Debt hysteria is undoubtedly the most disgusting, lie-infested scam since George W. Bush launched his propaganda blitz leading up to the unprovoked invasion of Iraq. Like the Bush offensive, the debt scam has drawn public attention away from the critical issues facing the world - especially working people - at this critical moment. Unlike the Bush-era deceptions, debt hysteria has thoroughly infected policy throughout the world.
It is a supreme irony that the debt fears now provoked by government deficits are construed as excessive, while the decades of growth of personal debt and speculative debt in the private sector were seen as benign. Where all government debt grew roughly 8.5 times from 1978 to 2008, US mortgage debt grew 11.5 times, non-financial business debt grew by over 10 times, and debt in the financial sector by nearly 50 times! (Estimates from Epic Recession: Prelude to Global Depression, Jack Rasmus, p. 33) Yet few alarms were triggered as these vast sums of debt served to sustain and grow the profit margins of monopoly corporations. As long as the debt energized profit taking, the level of indebtedness was of no consequence. All of this changed – or should have changed – after the mountains of debt accumulated in the financial sector collapsed, bringing the global economy to its knees two years ago.
It is equally ironic that a quasi-governmental body – the Federal Reserve – pumped, with no transparency, $9 trillion in loans into the private sector to rescue corporations from the consequences of their collapsing debt load, as recent revelations have shown. We now know that the private sector, primarily the financial industry, hung by a slender thread thanks to years of promiscuous borrowing to fuel scandalously risky speculation.
Despite this indictment of private sector abuse of debt, policy makers have offered few guarantees that private sector debt will not again paralyze the global economy. Nor is there any hysterical concern over private debt with the opinion makers who protest so loudly over public sector debt.
US Debt: A Dose of Terrorism
With the federal deficit reaching $1.5 trillion in 2010, it is understandable that some would react to the figure with alarm. It is formidable figure, but what does it mean?
Actually, it means very little. There have been Federal budgets that have shown more percentage growth of the deficit or more growth against other measures such as GDP. Some of these budgets have correlated with good times, some with bad times. There is no strict relationship between budgetary frugality or generosity and prosperity.
Some deficits have resulted from reduced tax revenues, some from leaps in government spending. Interestingly, some of the biggest recent boosts in government spending – the great sin of debt scolds – have occurred under the Presidential stewardship of professed archenemies of deficits (Reagan, Bush I, Bush II).
Without exploring the details of government spending, there is no factual basis for alarm with the absolute or relative size of a Federal deficit. In the case of the current deficit, there are good reasons to examine why the US deficit is growing. As Jeff Madrick points out (NY Review of Books, 12-23-10), “…almost all of the projected deficit through 2020 will be the result of three factors: the recession, the tax cuts of the early 2000s under George W. Bush, and the hundreds of billions of dollars of war spending.” I would add that the continued growth of the costs of private medical services passed on to the public sector also adds substantially to these projections. All are social evils worthy of attacking, but not because they add to the deficit.
Other liberal economists, like Dean Baker and James K. Galbraith, have demonstrated loudly and conclusively why there are no theoretical reasons to fear an expanding Federal deficit or higher levels of public debt (apart from state and municipal budgets that are limited statutorily to balancing revenues and expenditures). They vigorously dispute the inappropriate parallel with family budgets and the catastrophic consequences of individuals spending more than they make. The Federal government does not endure the pain of the profligate neighbor who runs the credit card to the limit. Instead, the Federal government can borrow extensively through the sales of Treasury securities, particularly at a time when interest rates are at an historic low. Moreover, the Federal Reserve’s QE2 program is currently attempting to drive those interest rates down further through $600 billion in Treasury purchases, but with a different goal in mind.
Sane people will find no plausible explanation for the intensifying debt scare in the US, beyond political manipulation. And crude political manipulation it is: a ruse akin to the hysteria generated by the “war on terrorism.” With fear piled upon fear, politicians and policy makers are exploiting the ensuing panic to vigorously attack both the already inadequate safety net and working class living standards.
Political elites and their minions have taken to heart the slogan “every crisis presents an opportunity” by turning it on its head through a campaign of disinformation and fear mongering. Instead of taking up the cause of the twenty-five million unemployed and underemployed, they have seized the moment to impose even greater hardships on the vast majority of US citizens.
It took very little to rouse President Obama and his Administration to join the baying dogs of debt hysteria. With the creation of the Bowles-Simpson Debt Commission, he embraced the hypocrisy of debt terrorism. And his recent freezing of the wages and salaries of Federal workers justified by deficit concerns only underlines both his dishonesty and his callousness. His sharp right turn from his already right leanings should chasten those still star-struck with “change that you can believe in…” And those who still posture Obama as a progressive champion should be boiled in oil. His recent agreement to establish a NAFTA-clone trade pact with Korea has stirred great anger in the upper echelons of the AFL-CIO, the same labor leaders who hailed his pledge to revisit NAFTA and make it more labor-friendly.
The plain and simple truth is that the debt hysteria has no sound basis in economic theory or experience. Instead, it is a political ploy to raise fears to justify imposing austerity on workers, youth, minorities and the elderly. Its quick and ready acceptance by opinion makers demonstrates a callous dishonesty.
European Debt: Plundering the Weak
The European debt fears that have brought panic to the EU leaders and a wave of austere budget cuts has a real villain, but it’s not the profligate spending and big deficits that the media shrilly reports. Instead, it is hedge fund managers and a motley crew of other powerful financial pirates – Barron’s magazine cleverly calls them “bond vigilantes” -who understand the dynamics of international debt markets and prey on the weakest players. The wondrous thing about the new financial instruments devised in the late-twentieth century is that they allow and invite as much or more money to be made betting on failure as betting on success. Moreover, the financial predators have the weight in the market to force panic and reap profit from the chaos they produce.
These vultures ply on the fact that the weaker economies in the European Union are caught in a deadly vise: they owe much of their debt to foreign banks and they have surrendered monetary powers by replacing their sovereign currencies with the euro. First, Greece came under fire beginning in the fall of 2009 with a massive campaign driving the cost of insuring debt and acquiring loans. Of course these pessimistic bets further stressed Greece’s ability to muster funds, leading to even further aggression on the part of vulture capitalism through even more pessimistic bets against Greece’s ability to repay debt. And thus the noose tightened around the Greek economy.
As a result, Greece was forced to surrender its sovereignty and economy to the leaders of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. In return for loans and guarantees that dispersed the vultures, the EU and IMF dictated an austerity program that drastically lowered the standard of living of the Greek people. Only the most militant sector of the Greek working class – the Communist Party and PAME – offered any real alternative to this devastating aggression.
The debt vultures turned next to Ireland later in 2010: same process, same result. With the EU and IMF now effectively ruling Ireland, the already shrunken Irish public sector is further squeezed with a drastic cut in jobs and public services piled onto an existing unemployment rate of 14%.
With the Greek and Irish carcasses picked clean, the aggressors are turning to Portugal, another country carrying debt and hamstrung by the acceptance of the euro as its national currency. And Spain - perhaps even Italy – is vulnerable to future attack.
In an unusually candid admission, The Wall Street Journal wrote of this insidious process in late November (Traders’ Targets: Portugal and Spain). Author Cassell Bryan-Low concedes that “hedge-fund managers are cautiously setting their sights on potential problems in countries such as Portugal and Spain…[T]hey are expecting more bad news to come, predicting that borrowing costs elsewhere will become prohibitive, potentially forcing other countries to also seek a bailout or restructure their debt.” Bryan-Low notes that some traders are a bit gun-shy because “the notion of betting against Europe’s peripheral economies has… become an emotional topic amid debate whether such moves have contributed to those countries financial woes…” Some officials “have called for the banning of certain instruments, such as derivatives…” Several fund managers are cited who confirm “bearish bets” on Spanish debt, with one stating ominously, “I don’t think those issues are going to go away, which is why the euro is going to stay under pressure.” The carnage continues…
Vulture capitalism preys on countries outside of the euro-zone as well. As I have shown previously (IMF Debt Hypocrisy: Sticking it to the Hungarians http://zzs-blg.blogspot.com/2010/08/imf-debt-hypocrisy-sticking-it-to.html), the game is really not about reducing deficits or debt levels, but about imposing the will of international capital on vulnerable countries and hammering the conditions of life for working people. When the Hungarian government proposed raising taxes on banks to reduce the deficit, their international overseers became hysterical - threatening repercussions - despite the fact that Hungary would meet the targets set by the IMF. It was not defiance of debt-reduction goals that brought on censure, but the refusal to put the burden on the Hungarian people.
Since the article, the defiant Hungarian government has pledged to lower personal taxes and boost welfare spending while increasing taxes on banks, telecommunications, retail businesses and energy companies, to raise revenue by $2 billion. This defiance has brought on a severe downgrading of Hungary’s credit rating to near junk status by Moody’s credit rating service. The prime minister’s office bluntly, but accurately, characterized this move as a response to “measures that hurt the interests of international capital in the short term” as reported in the back pages of the WSJ (12-7-10). So there is another path to debt management, but one would never know it from the actions of the cowardly governments that rule in the rest of Europe. Instead, they surrender their national sovereignty with a whimper.
Today, the capitalist class leads with the debt card in its efforts to discipline and dominate the working class. The failure to understand this strategy disarms working people caught in the throes of a new offensive in the class struggle. Just as we exposed the hypocrisy of George W. Bush’s contrived invasion of Iraq, we must bring light on the hypocrisy and deceit of the debt scare.