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Posts Tagged ‘Ben Bernanke’

Reinhart-Rogoff and Austerity: The math is not the problem

April 24, 2013 1 comment

Eurozone-Crisis-Timebomb

After reading and commenting on David Graeber’s post at the Guardian, I feel it necessary to comment more broadly on the problem the euro-zone faces in the crisis, as well as the problem posed by the austerity regime being pursued by the member nation of the European Union. My point is to show that the errors of the bourgeois economists Reinhart and Rogoff are not, as is commonly believed, a simple math or spreadsheet error. Behind these errors is concealed the fact that the euro-zone itself is founded on a fundamental structural flaw resulting from the monetarist economic theory on which it is constructed. This flaw was nothing more than an attempt to obstruct the working class majorities of the member nations from democratic control over their economies — a flaw that is now haunting the euro-zone and will likely cause its collapse.

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CLUELESS: QE to Infinity, or How national currencies die

November 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Based on what I have described of Bernanke’s policy failure so far, is it possible to predict anything about the future results of  an open ended purchase of financial assets under QE3? I think so, and I share why in this last part of this series.

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CLUELESS: Bernanke’s desperate gambit

November 14, 2012 2 comments

I stopped my examination of Bernanke’s approach to this crisis and the problem of deflation after looking at his 1991 paper and his speech in 2002. I now want to return to that series, examining two of his speeches this to discuss the problems confronting bourgeois monetary policy in the crisis that began in 2007-8.

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CLUELESS: “Deflation is bad. M’kay?”

October 21, 2012 Leave a comment

The world market had been shaken by a series of financial crises, and the economy of Japan had fallen into a persistent deflationary state, When Ben Bernanke gave his 2002 speech before the National Economists Club, “Deflation: Making Sure “It” Doesn’t Happen Here”. Bernanke was going to explain to his audience filled with some of the most important economists in the nation why, despite the empirical data to the contrary, the US was not going to end up like Japan.

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CLUELESS: How Ben Bernanke is managing the demise of capitalism

October 17, 2012 Leave a comment

So I am spending a week or so trying to understand Ben Bernanke’s approach to this crisis based on three sources from his works.

In this part, the source is an essay published in 1991: “The Gold Standard, Deflation, and Financial Crisis in the Great Depression: An International Comparison”. In this 1991 paper, Bernanke tries to explain the causes of the Great Depression employing the “quantity theory of money” fallacy. So we get a chance to see this argument in an historical perspective and compare it with a real time application of Marx’s argument on the causes of capitalist crisis as understood by Henryk Grossman in his work, The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown.

In the second part, the source is Bernanke’s 2002 speech before the National Economists Club: “Deflation: Making Sure “It” Doesn’t Happen Here”. In this 2002 speech, Bernanke is directly addressing the real time threat of deflation produced by the 2001 onset of the present depression. So we get to compare it with the argument made by Robert Kurz in his 1995 essay, “The Apotheosis of Money”.

In part three, the source will be Bernanke’s recent speech before the International Monetary Fund meeting in Tokyo, Japan earlier this month, “U.S. Monetary Policy and International Implications”, in which Bernanke looks back on several years of managing global capitalism through the period beginning with the financial crisis, and tries to explain his results.

To provide historical context for my examination, I am assuming Bernanke’s discussion generally coincides with the period beginning with capitalist breakdown in the 1930s until its final collapse (hopefully) in the not too distant future. We are, therefore, looking at the period of capitalism decline and collapse through the ideas of an academic. Which is to say we get the chance to see how deflation appears in the eyes of someone who sees capitalist relations of production, “in a purely economic way — i.e., from the bourgeois point of view, within the limitations of capitalist understanding, from the standpoint of capitalist production itself…”

This perspective is necessary, because the analysis Bernanke brings to this discussion exhibits all the signs of fundamental misapprehension of the way capitalism works — a quite astonishing conclusion given that he is tasked presently with managing the monetary policy of a global empire.

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Capital, Absolute Over-Accumulation and the Fascist State (Part three)

March 22, 2011 Leave a comment

The constant expansion of the Fascist State presupposes the constant expansion of capital which can no longer function as capital, which can no longer employ labor power for purposes of the self-expansion of capital; which, in other words, seeks its self-expansion, not by augmenting the productive capacity of society but by exploiting the wholesale destruction of this productive capacity through fictitious profits.

Of superfluous labor, Moishe Postone writes:

It should be clear that “superfluous” is not an unhistorical category of judgment developed from a position purportedly outside of society. It is, rather, an immanent critical category that is rooted in the growing contradiction between the potential of the developed forces of production and their existent social form. From this point of view, one can distinguish labor time necessary for capitalism from that which would be necessary for society were it not for capitalism. As my discussion of Marx’s analysis has indicated, this distinction refers not only to the quantity of socially necessary labor but also to the nature of social necessity itself. That is, it points not only toward a possible large reduction in total labor time but also toward the possible overcoming of the abstract forms of social compulsion constituted by the value form of social mediation. Understood in these terms, “superfluous” is the historically generated, immediate opposite of “necessary,” a category of contradiction that expresses the growing historical possibility of distinguishing society from its capitalist form, and, hence, of separating out their previous necessary connection. The basic contradiction of capitalism, in its unfolding, allows for the judgment of the older form and the imagination of a newer one. My analysis of the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution has shown that, according to Marx, historical necessity cannot, in and of itself, give rise to freedom. The nature of capitalist development, however, is such that it can and does give rise to its immediate opposite—historical nonnecessity—which, in turn, allows for the determinate historical negation of capitalism. This possibility can only be realized, according to Marx, if people appropriate what had been constituted historically as capital.

Although Capital is founded on scarcity, it nevertheless has a tendency toward the absolute development of the productive forces — toward, in other words, realization of abundance. But, the development of the productive forces occurs wholly within the limits of scarcity — a limit against which Capital constantly strains yet is continually thrown back by its own inherent contradictions. The productive forces develop to a staggering extent — as can be seen in American agriculture where the labor of 0.6% of the population suffices to feed the remaining 99.4%, yet, hunger persists, and grows; prices continually inflate; and the war on the consumption power of society extends even to routinized crop destruction by using it for fuel.

Capital’s problem is not how to abolish hunger and want, but how to dispose of massive quantities of output without abolishing hunger and want. The productive forces have grown to such scale that truly insignificant quantities of labor can produce astounding quantities of output. The question posed to political-economy — to “economic policy makers” — is how to maintain profitability by destroying this abundance. Capital’s tendency to absolutely develop the productive forces comes down to a tendency toward absolute expansion of the Fascist State.

The law of the tendency toward a falling rate of profit not only presupposes export of capital, it presupposes export is absolutely insufficient. It presupposes the export of capital only intensifies the absolute over-accumulation of capital. Thus, alongside the export of capital, the Fascist State grows and must grow at an accelerated rate. Or, put in terms that might be understood by the Modern Monetary Theorist:

Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” —Dick Cheney

What matters isn’t the completely fictional accumulation of public debts but that ever increasing quantities of excess capital is destroyed. The expansion of the Fascist State and the destruction of capital is, for this reason, only two sides of the same process. It is the annihilation of value in the perverse form that socially necessary labor time shrinks, even as labor time grows absolutely. This requires not simply the destruction of new surplus value but also the devaluation of the existing variable and constant capital.

The perversity of the requirement: All of this destruction of value and surplus value must be profitable for Capital. Thus Capital in its necessary form must be replaced by Capital in its purely superfluous form. This, of course, is impossible: Capital is value, and value is socially necessary labor time alone. Hence, superfluous Capital is not Capital at all, but merely accumulated superfluous labor time operating as if it is necessary labor time. The logic of the Fascist State is, for this reason, I think, identical with the logic of Capital itself, but with a profoundly different aim. If, for whatever reason, society is unable or unwilling to reduce its hours of labor, the Fascist State is the necessary result. It is the necessity for a reduction of hours of labor expressed in the perverse form of an increasingly intolerable Fascist State.

Thus, the Fascist State is only a symptom of the absolute nature of the contradictions at the heart of capitalist relations of production under conditions of absolute over-accumulation, and as a consequence of a general failure on the part of society to liberate itself from labor — a consequence of society’s failure to reduce the social hours of labor, and thus bring its activity under its conscious control. It is the accumulation of entirely unnecessary labor, superfluous labor, performed by society, in the form of a grotesquely overgrown, and constantly expanding, State power.

That the diminishing application of living labor to production results, and must result, in the extension of hours of superfluous labor in the form of the Fascist State explains why the rise of this state occurs simultaneously with the withdrawal of gold money from circulation as legal money in the United States in 1933, and the subsequent end of the dollar peg to a specific quantity of gold in 1971. The claim by economists like Ben Bernanke and Christina Romer that the Great Depression was caused by the restriction on the supply of money imposed by the gold standard is a crock, an admission that Capital, if it is to continue to dominate society under conditions of absolute over-accumulation, requires the decoupling of money from the commodity serving as measure of value and standard of price — that prices must no longer be constrained to express only the socially necessary labor time embodied in commodities generally, and, specifically, in labor power, the capitalist commodity par excellence, the commodity without which capital cannot become capital, cannot expand its value.

The subsequent explosion of the price of gold, and prices generally, gave evidence of the extent to which the magnitude of the existing quantity of capital in circulation denominated in the legally established gold standard dollar had diverged from its actual value — the extent to which the magnitude of this capital denominated in pre-1971 dollars had already diverged from its actual magnitude denominated in so many billions of ounces of gold. The replacement of money by ex nihilo pecuniam — by money created out of thin air — did not itself lead to inflation, to the depreciation of the purchasing power of money, but only expressed the growing divergence between the shrinking socially necessary labor time of society  and the ever expanding total labor time of society. This divergence presupposes the growing divergence between the value of commodities and their prices: even as the value of commodities shrink, the prices of these same commodities increase. The sum of prices must constantly increase in proportion as the sum of values fall. It is not the increase in the supply of money that leads to the increase in prices of commodities, but the increase in the total hours of social labor in proportion to the socially necessary labor time of society that requires both the increase in the supply of money and the increasing prices of commodities.

The stupidity of liberals and progressives, and the mass of Marxists theorists following them, is that they imagine the Fascist State by directly employing the labor power of society can overcome the inherent tendency toward the formation of a surplus population of workers. What they always overlook in their fascination with this fascist idea is that value is socially necessary labor time — the duration of labor time during which the worker reproduces the value of her own wages. The Fascist State, however, is composed of the surplus of labor time over this quantity of hours. It follows from this that even if the mass of unemployed is provided jobs by Fascist State spending, the new sum of wages including the increase in wages by this additional employment is, and must be, offset by the further contraction in the value of individual wages; that the new sum of wages amount to no more, or even less, than the value of the sum of wages before the unemployed are given public jobs. The average daily wage decreases in value as the mass of employed workers increase. The impoverishment of the individual worker is thereby accelerated; but in this case it is not owing to improvements in the productivity of labor, but owing to the sharing of the meager quantity of means of consumption — to which the workers are limited by Capital itself — among a larger number of hungry mouths.

A vicious circle is thus created: Capital creates surplus value by limiting the consumption of the worker. This surplus value, however, must then be unproductively consumed in its entirety by the Fascist State to maintain the conditions under which it was created, i.e., to maintain the limited consumption of the worker. The new value, having been consumed by the Fascist State, is replaced in circulation by ex nihilo pecuniam having no value whatsoever; and, which only devalues the existing employed variable and constant capital — or, what is the same thing, inflates the prices of the commodities composing both variable and constant capital. Finally, the purely monetary devaluation of the variable and constant capital increases the pressure on Capital to increase the rate of surplus value in order to maintain and increase the mass of surplus value, i.e., to further increase the productivity of labor by reducing still further the consumption of the mass of society.

This has political consequences to which I turn next.

Marx’s theory of property: self-ownership versus voluntary association

January 15, 2011 1 comment

JEFFERSON IN PARIS: THANDIE NEWTON as Sally Hemings

In answer to Daniel’s reply to my post,Who are “WE”?: Toward the beginning of an answer to Mike…, I have argued here, here and here that self-ownership is not freedom, but the universalization of slavery. I have argued that precisely on the basis of this self-ownership society is able to reproduce all the incalculably horrific relations between human beings that were found in any earlier property form. Moreover, because self-ownership is fully compatible with these earlier forms of human social relations, I have argued that Hollywood can glamorize and romanticize the inhumanity of those earlier forms precisely because they appear to us as direct relations between human beings since they are not founded on market exchange.

 

But, I think, although I am entirely prepared to be convinced otherwise, the contrast between self-ownership and the earlier forms of property, can also allow us to understand why the argument of such scholars as Justice Antonin Scalia regarding the intent of the authors of the founding documents has such appeal to a large section of the population: it is precisely in those founding documents that the ideal of self-ownership is contrasted directly with the practice of slavery by the authors. Thomas Jefferson’s brutal, savage, and barbaric acts in the real world place the ideal of self-ownership in its sharpest possible relief. We adore the words penned by Thomas Jefferson, despite the fact that he was a slave-owner, but also because he was a slave-owner. Precisely because we can no longer be disposed of by others in the fashion of a slave on Monticello without our consent and an agreed upon remuneration, our own self-enslavement appears to us as the ideal form of freedom to the member of the Tea Party, and not as what it is: the freedom to consent to our own enslavement. For the progressive, it is an acknowledgment by Thomas Jefferson that, should he wish to employ Sally Hemming as before, he will have to pay her at least the minimum wage, deduct the proper amount of Social Security and other taxes, and observe OSHA regulations.

If proponents of self-ownership could confuse it with the expression of natural law within human society, this was only because, in relation to all other forms of property up to that time, it was more perfectly compatible with the new relations between members of society being established by the new economic forces than these older property forms, and only to the extent it was more compatible with these new relations. That we find it necessary to reassert our self-ownership against the existing state of society implies not a conflict with these older forms of property that are no longer compatible with the development of the economic forces of society, but a demand for the abolition of self-ownership as a form of property in ourselves, and, with it, every form of property.

This statement does not mean that the assertion of self-ownership, as a revolution against previous forms of property (insofar as we consider all of these the disposal by others over our individual labor powers) was not valid — only that it was limited by its very nature. Our individual labor power, which can be understood much as described by Murray Rothbard that, “…each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish…”, are not, and have never been, capacities existing apart from us in the form of some object external to us: they are who we are as individuals. When the bourgeois revolution against the old order demanded self-ownership, it was demanding the overthrow of the previously existing state of affairs wherein our human self, including these very capacities, were treated as the property of some feudal potentate.

However, never in any previous form of society was it possible to think of our individual capacities as something distinct from us; never did any feudal chief imagine that the capacities of his subjects existed apart from, and independent of, their physical self; never did Thomas Jefferson imagine that his ownership of slaves extended only to their sex organs, or their capacity as beasts in the field, or as a pair of hands in the kitchen. Nor did these slaves ever imagine that, apart from submitting to his periodic rape, or the time he demanded of them as draught animals, that they were otherwise free human beings.

This division between the individual and her capacities — in which her capacities not only can assume an independent object-like existence, but must assume this form — is also a thoroughly modern invention. And, it was not until this self-object — which Marx calls the “labor-power” of the individual, or, in its totality, “the productive forces of society” — emerged as the fundamental form of property in society, that the capacities of individuals were able to assume an independent existence standing apart from them, and, over against them as an independent social force with a life of its own.

Based on this argument Marx makes the startling assertion not that self-ownership must be replaced by state ownership of the individual — as was the case in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China — but that NO ONE controls these relations nor can anyone achieve control of these relations. The problem posed by self-ownership as a form of property is not the emergence of the State as a social Thomas Jefferson, but that with it human relations generally escape all control by society. Marx writes, “Never, in any earlier period, have the productive forces taken on a form so indifferent to the intercourse of individuals as individuals…”

Despite the demands by both Tea Partiers and progressives for the state to assume control over these human relations — and much to the chagrin of those like President Barack Obama and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke — no individual or group of individuals, no State or group of States, acting separately or in concert, can impose their control over the relations between human beings precisely because they exist in the form of the individual capacities of each of us in an objectified form.

These relations, Marx declares, can only be controlled by any of us, if they are controlled by all of us together and in a voluntary association which abolishes self-ownership as a form of property in ourselves:

It can only be effected through a union, which by the character of the proletariat itself can again only be a universal one, and through a revolution, in which, on the one hand, the power of the earlier mode of production and intercourse and social organisation is overthrown…

In order, Marx writes, not only to gain control over these relations — which are never at any point anything but our own collective capacities existing in the form of an independent social force standing over against us — but also merely to ensure our actual physical survival as living creatures, society will be compelled to establish a voluntary association, and make this voluntary association the exclusive mode of its activity.

Quantitative easing may be a dead end for the Federal Reserve … So, Washington will be coming for you to foot the bill

November 24, 2010 Leave a comment

According to James Rickards, the Federal Reserve Bank likely has no way to exit from its money printing effort known as quantitative easing:

Disasters sometimes sneak up in small steps, each of which appears unthreatening at the time but which cumulatively spell collapse.  The Fed is leading the United States to ruin in ways that are claimed to be well intentioned and benign viewed in isolation but which take us finally into a locked room reminiscent of the Sartre play “No Exit.”

He takes us through the steps of the process by which the Federal Reserve has already found itself in a quagmire, and insists on pushing deeper into it:

How does the Fed print money? It’s easy; they simply buy bonds from the market and credit the seller’s bank account with electronic cash that comes out of thin air.  When they want to reduce the money supply, they do the opposite; that is, they sell bonds and the buyer’s bank account is reduced by the sale price and that money disappears.  So, printing money is just a massive program of bond purchases.  The Fed intends to concentrate the current bond buying program in the intermediate sector of 5 to 10-year maturities.

A massive program of bond purchases, yes. But, more important, a program of swapping fictitious assets for fictitious money in a series of fictitious transactions that superficially resemble real transactions but result in the exchange of no real economic values. There are, for instance, the utterly worthless purchases of mortgage backed securities and various junk from the failed financial sector. The intricacies of this garbage need not be understood in order to understand Rickards’ point: it is all junk, worthless, pieces of paper that have not an iota of value, and which will never be worth anything ever into the distant future beyond the point where the planet itself is no longer habitable.

The point is, none of this crap will ever be sold again for more than a fraction of its face value. It is toxic. You could back a truckload of it up to a recycling plant and walk away with no more than a week’s worth of groceries. And, the Fed has so much of this crap on its books, if it actually had to state its market value, the bank’s balance sheet would implode:

As a result, the Fed is coming to resemble a highly leveraged hedge fund with an inverted pyramid of risky, volatile and junk debt balanced on a slim layer of capital.  Recall the Fed owns the Maiden Lane portfolio of junk from Bear Stearns and $1.4 trillion of mortgages whose value is in serious doubt because of strategic defaults, lost notes and halted foreclosures.  Treasury notes may be of good credit quality if you don’t mind getting paid back in debased dollars but even Treasury notes have market risk.  If interest rates go up, the value of Treasury notes goes down; it’s that simple.  The Fed is taking both credit risk and market risk on its balance sheet in unprecedented amounts.

Under QE2, the Federal Reserve hopes to double down by adding Washington debt to its mix of toxic sludge. And, this is where the game gets really interesting.

To buy Washington’s debt, and force down interest rates, the Federal Reserve essentially has to outbid all other players in the public debt market. It can do this simply by entering the required digits at a computer terminal — and keep entering them until every other bid is taken out. At the end of the day, the Fed has pushed everyone else out of the market by paying more for Washington’s debt than anyone else in their right mind would be willing to pay.

When people say the action of the Federal Reserve is nuts — because the Fed is deliberately paying more for the debt than it is worth, and because the Fed is inundating the economy with worthless currency — the Fed has two responses:

When critics raise the issue of mark-to market losses, the Fed has a simple answer, which is that they will hold to maturity.  The Fed does not have to mark to market; they can simply hold the assets to maturity and collect the full proceeds from the Treasury or other issuers.  Just ignore for the moment the fact that some of the junkier assets and mortgages will not pay off, ever.  That’s years away; for now, let’s just give the Fed the benefit of the doubt and say that mark-to-market losses don’t matter because they don’t have to sell.

Critics also raise the issue that this much money printing will result in inflation at best and maybe hyperinflation if velocity takes off due to behavioral shifts.  The Fed is also very reassuring on this point.  They say not to worry because at the first signs of sustained and rising inflation they will reverse course and reduce the money supply by selling bonds and nip inflation in the bud.  But also note that the world in which the Fed wants to sell the bonds is also a world of rising inflation and therefore rising interest rates.  This is the world of huge mark to market losses on the bonds themselves.

To the first concern the Fed says, “Oh, sure we’re paying too much for this debt, but we will just hold onto it until we can sell it without taking a loss.”

To the second concern the Fed says. “Oh, sure this will cause inflation, but we can fix that by selling this debt and soaking up the excess money.”

Rickards isn’t buying this bullshit. If the Fed is successful and inflation takes hold, he points out, interest rates will be rising — and if interest rates are rising, the price of Washington’s debt will be collapsing. The Fed will suffer massive losses if it tries to sell the debt to siphon off the excess money in the economy that is driving up prices:

The Fed is saying don’t worry about mark to market losses because we will hold the bonds.  The Fed is saying don’t worry about inflation because we will sell the bonds.  Both of those statements cannot be true at the same time.  You can hold bonds and you can sell bonds but you can’t do both at once.  You will want to sell when rates are going up but that’s when losses will be the greatest.   So the time when you most want to sell is the time when you will most want to hold. The Fed may say they can finesse this by selling shorter maturities only to reduce money supply and holding onto longer maturities.  But that just further degrades the quality of the Fed’s balance sheet and turns it into a one-way roach motel for highly volatile and junk assets.

Monetary policy is dead — stick a fork in it — and so is the Fed:

So, here’s the bottom line on money printing, or QE if you prefer.  If nothing happens, the whole thing was a waste of time.  If inflation takes off, the Fed will have to choose between holding bonds and letting inflation get worse or selling bonds and going bankrupt in the process.  Since no entity goes down without a fight, the Fed will naturally hold the bonds and let inflation take off.  Do not ask about the exit strategy from QE; there is no exit.

End of story, right?

No! Not by a long shot. We’re just getting to the really really interesting part — the part where you get royally screwed.

You see, even if the Fed cannot exit from its quantitative easing program, there is still all this fictitious money sloshing around the economy, driving up prices, and bidding up everything that isn’t locked down. The Fed may be effectively frozen, but there is still a way to drain the economy of all that excess money.

Washington simply takes it from you. Your elected officials down in Washington can perform a type of monetary policy to drain all the excess liquidity from the system by raising your taxes and cutting the programs you rely on. According to Billy Mitchell, a prolific modern monetary economist who writes at Billy’s blog:

It is a good practice to think of taxes as just draining liquidity from the non-government sector reflecting the Government’s desire for that sector to have less spending capacity.

Now, you know why Washington is debating deficit reduction in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression: if the Federal Reserve is able to get the debt creation process moving again, and the economy starts to expand, they intend to withdraw the excess liquidity in the economy by taking it from you.

You will pay more taxes.

You will pay higher prices for everything.

You will retire when you are dead.

The bottom line for you: you will be forced to work longer hours for less pay just to keep the same standard of living, because inflation will be rampant, and your after tax income will be plummeting.

They assume that by the time you figure this out it will already be too late for you to do anything about it.

If Washington gets its way, you are going to suffer the most massive wage income collapse in human history.

How quantitative easing works — or doesn’t (Part Seven: The contradictions inherent in QE2)

November 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Quantitative easing embodies a number of insoluble contradictions. First, that too much work expresses itself as too little employment; second, that unprecedented abundance expresses itself as scarcity; third that the capacity to produce far in excess of human needs expresses itself as poverty; fourth that too much debt expresses itself as too little money.

There is not too little employment, but too much of the labor employed is wasted on unproductive and superfluous activity. There is not a scarcity of goods, but a scarcity of profitable demand for those goods. There is not too few means of production, but too little of it is employed to meet human needs. There is not too little money, but too little of it is created in the form of dollar denominated debt.

Quantitative easing, allegedly undertaken to eliminate unemployment, poverty, scarcity, and debt, must result not in the diminution of these evils, but in their aggressive expansion.

Since, in the simple-minded world of economists, economic growth is induced by the expansion of the quantity of money in circulation — and since this new money enters circulation only as a reflex of the same process by which it is created, i.e., by the creation of new debts — the elimination of poverty is irrationally predicated on its further expansion; on the further indebtedness of the mass of society.

In the same Orwellian fashion, the economist explains that poverty can be eliminated by progressively diverting present public and private income to the servicing of previously accumulated debts; and, that the scarcity of goods can be eliminated so long as companies relentlessly shutter their factories and eviscerate their workforces.

The stupidity of economic policy reaches its logical expression in the mind-numbing, logic defeating, assertion by Saint Paul Krugman that these social evils can be remedied only if the money held by the great mass of society is relentlessly devalued by Washington:

The Case For Higher Inflation

Olivier Blanchard, normally at MIT but currently the chief economist at the IMF, has released an interesting and important paper on how the crisis has changed, or should have changed, how we think about macroeconomic policy. The most surprising conclusion, presumably, is the idea that central banks have been setting their inflation targets too low:

Higher average inflation, and thus higher nominal interest rates to start with, would have made it possible to cut interest rates more, thereby probably reducing the drop in output and the deterioration of fiscal positions.

To be a bit more precise, I’m not that surprised that Olivier should think that; I am, however, somewhat surprised that the IMF is letting him say that under its auspices. In any case, I very much agree.

I would add, however, that there’s another case for a higher inflation rate — an argument made most forcefully by Akerlof, Dickens, and Perry (pdf). It goes like this: even in the long run, it’s really, really hard to cut nominal wages. Yet when you have very low inflation, getting relative wages right would require that a significant number of workers take wage cuts. So having a somewhat higher inflation rate would lead to lower unemployment, not just temporarily, but on a sustained basis.

The irrationality of the post-war capitalist economic system is presented in its unvarnished form by our Saint Paul in this excerpt: Employment can only increase under conditions of exchange whereby workers receive nothing for their additional hours of work; output can only rise if this output does not result in any additional consumption by the great mass of society; economic growth can be achieved through a massive infusion of new money into the economy only if that new money reduces the purchasing power of the existing money in circulation.

Quantitative easing meets these three conditions. Washington injects billions of new dollars into the economy which does not create any new output but only drives up money demand for the existing output — thereby reducing the purchasing power of money already in circulation. To the extent this new money actually increases employment, the new wages paid out are only money or nominal wages, since this money does not imply the creation of any new goods. Since no new output accompanies the creation of this new money, and since the successful injection of money into the economy presupposes the expansion of new debt, whatever new output emerges from this new employment rests on the absolute capacity of the worker to convert an increasing portion of his wages into a mere income stream to service this new debt.

Quantitative easing, therefore, is not a new policy, but the expression of the failure of the existing policy whereby the  value of wages is continuously depreciated as capitals seek to forestall the fall in the rate of profit. It presupposes the debt saturation of the existing labor force, whose wages have already been exhausted by debt service. It is no longer merely the expansion of debt that Washington seeks, it is the expansion of debt denominated in dollars — to the exclusion of the debt, and, therefore, of the creation of monies, denominated in all other currencies.

Thus, from Tim Duy at the blog Fed Watch, we read this:

The Final End of Bretton Woods 2?

The inability of global leaders to address global current account imbalances now truly threatens global financial stability.  Perhaps this was inevitable – the dollar has not depreciated to a degree commensurate with the financial crisis.  Moreover, as the global economy stabilized the old imbalances made a comeback, sucking stimulus from the US economy and leaving US labor markets crippled.  The latter prompts the US Federal Reserve to initiate a policy stance that will undoubtedly resonate throughout the  globe.  As a result we could now be standing witness to the final end of Bretton Woods 2.  And a bloody end it may be.

Rather than a reliance on US financial institutions to intermediate the channel between foreign savers and US households, a modified Bretton Woods 2 – Bretton Woods 2.1 – relied on the US government to step into the void created by the financial mess and become the intermediary, either by propping up mortgage markets via the takeover of Freddie and Fannie, or the fiscal stimulus, or a dozen of other programs initiated during the financial crisis.

In essence, a nasty surprise awaited US policymakers – after two years of scrambling to find the right mix of policies, including an all out effort to prevent a devastating collapse of financial markets and a what Administration officials believed to be a substantial fiscal stimulus, the US economy remains mired at a suboptimal level as stimulus flows out beyond US borders.  The opportunity for a smooth transition out of Bretton Woods 2 was lost.

How has it come to this?  To understand the challenge ahead, we need to begin with two points of general agreement.  The first is that the US has a significant and persistent current account deficit, which implies that domestic absorption of goods and services, by all sectors, exceeds potential output.  In other words, we rely on a steady inflow of goods and services to satisfy our excess demand, a situation we typically find acceptable during a high growth phase when domestic investment exceeds domestic saving.  The second point of agreement is that high unemployment implies that actual output is far below potential output.  We clearly have unused capacity.

The collapse of Bretton Woods 2 was predictable once American workers became saturated with debt, and were unable to service existing obligations, much less expand them. But, this debt sustained the off-shoring of American industry to the low wage exports platforms of China, Brazil and Asia — which, in turn, created the trade deficit. With the debt saturation of the American worker, the entire underpinning of the system, whereby American companies moved their facilities overseas and imported their goods back to the United States to sell to an increasingly impoverished population, is now threatened by the ever declining consumption power of now jobless Americans.

The breathtaking absurdity of the systematic impoverishment of the very population whose consumption is essential to the functioning of the economy — wherein the worker is let go, his job is moved to China, yet he is expected to have the means to then purchase the product he now no longer makes — which rest on conditions that are clearly the product of a psychotic mind — that his wages are to be substituted by extension of easy credit — can only be explained by the incomprehensible delegation of the management of the process of social production to madmen who believe real wealth can be created by changing the quantity of dancing electrons at a computer terminal.

But, this is where the madmen have their last laugh: “Who,” they respond, “is talking about real wealth? We are not talking about real wealth, but social wealth, and this social wealth — this power over billions, expressed as the power to command labor — is denominated in many different currencies. It is not our intention to create real wealth, but merely social wealth!”

We are, it appears, not in the real world, but trapped in the nightmarish world of the insane, the sociopath:

Put simply, the Federal Reserve is positioned to declare war on Bretton Woods 2.  November 3, 2010.  Mark it on your calendars.

So perhaps Bretton Woods does not end because foreign governments are unwilling to bear ever increasing levels of currency and interest rate risk or due to the collapse of private intermediaries in the US, but because it has delivered the threat of deflation to the US, and that provokes a substantial response from the Federal Reserve.  A side effect of the next round of quantitative easing is an attack on the strong dollar policy.

The rest of the world is howling.  The Chinese are not alone; no one wants it to end.  From Bloomberg:

Leaders of the world economy failed to narrow differences over currencies as they turned to the International Monetary Fund to calm frictions that are already sparking protectionism….

….Days after Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega set the tone for the gathering by declaring a “currency war” was underway, officials held their traditional battle lines. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet were among those to signal irritation that China is restraining the yuan to aid exports even as its economy outpaces those of other G-20 members.

“Global rebalancing is not progressing as well as needed to avoid threats to the global economic recovery,” Geithner said. “Our initial achievements are at risk of being undermined by the limited extent of progress toward more domestic demand- led growth in countries running external surpluses and by the extent of foreign-exchange intervention as countries with undervalued currencies lean against appreciation.”

At the same time, officials from emerging economies including China complained that low interest rates in the U.S. and its developed-world counterparts mean investors are pouring capital into their markets, threatening growth by forcing up currencies and inflating asset bubbles. The MSCI Emerging Markets Index of stocks has soared 13 percent since the start of September…

…“Near-zero interest rates and rapid monetary expansion are geared at stimulating domestic demand but also tend to produce a weakening of their currencies,” Mantega said Oct. 9. As a result, developing countries will continue to build up reserves in foreign currency to avoid “volatility and appreciation.”

Consider the enormity of the situation at hand.  The Federal Reserve is poised to crank up the printing press for the sake of satisfying their domestic mandate.  One mechanism, perhaps the only mechanism, by which we can expect meaningful, sustained reversal from the current set of imbalances is via a significant depreciation of the dollar.  The rest of the world appears prepared to fight the Fed because they know no other path.

Bad things happen when you fight the Fed.  You find yourself on the wrong side of a whole bunch of trades.  In this case, I suspect it means that Bretton Woods 2 finally collapses in a disorderly mess.  There may really be no other way for it to end, because its end yields clear winners and losers.  And the losers, in this case largely emerging markets, [are] not prepared to accept their fate.

Stated simply, the collapse of all other currencies is being engineered by Washington, because Washington has no other choice. If it is to continue feeding off the unpaid labor of others, the cartel in Washington must expand the pool of potential debtors. The inherent contradiction expressed in QE can be temporarily held at bay only by the collapse of the dollar’s competitors.

Bottom Line:  The time may finally be at hand when the imbalances created by Bretton Woods 2 now tear the system asunder.  The collapse is coming via an unexpected channel; rather than originating from abroad, the shock that sets it in motion comes from the inside, a blast of stimulus from the US Federal Reserve.  And at the moment, the collapse looks likely to turn disorderly quickly.  If the Federal Reserve is committed to quantitative easing, there is no way for the rest of the world to stop to flow of dollars that is already emanating from the US.  Yet much of the world does not want to accept the inevitable, and there appears to be no agreement on what comes next.  Call me pessimistic, but right now I don’t see how this situation gets anything but more ugly.

If we are generally accurate in the analysis presented above, the coming period will see a series of currency crises sweeping the globe, as one currency after another falls victim to the Federal Reserve Bank’s quantitative easing program. The unsustainable trade deficits of Bretton Woods 2, which were only made possible by the now unsustainable debts borne by American working people, can only be resolved one of two ways: either these imbalances must give way to a global depression centered in China and other surplus generating exporters and the accompanying devaluation of their dollar denominated assets. Or, they must accept the increasing dollarization of their economies.

They do not have much time to decide.

How quantitative easing works — or doesn’t (Part Five: Currencies)

November 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Although world market prices tend to be denominated in dollars, it would be a mistake to conclude that the formation of world market prices is a consequence of the use of the dollar in transactions. Rather, world market prices are increasingly denominated in dollars because the production process has become globalized. Since the price of a good is only the expression of the value (or, socially necessary labor time) embodied in the good, which can never be directly measured, the value of a good expresses itself in the material bodily form of some other object whose use is to serve as money.

But, the world market is composed of dozens of countries each having their own national currency. Given the myriad of currencies, the denomination of goods in the currency of the dominant nation simplifies the task of comparing production costs across nations, each nation having its own specific conditions of production.

By quoting the cost of labor power and commodities in a single currency, global corporations can more accurately compare their costs of production, and measure their return on investment using a single yardstick. This single yardstick then becomes the preferred unit of measure and denomination of prices.

This is necessary to point out because of a persistent myth spread by economists that the object serving as money is money owing to some legal requirements established by the State — for example, this view holds that dollars are money because they are declared legal tender by the federal government of the United States.

The laws of the United States apply only to the United States; they do not apply to France, Brazil, Senegal, Bhutan or any other nation. Yet, despite this apparent limitation on the reach of US law, it does not matter in the least how many euros, pounds, yen, yuan, or reals you have in your possession when you go shopping in the great global mall of the world market; the world market prices of goods are denominated and payable in dollars. For example, if Senegal wishes to buy 100 barrels of oil, its currency, the CFA Franc, is useless unless it is first converted into dollars. This requirement is imposed on Senegal by existing world market conditions without respect to the laws on its books concerning what legally constitutes money.

In the previous chapter, we showed that should the Bank of England undertake to impose a price inflation rate of 2 percent a year on the British economy the policy would ultimately fail to prevent deflation because, frankly, there is no such thing as a British economy, and, in any case, the price of goods are not determined within the confines of Great Britain but within the world market as a whole. Yet, the myth of the national economy persists as a habit of thinking although national economies have long since been replaced by a global production process.

If the Bank of England were to take the total supply of pounds and double it — or cut it in half — the net effect on real prices for output would be zero. Whatever inflation the Bank of England were to generate in domestic prices would be offset by the decline in the exchange rate of its currency.

We want to be clear that what we said for the Bank of England also applies to the Federal Reserve of the United States: an attempt by the Federal Reserve to create inflation of 2 percent in the US economy will have exactly the same effect on the dollar as it has on the British pound. As in the case of Britain, should the Federal Reserve Bank undertake to impose a price inflation rate of 2 percent a year on the American economy the policy would ultimately fail to prevent deflation because, frankly, there is no such thing as an American economy, and, in any case, the price of goods are not determined within the confines of the United States but within the world market as a whole.

Likewise, if the Federal Reserve were to take the total supply of dollars and double it — or cut it in half — the net effect on real prices for output would be zero. Whatever inflation the Federal Reserve were to generate in domestic prices would be offset by the decline in the exchange rate of its currency. So, to the extent certain commodities are priced both in dollars and, for example, euros, the ratio between the dollar price of the commodity and the euro price of the commodity will adjust appropriately.

There is, however, one important difference between the United States and Great Britain: although, US prices have indeed risen against world market prices, to the extent these world market prices are denominated in US dollars, no change can take place in the exchange rate of the dollar.

Instead, world prices are depreciated against all currencies other than the dollar, or, what is the same thing, the purchasing power of all other currencies appreciate. If you have been a close reader of this blog you will know that the appreciation of the purchasing power of money is an indicator that an economy is contracting — i.e., that the economy is falling into a depression. Here, however, rather than the appreciation of a national currency resulting from an economic contraction, the economic contraction is imposed on the economy by the increase in the purchasing power of its money.

How does this happen?

As in the case of Great Britain, there is nothing a country can do through its monetary policy to affect the new world prices which emerge once the Federal Reserve has successfully created an inflation of 2 percent. Should, for example, China attempt to devalue the yuan against the dollar to maintain its export surplus, it would find the domestic rate of inflation rising. Should it attempt to contain domestic inflation, it would find that the exchange rate of the yuan with the dollar is rising.

The loss of control over its own monetary policy is absolute — without warning, and quite suddenly, every other nation on the planet finds the Federal Reserve unilaterally dictating monetary policy for the entire global economy.