The reaction of the two interviewers is typical. Thanks to Frank’s clear exposition, they become receptive. They see the cleverness and importance of the principle, but also foresee the political hurdles, first, educating people to the idea, then withstanding attacks from those vested interests holding monopoly ‘rights’ over economic rent.
David McWilliams has just provided a fine analysis of Ireland’s financial plight.
I commented on it:-
David says: “… we are being excluded from the bond market not because we might default on bank debt but because we won’t!”
That’s incredible, isn’t it?
When will the big boys learn that for Ireland and Greece to succeed financially, they must select the route chosen by Iceland?
For the sake of the world financial collapses we are about to experience (yes, including the so-called “strong” Australian economy) the term “the Icelandic option” should immediately graduate into common usage.
Of course, all countries can’t default on their international debt yet, but I agree with David McWilliams that it’s time Ireland and Greece chose to do so.
This would resolve the uncertainty, hanging like the sword of Damocles over Ireland and Greece, in the same manner Michael Hudson observes it’s been resolved for millennia. It’s only bank handmaidens Enda Kenny and George Papandreou that stand in the way.
Ireland and Greece must select the Icelandic option, because debt that can’t be repaid, won’t be repaid, no matter how the banks might try to tell us otherwise as they seek to shackle us, for decades, to their sins.
How a $13 Trillion Cover
Story was Written
Free money creation to bail out America’s elite financial speculators, but not for Social Security or Medicare
Only the “Crazies” Get the Bank Giveaway Right
Financial crashes were well understood for a hundred years after they became a normal financial phenomenon in the mid-19th century. Much like the buildup of plaque deposits in human veins and arteries, an accumulation of debt gained momentum exponentially until the economy crashed, wiping out bad debts – along with savings on the other side of the balance sheet.
Physical property remained intact, although much was transferred from debtors to creditors. But clearing away the debt overhead from the economy’s circulatory system freed it to resume its upswing. That was the positive role of crashes: They minimized the cost of debt service, bringing prices and income back in line with actual “real” costs of production. Debt claims were replaced by equity ownership. Housing prices were lower – and more affordable, being brought back in line with their actual rental value. Goods and services no longer had to incorporate the debt charges that the financial upswing had built into the system.
Financial crashes came suddenly. They often were triggered by a crop failure causing farmers to default, or “the autumnal drain” drew down bank liquidity when funds were needed to move the crops. Crashes often also revealed large financial fraud and “excesses.”
This was not really a “cycle.” It was a scallop-shaped ratchet pattern: an ascending curve, ending in a vertical plunge. But popular terminology called it a cycle because the pattern was similar again and again, every eleven years or so. When loans by banks and debt claims by other creditors could not be paid, they were wiped out in a convulsion of bankruptcy.
Gradually, as the financial system became more “elastic,” each business recovery started from a larger debt overhead relative to output. The United States emerged from World War II relatively debt free. Downturns occurred, crashes wiped out debts and savings, but each recovery since 1945 has taken place with a higher debt overhead. Bank loans and bonds have replaced stocks, as more stocks have been retired in leveraged buyouts (LBOs) and buyback plans than are being issued to raise new equity capital. Behind every LBO is the desire to keep stock prices high, lavishing rewards to managers via the stock options they give themselves.
But after the stock market’s dot.com crash of 2000 and the Federal Reserve flooding the U.S. economy with credit after 9/11, 2001, there was so much “free spending money” that many economists believed that the era of scientific money management had arrived and the financial cycle had ended. Growth could occur smoothly – with no over-optimism as to debt, no inability to pay, no proliferation of over-valuation or fraud. This was the era in which Alan Greenspan was applauded as Maestro for ostensibly creating a risk-free environment by removing government regulators from the financial oversight agencies.
What has made the post-2008 crash most remarkable is not merely the delusion that the way to get rich is by debt leverage (unless you are a banker, that is). Most unique is the crash’s aftermath. This time around the bad debts have not been wiped off the books. There have indeed been the usual bankruptcies – but the bad lenders and speculators are being saved from loss by the government intervening to issue Treasury bonds to pay them off out of future tax revenues or new money creation.
The Obama Administration’s Wall Street managers have kept the debt overhead in place – toxic mortgage debt, junk bonds, and most seriously, the novel web of collateralized debt obligations (CDO), credit default swaps (almost monopolized by A.I.G.) and kindred financial derivatives of a basically mathematical character that have developed in the 1990s and early 2000s.
These computerized casino cross-bets among the world’s leading financial institutions are the largest problem.
Instead of this network of reciprocal claims being let go, they have been taken onto the government’s own balance sheet. This has occurred not only in the United States but even more disastrously in Ireland, shifting the obligation to pay – on what were basically gambles rather than loans – from the financial institutions that had lost on these bets (fraudulently inflated loans) onto the government (“taxpayers”).
The government took over the mortgage lending guarantors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (privatizing the profits, “socializing” the losses) for $5.3 trillion – almost as much as the entire national debt. The Treasury lent $700 billion under the Troubled Asset Relief Plan (TARP) to Wall Street’s largest banks and brokerage houses. The latter re-incorporated themselves as “banks” to get Federal Reserve handouts and access to the Fed’s $2 trillion in “cash for trash” swaps crediting Wall Street with Fed deposits for otherwise “illiquid” loans and securities (the euphemism for toxic, fraudulent or otherwise insolvent and unmarketable debt instruments) – at “cost” based on full mark-to-model fictitious valuations.
Altogether, the post-2008 crash saw some $13 trillion in such obligations transferred onto the government’s balance sheet from high finance, euphemized as “the private sector” as if it were the core economy itself, rather than its calcifying shell.
Instead of losing on their bad bets, bad loans, toxic mortgages and outright fraudulent claims, the financial institutions cleaned up, at public expense. They collected enough to create a new century’s power elite to lord it over “taxpayers” in industry, agriculture and commerce who will be charged to pay off this debt.
If there was a silver lining to all this, it has been to demonstrate that if the Treasury and Federal Reserve can create $13 trillion of public obligations – money – electronically on computer keyboards, there really is no Social Security problem at all, no Medicare shortfall, no inability of the American government to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.
The bailout of Wall Street showed how central banks can create money, as Modern Money Theory (MMT) explains. But rather than explaining how this phenomenon worked, the bailout was rammed through Congress under emergency conditions. Bankers threatened economic Armageddon if the government did not create the credit to save them from taking losses.
Even more remarkable is the attempt to convince the population that new money and debt creation to bail out Wall Street – and vest a new century of financial billionaires at public subsidy – cannot be mobilized just as readily to save labor and industry in the “real” economy. The Republicans and Obama administration appointees held over from the Bush and Clinton administration have joined to conjure up scare stories that Social Security and Medicare debts cannot be paid, although the government can quickly and with little debate take responsibility for paying trillions of dollars of bipartisan Finance-Care for the rich and their heirs.
The result is a financial schizophrenia extending across the political spectrum from the Tea Party to Tim Geithner at the Treasury and Ben Bernanke at the Fed. It seems bizarre that the most reasonable understanding of why the 2008 bank crisis did not require a vast public subsidy for Wall Street occurred at Monday’s Republican presidential debate on June 13, by none other than Congressional Tea Party leader Michele Bachmann – who had boasted in a Wall Street Journal interview two days earlier, on Saturday, that she voted against the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) “both times.”
She complains that no one bothered to ask about the constitutionality of these extraordinary interventions into the financial markets.
“During a recent hearing I asked Secretary [Timothy] Geithner three times where the constitution authorized the Treasury’s actions [just [giving] the Treasury a $700 billion blank check], and his response was, ‘Well, Congress passed the law.’ …With TARP, the government blew through the Constitutional stop sign and decided ‘Whatever it takes, that’s what we’re going to do.’”
Clarifying her position regarding her willingness to see the banks fail, she explained:
I would have. People think when you have a, quote, ‘bank failure,’ that that is the end of the bank. And it isn’t necessarily. A normal way that the American free market system has worked is that we have a process of unwinding. It’s called bankruptcy. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that the industry is eclipsed or that it’s gone. Often times, the phoenix rises out of the ashes.
There were easily enough sound loans and assets in the banks to cover deposits insured by the FDIC – but not enough to pay their counterparties in the “casino capitalist” category of their transactions. This super-computerized financial horse racing is what the bailout was about, not bread-and-butter retail and business banking or insurance.
It all seems reminiscent of the 1968 presidential campaign. The economic discussion back then between Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon was so tepid that it prompted journalist Eric Hoffer to ask why only a southern cracker, third-party candidate Alabama Governor George Wallace, was talking about the real issues. We seem to be in a similar state in preparation for the 2012 campaign, with junk economics on both sides.
Meanwhile, the economy is still suffering from the Obama administration’s failure to alleviate the debt overhead. He should be making banks write down junk mortgages to reflect actual market values and the capacity to pay. Foreclosures are still throwing homes onto the market, pushing real estate further into negative equity territory while wealth concentrates at the top of the economic pyramid. No wonder Republicans are able to shed crocodile tears for debtors and attack President Obama for representing Wall Street (as if this is not equally true of the Republicans). He is simply continuing the Bush Administration’s policies, not leading the change he had promised. So he has left the path open for Congresswoman Bachmann to highlight her opposition to the Bush-McCain-Obama-Paulson-Geithner giveaways.
The missed opportunity
When Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on September 15, 2008, the presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain was peaking toward Election Day on November 4. Voters told pollsters that the economy was their main issue – their debts, soaring housing costs (“wealth creation” to real estate speculators and the banks getting rich off mortgage lending), stagnant wage levels and worsening workplace conditions were what mattered. However, in the wake of Lehman, the main issue under popular debate was how much Wall Street’s crash would hurt the “real” economy. If large banks went under, would depositors still be safely insured? What about the course of normal business and employment?
Credit is seen as necessary; but what of credit derivatives, the financial sector’s arcane “small print”? How intrinsic are financial gambles on collateralized debt obligations? Remember CDOs were called “weapons of mass financial destruction” by no less than Warren Buffett. They have little to do with retail banking or even business banking and insurance, but are financial bets on the economy’s zigzagging measures.
Without casino capitalism, could industrial capitalism survive? Or had the superstructure become rotten and best left to “free markets” to wipe out in mutually offsetting bankruptcy claims?
Mr. Obama ran as the “candidate of change” from the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan, its deregulatory excesses and giveaways to the pharmaceuticals industry and other monopolies and their Wall Street backers. Today it is clear that his promises for change were no more than campaign rhetoric. There even has been continuity of Bush Administration officials committed to promoting financial policies to keep the debts in place, enabling banks to “earn their way out of debt” at the expense of consumers and businesses. Read $13 trillion in government bailouts and subsidy.
History is being written to depict the policy of saving the bankers rather than the economy as having been necessary – as if there were no alternative, that the vast giveaways to Wall Street were simply “pragmatic.” Financial beneficiaries claim that matters would be even worse today without these giveaways. It is as if we not only need the banks, we need to save them (and their stockholders) from losses, enabling them to pay and retain their immensely rich talent at the top with even bigger salaries, bonuses and stock options.
It is all junk economics – well-subsidized illogic, quite popular among fundraisers.
The Obama Plan
From the outset in 2009, the Obama Plan has been to re-inflate the Bubble Economy by providing yet more credit (that is, debt) to bid housing and commercial real estate prices back up to pre-crash levels, not to bring debts down to the economy’s ability to pay. The result is debt deflation for the economy at large and rising unemployment – but enrichment of the wealthiest 1% of the population as economies have become even more financialized.
This smooth continuum from the Bush to the Obama Administration masks the fact that there was a choice, and even a clear disagreement at the time within Congress, if not between the two presidential candidates, who seemed to speak as Siamese Twins as far as their policies to save Wall Street (from losses, not from actually dying) were concerned.
Wall Street saw an opportunity to be grabbed, and its spokesmen panicked policy-makers into imagining that there was no alternative. And as President Obama’s chief of staff Emanuel Rahm noted, this crisis is too important an opportunity to let it go to waste. For Washington’s Wall Street constituency, the bold aim was to get the government to save them from having to take a loss on loans gone bad – loans that had made them rich already by collecting fees and interest, and by placing bets as to which way real estate prices, interest rates and exchange rates would move.
After September 2008 they were to get rich on a bailout – euphemized as “saving the economy,” if one believes that Wall Street is the economy’s core, not its wrapping or supposed facilitator, not to say a vampire squid. The largest and most urgent problem was not the inability of poor home buyers to cope with the interest-rate jumps called for in the small print of their adjustable rate mortgages. The immediate priorities sat at the top of the economic pyramid. Citibank, AIG and other “too big to fail” institutions were unable to pay the winners on the speculative gambles and guarantees they had been writing.
It was as if the economy had become risk-free, not overburdened with debt beyond its ability to pay.
Making the government absorb their losses – instead of recovering the enormous salaries and bonuses their managers had paid themselves for selling these bad bets – required a cover story to make it appear that the economy could not be saved without the Treasury and Federal Reserve underwriting these gambling losses. Like the sheriff in the movie Blazing Saddles threatening to shoot himself if he weren’t freed, the financial sector warned that its losses would destroy the retail banking and insurance systems, not just the upper reaches of computerized derivatives gambling.
How America’s Bailouts Endowed a Financial Elite to rule the 21st Century
The bailout of casino capitalists vested a new ruling class with $13 trillion of public IOUs (including the $5.3 trillion rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) added to the national debt. The recipients have paid out much of this gift in salaries and bonuses, and to “make themselves whole” on their bad risks in default to pay off.
An alternative would have been to prosecute them and recover what they had paid themselves as commissions for loading the economy with debt.
Although there were two sides within Congress in September 2008, there was no disagreement between the two presidential candidates. John McCain ran back to Washington on the fateful Friday of their September 26 debate to insist that he was suspending his campaign in order to devote all his efforts to persuading Congress to approve the $700 billion bank bailout – and would not debate Mr. Obama until that was settled. But he capitulated and went to the debate. On September 29 the House of Representatives rejected the giveaway, headed by Republicans in opposition.
So Mr. McCain did not even get brownie points for being able to sway politicians on the side of his Wall Street campaign contributors. Until this time he had campaigned as a “maverick.” But his capitulation to high finance reminded voters of his notorious role in the Keating Five, standing up for bank crooks. His standing in the polls plummeted, and the Senate capitulated to a redrafted TARP bill on October 1. President Bush signed it into law two days later, on October 3, euphemized as the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act.
Fast-forward to today. What does it signify when a right-wing cracker makes a more realistic diagnosis of bad bank lending than Treasury Secretary Geithner, Fed Chairman Bernanke or other Bush-era financial experts retained by the Obama team?
Without the bailout, the gambling arm of Wall Street would have collapsed, but the “real” economy’s everyday banking and insurance operations could have continued. The bottom 99 percent of the U.S. economy would have recovered with only a speed bump to clean out the congestion at the top, and the government would have ended up in control of the biggest and most reckless banks and AIG – as it did in any case.
The government could have used its equity ownership and control of the banks to write down mortgages to reflect market conditions. It could have left families owning their homes at the same cost they would have had to pay in rent – the economic definition of equilibrium in property prices.
The government-owned “too big to fail” banks could have been told to refrain from gambling on derivatives, from lending for currency and commodity speculation, and from making takeover loans and other predatory financial practices. Public ownership would have run the banks like savings banks or post office banks rather than gambling schemes fueling the international carry trade (computer-driven interest rate and currency arbitrage) that has no linkage to the production-and-consumption economy.
The government could have used its equity ownership and control of the banks to provide credit and credit card services as the “public option.” Credit is a form of infrastructure, and such public investment is what enabled the United States to undersell foreign economies in the 19th and 20th centuries despite its high wage levels and social spending programs. As Simon Patten, the first economics professor at the nation’s first business school (the Wharton School) explained, public infrastructure investment is a “fourth factor of production.” It takes its return not in the form of profits, but in the degree to which it lowers the economy’s cost of doing business and living. Public investment does not need to generate profits or pay high salaries, bonuses and stock options, or operate via offshore banking centers.
But this is not the agenda that the Bush-Obama administrations chose. Only Wall Street had a plan in place to unwrap when the crisis opportunity erupted. The plan was predatory, not productive, not lowering the economy’s debt overhead or cost of living and doing business to make it more competitive. So the great opportunity to serve the public interest by taking over banks gone broke was missed. Stockholders were bailed out, counterparties were saved from loss, and managers today are paying themselves bonuses as usual. The “crisis” was turned into an opportunity to panic politicians into helping their Wall Street patrons.
One can only wonder what it means when the only common sense being heard about the separation of bank functions should come from a far-out extremist in the current debate. The social democratic tradition had been erased from the curriculum as it had in political memory.
Tom Fahey: Would you say the bailout program was a success? …
BACHMANN: John, I was in the middle of this debate. I was behind closed doors with Secretary Paulson when he came and made the extraordinary, never-before-made request to Congress: Give us a $700 billion blank check with no strings attached.
And I fought behind closed doors against my own party on TARP. It was a wrong vote then. It’s continued to be a wrong vote since then. Sometimes that’s what you have to do. You have to take principle over your party.
Proclaiming herself a libertarian, Ms. Bachmann opposes raising the federal debt ceiling, Pres. Obama’s Medicare reform and other federal initiatives. So her opposition to the Wall Street bailout turns out to be from a lack of understanding about how governments and their central banks can create money with a stroke of the computer pen, so to speak. (If the printing presses can work for Wall St, surely they too can for the people’s health?) But at least she was clear that bank counterparty gambles made by high rollers at the financial race track could have been wiped out without destroying the banking system’s key economic functions.
Contrasting Ms. Bachmann’s remarks to the panicky claims by Mr. Geithner and Hank Paulson in September 2008 confirm a basic axiom of today’s junk economics: When an economic error becomes so widespread that it is adopted as official government policy, there is always a special interest at work to promote it.
In the case of bailing out Wall Street – and thereby the wealthiest 1% of Americans – while saying there is no money for Social Security, Medicare or long-term public social spending and infrastructure investment, the beneficiaries are obvious. So are the losers.
High finance means low wages, low employment, low industry and a shrinking economy under conditions where policy planning is centralized in the hands of Wall Street and its political nominees, rather than in the safekeeping of more objective administrators.
 Stephen Moore, “On the Beach, I Bring von Mises”: Interview with Michele Bachman, Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2011.
 CNN Republican Presidential Debate, Transcript, June 13, 2011, http://www.malagent.com/archives/1738
See www.Michael-Hudson.Com for more of Michael Hudson’s analyses.
See Hudson speak here.
If you’re up for a bit of philosophy, you might want to hear former Australian Treasury tax expert Dr Terry Dwyer suggest that taxation has subordinated our natural rights to the political numbers game.
It’s a gallant foray into the manner in which a rampant utilitarianism has acted to destroy our rights at natural law.
Scroll down on this page to the seventh item “4. Is Taxation Immoral?” for Terry Dwyer’s challenging address to Christians for an Ethical Society.
Posting Dr F.W.G. Foat’s early 20th century article yesterday reminded me of setting up the EarthSharing site in 1995 and doing all the HTML work myself. Foat’s strong piece on LAND was one of the first I posted on EarthSharing.
The website featured a revolving Earth accompanied the Star Trek “Voyager” theme.
OK, so it’s kitsch-looking and outdated – a bit like the appearance of this website – but isn’t it content that matters?
Let’s complete this little 100-year retrogression with some revealing thoughts on poverty and land price from Winston Churchill. His mum was a Henry George supporter, and he probably learnt Georgism on her knee.
LAND PRICE AS A CAUSE OF POVERTY
Winston Churchill’s Speech in the House of Commons, 4 May 1909,
in response to Mr AJ Balfour, Leader of the Opposition
The immemorial custom of nearly every modern State, the mature conclusions of many of the greatest thinkers, have placed the tenure, transfer, and obligations of land in a wholly different category from other classes of property. The mere obvious physical distinction between land, which is a vital necessity of every human being and which at the same time is strictly limited in extent, and other property is in itself sufficient to justify a clear differentiation in its treatment, and in the view taken by the State of the conditions which should govern the tenure of land from that which should regulate traffic in other forms of property.
When the Leader of the Opposition seeks by comparisons to show that the same reasoning which has been applied to land ought also in logic and by every argument of symmetry to be applied to the unearned increment derived from other processes which are at work in our modern civilisation, he only shows by each example he takes how different are the conditions which attach to the possession of land and speculation in the value of land from those which attach to other forms of business speculation.
“If,” he inquires, “you tax the unearned increment on land, why don’t you tax the unearned increment from a large block of stock? I buy a piece of land; the value rises. I buy stocks; their value rises.” But the operations are entirely dissimilar. In the first speculation the unearned increment derived from land arises from a wholly sterile process, from the mere withholding of a commodity which is needed by the community. In the second case, the investor in a block of shares does not withhold from the community what the community needs. The one operation is in restraint of trade and in conflict with the general interest, and the other is part of a natural and healthy process, by which the economic plant of the world is nourished and from year to year successfully and notably increased.
Landowner and Railway
Then the right hon. gentleman instanced the case of a new railway and a country district enriched by that railway. The railway, he explained, is built to open up a new district; and the farmers and landowners in that district are endowed with unearned increment in consequence of the building of the railway. But if after a while their business aptitude and industry create a large carrying trade, then the railway, he contends, gets its unearned increment in its turn.
But the right hon. gentleman cannot call the increment unearned which the railway acquires through the regular service of carrying goods, rendering a service on each occasion in proportion to the tonnage of goods it carries, making a profit by an active extension of the scale of its useful business – he cannot surely compare that process with the process of getting rich merely by sitting still? It is clear that the analogy is not true.
The Glasgow Example
I do not think the Leader of the Opposition could have chosen a more unfortunate example than Glasgow. He said that the demand of that great community for land was for not more than forty acres a year. Is that the only demand of the people of Glasgow for land? Does that really represent the complete economic and natural demand for the amount of land a population of that size requires to live on? I will admit that at present prices it may be all that they can afford to purchase in the course of a year. But there are one hundred and twenty thousand persons in Glasgow who are living in one-room tenements; and we are told that the utmost land those people can absorb economically and naturally is forty acres a year.
What is the explanation? Because the population is congested in the city the price of land is high upon the suburbs, and because the price of land is high upon the suburbs the population must remain congested within the city. That is the position which we are complacently assured is in accordance with the principles which have hitherto dominated civilised society.
The “Poor Widow” Bogey
But when we seek to rectify this system, to break down this unnatural and vicious circle, to interrupt this sequence of unsatisfactory reactions, what happens? We are not confronted with any great argument on behalf of the owner. Something else is put forward, and it is always put forward in these cases to shield the actual landowner or the actual capitalist from the logic of the argument or from the force of a Parliamentary movement.
Sometimes it is the widow. But that personality has been used to exhaustion. It would be sweating in the cruellest sense of the word, overtime of the grossest description, to bring the widow out again so soon. She must have a rest for a bit; so instead of the widow we have the market-gardener – the market-gardener liable to be disturbed on the outskirts of great cities, if the population of those cities expands, if the area which they require for their health and daily life should become larger than it is at present.
What is the position disclosed by the argument? On the one hand, we have one hundred and twenty thousand persons in Glasgow occupying one-room tenements; on the other, the land of Scotland. Between the two stands the market-gardener, and we are solemnly invited, for the sake of the market-gardener, to keep that great population congested within limits that are unnatural and restricted to an annual supply of land which can bear no relation whatever to their physical, social, and economic needs – and all for the sake of the market-gardener, who can perfectly well move farther out as the city spreads and who would not really be in the least injured.
The Mother of All Monopolies
From a Speech Delivered at King’s Theatre in Edinburgh on 17 July 1909
It is quite true that land monopoly is not the only monopoly which exists, but it is by far the greatest of monopolies – it is a perpetual monopoly, and it is the mother of all other forms of monopoly. It is quite true that unearned increments in land are not the only form of unearned or undeserved profit which individuals are able to secure; but it is the principal form of unearned increment which is derived from processes which are not merely not beneficial, but which are positively detrimental to the general public.
Land, which is a necessity of human existence, which is the original source of all wealth, which is strictly limited in extent, which is fixed in geographical position. Land, I say, differs from all other forms of property in these primary and fundamental conditions.
Nothing is more amusing than to watch the efforts of our monopolist opponents to prove that other forms of property and increment are exactly the same and are similar in all respects to the unearned increment in land.
Misleading and False Analogies
They talk to us of the increased profits of a doctor or a lawyer from the growth of population in the towns in which they live. They talk to us of the profits of a railway through a greater degree of wealth and activity in the districts through which it runs. They tell us of the profits which are derived from a rise in stocks and shares, and even of those which are sometimes derived from the sale of pictures and works of art, and they ask us – as if it were the only complaint: “Ought not all these other forms to be taxed, too?”
But see how misleading and false all these analogies are. The windfalls which people with artistic gifts are able from time to time to derive from the sale of a picture – from a Vandyke or a Holbein – may here and there be very considerable. But pictures do not get in anybody’s way. They do not lay a toll on anybody’s labour; they do not touch enterprise and production at any point; they do not affect any of those creative processes upon which the material well-being of millions depends.
Rewards for Service
If a rise in stocks and shares confers profits on the fortunate holders far beyond what they expected or indeed deserved, nevertheless that profit has not been reaped by withholding from the community the land which it needs, but, on the contrary, apart from mere gambling, it has been reaped by supplying industry with the capital without which it could not be carried on.
If the railway makes greater profits, it is usually because it carries more goods and more passengers. If a doctor or a lawyer enjoys a better practice, it is because the doctor attends more patients and more exacting patients, and because the lawyer pleads more suits in the courts and more important suits. At every stage the doctor or the lawyer is giving service in return for his fees, and if the service is too poor or the fees are too high other doctors and other lawyers can come freely into competition. There is constant service, there is constant competition; there is no monopoly, there is no injury to the public interest, there is no impediment to the general progress.
Fancy comparing these healthy processes with the enrichment which comes to the landlord who happens to own a plot of land on the outskirts or at the centre of one of our great cities, who watches the busy population around him making the city larger, richer, more convenient, more famous every day, and all the while sits still and does nothing.
Enrichment Without Service
Roads are made, streets are made, railway services are improved, electric light turns night into day, electric trams glide swiftly to and fro, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains – and all the while the landlord sits still. Every one of those improvements is effected by the labour and cost of other people. Many of the most important are effected at the cost of the municipality and of the ratepayers. To not one of those improvements does the land monopolist, as a land monopolist, contribute, and yet by every one of them the value of his land is sensibly enhanced. He renders no service to the community, he contributes nothing to the general welfare; he contributes nothing even to the process from which his own enrichment is derived.
If the land were occupied by shops or by dwellings, the municipality at least would secure the rates upon them in aid of the general fund, but the land may be unoccupied, undeveloped, it may be what is called “ripening” – ripening at the expense of the whole city, of the whole country for the unearned increment of its owner. Roads perhaps have to be diverted to avoid this forbidden area. The merchant going to his office, the artisan going to his work, have to make a detour or pay a tram fare to avoid it. The citizens are losing their chance of developing the land, the city is losing its rates, the State is losing its taxes which would have accrued if the natural development had taken place, and that share has to be replaced at the expense of the other ratepayers and taxpayers; and the nation as a whole is losing in the competition of the world – the hard and growing competition of the world – both in time and money.
And all the while the land monopolist has only to sit still and watch complacently his property multiplying in value, sometimes manifold, without either effort or contribution on his part. And that is justice!
Monopoly is the Keynote
But let us follow the process a little further. The population of the city grows, and grows still larger year by year, the congestion in the poorer quarters becomes acute, rents and rates rises hand in hand, and thousands of families are crowded into one-roomed tenements. There are 120,000 persons living in one-roomed tenements in Glasgow alone at the present time. At last the land becomes ripe for sale -that means that the price is too tempting to be resisted any longer. And then, and not till then, it is sold by the yard or by the inch at 10 times, or 20 times, or even 50 times its agricultural value, on which alone hitherto it has been rated for the public service.
The greater the population around the land, the greater the injury which they have sustained by its protracted denial, the more inconvenience which has been caused to everybody, the more serious the loss in economic strength and activity, the larger will be the profit of the landlord when the sale is finally accomplished. In fact, you may say that the unearned increment on the land is on all fours with the profit gathered by one of those American speculators who engineer a corner in corn, or meat, or cotton, or some other vital commodity, and that the unearned increment in land is reaped by the land monopolist in exact proportion, not to the service, but to the disservice done. It is monopoly which is the keynote, and where monopoly prevails the greater the injury to society the greater the reward to the monopolist will be.
Land Monopoly Hampers Industry
See how this evil process strikes at every form of industrial activity. The municipality, wishing for broader streets, better houses, more healthy, decent, scientifically planned towns, is made to pay, and is made to pay in exact proportion, or to a very great extent in proportion, as it has exerted itself in the past to make improvements. The more it has improved the town the more it has increased the land value, and the more it will have to pay for any land it may wish to acquire.
The manufacturer proposing to start a new industry, proposing to erect a great factory offering employment to thousands of hands, is made to pay such a price for his land that the purchase price hangs round the neck of his whole business, hampering his competitive power in every market, clogging him far more than any foreign tariff in his export competition, and the land values strike down through the profits of the manufacturer on to the wages of the workman. The railway company wishing to build a new line finds that the price of land which yesterday was only rated at its agricultural value has risen to a prohibitive figure the moment it was known that the new line was projected, and either the railway is not built, or, if it is, is built only on terms which largely transfer to the landowner the profits which are due to the shareholders and the advantages which should have accrued to the travelling public.
It does not matter where you look or what examples you select, you will see that every form of enterprise, every step in material progress, is only undertaken after the land monopolist has skimmed the cream off for himself. and everywhere today the man or the public body that wishes to put land to its highest use is forced to pay a preliminary fine in land values to the man who is putting it to an in- ferior use, and in some cases to no use at all. All comes back to the land value, and its owner for the time being is able to levy his toll upon all other forms of wealth and upon every form of industry.
The Error of Public Tollways
A portion, in some cases the whole, of every benefit which is laboriously acquired by the community is represented in the land value, and finds its way automatically into the landlord’s pocket. If there is a rise in wages, rents are able to move forward, because the workers can afford to pay a little more. If the opening of a new railway or a new tramway, or the institution of an improved service of workmen’s trains, or a lowering of fares, or a new invention, or any other public convenience affords a benefit to the workers in any particular district, it becomes easier for them to live, and therefore the landlord and the ground landlord, one on top of the other, are able to charge them more for the privilege of living there.
Some years ago in London there was a toll-bar on a bridge across the Thames, and all the working people who lived on the south side of the river had to pay a daily toll of one penny for going and returning from their work. The spectacle of these poor people thus mulcted of so large a proportion of their earnings appealed to the public conscience; an agitation was set on foot, municipal authorities were roused, and at the cost of the ratepayers the bridge was freed and the toll removed. All those people who used the bridge were saved 6d. a week. Within a very short period from that time the rents on the south side of the river were found to have advanced by about 6d. a week, or the amount of the toll which had been remitted.
And a friend of mine was telling me the other day that, in the parish of Southwark, about 350 pounds a year, roughly speaking, was given away in doles of bread by charitable people in connection with one of the churches, and, as a consequence of this, the competition for small houses, but more particularly for single-roomed tenements, is, we are told, so great that rents are considerably higher than in the neighbouring district.
All goes back to the land, and the landowner, who, in many cases, in most cases, is a worthy person utterly unconscious of the character of the methods by which he is enriched, is enabled with resistless strength to absorb to himself a share of almost every public and every private benefit however important or however pitiful those benefits may be.
Let Us Alter the Law
I hope you will understand that, when I speak of the land monopolist, I am dealing more with the process than with the individual landowner. I have no wish to hold any class up to public disapprobation. I do not think that the man who makes money by unearned increment in land is morally a worse man than anyone else who gathers his profit where he finds it in this hard world under the law and according to common usage. It is not the individual I attack, it is the system. It is not the man who is bad, it is the law which is bad. It is not the man who is blameworthy for doing what the law allows and what other men do, it is the State which would be blameworthy were it not to endeavour to reform the law and correct the practice. We do not want to punish the landlord. We want to alter the law.
Take the case to which I have already referred, of the man who keeps a large plot in or near a growing town idle for years, while it is “ripening” – that is to say, while it is rising in price through the exertions of the surrounding community and the need of that community for more room to live. Take that case. I daresay you have formed your own opinion upon it. Mr. Balfour, Lord Lansdowne, and the Conservative Party generally, think that that is an admirable arrangement. They speak of the profits of the land monopolist, as if they were the fruits of thrift and industry and a pleasing example for the poorer classes to imitate.
The Dog in the Manger
We do not take that view of the process. We think it is a dog-in-the-manger game. We see the evil, we see the imposture upon the public, and we see the consequences in crowded slums, in hampered commerce, in distorted or restricted development, and in congested centres of population, and we say here and now to the land monopolist who is holding up his land – and the pity is it was not said before – you shall judge for yourselves whether it is a fair offer or not-we say to the land monopolist – “This property of yours might be put to immediate use with general advantage. It is at this minute saleable in the market at 10 times the value at which it is rated. If you choose to keep it idle in the expectation of still further unearned increment then at least you shall be taxed at the true selling value in the meanwhile.”
Free Trade – Free Land!
Every nation in the world has its own way of doing things, its own successes and its own failures. All over Europe we see systems of land tenure which economically socially, and politically are far superior to ours; but the benefits that those countries derive from their improved land systems are largely swept away, or at any rate neutralised, by grinding tariffs on the necessaries of life and the materials of manufacture.
In this country we have long enjoyed the blessings of Free Trade and of untaxed bread and meat, but against these inestimable benefits we have the evils of an unreformed and vicious land system. ln no great country in the new world or the old have the working people yet secured the double advantage of Free Trade and Free Land together, by which I mean a commercial system and a land system from which, so far as possible, all forms of monopoly have been rigorously excluded.
An Hour of Tremendous Opportunity
Sixty years ago our system of national taxation was effectively reformed, and immense and undisputed advantages accrued therefrom to all classes, the richest as well as the poorest. The system of local taxation to-day is just as vicious and wasteful, just as great an impediment to enterprise and progress, just as harsh a burden upon the poor, as the thousand taxes and Corn Law sliding scales of the “hungry forties.”
We are met in an hour of tremendous opportunity.
“You who shall liberate the land,” said Mr. Cobden, “will do more for your country than we have done in the the liberation of its commerce.”
By F.W.G. Foat, MA, DLitt.
There is a Secret of History. The mot de l’enigme is Land. The great historians of the rank, for instance, of Mommsen, say the word, but then pass on, as though in haste to leave a dangerous ground. Lesser historians shun the mention of it altogether, or mention it in faltering accents. Time, with its effacement of old meanings, helps this obscurantism and oblivion falls upon the theme.
What is the cause of this conspiracy of silence? The answer is again in one word, landlordism. Historians are protégés of those whose interest lies in keeping dark concerning land. Now a protégé must not discuss what patrons do not wish to mention. But that would come to writing nothing of man’s greatest struggles, longest wars, and bitterest distress. “Well, then, let the historians write of wars, political struggles, and distress in social life. Let them write freely of the things that happened, and the suffering endured. But let them never mention land and the ownership of land as being the ultimate causes of these happenings. They can write out the story, showing their knowledge of the facts; and if they are pressed for explanations they can point to intermediate collateral causes: man’s natural pugnacity, notions of honour, foolish mistakes, wild aspirations towards political freedom, and the like. That will satisfy the few inquiring minds, and the rest will never question. Only no mention of the land and the landlords!”
These were the orders tacitly given by those who had the powers of censorship and suppression of books, removal of professors, and withdrawal of patronage. How could a man explain that land and landlordism were ultimate causes of nearly all wars and sufferings of the peoples, when his payments and his patrons were of the landlord class, or members of that nameless party whose sincere and secret faith was landlordism?
Besides, the peoples loved the soldiers. Tales of great battles always interested. Pity could be awakened and wild patriotism. There was no need to talk of land and ownership in order to fill up the lecture time or make a book of history. “Agrarian laws?” Well, they made such dull reading!
Dull, yes, but the dullness was deliberate, or else was due to plain stupidity. Let us consider a few national histories, and see what could have been made of the story of land and landlordism The national history best known throughout the English-speaking world is that of the “Children of Israel”. The story of the Hebrews is the only history which has been read aloud for centuries in the hearing of the people, and diligently taught in all the schools. It is a story of a struggle to “possess the land”, then to maintain a fair division of it among descendants of the conquerors. The institution of the Jubilee return of lands to their original owners is now known to have been a dream of prophets and idealist lawmakers, but its importance as a principle cannot be over-estimated. Although the cleverer landholders retained (by what the Bible calls oppression) lands of their less ambitious “brethren”, they kept them against the express injunction of the Tribal God – that is, of the prophets and liberators who declared they spoke for Him. “The land shall not be sold for ever”, said Yahweh, “for the land is mine; and ye are strangers and sojourners with me”. (Leviticus XXV. 23).
To paraphrase: “No just man of our people must make claim to permanent ownership of any land: the land has been distributed to all our free men on a principle of equal justice, and the good patriot must be loyal to the general system. No individual can own land absolutely; he has it only in usufruct; it belongs to the whole tribe, and is in the unchanging guardianship of the Nation’s God” .
The usual struggle, of course, went on, in the course of which much land was claimed and kept, and the expropriators got such wealth and influence that they controlled even the opinions of the people; and the peasants of Galilee thought Jesus mad when he declared that the rich men of His time were not the best of men. “How hard it is for a man of property to come to see the higher truth”, the Master pointed out to His disciples. “Well! Who, then can be saved?” the poor men said, in pure bewilderment.
When He went on to pour His condemnation on those same high-placed proprietors because they “devoured” widows’ houses and “for a pretence” made long prayers, “the common people heard Him gladly” – and the landowners knew they must take action.
In the history also of Sparta redistribution of the land was tried. The reforms in this direction, piously credited to the great Lycurgus, were really undertaken by Agis and Cleomenes at a later date. The struggle was keen between the true patriots, who were prepared to give allotments in Laconia to the landless citizens, and those who meant to keep exclusive privilege.
At Rome, again, if there is any meaning in the hundred years’ revolution which divided the Senate (mostly the landowning classes) from the people, from the reforms of Gracchus to the settlement made by Caesar, it is that the people wanted land in Italy and the Senate would not yield it; that the people wanted to assert the principle that the ager publicus was the domain land of the State. i.e., the property of the community alone, and the Senatorial party, with others who came in for profiteering, wanted to keep rent-free the lands assigned to them, and make them instruments of economic slavery; and that the lawless individuals of the nation, tempted by the notion of the absolute ownership, themselves in time and on occasion became petty landlords, too, and asserted the same claim to dominium where they should have been content with usufruct.
Of course there were wars in Italy and in the provinces, and very few of them were about anything but this dominium and its consequences, until at last the Roman world grew weary of the strife, and the great statesman Julius Caesar made some adjustment of the claims of common freedom against privilege. If Caesar had not seen that provinces must live their own lives, in the enjoyment of their lands within one common state, and made the taxation represent acknowledgment at once of freedom and responsibility, there would have been no Roman Empire to endure five hundred years.
The story of our own land for the thousand years between the fifth century and the fifteenth is a story of land and land ownership far more than anything else. Our Saxon forefathers came to win land, and all through the so-called Heptarchy engaged in ceaseless fighting over what they had won.
The Feudal System brought another new order in. The English law (according at least to Coke and Blackstone), asserts that as a changeless principle all land is holden, mediately or immediately of the King, ie., no one can have true freehold land; all land is subject to old charges, services which sale or transfer cannot remit. Civil wars occurred through efforts of land-holders to shake off the claim for these services due to the State or larger community, represented by the feudal overlord.
One meaning of Magna Charta, as Professor Pollard has pointed out, is that it was such an effort; the liberty which certain barons wanted was liberty to decline to render these dues, the “liberty” was a freehold each one wished to have created out of his feudal tenure. The lawless Barons of Stephen’s and other weak reigns were playing the same game, and as in the Roman Republic, so here landless individuals have gradually joined in it, until most Englishmen suppose that land can be private property, and that “freehold” land, so far from owing rent or service to the State, can be actually let or sold to the State, as well as to other tenants or purchasers, for the private profit of the alleged “owners”.
The purchaser of any “freehold” piece of land owes to the community the services which have anciently been charged upon it, for example, that he should present himself in the full armour of a knight on horseback at the call of the proper superior representing the State, unless he pays for another person to go in his place. “But”, it may be said, “such services ceased to be required”; to which the reply is, only when money payment was accepted instead. Again, it may be said: “Well, but it is three hundred years since the claim was made”; to which we reply – then there are arrears long overdue! How else could the public charges have been met? How in the interval have the public moneys been raised? The answer is that they have been raised pro tem. by taxes laid upon the workers’ work, the employers’ capital, and the people’s food and homes gradually and almost secretly: no wonder that historians were not to mention the transference.
No wonder that much was made of John Hampden’s protest against ship-money. No wonder that histories represent the English people as madly desirous of “the vote”, “the Charter”, religious equality, and other desirable things. No wonder that we are supposed to have been oppressed by tyrannous kings. No wonder that the thirst for the destruction of neighbouring peoples and the glory of warfare have been emphasised – anything rather than that the people should know that the one indefeasible title which the English law permits is the title of the whole community to inalienable possession of the land, the soil of Britain. Anything rather than that the peoples of Europe should know that they are fighting each other throughout the centuries, in order that the unlawful ownership of State lands may be left without taxation, and that attention may still be diverted from the history of Land.
AS WITH ANYTHING ELSE, THE ECONOMY REQUIRES GOOD DESIGN
Once we come to see collapsing economies as the result of pathological human interventions – certainly not “a natural part of the business cycle” – we’ll stand a chance of eliminating them altogether. Forever.
Whilst endowing recessions and depressions with such an inbuilt mystical quality may suit those financial interests who twist and contort economies to deliver the fruits of the labour of others unto themselves, it hardly represents a scientific explanation for completely unnatural events which occur every eighteen years or so.
That we fall so often for the “inexplicable event” explanation reflects poorly on our acumen. We are much better than this. Boom and bust is unnecessary.
This economic depression offers an excellent opportunity to apply the education and intelligence we display in every other area of our lives. It’s time to put an end to some 0.1% of the population leading us like a bull with a ring in its nose through the daily events of our lives that constitute the real economy.
We’ve permitted the study of economics to degenerate into unreal mathematical modelling that can’t forecast recession and depressions because they are simply “inexplicable events”. How then is it that a number of people, including myself, have been able to forecast them? Was it guesswork? Was it luck? No, it was not.
It’s all the more important that we immediately start to re-design our economics because, unlike recessions, the feature of economic depression is that it will be followed by a world war. Such has always been the response of the 0.1% to a lingering depression: “A good war will get us out of this!”
OK. So, now to the design:-
- Eliminate all taxation.
- Capture instead for necessary government only land and resource rents (as also advocated by Secretary of the Australian Treasury, Ken Henry).
There’s a more thoroughgoing explanation of how and why it works to be found in the following work by the great American economist/social philosopher, Henry George. If you’ve not read the book, why not take the time do so, because its timeless common sense will reward you like no other. Note especially its sub-title:-
It’s beyond time people stopped being led around by the nose by rent-seekers.
The land shall not be sold forever, for the land is Mine;
and you are but strangers and sojourners with Me. (Lev. 25:23)
Whatever could the above strange phrases mean, all you Jews, you Christians?
Maybe “…. or else you’ll experience terrible poverty and recurrent economic depressions”?
FOR WANT OF AN ECONOMIST
So, it looks like the US, not having learnt history’s lessons, is having the double dip it had to have, into the economic depression its rent-seekers designed so painstakingly.
It all went to plan. Barak Obama added the final touches. He’s a genius orator with those head-held-high, confident, statesmanlike speeches. Didn’t he and his wife charm England and Ireland?
Unfortunately – or should I say fortunately for Wall Street – Obama’s an economic ignoramus; but that’s why they bought him, knowing that he who pays the piper will always call the tune on tweaking the levers of the economy. [They certainly didn’t have to worry about his advisors!]
They convinced Obama to bail out the banks so they could all be paid their bonuses for lining the plutocrats’ pockets with the people’s rent. Though abysmal in the extreme, this was followed with the equally execrable QEs 1 & 2 to make it appear the economy was actually improving, rather than beginning to plumb the depths.
It’s all going so well, I doubt we’ll need QE 3.
Plutocracy (ploo tok’ra see) rule by tax-levying uber wealthy rentiers, in the name of ‘democracy’
Geocracy (gee ok’ra see) land and resource rent-funded, free and democratic government