Michael Hudson: Some Modest Proposals for Reforming the U.S. Financial and Tax System

By Michael Hudson, cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.

On November 3, 2011, Alan Minsky interviewed me on KPFK’s program, “Building a Powerful Movement in the United States” in preparation for an Occupy L.A. teach-in. To clarify my points I have edited and expanded my answers from the interview transcript.

Alan Minsky: I am joined now by Michael Hudson. He is a distinguished research professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and also is president of the Institute for the Study of Long Term Economic Trends. Welcome to the show, Michael.

Michael Hudson: Thank you very much.

Alan Minsky: Michael Hudson is scheduled to address Occupy L.A. as part of a teach-in that includes William Black and Robert Scheer, who will be moderating the panel that Michael will be on this weekend. Michael, I’m familiar with your work and I know that you are a big-picture economic thinker. This is definitely a movement that is asking the big questions about how the global economy and the national economy should be re-organized. What would you say to the movement at large about how best to organize a high-tech modern industrial economy in a way that would produce more social and economic justice?

America is being radicalized by coming to realize how radical Wall Street’s power grab is

Michael Hudson: The Occupy Wall Street movement has many similarities with what used to be called the Great Awakening periods in America. Such periods always begin by realizing how serious the problem is. So diagnosis is the most important tactic. Diagnosing the problem mobilizes power for a solution. Otherwise, solutions will seem to come out of thin air and people won’t understand why they are needed, or even the problems that solutions are intended to cure.

The basic problem today is that nearly everyone is in debt. This is the problem in Europe too. There are Occupy Berlin meetings, the Greek and Icelandic protest, Spain’s “Indignant” demonstrations and similar ones throughout the world.

When debts reach today’s proportions, a basic economic principle is at work: Debts that can’t be paid; won’t be. The question is, just how are they not going to be paid? [Cf. Leviticus 25. –lambert] People with student loans are not permitted to declare bankruptcy to get a fresh start. The government or collection agencies dock their salaries and go after whatever property they have. Many people’s revenue over and above basic needs is earmarked to pay the bankers. Typical American wage earners pay about 40 percent of their wages on housing whose price is bid up by easy mortgage credit, and another 10 to 15 percent for credit cards and other debt service. FICA takes over 13 percent, and federal, local and sales taxes another 15 percent or so. All this leaves only about a quarter of many peoples’ paychecks available for spending on goods and services. This is what is causing today’s debt deflation. And Wall Street is supporting it, because it extracts income from the bottom 99% to pay the top 1%.

Half a century ago most economists imagined that the problem would be people saving too much as they got richer. Saving meant non-spending. But the problem has turned out to be just the opposite: debt. Overall salaries have not risen in decades, so many people have borrowed just to break even. Instead of an era of free choice, very little of their income is available for discretionary spending. It is earmarked to pay the financial, insurance and real estate sectors, not the “real” production and consumption economy. And now repayment time has arrived. People are squeezed. So when America’s saving rate recently rose from zero to 3 percent of national income, it takes the form of people paying down the debts.

Many people thought that the way to get rich faster was to borrow money to buy homes and stocks they expected to rise in price. But this has left the economy financially strapped. People are feeling depressed. The tendency is to blame themselves. I think that the Occupy Wall Street movement, at least here in New York, is like what has occurred in Greece and also in the Arab Spring. People are coming together, and at first they may simply watch what’s going on. Onlookers may come by to see what it’s all about. But then they think, “Wait a minute! Other people are having the same problem I’m having. Maybe it is not really my fault.”

So they begin to see that all these other people who have a similar problem in not being able to pay their debts, they realize that they have been financially crippled by the banks. It is not that they have done something wrong or are sore losers, as Herman Cain says. Something radically wrong with the system.

Fifty years ago an old socialist told me that revolutions happen when people just get tired of being afraid. In today’s case the revolution may grow nearer when people get over being depressed and stop blaming themselves. They come to think that we are all in this together – and if this is the case, there must be something wrong with the way the economy is organized.

Gradually, observers of Occupy Wall Street begin to feel stronger. There is positive peer pressure to reinforce their self-confidence. What they intuitively feel is that the Reagan-Clinton-Bush-Obama presidencies have squeezed their lives. The economy has become untracked.

What’s basically wrong is that the financial system is running the government. For years, Republicans and Democrats both have said that a strong government, careful regulation and progressive taxation is the road to serfdom. The politicians and neoliberal economists who write their patter talk say, “Let’s take planning out of the hands of government and put it in the ‘free market.’” But every market is planned by someone or other. If governments step aside, then planning passes into the hands of the bankers, because of their key role in allocating credit.

The problem is that they have not created credit to finance industrial investment and employment. They have lent for speculation on asset price inflation using debt leveraging to bid up housing prices, stock and bond prices, and foreign exchange rates. They have convinced borrowers that they can get rich on rising housing prices. But this merely makes new homebuyers go deeper into debt to buy a home. And when banks say that rising stock and bond prices are good for the economy, this price rise lowers the dividend or interest yield. This means that pension funds and individuals have to save much more for retirement. Instead of improving their life, it makes them work harder and borrow more just to stay in place.

The banking system’s alternative to “the road to serfdom” thus turns out to be a road to debt peonage. This financial engineering turns out to be worse than government planning. The banks have taken over the Federal Reserve and Treasury and put their lobbyists in charge – men such as Tim Geithner and the others with ties to Rubinomics dating from the Clinton administration, and especially to Goldman Sachs and other giant Wall Street firms.

So the first thing to realize is something that is characteristic of all great reform movements. Voters are not yet supporting a radical position to restructure the whole system. But at least they are coming to see that small marginal reforms won’t work, or are simply trick promises, like President Obama’s promise that banks would renegotiate mortgages for homes in negative equity as part of the quid pro quo for the bailouts they received from Treasury Secretary Geithner. There’s been no quid pro quo, merely talk.

People see that law enforcement is missing when it comes to the banks and Wall Street. So simply restoring the criminal justice system would be progress. It used to be that if you ran a fraud, if you cheated people, if you lied on your income tax and falsified statistics, then you would be sent to jail. But the Obama administration has appointed Eric Holder to represent Wall Street. He has not thrown any bankers in jail, recognizing that they are the major campaign contributors of the party, after all.

What is easiest for most people to accept is the idea of restoring the way the economy used to be more in balance – back when people earned income by being productive rather than getting rich by transferring other peoples’ savings and public giveaways into their own pockets. But what I sensed in New York was anger not only at this economic problem, but the fact that the political system is broken. There is no one to vote for as an alternative to pro-bank candidates. So what began as anger has become a gathering awareness that Mr. Obama was simply fooling voters instead of leading the change he promised. That’s what politicians do, of course. But people hoped that he might be different. That was the gullibility he played on. He has turned into the nightmare they thought they were voting against.

Moving to the right of the Republicans, he started his administration by appointing the Simpson-Bowles Commission staffed by opponents of Social Security. He recently followed that up by appointing the Congressional Super-committee of Twelve to come out with an even more anti-Social Security, anti-Medicaid and anti-minority position that the Republicans could get away with. If they would have tried to pass such a right-wing policy, the Democratic Congress would have refused to pass it. But they don’t know how to deal with a Democratic president who appoints Wall Street lobbyists to his cabinet and acts like Margaret Thatcher saying that There Is No Alternative (TINA) to making Social Security recipients, labor and minorities pay for Wall Street’s bad gambles and bank losses. He has helped Wall Street capture the government – on behalf of the 1%.

The man whom Mr. Obama asked to be his mentor when he joined the Senate was Joe Lieberman. He evidently gave Obama expert advice about how to raise funds from the financial class by delivering his liberal constituency to his Wall Street campaign contributors. So the problem is not that President Obama is well meaning but inept – an idealist who just can’t fight the vested interests and insiders. He’s thrown in his lot with them. In fact, he really seems to believe the right-wing, pro-Wall Street ideology – that the economy can’t function without a financial system that guarantees “savers” (the top 1%) against loss, even when the bottom 99% have to pay more and more.

And on a personal level, Mr. Obama knows that his fund raising comes mainly from Wall Street, and the only way to get this money is to sell out his constituency. You’ve got to give him enough credit to recognize this obvious fact.

The upshot is that we now have a political nightmare. Yet Mr. Obama still seems to be the best that the Democrats can offer! This is why I think the protestors are saying they are not going to let the Democrats jump in front of the parade to try and mobilize support for their party. Like the Irish say: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” They realize that the financial system is broken and that neither party is trying to do much about it. So the political system has to be changed as well as the economic system.

Suppose you were going to design a society from scratch. Would you create what we have now? Or would you start, for instance, by reforming the most egregious distortions of campaign finance? As matters stand, Goldman Sachs has been able to buy the right to name who is going to be Treasury Secretary. They selected Geithner, who gave them $29 billion from A.I.G. just before he was appointed. It’s like that all down the line – in both parties. Every Democratic congressional committee chairman has to pay to the Party a $150,000 to buy the chairmanship. This means that the campaign donors get to determine who gets committee chairmanships. This is oligarchy, not democracy. So the system is geared to favor whoever can grab the most money. Wall Street does it by financial siphoning and asset stripping. Politicians do it by getting money from the beneficiaries – the 1%.

Once people realize that they’re being screwed, that’s a pre-revolutionary situation. It’s a situation where they can get a lot of sympathy and support, precisely by not doing what The New York Times and the other papers say they should do: come up with some neat solutions. They don’t have to propose a solution because right now there isn’t one – without changing the system with many, many changes. So many that it’s like a new Constitution. Politics as well as the economy need to be restructured. What’s developing now is how to think about the economic and political problems that are bothering people. It is not radical to realize that the economy isn’t working. That is the first stage to realizing that a real alternative is needed. We’ve been under a radical right-wing attack – and need to respond in kind. The next half-year probably will be spent trying to spell out what the best structure would be.

There is no way to clean up the mess that the Democratic Party has become since politics moved into Wall Street’s pockets. The Republicans also have become a party of lobbyists. So it looks like there is no solution within the existent system. This is a revolutionary, radical situation. The longer that the OWS groups can spend on diagnosing the problem and explaining how far wrong the system has gone, the longer the demonstrators can gain support by showing that they share the feelings everybody has these days – a feeling of being victimized. This is what is creating a raw material that has to potential to flower into political activism, perhaps by spring or summer next year.

The most important message is that all this impoverishment and indebtedness is unnecessary. There is no inherent economic reason for things to be this way. It is not really the way that “markets” need to work. There are many kinds of markets, with many different sets of rules. So the important task is to explain to people how many possibilities there are to make things better. And of course, this is what frightens politicians, Wall Street lobbyists and the other members of the pro-oligarchic army of financial raiders.

Alan Minsky: Well, let me ask you this – and of course, it is something of an intellectual speculative game. Let’s say that it’s January 2013, and the radical progressive candidate X, Dennis Kucinich or Bernie Sanders, is miraculously elected president, and Michael Hudson is the chief economic advisor. What would you do, given the opportunity with a favorable congress, to transform the American economy in ways that would produce policies you think would at least start to help break the grip that the financial sector has had in devastating the economy in terms of its performance for average households?

Restore America’s past prosperity and rescue the future from the financial grabbers

Michael Hudson: There are two stages to any kind of a transformation. The first stage is simply to start re-applying the laws and the taxes that the Bush and Obama administrations have stopped applying. You don’t want Wall Street to be able to put its industry lobbyists in charge of making policy. So the first task is to get rid of Geithner, Holder and the similar pro-financial administrators whom Obama has appointed to his cabinet and in key regulatory positions. This kind of clean-up requires election reform – and that requires a reversal of the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United ruling that enables a financial oligarchy to lock in its control of American politics.

One of the first things that is needed – and only a President could do it – would be to demand a new Supreme Court. This is what Roosevelt threatened, and it worked. You make them an offer they can’t refuse. If this can be done only by expanding the number of court justices, then you nominate ones who are not radicals on the right – judges who will reverse the 19th-century ruling that corporations are the same as people and indeed have even more rights (and certainly more campaign money) than people have. You then move to clean up the corruption of the legal system that has protected financial crooks instead of sending them to jail. Financial fraud has effectively been decriminalized, at least by Wall Street’s largest campaign contributors.

But this is really Bill Black’s area. I’m only going to talk about financial and tax reforms here, because they are the easiest to understand and ultimately the most immediate task.

Prevent monopoly price gouging. Bring bank charges in line with the real cost of doing business.

What is needed today is more than just going back to the past ideals. After all, the good old class warfare was not so rosy either. But at least the Progressive Era had a program to subordinate finance to serve industry and the rest of the economy. The problem is that its reformers never really had a chance to carry out the ideas that classical economists outlined.

The classical idea of a free market economy was radical in its way – precisely by being natural and thus getting rid of unnatural warping by special privileges for absentee landlords and banks. This led logically to socialism, which is why the history of economic thought has been dropped – indeed, excluded – from today’s academic curriculum. What is needed is to complete the direction of change that World War I interrupted and that the Cold War further untracked. After 1945 you didn’t hear anything any more about what John Maynard Keynes called for at the end of his General Theory in 1936: “euthanasia of the rentier.” But this was the great fight for many centuries of European reform, and it even was the path along which industrial capitalism was expected to evolve. So let me begin with what was discussed back in the 1930s, trying to recover the Progressive Era reforms.

Setting up a more fair banking and financial system requires changing the tax favoritism as well, which I will discuss below. There are a number of good proposals for reform. One of the easiest and least radical is set up a public option for banking. Instead of relying on Bank of America or Citibank for credit cards, the government would set up a bank and offer credit cards, check clearing and bank transfers at cost.

The idea throughout the nineteenth century was to create this kind of public option. There was a Post Office bank, and that could still be elaborated to provide banking services at cost or at a subsidized price. After all, in Russia and Japan the post office banks are the largest of all!

The logic for a public banking option is the same as for governments providing free roads: The aim is to minimize the cost of living and doing business. On my website, michael-hudson.com, I have posted an article just published in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology on Simon Patten. He was the first professor of economics at the Wharton Business School. He spelled out the logic of public infrastructure as a “fourth” factor of production (alongside, labor, capital and land). Its productivity is to be measured not by how much profit it makes, but by how much it lowers the economy’s price structure.

Providing a public option would limit the ability of banks to charge monopoly prices for credit cards and loans. It also would not engage in the kind of gambling that has made today’s financial system so unstable and put depositors’ money at risk. Ideally, I would like to see banks act more like the old savings banks and S&Ls. In fact, the most radical regulatory proposal I would like to see is the Chicago Plan promoted in the 1930s by the free marketer Herbert Simon. This is what Dennis Kucinich recently proposed in his National Emergency Employment Defense Act of 2011 (NEED).

This may seem radical at first glance, but how else are you going to stop the banks from their mad computerized gambling, political lobbying and creating credit for corporate raiders to borrow and pay their financial backers by emptying out pension funds and cutting back long-term investment, research and development?

The guiding idea is to take away the banks’ privilege of creating credit electronically on their computer keyboards. You make banks do what textbooks say they are supposed to do: take deposits and lend them out in a productive way. If there are not enough deposits in the economy, the Treasury can create money on its own computer keyboards and supply it to the banks to lend out. But you would rewrite the banking laws so that normal banks are not able to gamble or play the computerized speculative games they are playing today.

The obvious way to do this is to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act so that they can’t gamble with insured deposits. This way, speculators would bear the burden if they lost, not be in a position to demand “taxpayer liability” by threatening to collapse the normal vanilla banking system. Abolishing Glass-Steagall opened the way for Wall Street to organize a protection racket by mixing up peoples’ deposits with bad gambles and with the growth of debts way beyond the ability to be paid.

To sum up, the idea is to shape markets so as to steer the banks to lend for actual capital formation and to finance home ownership without credit inflation that simply bids up prices for homes as well as for other real estate, stocks, and bonds.

Tax reform needs to back up and reinforce financial reform

Today’s economic problem is systemic. This is what makes any solution so inherently radical. In changing part of the economic system, you have to adjust everything, just as when a doctor operates on a human body. Financial reform requires tax reform, because much of the financial problem stems from the tax shift off real estate and finance onto labor and industry. Taxes are the business of Congress, not the President or his advisors, but I assume that your question really concerns what I think the economy needs.

The most obvious fiscal task that most people understand – and support – is to restore the progressive tax system that existed before 1980, and especially before the Clinton and Bush tax cuts. It used to be that the rich paid taxes. Now they don’t. But the key isn’t just income-tax rates as such. What needs to be recognized is the kind of taxes that should be levied – or how to shift them back off labor onto property where they were before the 1980s. You need to restore the land taxes to collect the “free lunch” that is not really “free” if it is pledged to pay the banks in the form of mortgage interest.

Over the past few decades the tax system has been warped more and more by bank lobbyists to promote debt financing. Debt is their “product,” after all. As matters now stand, earnings and dividends on equity financing must pay much higher tax rates than cash flow financed with debt. This distortion needs to be reversed. It not only taxes the top 1% at a much lower rate than the bottom 99%, but it also encourages them to make money by lending to the bottom 99%. The result is that the bottom 99% have become increasingly indebted to the top 1%. The enormous bank debt attached to real estate does not reflect rising rents as much as it reflects the tax cuts on property. Wall Street lobbyists have backed Congressional leaders who have shifted taxes onto consumers via sales taxes and income taxes, as well as FICA payroll withholding. This ploy treats Social Security and Medicare as “user fees” rather than paying them out of the overall budget – and financed out of progressive taxation on the top 1%. If wage earners pay more in FICA, you can be sure that the wealthy get a tax cut.

This anti-progressive tax shift is largely responsible for the richest 1% doubling their share of income. It also has led to the 99% having to pay banks what they used to pay the tax collector. They pay interest rather than taxes. If I were economic advisor, I would explain just how this works – which is what I already try to do on my website. In a nutshell, the tax shifts since World War II have left more and more of the land’s site value to be capitalized into interest payments on bank loans. So the banks have ended up with what used to be taken by landowners. There is no inherent need for this. It doesn’t help the economy; it merely inflates a real estate bubble. Economic growth and employment would be much stronger if income tax rates were lowered for most people. Property owners and speculators would pay. There would be less free lunch and more “earned” income.

The Obama Administration has proposed the worse of both worlds – getting rid of the tax deductibility of interest for homeowners. This would squeeze them, without scaling down the bank debts that have absorbed the cuts in property taxes. So Mr. Obama is sponsoring yet another anti-consumer proposal to make the bottom 99% pay for government – while using government funds to subsidize the banks and bail out their bad bets.

What needs to be done is to remove the tax deductibility of interest for investors in general. This tax favoritism is a subsidy for debt financing – and the main problem that the U.S. economy faces today is over-indebtedness. A good policy would aim at lowering the debt overhead. Debt leveraging should be discouraged, not encouraged.

Speculators have borrowed largely to make capital gains. They originally were taxed as normal income in the 1913 income tax. The logic was that capital gains build up a person’s savings, just as earning an income does. But the financial and real estate interests fought back, and today there is only a tiny tax on capital gains – a tax that sellers don’t have to pay if they plow their money into another property or investment to make yet more gains! So when Wall Street firms, hedge funds, and other speculators avoid paying normal taxes by saying that they don’t “earn” money but simply make capital gains, this is where a large part of today’s economic inequality lies.

I would tax these asset-price gains (mainly land prices) either at the full income-tax rate or even higher. The wealthy 1% make their gains in this way, claiming that they don’t really “earn” income, so they shouldn’t have to pay taxes as if they are wages or profits. But that’s precisely the problem: Why would you want to subsidize not earning income, but merely making money by speculating – and then demanding that the government bail you out if you make a capital loss when your speculations go bad, on the logic that you have tied up most peoples’ normal bank deposits in these gambles? This is what exists today. And it is why people think the system is so unfair. Most of the super-rich families have made their fortunes by insider dealing and financial extraction, not by being productive. They are not “job creators” these days. They have become job destroyers by demanding austerity to squeeze out more money from a shrinking economy to pay themselves.

Many people – especially homeowners – are sucked into thinking that low capital gains taxes make them rich, and that high property prices leave them with less to spend. But this turns out not to be the case once the process works its way through the economy. These workings need to be more widely explained.

For many years families got rich as the price of their home rose. But they also got much deeper in debt. The real estate bubble was debt-financed. A property is worth whatever a bank will lend against it. The end result of “easy lending” and tax distortions to favor interest-bearing debt is that most families own a smaller and smaller proportion of their homes’ value – and have to pay rising mortgage debt service. This doesn’t really make them better off. The job of a president or economic advisor should be to explain how this game works, so people can get off the debt treadmill. The economy will shrink if it doesn’t lower its debt overhead.

I would close down tax avoidance in offshore banking centers by treating offshore deposits by Americans as “earned but hoarded” income and tax it at 90%. You restore the rates of the Eisenhower administration when the country had the most rapid debt growth that it had. You reinstate criminal penalties for financial fraud and tax evasion by misrepresentation. But the tax avoiders are asking the Obama administration to do just the opposite: to declare a “tax holiday” to “induce” them bring this offshore money home – by not taxing it at all! This kind of giveaway should be blocked. Tax avoiders among the top 1% should be penalized, not rewarded.

The Bush-Obama administration has promoted “neoliberal” tax and financial policies that have reversed a century of Progressive Era reforms. The past 30 years have suffered a radical transformation of tax policy and financial policy. So it takes an equally deep response to undo their distortions and put the American economy back on track. The guiding idea is simply to restore normalcy. The Progressive Era that emerged from classical economics understood the economic benefits of taxing unearned wealth (“rent extraction”) at the top of the economic pyramid, provide basic infrastructure services at cost rather than creating fiefdoms for privatizers to install tollbooths and make their gains tax-exempt. Radical neoliberalism has reversed this. It has vastly multiplied the debts owed by the bottom 99% to the top 1%.

This is leading to debt peonage and what really is neo-feudalism. We are seeing a kind of financial warfare that is as grabbing as the old-style military conquests. The aim is the same: the land, basic infrastructure, and use of the government to extract tribute.

A financial Clean Slate

To restore the kind of normalcy that made America rich, most important long-term policy would be to recognize what is going to be inevitable for every economy. Debts need to be written down – and the politically easiest way to cut through the tangle is to write them off altogether. That would free the bottom 99% from their debt bondage to the top 1%. It would be a Clean Slate, starting over – and trying to do things right this time around. The creditors have not used the banking system to make America more productive and richer. They have used it as a vehicle to reduce the population to debt serfdom.

A debt write-down sounds radical and unworkable, but it’s been done since World War II with great success. It is the program the Allies carried out in the German economy in that country’s 1947 currency reform. This was the policy that created Germany’s Economic Miracle. And America could experience a similar miracle.

Any economy would benefit from cancelling the bad debts that have been built up. Keeping them on the books will handcuff the economy and cause debt deflation by diverting income to pay debt service rather than to spend on goods and services. We are going into a new economic depression – not just a “Great Recession” – because most spending is now on finance, insurance and real estate, not on goods and basic services. So markets are shrinking, and unemployment is rising. That is what will happen if debts are not written down.

This can be done either by a Clean Slate across the board, or it can be done more selectively, by applying what’s been New York State law since before the Revolution, going back to when New York was still a colony. I’m referring to the law of fraudulent conveyance. This law says that if a creditor lends to a borrower without having any idea how the debtor can pay in the normal course of business, without losing property, the loan is deemed to be fraudulent and declared null and void.

Applying this law to defaulting homeowners would free the homes that are in negative equity throughout the country. It would undo the fraudulent loans that banks have made, the trick loans with exploding interest rates, balloon mortgages and so forth. It also would free debt-strapped companies from being forced to sell off their parts to make their corporate raiders rich.

As an associated law, pension funds should be first in line in any bankruptcy, not at the end of the line as they now are. Current practice lets companies replace defined-benefit programs with defined contribution programs – where all that employees know is how much is taken out of their paychecks each month, not what they will be receiving when they retire. Only the managers have protected their pensions with special contracts and golden parachutes. This is the reverse of what pension plans were supposed to do.

Employee Stock Option Plans (ESOPs) also are being looted. This is what has recently happened at the Chicago Tribune by Sam Zell, who borrowed money and repaid it by looting the Tribune’s ESOP. A fraudulent conveyance law applied at the nationwide level would stop this. People like Zell are looters, and so are the bankers behind him. This is the class warfare that is being waged today. And the war is being won by the 1% – while pushing the American economy into depression.

As part of the rules to define what constitutes “fraudulent” or irresponsible lending, mortgage debt service should be reduced to the rate that FDIC head Sheila Bair recommended: 32 percent. The problem with debt write-downs, of course, is that when you cancel a debt, you also cancel some party’s savings on the other side of the balance sheet. In this case, the banks would have to give up their claims. But this is what used to happen in financial crashes. When debts go bad, so do the loans. So the government is radical in saying that America’s debts will be kept on the book, but it will create new public debt to give to Wall Street for its own debts that have gone bad as a result of its reckless lending.

The banks obviously would prefer to bankrupt millions of homeowners than to take even a penny’s loss. Their fight to make the government pay for their bad debts – while keeping the debts of the bottom 99% on the books – explains why the richest 1% of Americans have doubled their share of income and the returns to wealth in the last thirty years. That’s inequitable. Their accumulation of financial savings has not taken the form of tangible capital investment in factories or other enterprises to employ labor. It’s looted labor’s savings and got employees so deep into debt that they’re “one paycheck away from homelessness.” They’re afraid to go on strike, because they would miss a mortgage payment or an electric utility payment, and their credit-card interest rates would jump to 29 percent. They’re even afraid to complain about working conditions today, because they’re afraid of getting fired.

This wasn’t formerly the case. It is the result of “financial engineering” that should be reversed. There’s no reason to treat the savings that the top 1% have got in this predatory way as being sacrosanct. Their gain – their increase in financial wealth, in bonds, savings and ownership of bank loans – equals the debts that have been imposed on the bottom 99%. This is the basic equation that needs to be more widely understood. It is not an equilibrium equation. At least, it won’t be political equilibrium when people start to push back.

We are seeing a financial grab for special privilege and for political power to use the government to subsidize the top 1% at the expense of the bottom 99%, by scaling back social spending, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and federal revenue sharing with the states. The Treasury and Federal Reserve have printed new debt to give to Wall Street – some $13 trillion and still counting since Lehman Brothers went under in September 2008. Tim Geithner and Hank Paulson used the crisis as an opportunity to give enormous U.S. debt to Wall Street. That’s more radical than reversing this to restore the economy’s financial structure to the way it used to be. If you don’t restore it, you’ve replaced economic democracy with financial oligarchy.

The way to reverse this power grab is to reverse the giveaways by cancelling the bad debts that have been loaded onto the economy. That is the only way to restore balance and prevent the polarization that has occurred. The problem is that savings by the top 1% have been used in a parasitic, extractive manner. It has been lent to the bottom 99 percent to get them deeper and deeper into debt. So they “owe their soul to the company store,” as the song Sixteen Tons put it. “You get a day older, and deeper in debt.”

The government itself has become more indebted, most recently by the $13 trillion in new debt printed and given to the banks to make sure that no financial gambler need surfer a loss. At the same time the Obama administration did this, it claimed that a generation in the future, the Social Security system may be $1 trillion in deficit. And that, Mr. Obama says, would cause a crisis – and not leave enough to continue subsidizing his leading campaign contributors. So in view of this new debt creation – while moving debts to consumers and Social Security contributors to the bottom of the list – if you are going to reverse the bad-debt polarization that we’ve reached today, it is necessary to do more than simply reinstate progressive taxation and shift the tax system so that you collect predatory unearned income – what the classical economists call economic rent. The burdensome debts need to be written off.

This probably will take half a year to get most people to realize and accept the idea is to reconstitute the system by lending for productive purposes, not speculation and rent-seeking opportunities. You want to stop the banks from lobbying for monopolies to create a market for leveraged buy-outs of these opportunities – and of course also for real estate speculation and outright gambling.

Wall Street has orchestrated and lobbied for a rentier alliance whose wealth is growing at the expense of the economy at large. It is extractive, not productive. But this fact is concealed by the national income and product accounts reporting financial and other FIRE sector takings as “earnings” rather than as a transfer payment from the economy at large – from the 99% – to the 1% of Americans who have got rich by making money off finance, monopolies and absentee real estate rent-seeking.

It is not really radical to resist Wall Street’s financial attack on America. Resistance is natural – and so is a reversal of the savings they have built up by indebting the rest of the economy to themselves. They have taken their money and run, stashing it offshore in tax-avoidance islands, in Switzerland, Britain and other havens. Shame on the political hacks who defend this and who attack Occupy Wall Street simply for resisting the financial sector’s own radical power grab and shifted taxes off themselves onto the bottom 99%.

Privatization is an asset grab masquerading as full employment policy

Alan Minsky: I have one final question for you. Would you support programs that are put forward similar to what Randy Wray, an associate of yours, suggests in terms of government employment projects to guarantee full employment?

Michael Hudson: Yes, of course I approve. In fact, it was I who introduced Randy, Pavlina Tchernova and others to Dennis Kucinich’s staff to help write his full-employment proposal along these lines. My first caveat is to warn against letting the Obama administration turn these projects into a military giveaway. I think Randy and I are in agreement with that.

My second caveat is to prevent this full-employment program from creating a later privatization giveaway to Wall Street – that is, infrastructure that the government will sell off to the ruling party’s major campaign contributors for pennies on the dollar. This is what Public/Private Partnerships have become, as pioneered in England under Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Wall Street is rubbing its metaphoric hands and saying, “That’s a great idea! Let the government pay for infrastructure and spend a billion dollars on a bridge – and then sell it to us for a dollar.” The “us” may not be the banks themselves, but their customers, who will borrow the money and pay the banks an underwriting commission as well as interest on the money they use to buy what the government is privatizing.

The pretense is that privatization is more efficient. But privatizers add on interest and financial fees, high executive salaries and bonuses, and turn the roads into toll roads and other infrastructure into neofeudal fiefdoms to charge monopolistic access fees for people to use. This is what has happened in Chicago when it sold off its sidewalks to let bankers finance parking meters in exchange for a loan. Chicago needed this loan because the financial lobbyists demanded that it cut taxes on commercial real estate and on the rich. So the financial sector first creates a problem by loading the economy down with debt, and then “solves” it by demanding privatization sell-offs under distress conditions.

This is happening not only in America, but in Greece and other countries under the insistence of Europe’s bank lobbying organization, the European Central Bank. That’s why there are riots in Athens. So the financial war against society is not only being waged here, but throughout the world.

To answer your question about how best to promote full employment, the aim should be to invest public money in a way that the Republicans and Democrats cannot later turn around and privatize the capital investment at a giveaway price. So I am all on favor of public infrastructure spending as long as you have safeguards against the financial fraud and giveaways to insiders of the sort that that the current administration is sponsoring. The privatizers and their banks would like to install tollbooths on new bridges and get a free ride to turn America into a tollbooth economy. But that’s really another story.

Alan Minsky:
Michael Hudson, I want to thank you for joining us on KPFK.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. friend

    A mix of valuable insights and nonsense. The analogy to religious fanaticism was ironic.

    There is not going to a revolution. And a good thing. It would be bloody, and progressives would lose.

    There might be radical change. I hope so. And I would vigorously support several of the proposals suggested.

    But the messenger matters as much as the message. Radical reform should be mainstream. Radical reform is common sense.

    Like it or not, the only hope for success is to take over the Dem party. This will not be easily done. Most of it is captive to Wall Street and other corporate interests. Many hurdles stand in the way.

    But if practical, radical solutions can be offered, in sober terms, relentlessly, and if candidates can be found for the primaries (starting with local offices, and building up), then political power can be grown.

    If a financial cataclysm strikes, you have both candidates and a program for reform.

    Radicals do not like the way the political system is stacked against them. It is. But that is not the only hurdle. The public does not (yet) support radical reforms.

    There is anger and a sense that the system has failed.

    The challenge is to give a choice for change at the ballot box. That is the culturally approved avenue of change. And a good cultural norm.

    Get a platform. Get candidates. Do the WORK!

    radio shows and camp outs are easy compared to the years of organizing needed to make a difference

    1. Aquifer

      I agree that the solution is to produce a better choice at the polls, but i disagree that the only hope for success is to take over the Dem Party. IMO it has become far too entrenched with corporate interests, not just financially, but ideologically.

      I used to work for Kucinich bids in the primaries and when he was inevitably sabotaged by the party bosses, i switched to Nader in the election – basically same platform, different party. However when Kucinich flipped on health care to “save the party” it made me realize that when push came to shove, as long as these guys/gals were dependent on the Dem machine, they would fold “when duty (to party) called” or hit them over the head, as the case may be; if they can flip a guy like Kucinich, who is immune? By going outside the Dem power structure one can run candidates free of the need to bow to it.

      I disagree with Hudson when he says “There is no one to vote for as an alternative to pro-bank candidates”, and frankly it really ticks me off when folks like him make such statements – they are dishonest. There are, and have been for some time, alternatives – the problem is folks are so indoctrinated to the concept that only Ds and Rs are “legitimate” candidates, they refuse to hop the fence. I will offer here an alternative for ’12 –


      I do so only because she will not get the corporate money needed to put her name in lights, and spreading the word as best i can in whatever way i can is part of my contribution to helping make the changes we need to make …

      What Hudson and other experts need to do, IMO, is offer their expertise to those outside the duopoly if they really want to challenge the system. Until they do they are as much a part of the problem, as far as perpetuating the system, as are the pols.

    2. LeonovaBalletRusse

      “friend” you are dead right. True progressives must take back the Democratic Party for ALL of the 99%, in order to elect a bona fide candidate representing *We the 99%” at the Democratic Convention, evicting Barack Obama from his position of treachery to the People of the U.S.A. Then, this candidate must be elected President of the People of the U.S.A., the 99% who have been *sold downriver* by the Master of Cons, Barack Obama.

      You are dead right about the *nonsense* coming from Prof. Hudson, who soft-pedals the issues with *too little too late*. We are waaaaaay past the remedies suggested by Prof. Hudson of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which institution is suspect because of its *Round Table* discussions at the University, recentlly advertized at the site: http://www.neweconomicperspectives.blogspot.com.

      It appears that Michael Hudson’s voice, therefore, is the compromising voice of “The Anglo-American Establishment” defined in the book of that name by Carroll Quigley, who sets forth in great detail the *Rhodes Trust* – *Milner Group* – *Round Table* connections of the British Empire, which morphed into the Anglo-American Empire-driven Global 1%. We must ask, in all candor, can Michael Hudson be trusted to promote fully the interests of the 99%?

      If we must hear from the University of Missouri-KC–the acknowledged hub of the *NAFTA* transportation enterprise for global transportation of *drugs, guns*butter* within the Fourth Reich’s North American *Security and Prosperity Partnership* thanks to Bush-Clinton and Bush-Chertoff–then let’s hear formerly *anti-establishment* voice of William K. Black instead, for he is proven anti-fraud champion vs. *organized crime* practices at the highest levels of our *corporate government partnership*, and he is qualified in both Economics AND the Law. For we are dealing with *We the People*’s recognition of ORGANIZED CRIME SYNDICATES at the very helm of our *elected* governors.

      This is what Prof. Hudson effectively ignores, hence he is not convincing as a spokesman for *We the People* at this late hour. Hence, the question arises: have Kucinich and Sanders been bought already by the *Criminal Establishment*, now that they are recommended by Prof? Hudson? Has Prof. Hudson even mentioned the keen insights into our wholly corrupt *American Dream* culture of Prof. Guido Giacomo Preparata and of Thorstein Veblen, as evinced by “The Theory of the Leisure Class* and other works mentioned in Preparata’s “CONJURING HITLER?”

      Who is more qualified to address OUR nation now, than the Italians, Guido Giacomo Preparata and Roberto Saviano, who have seen and studied the overcoming of Italy by the brute, corrupt, sadistic force of *Organized Crime*–not only of the *Ndragheta, the *Mafia*, *Cosa Nostra*, but also of Chinese organized crime in Naples, which feeds global lust for designer goods *Made in Italy* (by Chinese)? Tod’s is the rare exception to this rule today; but how can truly fine *family* businesses of Italy thrive, when the country itself is IN THRALL to *Organized Crime*?

      And is this not now happening to *We the People* of the U.S.A.? Because of the iron grip of *Establishment Organized Crime* in Corporate Government of the U.S.A., to mount a *third party candidate* is an absurd idea.

      Let’s face it: Michael Hudson’s compromise *just don’t cut it*. Can he do better than this, or is it his job to throw us *red herrings* to keep us off the scent of what he must know to be our CORE problem: Tyrannical Government by *Establishment Organized Crime*: the so-far supranational global 1% and their shills? What would Benj. Franklin say?

      Wouldn’t he say: “People, you must have the wisdom and fortitude to claim Government “of the People, by the People, and for the People. Bring the American Revolution against the TYRANNY of the 1%.” That’s what the Founders did. *We the People* must do it, and do it now.

      If that means the end of Monopoly Finance Capitalism, fiat!

      1. Carla

        “What would Benj. Franklin say?”

        Since Ben Franklin was an advocate of paper (fiat) money and had seen how well it worked for the Quakers in Philadelphia, I think he might agree with Thomas Edison, who said:

        “If our nation can issue a dollar bond, it can issue a dollar bill. The element that makes the bond good, makes the bill good, also. The difference between the bond and the bill is the bond lets money brokers collect twice the amount of the bond and an additional 20%, whereas the currency pays nobody but those who contribute directly in some useful way. … It is absurd to say our country can issue $30 million in bonds and not $30 million in currency. Both are promises to pay, but one promise fattens the usurers and the other helps the people.” New York Times, 6 December 1921, p. 6

      2. Jeff

        You are spewing 1%er propaganda against a reasonable and good voice for change, not perfect but one of the best to
        come along.

  2. Sam

    I always ask my Republican pals, especially the unemployed ones, whether Rush Limbaugh has told them when they’ll return to the work force, with better pay and benefits, if a Republican is elected next November. They can’t maintain eye contact.

    1. EH

      Well yeah, dude. Of course they don’t maintain eye contact, you’re lambasting their unemployment. “What does your buddy Rush have to say about THAT?” ain’t polite conversation.

  3. psychohistorian

    While I appreciate that implementation of the proposals described would return us to some sort of balance, IMO, those changes would fall apart in the long term because they don’t address the basic social class structure nor the issue of private property going forward.

    If the global inherited rich are not neutered by our efforts and the large percentage of ownership that they have in our world reduced or returned to public commons then they are even better positioned than after the depression of the 1930’s to continue their march of dominance.

    This nibbling around the edges of our global problem is counterproductive, IMO.

  4. ECON

    The comments suggest each has a better way of action or understanding of the latest phase of neocapitalism practised in the USA. As a result any knowledgeable person such as M. Hudson or any others on NC are discredited wholly or in part. The perfect exposition is the enemy of the excellent. The achievement of a consensus remains illusory. The exceptional status of USA in the minds of its citizens ensures dogma wins.

    1. skippy

      Quasi religious beliefs….are testy critters to wrangle with…eh.

      Skippy…as long as your pit is better than…theirs…and your football team does what ever it has to…too WIN!

    2. psychohistorian

      I take exception to your comment, especially the last sentence:
      “The exceptional status of USA in the minds of its citizens ensures dogma wins.”

      In case you missed it, there are a significant number of non-Americans that comment here who also take exception with proposed solutions that don’t address the puppet masters who hire, fire and direct the bankers talked about in this modest proposal.

      And maybe in your next comment, instead of dismissing stated concerns, you could say, pray tell, what to tell the Millenials who are taught they live in a society that values private ownership of property but they will never be able to participate because most property is owned by the global inherited rich.

      You can try and keep that veil over people’s eyes but some of us read history, anthropology and sociology enough to see clearly where the levers are that move and control our social system.

      I am intent on insuring that the current dogma we live under dies. I am not against Capitalism, its never been tried, but folks like you tie our class based system and private ownership of everything as core tenants of the “Capitalism” we currently have…are they? Where does it say that?

      Where is the meat in your arguement ECON?

      1. ECON

        The meat in my argument is that there will never be a consensus across the broad spectrum of “progressives” in America on the agenda…no different than the dysfunctional Congress where there is no consensus. WRT “exceptional status of America” prevents Americans thinking of alternatives to the status quo and relying upon the egotistical blather that America has been pre-ordained to exist and function as the “best and brightest” country on Earth.

  5. RBHoughton

    Here are a few paragraphs from an old book on Turkey that illustrate an alternative economy:

    “Our ancient institutions allowed some individuals to control others. When control was united with responsibility it was admirable. But our foreign policy was to look on the foreigner as a hostage and commerce as prey.

    “When feudalism divided men into owners and property, hospitality was erased from our national character. Then Christianity united us with some nations and set us more firmly against others. What can be expected of commercial legislation enacted in such a period?

    “In the east, the right to hospitality was preserved. Merchants enjoyed the rights of guests. If a powerful chief plundered a visitor, his host became his avenger. In the lands of the Turks and the Saracens the exchange of commodities is the only right respected and hospitality the only obligation observed.

    “The Turkish economy is simple and creates prosperity but more importantly commerce in Turkey is readily intelligible. There are no fluctuations to fear, no fictitious credit is created. Neither consumer nor producer is dependent on powerful capitalists operating in between them. There is no effecting of transfers, running risks, circumventing gratuitous obstacles (all of which increase prices and accumulate wealth in the hands of the intermediaries). Freedom of exchange of goods prevents great gains and great losses. No-one is excluded. Competition diminishes difficulties, expenses and profits. Prices relate to the labour expended, the transport cost and the commercial exchange.

    “Notwithstanding bandits, Eastern commerce extends from North Africa to the Pacific, without banks, insurance, post offices, canals and roads, and unprotected by law, or courts, or Consuls.”

    1. LeonovaBalletRusse

      Please, no propaganda, and certainly not for now *Muslim* Turkey, with its oppression of women as whole persons.

      Have the courtesy to consider your argument on THIS site, Naked Capitalism, created and maintained under the wise governance of the independent, educated, liberated above all cliches, woman: Yves Smith.

      This is a respectful community, where freedom of speech is encouraged, but propaganda is not welcome.

      Turkey CANNOT be the universal *paradigm of performance* for an economy in which the American 99% can freely participate; and to suggest this is preposterous.

      1. Rex

        I think you may be the one guilty of cutting off rational discussion with this post. I don’t know that I support that the economic points given were the ultimate, but I did not get the impression that this was a pro-Turkey piece. I took it as points that were extracted from an old book that just happened to originate from Turkey.

        I never sensed any real propaganda for “*Muslim* Turkey”. Could you, maybe, be spending too much time reading between the lines?

        I also think it is poor timing for you to be so critical, given all the turkeys giving their lives for our celebration this week.

    2. Susan the other

      No capitalist middlemen? Just a long and winding Silk Road with caravanserai every 20 miles to accommodate trade. There is no equivalent opportunity in today’s world.

  6. mac

    Whatever the solution comes to be, I think that the Democrat and Republican Parties can have no part in that solution. These folks are far too dedicated to following the “party Line”. The members of The congress and Senate don’t matter they are only there to do as the “leader” of the party dictates. Further Gerrymandering has rendered “party” meaningless as the make up of the district dictates what party a candidate should belong to.
    The system is “wrong”!

    1. Carla

      @mac: “The system is wrong”

      And you are so correct! If we could educate millions of Americans, as Yves Smith and the contributors to this blog educate us, about the true nature of money and finance, it would be a huge step forward. Because then millions of Americans would know for a fact what so many sense, but cannot yet precisely explain: that the two-party system has become hopelessly corrupt, and that if we are ever to realize the promise of democracy, it will never be through either the “Republican” or “Democratic” party, because they both serve exactly the same masters.

      And their masters are NOT the American people, but a small coterie of bankers.

      Individual politicians may mouth platitudes in trying to appeal to one group or another; as individuals they may have more or less personal “integrity.” Tragically, they– and we– are ALL corrupted by the system.

      1. LeonovaBalletRusse

        Carla, excellent comments. So I guess the solution is to *Occupy the White House/Congress/Supreme Court*. But, according to *Homeland Security Laws* of the 1%, this would be an *act of terrorism*. But according to the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the People have the right to change our government any time we deem that our government has become tyrannical and unjust. Not only is it our right, it is our duty to do so, as a *nation* (not a subset of the Global Reich IV).

        Hence, *Homeland Security Laws* SUBVERT the Constitution of the U.S.A., and the agents of the despotic regime who signed off on them are traitors to our sovereign nation of the People, by the People, for the People.

        The duty before us is to *Occupy Government*, overthrowing government by agents of a *foreign power* (Global Reich IV). We are trying to do this now, each in our own way. Ultimately, the question will be: will we fight to the death of despotic rule by the 1% or the death of our *Democracy*/*Constitutional Republic, which now has been corrupted beyond recognition?

        The stakes are that high, and history is our teacher.

      2. psychohistorian

        Carla said:
        “And their masters are NOT the American people, but a small coterie of bankers.”

        Those bankers you are referring to are hired, fired and directed by the global inherited rich. Those are the puppet master we need to remove from power, not their puppets in commerce and government, IMO.

    2. Rex

      If you are going to refer to the “Democrat Party” you should have been balanced and referred to the Repugnantin Party or some such. The rest may have been OK, but you lost my attention in the first sentence.

  7. Stephen Nightingale

    This answers or at least illuminates something that has long puzzled me. The usual way to tell that a Republican politician is prevaricating, is to watch if his lips are moving. But Mitch McConnell has been steadfast in saying he wants to make President Obama a one-term president. In this case you surely have to believe that McConnell is telling the truth. But stating his goal so openly and so early is bound to fortify the opposition and increase support for the President. At the same time, the Republican candidature for next year’s presidential election are such a sorry lot that not one of them has a great hope against the debating skills and unctuous integrity of this President. So why would McConnell engage in this chest-baring and queer his own pitch? He is after all known as a wily politician and precision political calculator, and this looks like such a naive gaffe.

    But if the President really is yet another Wall Street placeman, who talks so well as to fool the Democratic public, and if the continuing divided government achieves ‘nothing’ except to keep the spigots flowing in favor of the 1% for a further 4 years, then McConnells stiffening of the Democratic electorate’s backbone is actually a winning strategy.

    Even Machiavelli is spinning in his grave.

    1. LeonovaBalletRusse

      McConnell says this because he never imagined that a Democratic candidate for President in 2012 could be anyone other than Barack Obama. Hence, his anti-Obama pitch proposes only one alternative to Obama: a Republican President. That’s why the truly Progressive seizure of the Democratic Party at the Convention is a necessary *coup d’etat* for the 99% at the Convention stage.

  8. Hal Roberts

    A Tax problem is a dam Nice problem to have. With all the Leverage in wall street their taxes should be twice what it is. Duh reality check… I don’t care how smart or stupid a person is Wake up pleas.

    1. Rex

      Duh (literally). As in, I can’t figure out what you were trying to say. What kind of tax problem is nice, and for whom?

      And check your math. Many people and firms on Wall Street find ways to pay taxes of $0, so they would have no problem paying twice that. (2 x 0 = 0)

    1. LeonovaBalletRusse

      Yes, Abelenkpe, the *one, two punch*. Where is our Ida Tarbell? The *Jubilee* for the 99% is necessary for the re-set of Government *of, by, for the People*. Monopolies are, as ever, the ruin of open society democracies and republics.

  9. Lew Glendenning

    So, more laws, rules and regulations to control a system which is complex far beyond human understanding, in a world of humans who are easily corruptible, so money can always buy government power.

    That is how we got here.

    Specific laws, rules and regulations have never worked to control corruption in any history I have read, starting with the Greeks and Romans. The Chinese still execute a lot of people for corruption, that doesn’t stop it either.

    The laws/regulatory approach has definitively failed. We have to stop doing that. It always leads to a corrupt government, corporatism and an oligarchy, just like we have.

    The huge failures that modern mega-governments produce threaten civilization. We have to stop risking our civilization.

    Minimum government is not perfect, but it has a chance of being stable. We should be focusing on the Constitutional Amendments we need to keep our next government inside its Constitution.

    1. Rex

      Do you *really* believe that?

      Where do you live? I’ll be right over to kill you and take all your money. No problem, right? We don’t need no stinking laws.

    2. psychohistorian

      I am sorry Lew, I just don’t buy your train of thought.

      Your argument makes no sense in the context of the based class society that we live under but is a great Tea Party position. Maybe you want to join them.

  10. krick

    I really don’t understand why people are coming out of college with so much debt. Nobody is holding a gun to your head and making you go away to an expensive 4-year school. I personally know people who have mortgage-sized student loan debt. It’s absurd. No college is worth $25,000 plus per year.

    My advice? Live at home for the first two years and commute to your local community college to get an associate’s degree in liberal arts. Then transfer to a reasonably priced in-state 4-year school and get your bachelor’s degree. Don’t live in the dorms. Get some roommates and share an off-campus apartment.

    I did exactly as described above and graduated in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. My total student loan debt? Less than $17,000.

    I know the cost of education has gone up tremendously since 1997, but there’s no reason to come out of school owing as much as people do these days. I attribute that to either ignorance, denial, or just plain stupidity.

    No employer has ever asked to see my college diploma (or even my high school diploma for that matter). The bottom line? Employers really don’t give a shit where you go to school as long as you actually have the skills they need, so don’t spend a ton of money on college when you don’t have to.

    1. Observer

      When was the last time you checked the cost of a community college education? Even Californians have to pay. You have missed the point entirely and suggest you re-read the above article.

      1. krick

        I’m not addressing the whole article, which I completely agree with, by the way. I’m specifically addressing the issue of student loan debt.

        I paid for my community college, but I didn’t take out any loans. I worked part-time while I was in community college to pay for it.

        My point is that nobody needs to put themselves in massive debt to get a college degree. If someone comes out of college with $100K+ in student loan debt, then they deserve to fail. It’s just plain stupid.

        1. Darren Kenworthy

          Saying a human “deserves to fail” when they are acting in good faith is just plain wrong.

          1. JTFaraday

            I agree that college is way too expensive, given most people’s earning potential. I also think (actually, no, I know) that a lot of people will indeed look down on a community college/ public university degree. Sometimes, it’s important to be aware of that.

            However, I fail to see how exercising your personal discretion in taking out $100K in student loans, and then complaining that now you have to pay them back is “acting in good faith.”

            As many times as I’ve heard that one already, and I’ve paid back educational debt myself, albeit not that much, I still fail to be convinced. I’m more convinced by the idea that too many young people (and not so young people) are faced with a dearth of opportunities to use their educations–whether they went the massive debt route or not.

            The societal lie was that if you go to school, you have some guarantee of employment at rates better than a diploma, and can pay off/ “make back” the funds you invested. This, as opposed to someone else who is content to get grease under their nails working at Midas Muffler. The lie was not that if you take out a loan to keep your hands clean, you won’t eventually have to pay it back.

            Yes, this means the education-evasion game is biased in favor of the upper middle classes, like everything else, and that due to the economy and declining value of degrees, indebted students are doubly stuck. But, let’s not pretend we’re suddenly stupid when we’re faced with this.

            This issue is stuck at a poor level of analysis.

  11. Hugh

    Great piece. Much of what Michael Hudson proposes we have discussed here.

    We don’t all have to be on the same page as long as we are all moving in the same general direction. Take OWS for example. I look on it that they are doing their thing just as I am doing mine. They’re not the same but we are moving the same way. And that way depends upon a rejection of the two corporatist parties, but more than that the whole direction the country is heading. I mean for how many years is it that poll after poll says that the vast majority of Americans think we are heading in the wrong direction? The Tea party was a first effort but it failed for a variety of reasons. OWS is the next effort. The core realization that anchors it and gives it its power is just that, the country is heading in the wrong direction. It has become something that none of us signed up for. It does address or even acknowledge us or our needs. The country is no longer about us, the 99%. This land is your land, this land is my land, well, not anymore. We have become renters and serfs, and our lives simply don’t mean anything to those in power.

    It is going to take huge and massive changes to return the country to we the people. And the elites, the rich, the powers that be will resist us every step of the way. This will be a fight to the death because they will not have it any other way. Their wealth, prestige, and power depend now on crushing us.

    We have been in a pre-revolutionary phase for some time. That is when the elites cease to govern and give themselves over to looting, and the critical element, they become incapable of reforming themselves or being reformed by the people. Quite simply it is going to take a revolution to remove our existing elites from power and make the changes that need to be made. This is not something we should shun but embrace, remembering that our country was founded in revolution and that many of our greatest heroes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams were themselves revolutionaries. What they created was imperfect and they knew it but it was still worthwhile. We are at a crossroads where revolution is again necessary. What we create will also be imperfect, but what we can all hope for is that, for a time, it too will be worthwhile.

    1. patricia

      How can we have a “correcting” revolution when our citizenry has such meager understanding and knowledge ? Even the supposed “simple facts” delivered by our media is inadequate and heavily biased, and most of us still believe what we hear/read there. These days, we generally consider “education” to be merely something that will get their employer to hire them.

      I ask seriously. I realize that revolutions come when they come. But I worry about a revolution carried out before a percentage of the populace has understanding of basic issues. I wish we could redo NPR and PBS (or something like them), so that there is an easy simple way for citizenry to access more accurate information/learning.

    2. financial matters

      Michael Hudson is spot-on as usual. Need any more be said..

      “”The government itself has become more indebted, most recently by the $13 trillion in new debt printed and given to the banks to make sure that no financial gambler need suffer a loss. At the same time the Obama administration did this, it claimed that a generation in the future, the Social Security system may be $1 trillion in deficit. And that, Mr. Obama says, would cause a crisis – and not leave enough to continue subsidizing his leading campaign contributors””



    MH: One of the easiest and least radical is set up a public option for banking. Instead of relying on Bank of America or Citibank for credit cards, the government would set up a bank and offer credit cards, check clearing and bank transfers at cost.

    The idea throughout the nineteenth century was to create this kind of public option. There was a Post Office bank, and that could still be elaborated to provide banking services at cost or at a subsidized price

    The situation in Europe is not so stark. That is, there is the overwhelming presence in the credit-card service of Mastercharge and Visa, but no one bank profits directly.

    There has not been, like the US, a situation where the regulators have become Rumpelstiltskin for the past twenty-years. Banks are compete for their clientèle and to do so have branched off into offering not only insurance but telephony.

    There is even a Post Office Bank, with a bank teller in each large town in France. Their automatic tellers are the cheapest manner in which to obtain cash or transact other account business (like paying bills). And they are fail-proof, meaning difficult to crack.

    The micro-ship credit-card was invented in France and has become prevalent. (I saw the first mock-up of the circuit in mid-1980s.) I suspect that the technology take-up has been faster here than in the US – for instance, since there is far less use of checks in Europe.

    Europe is coming from a very heavy “public option” into a more competitive private enterprise option – just the opposite direction of the US. Public Options are effective, for instance in Health Care, where the nature of the service is such that a public service is necessary to assure its accessibility at a fair cost – which is not the case in the US.

    Let’s remember that public utilities were established at the very beginning of any technological innovation – like railways, electricity generation and airlines. Meaning their oversight was very heavily regulated by the authorities – even to the point of dictating pricing.

    But as the technologies become universal, then private enterprise is necessary in order to assure competitive pricing. DSL is the most recent example where a public utility (Internet access) was let too early to become privatized (with the break-up of Ma Bell), which “cartelizes” its offering. Companies go profit cherry-picking and rural areas suffer for lack of service since they are not immediately profitable.

  13. Jessica

    I think our analysis of the problem needs to go one step farther. Where did the rentier economy come from? How is it that the rentiers of finance, insurance, and real estate came to dominate?
    There are two roots we must address.
    1) Monopolies even in productive industry. Even before FIRE took power, the core of our economy was dominated by companies who strove not to win in competition, but to avoid competition. Running a monopoly either actually is rent collection or close enough to serve as preparation for rent collection. The fact that the transition from monopoly industry to FIRE was so seamless tells us something important.
    Natural monopolies need to be regulated like utilities used to be. Unnatural monopolies need to be broken up.
    2) Intellectual property
    Much of intellectual property is used for rent collection and this fact warps the knowledge that is produced.
    One obvious step is to change copyrights and patents so that knowledge producers are guaranteed fair compensation when their products are used, but they are not granted a monopoly that they can use to prevent competition and collect rent.
    Very simple, we need an economy in which we reward producers and there are no large opportunities for rent collection anywhere.


      Natural monopolies need to be regulated like utilities used to be. Unnatural monopolies need to be broken up.

      True enough, but that decision is made by a court.

      Microsoft got off the hook because a first court had found the company guilty of domination of a monopolistic position in the market. The higher court let them off the hook.

      Such a change of sentiment can only come from political perspective and the Republicans have been successful at changing the complexion of the American judiciary.

      Neat trick that … and it works.

  14. F. Beard

    The rent collectors typically have to pay rent too, to the ultimate rentiers – the government backed usury and counterfeiting cartel, our banking system.

    1. psychohistorian

      That is great F. Beard.

      Now lets take your logic one step further please and thank you….

      Who owns those banks you are referring to?

      Could it be the global inherited rich I keep wanting to laugh into rooms at the Hague?

      1. F. Beard

        I don’t disagree. Banking has long been the tool of the rich, royalty and ambitious wanna-bees including many today.

        However, the ability of the banks to extract wealth depends on government privileges such as a lender of last resort, government deposit insurance, legal tender laws for private debts and the capital gains tax on potential private money alternatives.

        It is the banks that need to be laughed out of our lives. We need to allow non-usury money forms.

        1. F. Beard

          I left out government borrowing. That is a big gift of a risk-free return to the rich and banks.

          Hamilton promoted the national debt as a means to tie the interests of the rich to the new government.

          Fascist much?


      the government backed usury and counterfeiting cartel, our banking system.

      Develop this line with fact, because it is not intuitively evident.

      In fact, there’s little to it except emotional “victimization” nonsense.

      1. F. Beard

        Develop this line with fact, because it is not intuitively evident. LAFAYETTE

        Government backed counterfeiting:
        Banks because of various government privileges such as government borrowing (unnecessary for government), a lender of last resort (actually counterfeiter of last resort), government deposit insurance, legal tender laws for private debt (Say what?!) and the capital gains tax on potential private money alternatives such as common stock have the ability to create new temporary money -so-called “credit” – in exchange for a promise to repay that “credit”.

        Any interest charge for money is usury; it need no be “excessive”. See Deuteronomy 23:19-20.

        In fact, there’s little to it except emotional “victimization” nonsense. LAFAYETTE

        Well now you know better.

  15. Jessica

    “So diagnosis is the most important tactic.”
    Public discourse is prostituted and polluted. It has been increasingly so since the start of mass advertising and PR in the 1920s. We are so accustomed to being inundated by paid-for bullshit that we take it for granted.
    The moment we notice and stop tolerating the many forms of paid-for untruth will be very powerful. The world is going to look so very different to us.
    This includes not only the obvious and crude forms such as advertising and contributor-driven politics, but also sponsored research, the prostitution of large parts of the academic world (Step 1: abolish Economics and start over from scratch), and the prostitution of our culture through product endorsements. Information needs to stop being a weapon and start being a tool for cooperation, for self-organization (which temporary host Lambert Strether is constantly emphasizing).

    If this does not seem crucial to you, then stop and consider that at the core of the multiple financial meltdowns were people using misinformation and secrecy. Part of why we can not begin to recover is that no one, not even the malefactors themselves, can find out who is holding what kind of worthless paper.
    We can not run an information-centered economy on bullshit.

  16. Richard Kline

    So Michael: “The Occupy Wall Street movement has many similarities with what used to be called the Great Awakening periods in America.” I absolutely agree with that observation. These movements are recurrent in American history, that is they are predictable in their timing if broadly. They are structurally predictable in the dimensions of their critique too, even beyond what you describe here. I’ve been waiting for this turn of the helix for years.

    The same structure of recurrence is inherent in other populations. The particulars of the socio-cultural spectrum which are emphasized in others varies depending upon the local history, so to speak. Phasings vary between populations too even if all such oscillations function in the same way. I’d hope to an analysis of this kind of historical function done by the time, such as this, it would be useful, but that isn’t the case.

    1. Richard Kline

      Michael: “Fifty years ago an old socialist told me that revolutions happen when people just get tired of being afraid.” That’s half right and wholly true. In the social and personal sense I agree completely, and I think a case can be made for this position looking at the specific social contexts of revolutionary events. From the macro perspective though, people don’t ‘get tired’ on a random schedule. Cross-comparing revolutions most occur at distinct phases of ongoing recurrent oscillations; there are exceptions but in the may the conclusion I just advanced is sustatinable. That goes back to the recurrence of ‘Awakenings,’ these occur most often in specific phases of ongoing trajectories.

      On the emotional level though I really like the quote.

    2. Richard Kline

      An outstanding all round summary, Michael. It’s the debt-rent system: all facets of the problem and all aspects of a solution build out from that central axis.

  17. andrew hartman

    there are two groups of 1 per centers in this country: the wealthy and the comic
    book marxists that seem to love this site. both have nothing to offer any

    1. Richard Kline

      Hey just fine andrew: We’ll cancel our debts to you, and being good sports we’ll cancel your debts to us. Then we’ll see who’s laughing.

    2. psychohistorian

      Hey Andrew, calling us comic book marxists is sort of like Karl Rove recently calling the Occupy folks fascist, isn’t it?

      Both are the brain farts of supporters of our collapsing social system, IMO

      Call us anything you want and continue to ignore the class system within which you try and define your “enlightened” capitalistic system going forward…..GFL with that.

  18. Jonus

    “The government itself has become more indebted, most recently by the $13 trillion in new debt printed and given to the banks to make sure that no financial gambler need surfer a loss.” HUH????? What does surfing have to do with this and what $13 trillion is he talking about?

  19. Thomas McGovern

    The US had no personal income tax until 1913. That’s the same year that the Federal Reserve System came into existence and I don’t think their common beginnings are coincidental. I suggest abolishing the income tax altogether and replacing it with an annual fee assessed to anyone residing in the US, citizen or other.

    The fee would be the same for everyone. This would conform, as the current system does not, with the constitutional principle of equal protection under the law. If equal protection under the law means anything, it must mean equal protect from the depredations of government. After all, the purpose of the Bill of Rights is to protect the citizens against the excesses of government power.

    How much would this fee be? That’s easy. Divide the budget by the number of fee payers and that number is the amount paid by each fee payer.

    This system would save taxpayers the hundreds of billions of $ it currently takes for them to comply with the tax system. It would end the envy, resentment, and class warfare currently used by the politicians and their toadies in the media to keep the people fighting among themselves. It would end the influence of lobbyists in Washington on income tax legislation since there would be no income tax. It would end the bribing and other corruption of legislators in regard to the income tax. Then, we could all focus our political energies on what the federal government spends.

    1. F. Beard

      Nice try but so long as the so-called “creditworthy” have the benefit of a government enforced usury and counterfeiting cartel then they should pay for it.

      I’m all for a level playing field but that requires:

      1) Abolishing the government backed counterfeiting cartel.

      2) Bailing out the entire population, including savers, equally from all debt to the cartel.

    2. Hugh

      You’re seriously suggesting a flat tax as a means to end wealth inequality/class warfare? What are you smoking?

    3. F. Beard

      As for the Income Tax, that is doable even with genuine private currencies since every private currency of consequence will have a free market exchange rate with fiat.

      It is the capital gains tax that must be abolished since debasement of the money that it is measured with causes phony capital gains to be registered.





    DO IT

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