Up in Arms

The Delphic Oracle Was Their Davos: A Four-Part Interview With Michael Hudson: A New “Reality Economics” Curriculum Is Needed (Part 4)

Cross-posted from Naked Capitalism

By John Siman, who is also the author of Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 in this series

John Siman: I want to spell out the implications of the points that Socrates brought up, and with which you and I agree. That leaves the question facing us today: Is the American oligarchy and state as rapacious as that of Rome? Or is it universally the nature of oligarchy in any historical setting to be rapacious? And if so, where is it all leading?

Michael Hudson: If Antiquity had followed the “free market” policies of modern neoliberal economics, the Near East, Greece and Rome would never have gained momentum. Any such “free market” avoiding mutual aid and permitting a wealthy class to emerge and enslave the bulk of the population by getting it into debt and taking its land would have shrunk, or been conquered from without or by revolution from within. That’s why the revolutions of the 7thcentury BC, led to reformers subsequently called “tyrants” in Greece (and “kings” in Rome) were necessary to attract populations rather than reduce them to bondage.

So of course it is hard for mainstream economists to acknowledge that Classical Antiquity fell because it failed to regulate and tax the wealthy financial and landowning classes, and failed to respond to popular demands to cancel personal debts and redistribute the land that had been monopolized by the wealthy.

The wealth of the Greek and Roman oligarchies was the ancient counterpart to today’s Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) sector, and their extractive and predatory behavior is what destroyed Antiquity. The perpetuation of this problem even today, two thousand years later, should establish that the debt/credit dynamic and polarization of wealth is a central problem of Western civilization.

JS: So what were — and are — the political and social dynamic at work?

MH: The key is the concept of wealth addiction and how it leads to hubris — arrogance that seeks to increase power in ways that hurt other people. Hubris is not merely over-reaching; it is socially injurious. The wealthy or power injure other people knowingly, to establish their power and status.

That is what Aristophanes meant when his characters say that wealth is not like bananas or lentil soup. Wealth has no object but itself. Wealth is status — and also political control. The creditor’s wealth is the debtor’s liability. The key to its dynamic is not production and consumption, but assets and liabilities — the economy’s balance sheet. Wealth and status in the sense of who/whom. It seeks to increase without limit, and Socrates and Aristotle found the major example to be creditors charging interest for lending “barren” money. Interest had to be paid out of the debtor’s own product, income or finally, forfeiture of property; creditors did not provide means of making interest to pay off the loan.

This is the opposite of Austrian School theories that interest is a bargain to share the gains to be made from the loan “fairly” between creditor and debtor. It also is the opposite of neoclassical price theory. The economics taught in universities today is based on a price theory that does not even touch on this point. The liberty that oligarchs claim is the right to indebt the rest of society and then demand full payment or forfeiture of the debtor’s collateral. This leads to massive expropriations, as did the Junk Mortgage foreclosures after 2008 when President Obama failed to write down debts to realistic market values for real estate financed on loans far beyond the buyer’s ability to pay. The result was 10 million foreclosures.

Yet today’s mainstream economics treats the normal tendency to polarize between creditors and debtors, the wealthy and the have-nots, as an anomaly. It has been the norm for the last five thousand years, but economics sidesteps actual empirical history as if it is an anomaly in the fictional parallel universe created by the mainstream’s unrealistic assumptions. Instead of being a science, such economics is science fiction.It trains students in cognitive dissonance that distracts them from understanding Classical Antiquity and the driving dynamics of Western civilization.

JS: This gets us back to the question of whether universities should just be shut down and started up all over again.

MH: You don’t shut them down, you create a new group of universities with a different curriculum. The path of least resistance is to house this more functional curriculum in new institutions. That’s what America’s Republican and pro-industrial leaders recognized after the Civil War ended in 1865. They didn’t shut down Harvard and Yale and Princeton and the Christian free-trade Anglophile colleges. They created state colleges funded by land grants, such as Cornell in upstate New York, and business schools such as the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, endowed by industrialists to providing an economic logic for the state’s steel-making and related industrial protectionism. The result was an alternative economics to describe how America should develop as what they saw as a new civilization, free of the vestiges of Europe’s feudal privileges, absentee ownership and colonialist mentality.

The Republicans and industrialists saw that America’s prestige colleges had been founded long before the Civil War, basically as religious colleges to train the clergy. They taught British free trade theory, serving the New England commercial and banking interests and Southern plantation owners. But free trade kept the United States dependent on England. My book America’s Protectionist Takeoff describes how the American School of Political Economy, led by Henry Carey and E. Peshine Smith (William Seward’s law partner), developed an alternative to what was being taught in the religious colleges.

This led to a new view of the history of Western civilization and America’s role in fighting against entrenched privilege. William Draper’s Intellectual Development of Europe, and Andrew Dixon White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theologysaw the United States as breaking free from the feudal aristocracies that were a product of the way in which antiquity collapsed, economically and culturally.

JS: So business schools were originally progressive!

MH: Surprising as it may seem, the answer is Yes, to the extent that they described the global economy as tending to polarize under free trade and an absence of government protectionism, not to become more equal. They incorporated technology, energy-use and the environmental consequences of trade patterns into economic theory, such as soil depletion resulting from plantation monocultures. Mainstream economics fought against such analysis because it advocated markets “free” for polluters, “free” for nations to pursue policies that made them poorer and dependent on foreign credit.

JS: So this is how the Wharton School’s first professor of economics, Simon Patten, one of the founders of American sociology, fits into this anti-rentier tradition! That is such a revelation to me! They developed an analysis of technology’s effects on the economy, of monopoly pricing and economic rent as unearned income that increases the cost of living and cost of production. They explained the benefits of public infrastructure investment. Today that is called “socialism,” but it was industrial capitalists who took the lead in urging such public investment, so as to lower their cost of doing business.

MH: The first U.S. business schools in the late 19thcentury described rentiers as unproductive. That is why today’s neoliberals are trying to rewrite the history of Institutionalism in a way that expurgates the Americans who wanted the government to provide public infrastructure to make America a low-cost economy, undersell England and other countries, and evolve into the industrial giant it became by the 1920s.

JS: That was Simon Patten’s teaching at the Wharton School — government-subsidized public infrastructure as the fourth factor of production.

MH: Yes. America’s ruling political class tried to make the United States a dominant economy instead of a rentier economy of landlords and financial manipulators.

JS: How did the robber barons fit into this story?

MH: Not as industrialists or manufacturers, but as monopolists opposed by the industrial interests. It was Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting and the Republicans that enacted the Sherman antitrust act. Its spirit was continued by Franklin Roosevelt.

JS: Is today’s economy a second age of robber barons?

MH: It’s becoming a second Gilded Age. An abrupt change of direction in economic trends occurred after Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were elected in 1979/80. The result has been to invert what the 19th-century economists understood to be a free market — that is, a market free from a privileged hereditary class living on unearned income in the form of land rent, monopoly rent and financial extraction.

JS: I was in my first few years of college when Thatcher came in in 1979, and when Reagan was elected in 1980. I asked my economics professors what was going on, but I could not find a single professor to coherently describe the U-turn that was occurring. It certainly wasn’t in Paul Samuelson’s textbook that we were given.

MH: There’s little logic for neoliberalism beyond a faith that short-term greed is the best way to optimize long-term growth. It is natural for the wealthiest classes to have this faith. Neoliberalism doesn’t look at the economy as a social system, and it excludes as “externalities” concerns with the environment, debt dependency and economic polarization. It only asks how to make a short-term hit-and-run gain, regardless of whether this is done in a way that has a positive or negative overall social effect. Realistic economic logic is social in scope, and distinguishes between earned and unearned income. That is why economists such as Simon Patten and Thorstein Veblen decided to start afresh and create the discipline of sociology, to go beyond narrow individualistic economics being taught.

Today’s mathematical economics is based on circular reasoning that treats all that has happened as having been inevitable. It is all survival of the fittest, so it seems that there is no alternative. This policy conclusion is built into economic methodology. If we weren’t the fittest, we wouldn’t have survived, so by definition (that is, circular reasoning), any alternative is less than fit.

Regarding the fact that you had to read Samuelson when you were in college, he was famous for his Factor Price Equalization Theorem claiming to prove mathematically that everybody and every nation tends naturally to become more and more equal (if government stands aside). He denied that the tendency of the global economy is to polarize, not equalize. The political essence of this equilibrium theory is its claim that economies tend to settle in a stable balance. In reality they polarize and then collapse if they do not reverse their polarizing financial and productivity and wealth dynamics are.

The starting point of economic theorizing should explain the dynamic that lead economics to polarize and collapse. That is the lesson of studying antiquity that we have discussed in our earlier talks. Writers in classical antiquity, like Bronze Age Near Eastern rulers before them and the Biblical prophets, recognized that a rentier economy tends to destroy the economy’s productivity and widespread prosperity, and ultimately its survival. In today’s world the Finance, Insurance,and Real Estate [FIRE] sector and monopolies are destroying the rest of the economy, using financial wealth to take over the government and disable its ability to prevent their operating in corrosive and predatory ways.

JS: Why aren’t more people up in arms?

MH: They’re only up in arms if they believe that there is an alternative. As long as the vested interests can suppress any idea that there is an alternative, that matters don’t have to be this way, people just get depressed. In our third interview you spoke about Socrates and the Stoics producing a philosophy of lamentation and resignation. By his day there seemed no solution except to denounce wealth. When matters got much worse in the Roman Empire, wealth was abhorred. That became the message of Christianity.

What is needed is to define the scope of the alternative that you want. How can the economy grow when households, business, and government have to pay more and more of their revenue to the financial sector, which then turns around and lends its interest and related income out to indebt the economy even more? The effect is to extract even more income. Rising government debt and tax cuts for the rentiers lead to the privatization of public infrastructure and natural monopolies. Higher prices are charged for tolls to pay for public healthcare, education, roads and other services that were expected to be provided for free a century ago. Financialized privatization thus creates a high-rent, high-cost economy — the opposite of industrial capitalism evolving into socialism to finally free society from rentier income.

JS:Wouldn’t that be based on the insatiable desire [ἀπληστία, aplêstia] for money and the super-rich [ὑπέρπλουτοι,hyper-ploutoi] oligarchs in Book 8 of Plato’s Republic? So we get back to my question: Is the behavior of the super-rich a constant in human nature?

MH:Money-love [φιλοχρηματία, philochrêmatia] has always been extreme because wealth is addictive. But their dynamic of credit — other peoples’ debts— increasing at compound interest is mathematized and the economy is put on automatic pilot to self-destruct. Its business plan to “create wealth” by making financial gains at somebody else’s expense, without limit. This kind of financial wealth is a zero-sum activity. The wealth of the creditor class, the One Percent, is achieved by indebting the 99 Percent.

JS:Why is it a zero-sum activity?

MH:A zero-sum activity is when one party’s gain is another’s loss. Instead of income paid to creditors being reinvested in means of production to help the economy grow, it’s spent on buying more assets. The most wasteful examples are corporate stock buyback programs and financial raids. And the largest effect of financialization occurs as loans and Quantitative Easing simply bid up the price of real estate, stocks, bonds and other assets. The effect is to put housing and a retirement income further out of range of people who have to live by working for wages and salaries instead of living off absentee ownership, interest and financial asset-price gains.

JS: Why is this being done instead of investing in the economy to help the population live a better and more prosperous life?

MH:The tax and regulatory system is set up to make financial gains or create monopoly privileges. That is quicker and more certain, especially in an economy shrinking as a result of financialization and the austerity it imposes. It’s hard to make profits by investing in a shrinking economy suffering from debt deflation and a squeeze on family budgets to pay for health care, education and other basic needs.

JS: So it becomes more about extraction. Let’s come back to Global Climate Change and rising sea levels as a foundation of American foreign policy.

MH: Since the 19th century, American policy has been based on the recognition that GDP growth reflects rising energy use per capita. Rising productivity is almost identical with the curve of energy use per worker. That was the basic premise of E. Peshine Smith in 1853, and subsequent writers, whom I describe in America’s Protectionist Takeoff: 1918-1914. The policy conclusion is that if you can control the source of energy — which remains mainly oil and coal — then you can control global GDP growth. That is why Dick Cheney invaded Iraq: to grab its oil. It is why Trump announced his intention to topple Venezuela and take its oil.

If other nations are obliged to buy their oil from the United States or its companies, then it’s in a monopoly position to turn off their electricity (like the United States did to Venezuela) and hurt their economies if they don’t acquiesce in a world system that lets American financial firms come in and buy out their most productive monopolies and privatize their public domain. That’s why America’s foreign policy is to monopolize the world’s oil, gas and coal in order to have a stranglehold on the rate of growth of other countries by being able to deny them energy. It’s like denying countries food in order to starve them out. The aim is to exploit Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America what Rome exploited its Empire.

JS: Would you be comfortable using words like evil to describe what’s going on now?

MH: Evil essentially is predatory and destructive behavior. Socrates said that it ultimately is ignorance, because nobody would set out intentionally to do it. But in that case, evil would be an educational system that imposes ignorance and tunnel vision, distracting attention from understanding how economic society actually works in destructive ways. On that logic, post-classical neoliberal economics and the Chicago Boys are evil because their ideology breeds ignorance and leads its believers to act in ways that are injurious to society, preventing personal fulfillment through economic growth. Evil is a policy that makes most of society poorer, simply in order to enrich an increasingly wealth-addictive rentier layer at the top. Werner Sombart described the bourgeoisie as floating like a globules of fat on top of a soup.

JS: This is now happening on a path that follows an exponential extreme. I guess global warming makes it particularly evil. We’re not simply talking about taking advantage of other people within a society, we’re talking about destruction of the planet and its environment.

MH: Economists dismiss this as an “externality,” that is, outside the scope of their models. So these models are deliberately ignorant. You could say that this makes them evil.

JS: That is what I’ve suspected since we started the Iraq War in 2003.

MH: America’s military buildup, its anti-environmental policy and global wars are part of the same symbiotic strategy. The reason why America will not be part of a real effort to mitigate global warming is that its policy is still based on grabbing the oil resources of the Near East, Venezuela, and everywhere else that it can. Also, the oil industry is the most tax-exempt and politically powerful sector. If it also happens to be the primary cause of global warming, that is viewed as just collateral damage to America’s attempt to control the world by controlling the oil supply. In that sense the environmental impasse is a byproduct of American imperialism.

JS: What’s hopeful in the United States right now? What is a possible good outcome?

MH: The precondition would be for people to realize that there is an alternative. Starting with wiping out of student debts, they can realize that the overall debt overhead can be wiped out without hurting the economy — and indeed, rescuing it from the financial rentier class inasmuch as all debts on the liabilities side of the balance sheet have their counterpart on the asset side as the savings of today’s financial oligarchy, which is doing to the U.S. economy what Rome’s Senate did to the ancient world.

JS: How can people proceed from here?

MH: Understanding must come first. Once you have to have a sense of history, you realize that there is an alternative. You also see what happens when a creditor oligarchy gets strong enough to prevent any public power from writing down debts and to prevent attempts to tax it.

You have to do to America today what the Republicans did after the Civil War: You have to have a new university curriculum dealing with economic history, the history of economic thought and the real world’s long-term development.

JS: And what would be the premise for such economic history?

MH: The starting point is to realize that civilization began in the ancient Near East, and made a turn to oppose a strong public regulatory sector in Classical Greece and Rome. The long-term tension is the eternal fight by the oligarchy of creditors and large land owners to reduce the rest of society to serfdom, and to oppose strong rulers empowered to act in the economy’s long-term interest by creating checks against this polarization.

JS: So how much longer does this go on — for months, for years, for decades?

MH: It always goes on longer than you think it will. Inertia has a great elastic self-reinforcing power. Polarization will widen until people believe that there is an alternative and decide to fight for it. Two things are required for this to happen: First, a large proportion of people need to see that the economy is impoverishing them, and that the existing picture of what is happening is misleading. Instead of wealth trickling down, it is defying gravity and sucking income up from the base of the economic pyramid. People are having to work harder just to stay in place, until their life style breaks down.

Second, people must realize that it doesn’t have to be this way. There isan alternative

JS: Right now most people think that government regulation and progressive taxation will make things worse, and that the wealthy are job creators, not job destroyers. They think that the system needs to be bolstered, not replaced, because the alternative is “socialism” — that is, what the Soviets did, not what Franklin Roosevelt was doing. But today bailing out the banks and giving subsidies to new employers is said to be for our own good.

MH: That’s what the Romans told their provinces. Everything they did was always to preserve “good order,” meaning open opportunities for their own wealth grabbing. They never said they were out to destroy and loot other societies. Madeline Albright followed this rhetorical pattern in describing as being, like the Romans and France’s brutal mission civilisatrice, a program to uplift the world free-market efficiency. For performing this service, the imperial power takes all the money that its colonies, provinces and allies can generate. That’s why the U.S. meddles in foreign politics, as we have just seen in Ukraine, Libya and Syria.

JS: You’ve described the greatest meddling as distorting the narrative of history to depict creditor and rentier drives toward oligarchy as being democratic and helping to raise living standards and culture. Your books show just the opposite.

MH: Thank you.

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