Another excerpt in this occasional series from Michael Hudson’s heterodox ‘dictionary’ J is for Junk Economics (2017, p.72):
“Debts that can’t be paid, won’t be”: Over time, debts mount up in excess of the ability of wide swathes of the economy to pay, except by transferring personal and public property to creditors.
The volume of debt owed by businesses, families and governments typically is as large as gross domestic product (GDP) – that is 100%. If the average interest rate to carry this debt is 5%, the economy must grow by 5% each year just to pay the interest charges. But economies are not growing at this rate. Hence, debt service paid to the financial sector is eating into economies, leaving less for labor and industry, that is, for production and consumption.
Greece’s debt has soared to about 180% of GDP. To pay 5% interest means that its economy must pay 9% of GDP each year to bondholders and bankers. To calculate the amount that an economy must pay in interest (not including the FIRE* sector as a whole), multiply the rate of interest (5%) by the ratio of debt to GDP (180%). The answer is 9% of GDP absorbed by interest charges. If an economy grows at 1% or 2% – today’s norm for the United States and eurozone – then any higher interest rate will eat into the economy.
Paying so much leaves less income to be spent in domestic markets. This shrinks employment and hence new investment, blocking the economy from growing. Debts cannot be paid except by making the economy poorer, until ultimately it is able to pay only by selling off public assets to rent extractors. But privatization raises the economy’s cost of living and doing business, impairing its competitiveness. This process is not sustainable.
The political issue erupts when debts cannot be paid. The debt crisis requires nations to decide whether to save the creditors’ claims for payment (by foreclosure) or save the economy. After 2008 the Obama administration saved the banks and bondholders, leaving the economy to limp along in a state of debt deflation. Economic shrinkage must continue until the debts are written down.
Private debt. Richard Vague, who used to be in the business of consumer credit, now researches such things. Here he talks to INET, which supports a network of mainly progressive economists, from leading thinkers to students.
When Vague started his research into trends in private debt across a number of major economies, he found that it was difficult to find a lot of the necessary data, from the nineteenth century through the roaring twenties to 1980s Japan.
He also touches on the need for debt restructuring after a major crisis such as the Great Recession, perhaps in the form of a ‘debt jubilee’. As he puts it, we saved the banks, but we did much less for ordinary households.
At first glance, it would seem fanciful that the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Hayek could be drawn on together to explain economic crises, or cycles, booms and busts. Certainly, the two men’s politics could not have been more different: Marx predicted (and hoped for) either the collapse or the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism and communism. Hayek thought that most kinds of state intervention in the market were the thin end of the authoritarian wedge.
The ideas of John Maynard Keynes and Hyman Minsky are more compatible, and both have many disciples in the post-Keynesian school. Minsky developed Keynes’ theory of investment and its role in instability under capitalism. For Keynes and Minsky then, capitalism is inherently unstable, money and finance play a large role in this instability and it is the job of government to save the system from itself.
On economic policy, these four influential thinkers part ways. Marx offered little theory of policy; Hayek, like others in the Austrian school, rejected it as damaging and favoured a laissez-faire approach; Keynes and Minsky were interventionists. Continue reading →
Yanis Varoufakis is a self-styled ‘erratic Marxist’ and a former finance minister of Greece under the Syriza-led government. He penned his illuminating book The Global Minotaur (TGM) some years ago, in the aftermath of the evolving Global Financial Crisis.
He has become a prolific writer for the intelligent layman, and his website is well worth a look, particularly for those interested in progressive reform in the European Union and the Eurozone.
TGM is Varoufakis’ thesis on the roots of the crisis, which according to him lie back in the 1940s, towards the end of World War II. At that time, the US had emerged as the global capitalist hegemon, economically, politically and militarily.
The 1944 Bretton Woods Conference in New Hampshire was attended by such figures as the economist John Maynard Keynes, who led the British delegation, and Harry Dexter White, his US counterpart. The aim was to construct a post-war global economic and financial order which would avoid another Great Depression, as had occurred in the 1930s, and the achievement of peace and prosperity via international cooperation. Continue reading →
“Self-restraint, as the philosophers know, is a rare and bewildering virtue. It is also a virtue that tends to come unstuck the more powerful we become. In this it resembles the relationship between trust and success: the stronger the bonds of trust between us, the greater our collective and individual success. But success breeds greed, and greed is a solvent of trust. Similarly with self-restraint: having it can help one succeed. But then success poses a threat to one’s self-restraint.”
Yanis Varoufakis (2015), The Global Minotaur – America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy (p.249)
This thought-provoking quote is taken from the postscript of Varoufakis‘s enlightening book on the roots and evolution of the Global Financial Crisis, originally published in 2011.
The author describes how post-war US hegemony produced a ‘Global Plan’ which helped to underpin a successful capitalism for twenty years; its ‘finest hour’, according to Varoufakis, and what has often been called the Golden Age. This gave way to his ‘Global Minotaur’ in the 1970s, which ultimately led us to the crisis of 2008 and its collapse.
The key that links these systemic ideas, and the possibility of a successful global capitalist future is what he calls the ‘global surplus recycling mechanism’ (GSRM). The evolution of the GSRM is the unifying theme which unites the book, which I will discuss in a future post.
Some of The Global Minotaur‘s ideas overlap with those of Michael Pettis, particularly in the latter’s book The Great Rebalancing. In fact the two are largely complementary, as Pettis describes the domestic policies in countries such as China and Germany, which helped to create the financial imbalances that caused the crisis.
A short video featuring the ever-engaging Yanis Varoufakis, self-styled ‘erratic Marxist’ and former finance minister of Greece. Here he explains the process of debt deflation which, during the eurozone crisis, has hit Greece hard. In particular he outlines the difference between devaluing the national currency and reducing wages, and the effect these have on the debt burden and the prospects for economic recovery.
An interview with Professor Michael Hudson on the Real News Network, where he focuses on US house prices, the ongoing problem of private sector debt (particularly student debt) and the lacklustre performance of the economy.