Thursday, June 05, 2008

Good Money And Bad Money - Where Is The Difference?

Link of the day - Free $500 Southwest Airlines Gift Card

Link of the day - Free $500 Southwest Airlines Gift Card

For those who have read Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCentury, many of the themes in the current work will sound familiar. In this book, as well as American Theocracy, he reminds us that previous empires such a 17th century Spain, 18th century Holland, and the late 19th and early 20th century Britain all succumbed to financialization as their global power reached its peak. He argues the the United States is now in a similar position. In the last 30 years financial services have grown from 11% of GDP to 21%, and manufacturing has declined from 25% to 13%. A reversal of roles that Phillips sees as very unhealthy.

This huge growth of the financial sector was not without adverse consequences: in the last 20 years public and private debt has quadrupeled to $43 trillion. How this came about has been expertly explained in another book called The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash by Charles Morris. There was easy money as the Federal Reserve was lending money at less than the rate of inflation. Money was risk-free for the lender since they collected fees up front and sold the securitized loans to investors. When this process was repeated millions of times, one ends up with hard-to-value securitized debt throughout the global economy. Then when housing prices start to decline and homeowners start to default on their mortgages on a grand scale, you have a global crisis of American capitalism. (Bear Stearns alone was estimated to be holding $46 billion worth of bad money.)

As in American Theocracy, Phillips writes that the oil industry is another component of the current crisis. In the US oil production peaked in the 1970s, on a global level it is peaking right about now. And with the ravenous appetite for oil from newly industrialized countries such as China and India, prices will continue to go up. The US still gets "cheap" oil relative to Europe since oil is priced in dollars, but that advantage may soon disappear. The weakening dollar is forcing OPEC countries to move to Euros and other currencies. And some oil producing countries such as Iran and Venezuela are moving to other currencies for reasons other than economic.

The author began his career as a Republican strategist, but he has long since disavowed them. Having a monetary policy of free money, a fiscal policy of tax cuts and increased spending, and an ideology of unregulated market fundamentalism, the Republicans have lost most of their credibiltiy. This does not mean Phillips has gone over to the Democratic side. He believes that Bill Clinton was instrumental in the financialization of the economy, and that currently Hillary and Obama are beholden to investment bankers and hedge fund managers. What used to be the vital center in Washington is now the "venal center."

The conclusion of this volume is very gloomy. Phillips believes that we are at a pivotal moment in American history when the economy has been hollowed out, we are saddled with trillions of dollars of debt, and our political leaders are dishonest, incompetent, and negligent. Given that all that may currently be the case, it may be instructive to further meditate on the empires of the past. Spain, Holland, and Britain all managed to survive and even thrive, hopefully the US will do the same.

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