Michael Hudson on Coronavirus and Debt Winners and Losers
Yves here. Michael Hudson discusses the deflationary impact of the coronacrisis and how modern, misguided approaches to unsustainable debt loads are making matters worse.
Remarks given at the 1st ASECU Teleconference ‘Systematic Crises Triggered the Current Pandemic & Progressive Way-Outs,’ May 8, 2020
<Michael Hudson> Well, I think you’re quite right in organizing the conference to point out that today’s pandemic crisis hastens and intensifies the internal contradictions that have been building up. Many of these contradictions are going to be blamed simply on the virus. But there is an underlying problem that the virus is exposing and turning into a crisis. That underlying problem is the debts that have been building up for the last few decades.
We are in a situation much like a war. There are winners and there are losers in a war. In this case the winner is the aggressor – the financial sector. Its demands for payment have set the stage for today’s economic breakdown. This has been the case throughout history. Finance always has been the great destabilizing factor. Right now, you’re having businesses – retail stores, restaurants, hotels, airlines and other businesses that are being closed down or operating at only a small capacity far below break-even levels. These businesses are not able to pay their stipulated rents or mortgage debt service. Their landlords are not able to pay their banks.
Workers have been laid off, and they’re unable to pay their landlords or creditors. So they are falling more deeply into debt. Entire states and the cities, like New York State and New York City, are being squeezed. In addition to having to pay local unemployment insurance, they have to maintain basic infrastructure and social services. But their d tax revenues ae plunging as a result of fewer sales taxes and income taxes. So the pandemic is creating a fiscal crisis as part of the overall debt and real-estate crisis.
The question is, how do we get out of it? What is happening is what legal contracts call an Act of God. What do you do when economic activity is disrupted and the flow of payments that people have every month – their debt service, their rents or their mortgage, or their credit cards and other basic ongoing expenses. What do you do when they can’t be paid? I think that this crisis is laying the problem bare. It is a problem that’s occurred in Western civilization for the last 2,000 years. But what is so striking is how much more adroitly ancient civilizations handled this problem. They did so in a completely different wat from how other civilizations have handled things.
I have written quite a bit about Bronze Age archaeology in the ancient Near East. That is where the Act of God stipulation originated. It appears in the Laws of Hammurabi c. 1750 BC. The problem that the Babylonians had to deal with was what to do when there is a flood, a drought, warfare or a pandemic. What should be the rules when, suddenly out of nowhere, cultivators and the citizenry on the land are rendered unable to grow and harvest crops, out of which to pay the debts that they have run up during the year and are falling due. They owe the taxes, sharecropping or other rent that could not be paid.
Hammurabi was quite specific about how to handle this situation. Paragraph 48 of his Laws said that there would be a debt and a tax amnesty when the weather god, Adad, created a flood or otherwise prevented debts and other obligations from being paid. If the storm god floods the lands, the debts and rents don’t have to be paid. A fresh start was made under conditions of balance for the next crop season.
The basic problem was similar to that today: How does a society restore continuity and save itself from disruption creating a permanent loss and distortion of existing wealth and income relationships? What Hammurabi and every other Babylonian, Sumerian ruler and other Near Eastern rulers did between about 2,500 BC and the 1st century BC was to proclaim amnesties in such circumstances. If they hadn’t done that, cultivators would not have been able to pay their creditors and they would have fallen into bondage. They would have owed their labour and crops to their creditors.
This would have caused a serious fiscal problem for rulers. If victims of a crop failure or other economic interruption had to pay their creditors with their labour and crop surplus, this labor and crop tax wouldn’t be available to pay the palace its normal claims for taxes and corvée labour duties to build infrastructure or even serve in the army. Social balance and continuity would have been destroyed – from within. So when Hammurabi and every ruler of his dynasty proclaimed a clean slate cancelling the debts and rent arrears that had mounted up unpaid, proclaiming a return to the normal situation prevented a creditor oligarchy from emerging and seeking its own interest as distinct from that of the palace.
All this changed in Roman times. Classical antiquity protected the financial and rentier elites. Cicero and the other Roman leaders said that all the debts had to be paid, even (or indeed, precisely because!) this led to the enslavement of poorer Romans and Greeks. Rome’s creditor oligarchy used every crisis as an opportunity to grab the land of the smallholders, to force the population into bondage and to get control of their land.
We’re seeing the same basic dynamic occur throughout the post-Roman Western world. Creditors are now already planning to buy up distressed real estate from landlords that default as their rents are not paid. There is going to be a huge bankruptcy sale. Large private capital funds have already announced their intention to begin buying out the retail stores that have gone bankrupt, along with their real estate.
Individuals who are unable to pay their debts, workers who’ve been laid off, are told to borrow from their pension funds or social security accounts. That means that they won’t be receiving the retirement income they need to live. Likewise, the states and the cities that Jeffrey Sachs mentioned also are facing a debt crisis with their bondholders. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate head, said that Democratic states like New York, New Jersey and California should cover their shortfall by taking the pension funds that they’ve set up for public employees. The financial sector’s intention is to use this crisis to wipe out the pension funds and transfer the savings of the wage-earners to pay bondholders and other creditors. The promises that state and local governments made for pension in exchange for not asking for higher wages are to be wiped out.
The debts that have been built up are being used as a financial warfare tactic. It is more efficient than military warfare. Debt has been used to strip away the assets of middle-class people, of home owners, of employee pension funds, to suck their savings and property up to the top of the economic pyramid. The pandemic crisis has created a battlefield. Its rules have been written by the financial sector and their lobbyists as an opportunity for the largest property and financial grab since the Great Depression.
The result will be that much of the American and European economies are going to end up looking like the Greek economy five years ago, when it was unable to pay its euro-debts. You can look at Greece as the future of the United States, catalysed by the coronavirus pandemic.
<Grigoris Zarotiadis> Thank you. Thank you, Tatiana, Professor Hubenova, thanks a lot. Michael, it’s your turn and allow me, before you start, because there was an extra question addressed to you, but also to the rest, included perhaps in the previous questions: who are the big winners, in economic terms, after current developments? Dear Michael, you have the floor.
<Michael Hudson> I’ll talk about the questions in reverse order, beginning with the idea that there may be an inflation to help pay off the debts.
Just the opposite: What we are facing now is an era of debt deflation. It’s the worst debt deflation since the Great Depression. I’ve already described how there are going to be major defaults in real estate, especially for commercial real estate, for stores and all the other businesses that are going without income while their rents have accrued. If we are going to have a close-down for at least three more months, with no income for stores, entertainment, motion-picture houses and museums, paying three months’ back rent is not viable. There’s no way in which stores, or many wage-earners, can earn enough to pay the rent out of normal work and business. So, they’re going to go out of business.
There is going to be a wave of bankruptcy, and that will be followed by fire sales of real estate. Unemployment is going to lead to lower wage levels, and there also will be cutbacks in public spending for social services, transportation and other normal programs. Privatisation sell-offs will occur, much like Margaret Thatcher’s in England. this is now going to be imposed upon Europe. It’s possible that the Eurozone will break up if it does not change its rules and create the euro-money to enable Italy and Spain to get by. But at present the Eurozone rules are that all the money, all of the credit that is needed to grow in Europe, should be borrowed from banks at interest.
Banks can create this money on their keyboards electronically. The government could do the same, but relinquishes this privilege to the privatized banking sector. As Modern Monetary Theory explains, a central bank can simply print the money that is needed to fuel economic growth. But the financial sector has captured the hearts and minds of central bankers, from Europe to the United States.
The problem is these banks don’t lend money to create means of production or livelihood. They don’t lend money to build factories. Banks lend money against assets already in existence, mainly real estate, houses, buildings, and also companies – and to corporate raiders to buy other companies on credit. So, the effect of this bank lending has been to inflate the price of real estate, because a house or a building is worth whatever a bank will lend against it.
The financial sector has become less and less productive, and more predatory. It has prevented European governments from having a central bank that directs deficit spending into the real economy. Only the banks and financial sector, the elite One Percent, are supported, as in the United States. Ten trillion dollars ’s put into the economy, mainly into the stock and financial markets, the bond market and the real estate market, but not into production.
The Eurozone does not do that. This means that the governments of Europe are not really democratic. Europe is governed by the European Central Bank. It works for its customers, the commercial banks. And the commercial bankers say: “We want to starve the economy of credit, so that we, the commercial bankers, can create the money to lend to our customers, and charge interest and financial fees. Our own financial speculation that all the growth, the surplus that Europe produces, should be turned over to the financial sector.” That’s what the Europeans have voted for. In effect they vote for lower wages, cutbacks in public services and shorter pensions. These living standards are threatened by the way in which the financial dimension of the coronavirus crisis is being managed.
You’re seeing a disparity between Italy and the Mediterranean countries and northern Europe. Countries need credit in order to recover. But the Eurozone refuses to provide the credit that is needed to get through the coronavirus suspension of economic activity and its aftermath of unpaid debts, rents and other obligations. The Eurozone is treating Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain just like President Trump here in America is treating the Democratic states like New York, New Jersey and California. The effect is to create a deflationary crisis. That makes it impossible to pay the backlog of debts and rents.
We may see a power grab creating something much like feudalism. In the United States it’s suggested that for student loans, or for loans to wage-earners collateralized by the debtor promising to pay 10%, 20%, 25% of everything they earn for the rest of their life. This is like a tax, but it’s really a form of debt peonage. It’s a payment much like medieval serfs had to turn over their economic surplus to their landlords. Well, now the wage-earners, small business and even big business in America and in Europe are going to have to turn over even more of their earnings to the financial sector in order to survive.
This may seem a crazy way to organize society, but it is how Western civilization has been structured on the basis of protecting creditor rights, not debtor solvency and overall social balance and continuity. Unlike non-Western societies, unlike even China today, credit in Europe and America is privatized. The supply of credit, like money, should be a public utility. Just like public health should be a public utility. Just like roads and communication should be a public utility. Europe has let it be privatized in an aggressive, predatory way.
As long as governments subordinate the will of democratic voters to whatever the central banks tell you, you are not a democracy. Jeffrey earlier mentioned what Aristotle thought. Aristotle explained a kind of eternal political triangle. He said that many constitutions appeared to be democratic, but they’re, actually, oligarchic. That’s because democracies tend to evolve into an oligarchy. The oligarchy makes itself hereditary into an aristocratic ruling class. Finally, thank heavens, some of the wealthy aristocrats fight among themselves and they try – like Cleisthenes did in Athens as early as 406 BC – to take the masses into their camp, and become democratic and order to mobilize support in the citizens against the other aristocrats. Then you have a democratic revolution, but democracy once again develops into oligarchy. That’s the eternal political triangle that Aristotle described.
And that’s what you have in Europe. It’s not a democracy anymore; it’s an oligarchy making itself into the same kind of hereditary aristocracy that occurred in classical antiquity. Many of you hoped that Europe had overthrown the aristocracy after World War I when you did indeed get rid of the kings and royalty. But you opened the way for a new kind of oligarchy turning itself into a hereditary aristocracy, that of finance. That’s the task before you to solve. The only thing I can say is that, perhaps, this crisis has indeed catalysed this basic internal contradiction and will create a response that deals with the pandemic by cancelling debts and de-privatizing the banking sector.