(Week 19 - Friday, Dec. 19)
The operating premise of the "debt-money" system is that money is created when a banker "writes a check" against no funds (i.e. "out of thin air") to a "borrower" (i.e. private individual, corporate entity or civic body) when they bring into the bank some form of collateral (already possessed tangible property) as "security" for the "loan."
The need to continuously borrow more money into circulation creates an ongoing necessity to put up ever greater amounts of collateral. This leads to resorting to less substantive forms of collateral, until its realizable cash value becomes more uncertain. Eventually it is perceived as fictitious, at which point confidence in its value collapses. Then people stop borrowing, banks stop lending, and the economy enters a precipitous contraction (as it has at present). In the last column I describe the stages of this degradation of collateralization as follows:
Commensurate collateralization - The loan is within the bounds of a realistic valuation of the property put up as collateral.
Inflated collateralization - The loan is beyond the bounds of a realistic valuation of the property put up as collateral.
Paper collateralization - The loan is not secured by tangible wealth, but by the liens or "debt" paper written against such.
Phantasmic collateralization - The loan is no longer secured by even the pretense of existent wealth or wealth creation, but rather by the illusions of the socio/political/financial culture that invariably emerges to justify a "debt"-based monetary regime.
To this list enumerated in the last column I would add:
"Debt"-creation collateralization – The loan is no longer secured by anything, except the ability to create more "debt-money" in the future.
In a certain sense, this has been the effective logic behind the "debt-based" system all along. There is, for all practical purposes, never enough money in circulation for people to clear their "debts." This is true whether the grade of collateralization generally offered is commensurate, inflated, paper, phantasmic or simply "debt"-creation collateralization. In fact, regardless of the quality of collateralization, the "debt" numbers compound-on in essentially the same mathematical progression. Strictly speaking, the continuation of the monetary game does not depend upon there being real goods behind it (no one ever stuffs goods into an envelope and sends them off to the bank when a payment is due), but only that there are registered somewhere (these days usually in cyberspace) in someone's name, sufficient monetary credits to satisfy the "loan" account. This process is by nature less about managing wealth than "keeping score." The reality is that the economy has come to resemble less-and-less a partnership between production and finance, and more-and-more a video game in which the enterprises are little more than names and logos.
Recently I spent a day with a stock market "day trader" (freelancer). He works in a room surrounded by an impressive wrap-around array of computer screens that alerts him to fast-moving trends amongst thousands of stocks being traded, and displays virtually every parameter of interest in real time. What the software is looking for is movement in the market (up or down), because that is where a trader makes his money. I can only describe what I witnessed as lightening-fast, high-stakes video gambling.
It is hard to imagine that it is humanly impossible for anyone to know enough about any more than a tiny fraction of these firms being traded to make considered decisions based on their actual physical and human realities. Essentially, they are just names, names and more names. It is hard to tell from most of them even the nature of the enterprise they are engaged in. After what has happened with GM, Ford and Chrysler, it might be fairly asked whether it would make much difference even if one did.
For a sense of this, I would invite the reader to spend some time watching the major stock market shows on TV (I find CNBC to be the best example). The screen is filled continuously with a multitude of rapidly-moving names, numbers and graphics that I cannot imagine a viewer (even a stock broker) relating to meaningfully in a real-world way.
Nonetheless, the video game goes on, and hundreds of billions of new dollars are being rapidly pumped into it. Essentially, it has taken off on its own, and left the real economy behind. The monetary system has demonstrated an astounding ability to continue on its dizzying way literally as a game (as can a good game of Monopoly, whether Board Walk and Park Place even exist or not). This is not an absolute statement, of course, but it conveys too much truth to call it a metaphor.
This raises some fundamental questions. How long can the monetary economy persist and grow as a numbers game, while leaving real people behind to survive any way they can? What are the implications of an economic order where essential correlation between productive enterprise and finance is lost? How long can this "debt" continue to compound? What kind of new socio/political/economic order is this leading to? Will civilization continue? It would be easy to write a lengthy analysis exploring each of these and many other conundrums, but I believe that they would not arrive at any definitive answers. We live in an unprecedented time, and there are no models from the past that will tell us how this will all work out. I fear, though, that the end will not be well if we let ourselves drift without coming to a conscious mastery over money.
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The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites.