Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Great Financial Crisis

Thanks to Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast, I learned that the Obama-is-a-socialist/communist/really really Scariest/Bill Ayers-type terrorist rightwingnut protocol was backed by the same people who funded Rick Santelli's well-placed rant on CNBC: compliments of the infamous Koch family ("multi-billionaire owners of the largest private corporation in America, and funders of scores of rightwing thinktanks and advocacy groups, from the Cato Institute and Reason Magazine to FreedomWorks. The scion of the Koch family, Fred Koch, was a co-founder of the notorious extremist-rightwing John Birch Society”):

The problem with this kind of orchestrated effort ("Swiftboat Veterans for 'Truth,'" anyone?) is that it hides corporate propaganda behind a wall of faux populism and concern for "the little guy." And how many people are going to do the digging that's required to find out what's behind this kind of orchestrated effort? (ultimate h/t to Skippy.)
And a big AMEN from Jesusland to what David Michael Green has stated:
I doubt Republicans can survive what is happening to their party as anything other than some sort of rump, stump, latter-day Whig Party, with a solid electoral grip on the whole of the Old Confederacy, as they continue to insist on maintaining in the twenty-first century every ounce of the poverty, ignorance, prejudice and class apartheid that marked the eighteenth. The only change that would represent from the last several decades is that such sick regressiveness will no longer be quite so nationalized, courtesy of the likes of Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, Trent Lott or Mitch McConnell, but rather will remain confined to their Bible Belt, just as Jesus intended.
Isn't Mike Whitney one of the most concise political/economic commentators? He dissects our plight in The Great Financial Crisis perfectly.
Interview of John Bellamy Foster By Mike Whitney February 27, 2009 Information Clearing House MW: Do you think that the American people have been misled into believing that the current financial crisis is the result of subprime loans and toxic assets? Aren't these merely the symptoms of a deeper problem; financialization? Can you explain financialization and how the economy became more and more detached from productive activity and more and more dependent on the accumulation of paper wealth? JBF: I think it is true, as you say, that the American people have been misled by analyses of the crisis into focusing on mere symptoms, or on the straws that broke the camel’s back, such as subprime loans. There is still a great deal of toxic financial waste out there in the financial superstructure of the economy, but the real problems go much deeper. One reason for this failure to account realistically for the crisis is that those at the top of the system have very little clue themselves, given the near bankruptcy of orthodox economics. A second reason is that the dominant ideology is designed to naturalize any economic disaster, pretending it has nothing to do with the fundamental nature of the system but is simply the result of external forces, mistakes of federal regulators, deregulation, corruption of a few individuals, etc. Under these circumstances, what you get from the elites and the media is mostly nonsense, though there are individuals in the financial community, in particular, that are now analyzing the problem at a deeper, more realistic level. The first thing to recognize is that this is a very serious crisis, of an order of magnitude comparable to the Great Depression. It is not a regular business cycle downturn or credit crunch. This should suggest that there are long-term forces at work. These include, over the last third of a century, stagnation, or the slowing down of the economy, and the financialization, the shift in the center of gravity of the economy from production to finance. Financialization refers not to just one or two financial bubbles (such as the New Economy bubble and the housing bubble) but to the growing reliance on financial speculation, which can be treated as a whole series of bubbles one after the other, each new one bigger than the last. This has been the dominant economic development since the 1970s, and especially since the 1980s. This financialization was occurring on top of a "real economy" or productive economy that was more and more stagnant. Given the rot below, financial speculation thus became the only game in town, serving to lift the economy. More and more economic activity was geared not to production but to the pursuit of paper claims to wealth. The last bubble-bursting episode, associated with the housing or subprime bubble, was so severe that it brought financialization to an end, generating what we call in the title of our new book The Great Financial Crisis. The idea at the top was that the financial explosion could be managed, and a financial collapse prevented. The central banks as lenders of last resort could pour liquidity into the system at critical points to avoid a financial avalanche. And in fact they succeeded in doing this for decades. Ben Bernanke, the current head of the Federal Reserve, even referred a few years ago to “The Great Moderation,” in which the business cycle had been overcome by monetary policy. Following the successful leveraging of the system out of the 2001 crisis that followed the 2000 bursting of the New Economy bubble he assumed that they now had discovered the elixir of indefinite financial-based growth. Yet, the scale of the financial superstructure of the economy kept on rising in relation to the stagnant production system underlying it and finally it overwhelmed the capacity of the Federal Reserve and other central banks to stave off the inevitable financial collapse. From a long-term perspective we can say that there is a kind of mean reversion taking place whereby the financial system and the inordinate profits it generated over decades is reverting to the long-term trend of the overall stagnant economy, which means that trillions upon trillions upon trillions of dollars in capital assets are being lost. And with financialization no longer lifting the economy as it has in decades past we are face to face with the underlying forces of long-term stagnation. For this reason the best economists and financial analysts are now saying that when the recovery from this crisis begins, perhaps in 2011, it will be an L-shaped recovery, pointing toward long-term stagnation as in the depression decade. Without financialization there is nothing on the horizon to boost the U.S. and other advanced capitalist economies. MW: Is the financial crisis the result of deregulation, lax lending standards and too much leveraging or are there more important factors involved? In your new book The Great Financial Crisis, you say that stagnation is unavoidable in mature capitalist economies because "a handful of corporations control most industries" which has ended "price warfare". How has "monopoly capital" paved the way for financialization and the creation of derivatives, structured debt instruments and other complex investments? Could you clarify what you mean by stagnation is and how it led to the present crisis? JBF: The long-term process of the growth of financial speculation or financialization (the shift in gravity of the economy from production to finance) was a process that had to keep going because once it stopped you would have a financial avalanche. As increased debt is used more and more to leverage financial speculation the quantity of debt increases while its quality decreases. This means that the level of risk keeps rising. As speculation becomes more extreme various mechanisms are introduced to manage risk. Structured debt instruments like collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps, and a host of other exotic financial instruments, were introduced supposedly to reduce the risk of the individual investor, but ended up expanding risk system-wide. Ideologically the increased risk is rationalized in various ways--for example the presumed high tech basis of the New Economy bubble and the notion that new financial instruments had sliced and diced risk and thereby lessened risk exposure in the subprime bubble. But eventually, the decrease in quality that goes along with the increase in quantity of debt has its effect. In this respect, the giving out of subprime loans was simply part of the normal evolution (though this time on a massive scale) of financial instability basic to speculative finance. This was well explained by economist Hyman Minsky in his various works on the “financial instability hypothesis,” largely ignored by mainstream economists. Regulation of this system was impossible, since the risk had to keep rising and any attempt to place any limits on the system once financialization got to a certain point risked a financial meltdown. The capitalist state therefore had no choice but gradually to dismantle the entire financial regulatory system and to allow risk to grow. Indeed, in every major financial crisis over the last thirty years the response was financial deregulation. The risk-prone structure that emerged was presented as “optimal” in the governing ideology and the IMF and other institutions worked at imposing the same supposedly advanced, high-risk "financial architecture" on all the countries of the world. The real underlying problem, as indicated above, was stagnation. Explaining stagnation is a long and complex process. It was analyzed in depth by Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, and Harry Magdoff. For a fuller understanding, beyond what I am able to give in this short space, I recommend our book The Great Financial Crisis and earlier works by Baran, Sweezy, and Magdoff, especially Baran and Sweezy's Monopoly Capital. There are two factors basically to consider: maturity and monopoly. Maturity stands for the fact that industrialization is an historical process. In the beginning, i.e., the initial industrial revolution phase, there is a building up of industry virtually from scratch as in the United States in the nineteenth century and China today. During this period the demand for new investment seems infinite and if there are limits to expansion they lie in the shortage of capital to invest. Eventually, however, industry is built up in the core areas and after that production is geared more and more to mere replacement, which can be financed out of depreciation funds. In a mature economy growth is increasingly dependent on finding investment outlets, and capital tends to generate more surplus (or investment-seeking capital) than can be absorbed in existing outlets. New industries arise (such as the computer, digital product industry of today), but normally the scale of such industries relative to the whole economy is too small to constitute a major boost to the entire economic system. Although the capitalist economy is not often discussed in terms of such a historical process of industrialization (which lies outside the governing ideology,) it is taken for granted in discussions of the world economy that the more mature economies of the United States, Europe, and Japan are only going to grow nowadays at, say, a 2.5 percent rate, while emerging economies may grow much faster. The maturity argument was influenced by Keynes and developed by Alvin Hansen in the late 1930s and early 1940s in such works as Full Recovery or Stagnation? and Fiscal Policy and Business Cycles. But the most powerful and clearest theoretical discussion of maturity was provided by Paul Sweezy, building on a Marxian frame of analysis, in his Four Lectures on Marxism. The second factor is monopoly (or oligopoly). Marx was the first to discuss the tendency in capitalist economies toward the concentration and centralization of capital, an emphasis that has distinguished Marxian economics. In Marxian and radical institutionalist economics this led to the emergence by the last quarter of the nineteenth century (consolidated only in the twentieth century) of a new stage of capitalism that came to be known as the monopoly stage (or monopoly capitalism) displacing the earlier freely competitive stage of capitalism of the nineteenth century. In essence, the economy in the nineteenth century was dominated by small family firms (other than railroad capital). In the twentieth century this turns into an economy of big corporations. Although monopoly capital, remained a stage of capitalism, the laws of motion of the system were modified. The biggest change is the effective banning of price competition. Monopolistic (or oligopolistic) firms, as Paul Sweezy, then a young Harvard economist, famously explained in the 1930s in his theory of the kinked-demand curve of oligopolistic pricing, tend to shift prices in only one direction--up. Price competition among the majors is seen as self-defeating, and replaced by a steady upward movement of prices, usually a form of indirect collusion, following the price leader (usually the biggest firm in an industry). With the effective banning of price competition in mature industries (there is still price competition in rising industries where a shakedown process is occurring) the main assumption of orthodox conceptions of the capitalist economy is violated. Competition continues over low cost position in an industry (i.e. over productivity), and in other areas aimed at market share, such as advertising and branding of products (referred to as “monopolistic competition”). But actual price competition under monopoly capital is usually treated as “price warfare,” which is no longer acceptable. Throughout the nineteenth century in the United States the general price level fell with the exception of the Civil War years. Throughout the twentieth century the general price level rose with the exception of the Great Depression years. The result of all of this is that, given rising productivity, monopolistic corporations end up grabbing as surplus a larger portion of the gains of productivity growth (and virtually all the gains when real wages are also stagnant), leading to a tendency of the surplus of monopoly capital to rise. There is then a vast and growing investment-seeking surplus, which, however, encounters relatively diminished investment outlets due to a number of factors: industrial maturity, growing inequality which negatively affects consumption (insofar as this is based on paychecks not debt), and persistent unused industrial capacity which discourages the further expansion of capacity. In Marxian terms, we can say that the rate of surplus value (or the rate of exploitation) within production is too high for all of the surplus value potentially generated through production to be realized in final sales. As Keynes taught savings/surplus (ex ante) that is not invested simply disappears, so this slows down the economy as a whole. But the problem of surplus capital seeking investment is not thereby alleviated, since monopoly capital tends to adopt measures that continually pump up potential surplus even in a crisis. So the contradiction continues.
Read the rest of this essay here. Suzan ___________________________

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