Monday, Oct 26th, 2009
What is the current American economy: capitalism, socialism or fascism?
Many people call the Bush and Obama administration’s approach to the economic crisis “socialism”.
Are they right?
Well, Nouriel Roubini writes in a recent essay:
This is a crisis of solvency, not just liquidity, but true deleveraging has not begun yet because the losses of financial institutions have been socialised and put on government balance sheets. This limits the ability of banks to lend, households to spend and companies to invest…
The releveraging of the public sector through its build-up of large fiscal deficits risks crowding out a recovery in private sector spending.
Roubini has previously written:
We’re essentially continuing a system where profits are privatized and…losses socialized.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb says the same thing:
After finishing The Black Swan, I realized there was a cancer. The cancer was a huge buildup of risk-taking based on the lack of understanding of reality. The second problem is the hidden risk with new financial products. And the third is the interdependence among financial institutions.
[Interviewer]: But aren’t those the very problems we’re supposed to be fixing?
NT: They’re all still here. Today we still have the same amount of debt, but it belongs to governments. Normally debt would get destroyed and turn to air. Debt is a mistake between lender and borrower, and both should suffer. But the government is socializing all these losses by transforming them into liabilities for your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. What is the effect? The doctor has shown up and relieved the patient’s symptoms – and transformed the tumour into a metastatic tumour. We still have the same disease. We still have too much debt, too many big banks, too much state sponsorship of risk-taking. And now we have six million more Americans who are unemployed – a lot more than that if you count hidden unemployment.
[Interviewer]: Are you saying the U.S. shouldn’t have done all those bailouts? What was the alternative?
NT: Blood, sweat and tears. A lot of the growth of the past few years was fake growth from debt. So swallow the losses, be dignified and move on. Suck it up. I gather you’re not too impressed with the folks in Washington who are handling this crisis.
Ben Bernanke saved nothing! He shouldn’t be allowed in Washington. He’s like a doctor who misses the metastatic tumour and says the patient is doing very well.
This is socialism . . . at least for the too big to fails.
Socialism is apparently a broad concept with many different schools. Socialists argue – at least on paper – that both losses and gains should be public. However, communism under the USSR or Mao’s China was obviously very different from the stated socialist ideals. If you believe this essay unfairly portrays socialism (I have received many such comments), you are welcome to substitute the phrase “Soviet-style communism” for “socialism” in this essay.
Some, however, argue that the economy is more like fascism than socialism. For example, leading journalist Robert Scheer writes:
What is proposed is not the nationalization of private corporations but rather a corporate takeover of government. The marriage of highly concentrated corporate power with an authoritarian state that services the politico-economic elite at the expense of the people is more accurately referred to as “financial fascism” [than socialism]. After all, even Hitler never nationalized the Mercedes-Benz company but rather entered into a very profitable partnership with the current car company’s corporate ancestor, which made out quite well until Hitler’s bubble burst.
And Italian historian Gaetano Salvemini argued in 1936 that fascism makes taxpayers responsible to private enterprise, because “the State pays for the blunders of private enterprise… Profit is private and individual. Loss is public and social” (page 416).
This perfectly mirrors Roubini’s statement about the American government’s bailout plan.
Remember that one of the best definitions of fascism – the one used by Mussolini – is the “merger of state and corporate power“.
That could never happen in America, right?
As Examiner.com pointed out in May (it is worth quoting the essay at some length, as this is an important concept), looting has replaced free market capitalism:
Nobel prize-winning economist George Akerlof co-wrote a paper in 1993 describing
the causes of the S&L crisis and other financial meltdowns. As summarized
by the New York Times:
In the paper, they argued that several financial crises in the 1980s, like the Texas real estate bust, had been the result of private investors taking advantage of the government. The investors had borrowed huge amounts of money, made big profits when times were good and then left the government holding the bag for their eventual (and predictable) losses.
In a word, the investors looted. Someone trying to make an honest profit, Professors Akerlof and Romer [co-author of the paper, and himself a leading expert on economic growth] said, would have operated in a completely different manner. The investors displayed a “total disregard for even the most basic principles of lending,” failing to verify standard information about their borrowers or, in some cases, even to ask for that information.
The investors “acted as if future losses were somebody else’s problem,” the economists wrote. “They were right.”
The Times does a good job of explaining the looting
The paper’s message is that the promise of government bailouts isn’t merely one aspect of the problem. It is the core problem.
Promised bailouts mean that anyone lending money to Wall Street — ranging from small-time savers like you and me to the Chinese government — doesn’t have to worry about losing that money. The United States Treasury (which, in the end, is also you and me) will cover the losses. In fact, it has to cover the losses, to prevent a cascade of worldwide losses and panic that would make today’s crisis look tame.
But the knowledge among lenders that their money will ultimately be returned, no matter what, clearly brings a terrible downside. It keeps the lenders from asking tough questions about how their money is being used. Looters — savings and loans and Texas developers in the 1980s; the American International Group, Citigroup, Fannie Mae and the rest in this decade — can then act as if their future losses are indeed somebody else’s problem.
Do you remember the mea culpa that Alan Greesnspan, Mr. Bernanke’s predecessor, delivered on Capitol Hill last fall? He said that he was “in a state of shocked disbelief” that “the self-interest” of Wall Street bankers hadn’t prevented this mess.
He shouldn’t have been. The looting theory explains why his laissez-faire theory didn’t hold up. The bankers were acting in their self-interest, after all…Think about the so-called liars’ loans from recent years: like those Texas real estate loans from the 1980s, they never had a chance of paying off. Sure, they would deliver big profits for a while, so long as the bubble kept inflating. But when they inevitably imploded, the losses would overwhelm the gains…
What happened? Banks borrowed money from lenders around the world. The bankers then kept a big chunk of that money for themselves, calling it “management fees” or “performance bonuses.” Once the investments were exposed as hopeless, the lenders — ordinary savers, foreign countries, other banks, you name it — were repaid with government bailouts.
In effect, the bankers had siphoned off this bailout money in advance, years before the government had spent it…Either way, the bottom line is the same: given an incentive to loot, Wall Street did so. “If you think of the financial system as a whole,” Mr. Romer said, “it actually has an incentive to trigger the rare occasions in which tens or hundreds of billions of dollars come flowing out of the Treasury.”
In fact, the big banks and sellers of exotic instruments pretended that the boom would last forever, siphoning off huge profits during the boom with the knowledge that – when the bust ultimately happened – the governments of the world would bail them out.
As Akerlof wrote in his paper:
[Looting is the] common thread [when] countries took on excessive
foreign debt, governments had to bail out insolvent financial institutions, real estate prices increased dramatically and then fell, or new financial markets experienced a boom and bust…Our theoretical analysis shows that an economic underground can come to life if firms have an incentive to go broke for profit at society’s expense (to loot) instead of to go for broke (to gamble on success). Bankruptcy for profit will occur if poor accounting, lax regulation, or low penalties for abuse give owners an incentive to pay themselves more than their firms are worth and then default on their debt obligations.
Indeed, Akerlof predicted in 1993 that the next form the looting dynamic would take was through credit default swaps – then a very-obscure financial instrument (indeed, one interpretation of why CDS have been so deadly is that they were the simply the favored instrument for the current round of looting).
Is Looting A Thing of the Past?
Now that Wall Street has been humbled by this financial crash, and the dangers of CDS are widely known, are we past the bad old days of looting?
Unfortunately, as the Times points out, the answer is no:
At a time like this, when trust in financial markets is so scant, it may be hard to imagine that looting will ever be a problem again. But it will be. If we don’t get rid of the incentive to loot, the only question is what form the next round of looting will take.
So what do we really have: socialism-for-the-giants, fascism or an economy which calls itself “capitalism” but which allows looting?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. They are just different brand names for the same basic type of economy. All three systems allow giant businesses which are friendly to the government to keep enormous private profits but to pass the losses on to the government and ultimately the citizens.
Whether we use the terminology regarding socialism-for-the-giants (“socialized losses”), of fascism (“public and social losses”), or of looting (“left the government holding the bag for their eventual and predictable losses”), it amounts to the exact same thing.
Whatever we have, it isn’t free market capitalism.
Note: Yves Smith has called the financial services pay arrangement of “heads I win, tails you lose” looting, and has also argued that our form of capitalism is evolving into Mussolini style corpocracy, meaning fascism. But the label most often pinned on the Obama administration is socialism.
The bottom line is that I don’t put much stock in what socialists might label a system, any more than what fascists or corporate looters would label a system. Whatever you call it, if the giants get all the benefits and pawn all of the losses off on the public, it is a very dangerous system.
This article was posted: Monday, October 26, 2009 at 4:35 am