Sunday Funnies and Asset Bubbles

I have several bloggers on the left that I regularly follow. Sometimes they’re a little over the partisan top but I am generally able to separate the nuggets of truth from the red meat. Here’s David Atkins discussing the difference between an asset economy and a wage economy. He’s not placing blame only on Republicans but policy makers in general since before Reagan. Both Atkins and David Dayen over at FDL work hard, I think, to understand what’s going on without blinders to their own side’s shortcomings and both do a good job of analyzing policy and the repercussions. Of course in the interest of moderation I’ll say they don’t always get it right but I think they do a lot of research and thought before throwing up any “ole thang”.

It would be comforting in a way to think that most every public official in Washington were eating luxurious dinners while rubbing their hands in glee at how best to destroy American families to benefit corporate contributors, so that those same public officials could buy houses in the Hamptons and eat filet mignon every night. Then it would just be a question of rooting them all out and putting “good” people into office. But that’s not really how most people, including elected officials, operate. Some are overtly corrupt to be sure, but a large number of them think they’re doing what they do for the right reasons.

I think this is true in the same way I believe my opponents on the right, you know who you are, believe in both their support of our heavily subsidized capitalist system and their prescription to bring us back from the economic precipice we’ve been on for three years now. Sure there are men and women in government and private markets who are only interested in their own bottom line but I’m hoping that most Americans would want to see a prospering economy and citizenry.

The real bipartisan agenda can be neatly summed up in this much overlooked but central Ronald Reagan quote from 1975:

“Roughly 94 percent of the people in capitalist America make their living from wage or salary. Only 6 percent are true capitalists in the sense of deriving income from ownership of the means of production…We can win the argument once and for all by simply making more of our people Capitalists.”

Understanding this idea is the key to understanding what is happening in America today, without resorting to Snidely Whiplash caricatures of elected officials.

Obviously policy makers thought by expanding home ownership, access to easy credit and inexpensive imported goods, and investing retirement funds in the market would lift us all. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out all that well for most of the middle class, regardless of how many refrigerators or tech gadgets they own.

The bipartisan idea from a public policy standpoint was not simply to enrich the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. The idea was to make the American middle class dependent on assets rather than wages.

On its face, the idea is insane. In a capitalist system, assets do often rise in value. But they also decline, and often sharply. Without significant wage growth and redundancies in the economy that provide stability at the expense of efficiency for asset growth, the popping of economic bubbles produces Great-Depression-style economic pain. The only way an asset-based economy can work is if assets grow reliably forever into the future. Not even the most “pro-growth” policies can promise that. In fact, those policies usually inflate bubbles that ensure just the opposite.

When policymakers attempt to privatize Social Security and Medicare, they aren’t necessarily supervillains hoping to turn America into a nation of nobles and peasants. Some are, but not all. The objective is to convert what they see as “useless” money sitting in the financial equivalent of a freezer, and put it to “productive” use in asset investments.

I think this is an important point and when I or others say that asset captitalists such as Pete Peterson are anxiously waiting to invest SS taxes paid by Americans into private investment opportunities this is what we mean. Many of us don’t believe this will work out very well for the little guy.

The recklessness and stupidity of this sort of approach to public policy should have been proven by the 2008 financial crisis that saw the rapid destruction of asset values in stocks, bonds, and housing. Predicating economic health on asset growth is a pipe dream: most people will never have enough assets to make it work, and asset growth is far too unstable to serve as the basis for a functional economy.

I think his conclusion is something to think about but I don’t see any real change in direction on the horizon so in the meantime, I’ll just try to protect our assets and push for a change in policy makers.

America will only return to real economic health when the asset-crazed insanity of the last 30 years is brought to heel, and America returns to a public policy that is far more interested in wage growth and economic stability than it is in asset inflation. Until then, we can expect continued political and economic shocks from an angry electorate and an economy that has run off the rails due to 30 years of deeply misguided anti-inflation, pro-asset-growth ideology.

We Are So Screwed

There were already lots of economic discussions today but I couldn’t resist this over-view for non-economists. I found a conservative economist I mostly agree with but don’t panic, it hardly ever happens.

This is seriously an interesting and informative piece from a conservative economist who helped develop Reaganomics. Of course he has since tried to re-formulate the plan and was also a huge critic of Bush, the Iraq War and Bush’s economic policies. I’m pretty sure I’ve quoted him before and gotten an onslaught of criticism for doing so from conservatives, but I’m just going to go ahead and do it again. I understand that he is no longer a revered voice in conservative circles and that some of his criticism of Bush was beyond the pale, but this is still a good read and gives an historical reference that some of us non-economists crave in order to understand the larger view of the mess that 2008 has wrought on the world. BTW, he is a critic of both Republican and Democratic economic policies and seems to place a high value on a thriving middle class, me too. I may be missing some essential economic reality or other so feel free to point it out, but most of what he says sounds about right to me. I placed just a few quotes below so read the entire piece if you’re interested. I’ve been accused, lightheartedly, of linking to rather esoteric economic journalism, so I imagine this is another one in that vein. I can’t seem to help myself.

Paul Craig Roberts (born April 3, 1939) is an American economist and a columnist for Creators Syndicate. He served as an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan Administration earning fame as a co-founder of Reaganomics.”[1] He is a former editor and columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and Scripps Howard News Service. Roberts has been a critic of both Democratic and Republican administrations.

More of his bio from Wikipedia

Quotes from a piece in CounterPunch today:

Economic policy in the United States and Europe has failed, and people are suffering.

Economic policy failed for three reasons: (1) policymakers focused on enabling offshoring corporations to move middle class jobs, and the consumer demand, tax base, GDP, and careers associated with the jobs, to foreign countries, such as China and India, where labor is inexpensive; (2) policymakers permitted financial deregulation that unleashed fraud and debt leverage on a scale previously unimaginable; (3) policymakers responded to the resulting financial crisis by imposing austerity on the population and running the printing press in order to bail out banks and prevent any losses to the banks regardless of the cost to national economies and innocent parties.

To deal with the adverse impact on the economy from the loss of jobs and consumer demand from offshoring, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan lowered interest rates in order to create a real estate boom. Lower interest rates pushed up real estate prices. People refinanced their houses and spent the equity. Construction, furniture and appliance sales boomed. But unlike previous expansions based on rising real income, this one was based on an increase in consumer indebtedness.

There is a limit to how much debt can increase in relation to income, and when this limit was reached, the bubble popped.

The Paulson Bailout (TARP) was large but insignificant compared to the $16.1 trillion (a sum larger than US GDP or national debt) that the Federal Reserve lent to private financial institutions in the US and Europe.

In making these loans, the Federal Reserve violated its own rules. At this point, capitalism ceased to function. The financial institutions were “too big to fail,” and thus taxpayer subsidies took the place of bankruptcy and reorganization. In a word, the US financial system was socialized as the losses of the American financial institutions were transferred to taxpayers.

He goes on to talk about Greece, the IMF and our very own Fed and QE3 and then concludes with this:

For four years interest rates, when properly measured, have been negative. Americans are getting by, maintaining living standards, by consuming their capital. Even those with a cushion are eating their seed corn. The path that the US economy is on means that the number of Americans without resources to sustain them will be rising. Considering the extraordinary political incompetence of the Democratic Party, the right wing of the Republican Party, which is committed to eliminating income support programs, could find itself in power. If the right-wing Republicans implement their program, the US will be beset with political and social instability. As Gerald Celente says, “when people have have nothing left to lose, they lose it.”

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