Tag Archives: quantitative easing

the price of everything

The following article is Chapter Nine of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting chapter by chapter throughout this year. Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.

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When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession — as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life — will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease…”

John Maynard Keynes 1

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Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be rich? Here I don’t just mean well-off, with a paltry few tens of millions in the bank, I mean proper rich – megabucks! So much money that, as I heard one comedian put it (aiming his joke squarely at the world’s richest entrepreneur), if Bill Gates were to stuff all his cash under the mattress, then due to interest alone, if he fell out of bed he’d never hit the ground!

I suppose what I’m wondering is this – and perhaps you’ve found yourself thinking along similar lines – why are these super-rich guys always so intent on accruing ever greater wealth when they already possess more than enough funds to guarantee the needs of a small country. Think about it this way: Gates and the others are, barring a few very necessary legal constraints, completely at liberty to do whatever they choose at every moment of every day. They can eat the best food, drink the most delicious vintage wines, smoke the finest cigars, play golf morning, noon, and evening, and then after the sun goes down, and if it is their wont, have liaison with the most voluptuous women (or men) available. Quite literally, they have means to go anywhere and do everything to their heart’s content and all at a moment’s notice. Just imagine that. So why be bothering about sales at all? I mean wouldn’t you eventually get bored of simply accumulating more and more money when you’ve already got so much – and let’s face it, money itself is pretty boring stuff. So just what is it that keeps them all going after it? After all, there are only so many swimming pools, grand pianos, swimming pools in the shape of grand pianos, Aston Martins, Lear Jets, and acreages of real estate that one man (or woman) can profitably use (in the non-profit-making sense obviously). Economists would call this the law of diminishing marginal utility, although in this instance it is basic common sense.2

Presented with evidence of this kind, some will say that here is further proof of the essential greediness of human beings. That, as a species, we are simply never satisfied until we have the lot. Fine then, let us take on this modern variant of original sin, since it certainly holds more than a grain of truth. For the sake of argument, we might presume that all men and women are greedy to an almost limitless extent. That this is truly the natural order, from our conception having been evolutionarily programmed to grab as much as we can for ourselves – our most primeval reflex being to snatch.

So I shall not waste too much time here. Only to say that I do not find such unrestrained cupidity within the circles of people with whom I have chosen to associate, most being happy enough to share out the peanuts and fork out for the next round of beers, quite oblivious to outcomes in terms of commensurate returns. What comes around goes around… There is, of course, no doubting that most folks will, very naturally, if opportunity arises, take good advantage to feather their own nests. Making life a little more comfortable for themselves, and reserving the ample share of their fortune for their immediate family and closest friends. But then, why not…? Charity begins at home, right?

What most don’t do (at least in the circles I know best) is devote their whole lives to the narrow utilitarian project outlined above. And why? Because, though quite understandably, money and property are greatly prized assets, they offer lesser rewards than companionship and love. And, in any case, pure generosity is its own reward – and I do mean “is”, and not “has” or “brings” – the reward being an inseparable part of the act itself: a something received as it was given, like a hug, like a kiss. That said, if you still prefer to believe that we are all to a man, woman and child, innately and incurably selfish and greedy, then next time you take a look into the mirror, do consider those all-too beady eyes staring back. It’s very easy to generalise about mankind when you forget to count yourself in.

But if not intractably a part of human nature, then we must find other reasons to account for how our world is nevertheless so horribly disfigured by rampant and greedy exploitation. For if greed is not an inherently human trait, and here I mean greed with a capital Grrr, then this monomaniacal obsession is all too frequently acquired, especially in those who approach the top of the greasy pole. There is an obvious circularity in this, of course. That those whose progress has depended upon making a buck, very often become addicted. As money-junkies, they, like other addicts, then prioritise their own fix above all else. Whether or not these types are congenitally predisposed to becoming excessively greedy, we have no way of knowing. What we can be certain of is this: that by virtue of having acquired such great wealth, they disproportionately shape the environment they and we live in. So they are not merely money-junkies, but also money-pushers. If you’re not a money-junkie then you don’t know what you’re missing. There’s nothing new in this. This is the way the world has been for many centuries, and perhaps ever since money was first invented.

So here’s Oscar Wilde addressing the same questions about money and our unhealthy relationship to it; his thoughts leaping more than a century, during which time very little has apparently changed:

“In a community like ours, where property confers immense distinction, social position, honour, respect, titles, and other pleasant things of this kind, man, being naturally ambitious, makes it his aim to accumulate this property, and goes on wearily and tediously accumulating it long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy, or perhaps even know of. Man will kill himself by overwork in order to secure property, and really, considering the enormous advantages that property brings, one is hardly surprised. One’s regret is that society should be constructed on such a basis that man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him – in which, in fact, he misses the true pleasure of joy and living.”3

Embedded below is a recent interview [from December 2013] Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges gave on “The Real News” in which he talked about – based to a large extent on his own personal experience – how the super rich are isolated and disconnected from the rest of society. He explains how this creates a deluded sense of entitlement and a pathological callousness:

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Isn’t money funny stuff! Funny peculiar, I mean. We just take it so much for granted, almost as though it were a natural substance (disappointingly, of course, it doesn’t actually grow on trees). But when we do think about it, money has far stranger properties than anything in the natural world. And our relationship to it is more peculiar than our relationship to almost anything else.

Money, that’s what I want… sang the Beatles on one of their less celebrated tracks. But the truth will out. So just why did the Beatles want money, and, for that matter, why do I, and why do you? It doesn’t work, you can’t eat it, and it’s not, of a rule, a thing of special beauty. Money is absolutely useless in fact, right until you decide to swap it for what you actually want.

Money can’t buy me love, true again, but it might buy me a chocolate bar. Because money is really just a tool, a technology: a highly specialised kind of lubricant, that enables people to exchange their goods and services with greater ease and flexibility. The adoption of a money system enabling levels of parity for otherwise complex exchanges to be quickly agreed and settled. The great thing about money being, to provide a concrete illustration, that although £1 of tinned herring is probably equivalent to about thirty seconds of emergency plumbing (if you’re lucky), you won’t require crates of herring to pay for the call-out. So far so simple.

Except wait. We all know how the price of herring can go up as well as down, and likewise for the price of emergency plumbers. So why such a dynamic relationship? Well, there’s “the market”, a price-fixing system that arises spontaneously, regulating the rates of exchange between goods and services on the basis of supply adjusting to match demand. Thus by a stroke of good fortune, we find that money is not merely a lubricant for exchange, but also regulatory of useful production and services. This, at least, is the (widely accepted) theory.

Prices rise and fall in accordance with demand. Things that are in short supply become expensive, things that are abundant are cheaper. This is basic economic theory and it means, amongst other things, that in every transaction the “real value” of your money is actually relative, for the simple reason that the amount required depends not only on what you’re after, but also upon whether or not other people are after the same kind of thing. Money then, in terms of its “real value” to any individual or group, is something that is constantly varying. We might call this “the relativity of money”.

One consequence of the relative nature of money, is that the useful value of money overall can also rise and fall. It is possible that wholesale, retail and labour costs can all more or less rise or fall together, although the general tendency, as we all know from experience, is for overall rising costs. Indeed such “inflation” is regarded as normal and expected, and, as a consequence, it comes to seem just as natural as money itself. Yet since you always need more and more money to buy the same things then the value of your money must, in some important way, be constantly falling. But just why does money as a whole lose its value in this way? What makes yesterday’s money worth less than today’s? Well it turns out that this is a huge question and one that economists have argued long and hard about.

One partial account of inflation goes as follows: businesses and people in business are constantly looking for a little bit more. For how else can they maximise profits? In direct consequence, we, as customers, necessarily require more dosh to pay for the same goods or services. But to enlarge our budget, this automatically requires a commensurate increase in income, which means successfully negotiating for a larger salary. In the bigger picture then, the businesses supplying our wants and needs, are now needing to cover their larger wage-bills, which means higher prices to compensate. So prices and incomes rise together, with money becoming worth less and less precisely because everyone is trying to accumulate more and more of it. This endless tail-chasing escalation, which is given the fancy title of “the price/wage spiral”, serves as an excellent example of why money is really very odd stuff indeed.

And what is money in any case? The first traders most likely exchanged shells, precious stones, or other baubles to aid in bartering, but then naturally enough, over time these exchanges would have been formalised, agreements arising with regards to which objects and materials were most acceptable as currency. The material that became most widely accepted was eventually, of course, gold. But why gold? Well, no one actually knows but we can make some educated guesses.

Firstly, gold is scarce, and it is also rare in other ways – for instance, having a unique and unusual colour, which just happens to correspond to the colour of the Sun. The fact that it is almost chemically inert and so doesn’t tarnish, means that it also shines eternally, and so again is like the Sun. Indeed, Aldous Huxley, in Heaven and Hell (his sequel to The Doors of Perception) points out that almost every substance that humans have ever regarded as valuable shares this property of shininess. To Huxley this is evidence that even money owes it origins, in part at least, to a common spiritual longing. Our wish to own a precious piece of paradise.

But back to more mundane matters, if gold (or any other substance) is chosen as your currency, then there arises another problem. How to guarantee the quantity and quality of the gold in circulation? For if gold is worth faking or adulterating then it’s certain that somebody will try cheating.

Well, one answer could be the adoption of some kind of official seal, a hallmark, and this solution leads, naturally enough, to the earliest forms of coinage. But then, if the coins are difficult to counterfeit, why bother to make them out of gold in the first place? Just the official seal would be enough to ensure authenticity. And why bother with metal, which is bulky and heavy. So again it’s an obvious and logical leap to begin producing paper banknotes. The value of these coins and banknotes, although far less intrinsically valuable in material terms than the gold they represent, is still backed by the promise that they are redeemable into gold. But hang on, what’s so special about the gold anyway (aside from its shininess). And doesn’t the gold, which is now locked up in bullion reserves, in fact have real uses of its own? And doesn’t this mean that the gold also has a monetary value? So why not cut loose from the circularity and admit that the value of money can exist entirely independent from the gold or from any other common standard. Indeed, why couldn’t the issuing authority, which might be a government but is more often a central bank, simply make up a “legal tender”4 with no intrinsic or directly correlated value whatsoever and issue that? Not that the money issued need even correspond to the amount of real coins or paper banknotes in circulation – most of the world’s money being bits and bytes, ones and zeroes, orbiting out in cyber-space. Which brings us to just how funny money has now become.

The Pound Sterling, the various dollars, the Euro and every major currency on Earth are, to apply the correct terminology, “fiat currencies”5 With fiat currencies there is no parity to the value of any other commodities and so they are, if you like, new forms of gold. As such, and given their shifting relative values, these new fiat currencies can also be traded as another kind of commodity. Money, in the form of currency, becoming an investment in itself. Money is strange stuff indeed.

Yet money also remains as an instrument. And we use this instrument to measure just about everything. To establish the value of raw materials and manufactured items. The value of land and, by extension, the value of the space it occupies. The value of labour, and thus a value on the time used. And, since works of art are also bought and sold, money is even applied as a measure of such absolutely intangible qualities as beauty.

So money is basically a universally adaptable gauge, and this is its great strength. It is perhaps the big reason why its invention gradually caught on in such a fundamental way. From humble trading token, money has risen to become a primary measure of all things. But remember, remember… Money, whether fiat currency or gold standard, can never be real in the same way as tins of herring and plumbers are real, and neither is “monetary value” an absolute and intrinsic property, but only ever relative and acquired. Money, we ought to constantly remind ourselves (since we clearly need reminding) is nothing without us or without our highly structured civilisation – intrinsically, it is worthless. It is very strange stuff.

Perhaps the future benchmark for money will no longer be gold but ‘virtual gold’ in the form of cryptocurrencies – bitcoin being currently the most well-known of these. One advocate of these alternatives to traditional forms of money is financial expert Max Keiser. On February 3rd 2014, he spoke with coder, hacker and cryptocurrency specialist Andreas Antonopoulos about the regulation of bitcoin transactions; the advent of bitcoin derivatives, which he believes these are less of a threat than ordinary derivatives (a subject I’m coming to next); the fact that unlike gold, cryptocurrencies can be ‘teleported’; and a future in which bitcoin is used widely by businesses as much as by individuals. He says that a time is coming when the prevalent misgivings and doubts about bitcoin and other cryptos have long since been forgotten. Is he right? I don’t know and remain highly skeptical, but I find the debate an interesting one:

Incidentally, there are less radical and more tangible alternatives to the currencies we now have in circulation. “Treasury notes” are one such alternative and these have historical precedence in the form of both the American “greenback” and the UK’s Bradbury Pound. To read more about this and also for links to campaigns to reintroduce them please read the addendum at the end of the chapter.

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Little more than a century ago, and even in the richest corners of the world, there were no dependable mechanisms to safeguard against the vicissitudes of fortune. If you weren’t already poor and hungry (as most were), then you could rest assured that potential poverty and hunger were waiting just around the corner. Anyone with aspirations to scale the ladder to secure prosperity faced the almost insurmountable barriers of class and (a generally corresponding) lack of education. A lower class person of such ambitions would be very well aware that if they could step onto the ladder at all, there was very little in the way of protection to save them in the event of falling; errors of judgement or sheer misfortune resulting in almost certain and unmitigated personal disaster. This was the sorry situation for people at all levels of society aside from the highest echelons.

One tremendous advantage then, of living in a modern society, is that, aside from having slightly less restricted social mobility (not that we now live in the classless society we are told to believe in), there are basic safety nets in place, with additional protection that is optionally available. For those languishing at the bottom of the heap, there are the reliable though meagre alms provided through a welfare system, whilst for the ever-expanding middle classes there is plenty of extra cover in the form of saving schemes, pension schemes, and, in the event of the most capricious and/or calamitous of misfortunes, the ever-expanding option of insurance policies. If the Merchant of Venice had been set in today’s world then the audience would feel little sympathy for his predicament. Why had he ventured on such a risk in the first place, casting his fortune adrift on dangerous waters? Why hadn’t he protected his assets by seeking independent financial advice and taking out some preferential cover? It’s a duller story altogether.

Systems for insurance are essential in any progressive civilisation. Protection against theft, against damage caused by floods, fires and other agents of destruction, and against loss of life and earnings. Having insurance means that we can all relax a bit, quite a lot, in fact. But it also means that, alongside the usual commodities, there’s another less tangible factor to be costed and valued. That risk itself needs to be given a price, and that necessarily means speculating about the future.

Indeed, speculations about the future have become very much to the forefront of financial trading. As a consequence of this, at least in part, today’s financial traders have become accustomed to dealing in “commodities” that have no intrinsic use or value whatsoever. They might, for example, exchange government bonds for promises of debt repayment. Or, feeling a little more adventurous, they might speculate on the basis of future rates of foreign exchange, or in interest rates, or share prices, or rates of inflation, or in a multitude of other kinds of “underlying assets” (including that most changeable of underlying variables: the weather) by exchange of promissory notes known most commonly as “derivatives”, since they derive their value entirely on the basis of the future value of something else. And derivatives can be “structured” in any myriad of ways. Here are a just few you may have heard of :–

  • futures (or forwards) are contracts to buy or sell the “underlying asset” up until a future date on the basis of today’s price.
  • options allow the holder the right, without obligation (hence “option”), to buy (a “call option”) or to sell (a “put option”) the “underlying asset.”
  • swaps are contracts agreeing to exchange money up until a specified future date, based on the underlying value of exchange rates, interest rates, commodity prices, stocks, bonds, etc.

You name it: there are now paper promises for paper promises of every conceivable kind. Now the thing is that because you don’t need to own the “underlying asset” itself, there is no limit to the amounts of these paper promises that can be traded. Not that this is as novel as it may first appear.

Anyone who’s ever bought a lottery ticket has in effect speculated on a derivative, its value in this case being entirely dependent upon the random motion of coloured balls in a large transparent tumbler at an allocated future time. All betting works this way, and so all bets are familiar forms of derivatives. And then there are, if you like, negative bets. Bets you’d rather lose. For instance, £200 says my house will burn down this year, is presumably a bet you’d rather lose, but it is still a bet that many of us annually make with an insurance company. And general insurance policies are indeed another form of familiar derivative – they are in effect “put options”.

However there is one extremely important difference here between an ordinary insurance policy and a “put option” – in the case of the “put option”, you don’t actually need to own the “underlying asset”, which means, to draw an obvious comparison, you might take out house insurance on your neighbour’s property rather than your own. And if their house burns down, ah hum accidentally, of course, then good for you. Cash in your paper promise and buy a few more – who knows, perhaps your neighbour is also a terrible driver. There are almost numberless opportunities for insuring other people’s assets and with only the law preventing you, then why not change the law. Which is exactly what has happened, with some kinds of derivatives circumventing the law in precisely this way, and permitting profitable speculation on the basis of third party failures. When it comes to derivatives then, someone can always be making a profit come rain or shine, come boom or total financial meltdown.

But, why stop there? Especially when the next step is so obvious that it almost seems inevitable. Yes, why not trade in speculations on the future value of the derivatives themselves? After all, treating the derivative itself as an “underlying asset” opens the way for multiple higher order derivatives, creating with it, the opportunity for still more financial “products” to be traded. Sure, these “exotic financial instruments” quickly become so complex and convoluted that you literally need a degree in mathematics in order to begin to decipher them. Indeed those on the inside make use of what are called “the Greeks”, and “the Higher Order Greeks”, since valuation requires the application of complex mathematical formulas comprised of strings of Greek letters, the traders here fully aware, of course, that it’s all Greek to the rest of us. Never mind – ever more financial “products” means ever more trade, and that’s to the benefit of all, right…?

Deregulation of the markets – kicked off in Britain by the Thatcher government’s so-called “Big Bang” and simultaneously across the Atlantic through the laissez-faire of “Reagonomics”6 – both enabled and encouraged this giddying maelstrom, allowing in the process the banking and insurance firms, the stockbrokerage and hedge funds that make up today’s “finance industry” to become the single most important “wealth creator” in the Anglo-American world. Meanwhile, declines in manufacturing output in Britain and America meant both nations were becoming increasingly dependent on a sustained growth in the financial sector – with “derivatives” satisfying that requirement for growth by virtue of their seemingly unbound potential. Indeed, having risen to become by far the largest business sector simply in terms of profit-making, many of the largest banks and insurance groups had become “too big to fail”7. Failure leading potentially to national, if not international, economic ruin. Which is how the very systems that were supposedly designed to protect us, systems of insurance, have, whether by accident or design, left us more vulnerable than ever.

And then came the bombshell, as we learnt that the banks themselves were becoming bankrupt, having gambled their investments in the frenzy of deregulated speculation. Turns out that some of the money-men didn’t fully understand the complexity of their own systems; a few admitting with hindsight that they’d little more knowledge of what they were buying into than the rest of us. They’d “invested” because their competitors “invested”, and, given the ever-growing buoyancy of the markets at the time, not following suit would have left them at a competitive disadvantage. A desperate but strangely appropriate response to the demands of free market capitalism gone wild.

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It is currently estimated that somewhere in the order of a quadrillion US dollars (yes, that’s with a qu-) has been staked on derivations of various kinds. Believe it or not, the precise figure is actually uncertain because many deals are brokered in private. In the jargon of the trade these are called “over the counter” derivatives, which is an odd choice of jargon when the only thing the average customer buys over the counter are drugs. Could it be that they’re unconsciously trying to tell us something again?

So just how big is one quadrillion dollars? Well, let’s begin with quadrillion. Quadrillion means a thousand trillion. Written at length it is one with a string of fifteen zeros. A number so humungous that it’s humanly impossible to properly comprehend: all comparisons fail. I read somewhere that if you took a quadrillion pound coins and put them side by side then they would stretch further than the edge of the solar system. The Voyager space programme was, of course, a much cheaper alternative. Or how about this: counting a number every second, it would take 32 million years to count up to a quadrillion… Now obviously that’s simply impossible – I mean just try saying “nine hundred and ninety-nine trillion, nine hundred and ninety-nine billion, nine hundred and ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine” in the space of one second! You see it really doesn’t help to try to imagine any number as big as a quadrillion.

However, there are still useful ways to compare a quadrillion dollars. For instance, we can compare it against the entire world GDP which turns out to be a mere 60 trillion US dollars8. One quadrillion being nearly twenty times larger. Or we might compare it against the estimated monetary wealth of the whole world: about $75 trillion in real estate, and a further $100 trillion in world stock and bonds. So one quadrillion is a number far exceeding even the total monetary value of the entire world – material and immaterial! A little freaky to say the least! Especially when we discover that many of these derivatives are now considered to be “toxic assets”, which is a characteristically misleading way of saying they are worth nothing – yes, worthless assets! – whatever the hell that means!

So just like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it seems that the spell has gone out of control, and instead of these mysterious engines making new money out of old money, the system has created instead an enormous black hole of debt. A debt that we, the people, are now in the process of bailing out, with extremely painful consequences. Efforts to save us from a greater catastrophe having already forced the British and US governments to pump multiple hundreds of billions of public money into the coffers of the private banks. Yet the banks and the economy remain broken of course, because how is any debt larger than the monetary value of the entire world ever to be repaid?

Another tactic to halt descent into a full-blown economic meltdown has involved the issuance of additional fiat currency in both Britain and America; a “quantitative easing” designed to increase the supply of money by simply conjuring it up (a trick that fiat currency happily permits). Money may not grow on trees but it can most certainly be produced out of thin air. But here’s the rub. For in accordance with the most basic tenets of economic theory, whenever extra banknotes are introduced into circulation, the currency is correspondingly devalued. So you may be able to conjure money from thin air, but all economists will readily agree that you cannot conjure “real value”, meaning real purchasing power. Indeed this common mistake of confusing “nominal value” (i.e., the number of pounds written on the banknote) with “real value”, is actually given a name by economists. They call it: “the money illusion”. And it’s useful to remind ourselves again that money has only relative value.

To understand this, we might again consider money to be a commodity (which in part it is, traded on the currency markets). As such, and as with all other commodities, relative scarcity or abundance will alter its market value, and, in obedience to the law of supply and demand, more will automatically mean less. This is just as true for the value of money as it is for tins of herring, plumbers, scotch eggs and diamonds. So it seems that if too much of our quantitative is eased, then we’d better be prepared for a drastic rise in inflation, or much worse again, for hyperinflation. Printing too much money is how hyperinflation has always been caused.

Our future is bleak, they tell us. Our future is in the red. So much for security, so much for insurance. We’d apparently forgotten to beware of “the Greeks” and of the “higher order Greeks” when they’d first proffered gifts.

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I said earlier, just in passing, that money is actually pretty boring stuff, and it is… Truly, madly and deeply boring! So when I hear on the news how “the markets” are hoping that the latest round of “quantitative easing” will enable governments to provide the necessary “fiscal stimulus”, I am barely even titillated. Whilst explanations, both in the popular press and supposedly more serious media, that like to describe such injections of new money as in some way analogous to filling up my car with imaginary petrol provide me only with a far, far more entertaining distraction: to wit, a magical car that runs on air.

But then, of course, money isn’t really stuff at all! More properly considered, money is perhaps a sort of proto-derivative, since its worth is evidently dependent upon something other than the paper it’s (increasingly not) written on. So what is it that money’s worth depends upon? What underlies money? Well, the accepted answer to this question is apparently that money is a “store of value”. Although this leads immediately to the obvious follow-up question: in this context, what precisely is the meaning of “value”? But, here again there is a problem, since “value”, although a keystone to economic thinking, has remained something of an enigma. Economists unable to agree upon any single definitive meaning.

Is “value” a determinant of usefulness? Or is it generated by the amount of effort required in the production of things? Or perhaps there is some other kind of innate economic worth? For instance in a thing’s scarcity. And can this worth be attributed at the individual level or only socially imputed?

There are a wide variety of definitions and explanations of “value”, that, being so foundational, have then encouraged the various branches of economic theory to diverge. And here is another important reason why economics is in no way equivalent to the physical sciences. Ask any physicist what energy is, and they will provide both an unambiguous definition and, no less importantly, offer established methods for measurement. Because of this, if ever one physicist talks to another physicist about energy (or any other physical quantity) they can be absolutely certain that they are talking about the same thing. Which is very certainly not the case when economists talk about “value”.

“A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing,” said Oscar Wilde, distinguishing with playful wisdom the difference in human terms between “price” and “value”. The great pity is that the overwhelming majority of today’s economists have become so cynical – but then perhaps they always were.

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As part of his on-going assault against religion, Richard Dawkins recently published a book called The God Delusion. It’s the old hobby-horse again; one that he shares with a great many millions of other broadly liberal, literate and intelligent people. That religion is an evil of which humanity must rid ourselves totally. And yes, much of religion has been dumb and dangerous, this I will very readily concede (and already have conceded in earlier chapters). But really and truly, is it “the God delusion” that we should be most concerned about in these torrid times? For regardless of Dawkins claims, it is quite evident that religion is a wounded animal, and for good or ill, the secular world is most certainly in the ascendant. Right throughout the world, aside from a few retreating pockets of resistance, faith in the old gods has been gravely shaken. It is not that human faith, by which I mean merely a belief and/or worship of something greater, is extinguished, for it never can be, but that it has been reattached to new idol-ologies. And in those parts of the world where the old religions have been most effectively disarmed or expelled, namely the West, one idol-ology above all others has gathered strength from Religion’s demise.

Richard Dawkins has said many times that instructing young children in religious obedience is a form of psychological child abuse and on this point I wholeheartedly support him. Children’s minds are naturally pliable for very sound developmental reasons. But is it less pernicious to fill their precious minds with boundless affection for let’s say Ronald McDonald? For this is merely one stark but obvious illustration of how a new fundamentalism has been inculcated in the young. Devotion to the brand. Love of corporations. Worship of the dollar and the pound.

This new kind of fundamentalism has long since swept across the world, but it is unusual, although not unique, in that it denies its own inherent religiosity whilst claiming to have no idols. This is the fundamentalism of free market neoliberal economics. The Father, Son and Holy Ghost having been forsaken, only to have been usurped by the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. If you think I’m joking, or that this is mere hyperbole, then think again. When things are tough we no longer turn to the heavens, but instead ask what sacrifices can be made to “reassure the markets”. Sacrifices to make it rain money again.

By far and above, here is the most pernicious delusion of our age. And it has next to nothing to do with God, or Yahweh, or Allah, or even the Buddha. The prophets of our times talk of nothing besides profits or losses. They turn their eyes to the Dow Jones Index, trusting not in God, but only in money. So I call for Dawkins to leave aside his God delusion, for a moment, and pay a little attention to the rise and rise of “the money delusion”. If future historians reflect on our times, this is what they will see, and given the mess this “money delusion” is creating they will scratch their heads in disbelief and disgust.

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I have already discussed the so-called “money illusion” – of mistaking nominal banknote value for real purchasing value – but this is merely one of many nested and interrelated illusions that make up “the money delusion”. Illusions that have become so ingrained within our permitted economic thinking that they are completely taken for granted.

Foundational is the belief that individuals always make rational choices. According to the definition of making rational choices, this requires that we all choose with consistency and always with the aim of choosing more over less. That a huge advertising industry now exists to tempt us into irrationality is never factored in. Nor are the other corrosive influences that so obviously deflect our rational intentions: the coercion of peer pressure, our widespread obsession with celebrities and celebrity endorsement, and that never-ending pseudo-scientific babble that fills up many of the remaining column inches and broadcast hours of our commercial media. We are always eager for the latest fashionable fads, and perhaps we always were. Yet this glaring fact, that people make wholly irrational choices time and again, whether due to innate human irrationality or by deliberate design, is of little concern to most economists. It is overlooked and omitted.

Likewise, a shared opinion has arisen under the name of neoliberalism that economics can itself be neutral, usefully shaping the world without the nuisance of having to rely on value judgements or needing any broader social agenda. If only individuals were left to make rational choices, as of course they do by definition, or so the idea goes, and the market could also be unshackled, then at last the people will be free to choose. Thus, goes the claim, individual freedom can only be guaranteed by having freedom within the marketplace. Freedom trickling down with the money it brings. “Wealth creation” alone must solve our problems by virtue of it being an unmitigated good.

Of course, back in the real world, one man’s timber very often involves the destruction of another man’s forest. Making profits from the sale of drugs, tobacco and alcohol has social consequences. Factories pollute. Wealth creation has its costs, which are very often hidden. There is, in other words, and more often than not, some direct negative impact on a third party, known to economists as “spillover” or “externalities”, that is difficult to quantify. Or we might say that “wealth creation” for some is rather likely therefore to lead to “illth creation” for others.

Illth creation? This was the term coined by romantic artist, critic and social reformer, John Ruskin, and first used in his influential critique of nineteenth century capitalism entitled Unto This Last. Ruskin had presumably never heard of “the trickle-down effect”:

“The whole question, therefore, respecting not only the advantage, but even the quantity, of national wealth, resolves itself finally into one of abstract justice. It is impossible to conclude, of any given mass of acquired wealth, merely by the fact of its existence, whether it signifies good or evil to the nation in the midst of which it exists. Its real value depends on the moral sign attached to it, just as sternly as that of a mathematical quantity depends on the algebraical sign attached to it. Any given accumulation of commercial wealth may be indicative, on the one hand, of faithful industries, progressive energies, and productive ingenuities: or, on the other, it may be indicative of mortal luxury, merciless tyranny, ruinous chicane.”9

*

We are in the habit of regarding all money as equal. Presuming that the pounds and pence which make up my own meagre savings are equivalent in some directly proportional manner to the billions owned by let’s say George Soros. A cursory consideration shows how this is laughable.

For instance, we might recall that on “Black Wednesday” in 1992, Soros single-handedly shook the British economy (although, the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont was left to shoulder the blame)10. But to illustrate this point a little further, let me tell you about my own small venture into the property market.

Lucky enough to have been bequeathed a tidy though not considerable fortune, I recently decided to purchase a house to live in. The amount, although not inconsiderable by everyday standards (if compared say with the income and savings of Mr and Mrs Average), and very gratefully received, was barely sufficient to cover local house prices, except that I had one enormous advantage: I had cash, and cash is king.

For reasons of convenience, cash is worth significantly more than nominally equivalent amounts of borrowed money. In this instance I can estimate that it was probably worth a further 20–30%. Enough to buy a far nicer house than if I’d needed to see my bank manager. A bird in the hand…

Having more money also has other advantages. One very obvious example being that it enables bulk purchases, which being cheaper, again inflates its relative value. The rule in fact is perfectly straightforward: when it comes to money, more is always more, and in sufficient quantities, it is much, much more than that.

But then, of course, we have the market itself. The market that is supposedly free and thus equal. The reality being, however, that since money accumulates by virtue of attracting its own likeness, the leading players in the market, whether wealthy individuals or giant corporations, by wielding larger capital resources, can operate with an unassailable competitive advantage. These financial giants can and do stack the odds even higher in their favour by more indirect means, such as buying political influence with donations to campaign funds and by other insidious means such as lobbying – all of which is simply legally permitted bribery. The flaunted notion of a free market is therefore the biggest nonsense of all. There is no such thing as a free market: never has been and never will be.

The most ardent supporters of free market neoliberalism say that it is a non-normative system, which permits us finally to rid ourselves of disagreements over pesky value judgements. The truth, however, is very much simpler. By ignoring values, it becomes a system devoid of all moral underpinning. Being morally bankrupt, it is unscrupulous in the truest sense of the word.

*

If I had enough money and a whim, I might choose to buy all the plumbers and tins of herrings in Britain. Then, since money is (in part) a measure of scarcity, I could sell them back later with a sizeable mark-up. Too far-fetched? Well, perhaps, but only in my choice of commodity. The market in other commodities has without any question been cornered many times in the past. For instance, by the end of the 1970s, two brothers, Nelson Bunker and William Herbert Hunt, had accumulated and held what was then estimated to be one third of all the world’s silver. This led to serious problems both for high-street jewellers11 and for the economy more generally12, and as it happened, when the bubble burst on what became know as “Silver Thursday”, it also spelt trouble for the brothers’ own fortune. Fortunately for them, however, the situation was considered so serious that a consortium of banks came forward to help to bail them out13. They had lost, their fortune diminished, although by no means wiped out. As relatively small players they’d played too rough; meanwhile much larger players ensure that the markets are routinely rigged through such manufacture of scarcity. Going back as early as 1860, John Ruskin had already pointed out a different but closely-related deficiency in any market-driven capitalist system of trade:

“Take another example, more consistent with the ordinary course of affairs of trade. Suppose that three men, instead of two, formed the little isolated republic, and found themselves obliged to separate, in order to farm different pieces of land at some distance from each other along the coast: each estate furnishing a distinct kind of produce, and each more or less in need of the material raised on the other. Suppose that the third man, in order to save the time of all three, undertakes simply to superintend the transference of commodities from one farm to the other; on condition of receiving some sufficiently remunerative share of every parcel of goods conveyed, or of some other parcel received in exchange for it.

“If this carrier or messenger always brings to each estate, from the other, what is chiefly wanted, at the right time, the operations of the two farmers will go on prosperously, and the largest possible result in produce, or wealth, will be attained by the little community. But suppose no intercourse between the landowners is possible, except through the travelling agent; and that, after a time, this agent, watching the course of each man’s agriculture, keeps back the articles with which he has been entrusted until there comes a period of extreme necessity for them, on one side or other, and then exacts in exchange for them all that the distressed farmer can spare of other kinds of produce: it is easy to see that by ingeniously watching his opportunities, he might possess himself regularly of the greater part of the superfluous produce of the two estates, and at last, in some year of severest trial or scarcity, purchase both for himself and maintain the former proprietors thenceforward as his labourers or servants.”14

By restricting the choices of others, one’s power over them is increased, and it this that brings us to the real reason why money becomes such addiction, especially for those who already have more than they know what to do with. For truly the absolute bottom line is this: that money and power become almost inseparable unless somehow a separation can be enforced. And whilst wealth, especially when excessive, accumulates, as it almost invariably does, then along with it goes the accumulation of power. This is underlying and centralising mechanism has perhaps always operated at the heart of all civilisation. But even the power of money has its limits, as Ruskin points out:

“It has been shown that the chief value and virtue of money consists in its having power over human beings; that, without this power, large material possessions are useless, and to any person possessing such power, comparatively unnecessary. But power over human beings is attainable by other means than by money. As I said a few pages back, the money power is always imperfect and doubtful; there are many things which cannot be reached with it, others which cannot be retained by it. Many joys may be given to men which cannot be bought for gold, and many fidelities found in them which cannot be rewarded with it.

“Trite enough, – the reader thinks. Yes: but it is not so trite, – I wish it were, – that in this moral power, quite inscrutable and immeasurable though it be, there is a monetary value just as real as that represented by more ponderous currencies. A man’s hand may be full of invisible gold, and the wave of it, or the grasp, shall do more than another’s with a shower of bullion. This invisible gold, also, does not necessarily diminish in spending. Political economists will do well some day to take heed of it, though they cannot take measure.”15

Until such a time, every action and probable outcome must continue to be evaluated on the basis of strict cost and benefit estimates. Our “ponderous currencies” literally enabling a figure to be set against each human life – an application fraught with the most serious moral dilemmas and objections – and beyond even this, we have price tags for protecting (or else ruining) the natural environment all our lives depend upon. For only the market can secure our futures, optimally delivering us from evil, though inevitably it moves in mysterious ways. Which is how the whole world – land, water, air and every living organism – came to be priced and costed. Everything set against a notional scale that judges exclusively in terms of usefulness and availability, such is the madness of our money delusion.

We are reaching a crisis point. A thoroughgoing reappraisal of our financial systems, our economic orthodoxes, and our attitudes to money per se is desperately required. Our survival as a species may depend on it. Money ought to be our useful servant, but instead remains, at least for the vast majority, a terrible master. As a consequence, our real wealth has been too long overlooked. Time then for this genii called money to be forced back tight inside its bottle. Ceaselessly chasing its golden behind, and mistaking its tight fist for the judicious hand of God, is leading us ever further down the garden path. Further and further away from the land it promises.

Next chapter…

*

 Addendum: Q & A

Back in April 2012, I forwarded a draft of this chapter to friends in Spain (a nation already suffering under imposed “austerity measures”). They sent an extended reply which raised two interesting and important questions. Both questions along with my replies are offered below:

Q1: You seem to be saying that printing money (as the US and UK, who are in control of their own currency, are doing ) is as bad as dealing with the debt problem by means of austerity (the “Merkozy” approach). But the latter is surely definitely worse.

A. I think these are simply two sides of the same scam. The bankers create an enormous unpayable debt and then get governments to create new money to bail them out. This is sold to us as a way of bailing out a few chosen victims (Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland) although it simply means a huge transfer of wealth from public into private hands. To make that money useful to the bankers (and the rest of the ruling elite) ‘austerity measures’ are put in place which not only steal money off the average person but also permit the fire sale of national assets. Meanwhile, in Britain and America, the governments are helping to pay for these bailouts by creating money out of thin air, which means the real value of our money is reduced through inflation (effectively a hidden tax). If the money were invested in infrastructure or education or whatever, then this could potentially be a good thing (even though it still creates inflation), so certainly QE could have been beneficial but not when you use the money only to keep afloat a huge Ponzi scheme. But then you ask later…

Q2: ‘but how come the pound is high now and the euro low’

A. That’s a very good question and I won’t pretend that I understand this completely, but I gather there are plenty of ways for keeping currencies higher than they ought to be by manipulating the markets [incidentally, the Forex Scandal to manipulate and rig the daily foreign exchange rates did not come to light until Summer 2013]. The market is rigged in any case by virtue of the fact that the dollar remains the world’s reserve currency and that oil is traded entirely in dollars. But essentially what’s going on here is a huge currency war, and the euro is constantly under attack from speculators. I am fairly certain that the chickens will come home to roost sooner or later in America and Britain (and in Germany too), but meanwhile the governments simply go about cooking the books and telling us how inflation is only 4% or whatever when fuel prices, for instance, have rocketed during the past few years. In any case, we get ‘austerity’ too, not as hardline yet as the ‘austerity’ being imposed elsewhere, but it will come – of this I have no doubt. Either it will happen slowly, or worse, there will be a huge war and the ‘austerity’ will be brought into place to justify the expense of that. This is a deliberate attack by the bankers against the people of the world, and until the people of the world say that’s enough, and most of the debts are cancelled outright, I don’t see any way this can be reversed.

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Another topic I briefly touched upon in the chapter above is the matter of inflation. What is it and what causes it? My answers were sketchy, in part, because I wished to avoid getting too bogged down in technicalities beyond my training. But this question about the causes of inflation is, in any case, an extremely thorny one. Different schools of economists provide different explanations.

One less orthodox account that I have frequently come across is that our fractional reserve banking system when combined with a central bank’s issuance of a fiat currency is inherently inflationary. That in the long term, and solely because of these extant monetary mechanisms, inflation is baked into the cake. So I wrote to a friend who holds with the above opinion and asked if he would explain “in the briefest terms that are sufficient” why he and others believe that central bank issuance of currency and fractional reserve banking are the primary underlying cause of inflation. Here is his succinct but detailed reply:

In a central bank system, money is created in the first instance by governments issuing bonds to banks and banks “printing” money and handing it over to the government in return. The government then owe the banks the money plus interest. If they ever pay back any of the principal, then a corresponding amount of bonds are handed back, i.e. cancelled. In that case, the money repaid goes out of existence!

Before elaborating any further, let’s take a step back. Fractional reserve lending doesn’t require central banks, nor does it require governments to create money by issuing bonds in exchange for it. Fractional reserve lending is simply the act of taking someone’s money to “look after it”, then turning around and lending a fraction of it to someone else. If the lender has enough depositors, then sum of all the unlent fractions of each deposit should cover him if one of them suddenly comes through the door asking for all their money back in one go. As I’m sure you know, if too many turn up at once looking for their money, a run ensues. Fractional reserve banking doesn’t even require a government sanctioned paper currency to exist. Depositors can simply deposit something like gold and the lenders can issue receipts which become the paper currency.

In olden times, when depositors of gold first found out that the goldsmiths they were paying to store their gold safely were lending it out for a percentage fee, they were outraged. The goldsmiths appeased them by offering them a cut of the fee for their interest in the scam. Accordingly, this money became known as ‘interest’.

So where do central banks fit in? Countries like the Unites States prior to 1913 have operated without central banks. There were thousands of banks of all sizes. To compete with one another, they had to endeavour to offer higher interest to depositors, lower interest rates to borrowers or to cut the fraction of deposits that they kept in reserve. This latter aspect was what caused banks occasionally to go to the wall, to the detriment of their depositors.

Central banking avoids this risk because the same fractional reserve ratio applies to all the banks under a central bank’s jurisdiction. However, it is really a way to avoid competition and if the system ever does get into trouble, the government feel obliged to bail it out or risk collapse of the whole system.

Now to answer your question about inflation.

In a fractional reserve central bank system, money is created as I’ve described by the government issuing bonds to the bank, receiving money created out of thin air and having to pay interest on it. When they spend it by paying salaries of government employees, contractors, arms manufacturers and so on, that money goes straight into bank accounts and the bankers can’t wait to lend out as much of it as possible, up to the limit of whatever fractional reserve ratio applies. So now there is a double claim on the money. The government employee thinks their salary is sitting in the bank but 90 percent of it is in the pocket of a borrower who thinks it’s theirs as long as they keep up with interest. That borrower, will inevitably either put the borrowed sum in their own bank account or spend it. Either way it will end up in another bank account somewhere. Then the same thing happens again; up to 90 percent of it gets lent out (81 percent of the original government-created money) and so on…

We end up in a situation where all of the money in circulation has arisen from someone somewhere, signing the dotted line to put themselves in debt. The money isn’t backed by a commodity such as gold. Instead it is backed by the ability of the borrower to repay. All these borrowers, including the government are paying interest. If interest is to be paid on every penny in circulation, then it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that new money must be continuously ‘created’ to keep paying this. That occurs by governments constantly borrowing so that their debts keep on increasing and borrowers constantly borrowing more and more. This seems to work as long as prices, wages and asset values keep increasing. Generation after generation, workers can afford to pay more and more for the houses that they live in because the price of the house keeps going up so it looks like good collateral to the lender and also their wages keep going up, so the borrower can meet payments in the eyes of the lender.

Working out what the rate of inflation is at any given time is practically impossible. Government figures such as RPI and CPI are just another tool for the propagandists to use as they see fit at any given time. However for the banks to gain anything from the game, the rate of inflation must be:

  • less than the rate of interest paid by borrowers and;
  • greater than the rate of interest paid to savers.

This is why savers money is ‘eroded’ if they just leave it sitting in a bank account.
Now imagine a different system where:

  • governments issue paper money by printing it themselves;
  • the amount in circulation is absolutely fixed;
  • there is no central bank but there are plenty of independent banks.

In such a country, there is no need for the government to have any debt and there is ample historical evidence of nations that have existed without government debt for very long stretches of time. What borrowers there are have to find the interest by earning it from the fixed pool of currency that is in circulation. There is little need for anyone to borrow but that’s something that most people you speak to have difficulty accepting. That’s because they’ve only ever lived in a system where they spend their lives in the service of debt and cannot conceive of it being any different.

The bankers right at the top of the system aren’t out to grab hold of all the money in the world. They’re not after all the tangible in the world either. Their only goal is to ensure that as much human labour as possible is in the service of debt.

Now for something different. How can this whole thing go horribly wrong for the bankers? I don’t just mean a run on banks or a recession. That happens periodically and is known as the business cycle. People lose confidence and are reluctant to borrow for a number of years, then they regain confidence and start to borrow again and the whole thing picks up and the cycle repeats.

What can go horribly wrong is if, after generations and generations and generations of increasing prices and debts, everyone gets more spooked by debt than ever before and totally fixated on repaying it. They sell assets but there are so many folk doing that that asset prices start to decline. That spooks people further. A spiral is under way. Banks try to ‘stimulate’ the economy by lowering interest rates but there is very little confidence around, especially if asset prices are declining compared with debts and wages aren’t rising either (or may be in decline), so that the ability to repay debt is impaired. This decline can be long and protracted. Also there can be many ups and downs along the way, although the long term trend is down. Ups can be deceptive as they are perceived as “coming out of the recession” by those used to the normal business cycles we’ve experienced throughout the whole of the twentieth century. In this way, asset prices can bleed away until eventually they reach something like a tenth of of their peak value. This process can reach a very late stage before a lot of people recognise what’s really going on. This is just a scenario but one worth considering seriously. We could be in for long term deflation but it will be well under way and too late for many people in debt by the time it gets mainstream acknowledgement.

A closely-related question and one that automatically follows is why do countries bother having central banks at all? Instead of a government issuing bonds, why not directly issue the currency instead, thereby cutting out the middle men? It is an approach that actually has a number of historical precedents as pointed out in this open letter to Obama urging him to reissue ‘greenbacks’ and the campaign in Britain to print ‘treasury notes’ like the Bradbury Pound. So in a further reply to my friend I asked him, “do you think that the re-issuance of ‘greenbacks’ in America or the Bradbury Pound in the UK might offer a realistic solution to the current crisis?” His response:

The issue of greenbacks or whatever you call them (essentially government-issued money) would probably make no immediate difference. Already, the money created by quantitative easing is not working its way into the system, so why would money issued by any other means?

In the longer term, such a fundamental upheaval would make a huge difference as the government wouldn’t need to be in debt the whole time and people wouldn’t have to keep paying increasing prices for houses and cars on top of interest. Pensioners wouldn’t be on a treadmill, having to ‘invest’ their savings just in vain an effort to keep up with inflation.

There’s a risk that the government might be tempted to print more and more money, which is often cited as a point in favour of the present system. It is claimed that having to pay interest and ultimately repay the whole principal is a disincentive in this respect. However, the current system ensures constant “printing” all the time as there’s no way that everyone involved can pay interest otherwise.

There’s talk at the moment about banks charging people a few percent for holding their money on deposit, i.e “negative interest”. People think they’ll lose money as their account balances will go down over time. However, it’s no different to being paid say six percent interest at a time when inflation is at 9 percent and the cheapest loan you can get is 12 percent.

I’m amazed at how people in the alternative media can inform us that banks are going to charge us ‘negative interest’ for our deposits, express outrage and then in the next breath claim that we’re in a hyperinflationary environment. Low/negative interest is a sure sign of massive deflationary pressure. I don’t know what’s going to happen but I’m convinced that deflation’s the one to watch. It has the potential to catch people out.

Getting back to your original question, the direct issuing of money by the government would represent a seismic shift of power from bankers to governments; a shift in the right direction, no doubt. It’s only possible if everyone knows what’s exactly going on. We’re a very long way off yet. Peoples’ understanding of the banking scam is very very poor.

I would add that very much front and centre in that scam is the role of the central banks. These extraordinarily powerful commercial bodies that adopt the outward appearance of public institutions when in fact they work for commercial interests. The US Federal Reserve, for instance, is a de facto private corporation and all of its shareholders are private banks. The status of the Bank of England is more complicated. This is what the main wikipedia entry intriguingly has to tell us:

Established in 1694, it is the second oldest central bank in the world, after the Sveriges Riksbank, and the world’s 8th oldest bank. It was established to act as the English Government’s banker, and is still the banker for HM Government. The Bank was privately owned [clarification needed (Privately owned by whom? See talk page.)] from its foundation in 1694 until nationalised in 1946.[3][4] 

Original references retained.

Clarification needed indeed! Anyway, nowadays it is officially (since 1998) an ‘independent public organisation’. However, the BoE is not really as independent as it might first appear, since along with eighteen other central banks from around the world (including the US Federal Reserve) it is a member of the executive of “the central bank for central banks” – the little known Bank for International Settlements (BIS) based in Basel, Switzerland. To hear more about the history, ownership and function of this highly profitable (tax free and extraterritorial) organisation, I recommend listening to this interview with Adam LeBor, author of the recently released book The Tower of Basel:

For my own more detailed thoughts on effective remedies to the on-going financial crisis please read this earlier post.

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Please note that for the purposes of ‘publishing’ here I have taken advantage of the option to incorporate hypertext links and embed videos – in order to distinguish additional commentary from the original text all newly incorporated text has been italised.

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1 From “The Future”, Essays in Persuasion (1931) Ch. 5, John Maynard Keynes, CW, IX, pp.329 — 331, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930).

2 Adam Smith applied “the law of diminishing utility” to solve “the paradox of water and diamonds”. Water is a vital resource and most precious to life and yet it is far less expensive to purchase than diamonds, comparatively useless shiny crystals, which in his own times would have been used solely for ornamentation or engraving. The reason, Smith decides, is that water is readily abundant, such that any loss or gain is of little concern to most people in most places. By contrast, the rarity of diamonds means that, although less useful overall, any loss or gain of use is more significant, or to put it more formally the “marginal utility” is greater.

3 Extract taken from The soul of man under socialism by Oscar Wilde (first published 1891).

4 Legal tender is a technical legal term that basically means an offer of payment that cannot be refused in settlement of a debt.

5 Fiat (Latin), “let it be done” meaning that these currencies are guaranteed by government decree only.

6 Milton Friedman pays homage to Ronald Reagan’s record on deregulation in an essay entitled “Freedom’s friend” published in the Wall Street Journal on June 11, 2004. Drawing evidence from The Federal Register, “records the thousands of detailed rules and regulations that federal agencies churn out in the course of a year”, Friedman contrasts Reagan’s record with that of Presidential incumbents before and since: “They [the rules and regulations] are not laws and yet they have the effect of laws and like laws impose costs and restrain activities. Here too, the period before President Reagan was one of galloping socialism. The Reagan years were ones of retreating socialism, and the post-Reagan years, of creeping socialism.” For socialism read regulation. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB108691016978034663

7 Definition of “too big to fail” taken from Businessdictionary.com: “Idea that certain businesses are so important to the nation, that it would be disastrous if they were allowed to fail. This term is often applied to some of the nation’s largest banks, because if these banks were to fail, it could cause serious problems for the economy. By declaring a company too big to fail, however, it means that the government might be tempted to step in if this company gets into a bad situation, either due to problems within the company or problems from outside the company. While government bailouts or intervention might help the company survive, some opponents think that this is counterproductive, and simply helping a company that maybe should be allowed to fail. This concept was integral to the financial crisis of the late 2000s.”

8 According to IMF economic database for October 2010, World GDP is $61,963.429 billion (US dollars).

9 Unto This Last is based on a collection of four essays first published in the monthly Cornhill Magazine, 1860, and then reprinted as Unto This Last in 1862. This extract is drawn from his second essay: “The Veins of Wealth”

10 George Soros proudly explains the events of “Black Wednesday” on his official website: “In 1992, with the economy of the United Kingdom in recession, Quantum Fund’s managers anticipated that British authorities would be forced to break from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) then in force and allow the British pound to devalue in relation to other currencies, in particular the German mark. Quantum Fund sold short (betting on a decline in value) more than $10 billion worth of pounds sterling. On September 16, 1992—later dubbed “Black Wednesday”—the British government abandoned the ERM and the pound was devalued by twenty percent.” http://www.georgesoros.com/faqs/archive/category/finance/

11Last year [1979] Bunker and his syndicate began buying silver again, this time on a truly gargantuan scale. They were soon imitated by other speculators shaken by international crises and distrustful of paper money. It was this that sent the price of silver from $6 per oz. in early 1979 to $50 per oz. in January of this year. Chairman Walter Hoving of Tiffany & Co., the famous jewelry store, was incensed. Tiffany ran an ad in the New York Times last week asserting: ‘We think it is unconscionable for anyone to hoard several billion, yes billion, dollars worth of silver and thus drive the price up so high that others must pay artificially high prices for articles made of silver from baby spoons to tea sets, as well as photographic film and other products.’” Extract taken from “He Has a Passion for Silver”, article published in Time Magazine, Monday 7April, 1980. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,921964-2,00.html

12Many Government officials feared that if the Hunts were unable to meet all their debts, some Wall Street brokerage firms and some large banks might collapse.” Extract taken from “Bunker’s busted silver bubble”, article published in Time Magazine, Monday 12 May, 1980. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,920875,00.html

13What may deal the Hunt fortune a fatal blow is the fallout from the brothers’ role in the great silver-price boom and bust of 1980. Thousands of investors who lost money in the debacle are suing the Hunts. On Saturday the brothers lost a civil case that could set an ominous precedent. A six-member federal jury in New York City found that the Hunts conspired to corner the silver market, and held them liable to pay $63 million in damages to Minpeco, a Peruvian mineral-marketing company that suffered heavy losses in the silver crash. Under federal antitrust law, the penalty is automatically tripled to $189 million, but after subtractions for previous settlements with Minpeco, the total value of the judgment against the Hunts is $134 million.” Extract taken from “Big bill for a bullion binge”, article published in Time Magazine, Monday 29 August, 1988. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,968272-1,00.html

14 Extract also taken from the second essay, entitled: “The Veins of Wealth” of Unto This Last by John Ruskin.

15 Ibid.

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Filed under analysis & opinion, « finishing the rat race », financial derivatives, Max Keiser, neo-liberalism

Gold Diggers of 2013

We are now in the midst of what can only be described as a gold rush. Of course some countries, China being the shining example, have been rapidly expanding their gold reserves for many years – the full amount of Chinese gold being a closely guarded secret although most analysts anticipate a full disclosure of Chinese gold reserves in the relatively near future, and based on an accumulation rate of slightly less than 1,000 tons per year, it is widely believed that China may already be the second largest holder in the world, which, as zerohedge noted back in November, means “surpassing Germany’s 3,395 tons and [becoming] second only to the US.”

Meanwhile, other countries are suddenly asking for the repossession of their own physical reserves that have been stored in vaults around the world during many decades. About a year ago I reported on Hugo Chavez’s retrieval of Venezuela’s physical gold reserves, and more recently we hear how, for instance, the Dutch and German governments are increasingly eager to get their hands on their own gold. Here is part of a report from Dutch News published in late November:

Questions have been asked in parliament about the location and value of the country’s gold reserves, most of which is said to be in foreign vaults, news agency ANP reports on Wednesday [Nov 28th].

The Netherlands is said to have 612 tonnes of gold, with a value of some €24bn. Just 10% of it is held at the central bank headquarters in Amsterdam. The rest is in bank vaults in the US, Canada and Britain.

Socialist and Christian Democrat MPs are now asking if it is sensible to keep the gold abroad and want to know how pure the gold bars actually are. 1

Anyone would think they don’t trust us or something – although when I mean us, I actually mean our central bankers obviously, and frankly who does trust them? Indeed, it turns out that the Germans had started repatriating their own reserves shortly after the launch of the euro and around the time of Brown’s Bottom, which was more then a decade ago:

The report [I’ll come back to this in a moment] claimed that the Bundesbank had slashed its holdings in London from 1,440 tons to 500 tons in 2000 and 2001, allegedly because storage costs were too high. The metal was flown to Frankfurt by air freight.

The revelation has baffled gold veterans. The shift came as the euro was at its weakest, slumping to $0.84 against the dollar. But it also came as the Bank of England was selling off most of Britain’s gold reserves – at market lows – on orders from Gordon Brown. 2

Click here to read the full article in the Telegraph.

The report in question, which had been produced by the German court of auditors (Bundesrechnungshof), is now demanding a complete audit of the nation’s gold reserves:

Germany’s gold bars, stored in the United States, Britain and France “have never been physically checked by the Bundesbank itself, or other independent auditors, regarding their authenticity or weight,” reveals a report prepared by the Federal Auditors’ Office. Instead, the Bundesbank relies on a “written confirmation by the storage sites.” […]

Concerns about Germany’s gold reserves arose this year after a group of German federal lawmakers wanted to check gold bars stored at the Banque de France in Paris. But they were turned away by local officials who said there were no facilities to visit the vaults, Deutsche Welle reported. […]

The Bundesbank has reportedly decided to ship 150 tons of gold from the New York Federal Reserve to Germany, according to German daily Bild. After returning to Germany the gold will be melted down to test the overall purity of each consignment before being re-cast into standard gold bars. 3

Click here to read the full report published by Russia Today in late October.

So why this accelerating rush to acquire gold, as in the case of China, or, as in the cases of Germany and Holland, to repatriate their gold reserves? What can it all portend…?

An article simply entitled “Are Fiat Currencies Headed for a Collapse?” published by CNBC back in July 2012 offers a concise assessment of the situation:

A fiat currency derives its worth from the issuing government – it is not fixed in value to any objective standard. That means central banks can print as much money as they want. If an economy is struggling, injecting more notes into the system juices activity but lowers the value of the currency in question.

With major central banks all desperate to stimulate their economies, some say currencies have entered a dangerous new phase often described as a race to the bottom.

Mark Mobius, Executive Chairman of Templeton Emerging Markets Group, says investors will soon start to demand fiat currencies be backed by gold or other hard assets.

“It’s already happening, you’re beginning to see that trend with central banks stocking up on gold. The estimate is that at least half of the buying is central bank buying. They are looking to the day when they can say okay, our currency is backed by gold and therefore we’re a strong country,” Mobius told CNBC Asia. 4

Of course, such rumours of widespread currency collapse have been with us ever since the financial panic of 2007/8 – rumours that were quickly given extra legs thanks to the enormous bank bailouts and the multiple rounds of quantitative easing (QE) both in the US and in Europe – all this money printing being the immediate way that the derivatives Ponzi scheme, the original cause and the deep root of the crisis, could be propped up. Yet, in spite of such vast injections of new money, the more serious catastrophe predicted by many has not (as yet) come about. So does this mean, as our governments wish to persuade us, that the crisis has been brought under control, or does it simply mean that they’ve managed to kick the can just a little further down the road than most of the economic pessimists could have imagined?

Undoubtedly such rampant money printing without anything like commensurate economic growth does mean, and however cunningly it may be have been disguised, that the money we hold has undergone and continues to undergo a rapid devaluation. So prices in the longer term must be expected to rise since inflation is already baked into the quantitatively-eased cake: the only legitimate questions being not if, but when, and importantly, how sharp the eventual decline in our purchasing power turns out to be.

In Britain, for instance, prices of goods and services are certainly rising quickly, and well above the skillfully massaged Consumer Price Index (CPI) figure of less than 3%, whilst at the same time wages remain flat (falling in real terms and thereby magnifying the impact of inflation for most people), but, on the face of it at least, there is little indication of any kind of hyperinflationary collapse coming around the corner. However, there is one outstanding factor to be considered here: that the newly printed money has largely been hoarded by the banks that received it, and for so long as the banks are reluctant to lend, little to none of this issuance flows back out into the money supply. For this reason, most of the coming inflation remains as yet in the pipeline.

So are we about to see a protracted devaluation of our currencies involving many decades of relatively low inflation at survivable rates (although perhaps as high as ten or twenty percent), or ought we to expect a sudden leap to genuine hyperinflationary levels? Put differently, are the western economies going to continue to more slowly but inexorably sink or, alternatively, is the genuine ‘fiscal cliff’ of a currency collapse nearing? The simple answer is that I don’t know – I’m not an economist and I don’t pretend to understand the deeper complexity here; and when it comes to economics, pretending to understand and then making lousy predictions is far better left to the professionals! What is clear is that so long as the imposed ‘solution’ to this still deepening financial crisis relies upon the deadly cocktail of “austerity measures” mixed with money printing, the prospect of eventual hyperinflation looms not merely as a worst-case scenario, but a worst-case that appears increasingly likely.

Why do I say this? Well, because at the same time as “austerity” is destroying growth, the endless rounds of QE are effectively reducing the value of our money by repeatedly diluting it. So maintaining this combination of imposed “austerity” and sustained money printing is just about the most perfect recipe for creating not mere inflation, but stagflation – which is precisely what we are already seeing.

But then outright hyperinflation is always a result of political choices, rather than simply an outcome of economic failures. It happens whenever a government decides (or, very often, feels coerced) to flood the economy with currency in an increasingly desperate attempt to keep up with repayments on unsustainable debts and so to survive. And for dramatic effects, this tail-chasing exercise has to go on and on and on…

So here’s what I think we can most certainly expect in the immediate future – even given a best-case scenario. Undoubtedly our economies will continue to shrivel away under the imposed “austerity measures”, bringing mass unemployment in the wake of economic decline, and that rise in joblessness, in turn, generating a frenzied competition for the remaining jobs, and forcing down ordinary wages still further (when wages have already, certainly in real terms, substantially fallen since the crisis began).

In the meantime, attacks of QE are continually eating into our earnings and savings, and in terms of devaluation, it hardly matters whether one decides to stuff their money under the mattress or deposit it in a savings scheme, given the poor rates of return on offer. But let’s also keep in mind that all of this is being done merely to serve and protect the interests of the major banks: the ones long-since deemed “too big too fail”. Institutions not only operating outside of the law, but tacitly encouraged to carry on doing so (as the lack of prosecutions following the fixing of Libor and the more extraordinary scandal involving HSBC goes to show).

And now the increasing desire shown by governments and central banks (not to mention many of the richest individuals) to suddenly acquire gold and, perhaps even more importantly, to hold on to it, offers clues beyond the competing economic theories as to what the “money masters” themselves are actually anticipating. Needless to say, it does not bode well for the majority of us.

The steadily rising price of gold is at the same time, of course, a key indicator (alongside the rising price of other commodities like silver and copper) of how much our currencies have already been debased. During the past five years, both gold and silver have approximately doubled in their value, equivalent to an annual inflation rate of slightly less than 15% (which is obviously far higher than the CPI’s paltry 3%) – I offer a more detailed analysis of these trends as a footnote.5 And these rises have happened in spite of the fact that the price of gold and silver, like everything else in our supposedly ‘free market’ system, is subject to manipulation by the major financial players, who, having “invested” so heavily in varieties of paper, have a clear interest in keeping the value of precious metals down – and the Ponzi scheme up and running.

Meanwhile, the continued appliance of tough “austerity measures” in spite of so much damning evidence of ineffectiveness in rescuing any ailing economies, anywhere, ever (either during this crisis – to judge by the effects on Greece, Spain and elsewhere – or earlier ‘interventions’ in Latin America, Africa and in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union) proves only that there is still very much a political will to enforce such neo-liberal “shock therapy”.

“Austerity” kills the poor and the weak and is already doing precisely this in places like Greece. It cannot provide any cure for what is an intrinsically systemic failure. Instead, such tight restrictions on government investment in welfare and infrastructure during a depression is like telling a starving person that it might help if they were to eat their own stomach. A brutal approach that is nothing short of criminal lunacy. And the same goes for the bailouts – the banks are fundamentally broken, indeed the entire financial system is in a state of ruin, and repeatedly bailing them out means simply throwing good money after bad… ad infinitum.

During the depression years of 1930s, there was another famous rush for gold. It eventually led to US President Franklin Roosevelt signing the notorious Executive Order 6102 in April 1933, “forbidding the hoarding of Gold Coin, Gold Bullion, and Gold Certificates within the continental United States”. An order that was supposed to apply to every individual, partnership, association and corporation, and making possession “of gold or silver coin or bullion or currency” a criminal offence. It was the same year that Warner Bros. released the first of a string of popular musicals: Gold Diggers of 1933; quickly followed up with Gold Diggers of 1935 and … of 1937. These sugary confections, mostly remembered now for their lavish and dreamy choreographed sequences put together by the great Busby Berkeley, are ‘rags to riches’ tales with guaranteed happy endings that had helped to keep the public’s pecker up.

This time around we are perhaps still a long way off any equivalent to FDR’s Executive Order, though it is always wise to keep history in mind. Back on the entertainment front, and with the depression looking set to move up through the gears once more, we are offered the rather grittier and altogether more worthy distraction of a big screen release for Victor Hugo’s grand epic turned Broadway musical, Les Misérables – Surely the producers aren’t trying to plant the seeds for revolution?!!!

I can think of no better way to finish such a gloomy article than with a song. And what better than Noël Coward’s wonderfully sardonic ditty “There Are Bad Times Just Around The Corner” (albeit written during the rather more solvent 1950s). Here’s a chorus:

There are bad times just around the corner
The horizon is gloomy as can be
There are black birds over
The greyish cliffs of Dover
And the rats are preparing to leave the BBC
We’re an unhappy breed and very bored indeed
When reminded of something that Nelson said
And while the press and the politicians nag, nag, nag
We’ll wait until we drop down dead

You can enjoy a complete performance embedded below – Is there any better national anthem for these turbulent times?

*

Update:

It seems that the story had already moved forward before I released the post – so here’s the part I missed: “Germany bring home gold stored in US, France,” released by Associated Press (published by The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday Jan 16th):

In what sounds like the setup for a stylish Hollywood heist movie, Germany is transferring nearly 700 tons of gold bars worth $36 billion from Paris and New York to its vaults in Frankfurt.

The move is part of an effort by Germany’s central bank to bring much of its gold home after keeping big reserves outside the country for safekeeping during the Cold War.

Click here to read the full story.

*

1 From an article entitled “Are the Netherlands’ gold reserves real? MPs want answers” published by Dutch News on November 28, 2012. http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2012/11/are_the_netherlands_gold_reser.php

2 From an article entitled “Bundesbank slashed London gold holdings in mystery move” written by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, International business editor, published by the Telegraph on October 24, 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/financialcrisis/9631962/Bundesbank-slashed-London-gold-holdings-in-mystery-move.html

3 From an article entitled “Germany orders a check on its gold reserves” published by Russia Today on October 29, 2012. http://rt.com/business/news/germany-gold-reserves-check-472/

4 From an article entitled “Are Fiat Currencies Headed for a Collapse?” written by Lisa Oake, published by CNBC on July 27, 2012. http://www.cnbc.com/id/48349503/Are_Fiat_Currencies_Headed_for_a_Collapse

5 As I write, the price of gold is $1687 per oz and silver stands at $31.7 per oz. Over the last five years this compares to lows and highs of $709 and $1900 for gold and ranging between $8.92 and $48.5 for silver. In other words, the current values are still below the high peaks that were reached in 2011. However, if you judge from the trend rather than from spot values then both graphs are very clearly climbing throughout the 5 years – and in that period (a period which approximately coincides with the length of the current crisis) gold has almost doubled in value (being around $900 in January 2008) and silver likewise (from just over $15 in January 2008). A doubling of prices over five years would equate to an inflation rate of very slightly under 15%. Click on the links to see price charts over 5 years for gold and silver.

Copper is a little different. The price of copper as I write is $3.6 per pound. If you study the price over the last 5 years then there has been a more modest rise compared to gold and silver (beginning with a price already a little over $3 in January 2008, before sharply falling by December 2008 and then recovering again in late 2010). But the trend for copper is very much more interesting when considered over ten years. Back in 2003, silver was still in a dip at around $0.7 but in early 2004 it sudden began to rise spectacularly, reaching $3.5 by mid 2006 – an incredible five-fold increase. It has more or less maintained this high price ever since, flattening off in recent years, although as the chart below shows, the overall trend remains modestly upward:

Historical Copper Prices - Copper Price History Chart

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Filed under analysis & opinion, austerity measures, China, Germany, Netherlands, Venezuela

12 steps to tyranny — the state of America under Obama

In April 2007, Naomi Wolf published an article in the Guardian entitled: “Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps”.1

Her article began:

If you look at history, you can see that there is essentially a blueprint for turning an open society into a dictatorship. That blueprint has been used again and again in more and less bloody, more and less terrifying ways.

But it is always effective. It is very difficult and arduous to create and sustain a democracy – but history shows that closing one down is much simpler. You simply have to be willing to take the 10 steps.

As difficult as this is to contemplate, it is clear, if you are willing to look, that each of these 10 steps has already been initiated today in the United States by the Bush administration.

Click here to read Naomi Wolf’s full article

Of course, we no longer have the spectre of a Bush administration, and barely a year had elapsed after the publication of Naomi Wolf’s wake-up call, before the election of Barack Hussein Obama meant we should worry no longer.

Obama, with his offers of “change we can believe in”, and mantra of “hope” and “progress”. Surely, he would undo the damage of the Bush years. Surely those 10 steps that Wolf outlined would begin to be retraced. However, with the tenth anniversary of the events of 9/11 fast approaching, has anything really changed?

Let me begin from Wolf’s own analytical breakdown of the Bush Years, applying her same criteria to Obama’s term in office, point by point, before considering what, if any, new threats we may now be facing.

1 Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy

After we were hit on September 11 2001, we were in a state of national shock. Less than six weeks later, on October 26 2001, the USA Patriot Act was passed by a Congress that had little chance to debate it; many said that they scarcely had time to read it. We were told we were now on a “war footing”; we were in a “global war” against a “global caliphate” intending to “wipe out civilisation”.

We still live in a world deformed by the events of 9/11. John Ashcroft’s so-called Patriot Act still stands, and on February 27th 2010, Obama signed a one-year extension of the act.

The three sections of the Patriot Act that Obama agreed to extend included:

  • Authorize court-approved roving wiretaps that permit surveillance on multiple phones.
  • Permit surveillance against a so-called lone wolf, which is a non-US citizen engaged in terrorism who many not be part of a recognized terrorist group.
  • Allow court approved seizure of records and property in anti-terrorism operations2

Then, on May 26th, 2011, just minutes before another deadline, Obama approved a further four-year extension of the Patriot Act powers, maintaining provisions for roving wiretaps, searches of business records and conducting surveillance of “lone wolves”.3

Where Bush played up the threat from Al Qaeda, according to Obama, the bigger threat is now from “lone wolves”. So whereas the Bush administration justified civil rights infringements on the grounds that it needed to protect America from Al Qaeda, Obama is saying that America’s most wanted are no longer external enemies, but those with altogether more domestic grievances, and with a very different agenda than Holy Jihad. In making this claim he has widened the net, and set the stage for even tighter restrictions on the civil liberties.
2 Create a gulag

Once you have got everyone scared, the next step is to create a prison system outside the rule of law (as Bush put it, he wanted the American detention centre at Guantánamo Bay to be situated in legal “outer space”) – where torture takes place.

At first, the people who are sent there are seen by citizens as outsiders: troublemakers, spies, “enemies of the people” or “criminals”. Initially, citizens tend to support the secret prison system; it makes them feel safer and they do not identify with the prisoners. But soon enough, civil society leaders – opposition members, labour activists, clergy and journalists – are arrested and sent there as well.

In spite of Obama’s election pledge, Guantánamo remains open. But Guantánamo is, in any case, just one of many secret (or at least out-of-sight) US detention centres still operating around the world. There is, thankfully, less talk of the need for torture. Torture is almost a dirty word again. The Obama administration prefers to talk of “enhanced interrogation” and “debriefing”. But does anyone seriously believe that torture (by whatever name it chooses to call itself) is no longer sanctioned at Guantánamo and in those other darker corners.

Undoubtedly, the most high-profile case of the Obama years involves the detention of alleged wikileaks source Bradley Manning, who has been held for over a year in the Quantico marine base in Virginia awaiting court-martial in what have been described as “degrading and inhumane conditions”:

Under the terms of his detention, he is kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, checked every five minutes under a so-called “prevention of injury order” and stripped naked at night apart from a smock.4

However, and as Mehdi Hasan writing for the Guardian in April of this year points out, the case of Bradley Manning represents only the tip of the iceberg:

[But] it wasn’t a Republican Congress that forced [Obama], for instance, to double the size of the Bagram facility – where human rights groups have documented torture and deaths – and deny prisoners the right to challenge their detention. He did that on his own. Bagram is Obama’s Guantánamo.5

More recently, Jeremy Scahill has also shone light on CIA operations at secret sites in Somalia:

Meanwhile, Obama has consistently refused to allow the prosecution of those who openly called for and approved the use of torture, and has thus failed to draw a necessary line under the crimes of the previous administration.6

3 Develop a thug caste

When leaders who seek what I call a “fascist shift” want to close down an open society, they send paramilitary groups of scary young men out to terrorise citizens. The Blackshirts roamed the Italian countryside beating up communists; the Brownshirts staged violent rallies throughout Germany. This paramilitary force is especially important in a democracy: you need citizens to fear thug violence and so you need thugs who are free from prosecution.

The years following 9/11 have proved a bonanza for America’s security contractors, with the Bush administration outsourcing areas of work that traditionally fell to the US military. In the process, contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars have been issued for security work by mercenaries at home and abroad.

It’s hard to get precise numbers here due to the covert nature of many US operations, but it seems that the Obama administration has actually increased the use of “military contractors”. For instance, by June 2009, although the number of military contractors in Iraq was reduced, in Afghanistan, it rose to almost 74,000, far outnumbering the roughly 58,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground at that point.7 Under Obama, the use of mercenaries has also spilled over into neighbouring Pakistan.8 In March 2011, there were more contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq than “uniformed personnel”.9

4 Set up an internal surveillance system

In Mussolini’s Italy, in Nazi Germany, in communist East Germany, in communist China – in every closed society – secret police spy on ordinary people and encourage neighbours to spy on neighbours. The Stasi needed to keep only a minority of East Germans under surveillance to convince a majority that they themselves were being watched.

In 2005 and 2006, when James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote in the New York Times about a secret state programme to wiretap citizens’ phones, read their emails and follow international financial transactions, it became clear to ordinary Americans that they, too, could be under state scrutiny.

In closed societies, this surveillance is cast as being about “national security”; the true function is to keep citizens docile and inhibit their activism and dissent.

So that was Naomi Wolf in September 2007, and here is Charlie Savage reporting for The New York Times in June 2011:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is giving significant new powers to its roughly 14,000 agents, allowing them more leeway to search databases, go through household trash or use surveillance teams to scrutinize the lives of people who have attracted their attention.

The F.B.I. soon plans to issue a new edition of its manual, called the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, according to an official who has worked on the draft document and several others who have been briefed on its contents.

The article continues:

Some of the most notable changes apply to the lowest category of investigations, called an “assessment.” The category, created in December 2008, allows agents to look into people and organizations “proactively” and without firm evidence for suspecting criminal or terrorist activity.10

More generally, as National Journal correspondent, Shane Harris, explained to Democracy Now! in February 2010, spying on US citizens has actually become easier under the Obama administration’s national security strategy:

Click here to read the full transcript of the interview.
5 Harass citizens’ groups

The fifth thing you do is related to step four – you infiltrate and harass citizens’ groups. It can be trivial: a church in Pasadena, whose minister preached that Jesus was in favour of peace, found itself being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, while churches that got Republicans out to vote, which is equally illegal under US tax law, have been left alone.

Other harassment is more serious: the American Civil Liberties Union reports that thousands of ordinary American anti-war, environmental and other groups have been infiltrated by agents: a secret Pentagon database includes more than four dozen peaceful anti-war meetings, rallies or marches by American citizens in its category of 1,500 “suspicious incidents”.

The equally secret Counterintelligence Field Activity (Cifa) agency of the Department of Defense has been gathering information about domestic organisations engaged in peaceful political activities: Cifa is supposed to track “potential terrorist threats” as it watches ordinary US citizen activists. A little-noticed new law has redefined activism such as animal rights protests as “terrorism”. So the definition of “terrorist” slowly expands to include the opposition.

And again, here is Charlie Savage from the same article of June 2011:

The new manual will also remove a limitation on the use of surveillance squads, which are trained to surreptitiously follow targets. Under current rules, the squads can be used only once during an assessment, but the new rules will allow agents to use them repeatedly. Ms. Caproni said restrictions on the duration of physical surveillance would still apply, and argued that because of limited resources, supervisors would use the squads only rarely during such a low-level investigation.

The revisions also clarify what constitutes “undisclosed participation” in an organization by an F.B.I. agent or informant, which is subject to special rules — most of which have not been made public. The new manual says an agent or an informant may surreptitiously attend up to five meetings of a group before those rules would apply — unless the goal is to join the group, in which case the rules apply immediately.

Click here to read the full article.

6 Engage in arbitrary detention and release

This scares people. It is a kind of cat-and-mouse game. Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the investigative reporters who wrote China Wakes: the Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power, describe pro-democracy activists in China, such as Wei Jingsheng, being arrested and released many times. In a closing or closed society there is a “list” of dissidents and opposition leaders: you are targeted in this way once you are on the list, and it is hard to get off the list.

In 2004, America’s Transportation Security Administration [TSA] confirmed that it had a list of passengers who were targeted for security searches or worse if they tried to fly. People who have found themselves on the list? Two middle-aged women peace activists in San Francisco; liberal Senator Edward Kennedy; a member of Venezuela’s government – after Venezuela’s president had criticised Bush; and thousands of ordinary US citizens. […]

It is a standard practice of fascist societies that once you are on the list, you can’t get off.

About a year after Obama took office, in January 2010, the “watch” and “no-fly” lists were expanded to “improve our watchlisting system as well as our ability to thwart future attempts to carry out terrorist attacks”.11

There are videos all over youtube which show how searches conducted by TSA contractors are in direct violation of the fourth amendment. Even children are now subjected to routine harassment. Here, for example, a distraught mother watches as her six-year-old girl is searched, presumably for explosives, by TSA ‘officers’:

7 Target key individuals

Threaten civil servants, artists and academics with job loss if they don’t toe the line. Mussolini went after the rectors of state universities who did not conform to the fascist line; so did Joseph Goebbels, who purged academics who were not pro-Nazi; so did Chile’s Augusto Pinochet; so does the Chinese communist Politburo in punishing pro-democracy students and professors.

Academe is a tinderbox of activism, so those seeking a fascist shift punish academics and students with professional loss if they do not “coordinate”, in Goebbels’ term, ideologically. Since civil servants are the sector of society most vulnerable to being fired by a given regime, they are also a group that fascists typically “coordinate” early on: the Reich Law for the Re-establishment of a Professional Civil Service was passed on April 7 1933.

Perhaps the most high-profile case since Obama took office has been attempts to prosecute National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Thomas Drake. According to The New Yorker, the Obama administration has used the Espionage Act of 1917 to press criminal charges in a total of five alleged instances of national security leaks—more such prosecutions than have occurred in all previous administrations combined.12

Democracy Now! spoke to former Justice Department whistleblower, Jesselyn Radack, about the case of Thomas Drake in May 2011:

Click here to read the full transcript of the interview.

In June 2011, on the eve of the trial, the whole case against Thomas Drake was dropped:

Days before his trial was set to begin, former National Security Agency manager and accused leaker Thomas A. Drake accepted a plea deal from the government Thursday that drops the charges in his indictment, absolves him of mishandling classified information and calls for no prison time.

In exchange, Drake, who was facing 35 years in prison if convicted of violating the Espionage Act, will plead guilty to a misdemeanor of exceeding authorized use of a computer. He will pay no fine, and the maximum probation time he can serve will be capped at one year.13

8 Control the press

Over time in closing societies, real news is supplanted by fake news and false documents. […]
You won’t have a shutdown of news in modern America – it is not possible. But you can have, as Frank Rich and Sidney Blumenthal have pointed out, a steady stream of lies polluting the news well. What you already have is a White House directing a stream of false information that is so relentless that it is increasingly hard to sort out truth from untruth.

In a fascist system, it’s not the lies that count but the muddying. When citizens can’t tell real news from fake, they give up their demands for accountability bit by bit.

“Who cares what the media says about anything? They are bought and paid for a thousand times over. They couldn’t tell the truth if they could find it.” So said Gore Vidal in October 2006.14

Five years on, and the mainstream media is no less bridled; the same small corporate cartel, that is bent on privileging the special interests of a few powerful owners and sponsors, maintains its dominance. And although, in the meantime, the challenge from independent voices has been steadily on the rise via the internet, it is in precisely these areas of the “new media” where controls are now being brought in.

But applying restrictions requires justification, and so these latest attacks against freedom of speech are couched as a necessary response to what the government deems, and thus what the public is encouraged to believe, to be a threat. The following extract is taken directly from the wikipedia entry on Cass Sunstein, who, in September 2009, was appointed as Obama’s Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (the original footnotes to references are preserved)15:

[Cass] Sunstein co-authored a 2008 paper with Adrian Vermeule, titled “Conspiracy Theories,” dealing with the risks and possible government responses to false conspiracy theories resulting from “cascades” of faulty information within groups that may ultimately lead to violence. In this article they wrote, “The existence of both domestic and foreign conspiracy theories, we suggest, is no trivial matter, posing real risks to the government’s antiterrorism policies, whatever the latter may be.” They go on to propose that, “the best response consists in cognitive infiltration of extremist groups”,[22] where they suggest, among other tactics, “Government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action.”[22] They refer, several times, to groups that promote the view that the US Government was responsible or complicit in the September 11 attacks as “extremist groups.”

Sunstein and Vermeule also analyze the practice of recruiting “nongovernmental officials”; they suggest that “government can supply these independent experts with information and perhaps prod them into action from behind the scenes,” further warning that “too close a connection will be self-defeating if it is exposed.”[22] Sunstein and Vermeule argue that the practice of enlisting non-government officials, “might ensure that credible independent experts offer the rebuttal, rather than government officials themselves. There is a tradeoff between credibility and control, however. The price of credibility is that government cannot be seen to control the independent experts.” This position has been criticized by some commentators,[23][24] who argue that it would violate prohibitions on government propaganda aimed at domestic citizens.[25] Sunstein and Vermeule’s proposed infiltrations have also been met by sharply critical scholarly critiques.[26][27]

So which is the greater threat, a few people with alternative views and accounts, or the kinds of subversion of (or even outright clampdown on) free speech proposed, and now being put into effect by Cass Sunstein?

Simply being out of step with the official line is now enough to get you categorised as an “extremist”, and so a distinction that was once reserved for those who threatened the use of violent overthrow, is now directed against anyone who merely disagrees.

9 Dissent equals treason

Cast dissent as “treason” and criticism as “espionage’. Every closing society does this, just as it elaborates laws that increasingly criminalise certain kinds of speech and expand the definition of “spy” and “traitor”.

wrote Wolf back in 2007, and as we have seen the Obama administration has used the Espionage Act of 1917 on more occasions than any other administration.

There is also the continuation of the “Threat Fusion Centers” created under Bush, which been found guilty of targeting, amongst other groups, anti-war activists:

In late February[2009], the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) criticized a leaked intelligence bulletin from the North Central Texas Fusion System asking law enforcement officers to report on the activities of Islamic and anti-war lobbying groups, specifically the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the International Action Center (IAC). CAIR is a national Muslim advocacy group, while IAC is an American activist organization that opposes all U.S. military intervention overseas.16

Wolf’s analysis continues:

And here is where the circle closes: most Americans do not realise that since September of last year – when Congress wrongly, foolishly, passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 – the president has the power to call any US citizen an “enemy combatant”. He has the power to define what “enemy combatant” means. The president can also delegate to anyone he chooses in the executive branch the right to define “enemy combatant” any way he or she wants and then seize Americans accordingly.

Even if you or I are American citizens, even if we turn out to be completely innocent of what he has accused us of doing, he has the power to have us seized as we are changing planes at Newark tomorrow, or have us taken with a knock on the door; ship you or me to a navy brig; and keep you or me in isolation, possibly for months, while awaiting trial. (Prolonged isolation, as psychiatrists know, triggers psychosis in otherwise mentally healthy prisoners. That is why Stalin’s gulag had an isolation cell, like Guantánamo’s, in every satellite prison. Camp 6, the newest, most brutal facility at Guantánamo, is all isolation cells.)

We US citizens will get a trial eventually – for now. But legal rights activists at the Center for Constitutional Rights say that the Bush administration is trying increasingly aggressively to find ways to get around giving even US citizens fair trials. “Enemy combatant” is a status offence – it is not even something you have to have done.

In 2009, the Military Commissions Act was amended to “remove some of its worst violations of due process”, but, according to a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “the legislation still falls far short of the requirements imposed by the Constitution and Geneva Conventions.”17:

[The Military Commissions Act of 2009 ] continues to apply the military commissions to a much broader group of individuals than should be tried before them under the United States’ legal obligations, it does not completely bar all coerced testimony as required by the Constitution and does not even prohibit military commission trials of children.

Click here to read the full ACLU press release.

After legal challenges and pressure from federal judges, in March 2009, the Obama administration “jettisoned the Bush-era term ‘enemy combatant’ but maintained a broad right to detain those who provide ‘substantial’ assistance to al-Qaeda and its associates around the globe.” A report from the Washington Post continues:

Many human rights groups expressed dismay yesterday that the administration had not made a more radical change in tactics and policies.

Tom Parker, Amnesty International advocacy director for terrorism, counterterrorism and human rights, said, “It’s symbolically significant that he’s dropped the term ‘enemy combatant,’ but the power to detain individuals within the ‘indefinite detention without charge’ paradigm remains substantially intact.”

The legal filing is the latest signal that Obama’s team is not radically departing from many of the terrorism-related legal policies of the previous administration.18

Click here to read the full article.
10 Suspend the rule of law

The John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 gave the president new powers over the national guard. This means that in a national emergency – which the president now has enhanced powers to declare – he can send Michigan’s militia to enforce a state of emergency that he has declared in Oregon, over the objections of the state’s governor and its citizens. […]

Critics see this as a clear violation of the Posse Comitatus Act – which was meant to restrain the federal government from using the military for domestic law enforcement. The Democratic senator Patrick Leahy says the bill encourages a president to declare federal martial law. It also violates the very reason the founders set up our system of government as they did: having seen citizens bullied by a monarch’s soldiers, the founders were terrified of exactly this kind of concentration of militias’ power over American people in the hands of an oppressive executive or faction.

Section 1076, which allowed the President to declare a public emergency and station the military anywhere in America and take control of state-based National Guard units without the consent of the governor or local authorities, was repealed in 2008. But then, on January 11th 2010 “in order to strengthen the partnership between federal and state governments in protecting the nation against all manner of threats, including terrorism and natural disasters,” President Obama signed an Executive Order, which established a body of ten state governors directly appointed by Obama to work to help advance the “synchronization and integration of State and Federal military activities in the United States” (see item (d) from section 2).

So does this open the door again for US troops to be brought in to control civil unrest in the aftermath of a national emergency? Well, the US Patriot Act is still in operation, which means that the US remains in a state of emergency.

*

Obama then has not substantially moved away from the policies he inherited from Bush. Nearly everything that Bush & co put into place following the 9/11 attacks remains in place, and so if Wolf is right, then America is just as close to tyranny as it was before his election. But actually there are reasons to belief that the situation is even worse, and that brings me to steps 11 and 12.

11 Collapse of the economy

Wolf wrote her article in April 2007. But it was only later, and in the wake of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, when the seriousness of the current banking crisis first became apparent to most people. The response of the Bush administration was the shameless and underhand Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) which was signed into law on October 3rd 2008.19 But we should also remember that the whole TARP, which came in two stages, involved a total banker bailout of $700 billion, and the second half of this money was cleared by Obama’s incoming administration.20

Bailing out the “troubled assets” hasn’t worked and never could. It was intended to save the bankers, or at least prop them up a while longer, but following the TARP and then quantitative easing QE1 followed by QE2, America, along with the rest of the developed world, is still heading towards outright financial meltdown. As Alan Greenspan correctly pointed out at the time of all the hoo-hah about raising the debt ceiling, there is no danger of a debt default because the US can always print more money. But how much more is needed? And how long before QE3 or even QE4? If they print enough then America faces the prospect of hyperinflation, and of course hyperinflation was precisely the final straw that collapsed the Weimar Republic and allowed Hitler to come to power. The lesson from history is a stark one.

12 Rule by a Super Congress

Another piece of the fallout of last month’s raising of the debt ceiling fiasco, was the largely unreported establishment of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. This new “Super Congress” which consists of twelve members of Congress, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, with Obama retaining an overall right to veto, is mandated to make proposals to reduce the federal budget deficit by a total of at least $1.5 trillion over 10 years. In the event that Congress then refuses to pass those proposals, “a trigger mechanism” will enact $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts:

This “Super Congress” of twelve will recommend cuts that will basically go unchallenged. They must make their recommendations by Thanksgiving, then the congress must have up or down votes with no changes. A simple yes or no vote to enact new law with vast implications on the lives of every American. That this group will be appointed and not elected is bad enough, but if their cuts hopefully done with a scalpel are not voted in, there will be a trigger that takes effect and makes even more draconian cuts, most likely with a butcher knife or ax.21

So an unelected committee eager to dish out some more “austerity” is now determining America’s economic future, and thus, by extension, forcing decisions in every area of governance. Why bother having coups when you can take control so sneakily?

Going back to Naomi Wolf, she writes:

Of course, the United States is not vulnerable to the violent, total closing-down of the system that followed Mussolini’s march on Rome or Hitler’s roundup of political prisoners. Our democratic habits are too resilient, and our military and judiciary too independent, for any kind of scenario like that.

Rather, as other critics are noting, our experiment in democracy could be closed down by a process of erosion.

It is a mistake to think that early in a fascist shift you see the profile of barbed wire against the sky. In the early days, things look normal on the surface; peasants were celebrating harvest festivals in Calabria in 1922; people were shopping and going to the movies in Berlin in 1931. Early on, as WH Auden put it, the horror is always elsewhere – while someone is being tortured, children are skating, ships are sailing: “dogs go on with their doggy life … How everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster.”

All of this is absolutely right, of course, and unfortunately under Obama the ‘process of erosion’ that began after 9/11 has continued; and, perhaps more importantly, it has become normalised. Bush was an obvious tyrant, whereas Obama is more the persuader. And the big difference between Bush and Obama has really been style, with Obama, by virtue of being far the more stylish, also arguably the more dangerous. In any case, the stage remains set for whoever comes to power next, because as Wolf put it in 2007:

What if, in a year and a half, there is another attack — say, God forbid, a dirty bomb? The executive can declare a state of emergency. History shows that any leader, of any party, will be tempted to maintain emergency powers after the crisis has passed. With the gutting of traditional checks and balances, we are no less endangered by a President Hillary than by a President Giuliani — because any executive will be tempted to enforce his or her will through edict rather than the arduous, uncertain process of democratic negotiation and compromise.

*

In 2008, Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stein produced a documentary film based on Naomi Wolf’s book “The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot”, on which her 2007 Guardian article had been based. Released on DVD and online in October 2008, the film offers a chilling warning of the dangers that America still faces. As Naomi Wolf concluded in her 2007 article:

We need to look at history and face the “what ifs”. For if we keep going down this road, the “end of America” could come for each of us in a different way, at a different moment; each of us might have a different moment when we feel forced to look back and think: that is how it was before – and this is the way it is now.

“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands … is the definition of tyranny,” wrote James Madison. We still have the choice to stop going down this road; we can stand our ground and fight for our nation, and take up the banner the founders asked us to carry.

1 “Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps” by Naomi Wolf, published in the Guardian on April 24, 2007.

From Hitler to Pinochet and beyond, history shows there are certain steps that any would-be dictator must take to destroy constitutional freedoms. And, argues Naomi Wolf, George Bush and his administration seem to be taking them all

http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,,2064157,00.html

2 Taken from an article entitled: “President Obama Signs One-Year Extension of Patriot Act”, by Julie Kent, published on February 28, 2010 in Cleveland Leader. http://www.clevelandleader.com/node/13183

3 “Obama, in Europe, signs Patriot Act extension” published on May 27, 2011 from msnbc.

Minutes before a midnight deadline, President Barack Obama signed into law a four-year extension of post-Sept. 11 powers to search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43180202/ns/us_news-security/t/obama-europe-signs-patriot-act-extension/#.Tk6Wk10neaI

4 Taken from an article entitled: “Bradley Manning; top US legal scholars voice outrage at ‘torture’” by Ed Pilkington, published on April 10, 2011 in the Guardian.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/10/bradley-manning-legal-scholars-letter

5 Taken from an article entitled, “Forget Sarah Palin and Donald Trump: Obama needs a challenge from the left”, written by Mehdi Hasan, published on May 11, 2011 in the Guardian.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/may/11/barack-obama-primaries-palin-trump

6 “Despite overwhelming evidence that senior Bush administration officials approved illegal interrogation methods involving torture and other ill-treatment, the Obama administration has yet to pursue prosecutions of any high-level officials or to establish a commission of inquiry.” from Human Rights Watch, World Report 2011, p. 624

7 According to an article entitled: “Afghanistan Contractors Outnumber Troops” by August Cole, published August 22, 2009 in The Wall Street Journal. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125089638739950599.html

8 For more information read Jeremy Scahill’s article entitled “The Secret US War in Pakistan”, published December 7, 2009 in The Nation. http://www.thenation.com/article/secret-us-war-pakistan

9 According to a Congressional Research Service report entitled “Department of Defense Contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq: Background and Analysis” by Moshe Schwartz & Joyprada Swain, published May 13, 2011:

10  From an article entitled “F.B.I Agents Get Leeway to Push Privacy Bounds” by Charlie Savage, published June 12, 2011 in The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/13/us/13fbi.html?_r=1

11  See BBC News article “US steps up flight security lists”, published January 5, 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/8440591.stm

12  See the New Yorker article “The Secret Sharer: is Thomas Drake an enemy of the state?” by Jane Mayer, published on May 23, 2011. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/05/23/110523fa_fact_mayer

13  See the Washington Post article “Ex-NSA official Thomas Drake to plead guilty to misdemeanor”, by Ellen Nakashima, published June 9, 2011. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/national-security/ex-nsa-manager-has-reportedly-twice-rejected-plea-bargains-in-espionage-act-case/2011/06/09/AG89ZHNH_story.html

14  Taken from an interview he gave at the Texas Book Festival on October 29th, 2006. In response to a question about the government cover-up surrounding the September 11th attacks and the indifference of the media response.

15  Taken from the section entitled: “’Conspiracy Theories’ and government infiltration” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cass_Sunstein#.22Conspiracy_Theories.22_and_government_infiltration

16  From an article entitled, “Fusion Centers Under Fire in Texas and New Mexico”, written by Matthew Harwood from March 9, 2009.

http://www.securitymanagement.com/news/fusion-centers-under-fire-texas-and-new-mexico-005314

17 “While this bill contains substantial improvements to the current military commissions, the system remains fatally flawed and contrary to basic principles of American justice. While the bill takes positive steps by restricting coerced and hearsay evidence and providing greater defense counsel resources, it still falls short of providing the due process required by the Constitution. The military commissions were created to circumvent the Constitution and result in quick convictions, not to achieve real justice.

“Because of their tainted history, these proceedings, if carried on in any form, would continue to be stigmatized as unfair and inadequate, would be plagued by delay and controversy and would keep alive the terrible legacy of Guantánamo. As long as we are using anything but our time-tested federal court system, the military commissions will remain a second class system of justice.”

From American Civil Liberties Press Release of October 8, 2009.

http://www.aclu.org/national-security/house-passes-changes-guantanamo-military-commissions

18  From an article entitled, “U.S. Retires ‘Enemy Combatant,’ Keeps Broad Right to Detain, by Del Quentin Wilber and Peter Finn, published on March 14, 2009 in the Washington Post.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/13/AR2009031302371.html

19  “The man charged with monitoring the $700 billion financial rescue has launched more than a dozen investigations into possible misuse of the money, according to a report sent to Congress today.

“In findings that are not likely to soothe agitated taxpayers who are wondering what return they are getting from the bailouts, Neil Barofsky — Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, known as TARP — said billions of taxpayer dollars are vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse.

“Barofsky — who detailed the bailout fund perils in a 250-page tome [pdf] — said that the criminal probes are looking into possible public corruption, stock, tax, and corporate fraud, insider trading and mortgage fraud. There would be no details on the targets, according to the report, ‘until public action is taken.'”

From an article entitled, “TARP Fraud Probes Begin” written by Elizabeth Olson, from April 21st 2009.

http://www.portfolio.com/views/blogs/daily-brief/2009/04/21/tarp-fraud-probes-begin/

20  “In a decisive and hard-fought victory for President-elect Barack Obama, the Senate cleared the way today for Obama’s incoming administration to spend the second $350 billion of the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

“A measure to block the funds was voted down 42 to 52 after an intense lobbying campaign by the Obama economic team and by Obama himself.

“Just hours before the vote, Obama economic adviser Larry Summers wrote a letter promising the Senate that the Obama administration would take specific steps to ensure the money is spent more responsibly and with more transparency than the Bush Administration spent the first $350 billion in TARP cash.”

Taken from an article entitled, “Obama Wins $350B Senate TARP Vote”, written by Jonathan Karl on January 15, 2009 for ABC World News.

http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/Economy/story?id=6654133&page=1

21 From an article entitled, “The Super Congress We Did Not Elect” written by R.W. Sanders, published on August 2, 2011 by The Huffington Post.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rw-sanders/the-super-congress-we-did_b_914635.html

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the answer to TINA… is TRISH!

Let’s start with TINA…

There is no alternative (shortened as TINA) was one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite slogans. Those who repeat this slogan today, do so in defence of the same neoliberal agenda that Thatcher’s policies first helped to establish during the 1980s. They believe that only the  “freedom of the markets” is sacrosanct, and oblivious to the hardship and brutal oppression which such policies have brought to so many countries around the world, they stand firm in their conviction that we are living under the best of all possible economic orders. In this sense, they are fundamentalists. Whilst those who use it to defend calls for the latest round of “austerity measures” are also saying that making savage cuts to government spending is the only way to rescue ourselves in these times of economic crisis. That we must sacrifice everything in order to satisfy the market. Yet all of this is dependent upon accepting an ideology that refuses to admit it is an ideology, and all of this is socioeconomic nonsense.

A background to austerity

Inter-governmental institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have for many years demanded a commitment from governments of impoverished nations to accept the imposition of austerity measures in exchange for functioning as a lender of last resort. The terms for such IMF bailouts are technically known as “conditionalities”.

Conditionalities generally involve a number of requirements and some of these may indeed be beneficial. The IMF may, for example, insist upon anti-corruption measures. But mostly the IMF will insist upon “free market reforms”, which means, in short, a tough austerity package to dismantle the nation’s welfare system, with the forced privatisation of key public services, along with the imposition of “trade liberalisation” and deregulation. Under such a programme, with the country being required, in effect, to give up it economic sovereignty, it is suddenly open to vulture capitalism, and ready to be asset-stripped by global corporations.

This package of conditionalities, or “market-friendly policies”, was known as the Washington Consensus, although it might more aptly have been renamed the “Chicago Concensus” given that these rules for “economic reform” were predicated on the hardline neoliberal dogma developed by the Chicago School, and then first tested by the so-called Chicago Boys, who imposed them as economic “Shock Therapy” during the terrible years of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. In any case, the name Washington Consensus became so sullied that the IMF have dropped it altogether. But only the tone of the IMF has been softened, as the demands being made of Greece and Portugal now show. They are still in the business of dismantling welfare systems and the wholesale privatisation of nations.

The results of austerity

“The experience of austerity measures imposed on developing countries should sound alarm bells for us all. These measures are not a new innovation; they were cooked up by Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s and forced onto developing countries by the IMF and World Bank. The effects were devastating: inequality, poverty and injustice increased as public services and welfare spending were slashed.

“Recently, such policies have been completely discredited; even the World Bank and IMF held their hands up and said they got it wrong. Countries, like Malaysia and Vietnam, that resisted the austerity measures remained far less vulnerable than those that had to succumb to these failed economic prescriptions. If we don’t resist this illogical thinking, the outcome will lead to a truly broken Britain.”

says Deborah Doane, director of the World Development Movement.

In the same article, which is entitled “Neoliberal policies have no place in the post-crash world”, Doane also gives a concise and well-informed overview of the effects of imposed austerity on the basis of recent historical cases.1

Why austerity cannot help us

“The deficit isn’t caused by profligate government spending to support an over-bloated welfare state, but by a massive bank bailout, shrinking government revenues, and a decline in corporate taxation. As in the developing world, maintaining public spending is what we need for long-term support to our economy, and to our populations.”

says Deborah Doane in the same article.

The maths is actually quite simple here. If you cut government spending, especially during times when the private sector economy is also struggling, then the knock-on effect is that tax revenues are reduced, and this then increases the deficit. The outcome being precisely the opposite to that demanded. But austerity isn’t simply doomed to failure, it is doomed to devastating failure. It leaves the country concerned with nothing but mass unemployment and even greater debts to repay.

Why we must fight this together

“For decades, Europe has been held up as a paragon for how social democracy can work, by providing free healthcare or education, and ensuring people have a high quality of life at the same time. The legacy of the Chicago School is invading this last battleground for social justice. Fighting the austerity agenda at home is a truly globally relevant campaign.”

says Deborah Doane in the same article.

It took a century for the people of Europe to win our economic rights, but we are now on the verge of throwing that inheritance away. People all around the world aspire to enjoy the same rights. We should not let them down.

And now over to TRISH

In an attempt to offer an alternative to TINA, I have put together this five-point alternative plan. I believe that something of this sort needs to be agreed upon by all groups who now stand opposed to the government (and IMF supported) programme of austerity measures. I would very much welcome any constructive comments, amendments, or corrections; and if you are interested in helping to take the idea further then do please get in touch.

The basic proposals can be summarised as follows: Take on the bankers, Re-regulate the markets, Increase tax revenues, Stop the wars, and Help for ourselves. Hence, TRISH:

Take on the bankers

The current crisis didn’t just happen for no reason. If it were simply a part of some kind of quasi-natural but ultimately mysterious boom and bust cycle, then we might hope to simply grit our teeth and ride it out. There is, unfortunately, no evidence that supports such a conviction.

The current crisis did not originate because of fiscal mismanagement and government overspending. The problems in Greece, for instance, did not arise simply because of their long-standing problems with tax receipts, any more than the recession in America began with subprime mortgages and the housing bubble. The individual crises of these various nation states are merely symptoms of more than two decades of unregulated greed and corruption in Wall Street and The City of London. The results of a systemic failure, which cannot be resolved therefore until the current financial system is itself overhauled.

The current crisis has happened because the speculators and financiers gathered so much power that they have taken control of our senior politicians. This is why Obama is surrounded by a coterie of advisers from Goldman Sachs. It is also why Peter Mandelson and George Osborne were found cosying up together aboard a Russian oligarch’s yacht at one of Nathan Rothschild’s lavish parties. For no dog can have two masters. To make sure they are working for us then, such obscene cronyism has to be rooted out, and, so far as it’s possible, legislated against.

Ever since the crash of 2008, the banks have been playing the suicide card. Holding us hostage with a gun pointed to their own heads. Give us your money or everything goes down with us, they threaten, and their close friends in the media and government play along, perpetuating the myth that they are simply “too big to fail”. They want us to forget about their malpractice and criminal fraud that caused the crisis, and to carry on stumping up the interest for debts so enormous they can never be repaid.

We need an investigation. We need an international debt moratorium followed by cancellation of all debt found to be odious. The endless bailouts only serve the bankers and these must end. Meanwhile private savings and pension funds need to be protected. But if Goldman Sachs closes down then so be it. We’ll pick up the pieces later.

Re-regulate the markets

This current crisis really owes its origins to the policies of Thatcher and Reagan. Everything would have been avoided if it hadn’t been for the deregulation of the markets which began back in the 1980s. Allowing the bankers to police themselves turned out to be a bad idea. We might have guessed.

The underlying cause of the current crisis is the worldwide trade in “derivatives”. It is currently estimated that in the order of a quadrillion US dollars (yes, that’s with a qu-) has been staked on derivations of various kinds. We can compare this with the entire world GDP which turns out to be a mere 60 trillion US dollars2. One quadrillion being more than twenty times larger. Or we might compare it against the estimated monetary wealth of the whole world: about $75 trillion in real estate, and a further $100 trillion in world stock and bonds. So one quadrillion is a number exceeding even the absolute monetary value of the entire world! Warren Buffett once described derivatives as “financial weapons of mass destruction”, and he should know because he trades in them.

We must place a ban, if not on all derivatives, then certainly on the most toxic varieties such as credit-default swaps. There should also be a criminal investigation that looks into the sale of so many “toxic assets” and considers the role of the credit ratings agencies which graded them triple-A. The very same rating agencies that are now downgrading countries such as Greece, Portugal and Ireland.

A separation of investment banking from depository banking would at least have protected ordinary savers from the whims of the speculators. In America such a separation had existed since the Banking Act of 1933, known as the Glass-Steagall Act, until Bill Clinton repealed the law in 1999. Legislation along the lines of Glass-Steagall needs to be brought back.

Increase tax revenues

Tax is a dirty word but if the deficit is to be redressed then government revenue will need to be increased. Politicians talk a great deal about fairness and we should hold them to this. The people who caused the crisis should now be bailing us out. There has been some talk of a Tobin tax on all transactions in the financial markets, and even at the very low rates of 0.05% being proposed by some groups, hundreds of billions of pounds would be raised annually. So why not levy a Tobin tax at a higher rate, say 1% (which is a tiny fraction when compared to any tax the rest of us pay) and then use that money to repay the national debt?

Gordon Brown came into office on the promise of closing tax loopholes but did nothing of the kind. Major corporations simply don’t pay their fair share. They move their operations offshore by taking advantage of the many tax havens available, the majority of which are British dependencies. It is estimated that tax havens drain the UK economy of around £25bn annually through their role in tax avoidance and evasion, and that hundreds of billions are lost globally each year.3 Money that should be paying for education and healthcare.

We should resist any rises in the sorts of stealth taxes on the poor and the middle class which the government are likely to propose, no matter how temptingly packaged they may appear. “Quantitative Easing”, which is a deliberately impressive and misleading term for what is simply the printing of extra money, is an inherently inflationary strategy. It is, therefore, the most insidious stealth tax of all. Let’s find the money in fairer ways, by forcing the corporations and the super-rich to pay their dues.

Stop the wars

Wars cost money, lots of money. Defence Secretary Liam Fox has recently revealed that the estimated cost for our involvement in the NATO-led Libya campaign will be in the region of £120m, assuming the conflict continues into the autumn as expected. A further £140m then being needed to replace missiles and munitions, which makes £260 million in total.4 However, less conservative estimates of costs to the British taxpayer raise the figure to as much as £1bn. 5

Meanwhile, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have already cost British taxpayers more than £20billion, and this does not even include the salaries of soldiers or paying for their long-term injuries and mental health care.6 Acute care for the troops most seriously injured in Afghanistan is costing the government more than £500,000 every week.7 And all for what?

Putting an end to these imperialist adventures is not only a moral imperative, it is an economic necessity.

Help for ourselves and others

Running a nation’s economy is not the same as running a household budget. Making cuts in government spending may save money, but with reduced investment there must come an inevitable kick-back. The economy will shrink and with less tax revenue available the deficit then grows. And this becomes a vicious cycle.

In order to stop such a debt spiral turning into depression, the government needs to spend rather than save. This is what the post-war Attlee government did when it expanded the welfare state and founded the National Health Service. Reinvestment in public services and infrastructure can put money in people’s pockets again. Meanwhile, investment in manufacturing and industry would help to reduce our balance of payments deficit.

During times of depression government investment becomes essential. We need investment to revive Britain’s once strong manufacturing base. This can involve tax or other incentives and will most certainly require significant cash injections to support established industries and encourage new production and innovation. In the meantime, we should roll back the privatisation of our public sector, of schools and prisons (how outrageous that companies can profit from locking people up), and most urgently, of the NHS.

In a fully privatised world, which is the dream of neoliberal economists, we all fall prey to the markets. So let’s abandon our current obsession with private enterprise and move back to a more mixed-economy, adopting a policy of dirigisme. In this spirit, we might decide to take state control of any struggling key industries, as well as re-nationalising the natural monopolies of water and energy supply.

It is high time to rebuild our infrastructure, since this is the bedrock for all social and economic progress: and examples of the sorts of projects we should consider include the long overdue upgrading of our railway system; the installation of countrywide fibre-optic broadband; the construction of new power plants including the proposed tide power barrage across the Severn estuary, which alone could supply more than 5% of our current electricity demands; and then there are more ambitious schemes, such as protecting ourselves against future water shortages by building a national water grid. We need to seize this as an opportunity to do all the things we ought to have done years ago because the future will belong to those who invested wisely – which means funneling our money into rebuilding industry, reconstructing our infrastructure, and supporting new areas of scientific research and development instead of frittering it away on banker bailouts and bonuses. Let’s build a country that’s fit and proper for the twenty-first century.

Such a New Deal programme was how Franklin Roosevelt rescued the US economy during the last Great Depression. Between 1933 and 1936, Roosevelt implemented the “3 Rs”: Relief for the unemployed and poor, Recovery of the economy to normal levels, and Reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression. Roosevelt’s New Deal is perhaps the best example of the kind of forward-thinking programme of economic measures that is so desperately needed today.

2 According to IMF economic database for October 2010, World GDP is $61,963.429 billion (US dollars)

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