Working Paper No. 729 | August 2012
As the heirs to classical political economy and the German historical school, the American institutionalists retained rent theory and its corollary idea of unearned income. More than any other institutionalist, Thorstein Veblen emphasized the dynamics of banks financing real estate speculation and Wall Street maneuvering to organize monopolies and trusts. Yet despite the popularity of his writings with the reading public, his contribution has remained isolated from the academic mainstream, and he did not leave behind a “school.”
Veblen criticized academic economists for having fallen subject to “trained incapacity” as a result of being turned into factotums to defend rentier interests. Business schools were painting an unrealistic happy-face picture of the economy, teaching financial techniques but leaving out of account the need to reform the economy’s practices and institutions.
In emphasizing how financial “predation” was hijacking the economy’s technological potential, Veblen’s vision was as materialist and culturally broad as that of the Marxists, and as dismissive of the status quo. Technological innovation was reducing costs but breeding monopolies as the finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sectors joined forces to create a financial symbiosis cemented by political-insider dealings—and a trivialization of economic theory as it seeks to avoid dealing with society’s failure to achieve its technological potential. The fruits of rising productivity were used to finance robber barons who had no better use of their wealth than to reduce great artworks to the status of ownership trophies and achieve leisure-class status by funding business schools and colleges to promote a self-congratulatory but deceptive portrayal of their wealth-grabbing behavior.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):Related Topic(s):
In the Media | April 2012
By Michael HudsonNaked Capitalism, April 22, 2012. Copyright © 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 Aurora Advisors Incorporated. All Rights Reserved.
Research Associate Michael Hudson looks at the disconnect between the enormous productivity gains in the postwar era and the failed promise of a leisure economy. The full post is available here.
In the Media | March 2012
2,181 Italians Pack a Sports Arena to Learn Modern Monetary Theory—The Economy Doesn’t Need to Suffer Neoliberal AusterityView More View Less
By Michael HudsonNaked Capitalism, February 28, 2012. Copyright © 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 Aurora Advisors Incorporated. All Rights Reserved.
I have just returned from Rimini, Italy, where I experienced one of the most amazing spectacles of my academic life. Four of us associated with the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC) were invited to lecture for three days on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and explain why Europe is in such monetary trouble today—and to show that there is an alternative, that the enforced austerity for the 99% and vast wealth grab by the 1% is not a force of nature.
Stephanie Kelton (incoming UMKC Economics Dept. chair and editor of its economic blog, New Economic Perspectives), criminologist and law professor Bill Black, investment banker Marshall Auerback and me (along with a French economist, Alain Parquez) stepped into the basketball auditorium on Friday night. We walked down, and down, and further down the central aisle, past a packed audience reported as over 2,100. It was like entering the Oscars as People called out our first names. Some told us they had read all of our economics blogs. Stephanie joked that now she knew how The Beatles felt. There was prolonged applause—all for an intellectual rather than a physical sporting event.
With one difference, of course: Our adversaries were not there. There was much press, but the prevailing Euro-technocrats (the bank lobbyists who determine European economic policy) hoped that the less discussion of possible alternatives to austerity, the easier it would be to force their brutal financial grab through.
All the audience members had contributed to raise the funds to fly us over from the United States (and from France for Alain), and treat us to Federico Fellini’s Grand Hotel on the Rimini beach. The conference was organized by reporter Paolo Barnard, who had studied MMT with Randall Wray and realized that there was plenty of demand in Italian mass culture for a discussion of what actually was determining the living conditions of Europe—and the emerging financial elite that hopes to use this crisis as an opportunity to become the new financial lords carving out fiefdoms by privatizing the public domain being sold off by governments that have no central bank to finance their deficits, and are tragically beholden to bondholders and to Eurocrats drawn from the neoliberal camp.
Paolo and his enormous support staff of translators and interns provided an opportunity to hear an approach to monetary and tax theory and policy that until recently was almost unheard of in the United States. Just one week earlier the Washington Post published a review of MMT, followed by a long discussion in the Financial Times. But the theory remains grounded primarily at the UMKC’s economics department and the Levy Institute at Bard College, with which most of us are associated.
The basic thrust of our argument is that just as commercial banks create credit electronically on their computer keyboards (creating a bank account credit for borrowers in exchange for their signing an IOU at interest), governments can create money. There is no need to borrow from banks, as computer keyboards provide nearly free credit creation to finance spending.
The difference, of course, is that governments spend money (at least in principle) to promote long-term growth and employment, to invest in public infrastructure, research and development, provide health care and other basic economic functions. Banks have a more short-term time frame. They lend credit against collateral in place. Some 80% of bank loans are mortgages against real estate. Other loans are made to finance leveraged buyouts and corporate takeovers. But most new fixed capital investment by corporations is financed out of retained earnings.
Unfortunately, the flow of earnings is now being diverted increasingly to the financial sector—not only to pay interest and penalties to banks, but for stock buybacks intended to support stock prices and hence the value of stock options that managers of today’s financialized companies give themselves. As for the stock market—which textbook diagrams still depict as raising money for new capital investment—it has been turned into a vehicle to buy out companies on credit (e.g., with high interest junk bonds) and replace equity with debt. Inasmuch as interest payments are tax-deductible, as if they were a necessary cost of doing business, corporate income-tax payments lowered. And what the tax collector relinquishes is available to be paid out to the bankers and bondholders who get rich by loading the economy down with debt.
Welcome to the post-industrial economy, financialized style. Industrial capitalism has passed into a series of stages of finance capitalism, from the Bubble Economy to the Negative Equity stage, foreclosure time, debt deflation, austerity—and what looks like debt peonage in Europe, above all for the PIIGS: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. (The Baltic countries of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania already have been plunged so deeply into debt that their populations are emigrating to find work and flee debt-burdened real estate. The same has plagued Iceland since its bank rip-offs collapsed in 2008.)
Why aren’t economists describing this phenomenon? The answer is a combination of political ideology and analytic blinders. As soon as the Rimini conference ended on Sunday evening, for instance, Paul Krugman’s Monday, February 27 New York Times column, “What Ails Europe?” blamed the euro’s problems simply on the inability of countries to devalue their currencies. He rightly criticized the Republican party line that blames European welfare spending for the Eurozone’s problems, and also criticizing putting the blame on budget deficits.
But he left out of account the straitjacket of the European Central Bank (ECB) unable to monetize the deficits, as a result of junk economics written into the EU constitution.
If the peripheral nations still had their own currencies, they could and would use devaluation to quickly restore competitiveness. But they don’t, which means that they are in for a long period of mass unemployment and slow, grinding deflation. Their debt crises are mainly a byproduct of this sad prospect, because depressed economies lead to budget deficits and deflation magnifies the burden of debt.
Depreciation would lower the price of labor while raising the price of imports. The burden of debts denominated in foreign currencies would increase in keeping with the devaluation, thereby creating problems unless the government passed a law re-denominating all debts in domestic currency. This would satisfy the Prime Directive of international financing: always denominated debts in your own currency, as the United States does.
In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt nullified the Gold Clause in U.S. loan contracts, enabling banks and other creditors to be paid in the equivalent gold value. But in his usual neoclassical fashion, Mr. Krugman ignores the debt issue:
The afflicted nations, in particular, have nothing but bad choices: either they suffer the pains of deflation or they take the drastic step of leaving the euro, which won’t be politically feasible until or unless all else fails (a point Greece seems to be approaching). Germany could help by reversing its own austerity policies and accepting higher inflation, but it won’t.
But leaving the euro is not sufficient to avert austerity, foreclosure and debt deflation if the nation that withdraws retains the neoliberal policy that plagues the euro. Suppose the post-euro economy has a central bank that still refuses to finance public budget deficits, forcing the government to borrow from commercial banks and bondholders? Suppose the government believes that it should balance the budget rather than provide the economy with spending power to increase its growth?
Suppose the government slashes public welfare spending, or bails out banks for their losses, or takes losing bank gambles onto the public balance sheet, as Ireland has done? Or for that matter, what if the governments do not write down real estate mortgages and other debts to the debtors’ ability to pay, as Iceland has failed to do? The result will still be debt deflation, forfeiture of property, unemployment—and a rising tide of emigration as the domestic economy and employment opportunities shrink.
So what then is the key? It is to have a central bank that does what central banks were founded to do: monetize government budget deficits so as to spend money into the economy, in a way best intended to promote economic growth and full employment.
This was the MMT message that the five of us were invited to explain to the audience in Rimini. Some attendees came up and explained that they had come all the way from Spain, others from France and cities across Italy. And although we did many press, radio and TV interviews, we were told that the major media were directed to ignore us as not politically correct.
Such is the censorial spirit of neoliberal monetary austerity. Its motto is TINA: There Is No Alternative, and it wants to keep matters this way. As long as it can suppress discussion of how many better alternatives there are, the hope is that the public will remain acquiescent as their living standards shrink and wealth is sucked up to the top of the economic pyramid to the 1%.
The audience requested above all more theory from Stephanie Kelton, who gave the clearest lecture on economics I had ever heard—a Euclidean presentation of MMT logic. For a visual of the magnitude, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XP60tpwu5cs. At the end, we felt like concert performers.
The size of the audience filling the sports stadium to hear our economic explanation of how a real central bank should operate to avoid austerity and promote rather than discourage employment showed that the government’s attempt to brainwash the population was not working. It was not working any better than Harvard’s Economics 101 class, from which students walked out in protest against the unrealistic parallel universe thinking whose only appeal is to Aspergers Syndrome sufferers who are selected as useful idiots to train to draw pictures of the economy that exclude analysis of the debt overhead, rentier free lunches and financial parasitism.
Working Paper No. 708 | February 2012
What is called “capitalism” is best understood as a series of stages. Industrial capitalism has given way to finance capitalism, which has passed through pension fund capitalism since the 1950s and a US-centered monetary imperialism since 1971, when the fiat dollar (created mainly to finance US global military spending) became the world’s monetary base. Fiat dollar credit made possible the bubble economy after 1980, and its substage of casino capitalism. These economically radioactive decay stages resolved into debt deflation after 2008, and are now settling into a leaden debt peonage and the austerity of neo-serfdom.
The end product of today’s Western capitalism is a neo-rentier economy—precisely what industrial capitalism and classical economists set out to replace during the Progressive Era from the late 19th to early 20th century. A financial class has usurped the role that landlords used to play—a class living off special privilege. Most economic rent is now paid out as interest. This rake-off interrupts the circular flow between production and consumption, causing economic shrinkage—a dynamic that is the opposite of industrial capitalism’s original impulse. The “miracle of compound interest,” reinforced now by fiat credit creation, is cannibalizing industrial capital as well as the returns to labor.
The political thrust of industrial capitalism was toward democratic parliamentary reform to break the stranglehold of landlords on national tax systems. But today’s finance capital is inherently oligarchic. It seeks to capture the government—first and foremost the treasury, central bank, and courts—to enrich (indeed, to bail out) and untax the banking and financial sector and its major clients: real estate and monopolies. This is why financial “technocrats” (proxies and factotums for high finance) were imposed in Greece, and why Germany opposed a public referendum on the European Central Bank’s austerity program.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):Related Topic(s):
Working Paper No. 699 | December 2011
Ricardian trade theory was based on the cost of labor at a time when grain and other consumer goods accounted for most subsistence spending. But today’s budgets are dominated by payments to the finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sector and to newly privatized monopolies. This has made FIRE the determining factor in trade competitiveness.
The major elements in US family budgets are housing (with prices bid up on credit), debt service, and health insurance—and wage withholding for financializing Social Security and Medicare. Industrial firms also have been financialized, using debt leverage to increase their return on equity. The effect is for interest to increase as a proportion of cash flow (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, or EBITDA). Corporate raiders pay their high-interest bondholders, while financial managers also are using EBITDA for stock buybacks to increase share prices (and hence the value of their stock options).
Shifting taxes off property and onto employment and retail sales spurs the financialization of family and business budgets as tax cuts on property are capitalized into higher bank loans. Payments to government agencies for taxes and presaving for Social Security and Medicare absorb another 30 percent of family budgets. These transfer payments to the FIRE sector and government agencies have transformed international cost structures, absorbing roughly 75 percent of US family budgets. This helps explain the deteriorating US industrial trade balance as the economy has become financialized.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):Related Topic(s):
Working Paper No. 657 | March 2011View More View Less
For the past generation Norway has supplied Europe and other regions with oil, taking payment in euros or dollars. It then sends nearly all this foreign exchange abroad, sequestering its oil-export receipts—which are in foreign currency—in the “oil fund,” to invest mainly in European and US stocks and bonds. The fund now exceeds $500 billion, second in the world to that of Abu Dhabi.
It is claimed that treating these savings as a mutual fund invested in a wide array of US, European, and other stocks and bonds (and now real estate) avoids domestic inflation that would result from spending more than 4 percent of the returns to this fund at home. But the experience of sovereign wealth funds in China, Singapore, and other countries has been that investing in domestic infrastructure serves to lower the cost of living and doing business, making the domestic economy more competitive, not less.
This paper cites the debate that extends from US 19th-century institutional doctrine to the approach of long-time Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Yevgeny Primakov to illustrate the logic behind spending central bank and other sovereign foreign-exchange returns on modernizing and upgrading the domestic economy rather than simply recycling the earnings to US and European financial markets in what looks like an increasingly risky economic environment, as these economies confront debt deflation and increasing fiscal tightness.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):Related Topic(s):
Working Paper No. 639 | November 2010
The Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing is presented as injecting $600 billion into “the economy.” But instead of getting banks lending to Americans again—households and firms—the money is going abroad, through arbitrage interest-rate speculation, currency speculation, and capital flight. No wonder foreign economies are protesting, as their currencies are being pushed up.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):Related Topic(s):
Working Paper No. 634 | November 2010View More View Less
The post-1945 mode of global integration has outlived its early promise. It has become exploitative rather than supportive of capital investment, public infrastructure, and living standards.
In the sphere of trade, countries need to rebuild their self-sufficiency in food grains and other basic needs. In the financial sphere, the ability of banks to create credit (loans) at almost no cost, with only a few strokes on their computer keyboards, has led North America and Europe to become debt ridden—a contagion that now threatens to move into Brazil and other BRIC countries as banks seek to finance buyouts and lend against these countries' natural resources, real estate, basic infrastructure, and industry. Speculators, arbitrageurs, and financial institutions using "free money" see these economies as easy pickings. But by obliging countries to defend themselves financially, they and their predatory credit creation are helping to bring the era of free capital movements to an end.
Does Brazil really need inflows of foreign credit for domestic spending when it can create this at home? Foreign lending ends up in its central bank, which invests its reserves in US Treasury and euro bonds that yield low returns, and whose international value is likely to decline against the BRIC currencies. Accepting credit and buyout "capital inflows" from the North thus provides a "free lunch" for key-currency issuers of dollars and euros, but it does not significantly help local economies.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):Related Topic(s):
Policy Note 2010/3 | October 2010The global financial breakdown is part of the price to be paid for the refusal of the Federal Reserve and Treasury to accept a prime axiom of banking: debts that cannot be paid, won’t be. These agencies tried to “save” the banking system from debt writedowns by keeping the debt overhead in place, while reinflating asset prices. In the face of the repayment burden that is shrinking the US economy, the Fed’s way of helping the banks “earn their way out of negative equity” actually provided opportunities for predatory finance, which led to excessive financial speculation. It is understandable that countries whose economies have been targeted by global speculators are seeking alternative arrangements. But it appears that these arrangements cannot be achieved via the International Monetary Fund or any other international forum in ways that US financial strategists will accept willingly.
Working Paper No. 627 | October 2010
For the past decade, the US economy has been driven not by industrial investment but by a real estate bubble. Although the United States may seem to be the leading example of industrial capitalism, its economy is no longer based mainly on investing in capital goods to employ labor to produce output to sell at a profit. The largest sector remains real estate, whose cash flow (EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) accounts for over a quarter of national income. Financially, mortgages account for 70 percent of the US economy’s interest payments, reflecting the fact that real estate is the financial system’s major customer.
As the economy’s largest asset category, real estate generates most of the economy’s capital gains. The gains are the aim of real investors, as the real estate sector normally operates without declaring any profit. Investors agree to pay their net rental income to their mortgage banker, hoping to sell the property at a capital gain (mainly a land-price gain).
The tax system encourages this debt pyramiding. Interest and depreciation absorb most of the cash flow, leaving no income tax due for most of the post-1945 period. States and localities have shifted their tax base off property onto labor via income and sales taxes. Most important, capital gains are taxed at a much lower rate than are current earnings. Investors do not have to pay any capital gains tax at all as long as they invest their gains in the purchase of new property.
This tax favoritism toward real estate—and behind it, toward bankers as mortgage lenders—has spurred a shift in US investment away from industry and toward speculation, mainly in real estate but also in the stock and bond markets. A postindustrial economy is thus largely a financialized economy that carries its debt burden by borrowing against capital gains to pay the interest and taxes falling due.Download:Associated Program(s):Author(s):Related Topic(s):
Public Policy Brief No. 32 | August 1997
Real Estate and Capital Gains Taxation
The recent enactment of a capital gains tax cut resulted, according to the authors, from the absence of a true appreciation or consideration of the real beneficiaries of such a cut, its probable actual effects, the distinction between productive and nonproductive sources of capital gains (two-thirds of capital gains accrue to real estate, which is a fixed, nonproductive asset), and distortions in our current income accounting system (which shield most real estate income from taxation). The across-the-board cut, which treats real estate appreciation and true capital gains as the same, is a giveaway to real estate and will steer capital and entrepreneurial resources to a search for unearned income.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):
Public Policy Brief Highlights No. 32A | August 1997
Real Estate and Capital Gains TaxationThe recent enactment of a capital gains tax cut resulted, according to the authors, from the absence of a true appreciation or consideration of the real beneficiaries of such a cut, its probable actual effects, the distinction between productive and nonproductive sources of capital gains (two-thirds of capital gains accrue to real estate, which is a fixed, nonproductive asset), and distortions in our current income accounting system (which shield most real estate income from taxation). The across-the-board cut, which treats real estate appreciation and true capital gains as the same, is a giveaway to real estate and will steer capital and entrepreneurial resources to a search for unearned income.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):
Working Paper No. 187 | March 1997
The recent budget agreement contains a capital gains tax cut. The principal justification for reducing the capital gains tax rate relies on the efficiency-equity trade-off. The capital gains tax is designed to increase equity by taxing the wealthy, but advocates of rate reduction claim that the tax has the side effect of decreasing efficiency because it discourages productive investment. The argument is that the tax structure errs on the side of equity so much that it has reduced the efficiency of the economy to the point where there is less wealth for everyone, and so a capital gains tax cut is needed to get the economy moving.
Research Associates Michael Hudson and Kris Feder call attention to a neglected aspect of the capital gains debate: two-thirds of capital gains are taken on real estate—that is, on unproductive investment. An investment in real estate merely changes ownership of existing wealth; it does not produce wealth. Any capital gains on the appreciation of land value are not a reward for productivity but a windfall for whoever happens to own the land. Yet the capital gains tax treats a return from the appreciation of land the same way it treats a return resulting from improvements to land or from business investment. Such a tax structure is both inefficient (because it rewards unproductive investment at the expense of productive investment) and inequitable (because it rewards some of the wealthiest individuals at the expense of everyone else). There is an efficiency-equity trade-off on productive investments such as capital, but not on fixed assets such as land. Therefore, Hudson and Feder argue, we should not decrease the capital gains tax unless we first separate returns to business investment from returns to real estate speculation and tax real estate at a higher rate.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):