Wednesday, April 30, 2008

NLR essay on subprime and financialisation

There's a new essay by Robin Blackburn on subprime and financialisation which is in the current edition of New Left Review, which can be read online here. He's right to point the finger at the complicity of quants and dodgy and obscure quantitative techniques which have turned out to be nothing more than sleight-of-hand.

Monday, April 28, 2008

More on hunger

Related to my previous post, I've just found a couple of articles in the same vein. In the first one, Mike Whitney, at Dissident Voice, quotes Chavez:

“It is a massacre of the world’s poor. The problem is not the production of food. It is the economic, social and political model of the world. The capitalist model is in crisis.”

And the second, by Otto Spengler (mentioned by Whitney) in Asia Times:

The global food crisis is a monetary phenomenon, an unintended consequence of America's attempt to inflate its way out of a market failure. There are long-term reasons for food prices to rise, but the unprecedented spike in grain prices during the past year stems from the weakness of the American dollar. Washington's economic misery now threatens to become a geopolitical catastrophe.

Because such a small proportion of the global rice supply trades, the monetary shock from the weak dollar was sufficient to more than double its price.

(I recommend the article be grokked in fullness). In essence, those buying in dollar-tied currencies have seen their purchasing power wither. Those not tied to such currencies have also seen their purchasing power decline as cash-rich countries use their dollars the only way they can: buying up commodities. For sure, the surge in prices of commodities (food, precious metals, real estate) over the last few years can certainly be ascribed to a world awash with liquidity, in large part US dollars. In the case of food, there are other complicating factors Spengler doesn't consider (poor harvests, biofuels, and so on). But even the use of biofuels can be ascribed at least to some extent to the weakening of the dollar and the concomitant surge in crude oil prices. In a nutshell high commodity prices in general (including food staples) and the impact of biofuel on food prices can both be ascribed to US monetary and economic policies of the last several years. It strengthens my argument that the food crisis is an engineered one (albeit inadvertently). But the poor are powerless.

World hunger

Interesting piece in today's FT:

QUOTE "The correct response is to give priority to dealing with hunger, with access to foodstuffs and to food production in poorer countries" Celso Amorim, Brazil's foreign minister, told the FT last week. "And to give priority to tackling the root of the problem: the enormous subsidies in rich countries that undermine production in developing nations. World hunger is not a result of a lack of supply, but principally of the low income levels in poor countries."UNQUOTE

The last sentence deserves a bit of elaboration. Notwithstanding the lies of Western "leaders," hunger in the Third World isn't principally caused by uncontrollable circumstances such as droughts and overpopulation. Droughts and overpopulation are problems to be sure, but not the primary culprits. The primary culprit is the superimposition of an artificial system of resource extraction from the Third World, using arcane tools of banking, finance, and international law, and backed by military coercion, overthrow of legitimate governments, and targeted assassinations if the earlier measures fail (aka neocolonialism). To give a simple example, poor countries are frequently having to devote their land to the growth of export-oriented cash crops to service the debts of Western loan sharks -- and these loans are meant to be unpayable. Similar examples are rife. In like vein, the use of corn for fuel is bringing about higher food prices all over the globe. The point is that world hunger and malnutrition -- both in poor countries and the affluent North -- is an engineered phenomenon.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Kevin Phillips' new book

I just got hold of Phillips' "Bad Money," which came out about a week ago. I've posted a couple of comments on my initial impressions of the book in a post at my blog; rather than doing a cut-and-paste, my blog post can be found here.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The mechanics of subprime

For a quick and accurate explanation of the mechanics of subprime, there's a powerpoint presentation, put together by Michael Perelman, available at his blog here.

Another perspective on the financial crisis

Most of the readers of this blog are doubtless aware that a tectonic shift in global economic relations has been taking place, with the inexorable rise of Asian economies and a resurgent Russian economy coupled with the anemic and problematic performance of the US economy. And for those of us who know our history, we know that major changes in relationships are usually precipated by some sort of crisis or major event. Thus the growing weakness of Britain vis-a-vis Germany and the USA needed WW1 to throw it into bold relief. It might be argued, I suppose, that the present financial crisis is also an indicator and precipitator of tectonic shifts. I found a good article at this morning, written from a realpolitik perspective, which in large part mirrors my own outlook:

But there is more to the story. The sub-prime crisis grew in the context of real and portentous developments across global trade, financial and economic systems. The Fed, Treasury and Wall Street, distracted by their own crisis, probably have had little time to focus on the tectonic plate shifts in the global system that probably mean they cannot go home again. The epicenters of international trade and finance simply are shifting. In essence, a good part of the wealth that might be needed to finance a recovery is in the wrong places or pockets, mostly in Asia, and when the dust settles, the global configuration will be different.

Whatever the approaches, the system is unlikely ever to be the same again, because the facts underlying global developments are profound. For starters, the solutions do not lie merely with changes in liquidity. They lie with recognition and adjustments around real changes in global economic structures including the scale and distribution of productivity and wealth. The sub-prime crisis simply adds to the adjustments already made necessary by those global changes.

However, as other economies have grown, diversified and prospered the dollar has faced rising competition from the Japanese Yen, then the Euro and, most recently, from the Chinese

Renmembi or Yuan and the Brazilian Real. These new challenges reflect both the growing
global strength of other economies and accumulating flaws in the strength of the American economy, notably continuing Federal deficits, rising international debt and growing import dependence
. Those developments weakened the Dollar by exposing it to the competition of other currencies, reduced its traditional role as a stabilizing international trade benchmark, and sent its value plunging as resource prices rose in response to increasing global demand for oil and
industrial materials.

To the degree that the United States is able to reduce its debt, curb its appetites for imported goods, adjust its affluent lifestyles, extricate itself from absurd levels of military expenditure, and restrain inflation, in short, put its economic house in order, declines in the value of the Dollar can be mitigated. However, the declining role of the Dollar in the world economy appears persistent.

In terms of GDP stated at purchasing power parity, the United States is now not only behind the European Union, it is being rapidly overtaken by Asian economies. World Bank estimates show that the Asian combination of China, Japan and India exceeds the United States and is breathing down the neck of the European Community for global first place. With the numbers for smaller Asian economies such as Malaysia, Asia is already globally in the lead.

The containment strategy that ultimately dominated the US Cold War posture actually provided an umbrella for potentially pre- emptive military moves that positioned the US virtually everywhere any economic resource of importance could be had.

When the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) surfaced in the early Bill Clinton presidency with plans to invade Iraq and with a global military power agenda, the altruistic side of American foreign policy had pretty well atrophied. The game had become power maintenance by military dominance. The PNAC designers appeared to have no clear-cut economic agenda, but their military scheme, if it succeeded, would have provided more than adequate cover for a
self-centered and pre-emptive resource acquisition strategy. As perceived by other advanced and advancing nations, this scheme drove 21^st century global resource acquisition strategies toward a nineteenth century capitalist model. One only has to look at Darfur, the Congo, Zimbabwe, and much of Central Asia as well as the Middle East to see how neo-colonial present day resource acquisition has become.

In the end, the sub-prime mess is likely to accelerate the transition of the US economy to a new position in the global system. Unless several major world economies-Japan, European Union, China, India, Brazil, and others-suddenly contract instead of continuing to grow at faster than US rates, the US weight in the global system will continue to decline; the Dollar will continue to play a reduced role in the global trade and payments system.

A military power strategy won't cut it. We are already going deeply into debt to sustain the present military posture. Other countries are not enamored of a US trying to run the world at the real or implied point of a gun. The system now needs truly global leadership. The United
States can lead in that direction, helping to create and strengthen the institutions that will provide global leadership in the common interest.
It is not leading now; it is forcing or trying to force global conformity to a self-centered US model, and that strategy eventually will fail. Such failures as the sub-prime fiasco only hasten the time when the present US model must be

I apologise profusely for such copious pasting (even though I've tried to be selective) and insist that this is not my wont but seldom do I come across such careful and perceptive analysis. The fortunes of the US will continue to decline and in a sense the present crisis is a harbinger of more bad news to come over the next few years. It will be interesting to see how US policy makers try to use the one undoubted edge they still have -- US military superiority -- to bully or cajole other nations into complying with US demands.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The present crisis of finance capitalism

The paucity of theoretical (left-wing) analysis concerning the present financial crisis has been bothering me for the last several months. In recent days, however, theorists have begun to examine the context in which this crisis has occurred and its various ramfications.

First of all, there's John Bellamy Foster's essay in the April 2008 edition of Monthly Review, which can also be read online here. I'd suggest that one first read a piece he wrote for Monthly Review a year earlier, in April 2007, to flesh out the theoretical picture, which can be found here. As I understand Foster, the gist of what he's saying appears to be that the shift from an earlier industrial capitalism to today's finance capitalism was prompted by stagnating profit and the concomitant lack of profitable outlets for investment. But a corollary of this move has been a national economy (and increasingly, a global one) that is susceptible to booms and busts (in contrast to the relatively mild cycles of forty and fifty years ago), to speculative fevers and savage "corrections" of the sort not seen in an earlier post-WW2 age. And that what we have today is the inevitable collapse of a financial house of cards, which has been built on -- and succumbed from -- inherent contradictions such as insufficient purchasing power on the part of ordinary people, the explosion of credit, and the frantic and feverish search for super-profits. I hasten to add that I'm not sure to what extent I'm paraphrasing Foster and to what extent I'm depicting my own weltanshauung.

What troubles me now is how little theory informs current political discourse. The ideas put forward so far appear to be to lower interest rates, to provide some relief to mortgage holders, to "stimulate" the economy, to (half-heartedly) attempt some mild regulation of the markets -- all patch-and-mend. What's really needed is an ideological alternative: one that provides a theoretically different perspective from the neoliberal dogma of the last three decades. One that proposes that there may be an alternative to (ostensibly) free markets and ever-widening disparities in wealth and income; one that situates the present crisis as systemic and reveals the ideological bankruptcy of neoliberalism. One cannot, of course, expect the paid apes of the Democratic Party to initiate any such discourse; as I maintain, if the Republicans are killers, the Democrats are whores. So any such discourse will have to come from elsewhere, from some fringe or periphery. Yesterday evening I serendipitously stumbled across a couple of analyses which resonated with me; they can be found here and here. I'd just like to mention a couple of points that I found particularly noteworthy about Chazelle's essay.

First of all, he contends that any real ideology has to be disbelievable just as any real scientific theory has to be falsifiable: this resonates with me because I'm trained as a scientist. Thus saying that the sun will arise in the east doesn't constitute a theory; predicting the existence of Uranus or the existence of radio waves does. And if an ideology is to be disbelievable, it needs to be making concrete proposals that are based on tough choices. Any ideology that doesn't 1) indicate that there are alternatives and 2) suggest which of these alternatives should be chosen (i.e., tough decisions) and why, is no ideology. This is precisely why the Democratic Party is talking through its backside most of the time: it's not proposing a rival ideological framework. It merely puts a smiley-face on harsh realities and "feels your pain." And Democratic politicians assiduously avoid portraying any alternatives to the current status quo. But I digess. Both of the analyses are well worth reading and should provide food for thought.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Theatre Review - "Puntila and His Hired Man, Matti"

Bertold Brecht’s “Puntila and His Hired Man, Matti,” Frank Theatre, City of Minneapolis Garage.

The Frank Theatre is probably one of the most political theatre companies in this town, along with Penumbra, Mixed Blood and Intermedia Arts. Frank specializes in left-wing content, and moves its ensemble cast to unique locations, acting in a different venue for every show. I consider it the best political theatre in town. This time the production, which has now ended, was in a garage along Hiawatha Avenue used by the City of Minneapolis. Frank built comfortable risers to sit in, painted parts of the walls, railings, and various objects to look like birch trees, and generally used the space well.

The play, a typical comic cabaret, is set in Finland, where Bertold Brecht lived in exile for a time. It was written in collaboration with Finnish-Estonian playwright Hella Wuolijoki, but then Brecht renamed it and published it under his own name entirely. It tells the story of a landowner, Puntila with multiple personalities, who is interested in marrying-off his daughter, Eva, to a diplomat. The play is based on the transitions between a drunken, gregarious and generous life-of-the-party Puntila to a sober and vicious milk landlord Puntila, and back again. Matti, his trusty chauffeur, has to deal with the transitions, never forgetting that the drunk will turn back into a landlord with a hangover. Matti is almost the sole voice of logic and reason in the play. The actor, with a beard, goatee and driver’s hat that made him look vaguely like V.I. Lenin, at one point asks, “What is to be done?”

Indeed. What is to be done with the bourgeoisie?

While drunk, Puntila and Matti engage in banter, and Puntila discovers that Matti is a ‘real human being.’ Puntila is also acting like a ‘real human being’ when drinking, though a high-handed and arbitrary one even then. When drunk, Puntila loves Finland’s natural beauty – its birch forests, 70,000 lakes and mountains – and even chastises Matti for thinking he would ruin a forest to make money. (Marx himself equated the destruction of nature with the exploitation of the working class. It seems that Brecht is echoing this theme here.) Puntila, played by the actor Grant Richey, is a non-stop fun show when drinking. Over one randy past-midnight jaunt to a small village, he somehow manages to get engaged to four different village women, inviting them all to come to his estate on the same day for the culmination of their ‘engagement.’

The engagement day actually centers on the engagement of his daughter Eva to the “attache,” a gay young man in the foreign-service who owes Puntila a lot of money. Puntila, for somewhat obscure reasons, is encouraging the romance in order to gain favor with people in the government. Chain-smoking Eva is a pampered young woman schooled in Switzerland, who is trying to rationalize her engagement to a homosexual, but is having some doubts. Matti and she eventually hatch a plan to break the engagement by pretending to have a romantic tryst in the sauna. Minnesota readers will appreciate the sauna scenes, which incidentally feature no nudity. Now, at least, we know what goes on in such places..

The big day arrives. Early in the morning, Puntila’s four prospective brides arrive, each with a ‘ring’ on their finger made out of curtain rod loops that Puntila had given them, and the requisite ‘drink’ of aquavit. In a sober rage, Puntila orders the foolish women home, and they trudge the many miles back to their village while telling stories about the cruelty of the landlords and businessmen of Finland. One story involves the reds jailed after the working class rising there in 1918. Finland, after 600 years of Swedish rule, was from 1908 until 1917 under the control of the Czar. In 1918 the USSR gave Finland independence, something Kerensky had not been willing to do. During the white terror in 1918 during and after the Finnish civil war, won by the Whites under Mannerheim, between 8,400 and 14,600 red guards were executed out of hand. Anyone missed by the terror was blacklisted from work, kicked out of school or otherwise brutalized. This is the historic background for the seemingly innocuous joking atmosphere of the play itself.

The big day continues as the now drunk Puntila examines his prospective son-in-law, who misses the point of an obvious joke. Puntila realizes the attaché is a waste of a forest and an idiot, not to mention a bad match for his daughter. (He would have had to sell a forest as, I think, a dowry.) Puntila chases the attaché off the property, along with his senior sponsor, another government minister.

Here starts the central scene of the play. The remaining parties gather along a long table reminiscent of the last supper, with the Rabelasian Puntila in the Christ position. He suggests to his daughter that she should really marry Matti. A priest is appalled. Eva, cigarette-in-hand and tipsy, however agrees. Matti then attempts the ‘education’ of Eva, showing her how she would live as the wife of a chauffeur. Her hands would be reddened by work. They would eat herring 5-7 times a week – the main staple. There would be no money for anything. Cigarettes would be too expensive. He’d be woken at night and have to go to work, no matter what. There would be little romance for Eva, as the exhausted chauffeur would just need his boots removed and herring on the table. Eva reluctantly agrees that perhaps that type of life would not be so enjoyable. And so Brecht undermines one of the key myths of bourgeois society – that there are no barriers between classes, and that ‘love’ conquers all.

The next morning the hung-over and sober Puntila returns, fires a worker that might have had ‘red’ sympathies (it is unclear the offense) and then pledges to destroy all the booze in the house. Booze, after all, is the liquor of democracy, it seems. The servants bring out bottle after bottle of aqua-vit to be broken, and Puntila … starts drinking again. He creates a hysterical and dangerous scene upon a pile of tables and chairs over his love of the Finish landscape. The traditional bourgeois ending of the play, of course, would have been for Puntila to find his inner 'human,' and then Matti could freely mary Eva - perhaps getting a sawmill in the bargain, and everyone living happily ever after. Instead Matti, now thoroughly sickened, leaves the estate the next morning, never to return.

The play is full of singing, as Brecht plays tend to be, and ends with a socialist hymn to the time when there will be no masters and slaves, only men. The alternation of the semi-sympathetic ‘drunk’ Puntilla with the sober/cruel Puntilla shows that bourgeois society has two faces – and that even if one is in force, the other is not far away. A dry drunk is the most dangerous of men!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Forum on Economy

"Global Capitalism and the Next Great Depression."

The Campaign for a Working Democracy is hosting a discussion of the present economic meltdown on Wall Street and extending into world markets, and also how it is impacting many communities. Jeff Miller will be speaking at 7:30 P.M. at Mayday Books on Friday, April 11.