Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Math is Different at the Top (Part II - Financial Threats to Power)

Part I in this article series briefly discussed a simple paradigm that has governed human societies since at least the Industrial Revolution - the one which dictates that most major economic policies implemented throughout the world have benefited ever fewer and more centralized institutions of power. This straightforward logic accelerated greatly after World War II and the explosion of debt-dollar finance in the 1970s (elimination of gold standard), but was taken to its ridiculous extreme after the onset of the global financial crisis in 2007-08.

We were repeatedly told that major financial institutions were in "deep trouble"after the American sub-prime housing meltdown, yet these very institutions reported all-time record revenues and corresponding bonuses in 2009-2010, just one year after the global economy was on the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, wealth inequality in terms of incomes, financial worth and net worth has never been greater in the developed world. Regardless of whether this phenomenal transfer of wealth was a premeditated, coordinated effort by global financial elites, or a more "natural" result of financial evolution in a capitalist system, it is undeniable that the practical effects are the same - the rich get richer and more powerful while the poor get poorer and more desperate.

It is the latter fact that potentially poses a serious threat to the financial elites and their existing structures of power, as perhaps evidenced by the popular revolts throughout Africa and the Middle East, and to a lesser extent, the EU periphery and South Asia. This article will explore specific developments of the ongoing financial crisis from the perspective of financial elites, and their goals of maintaining the global structures of power that provide order. The financial crisis reflects a systemic, structural instability that may reverse the global trend towards increased socioeconomic complexity, which has always fed into and off of the concentration of wealth and power.

Complexity as a function of finance, therefore, is perhaps measured best by levels of global wealth inequality, and as mentioned before, these levels are still getting worse (more unequal). However, there comes a tipping point at which an overly-complex system begins to consume itself, as the peripheral networks and central hubs become less stable and less attached to the overall structure of the system. In this sense, the more damaging a crisis is to the ability of populations around the world to maintain their relative share of the global wealth pie, meager as it may be, the more difficult it will be for existing financial elites to maintain global complexity, order and control.

The bottom of this pyramid (~70% of world's adult population) primarily represents the poorest regions and countries of the world, where people have lived meager existences (by material Western standards) for so long now that they simply do not expect any better, which also means that they have minimal psychological attachment to shaky promises of financial prosperity. Many segments of Africa (>90% of continent's population), South Asia (>90% of India's population), Latin America and the Middle East fall into this category, and the latest financial crisis has sadly made the living situation worse for them, due to increases in food/energy costs largely fueled by speculative debt.

As discussed in Part I, it is unlikely that sociopolitical disruptions in these regions, chaotic as they may get, will significantly loosen the financial elites' grip on the levers of power, and could even serve to tighten it (i.e. justifications for U.S. military interventions in the Middle East to secure oil reserves). Indeed, such disruptions in these regions were, in the past, intentionally orchestrated by the elites during the latter half of the 20th century in order to extract crucial resources and political concessions. Furthermore, many of the countries in these regions were dominated or manufactured by European colonialism over centuries [1], and are therefore no strangers to systematic exploitation and oppression.

Notable exceptions to this "rule" may be Pakistan and India, as they both have nuclear arsenals and the latter is absolutely critical to the  global  telecommunications industry (these countries will be discussed more in Part III, in the context of short-term environmental crises). We must, then, turn our focus to the middle and upper segments of this pyramid, which represent 30% of the world's adult population. China contains a full third of the people in the middle segment ($10K-$100K), and its population has become increasingly dependent on stability in global financial markets.

An article from the Shanghai Daily News suggests that Chinese elites may actually be targeting a 30% reduction in real estate prices through higher interest rates, property taxes and more regulatory hurdles to purchasing property, in a "Thunder Attack" designed to deflate the Chinese housing bubble. [2]. While this information does not qualify as much more than a speculative rumor at this point, it suggests that high-level Chinese officials, at the very least, are fully aware of the bubble and its inevitable implosion.

At the very most, it implies that these officials and their sponsors are going to prematurely throw the citizens of China into a deflationary recession, in which the financial winners and losers can be hand-picked, a la Lehman, and all of the remaining losses can be borne by taxpayers. It is true that, given the level of housing inflation in China (which may be extremely under-estimated by official data [3]), it would be prudent for officials to implement some measures designed to cool down speculation and help borrowers pay off their debts, but there is an inherent conflict of interest contained within such measures. Any policies that provide systemic relief to debtors will be adverse to the interests of financial elites, so we can expect that none will be undertaken, and instead Chinese officials will follow the Japan-U.S. precedent of "extend and pretend".

China has had the fastest rate of economic growth for years now and boasts the second-largest economy in the world, but despite or because of this fact, income inequality has gotten much worse between urban and rural segments of the population and significantly less than 10% of the population is defined as being a part of the "middle class". [4]. Many of these people have been incentivized to invest their savings into stocks and real estate in recent years, as the interest paid on savings does not even come close to keeping pace with the rate of domestic inflation. Already, the Shanghai Stock Index has lost more than 50% from its peak in 2007, and real estate prices will follow suit soon enough. []. It then becomes evident that mounting instability in financial markets could generate substantial sociopolitical unrest among large swaths of the seemingly comfortable urban population, which will realize that, contrary to popular belief, they had never left their rural countrymen behind.

Of course, China is also the largest exporter and second-largest importer of material goods in the world, which makes it extremely significant to economic trends in developed states. Europe, Japan and the U.S. alone comprise 77% of the wealth pyramid's upper segment (net worth between $100K-$1M), and their populations hold at least half of their net worth in financial assets (bonds and equities) and have the highest levels of debt in the world. From this fact alone, we see why another crash in the real estate, equity and credit markets of these regions, fueled by the ongoing financial crisis, would obliterate much of the current and future (expected) wealth of the world, greatly reducing complexity and potentially throwing a huge monkey wrench into the schemes of global elites.

Yet, it is undeniable that these schemes have continued on since 2007, as governments in these regions have subsidized financial losses and supported fraudulent accounting practices to hide them. The "blood funnel" of powerful financial institutions has kept them alive by draining productive capital from workers, taxpayers and gullible investors. How long can this process continue in the face of increasing market instability, rising unemployment, deteriorating public finances and corresponding sociopolitical decay?

Perhaps the more disturbing question is whether financial and sociopolitical deterioration will sharply reduce global complexity, as reflected by wealth/power inequality, or instead will provide the elites with an opportunity to concentrate even more power in the bowels of international institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. John Perkins, in the Prologue to Confessions of an Economic Hitman, provides a stunning  example of how the latter logic has prevailed in regions such as Latin America, and describes its general mechanism of action:

In 2003, I departed Quito [Ecuador] in a Subaru Outback and headed for Shell [named after the oil company] on a mission that was like no other I had ever accepted. I was hoping to end a war I had helped create. As is the case with so many things we EHMs [economic hit men] must take responsibility for, it is a war that is virtually unknown anywhere outside the country where it is fought. I was on my way to meet with the Shuars, the Kichwas, and their neighbors the Achuars, the Zaparos, and the Shiwiars -- tribes determined to prevent our oil companies from destroying their homes, families, and lands, even if it means they must die in the process. For them, this is a war about the survival of their children and cultures, while for us it is about power, money, and natural resources. It is one part of the struggle for world domination and the dream of a few greedy men, global empire.

That is what we EHMs do best: we build a global empire. We are an elite group of men and women who utilize international financial organizations to foment conditions that make other nations subservient to the corporatocracy running our biggest corporations, our government, and our banks. Like our counterparts in the Mafia, EHMs provide favors. These take the form of loans to develop infrastructure -- electric generating plants, highways, ports, airports, or industrial parks. A condition of such loans is that engineering and construction companies from our own country must build all these projects. In essence, most of the money never leaves the United States; it is simply transferred from banking offices in Washington to engineering offices in New York, Houston, or San Francisco. Despite the fact that the money is returned almost immediately to corporations that are members of the corporatocracy (the creator), the recipient country is required to pay it all back, principal plus interest. If an EHM is completely successful, the loans are so large that the debtor is forced to default on its payments after a few years. When this happens, then like the Mafia, we demand our pound of flesh. This often includes one or more of the following: control over United Nations votes, the installation of military bases, or access to precious resources such as oil or the Panama Canal. Of course, the debtor still owes us the money -- and another country is added to our global empire.
In the developed world, our "favors" came in the form of high-limit credit cards, zero-down mortgages
and publicly-financed entitlements. Now, the powerful banks (through their puppet politicians) have come to our doorsteps, demanding their pound of flesh, which takes the form of subsidies for the extremely rich and austerity for everyone else. Perhaps the most vivid examples of this mafioso dynamic have taken place in Europe, where many EU members (Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, etc.) and the UK have hoisted "harsh" austerity plans on their citizens.

The citizens of Ireland are currently facing an austerity plan worse than anyone else, as the ruling party agreed to tackle 40% of their proposed budget reduction (8% of GDP) in 2011 alone [5], but there has been very little popular dissent in response. Greece has experienced some extremely violent protests over the last year, but Athens is a far cry from Berlin or London. Students in the UK held a rowdy protest over tuition hikes at the end of last year, but so far none of the European protests/riots have influenced any significant changes in economic or political policies. [6]. Continued deterioration in global financial markets will lead to stronger and more frequent popular outbursts, and politicians may be forced to ease up on austerity measures as their respective elections draw near. These concessions could keep European populations relatively obedient and docile for another year or so, but they will ultimately be too few, offered way too late.

In the U.S., President Obama's proposed budget for 2011, which was released two months after he extended the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (projected to increase the federal deficit by almost $900B over two years [7]), would allegedly reduce the deficit by $1.1T over the next decade. This reduction would be achieved in part by cutting financial aid and heating energy subsidies to those Americans already living below the poverty line. While the politicians have not yet mustered the courage to touch Medicare and Social Security, their financial masters are already figuring out how to manipulate public perception for their benefit (Bloomberg, Oct. 2010):

"Almost three in five say privatization of the Medicare program, with assistance for low-income seniors, should be considered when lawmakers discuss how to close the budget gap. A majority, though, oppose raising the age at which people can start receiving Medicare benefits.

Americans are narrowly against lawmakers considering Social Security privatization as a means to reduce the deficit. Forty-eight percent say that should be off the table versus 44 percent who want the possibility looked at. Almost three in four favor lawmakers studying removal of the Social Security tax cap so wages over $107,000 a year are taxable.

More than 55 percent of those surveyed under the age of 65 say they aren’t confident they’ll get the same benefits from Social Security and Medicare that seniors are getting today."
There is no doubt that entitlement spending needs to and will be reduced, but it is the context in which this reduction takes place that is most important. Benefit cuts combined with privatization would be ideal for the financial elites, as that frees up money to pay interest on federal debt and provides them more funds on which to levy hefty fees and commissions. The process is even more stark at the state level, where governments are beginning to slash every part of their budgets except the one most exploitative and burdensome, interest paid on debt owed to bankers.

In fact, the main reason why municipalities are so cash-starved right now is that banks are refusing to roll over the unproductive debt that they saddled on these communities in the first place. At the same time, they can use speculative financial instruments (i.e. CDS) to short municipal bonds and profit from deterioration in public finances. If I was a completely objective observer, who had left the ground and was floating through the upper levels of the Earth's atmosphere, then I would be forced to remark that this controlled demolition, frustrating and chaotic up close, is simply beautiful from miles away.

Still, the financial contract killers are not finding their hits so easy to carry out in states such as Wisconsin, Nevada, Ohio, Indiana and New Jersey. Governors and Congressmen in these states have attempted to implement legislation that would block the ability of public unions to engage in collective bargaining over their salaries and benefits, which would then make it easier to shove the elites' austerity agenda down their throats. The protesting public union workers may still be ignorant of the economic reality they are bound to face, but they do show us that values of self-dignity and communal, organized resistance still remain active in the center of a cold and soulless financial empire.

It is certainly premature to declare some kind of popular victory in the developed world, but, by the same token, the elites can hardly afford to ignore the new, tricky variables now incorporated into their equations. Large segments of the populations in China, Europe and the U.S. are beginning to face the very real prospect that the wealth they currently have will quickly deform into a distant memory, and the wealth they expected to have was never meant to be. Through social media, telecommunications and sheer will power, the disenchanted have an ability to share their frustrations and organize demonstrations on a meaningful scale.

There is still a legitimate possibility that those people living in "central hubs" of our global network will remain brainwashed a bit too long, and/or their efforts to confront the financial elites will fall a hair too short. It would certainly be a mistake to underestimate the tendency of financially-enslaved people to follow their fellow lemmings right off the edge of a cliff. However, there are more fundamental, non-financial systems that pose a near-term threat to those attempting to maintain a global network of power. While financial capitalism has been a large force behind the expansion of socioeconomic complexity (and corresponding wealth/power inequality) in recent years, energy and environmental resources are ultimately the bedrock foundations of every complex system on Earth.

The third article in this series will focus on ecosystem degradation, energy scarcity and climate change as major complications to the otherwise simple calculations of global financial elites. Any wealth that manages to survive the worst phases of the global financial crisis will only be as valuable as the Earth's environmental and energy systems allow it to be. It will certainly be difficult to continue concentrating wealth when there is very little left to concentrate, but, at the same time, it would be naive to assume that the elites have not considered critical issues such as peak oil and climate change. Next time, we will explore the plausibility of less than 0.5% of the global human population being able to control the other 99.5% as the world burns around them.

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