http://michael-hudson.com/2011/06/privatizing-will-make-life-worse/Privatizing Will Make Life Worse
June 24, 2011
By Michael Hudson November 12, 1989, New York TimesPERESTROIKA GOES SOUTHThis article was published in the NYT more than 20 years ago, forecasting precisely what has happened.
I attended the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington last month. When the meetings ended, I was left with the impression that no further writedowns would be forthcoming for Latin America’s debtor countries unless they followed the lead of Mexico.
To do this, countries like Brazil and Argentina would have to sell off their public utilities, some potentially profitable industrial corporations and some service industries like airlines. In the past, one met mostly bankers at these big international meetings. Now there are a lot of lawyers.
For Latin America the foreclosure process has begun, but for the time being it is called privatization or debt-for-equity swaps. Countries hoping to borrow more money from creditor-nation governments, the I.M.F. and the World Bank, are being told to help themselves by relinquishing ownership of their basic economic infrastructure.
In advocating this brave new world of privatizing hitherto public monopolies, these local investors and their partners, the international banking and investment community, cite a number of truisms. Private-sector managers will run enterprises more efficiently, the proponents of privatization say. This argument has merit, as far as it goes. But it should be remembered that the troubled savings and loan institutions in Texas were all privately run businesses.
But more important, in the United States and Europe there exists a balance between private profitability and the public’s need for popularly priced power, transport and other services. This balance is insured by public regulatory agencies and is backed by antitrust legislation. But few Latin American or other third world economies have ever had to develop these regulatory traditions because their governments have owned the major public utilities and other monopolies. The fact that private ownership of these enterprises will be a new experience for these countries means that it may not have the same salutary consequences as in the United States.
Proponents of privatization say that a sell-off of utilities will reduce government budget deficits. They argue that privatization will turn government-owned businesses, which are often fiscal drains on a country, into private tax-paying entities. As a result, lower federal deficits may help slow the endemic inflations that plague most debtor economies.
But for the population at large, shifting the economic burden away from government (and hence the taxpayers) may turn out to be largely illusory. For what the government saves in subsidies may be paid by users of these utilities in the form of higher power, phone and transport rates charged by the new proprietors.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to the above scenarios. The most obvious one is to keep these monopolies public but restructure them as truly independent corporations by bringing in the best management possible. The alternative to badly run public enterprise is not necessarily privatization, but better administration with effective checks and balances against incompetence and malfeasance.
A second option is to put public regulatory and antitrust legislation in place before it is too late. The objective is to hold privatizers to their promises by making them absorb the penalty for their own possible inefficiency, by enjoying lower profits rather than extorting higher rates from consumers. After all, why should third world populations deserve less than the United States in this respect?
Whatever option is chosen, the possible outcomes are relatively clear. If the new purchasers of public utilities are foreign, it will constitute a retrogression from neocolonialism back to direct colonialism.
]http://michael-hudson.com/2010/05/neoliberal-economics-v-theology/Religious Conversion: from Theology to the Temple of Mammon
by Michael Hudson
May 24, 2010The Friedman Institute upgrades Theology to condone Neoliberal Greed
What would Jesus Say?
Many academics recently received a petition signed by 111 University of Chicago faculty members, explaining that “without any announcement to its own community, [the University] has commissioned Ann Beha Architects, a Boston firm, to remake the Chicago Theological Seminary building into a home for the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics (MFIRE) and has renewed aggressive fund-raising activity for the controversial Institute.”
It would be hard to find a more fitting metaphor than what the press release characterizes as “conversion of the Seminary building into a temple of neoliberal economics.” Even the acronym MFIRE seems symbolically appropriate. The M might well stand for Money in Prof. Friedman’s MV = PT (Money x Velocity = Price x Transactions). And the FIRE sector comprises finance, insurance and real estate – the “free lunch” sector whose wealth the Chicago monetarists celebrate.
Classical economists characterized the rent
accruing to the FIRE sector as “unearned income,” headed by land rent
and land-price (“capital”) gains
, which John Stuart Mill described as what landlords made “in their sleep.” Milton Friedman, by contrast, insisted that “there is no such thing as a free lunch” – as if the economy were not all about a free lunch and how to get it. And the main way to get it is to dismantle the role of government and sell off the public domain – on credit.
As Charles Baudelaire quipped, the devil wins at the point where the world believes that he does not exist. Paraphrasing this we may say that free lunch rentiers achieve economic victory at the point where government regulators and economists believe that their returns do not exist – and hence, do not need to be taxed, regulated or otherwise subdued.
By “free market,” the Chicago Boys mean giving free rein to the financial sector – as opposed to the classical economists’ idea of freeing markets from rent [read: rack-renting
] and interest [read: spurious interest
]. Whereas traditional religion sought to lay down precepts for regulation, the Friedman Institute will promote deregulation
Physically replacing the theology school with a “temple of neoliberal economics” is ironic inasmuch as one tenet that all the major religions held in common at one point or other was opposition to the charging of interest. Judaism called for Clean Slates (Leviticus 25), and Christianity banned interest outright, citing the laws of Exodus and Deuteronomy.
The Chicago Boys thus have inverted traditional theology.
Yet the teaching of economics as an academic discipline began as moral philosophy courses in the 18th and 19th centuries. The leading universities of most countries were founded to train students for the ministry. The moral philosophy course evolved into political economy, dealing largely with economic reform and taxation of the unearned income accruing to vested interests as a result of legal privilege. The discipline was stripped down into “economics” largely to exclude political analysis, and the distinctions between productive and unproductive investment, earned and unearned income, value and price.
The classical economists saw rent and interest as a carry-over from Europe’s feudal conquest of the land
and the privatization of money and finance
into an institutionally based debt and monopoly overhead. The classical economists sought to tax away such “unearned income,” to regulate natural monopolies or shift them into the public domain.
Needless to say, this history of economic thought will not be taught at the Friedman Center.
The first thing that the Chicago Boys did in Chile
when they were given power after the 1973 military coup was to close down every economics department in the country – and indeed, every social science department outside of the Catholic University where they held sway. They realized that “free markets” for capital required total control of the educational curriculum, and of cultural media generally.
What free marketers realize is that without an Inquisition authority, you cannot have a “stable” free market – that is, a market free for the financial predators who presumably are targeted as the major potential donors to the U/C’s Friedman Center.
Chicago School monetarists have achieved censorial power on the editorial boards of the major refereed economics journals, publication in which has become a precondition for career advancement for academic economists. The result has been to limit the scope of economics to “free market” celebration of rational choice theory and a narrow-minded “law and economics” ideology opposed to the ideas of moral justice and economic regulation that formed the basis of so much Western religion.
I had a foretaste of this inquisitorial spirit when I attended the U/C Laboratory School. I remember the large banner strung over the blackboard in Mr. Edgett’s social science classroom in 1953: “Give them all what the Rosenbergs got.” After the Freedom of Information Act opened up FBI files, my fellow classmates got quite a kick out of reading the reports filed on them and their political views by U/C professors and those of its associated Shimer College.
Who would have anticipated that economics would end up more right wing and authoritarian, more explicitly opposed to the very idea of human rights and distributive justice
than theology? Or that the latter discipline itself would be so inverted?
The classical economists were reformers, after all, seeking to free markets from unearned income – the “free lunch” of land rent by Europe’s hereditary aristocracies
, and from monopoly rents administered by the royal trading corporations created by European governments to pay off their war debts. But the Chicago monetarists seek to deregulate monopolies and usury laws, favoring rentiers rather than the “real” economy of labor
Their focus is on financial and property claims on income and on assets pledged as collateral: bank loans, stocks and bonds, for which they urge tax cuts. And to increase the market for leveraged buyouts, the Chicago Boys advocate privatizing the public domain, starting in Chile after 1973.
So what is inverted is not only the classical idea of free markets, but the economic core of early religion. Today, the Chicago Boys deem those most in need of salvation to be high finance, real estate and monopolies in their fighting to reverse the past seven centuries of classical economic reform since the Churchmen debated how to define a Just Price (socially necessary costs of production) for banks to charge back in the 13th century.
It seems largely about fund-raising, but isn’t that true of most religion nowadays?
The University of Chicago was financed by John D. Rockefeller, prompting Upton Sinclair to call it “The University of Standard Oil” in The Goose Step. When I attended in the 1950s, Lawrence Kimpton had replaced Robert Hutchins as chancellor, and in 1961 became general manager of planning (and subsequently, director) for Standard Oil of Indiana. His most famous act (apart from supervising the Manhattan atom bomb project) was to suppress The Chicago Review issue that contained excerpts from William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch. Significantly, the reason he gave was that publication might discourage financial grants being given to the university.
Mr. Rockefeller at least duly gave his tithe to “those in need.” In a contrasting spirit, Herman Kahn’s wife, Jane, told me that once at a party, Milton Friedman replied to her suggestion of better public welfare and medical care, “Mrs. Kahn, why do you want to subsidize the production of orphans and sick people?” This is not exactly the classical religious spirit.
The problem with the Friedman Institute is that its economic doctrine rose to notoriety in the Pinochet
period, the high tide of the Chicago Boys in Chile. Privatization of public enterprise, “freeing” markets from usury laws and promoting deregulation is the antithesis of nearly all religions, whose guiding purpose after all was to socialize their members and create a moral state.
Friedmanite monetarism has been characterized as a post-modern ideology which, like religion, has its own sacred cows and idols – and an Inquisition. In place of tithing of unbelievers as in Islam, we have the tax shift off the religion of finance capital onto labor standing outside its gates.
]http://globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=23664“Wisconsin Death Trip.” Mass Privatization as the "Final Stage" of Neoliberal Doctrine
by Prof Michael Hudson and Prof Jeffrey Sommers
March 12, 2011
On Wednesday evening, in a veritable Night of the Long Knives, Wisconsin's integrity was brutally murdered on the floor of the state Capitol in Madison. On 9 March, integrity and trust built up over a century was obliterated as Wisconsin state senators quickly reversed course and cleaved its budget "repair bill" in half. Financial items require a quorum, thus, collective bargaining was split off from the budget repair bill and voted on separately so as to permit its being voted on now. Even so, this still broke the state's open meeting law requiring 24 hours' notice to ensure transparency. Instead, the Wisconsin senate Republicans pulled out this new legislation without advance notice and began voting, leaving only a stunned Democratic legislator, Peter Barca, to read the open meeting law out loud to prevent the senators from voting. The senate voted over his objections anyway.
The Wisconsin brand has always centered on integrity. This was really about the only distinctive comparative advantage the state could lay claim to. Now, it is gone. With collective bargaining abolished, huge issues remain beyond labor. The privatization of public assets is now on the agenda, with the yet-to-be-voted-on budget repair bill.
Wisconsin is a state that invented Progressive Era Republican rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries under such progressive populists as Robert LaFollette. Under their tenure, rent-seeking
from the public domain and similar insider corruption were checked by a strong public sector anchored in integrity. The state's long history of reforms nurtured a prosperous middle class and made it a model of clean government, solid infrastructure, trade unionism and high value-added industry managed by socialists and the LaFollette Progressives.
Fast-forward to Scott Walker today. Representing a new breed apart from Wisconsin's earlier Republicans, he is seeking to re-birth the asset-grabbing Gilded Age
. A plague of rent-seekers
is seeking quick gains by privatizng the public sector and erecting tollbooths to charge access fees to roads, power plants and other basic infrastructure.
Economics textbooks, along with Fox News and shout radio commentators, spread the myth that fortunes are gained productively by investing in capital equipment and employing labor to produce goods and services that people want to buy. This may be how economies prosper, but it is not how fortunes are most easily made. One need only to turn to the 19th-century novelists such as Balzac to be reminded that behind every family fortune lies a great theft, often long-forgotten or even undiscovered.
But who is one to steal from? Most wealth in history has been acquired either by armed conquest of the land, or by political insider dealing, such as the great US railroad land giveaways of the mid 19th century. The great American fortunes have been founded by prying land, public enterprises and monopoly rights from the public domain, because that's where the assets are to take.
Throughout history the world's most successful economies have been those that have kept this kind of primitive accumulation in check. The US economy today is faltering largely because its past barriers against rent-seeking
are being breached.
Nowhere is this more disturbingly on display than in Wisconsin. Today, Milwaukee – Wisconsin's largest city, and once the richest in America – is ranked among the four poorest large cities in the United States. Wisconsin is just the most recent case in this great heist. The US government itself and its regulatory agencies effectively are being privatized as the "final stage" of neoliberal economic doctrine.
]http://globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=26420The State and Local Budget Crisis
by Michael Hudson
September 6, 2011
The cost of the 2011 cutbacks in federal spending will fall most directly on consumers and retirees by scaling back Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and social spending programs. The population also will suffer indirectly, by lower federal revenue sharing with U.S. states and cities. The following chart from the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA, Table 3.3) shows how federal financial aid has helped cities shift the tax burden off real estate, although the main shift has been off property taxes
onto income – and onto consumption (sales) taxes.State and local revenue, 1930-2007.
Untaxing real estate has served mortgage bankers by freeing more rental income (the land’s site value) to be paid as interest. Property taxes
have not absorbed anywhere near the rise in debt-leveraged housing and commercial prices. However, this has not lowered the cost of housing for most people. New buyers must pay a price that capitalizes the property’s rental value. Less and less of this payment has taken the form of local property taxes. More and more has been paid to mortgage lenders as interest. So cutting property taxes
has simply left more revenue to be capitalized into higher debt-financed prices.
While homeowners saw their carrying charges rise, they nonetheless felt more affluent as real estate prices rose – inflated on easier and easier credit terms. Prices rose faster than mortgage debt as long as (1) interest rates were declining; (2) loan maturities were stretched out (ultimately reaching the point of zero amortization rather than the old-fashioned 30-year self-amortizing mortgages); (3) down payments were shrinking toward zero (rather than requiring 20 percent equity as used to be the case) and indeed as “liars’ loans” led prices to be bid up recklessly; and finally (4) cities refrained from raising property taxes as fast as market prices were rising. This left more revenue to be capitalized into higher prices, providing capital gains that home owners were encouraged to treat like “money in the bank” – by taking out home equity loans. This rising mortgage debt was increasingly important in enabling people to maintain their living standards, especially as they had to pay more for housing. So what appeared to be affluence and rising net worth from the value of one’s home on the asset side of the balance sheet found its counterpart in debt on the liabilities side.
From the local fiscal vantage point, these debt-leveraged price gains represented uncollected user fees for the site value provided by public infrastructure and rising prosperity. The bankers ended up with the rising flow of rental value, not the cities. This obliged tax collectors to look to other sources of revenue. So homeowners paid out what they seemed to be saving in modest property taxes in the form of rising sales taxes and income taxes.
By 2008 these financial system’s easing of credit terms had reached its limit. No more room for credit inflation remained, so speculators began to withdraw from the market. (They accounted for about one-sixth of demand for housing.) When the credit spigot was turned off, prices plunged – leaving the debts in place. (So taking out a home-equity mortgage was not really like drawing down money from a piggy bank after all. Years of future income had to be diverted to spend for past shortfalls.)
Now that federal aid is falling – along with revenue from sales and income taxes – local budgets are falling into deficit. But for many cities and states, their constitutions and regulations prevent them from running deficits. So they face a number of hard choices.
It is hard to raise property taxes back toward earlier rates, because the rental income already has been pledged to the mortgage bankers. To tax heavily indebted property would lead to more foreclosures and abandonment. And the Obama Administration’s hope that banks somehow will use the Federal Reserve’s tsunami of cheap (0.25%) reserves and credit to re-inflate a new real estate bubble is in vain, because bankers have little interest in lending to property that is still sinking in market price. It is easier to speculate on interest-rate arbitrage with the BRICS and get a foreign-exchange premium as well, or simply to play the market. Banks report winnings in the derivatives trade day after day, with nary a loss – an indication of how poorly their hapless customers and other outsiders must be doing! So the path of least resistance for most cities and states is to cut back spending on public services, and above all on pension plan contributions.
The ultimate sacrifice (and the aim of financial predators) is to sell off public land and buildings, roads and other transportation services, sewer systems and other basic infrastructure. In this aim, the investment bankers are being aided and abetted by the credit ratings industry, threatening to downgrade cities that do not sell off their public domain. In this respect the financial end-game of privatization is similar in the United States to pressures by the European Central Bank to force the indebted PIIGS economies to engage in privatization sell-offs, Third World and post-Soviet style.
Just as in Europe, when revenues are squeezed and something must give – either debt service, payment to pensioners or current payments to labor – the financial sector is seeking to take all the available surplus for itself. This puts creditors in the forefront of today’s class war against labor.
On the eve of the September 2008 financial crash, cities such as Birmingham, Alabama and Chicago already were looking for ways to cope with the fiscal squeeze imposed by political pressures from the major local campaign contributors – the real estate and banking sectors – to cut property taxes. One seeming path of little resistance was to gamble in the Wall Street financial casino, hoping to make easy gains rather than making landlords, wage earners or consumers pay higher taxes.
Landlords and bankers encouraged this speculation as an alternative to taxing property. Landlords wanted to pay less in property taxes, and banks knew that whatever rental value buyers could save in the form of lower taxes would end up being used to bid up prices to capitalize into debt service for mortgages to buy properties up for sale.
Here is the dilemma that states and cities now face: So much urban property is sinking into negative equity territory that a rise in property taxes will lead to even more foreclosures and abandonments, and hence even lower fiscal returns. To avoid this, cities are seeing Chapter 9 bankruptcy as the main route to free themselves, especially from problems that stem from an unwarranted trust in bankers to help them out of the earlier fiscal squeeze by putting them into losing financial gambles. Orange County in California successfully sued Merrill Lynch to recover damages, and Birmingham also was awarded recovery payments from JP Morgan Chase.Birmingham and Chicago as microcosms of the national debt squeeze
Now that financial fraud has been decriminalized for all practical purposes, most financial victims are obliged to sue for reimbursement in civil court without much help from prosecutors. Birmingham, Alabama is a case in point. After a predatory financing arrangement to upgrade its sewers in 2008 forced its Jefferson County into bankruptcy, the Securities and Exchange Commission (S.E.C.) negotiated $75 million in fines and reimbursement of fees to be paid by JP Morgan Chase as lead lender and negotiator for the complex interest-rate swaps they had advised the country to take, ostensibly to protect its economic interest. The banks also forfeited nearly ten times this sum ($647 million) in termination fees. But the court-appointed receiver grabbed the $75 million settlement for payment on the debts the country still owed.
As usual, the banks had paid the fine and made reimbursement without admitting any wrongdoing. To the financial sector, deception and fraud is part of the game, after all, not a tactic that can be prosecuted as criminal. They paid their fines without admitting any wrongdoing, and without even admitting the S.E.C. charges. They merely paid up and kept silent – while the Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service were still in the time-taking process of ruling on legal claims brought by Jefferson County. The case prompted bankers and bondholders to bring pressure on the state of Alabama to take responsibility (that is, take on the debt liability) all on behalf of statewide taxpayers, and to demand that all lawsuits brought for financial fraud to be dropped. “Responsibility” is supposed to be only for debtors, not for the financial sector itself. This is how the banks have managed to rewrite the laws, after all.
Jefferson County is now debating whether to declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy to free itself from debts that can be paid only at the cost of disrupting economic continuity and living standards. The city’s debt quandary is a microcosm for the U.S. economy as a whole. Its lowest-income residents are burdened with financialized charges for sewer-system debt payments so far beyond their ability to pay that they face the same fate as Latvians, Irish and Greeks: As the local economy shrinks, they must move in order to find jobs – in places less debt-burdened and hence lower-cost. The “free market” choice is to emigrate to flee the debts imposed on their economies and on themselves personally.
Well-to-do Birmingham families have yards large enough to have their own septic tanks as an alternative to paying for access to sewers, but lower-income families living in small houses or apartment buildings lack this option. One county commissioner asked: “Why should the poor have to pay for the ill-gotten gain of some of these banks who poisoned the well in the very first place?” Other commissioners demanded that bondholders “bear the entire cost of a $20 million fund that is being created to help low-income residents pay their sewer bills.”
But the government usually provides relief only for creditors – above all, relief from criminal prosecution for their business plan that involved making loans beyond the debtors’ ability to pay. Some states have fraudulent conveyance laws to prevent this, as well as to prevent banks from misrepresenting the quality of their loans to outside investors. There are laws to punish appraisers who give false appraisals, and mortgage brokers who fill in false income reports to qualify for loans. But the S.E.C. has seen its staff and budget slashed and deregulators appointed to oversee its affairs. It has no authority to prosecute, only to make recommendations to the Justice Department, where Attorney General Eric Holder has followed the Obama Administration’s support of Wall Street, feeling no obligation to live up to the promises to make that a change from the Bush Administration’s similar lax behavior.