Productivity, The Miracle of Compound Interest, and Poverty

From Hudson’s presentation at the Italian MMT Summit, which was also recorded by Bonnie Faulkner of Pacifica Radio’s Guns and Butter show – Published on nacked capitalims, by Michael Hudson*, APRIL 22, 2012.

Suppose you were alive back in 1945 and were told about all the new technology that would be invented between then and now: the computers and internet, mobile phones and other consumer electronics, faster and cheaper air travel, super trains and even outer space exploration, higher gas mileage on the ground, plastics, medical breakthroughs and science in general. You would have imagined what nearly all futurists expected: that we would be living in a life of leisure society by this time. Rising productivity would raise wages and living standards, enabling people to work shorter hours under more relaxed and less pressured workplace conditions.  

Why hasn’t this occurred in recent years? In light of the enormous productivity gains since the end of World War II – and especially since 1980 – why isn’t everyone rich and enjoying the leisure economy that was promised? If the 99% is not getting the fruits of higher productivity, who is? Where has it gone?

Under Stalinism the surplus went to the state, which used it to increase tangible capital investment – in factories, power production, transportation and other basic industry and infrastructure. But where is it going under today’s finance capitalism? Much of it has gone into industry, construction and infrastructure, as it would in any kind of political economy. And much also is consumed in military overhead, in luxury production for the wealthy, and invested abroad. But most of the gains have gone to the financial sector – higher loans for real estate, and purchases of stocks and bonds.

Loans need to be repaid, and stocks and bonds receive dividends and interest. For the economy at large, people are working longer just to maintain their living standards, which are being squeezed. Women have entered the labor force in unprecedented numbers over the past half-century – and of course, this has raised the status of women. Mechanization of housework and other tasks at home has freed them for professional life outside the home. But on balance, work has increased.

What also has increased has been debt. When World War II ended, John Maynard Keynes and other economists worried that as societies got richer, people would save more. For them, the problem was to keep market demand high enough to buy all the output that was being produced … //

… The Inversion of Classical Free Market Reform to its Diametric Opposite:

Classical political economy sought to mobilize democratic government to tax the rentiers: landlord, monopolists and bankers. The objective was to create an industrial surplus and, in the process, raise productivity, wage levels and living standards. To keep prices low and hence national economies competitive, governments were to undertake society’s largest spending programs: basic infrastructure such as transportation, power production, communications – all of which happen to be natural monopolies as well. So the aim was not only to provide basic infrastructure needs freely or at subsidized prices, but to prevent private owners from erecting tollbooths on roads and charging monopoly prices for power, phone systems (as in Telmex in Mexico or similar phone monopolies in the post-Soviet kleptocracies).

Post-classical economics (deceptively called neoclassical) seeks to untax the rentiers, and shift the costs of government onto labor and even onto industry. To achieve this, democracy is rolled back to oligarchies. But this time they are controlled not by landlords as in the case of Europe’s landed aristocracies, but bankers and financiers. And their aim is to privatize the public domain with its monopolies. Bankers advance the credit to buyers, who install tollbooths and raise prices for basic needs. By paying out their revenue in a tax-exempt form, as interest, they keep their income out of the hands of government – forcing national treasuries to tax labor and industry, consumers and producers rather than finance, insurance and real estate. Governments thus become the protectors of monopoly and its financing.

It is a short-term policy. By raising domestic price levels, financialized economies price themselves out of global markets – unless than can create a world order in which all economies are symmetrically debt-burdened. This is where the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization are brought into play – to financialize globalization, excluding countries as pariahs if they do not join this self-destructive and self-terminating system.

An object lesson of the shift from classical democracy to post-classical oligarchy is a country that is held out to you as a success story: Latvia, where neoliberals had a completely free hand, as they did in Russia. What they call a neoliberal paradise turned out to be debt-ridden kleptocracy. The country has a set of flat taxes on employment of 59 percent – and only a 1 percent real estate tax.

You can imagine what happened with real estate taxed so low and labor taxed so high. Employment was high-cost – but there was a real estate bubble. When I was Research Director at the Riga Graduate School of Law, I visited the government agency in charge of property assessments, and asked how they got the 1 percent. I was told that they based it on the most recent real estate appraisal they had. This turned out to be back in 1917, before the Russian Revolution. (The lead assessor had written her doctoral dissertation on this survey.) Whatever the tax collector gives up and relinquishes in taxes, is available to be paid to the banks as interest. So housing prices are bid up in price – on credit – while the tax collector has to turn to labor and industry for the revenue that has been given up. Instead of paying taxes, new homebuyers pay interest to the bankers. The upshot is that the banks end up with the rent that used to accrue to the landed aristocracies of Europe. This is making bankers the new aristocracy.

When I headed an international investigative economic team in 2010, we visited Latvia’s bank insurance agency and were told that they had anticipated a collapse of the bubble. Their response was to advise banks to back their mortgage loans not only with the property as collateral, but to get as many family members as possible to co-sign the loan. That way, if and when default occurred, the parents, siblings or other relatives would be personally liable.

The bank regulators did not urge the government to tax real estate more. That would have squeezed homeowners on their bank loans – and left less new rental income to be capitalized into new bank loans. But it would have enabled the government to reduce its heavy taxes on employment. This was not the bank regulators’ concern – and bankers themselves saw their main business in lending to fuel real estate, not industry, given what the neoliberals did to Latvia’s economy and that of the other Baltic states!

Unfair? Economically polarizing and destructive? Of course. But the bank insurers said that their task was to protect bank solvency, not create an optimum economic structure.

One result is that a recent EU survey found that one-third of Latvia’s population between the age of 20 and 35 either had emigrated or was planning to do so. As of 2012 the country’s population recently has shrunk by 15 percent. Marriage and birth rates are falling off, as they are throughout the post-Soviet economies. After all, who can marry and buy a house when your wages are taxed at 59 percent and you have to take on a debt?

Iceland provides another object lesson. Even more than Latvia, it became a rogue banker’s paradise – and also one for vulture banks. Their loans are indexed to the consumer price index – which means in practice to the foreign exchange rate. The krónur plunged after the banks crashed in 2008. The result a 1,000 krónur debt has become perhaps 1,800 – against property that has fallen from the equivalent of 1000 krónur down to perhaps 400 krónur. This leaves many families in negative equity. And they are personally liable.

When the crooked banks of Iceland went under (and they’ve only recently begun to arrest some of the crooks) the government took them over and, on European advice, sold them to vulture investors, for around ten cents on the dollar. Despite the fact that Iceland’s constitution said that they were not allowed to increase debts by indexing, this is just what the banks did. If the government had taken over, it could have written down the debts to the ability to pay. But the new vulture banks have not done this. And the Social Democratic government backed their rights to make as much as they can, rather than giving priority to the welfare of the Icelandic people.

What I find so striking is how far to the right wing of the political spectrum the Social Democratic and Labour parties have moved. Iceland’s Social Democratic leadership explained that it wanted to be part of Europe. But this meant acting on behalf of the British and Dutch bankers, not democratically on behalf of Icelanders. They acted on behalf of the emerging financial oligarchy.

I’ve known many of the social democratic leaders of America and the world since I was a young boy. My father was a socialist labor leader and political prisoner from Minneapolis, which was the high point of American labor history as a result of its great General Strike in the 1930s. I was told by a Socialist Party leader (Terence McCarthy) in the early 1960s that the travel and hotel expenses of nearly every member of the Socialist International (the Second International, of which Dmitri Papandreou of Greece is President as of autumn 2011) was paid for by the CIA or its front organizations. I watched the Socialist Party in America come to support the Vietnam War, and Michael Harrington ban criticism of the war in its youth magazine – driving it to quickly lose most of its members.

Harrington and his mentor, Max Shachtman, took this position because they believed that the West could not be persuaded to be Marxist until the world was freed from the Stalinist travesty that claimed to be Marxist. So the Social Democratic Party of America joined the Cold War effort. Politics was turned upside down by the triangulation of socialism, Stalinism and the ability of the United States to back and finance European social democrats to support the banks and “centrists.” This became the tragedy of the old non-Stalinist left in America and other countries. So the Social Democratic leadership imagined (or simply sold out to pretend to believe) that “free financial markets” would lead the world into economic progress.

This was just the opposite from the Progressive Era and indeed, what industrial capitalism promised. The Social Democratic parties of Iceland, Britain, Greece, Scandinavia and other European countries have adopted the position that the way to re-employ labor is to impose austerity. Budgets are to be balanced by lowering wages by 30 percent, and shifting taxes off the finance, insurance and real estate sector onto consumers.

Taxes on labor add to its cost. So competitive power would be maximized by untaxing labor and consumer goods, by getting rid of the value-added tax. But not all taxes are bad. The classical free market economists endorsed taxes on unearned income: land rent and natural resources, monopoly rent and financial privilege. These categories of income have no counterpart in a cost of production undertaken by the rent recipient. The more that governments can shift the tax burden onto land and property, the lower housing prices will be – and the less governments will need to tax labor by income and sales taxes.

Bankers back anti-government ideology because they want to obtain all of the untaxed rental revenue as interest. So taxes that otherwise would be paid to the government will be paid to the bankers. The result – what you’re seeing today in Europe and North America – is an economic grab that is in many ways like that which gave birth to European feudalism. But this time around it is financial, not military.  (full long text).

* a research professor of Economics at University of Missouri, Kansas City and a research associate at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.

Linked on our blogs with stupid … I cannot let these questions.

Read also:

Argentina’s critics get it wrong again, on RWER, by Mark Weisbrot, April 20, 2012;

Can Jim Yong Kim Make a Difference at the World Bank? on ZNet, by Patrick Bond and Mark Weisbrot, April 21, 2012.

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