(Week 10 - Wednesday, Oct. 1)
If one understands the imperative imposed by the private-bank-loan transaction by which our money is created and issued (for participants in the economy in the aggregate to go continuously deeper into "debt"), then the run up to the current financial crisis by can be readily discerned by tracking the major economic swings of the last three decades.
The early stages of the dismantling of the manufacturing base, the Vietnam War, the OPEC oil embargo, the prohibitively high "interest" rates of Paul Volker's tenure as Fed chairman, the "stagflation" of the '70's, and feelings of impotence engendered by the Iranian hostage crisis left the nation with a crisis of confidence that inhibited the people's ability and willingness to borrow money from the banking system.
In the 1980 election, the nation turned to a "conservative" President in the person of Ronald Reagan to reign in the "reckless liberal spending" supposedly at cause for the economic "malaise" of the Carter years, and get the Federal budget back in balance. The Reagan administration responded by racking up record deficits, in the name of a war of course (albeit a "cold war"). Whatever the ideological contradictions, the Reagan era deficits caused massive amounts of new money to be injected into circulation. In the short term this stimulus did work, as the infusion of "debt"-money into the economy (along with Reagan's personable, upbeat demeanor) restored "confidence" in the future, and the citizenry themselves started to make the trek to the bank.
This mood of national self-assurance continued to swell as the U.S. "won" the Cold War, and the Iron Curtain came down. Moreover, with our main enemy no longer on the scene the nation could anticipate an economic "peace dividend". Moderate "economic growth" in the private sector was augmented by another shot of government borrowing as the country was roused to finance the Persian Gulf War during the first Bush administration. As a result, the people of the nation felt relatively flush with cash, and optimistic about the future. This encouraged even higher levels of private borrowing that effectively allowed the government to step down as the engine of "debt"-money creation at the beginning of the Clinton years.
The corporate-inspired economic impetus of the '90's was the development of financial vehicles and training of the public mindset to encourage consumers to go into perpetual "debt". The monetary culture shifted, and hardly anyone paid for anything anymore. The new byword was "cash flow". If one could make the payments on something, one could have it. "Innovative" financial vehicles, from credit cards, to student loans, to financial derivatives, to stock and bond portfolios, to easy credit over the Internet were aggressively promoted. More and more, people leased their cars and other durable goods, or financed them over greatly extended periods. Home mortgages were artificially inflated by the lending practices of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac against their speculative prospects for being cashed in later at higher prices, as opposed to being paid for in proportion to their utility as dwellings at prevailing wages.
The net result was that for the decade of the '90's, the private sector took on so much new "debt" that it was able to service the overall principal and "interest" payments attached to the money supply, and the government could step down from its roll as the principle bank-money borrower for the economy. This made for a period of "economic growth" (i.e. private "debt" expansion) when most government agencies (Federal, state and local) did not have to resort to "deficit spending" to balance their budgets.
Politicians of the Clinton years boasted about how good the economy was on their watch, and how the "deficit" was finally being brought under control. They made every effort to take credit for the supposed good news, but in actuality they were merely riding a wave they did not understand. Meanwhile, the economy when considered as a whole, public and private combined, continued to slip into "debt" at an undiminished pace.
Alas, the period of reduced "Federal deficits" could not last. The ability and willingness of people in the private sector to take on ever greater quantities of "debt" was largely exhausted. By the time the second Bush Presidency came along another major impetus for "debt" creation had to be found. This appeared in the form of the political will that coalesced around the "war-on-terror" that followed 9/11, and the renewed round of government borrowing that tragic event has initiated.
With the number of "debt" dollars circulating on which "interest" payments needed to be made increasing at an ever faster pace, and even government borrowing for a domestic "war on terror" and foreign wars in the Middle East was not proving to be sufficient to keep the "debt" bubble pumped up, especially given the economic slowdown of the last few years in the private sector.
Then came the housing collapse, first in the sub-prime arena, and now the prime. This has sent shock waves out to other areas of the economy, which are now entering into their own precipitous declines as well.
It became evident that the monetary system could be kept from collapsing only by the government borrowing yet more money and effectively passing it out, with the hope that any political backlash against such bald-faced "debt" creation would be muted by the calming effect of people receiving checks in the mail (which, evidently, was a correct assessment); hence the recent "rebates" sent out to all taxpayers.
It was still not enough. Public confidence is waning quickly, and the "debt" numbers are piling up. So, what is the answer to this crisis that the leadership in Washington has come up with? What else could it be but to borrow at "interest" yet more money from the banking system to redeposit in the banking system, thereby shoring up the collapsing fractional reserve formula? Now they are proposing a $700 billion dollar "bailout" scheme for the speculative financial industry.
Where will this end? The answer is that it won't; not so long, that is, as the private-debt-money system remains in place. There are myriad possible scenarios as to how this crisis could play out, but none that might occur within the context of the present system are, in my view, anything less than catastrophic.
This is doubly tragic because a return to a public monetary system could allow the situation to turn around quickly, and the economy be put on a sound and understandable basis in relatively short order.
The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites: