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Cheater Economics

by Brent Blackwelder

Cheaters are lurking in the U.S. economy, corrupting what should be an honest game of production, commerce, and trade. “Cheater economics” refers to the corporate welfare system in which corporations are given special tax subsidies and granted access to loopholes for avoiding tax payments. Cheater economics drains away needed tax revenues, leaving governments with the lose-lose choice of running up deficits or reducing services, or both. Often this means cutbacks in environmental, health, and safety protections. Thanks in no small part to the cheaters, the debate on public finance in the United States has shifted to deficits and the need for cuts. To those seeking funds for worthwhile programs, the answer is, “Sorry, we’re broke!”

We must reframe the debate if we wish to eliminate corporate abuses and get serious about establishing a sustainable, steady state economy. And we should start by getting rid of the cheaters.

Some examples of cheater economics are blatant, such as welfare handouts to polluters. It’s bad enough that corporations are allowed to externalize the high costs of their polluting activities, but what’s worse is that taxpayer funds flow to dirty industries (e.g., oil and nuclear reactor companies) in the form of direct handouts and tax loopholes.

Other examples of cheater economics, however, are more subtle. One of the less well-known rip-offs, which benefits the top 1% of income earners, is a taxpayer subsidy for short-term speculation in derivatives. Traders, who can buy and sell complex derivatives in a matter of minutes, are allowed to claim a large portion of the resulting income not as a short-term capital gain, but as a long-term gain (which is taxed at a lower rate). Fortunately, the Senate is looking into this rip-off, and Senator Carl Levin (Democrat-Michigan) has introduced legislation to shut it down.

Republicans and Democrats alike have helped set the stage for cheater economics through financial deregulation. Today’s Republican leadership continues to push for deregulation, but prominent Democrats, going back to President Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, have also been prime drivers of financial deregulation.

President Obama won the election in 2008 just as the financial system collapsed in response to the deregulatory extravaganza promoted by both Republicans and Democrats. Those that destroyed the financial regulatory framework by repealing effective laws, such as the Glass-Steagall Act of the 1930s, brought on the devastating subprime collapse.

But Obama, as a new President with tremendous support, failed to seize the initiative in 2009. Instead the aggressive right wing brilliantly framed the debate over the size of government, the tax code, and unemployment. Thus the Republican leadership established a strong message in favor of: 1) cutting government spending as the way to deal with the deficit, 2) abolishing EPA’s environmental regulations as the way to relieve unemployment, and 3) maintaining low taxes on the wealthiest 1%, because raising taxes is never the solution.

And now there’s another looming setback to efforts aimed at reining in the cheaters. The IRS, the tax collection arm of government, is being cut, which will seriously limit the agency’s reach when it comes to tracking tax dodgers and overseeing the collection of legitimate tax payments.

The election year offers a prime opportunity to push back against cheater economics by reframing the debate. Let’s start asking who is hijacking the revenue. We are not broke. Simply closing the numerous tax loopholes would bring in more than the $1.2 trillion the Republican leadership has been demanding in budget cuts over the next decade.

Annie Leonard, the creator of the popular Story of Stuff video, is leading the charge to reframe the debate. Her new video, The Story of Broke, calls for a shift in government spending to invest in renewable energy and other industries that can provide jobs and a healthy environment. Another movie, We’re not Broke, is also helping to change the message. This new film, backed by the Tax Justice Network, tells the story of how corporations are dodging taxes and how seven fed-up citizens are working to make the corporations pay their fair share.

Another way to reframe the debate is to showcase the benefits of environmental regulations. A review of the scientific literature on the causes of job loss shows that environmental compliance costs are small. Only among a handful of the big polluting industries are the costs greater than 2%. Furthermore, the health benefits of environmental regulation are enormous.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that safety and environmental regulations are responsible for only 0.1% of job losses. Frank Ackerman’s Poisoned for Pennies provides more details on this story. Despite the facts, various Presidential candidates and the Congressional Republican leadership persist in attributing the loss of jobs to environmental regulations and call for the elimination of the EPA.

So the question to both Republican and Democratic candidates this year should not be, “What are you going to cut or deregulate?” The question should be, “Why aren’t you getting rid of cheater economics?” Now is the time to demand the honest economy we all deserve.

Making Sense of the Protests through a Post-Growth Lens

by James Johnston

The world has recently seen protests on Wall Street, rioting in London, and tension in other parts of Europe as it deals with insolvent debtor nations. Mass confusion is in the air.

In New York, as the protesters try to explain why they feel exploited, critics and observers can’t seem to figure out what they’re crying about. Protesters have been labeled a bunch of entitled, rambling, half-naked young hipster eccentrics. In London, the world witnessed a similar process of bewilderment, where observers couldn’t initially put their fingers on why impoverished “working class” rioters were out causing a fearful stir (after all, most of the critics were motivated and had decent jobs, thank you very much). Meanwhile, stocks around the world continue to rally and tumble with unprecedented volatility. Growth forecasts and economic orthodoxy are proven wrong again and again. Job and wealth creation strategies don’t help the people who need it most.

If the protesters are rambling eccentrics, then traders, mainstream economists and policymakers must be lunatics because they continue to make the same mistakes and expect better results each time!

Frankly, neither side of the debate has a particularly firm handle on the reality of the problem, and hoping that the movement will simply fade away will prove to be wishful thinking. Among all the mass confusion, steady-state theory might help us account for not only the the economic problems, but also the ideological divide. Using the Wall Street occupation as our example, let’s assess the two sides of the debate and hypothesize how the two groups have come to inhabit such different planets.

First, the two sides of the debate are divided primarily along generational lines, not just ideological ones. The protesters might be characterized as a group of well-educated, disenchanted and heavily indebted young people who were raised to be grossly unprepared for the situation they find themselves in. They were told that when they completed their degrees, a growing economy would enable them to pay back their hyper-inflated loans and put a down payment on a massively overpriced home (relative to historical norms). Not only are these young people seriously indebted and underemployed, but they know the planet’s ecological line of credit is also maxed out, causing them to question what they should be working so hard for in the first place. They’re expressing legitimate frustration with a set of real, serious problems that go unaddressed in the U.S.

What about the other side? While some lucky or ambitious younger folks may also fall into this category, it can more generally be characterized as an older, more comfortable cohort on auto-pilot that has grown accustomed to the illusion of perpetual growth. They’ve witnessed it their whole lives: growth in asset values (including home values), growth in the economy’s energy use (more stuff, more suburbs, more oil), growth in levels of indebtedness (to afford it all), and growth in the supply of money.  They are perpetuating a system that is structurally engineered to collapse without feeding its addiction to growth (mainly by exploiting future generations).

Unfortunately, those advocating the status quo are firmly entrenched in their beliefs, and they have in their midst traders, economists and policymakers who can articulate those beliefs well.  Meanwhile the protesters have yet to present a unified and coherent set of theoretical principles to rebut conventional arguments and explain their worldview. They come off as disoriented, lost, and a little incoherent. But stupid they are not.

While the nuanced reasons for protest vary around the world, young people have a visceral grasp of something that the most comfortable in our global society are simply too sheltered to acknowledge — big problems in an economy that has been engineered for ecological and financial ruin.

It’s only a matter of time before confusion gives way to clarity, when we’ll have to come to terms with our post growth reality. It will begin with a set of pragmatic banking reforms: a gradual increase in the fractional reserve requirement, the reconnection of investment banking to the real economy, and the regulation of derivatives.

That’s just the beginning.

After Wall Street — or whatever comes next — we will all have to make an effort to inhabit the same finite planet and bridge the divide. We will have to find common purpose in the realignment of our overarching social and economic goals — not toward yesterday’s notions of solidarity or neoliberalism — but toward meaningful capital maintenance for prosperity without irresponsible growth.

Defusing the Debt Bomb

by James Johnston

If it didn’t have such explosive consequences, you’d have to laugh at the comedy of errors unfolding in the U.S. political arena. Politicians are proposing farcical “solutions” to the debt crisis in a competition to see who is better at pandering to the electorate. Are citizens really supposed to believe that raising taxes or cutting expenditures will provide meaningful relief on ballooning bank-inherited interest payments — payments so stratospheric that the human mind lacks a conceptual reference point for them? Each and every government service could be cut and it still wouldn’t help pay off the debt. The problem can’t be solved by reining in an overgrown government bureaucracy because much of it was created by an unregulated, overgrown banking system.

On the advice of conventional economic sages, we are to believe that the “credit crunch” is an event that took place in the past, with the words “growth” and “recovery” being used instead. But the transfer of debt from the private sector to the public sector in 2008 has merely postponed the inevitable detonation of a debt bomb that started ticking many years ago. If the government manages the bank-inherited debt in such preposterously piecemeal terms, it will never be paid off. Propping up the same broken banking system won’t solve the problem and will eventually cause history to repeat itself.

Only meaningful regulatory and monetary reform — reform that lowers the leverage ratio of lenders and discourages irresponsible gambling with the money earned by average people — can truly diffuse the debt bomb and prevent this from happening again. The result will increase the stability of the financial system and bring us closer to an economic steady state. But it means that we have to give up our collective obsession with the meaningless, self-destructive growth provided by an overgrown banking sector. First, government leaders must stop celebrating the growth of debt-inflated GDP figures like unthinking, euphoric addicts.

How we got here

No one can pinpoint the causes of the Great Depression with certainty, but prominent economist Irving Fisher argued that the predominant catalyst was over-indebtedness and speculation, which fuelled asset bubbles (Fisher, 1933). Sound familiar? After the Great Depression, the U.S. government initiated reforms based on Fischer’s explanation of the problem. The purpose was to avoid another debt-driven crisis. New regulations prevented bankers from speculating with depositors’ savings, and the U.S. economy experienced many years of prosperity without financial crisis. Investment banking was a more conservative endeavor and savings and loan funds were not used for speculation or risky business investing.

Fast-forward half a century. During the 1980s, the deregulation of banking allowed savings and loan banks to make increasingly risky bets with borrowers’ money. Some banks failed during the savings and loan crisis, yet the process of deregulation continued. Meanwhile, bankers’ wages skyrocketed. So-called new financial “products” facilitated speculation and fueled an illusion of growth and prosperity. The illusion enshrouded bankers in a mystical aura. Everything they touched turned to gold, and politicians and citizens began to regard them as sages. Only the most intelligent people, one might suppose, could create so much wealth so quickly.

The illusion of growth produced illusions of stability and prosperity; bad decisions were rewarded while lessons from history were either disregarded or forgotten. In 2008, as the American economy inched uncomfortably close to detonation, the big banks revealed that the debt bomb was much larger than initially thought. Still the regulatory bomb squad sat idle. At no point did they come up with a useful plan for truly defusing it — it was simply postponed through the transference of debt. This occurred in spite of the risks associated with a pending disruption of the monetary system: the potential disappearance of savings, the foreclosure of homes, disruptions in the flow of goods and services, and unemployment. As a bomb counting down to detonation, here is the timeline we need to bear in mind:

  • At ten seconds to detonation, advances in computing technology allow for “bankers” (many of whom were in fact physicists and computer scientists) to create investment products called “derivatives,” products that Warren Buffet called “financial weapons of mass destruction.”
  • At nine seconds, the financial sector consolidates into gigantic firms — something that was illegal following the Great Depression. Laws are changed under the guise of “modernization,” paving the path for the debt economy to balloon (and for history to repeat itself). Attempts to regulate derivatives fail and banking practices become increasingly risky.
  • At eight seconds, the euphoria reaches new heights. Loans are used as a means of generating investment funds for large banks. It becomes harder to track the risk associated with certain kinds of debt, as they are lumped together into an untraceable electronic mass (including commercial and residential mortgages, car loans, student loans, credit card debt and corporate debt). The products — “collateralized debt obligations” or “CDOs” — are given high ratings by credit rating agencies.
  • Seven seconds. Despite high ratings, many of the loans held in these portfolios are borrowed by people who cannot repay them. The banks don’t care, however, because insurance and default mechanisms allow them to avoid repaying any of the bad loans they issue. Besides, they argue, defaults like that are historically unprecedented.
  • Six seconds. As dot-com stocks crash due to over-speculation, investment money flows into sub-prime mortgages, which become all the rage. Mortgages reach their highest prices in history and home values skyrocket around the country. Indeed, many countries around the world see home values spike faster than ever. In the process, big financial firms (including JP Morgan, Credit Suisse, Citibank, Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae and UBS) defraud their borrowers to push profits ever higher.
  • Five seconds. The leverage ratio between borrowed money and reserve money reaches new heights (from 20:1 to 30:1). For every dollar a bank has, it loans out 20 to 30 times that amount. Limits on leverage are relaxed, enabling banks to bet more with the money of depositors.
  • Four seconds. U.S. home prices double over their 1986 levels. The IMF and a handful of economists warn of crisis.
  • Three seconds. Big firms declare bankruptcy and the giant debt bureaucracy (the big banks) take a tumble.
  • Two seconds. As if covering a bomb in duct-tape, the U.S. government bails out the banks and transfers debt from the private sector to the public sector, tripling U.S. debt overnight. And yet, the same system that caused the crisis is propped up.

At this point in history, with the debt reaching more than 14 trillion dollars, U.S. leadership has a choice between defusing the bomb with meaningful regulatory and monetary reform — reform that lowers the leverage ratio and punishes irresponsible institutional gambling — or further bandaging a broken system that meaninglessly consumes government expenditures and cripples the real economy to the benefit of big banks. Choosing the latter will again postpone the inevitable, maintaining an unstable economic status-quo obsessed with illusory growth derived from debt-inflated GDP.

If the U.S. government refuses to defuse the bomb now, it will explode in the foreseeable future as risky banking practices continue and interest payments (penalties for past mistakes) soar to super-stratospheric heights. The irresponsible actions of financially bloated bankers are being overlooked by a government distracted with irrelevant ideological arguments. When the debt bomb finally detonates, those responsible will likely avoid the fallout in the comfort of their unjustifiable excess. And while average people can try to shield themselves by minimizing their exposure to the debt-inflated growth economy, they will undoubtedly suffer the most. If only those elected to represent their interests would overcome petty illusions and turn their attention to more critical reforms than cutting and taxing.