break in the exchange rate value of the U.S. dollar, with the rest of the world effectively moving to dump the U.S. currency and dollar-denominated paper assets. The current U.S. financial markets, financial system and economy remain highly unstable and increasingly vulnerable to unexpected shocks. At the same time, the Federal Reserve and the federal government are dedicated to preventing systemic collapse and broad price deflation. To prevent any imminent collapse—as has been seen in official activities of the last several years—they will create and spend whatever money is needed, including the deliberate debasement of the U.S. dollar with the intent of increasing domestic inflation.
This response has, in turn, provoked a reaction from the world community that will lead to a rejection of dollars and dollar denominated assets, a circumstance that must end in hyperinflation and depression.
The damage to U.S. dollar credibility has spread at an accelerating pace. Not only have major powers such as China, Russia and France, and institutions such as the IMF, recently called for the abandonment of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency, but also the dollar appears to have lost much of its traditional safe-haven status in the last month. With the current spate of political shocks in the Middle East and North Africa (a circumstance much more likely to deteriorate than to disappear in the year ahead), those seeking to protect their assets have been fleeing to other traditional safe-havens, such as precious metals and the Swiss franc, at the expense of the U.S. currency. The Swiss franc and gold price both have hit historic highs against the dollar in early-March 2011, with the silver price at its highest level in decades, rapidly closing in on its speculative historic peak of January 1980.
According to Williams, existing domestic fiscal commitments and further demands to shore up the current failed economic mechanism cannot be funded under existing political arrangements; these needs can only be satisfied by assuming creation of money ex nihilo by Washington; the assumption of increased ex nihilo money creation to fulfill existing commitments and shore up the failed mechanism is damaging the credibility of the dollar as world reserve currency; the loss of credibility should weaken the dollar and eventually lead to panicked dumping of dollar and of dollar-denominated paper assets, triggering hyperinflation.
When I follow this logic backward, the first question I encounter regards the panicked dumping of dollars and dollar-denominated assets. Assuming hyperinflation is triggered by panicked selling of dollars and dollar-denominated assets, for what is this currency and these assets to be exchanged? Who would step in to buy the assets when everyone else is selling them in a panic? In theory, the Federal Reserve can step in to buy treasuries, but it can only offer dollars in exchange for the treasuries. Other assets, since they are denominated in dollars, can only be exchanged for dollars. Moreover, if the sellers have dollars to dump, they can only use these dollars to buy other currencies, precious metals, or commodities. If they use the dollars to buy other currencies, the dollar’s exchange rate will fall. If they use the dollars to buy precious metals, the prices of the metals will rise. If they use the dollars to buy ordinary commodities, the prices of these commodities will rise still further. If Washington intends to inflate the general price level to fix its problems, creating at least the appearance of a selling panic on the dollar would be precisely the means of accomplishing this aim.
Moreover, what do the sellers of currencies and assets denominated in various currencies seek when it comes to selling? I can only assume they want what everyone else wants: to receive, in return for their asset, the greatest quantity of another currency for the one they are selling, or the greatest quantity of money in any currency for their asset. In a panic, however, the opposite situation obtains: they must accept massive losses on their currency and assets. If they want to sell dollars, for example, they would be selling these dollars for fewer euros. If they were selling euros, they would be selling euros for increasing amounts of dollars. In my assumptions, sellers tend to prefer situations where prices are rising for their commodities, not falling as is assumed under a panic selling situation.
A further problem exists: the dollar is the world reserve currency because world commodities are priced in dollars. To remove the dollar as world reserve currency requires the sellers of commodities to price their commodities in some other currency than dollars. If the dollar is weakening, the prices paid for commodities is rising in dollar terms. Against what currency are these commodities to be priced? Will they be priced in currencies where prices of the commodities are generally falling or currencies where the prices of commodities are generally rising? Assuming general over-accumulation of capital, sellers will be very interested in those currencies where prices are constantly rising not falling. Producers would appear to have a decided interest in seeing inflationary policies by the various national states.
Although Williams’ argues rapid inflation will induce holders of dollars to abandon it, he paints a bleak economic picture where the biggest problem is not rising prices but faltering demand:
Despite pronouncements of an end to the 2007 recession and the onset of an economic recovery, the U.S. economy still is mired in a deepening structural contraction, which eventually will be recognized as a double- or multiple-dip recession. Beyond the politically- and market-hyped GDP reporting, key underlying economic series show patterns of activity that are consistent with a peak-to-trough (so far) contraction in inflation-adjusted activity in excess of 10%, a formal depression (see Recession, Depression and Great Depression). The apparent gains of the last year, reported in series such as retail sales and industrial production, should soften meaningfully in upcoming benchmark revisions. The revised patterns should tend to parallel the recent downside benchmark revision to payroll employment, while the July 2011 annual GDP revisions also are an almost certain bet to show a much weaker economy in recent years than currently is recognized in the markets. (See Section 4—Current Economic and Inflation Conditions in the United States.) Existing formal projections for the federal budget deficit, banking system solvency, etc. all are based on assumptions of positive economic growth, going forward. That growth will not happen, and continued economic contraction will exacerbate fiscal conditions and banking-system liquidity problems terribly.
From Williams’ own analysis, economic conditions are worsening to levels not seen since the Great Depression. He is assuming that global sellers of commodities will face, in addition to weakening demand, increased liquidity problems created by a failed economic mechanism that previously was necessary to maintain economic stability in the face of absolute over-accumulation. If policy actions to reverse this situation are not sufficient to stabilize the global economy, what will be the result? From the point of view of economic policy the danger at this point seems not to be hyperinflation, but a rather pronounced deflation of prices. However, a more nuanced view of the situation is called for to confirm this conclusion.
Tags: Bailout, budget deficit, commodity money, CURRENT ACCOUNT DEFICIT, debt, deflation, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, ex nihilo money, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, great depression, hyperinflation, inflation, international financial system, Karl Marx, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, The Economy, unemployment
I recently read this post Anarchism’s Promise for Anti-Capitalist Resistance, on GonzoTimes and have some ideas for a response which I will prepare in due time. I want to throw some notes out there to get any feedback people might have.
Let’s begin with the public debt crisis:
People think the US is on a path to insolvency, i.e., to an inability to pay its obligations. This is wrong. In fact, the US has not paid its obligations since 1971.
But, from Washington’s point of view, this is not insolvency; it is a growing stream of surplus value whose source are the exports of every other nation. The question is not one of insolvency but of the capacity to absorb this mounting surplus value in a manner consistent with its production.
The debt crisis is merely a problem of Washington going through the fiction of “borrowing” this surplus value, rather than “purchasing” it outright.
“Purchasing” it is placed in quotes here because the means of purchasing, the money, is created out of nothing — it is a fiction. The “insolvency” of the US is simply its unwillingness to entertain getting rid of the fiction of federal public debt. However, the fiction of federal public debt consists entirely of its role in disguising the process of creating money out of nothing. By pretending to borrow money, the US is actually creating money out of nothing through issuance of fictional debt instruments. These debt instruments are themselves created out of nothing — there is self-evidently nothing with which to repay them, except more debt.
The discussion of insolvency cannot begin with the discussion of public debt, but presupposes a mass of surplus value which cannot be realized without this increased debt. The growth of public debt presupposes a growing mass of surplus value which cannot be realized — of goods that cannot be sold — except on condition of new debt issuance. But, this new debt issuance is nothing more than the thinly disguised creation of money out of nothing.
If, on top of the consumer debt crisis, which began in 2008, we now reach a point where the issuance of public debt is also constrained, this has global implications. We are talking about a sudden uncovering of the absolute over-abundance of capital world wide; a condition which implies further deepening of the current depression.
The authority to issue of new debt constitutionally lies with Congress, actual creation is accomplished by the Executive. During the Civil War, Congress authorized the creation of Greenbacks — a purely fictional expansion of the money supply to fight the war. This authority was withdrawn at the end of the war(?) And, the greenbacks were withdrawn from circulation over several years. The logic of the situation appears to require resurrection of this authority and granting the Executive unlimited money creating power. This same act, however, would abolish constitutional government and the Republic. Short of this, Congress could authorize creation of a given amount of new money by the Executive. This would lead to abolition of limited government as well — but a fig leaf would remain. Annually, the Executive branch would hand out its shopping list, Congress would roll its own bribes into this and authorize it.
If this seem like the farfetched speculation of a damaged mind, I need only state this is the Modern Monetary Theory policy prescription. MMT assumes the only limit on government expenditures is the existence of resources (unsold commodities) that can be purchased with ex nihilo money. If the entirety of the surplus value created world wide is superfluous — cannot function as capital — all of this can be so “purchased”.
Here is the rub: In Marx’s model, this purchase must in no way increase the absolute value of the total social wages. While the distribution of total social wages may change over time, the total value of the social wages must fall. Which is to say, the portion of the total social labor day devoted to creating surplus value must constantly increase. It also means the rates of creation of new fictional money must constantly increase; and, therefore, prices must constantly increase. All of this is expressed in a constantly expanding Fascist State.
In Marx’s model, the only basis on which this entire process can be brought to a standstill is by enforcing a reduction in hours of labor.
A movement to reduce hour of labor is the sole avenue to anti-politics, a politics of resistance, a politics that stands outside the State. If the Fascist State is entirely composed of surplus labor time, and increases with it, limitations on hours of labor is necessary. Moreover, until hours are limited until freely associated productive activity replaces labor as the MAIN source of wealth, communism (a stateless society) is not possible.
Until all or most of necessary labor is replaced by free voluntary associated productive activity, value producing labor cannot be abolished. The condition for the abolition of labor and of the Fascist State are identical: abolition of all labor in excess of socially necessary labor time.
This is what Marx calls a communist movement of society: the act of the individual as an individual reclaiming her productive capacities. The individual is reclaiming these capacities from value producing activity. And, exercising them in association with the rest of society.
The answer to ex nihilo money, Modern Monetary Theory, and the ceaseless expansion of the Fascist State is a movement to cut hours of labor. This movement must be a global movement; a movement of individuals as individuals; a movement against ALL classes in present day society.
(Shown in the above chart is the historical correlation between the change in debt and the rate of unemployment. Courtesy of economist Steve Keen and chrismartenson.com)
Libertarians, anarchists and communists who sincerely favor a stateless society must realize that the present crisis is not merely, nor even primarily, an economic crisis — it is a crisis of the State itself. There is no exit for the State from this crisis, and it must result in the collapse of the State.
How we approach this crisis can spell the difference between a long drawn out process of collapse, or a much shorter one.
The two great issues facing Washington in this crisis are the rising public debt and the rising population of persons who cannot find work. Since World War II, Washington has been able to enjoy a trade off between these two symptoms of capitalist breakdown by encouraging the accumulation of private and public debt to offset the tendency toward a fall in productive employment of labor power.
The growth in public and private debt has allowed Washington to perform its essential role in a period of capitalist relative breakdown: to maintain generally stable conditions for the purchase and sale of labor power. This role corresponds to the needs of both the working and capitalist classes insofar as we only consider them as poles within capitalist relations of production.
In the face of falling demand for the productive employment of labor power, Washington has encouraged and facilitated the expansion of unproductive employment based on various forms of consumer debt in particular — mortgage, credit cards, auto loans, etc. — but also public debt, including ever increasing levels of federal debt. This debt, since it can never be repaid and sits on the books of financial institutions as fictitious assets, must be succeeded by increasing levels of new debt. It is a classic Ponzi scheme that had to unravel eventually and finally did in the Great Financial Crisis of 2008.
Since 2008, Washington has attempted to stabilize the economy by accumulating massive amounts of debt in its own right, hoping for its stimulative interventions in the economy to trigger a new round of debt accumulation by consumers. Consumers, who have been hit hard by the loss of millions of jobs in 2008 and 2009 have not responded to Washington’s stimulative interventions, and appear to be having an increasingly hard time even servicing existing debt.
The central problem facing Washington is that massive amounts of new debt must be created each year to absorb those who lost their jobs in 2008-2009. Moreover, this new debt must be sufficient not only to absorb those who lost their jobs, but also more than a million new workers who enter the labor force each year looking for work, and those who continue to be displaced from productive employment because of improving productivity. If consumers (who are, overwhelmingly, those workers who still are employed) are not able to carry a sufficient new debt burden to absorb this huge mass of new and existing unemployed, plus offset the falling demand for employment of labor power resulting from improvements in productivity, Washington will face an ever increasing mass of unemployed persons who are living on the edge of starvation.
At the same time, since Washington has been trying to compensate for inadequate consumer debt accumulation by running massive deficits in 2009, 2010, and 2011, a broad section of the population has been growing uneasy with the seemingly endless river of red ink in the federal budget. It doesn’t take a degree in economics to figure out that the massive accumulation of new federal debt must in time be offset by equally massive increases in the tax burden on the population and severe austerity of the type already evident in many European countries.
The result must be the steady conversion of public taxes into debt service to line the pockets of the big holders of federal debt, even as Washington tries to maintain its completely superfluous expenditures on military adventures, while the social safety net is ruthlessly eviscerated; leaving large segments of the population to starve. In its extremity, the fascist State consists solely of an ever increasing mass of new debt undertaken to maintain itself as an aggressive military machine.
Washington is thus trapped in an intractable crisis of rising public debt coupled with rising unemployment and an increasingly naked militaristic posture, even as it fails to address its most basic function: maximizing the purchase and sale of labor power. To an extent not seen in the post-World War II period, we are seeing the formation of permanent unemployable mass on the scale previously experienced only during the Great Depression. Despite two massive stimulus injections of nearly $1 trillion each, unprecedented zero interest rates for more than two years, and Federal Reserve money printing on a scale never seen before in history, unemployment has not fallen to anything approaching pre-crisis levels.
Washington is vulnerable to attack by those who favor a stateless society on both fronts. I would suggest libertarians, anarchists and communists pursue these points of agitation in their work:
- Debt and deficit spending: Oppose any attempt by Congress to increase the debt ceiling. It is clear that the Obama administration is working with both the GOP controlled House and the Democratic controlled Senate to slip through another increase in the debt ceiling this Spring. Libertarians, anarchists and communists should not stand aloof from this fight. They must combine efforts to ensure a NO vote on raising the debt ceiling, and to identify those Republican and Democratic Party representatives and senators who are conspiring with the Obama administration to saddle the nation with more debt.
- Unemployment and hours of labor: To the charge by apologists for Washington that deficit spending is necessary to combat rising unemployment, we should answer that it is not necessary. The unemployment crisis is solely the result of the refusal by Washington to reduce hours of labor. Those who stand for a stateless society should point out that increasing productivity of labor has made the reduction of hours of labor the pressing issue of our time. Any attempt to substitute State intervention in the economy for this reduction can only lead to further accumulation of debt without solving the problem of unemployment.
Washington is caught in a cul-de-sac from which there is no exit. Now is the time to strike a deathblow to it, and pave the way for a stateless society. If we fail to take advantage of this opportunity, we will have only ourselves to blame.
Tags: Barack Obama, budget, budget deficit, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, financial crisis, great depression, international financial system, political-economy, recession, shorter work week, stupid Washington tricks, The Economy, unemployment, Wall Street Crisis, war
I recently came across this excerpt from a short paper by the Marxist writer, Raya Dunayevskaya. The argument is a very dense consideration of a fundamental point of Marx’s theory. If it appears obscure and incomprehensible, that is okay; I offer it only as a reference for those familiar with the more arcane points of Marx’s theory. For everyone else, you can skip below, where I will address it directly in a way that makes its import both obvious and rather astounding:
Let me state right here that we have greatly underestimated Volume III of CAPITAL, which deals with these transformations. It is true that we caught its ESSENCE when from the start we put our finger on the spot and said the DECLINE in the rate of profit is crucial; the average rate of profit is completely secondary. Look at the mess we would have been in if we had not seen THAT and suddenly found ourselves, as did the Fourth [International], tailending the Stalinists’ sudden “discovery” (which had been precisely the PERVERSION with which the Second International PLANNERS had long ago tried to corrupt Marxism) that it was the AVERAGE rate of profit which was the “law of capitalism.”
Good, we saw the essence, but that is insufficient, and because that is completely insufficient, we were incapable of being sharp enough even here. For it is insufficient merely to state that the decline [in the] rate of profit, not the average, is crucial for understanding VOLUME III. The full truth is: JUST AS MARX’S THEORY OF VALUE IS HIS THEORY OF SURPLUS VALUE, SO HIS THEORY OF SURPLUS VALUE IS IN REALITY THE THEORY OF THE DECLINING RATE OF PROFIT.
Why couldn’t we state it this simply before? It is because we have been too busy showing that profit is only a disguise which surplus value wears and must be removed, again to see “the real essence”: exploitation of labor. Because the opponents we were facing were Workers Party underconsumptionists, we had to overemphasize this EVIDENT truth. But to overemphasize the obvious means to stand on the ground the opponents have chosen. Freed from these opponents and faced with PLANNERS WHO ARE NOT UNDERCONSUMPTIONISTS the greater truth of what Marx was saying suddenly hits us in the eyes with such force that now we can say: How could we have not seen what Marx was saying? It is all so clear: Since the realization of surplus value IS the decline in the rate of profit, the poor capitalist MUST search for profits.
The argument Dunayevskaya is making here is simple: Marx proposed that capitalism would be increasingly hamstrung by a decline in the rate of profit. This decline was not an accident or aberration, since it rested on a fundamental feature of the economy: On the one hand, the capitalist was always seeking to maximize his profits by reducing labor costs. This drive leads businesses to produce more output with fewer workers. On the other hand, the source of profits were the unpaid labor time of the employed workers. Thus, even as the capitalist tried to maximize profit by reducing its work force, its success at reducing its work force reduced the pool of unpaid labor time that was the source of its profits.
So far, not much of interest, right? Just another cat fight among the followers of Marx over interpretation of his theory; and Marxists are, if anything, more prone to cat fights than a bag of wet cats. But, then Raya does something jarring: she throws in that sentence at the end and changes the entire nature of the argument:
Since the realization of surplus value IS the decline in the rate of profit, the poor capitalist MUST search for profits.
Let me perform an intellectual shortcut here: Although it may not be obvious what she has just done, Raya has just stated that Marx is setting the reader up, not for an explanation why prices of goods reflect the values of those goods, but why they can never reflect the values of those goods. On a micro-level, Marx is explaining why that $600 iPad you got for Christmas probably cost no more than $3 to manufacture in China.
To put this another way: Marx was describing why the actual labor time expended in a capitalist economy must always and increasingly be greater than what is socially necessary. The tendency built into a capitalist economy toward a secular decline in the rate of profit produces its opposite: a mad scramble on the part of each capital, and all of them together, to find every avenue to maintain profitability in the face of this tendency; and this tendency can only be countered by effort to extend the social work day beyond what is actually required by society. As we have argued elsewhere, if Marx is correct in his analysis, there is a vast pool of superfluous labor within existing society that can be abolished without touching on the material living standard of society.
To put it bluntly, Marx’s law of the tendency toward a fall in the rate of profit predicts that if total debt, total consumption and total hours of labor don’t constantly increase capitalism will collapse. The social relation is not only incapable of achieving equilibrium, but it becomes increasingly self-disequilibrating as the productivity of labor increases. Assuming Raya was saying what I understand her to be saying, I think this self-induced, self-reinforcing, disequilibrium results in, at least, the following 5 symptoms:
- The Market for output must constantly expand.
- Total employment must always rise more quickly than productive employment. And, total hours of labor must always increase more quickly than productive hours of labor.
- Because of the above, total consumption must always increase more rapidly than necessary consumption (i.e., production). Which is to say, waste and unnecessary consumption becomes a matter of life or death for the economy.
- Since waste becomes a permanent feature of the economy and the rising cost of wasted effort must be borne by society, total prices must always increase more rapidly than total value.
- Since, wasted effort itself produces no new value, exchange itself is increasingly founded on debt; hence, the financial sector must always increase more rapidly than the industrial sector, and debt more rapidly than equity — leverage, which is, at root, only the relation between the sum total of social labor to the sum total of productively employed labor, must always increase.
Assuming I am correct about Raya’s comments about Marx’s third volume of Capital, and, that she is correct in her reading of the volume — two very big ifs, I admit — in his third volume of Capital, Marx is setting us up to understand how the State becomes an absolutely critical and absolutely necessary feature of capitalist society — a matter of life and death for capital. Each of the five symptoms of modern society I cited above are no more than functions taken on by the State to manage capitalist society through its increasingly devastating cycles of booms and busts.
Marx’s law of the tendency toward a decline in the rate of profit is, in reality, a theory of the State. To extend Raya’s statement: Marx’s theory of value is the foundation for his theory of surplus value; his theory of surplus value is the foundation for his theory of the decline in the rate of profit; and, finally, his theory of a decline in the rate of profit is the foundation for his theory of the modern State.
Powerful support for my interpretation of Raya’s argument can be found simply by looking at the title of the paper from which the above quote was drawn: “The despotic plan of capital vs. freely associated labor”. In this paper, Raya counterposes the modern State to the free association of individuals, explicitly arguing that planning arrived at by free association is completely incompatible with the various forms of State management of the economy with which we are familiar: everything from the centralized planning of the Soviet type to the fiscal and monetary levers of neoliberal political-economy. In 1950, with the ink still drying on National Security Council Report 68, Raya was making the argument that, in her words, “If the order of the factory were also in the market, you’d have complete totalitarianism.”
Effort by the State to manage the economy, as envisioned by the Truman administration, had to lead to an increasingly totalitarian reorganization of society. This, apart even from consideration of the aim of that management — which, for Truman, was a means of accruing the resources for a long-term conflict with the Soviet Union — implies the subjugation of the whole of social relationships to the despotism of capital.
Marxists and progressives who see in the increasing entanglement of the State in the economy — as borrower, lender, consumer and employer of last resort — some realization of the possibility for a humane society are not only wrong, but dangerously misguided in their approach to every social issue from the present intractable unemployment, to poverty, to every form of inequality, the environment and global relations. They are trying to use as a solution the very instrument of society which maintains those evils and makes their continuation possible.
Tags: Depression, economic policy, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, fiscal policy, inflation, international financial system, Karl Marx, Marxism, monetary policy, National Security Council Memorandum, NSC-68, planned economy, political-economy, Raya Dunayevskaya, recession, soviet union, The Economy, underconsumption, unemployment, voluntary associaton, war