The word "recession" has outworn its shoplife in the US Supermarket of Empty Flak. We are in a prolonged economic depression the severity of which has not been experienced in 80 years and so has been largely forgotten by the living.
Elderly, white, self-righteous harridans lecture county boards of supervisors on their sacred duty to throw the homeless beyond the county line. We hear the echoes of history even as our leaders do their very best to deny history, which at this point is our only faint possibility of a means of learning what time it is.
We in the Valley, like no doubt people all over the nation, are hunkering down, focusing on local issues, trying to forget a world out there that has turned on us. Our political leaders have honed to a fine edge the rhetoric of blaming the state and federal government for everything while in Washington they are alarmed at states asserting states' rights, as in the case of Arizona. The California state Legislature is a rotten stew that blames lesser jurisdictions for the state's problems.
Despite the severe rational limitations of "putting a face on the enemy," there are in fact forces beyond the political economic imagination of the ordinary citizen that are playing important, very nasty roles in our contemporary history. Below are two articles that discuss some aspects of these macro forces. They are not exhaustive treatments of the subject. That will await historians in future generations. But we believe the authors accurately name some of the historical forces at work now.
we think the Web of Debt, by Ellen Brown, author of the second article, ought to be required reading for every American living through the present crisis.
Badlands Journal editorial board
Collapse in Living Standards in America: More Poverty By Any Measure
15 million unemployed, homelessness has increased by 50 percent in some cities
More than 15 million Americans are unemployed, homelessness has increased by 50 percent in some cities, and 38 million people are receiving food stamps, more than at any time in the program’s almost 50-year history.
Evidence of rising economic hardship is ample. There’s one commonly used standard for measuring it: the U.S. Census Bureau’s poverty rate. It guides much of federal and state spending aimed at helping those unable to make a decent living.
But a number of states have become convinced that the federal figures actually understate poverty, and have begun using different criteria in operating state-based social programs. At the same time, conservative economists are warning that a change in the formula to a threshold that counts more people as poor could lead to an unacceptable increase in the cost of federal and state social service programs.
When Census publishes new numbers for 2009 in September, experts predict they’ll show a steep rise in the poverty rate. One independent researcher estimates the data will show the biggest year-to-year increase in recorded history.
According to Richard Bavier, a former analyst for the federal Office of Management and Budget, already available data about employment rates, wages, and food stamp enrollment suggest that an additional 5.7 million people were officially poor in 2009. That would bring the total number of people with incomes below the federal poverty threshold to more than 45 million. The poverty rate, Bavier expects, will hit 15 percent — up from 13.2 percent in 2008, when the Great Recession first started to take its toll.
Still, the U.S. Census Bureau’s new numbers will offer only a partial picture of how the nation’s sputtering economy is affecting the poorest Americans — a problem state officials and the Obama administration want to address.
Overestimating food costs
The current formula for setting the federal poverty line — unchanged since 1963 — takes the cost of food for an individual or family and multiplies the number by three, under the assumption that people spend one-third of their incomes putting meals on the table. While the formula may have been a good way to estimate a subsistence cost of living in the early 1960s, experts say food now represents only one-eighth of a typical household budget, with expenses such as housing and child care putting increasing pressure on struggling families.
In addition, the official measure fails to account for regional differences in the cost of housing, it doesn’t include medical expenses or transportation, and at $22,000 for a family of four, the poverty line is considered by many to be simply too low.
Equally worrisome for policy makers is the Census Bureau’s failure to consider in-kind federal and state aid in calculating income. The existing formula counts only pre-tax cash income, leaving out such benefits as food stamps, housing vouchers and child-care subsidies, as well as federal and state tax credits for the working poor.
As a result, the nation’s official poverty count is unaffected by the billions spent on safety-net programs. Yet it remains by far the most frequently used measurement of how well governments are taking care of their most vulnerable citizens.
Conservatives have consistently argued that if safety-net programs were taken into account, the poverty rate would be much lower. At the same time, advocates for the poor have argued that poverty counts would be much higher if the cost of housing, child care and other expenses were factored in.
Nearly two decades ago, Congress asked the National Academies of Science (NAS) to revisit the official poverty measure and come up with recommendations for a new measure that would satisfy critics on both ends of the spectrum.
This past March, the Obama administration said it would use the NAS 1995 guidelines to update the federal government’s poverty calculation and promised to unveil the first new “supplemental poverty measure” in September of 2011.
“The new supplemental poverty measure will provide an alternative lens to understand poverty and measure the effects of anti-poverty policies,” Under Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank said. “Moreover, it will be dynamic and will benefit from improvements over time based on new data and new methodologies.”
Under the NAS recommendations, Commerce Department expenditure data for food, clothing, shelter and other household expenses would be used to set a poverty threshold for a reference family of four — two adults and two children. Then a family or individual’s resources would be compared to that line by including income and in-kind benefits, with taxes and other non-discretionary expenses, such as medical expenses and child care, excluded.
Because many expect the new calculation will result in a higher poverty count, the March announcement met with fiery criticism from some conservatives who charged the federal government could ill afford to increase its safety-net spending.
But state and local policy makers applauded the move because they said it would give them the tools they need to assess the effectiveness of anti-poverty programs.
In New York City, for example, where an NAS-type poverty measure was adopted three years ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the new data would allow the city to pinpoint who needs assistance most and which of the city’s social services have been most effective at improving its residents’ standard of living.
Using an updated measurement, New York City found that children — the recipients of a broad range of social welfare programs — were less poor than originally thought, while elders, who were struggling with previously unaccounted for medical expenses, were poorer.
As states become increasingly challenged by shrinking revenues and rising numbers of people in need, more than a dozen have set up commissions to help low-income families and many have set poverty reduction goals.
Among them, Minnesota and Connecticut have used NAS-like formulas to assess the effectiveness of current and proposed anti-poverty measures.
With technical assistance from the public policy research group The Urban Institute, both states used the results to support aggressive anti-poverty campaigns. Minnesota has a Legislative Commission to End Poverty in Minnesota by 2020, and Connecticut created a Child Poverty and Prevention Council with the goal of cutting child poverty in half by 2014.
Connecticut found only a slight increase in the number of people living in poverty when using the updated calculation — 21,000 people in 2006, compared to 20,000 using the existing Census measure.
But it got very different results when determining which public assistance programs did the most to reduce poverty. Under previous assumptions, child care subsidies and adult education and job training were seen as the most highly effective at moving people out of poverty over time. But the new formula showed that increasing enrollment in programs such as food stamps, energy assistance and subsidized housing was a more effective way to reduce child poverty in the near term. As a result, the state redoubled its outreach efforts to sign up as many low-income families as possible for these federally-funded programs.
In Minnesota, where the results were similar, a bipartisan legislative committee recommended the state refine its definition of poverty, build public awareness, and carefully monitor the impact of all major legislation on existing anti-poverty programs.
Both states joined 12 others earlier this year in calling on the federal government to adopt an NAS-like formula that would “consider the increased financial burden of housing, child care, and health care on the modern American family while recognizing the benefit of critical work supports such as tax credits, food stamps, and other non-cash subsidies.”
The administration’s supplemental poverty measure remains controversial, and some leaders on both ends of the political spectrum are urging Congress and the administration not to adopt the new formula for purposes of allocating federal funding or determining individual eligibility anytime soon.
If used to parse federal grants among states, it could radically change the amount of money each state receives. It stands to reason, for example, that a family of four trying to make it on $22,000 would have an easier time in rural Alabama than they would in suburban Massachusetts. And should the new measure be used to set individual eligibility for safety net programs, some are fearful that current recipients would be disqualified if all of their federal and state benefits were counted.
For the Obama administration, the Census Bureau’s current measure is problematic because it will fail to show the benefits of at least $100 billion in 2009 stimulus money spent for low-income families. Even so, as those direct subsidies and other job-creating federal funds are phased out, advocates expect the poverty rate will shoot up again next year, when the data is in for 2010.
Contact Christine Vestal at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bastille Day Edition
The Insidious Transformation of Markets into Casinos
How Brokers Became Bookies
By ELLEN BROWN
“You all are the house, you're the bookie. [Your clients] are booking their bets with you. I don't know why we need to dress it up. It's a bet.”
- Senator Claire McCaskill, Senate Subcommittee investigating Goldman Sachs (Washington Post, April 27, 2010)
Ever since December 2008, the Federal Reserve has held short-term interest rates near zero. This was not only to try to stimulate the housing and credit markets but also to allow the federal government to increase its debt levels without increasing the interest tab picked up by the taxpayers. The total public U.S. debt increased by nearly 50% from 2006 to the end of 2009 (from about $8.5 trillion to $12.3 trillion), but the interest bill on the debt actually dropped (from $406 billion to $383 billion), because of this reduction in interest rates.
One of the dire unintended consequences of that maneuver, however, was that municipal governments across the country have been saddled with very costly bad derivatives bets. They were persuaded by their Wall Street advisers to buy credit default swaps to protect their loans against interest rates shooting up. Instead, rates proceeded to drop through the floor, a wholly unforeseeable and unnatural market condition caused by rate manipulations by the Fed. Instead of the banks bearing the losses in return for premiums paid by municipal governments, the governments have had to pay massive sums to the banks – to the point of bankrupting at least one city (Montgomery, Alabama).
Another unintended consequence of the plunge in interest rates has been that “savers” have been forced to become “speculators” or gamblers. When interest rates on safe corporate bonds were around 8%, a couple could aim for saving half a million dollars in their working careers and count on reaping $40,000 yearly in investment income, a sum that, along with social security, could make for a comfortable retirement. But very low interest rates on bonds have forced these once-prudent savers into the riskier and less predictable stock market, and the collapse of the stock market has forced them into even more speculative ventures in the form of derivatives, a glorified form of gambling. Pension funds, which have binding pension contracts entered into when interest was at much higher levels, need an 8% investment return to meet their commitments. In today’s market, they cannot make that sort of return without taking on higher risk, which means taking major losses when the risks materialize.
Derivatives are basically just bets. Like at a racetrack, you don’t need to own the thing you’re betting on in order to play. Derivative casinos have opened up on virtually anything that can go up or down or have a variable future outcome. You can bet on the price of tea in China, the success or failure of a movie, whether a country will default on its debt, or whether a particular piece of legislation will pass. The global market in derivative trades is now well over a quadrillion dollars – that’s a thousand trillion – and it is eating up resources that were at one time invested in productive enterprises. Why risk lending money to a corporation or buying its stock, when you can reap a better return betting on whether the stock will rise or fall?
The shift from investing to gambling means that not only are investors making very little of their money available to companies to produce goods and services, but the parties on one side of every speculative trade now have an interest in seeing the object of the bet fail, whether a company, a movie, a politician, or a country. Worse, high-speed program traders can actually manipulate the market so that the thing bet on is more likely to fail. Not only has the market become a casino, but the casino is rigged.
High frequency traders – a field led by Goldman Sachs -- use computer algorithms to automatically bet huge sums of money on minor shifts in price. These bets send signals to the market that can themselves cause the price of assets to shoot up or tumble down. By placing high-volume trades, the largest speculative traders can thus intentionally “fix” prices in any direction they want.
Casinos for betting on what something will do in the future have been elevated to the status of “prediction” markets, and they can cover a broad range of issues. MIT’s Technology Review launched a futures market for technological innovations, in order to bet on upcoming developments. The NewsFutures and TradeSports Exchanges enable people to wager on matters such as whether Tiger Woods will take another lover, or whether Bin Laden will be found in Afghanistan.
A 2008 conference of sports leaders in Auckland, New Zealand, featured Mark Davies, head of a sport betting exchange called Betfair. Davies observed that these betting exchanges, while clearly gambling forums, are little different from the trading done by financial firms such as JPMorgan. He said:
“I used to trade bonds at JPMorgan, and I can tell you that what our customers do is exactly the same as what I used to do in my previous life, with the single exception that where I had to pour over balance sheets and income statements, they pour over form and team-sheets.”
The online news outlet Slate monitors various prediction markets to provide readers with up-to-date information on the potential outcomes of political races. Two of the markets covered are the Iowa Electronic Markets and Intrade. Slate claims that these political casinos are consistently better at forecasting winners than pre-election polls. Participants bet real money 24 hours a day on the outcomes of a range of issues, including political races. Newsfutures and Casualobserver are similar, smaller exchanges.
Besides shifting the emphasis to gambling (“Why Vote When You Can Bet?” says Slate’s “Guide to All Political Markets”), prediction markets, like the stock market, can be rigged so that they actually affect outcomes. This became evident, for example, in 2008, when the John McCain campaign used the InTrade market to shift perception of his chances of winning. A supporter was able to single-handedly manipulate the price of McCain’s contract, causing it to move up in the market and prompting some mainstream media to report it as evidence that McCain was gaining in popularity.
Betting on Terrorism
The destructive potential of prediction markets became particularly apparent in one sponsored by the Pentagon, called the “policy analysis market” (PAM) or “terror futures market.” PAM was an attempt to use the predictive power of markets to forecast political events tied to the Middle East, including terrorist attacks. According to the New York Times, the PAM would have allowed trading of futures on political developments including terrorist attacks, coups d’état, and assassinations. The exchange was shut down a day after it launched, after commentators pointed out that the system made it far too easy to make money with terror attacks.
At a July 28, 2003 press conference Senators Byron L. Dorgan (DND) and Ron Wyden(DOR) spoke out against the exchange. Wyden stated, “The idea of a federal betting parlor on atrocities and terrorism is ridiculous and it's grotesque,” while Dorgan called it “useless, offensive and unbelievably stupid”.
“This appears to encourage terrorists to participate, either to profit from their terrorist activities or to bet against them in order to mislead U.S. intelligence authorities,” they said in a letter to Admiral John Poindexter, the director of the Terrorism Information Awareness Office, which developed the idea. A week after the exchange closed, Poindexter offered his resignation.
Carbon Credit Trading
A massive new derivatives market that could be highly destructive economically is the trading platform called Carbon Credit Trading, which is on its way to dwarfing world oil trade. The program would allow trading in “carbon allowances” (permitting companies to emit greenhouse gases) and in “carbon offsets” (allowing companies to emit beyond their allowance if they invest in emission-reducing projects elsewhere). It would also allow trading in carbon derivatives; for example, futures contracts to deliver a certain number of allowances at an agreed price and time.
Robert Shapiro, former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration and a cofounder of the U.S. Climate Task Force, has warned, “We are on the verge of creating a new trillion-dollar market in financial assets that will be securitized, derivatized, and speculated by Wall Street like the mortgage-backed securities market.”
Eoin O’Carroll cautioned in the Christian Science Monitor:
“Many critics are pointing out that this new market for carbon derivatives could, without effective oversight, usher in another Wall Street free-for-all just like the one that precipitated the implosion of the global economy. . . . Just as the inability of homeowners to make good on their subprime mortgages ended up pulling the rug out from under the credit market, carbon offsets that are based on shaky greenhouse-gas mitigation projects could cause the carbon market to tank, with implications for the broader economy.”
The proposed form of cap and trade has not yet been passed in the U.S., but a new market in which traders can speculate on the future of allowances and offsets has already been launched. The largest players in the carbon credit trading market include firms such as Morgan Stanley, Barclays Capital, Fortis, Deutsche Bank, Rabobank (italics ours), BNP Paribas, Sumitomo, Kommunalkredit, Credit Suisse, Merrill Lynch and Cantor Fitzgerald. Last year, the financial services industry had 130 lobbyists working on climate issues, compared to almost none in 2003. The lobbyists represented companies such as Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase.
Billionaire financier George Soros says cap-and-trade will be easy for speculators to rig. “The system can be gamed,” he said last July at a London School of Economics seminar. “That’s why financial types like me like it — because there are financial opportunities.”
Time to Board Up the Casinos and Rethink Our Social Safety Net?
Our forebears considered gambling to be immoral and made it a crime. As the Industrial Revolution and the ascendance of capital changed religious mores, gambling gradually gained acceptance, but even within that permissive paradigm, derivative trading was originally considered an illegal form of gambling. Perhaps it is time to reinstate the gambling laws, board up the derivatives casinos, and return the stock market to what it was designed to be: a means of funneling the capital of investors into productive businesses.
Short of banning derivatives altogether, the derivatives business could be slowed up considerably by imposing a Tobin tax, a small tax on every financial trade. “Financial products” are virtually the only products left on the planet that are not currently subject to a sales tax; and at over a quadrillion dollars in trades annually, the market is huge.
A larger issue is how to ensure adequate retirement income for the population without forcing people into gambling with their life savings to supplement their meager social security checks. It may be time to rethink not only our banking and financial structure but the entire social umbrella that our Founding Fathers called the Common Wealth. The genius of Social Security was its recognition of the basic economic truth that real “security” rests on the ability of a society to provide for and take care of those who, because of age, health or economic conditions, cannot take care of themselves.
Deficit hawks cry that we cannot afford more spending; but according to Richard Cook, a former U.S. Treasury Department official, the government could print and spend several trillion new dollars into the money supply without causing price inflation. Writing in Global Research in April 2007, he noted that the U.S. Gross Domestic Product in 2006 came to $12.98 trillion, while the total national income came to only $10.23 trillion; and at least 10 percent of that income was reinvested rather than spent on goods and services. Total available purchasing power was thus only about $9.21 trillion, or $3.77 trillion less than the collective price of goods and services sold. Where did consumers get the extra $3.77 trillion? They had to borrow it, and they borrowed it from banks that created it with accounting entries on their books. If the government had replaced this bank-created money with debt-free government-created money, the total money supply would have remained unchanged. That means a whopping $3.77 trillion in new government-issued money could have been fed into the economy in 2006 without inflating prices. Different proposals have been made concerning how this money should be distributed, but at least some of it could be used to provide adequate social security checks, relieving the pressure to gamble with our savings.
The Federal Reserve has funneled $4.6 trillion to Wall Street in bailout money, most of it generated via “quantitative easing” (in effect, printing money); yet hyperinflation has not resulted. To the contrary, what we have today is Depression-style deflation. The M3 money supply shrank in the last year by 5.5 percent, and the rate at which it is shrinking is accelerating. The explanation for this anomaly is that the Fed’s $4.6 trillion added by quantitative easing fell far short of the estimated $10 trillion needed to “reflate” the money supply after the “shadow lenders” disappeared. When these investors discovered that the “triple-A” mortgage-backed securities they had been purchasing from Wall Street were actually very risky investments, they exited the market, credit dried up, and the money supply (which today consists almost entirely of credit or debt) collapsed.
The only viable way to reflate a collapsed money supply is to put more money into it; and creating the national money supply is the sovereign right of governments, not of banks. If the government wants to remain sovereign, it needs to reassert that right.
Ellen Brown is the author of Web of Debt: the Shocking Truth About Our Money System and How We Can Break Free. She can be reached through her website.