Friday, September 03, 2010

Busted: Stories of the Financial Crisis | The Nation

The problem with the economy, is that no one is willing to come to terms with the failures of Capitalism:
This raises our last question; fittingly, it is the same as the first, the part Lanchester never quite answers. We know why everyone owes everyone: because there was fresh dough to be made in extending credit, until there wasn't. What we don't know is, Why can't anyone pay? Why didn't property values ascend forever? Why didn't the market just keep expanding? This is not a question answered by Johnson and Kwak either. It is, let's say, above their pay grade (or perhaps far below). To tell the story, one would need an account of where value actually comes from. This is not impossibly complex; unlike the niceties of derivatives, it's not rocket science. If value is generated by people laboring to produce stuff that gets sold, and profit comes from exploiting the productive value of labor—this is a simplification, of course, but not a mistake—sooner or later people will have to labor productively to make good on any extended credit. By people I mean people.

But this becomes decreasingly likely, until it is impossible. Promises to do all that work later will reach limits, particularly as companies cut labor costs, replace workers with machines and outsource work to overseas markets. New value, arising only from the discrepancy between wages and productivity, appears elsewhere when it appears at all (witness the growth of India and China). Or it appears to glimmer in the future: credit is the name for spending it now. But even the future has a limited number of hours, technically. Meanwhile, over in the finance sector, where the money seemed so recently to reside, there is only a genteel, bloody struggle over how existing value is divided; no new value is created. The gap between value that can be realized and "fictitious capital"—claims on future value, all those derivatives purling through the purportedly new economy—has become a chasm. No one can vault over it any longer.

But the economy made its tiger's leap out of the stale factory and into the open air of finance for a reason; we can't just return to the fading industrial base with an oops shrug. We have no new line of widgets to labor over and sell. This is why ours is a real crisis, not just a panic. This is why we have seen exactly what the analysis grimly promised: shortages cheek by jowl with surpluses, unemployed workers stacked up next to unused factories. We deferred this reckoning once, twice, three times, depending on your measure. Certainly the most recent credit bubble was pure deferral, pure delusion: Wile E. Coyote out over the gap, legs spinning. He hovered there for a while, and lots of people pretended the laws of physics had been revised, even as he started to plummet. Boom. By boom I mean bust.

Versions of this plaint have been made frequently enough by "mainstream" economists, seemingly unaware they're borrowing the lineaments of an account they've spent careers disavowing as a mystery cult. Well, there are no atheists in foxholes. Or, as a friend says, Marxism is like gold; in an economic crisis, everybody runs to those who have it. Not surprisingly, economists cannot borrow, even at low levels of interest, the insights most needed: the basic understanding that capitalism's flaws are internal to its own logic and can't be whisked away by another round of financial regulation or everybody promising to be less of a creep. It is indeed a compulsion, and it ends poorly.