The Counter-Enlightenment, its Economic Program – and the Classical Alternative
Based on a talk given to Prosper Australia on Friday October 16th, 2009.
First published in Progress Magazine – Autumn 2010. Download Progress #1096 here.
The last few years have seen Social Democratic and Labour parties fall into disarray throughout the world. Retreating from the economic program that powered their electoral takeoff a century ago, they have lost their traditional constituencies. Their golden age was an outgrowth of classical political economy from Adam Smith via John Stuart Mill to Progressive Era reformers advocating progressive taxation of land and other wealth, public infrastructure investment at subsidized prices, price regulation of monopolies, and public banking reforms to socialize the financial system.
Industrial protectionists, nationalists and neocolonialists – the parties of heavy industry and military power – also endorsed a strong role for government. Across the political spectrum the wave of the future appeared to be a rising role for public oversight of markets, subsidies for capital formation and education, public health, social welfare and infrastructure spending. This program was most successful in the United States, Germany and Central Europe.
The guiding assumption of democratic political reform was that voters – with the working class most numerous – would act in their own interest to legislate tax and regulatory reforms aimed at raising productivity and living standards while making their economies more competitive in world markets. Banks and other financial institutions were expected to play a key role, in conjunction with government policy (and indeed, a military industrial buildup).
The question of who would be the major beneficiaries of pro-industrial economic reforms depended on who would control the government to administer tax policy and subsidies, tariff policy, social spending and infrastructure investment.
The two main contenders were labor and industrial capital, and there were many areas of overlapping interest. The main loser was expected to be the landed aristocracy as the lower house of Parliament (or Congress) gained power relative to the upper House of Lords (or Senate).
Finance was viewed as ancillary to industrial capital, not as an independent class or economic dynamic. Finance capital’s proclivity for trust building and similar predatory behavior was seen as bolstering the increasingly monopolistic “rent-extracting” trend within industrial capitalism.
Yet what has occurred over the past century is an increasing financial dominance over industry, real estate and over government itself. Gradually, finance came to be recognized as an autonomous dynamic making money purely by financial means – as Marx put it, M-M’ rather than by investing in the production of commodities to sell at a profit, M-C-M’.
The past half-century in particular has seen interest and other financial charges absorb a rising share of property rent, industrial profits, tax revenues and personal income.
Financial dominance of real estate and industry, government spending and personal wealth seeking has been achieved largely by ideological conquest based on deception. For starters, financial interests seek a cloak of invisibility when it comes to their own gains and those of their major clients.
Financial wealth – debt claims on society’s means of production and income – presents itself to society as tangible wealth itself, not as its antithesis on the debt side of the balance sheet. Banking takes on protective coloration to pose as part of the “real” economy, camouflaging itself as industrial capital and “wealth creation.”
The Federal Reserve’s “land as residual” methodology for U.S. real estate statistics, for example, depict rising land prices as “capital” gains for buildings. Debt pyramiding is depicted as generic “profit,” as if financial engineering were industrial engineering. And the symbiotic finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sector is reported as part of gross domestic product (GDP), not as extracting what actually are transfer payments from the rest of the economy.
Alternatively, finance claims to be a necessary ancillary to the industrial economy. This was the rationale for the $13 trillion Bush-Obama bailout of Wall Street – as if the economy could not recover without making financial speculators whole. According to this trickle-down logic, labor needs its employers, who in turn need their bankers and bondholders. Likewise, renters need their landlords who need mortgage lenders. Populations need governments to run up debts to subsidize (but not regulate) the financial sector to extend credit (debt) to the economy.
This kind of junk economics was almost unthinkable a century ago. Classical political economy was evolving from the “Ricardian socialism” of John Stuart Mill to the industrial socialism of Marx and the Progressive Era’s Social Democratic and Labour parties. But today these parties endorse a tax shift off property and finance onto labor and consumers.
Tony Blair’s British Labour Party has outdone Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in privatizing railroads and other public infrastructure in the notorious Private Finance Initiative. An anti-government (and indeed, pro-rentier) model leaves resource allocation and planning centralized in the hands of a financial sector being deregulated rather than steered along the social lines anticipated by economic futurists a century ago.
Classical political economy as a program of fiscal and financial reform
The result has been a political disorientation, which I attribute to the abandonment of the thrust of classical economic reform. That program was centered on three major policies. The first was to tax away the land rent that had been privatized since medieval times, restoring it to the public domain as the basis for public investment.
The second was to minimize monopoly rent, by keeping key infrastructure in the public domain and providing its services at cost or on a subsidized basis to make economies more competitive. The third reform was to regulate prices for goods and services produced by natural monopolies in private hands.
The aim of this classical program was to bring income in line with actual labor effort and cost, thereby freeing markets from the unnecessary “free lunch” rake-off that added to prices and hence made economies uncompetitive. Reformers thus focused on the concept of economic rent, defined as revenue with no corresponding cost of production.
This excess of income (and hence, of prices) over and above the “real” cost of production was to be taxed away or avoided altogether. Taxing land rent and minimizing monopoly price gouging in particular was expected to keep prices in line with the technologically and socially necessary cost of production.
Industry as well as labor endorsed a liberal tax system aimed at collecting the excess of market prices over intrinsic value. This excess economic rent occurred most conspicuously in land rent, mineral and resource rent and monopoly rent.
Value and price theory thus was highly political in advocating a tax system centered on the land tax – collecting the rent that had been taken – indeed, siphoned off as tribute – by Europe’s landed aristocracies since the era of military conquest parceling out the land among the conquerors.
Classical value and price theory defined cost in a way that enabled it to be quantified to enforce anti-monopoly price regulation. In the United States, gas and electricity utilities were privately financed but publicly regulated. The idea was to prevent what railroad practice called watered costs.
These were not inherently necessary costs, but were “free lunch” tickets given to owners, managers and strategic politicians in the form of bonds and stocks. The financial pseudo-cost of interest and dividends on these securities was passed on to the public, inflating railway fares and similar prices over the intrinsic direct cost of production.
Today, the Social Democrats have been losing elections throughout Europe. I believe that this is largely because they no longer have an economic program. Yet they began as an economic reform party – the party of progress, progressive taxation, rising wage and living standards and public sector investment and subsidy. This has been lost. Labour Parties throughout the English-speaking world in particular have embraced an anti-government political ideology of privatization diametrically opposite from the views held a century ago.
Those views were developed by classical economists, from the French Physiocrats and Adam Smith in the late 18th century to John Stuart Mill. Mill was a turning point, as the political economy discipline was soon traumatized by Karl Marx, who pushed classical analysis to its logical conclusion in dealing with wealth, property and income, earned and unearned.
Post-classical economics as a reassertion of special rentier interests – by ignoring them
The classical distinction between earned wealth created by one’s own labor, and unearned or socially created wealth obtained without one’s own effort or cost – by inheritance or special privilege appropriating what nature, the public sector or asset-price inflation provides – points to an economic policy of taxing away income not necessary for production and distribution. This fiscal reform triggered a reaction by vested interests receiving such gains.
In a political analogy to Newton’s Third Law of Motion (every action has an equal and opposite reaction) they sought to rationalize un-taxing and deregulating finance, real estate and monopolies. It was to provide such logic that post-classical theory began to emerge in the 1880s.
Rather than describing how economies worked, the new doctrine was based on hypothetical reasoning more akin to science fiction than descriptive of the real world. It avoided dealing with unearned wealth and economic parasitism by assuming that all income was earned productively.
Everyone was “worth what they got,” so there was no “unearned increment” to be un-taxed. And to avoid discussion of structural and legal reform, this post-classical economics focused on merely marginal changes in supply and demand. Marginal changes are by definition tiny – so small as not to affect the economic environment.
Changes in the existing political context are treated as “exogenous” to economic analysis, so the status quo is assumed as a “given.” This narrowing of scope effectively excludes discussion of property, free credit creation by banks and unearned income as “exogenous.”
It also portrays government spending, subsidies and taxes only as deadweight, inherently unproductive. Yet throughout most of history the public sector has provided basic infrastructure investment in roads, railroads and bus systems, education, research and development to enable economies to obtain basic services most efficiently at minimum cost and on fair terms.
The largest capital investment in nearly every economy consists of public infrastructure and enterprises such as have been privatized on credit since 1980 under “free market” carve-ups of the public domain. Economies have been turned into “tollbooth” opportunities for the buyers of hitherto public monopolies to extract access (“rent-seeking”) charges in what is, from the overall economic vantage point, a zero-sum set of transfer payments.
Marginal utility theory leaves no room to analyze this appropriation of wealth from the public domain. It depicts consumers as choosing from an existing menu, without discussing the advertising, deception, rent extraction and price fixing involved in real life. The resulting model is based on a crudely quantitative analysis of satiation of food or other commodities – but not wealth addiction to monetary and property aggrandizement.
The result is a view of prices between individual buyers and sellers as heuristic stand-ins for relations between consumers and producers in a more realistically complex economic system. Credit is treated as if “savers” defer consumption so that consumers can “enjoy” more in the present.
There is no acknowledgement of the fact that banks create interest-bearing loans freely, or of a wealthy rentier class (and financial firms, hedge funds and kindred money managers) whose aim is simply to make more money faster than anyone else, not to consume more.
Austrian theory attributed payment of interest by individuals to “time preference” – an “impatience” to consume in the present rather than in the future. Yet most consumer borrowing is to obtain essentials: mortgage loans for housing, student loans to get education to qualify for a decently paying job, auto loans to get to work, and credit-cards to buy such basic necessities as food, transportation and clothing. Interpreting this consumer demand in terms of impatience shifts the blame for consumer debt off the economic system as a coercive trap.
Republicans have blamed the real estate bubble’s collapse since 2008 on poor blacks and other minority borrowers cheating the banks by overstating their income and borrowing irresponsibly.
Yet the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and Fitch Ratings Agency have found financial fraud in 70 percent of subprime mortgage loans, involving a vast network of crooked mortgage brokers, real estate appraisers and lawyers. The leading culprits (Countrywide Financial, Washington Mutual and Citibank) set up the system, and ratings agencies helped Wall Street investment banks (Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, etc.) perpetrate a vastly controlled fraud by giving AAA top-grade ratings to junk mortgages that quickly plunged some $750 billion into negative equity in the financial meltdown of 2008 – 09.
This led to a $13 trillion bailout of bad credit default swaps (CDS), derivatives trades and other casino-capitalist gambles – a power grab of debt-money by Wall Street lobbyists and insiders in Washington and New York.
Austrian theory attributes interest on business loans to “roundabout” production that requires a longer time period for capital investment as industry becomes more capital-intensive. This view depicts banks as working with industrial customers to fund long-term investment. The reality is that the banker’s time frame is short-term, and most loans are for speculation.
Every day the equivalent of an entire year’s GDP passes through the New York Clearing House and Chicago Mercantile Exchange in payment for trades in stocks and bonds, mortgages and packaged bank loans, forward purchase and repurchase contracts. Most of these trades take about as long as a roulette wheel takes to spin. They are driven neither by psychology nor by industrial technology, but are gambles based on computer-driven programs, or leveraged buyouts of existing assets.
For the economy at large the result is a financial squeeze that lacks a long-term vision. Post-classical logic has created a narrowed-down body of junk economics, not science. It impoverishes economies by sacrificing long-term prosperity to short-term financial greed. It is based on junk psychology that ignores group psychology (as William MacDougall noted a century ago) and other social dimensions beyond a crude Jeremy Bentham-style “calculus of pleasure and pain.”
The assumption of diminishing marginal utility views personal gain seeking as marginal and moderate, never as rent-seeking in a context of greedy wealth addiction. In this respect today’s economics lacks the scope found over two thousand years ago in Greek philosophy with the goddess Nemesis punishing hubris (overweaning pride and arrogance injuring others). There is no room for the idea of miserly wealth addiction in an economic theory that avoids looking at the social context – and at how the principle of compound interest works on an economy-wide scale.
How the Left lost its way
One can understand why right-wing parties avoid making a value judgment between earned and unearned income or acknowledging wealth addiction, predatory behavior and privatized rent-seeking monopolies extracting economically unnecessary charges.
But why have the Labour and Social Democratic parties dropped the value judgments and scope of classical economics that made it so effective a force for reform and so empirically and scientifically realistic?
Part of the explanation must be that political discourse has been dumbed down to make financial analysis anthropomorphic. Newspapers and TV commentators talk about stock and bonds going up or down because of confidence, or simply correlate their change to whatever the markets headline is that day. The reality is that markets go up and down because of the flow of funds – the terms on which credit flows in and out of asset markets.
All credit is debt, and debt is owed by one party to another – in most economies today, owed by the bottom 90 percent of the population to the top 10 percent. Post-classical economics does not address this financial polarization. Money and credit are viewed only as affecting consumer prices and wages, leaving asset prices out of the picture – and also the degree to which sales are financed on credit.
Hence, one misses how mortgage debt has fueled a rising access price for land and housing, relative to wage levels and disposable personal income. One also misses the rising price of purchasing a retirement pension or income stream (via stock dividends and bond yields) as asset prices rise relative to wages.
The most interesting economic analysis concerns the forces that are transforming financial, fiscal and social structures. How should the tax laws, for instance, be changed to promote prosperity and justice? The fact that Social Democratic and Labour parties have not proposed an alternative would seem to be a major reason for their declining popularity at the polls.
Why should anyone vote for a party that doesn’t have an alternative to a system that nearly everyone except academic economists can see is radically malstructured?
A century ago it was expected that governments would own and operate basic infrastructure and natural monopolies, from the post office to the railroads. The aim was to prevent uncompetitive monopolistic rent extraction, so as to keep private sector prices in line with what was needed to produce basic services.
It would be logical today, for instance, for the credit card industry to have a public provider, or at least a regulatory commission that would regulate the rate that banks can charge for interest on credit cards, now up to 30 percent in the United States. To add insult to injury, credit card companies now extract as much in fees and penalties as they do in interest. And it takes an entire week for an out-of-state check to get credited, as banks still use antiquated “pony express” time schedules as an excuse to extract as much as they can for their key functions.
A similar logic applies to health care or cable TV (the “public option”) to insure competition. Progressive Era regulatory philosophy aimed at keeping such rates in line with the actual cost of producing goods and services. Today’s idea of “free markets” is to permit entire economies to be being turned into “tollbooth” opportunities to charge access rents for roads and other transportation, telephone service (viz. Carlos Slim’s Telmex monopoly) and so forth.
In the financial sphere, Social Democratic parties prior to World War I aimed at bringing banks into the industrial era. The idea was to expand their focus beyond merely financing the marketing and sale of products that were already produced, and at the same time to steer them away from financing government deficits to wage war. (For the latter purpose, national Treasuries could monetize the credit, as the United States did with its greenbacks during the Civil War, 1861-65.)
Banking and high finance were to evolve in partnership with government to fund industry.
An associated idea for the Saint-Simonians in France was to keep debt in line with the ability to pay. They sought to organize banks in the form of what today are mutual funds – profit-sharing ventures extending credit in return for equity shares (stock) rather than straight interest-bearing debt that had to be paid regardless of the debtor’s financial ability.
The capstone of this philosophy was the Credit Mobilier created by the Pereire brothers in 1852, and the central European trinity between banking, heavy industry and the government, largely to build navies and armaments to be sure.
World War I changes the political and economic trajectory of Western civilization
The Allied defeat of Germany and the Central Powers in World War I led most countries to adopt the Anglo-American-Dutch banking model based on lending against collateral in place, not to create capital. The result has been an increasing emphasis on mortgage lending rather than industry and commerce. Some 70 percent of bank loans in Britain and the United States today are against real estate.
World War I also brought the Russian Revolution. After World War II ended, Social Democratic and Labour parties throughout the world felt increasingly obliged to disassociate themselves from Soviet Communism and joined the Cold War. In the United States, the Socialist Party and labor unions became strong supporters of the Vietnam War in the 1960’s.
While much of Wall St opposed the war (Chase Manhattan CEO George Champion said that it was not fiscally responsible), labor unions and the socialist parties supported it as a fight against the Soviet sphere, viewing Ho Chi Minh as a Communist leader rather than a nationalist. The anti-Stalinist passion of leaders such as Michael Harrington and his mentor Max Shachtman led 80 percent of the Young Peoples’ Socialist League (the party’s youth group) to leave.
The Old Left collapsed, and the New Left that took its place was more concerned with social and cultural issues than economic ones. Its focus on people excluded the core of capitalism. Poverty, racial and Third World inequality took precedence over concerns with the economy’s financial core.
The classical economic reform – the land tax – fell out of favor as nearly two thirds of the population became homeowners. Commercial landlords were able to use homeowners as front men to advocate untaxing real estate, using a disinformation campaign to conceal the fact that the main gainers were large absentee owners. Financial and fiscal policy has been left mainly to the right wing of the political spectrum since the 1960s. So tonight I will review what I think Social Democratic and Labour parties need to do to regain popular appeal.
1. Minimize rent – the excess of market price over cost value – in financial “services”
Classical value and price theory distinguished between income deemed necessary for the economy to operate and that which was exploitative and/or wasteful. Today’s complaints about exorbitant executive salaries, bonuses, stock options, extortionate credit card charges and monopolistic price gouging all refer generically to unearned revenue.
The distinction between income that is earned – wages and profits – and unnecessary rentier transfer payments can be traced back to the 13th century, to the medieval scholastics who set to work refining the concept of Just Price reflecting reasonable cost and risk. Economic thought down through the late 19th century would elaborate the distinction between market price and intrinsic cost value.
The aim was to define the extent to which prices in the marketplace exceeded the necessary cost of production (or more precisely, reproduction under existing technological and social conditions). The labor theory of value was the first stage in defining economic rent as prices in excess of these necessary costs. This included the costs embodied in the capital equipment and materials used up in production (ultimately provided by labor) and the cost of research, technology development and education of laborers at each stage.
Interest and other financial fees are a major cause for why prices are higher than this intrinsic value. These financial charges are largely a charge without a real cost of production. Today’s banks create money and credit on a keyboard.
Governments can do the same thing. Australia does it when there is an inflow of foreign exchange by traders borrowing from Americans at 1% to invest in Australian bonds at 3.25% and collect the arbitrage difference of 2.25%. The Australian bond seller turns the U.S. dollars over to the central bank, which creates an equivalent amount in Australian dollars to match the foreign exchange inflow.
Popular opinion accepts that it is quite all right for the government to create credit out of thin air to match foreign exchange inflows (for credit that foreign commercial banks create “out of thin air” on their own computer keyboards). But that if a government creates money for domestic spending, commercial bankers accuse this of being inherently inflationary and undesirable.
The reason for this policy asymmetry seems to be the desire by private bankers to open up high-interest foreign-exchange markets such as Australia for arbitrage rake-offs, while keeping domestic markets for themselves rather than having governments create their own credit.
In principle, the effect of public and private credit creation should be identical – if governments and commercial banks lent for the same thing. But they don’t. Commercial banks finance the purchase of property, currency speculation (for which it seeks government credit creation to finance this speculation) and domestic bond financing (where it wants the government to leave the field free for private banks to create credit and lend out at a mark-up).
Governments create money to spend on domestic production and consumption, paying income to wage earners and buying goods and services.
In the 1970’s, Canadian provinces funded domestic spending not by public money creation, and not even from borrowing domestic currency from the nation’s five major banks. Instead, they borrowed Swiss francs and European currency. Canadian interest rates were 6.5%, but they could borrow deutschmarks or Swiss francs at 4%. Provincial treasurers focused on the interest charges they were saving – some 2.5 percentage points. But the Canadian dollar then plunged against the D-mark, so the debt principal nearly doubled!
I had many arguments with local bankers at the time as an advisor to the Canadian government. One banker claimed that Canada needed foreigners to play the role of “honest broker” and be the judge of whether Canada should borrow or not – so as to save it from inflationary money creation. I replied that it was wasteful for provinces to borrow abroad simply to convert into domestic currency. Provinces received their revenue in a soft currency, while owing money in those whose exchange rate was rising. Canada’s government had to print a domestic-currency equivalent to finance provincial deficit spending in any event!
This premium was the price to be paid for letting banks foster a financial ideology based on a false model of reality. Few politicians have a clue about how money and credit are created – largely because this is not taught in the schools. Academic economics courses provide students with a hypothetical “what if” world in which people gain wealth only by dint of hard labor and enterprise – and put their savings in banks, which then lend it out.
This personified imagery of credit makes it hard to show how bank loans create deposits on a modern computer keyboard, creating credit in a way that provides bankers with the proverbial free lunch.
Honoré de Balzac had a more historically realistic view when he wrote in Le Père Goriot that behind every family fortune is a long forgotten crime – one “that has never been found out, because it was properly executed.” Not necessarily forgotten, to be sure.
Europe’s aristocracy proudly achieved its landed estates by military conquest, and Gustavus Myers’ History of the Great American Fortunes traced how most family fortunes were quite visibly and notoriously carved out of the public domain. Novelists and historians seem to understand this much more readily than economists, whose blind spot usually leaves credit and debt – and privatized economic rent – out of their narrative of how fortunes are obtained in today’s world.
The anti-classical reaction defined all income as payment for productive contributions to the economy. The logical (but unrealistic) corollary was that anyone who receives an income must have earned it by producing a service of equivalent value. The value of “output” in this post-classical analysis therefore is measured by the sum of all expenses associated with it, regardless of whether these expenses take the form of wages, profits, property rent or financial rent.
This is the familiar complaint against as an economic indicator of actual output. It leads to productivity being defined as output (the sum of all costs) divided by labor time.
A perverse result of this methodology is that labor productivity in the financial service sector is deemed to rise in proportion to the wages and salaries paid out. When bankers pay themselves more, their productivity is deemed to rise. Such circular reasoning makes economics an exercise in tautology exemplifying the GIGO principle (garbage in, garbage out) more than real science. It is a false empiricism, the illusion of scientific measurement.
2. To minimize economic overhead, restore the classical distinction between price and value
Dysfunctional practices will not be dropped until an alternative concept is at hand. An alternative exists – the classical political economy that today’s censorial “free market” orthodoxy rejects. The problem is how to restore the analytic distinctions it drew.
It seems a hopeless task to retrain economists once their minds are channeled along particular simplistic lines. New ideas almost always require new individuals to expound them. And by the same token in academia, it is easier to create a brand new department or discipline than to reform an obsolete or dysfunctional body of thought. This was the problem that confronted American protectionists after the Civil War.
Prestige universities in New England and the South taught British free trade theory – that era’s analogue akin to today’s neoliberalism. The Republican solution was not to reform these colleges, but to found state land grant colleges and business schools to promote their more technologically modern economic logic.
New government departments were formed, most notably the Department of Agriculture. Already in the 1840s, protectionist economists were calculating the ecological effect of plantation exports such as cotton and tobacco on soil depletion. And the Department of Labor compiled statistics to verify the “economy of high wages” doctrine correlating wage levels, education and what today is called human capital with labor productivity. Yet the doctrine that steered the United States to industrial and agricultural supremacy doesn’t appear in today’s textbooks, or even in political or economic histories.
The history of economic thought was taught as a core course when I attended graduate school in the early 1960’s. It has been replaced by mathematical economics, trivialized by being based on conceptually questionable, ideologically based statistical categories. My most imaginative students at the New School where I taught in New York City dropped out of the discipline and went into sociology or something else. They wanted to study economics to discover how the world operated, but were disappointed to find that this is no longer what the discipline is about.
The situation is worse for those students who stayed in the field and sought academic positions. Promotion is conditional upon publication in “vetted” journals. The key publications are controlled censorially by an intellectual inquisition that blocks any critique of pro-financial free market ideology.
It is telling that one of the first acts of the Chicago Boys in Chile after the military junta overthrew the Allende government in 1973, for example, was to close down every economics department in the nation outside of the Catholic University, which was a University of Chicago monetarist stronghold. The junta then closed down every social science department, and fired, exiled or murdered critics of its ideology in the terrorist Project Condor program waged throughout Latin America and spread to political assassination in the United States itself.
What the Chicago Boys recognized is that free market ideology requires totalitarian control of the school and university system, totalitarian control of the press, and control of the police where intellectual resistance survives against the idea that economic planning should become much more centralized – but moved out of the hands of government into those of the bankers and other financial institutions.
Free market ideology ends up as political Doublethink in countering any freedom of thought. Its remarkable success in the United States and elsewhere thus has been achieved largely by excluding the history of economic thought – and of economic history – from the economics curriculum.
The existence of neoliberal thought police and academic censorship that brands any revival of classical liberalism as heresy has become a major barrier to restoring the analytic distinctions drawn by classical economists and other critics of shifting planning power to the lords of high finance.
3. Free economies from the vestiges of feudalism’s vested interests
Classical reformers sought to free industrial capitalism from the legacy of feudalism. Above all were the vestiges of landownership created by the warlord invasions of England and other European realms. An aristocratic rentier class lived off its groundrent, while governments ran into debt to international bankers to wage foreign wars, and then preserved their credit rating by creating and selling off private monopolies to pay these debts. Rent added to the price of doing business, wars were expensive, and public debts involved carrying charges that had to be paid by taxing the economy.
Reflecting the emerging economic liberalism, Josiah Tucker in the late 1750’s called the American colonies an albatross around the neck of England. The cost of defending them against French designs forced the nation into debt. Opposed to Britain’s seemingly perpetual wars with France, Adam Smith described the national debt as having come into being to finance wars. Book V of The Wealth of Nations provides a capsule history of how each war was financed by a new bond issue, paying its interest by imposing a new tax.
Smith’s aim was to make England more competitive, by lowering the price of living and doing business, by getting rid of the taxes levied to pay interest on war debts. The three related planks of classical economic liberalism thus consisted of opposition to wars and the public debts and taxes they imposed. The related political plank was democratic reform, on the assumption that people would vote in their self-interest – against the wars and colonial rivalries that led to public debts and taxes, in that logical order.
This logic expanded to include an opposition to monopoly rent.
As Britain’s and France’s public debts grew so large as to overburden their economies with taxes to carry their interest charges, governments sought to retire these debts by creating national monopolies to sell off for payment in government bonds. Britain created the East India Company in 1600, the Bank of England in 1694 (for £1.2 million in bonds) and the South Sea Company in 1711, contemporary with John Law’s Mississippi Company in France.
By urging free markets, Smith sought to prevent such monopolies from being formed, and his classical successors elaborated the critique of what Alfred Marshall would call quasi-rents in his 1890 Principles of Economics. The solution pressed by social democratic parties was to keep public monopolies in the public domain – and to price their output low enough not to rake off monopoly rents from the economy at large.
By privatizing monopolies from the public domain and cutting taxes on rent-yielding wealth (real estate and financial privilege), the policy of Margaret Thatcher and other neoliberals since the 1980’s is just the opposite of what Smith and other “original” liberals represented.
Compounding this, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have rendered economies almost hopelessly high-cost by imposing the Washington Consensus policy on debtor countries throughout the world, most notoriously on the post-Soviet states since the breakup of the USSR in 1991.
Economies are being sacrificed to pay creditors – and indeed, to vest a post-modern rentier class – by using tax systems and privatization sell-offs as a policy aimed at squeezing out revenue almost as if the subject economies were conquered militarily.
The alternative to today’s neo-rentier (I might almost say neo-feudal) economies would be to default on loans to the financial class for whom the IMF and World Bank act as collection agents.
Short of default, governments face a choice between raising real estate taxes (which would threaten the profit margins of land speculators but would reduce housing prices by leaving less rental income to be capitalized into bank loans), raising sales taxes (which would drive buyers to other states while eating into labor’s net purchasing power and thereby shrinking local markets), raising income taxes (driving employees and companies to move out), or selling off public infrastructure.
The logical implication is that economies must shrink and shrink until such time as they finally write off debts that can be paid only by polarizing the economy between increasingly wealthy creditors at the top of the economic pyramid, and an increasingly indebted population at the bottom, reduced to debt peonage.
This either/or choice when it comes to confronting the all-devouring financial dynamic of debt explains the political warfare of our post-modern age. Governments risk pariah status and currency raids, right wing coup d’êtats and assassination of their leaders, if they hesitate with more than a blink of an eye to sell off the public domain to privatize rent-seeking monopolies.
The effect is to raise the prices that people must pay for essentials as the privatizers erect tollbooths at key access or choke points to roads, the communications spectrum, water and other basic needs.
Strapped local governments in the United States, for example, are turning public streets into toll roads.
Chicago, where I grew up, recently sold the right to install parking meters along the city’s curbs. Such rent-extracting privileges are prime collateral for bank loans, so the rental income is capitalized into interest payments. This makes the financial sector the ultimate recipient of these overhead charges – while national economic efficiency shrinks.
This neo-rentier phenomenon is spreading throughout the world. Sponsored mainly by the financial sector, it is a resurgence of what classical liberals wanted to avoid by their policy of keeping prices in line with technologically necessary costs by taxing away economic rent or (in the case of public utilities) regulating administered prices to prohibit such charges. Today’s policy gives tax breaks to an unnecessary and parasitic rentier class.
The latter’s response was to promote a doctrine misleadingly called “neoliberal.” Instead of freeing markets from rentier charges as the original liberals sought to do, neoliberal policy imposes these charges on markets.
Today’s anti-classical doctrine depicts rentiers as playing a positive role, increasing “value added” by squeezing out higher rental access charges – as if privatizing public assets was more efficient rather than less so on an economy-wide basis.
The cost savings consist more of shifting from hitherto normal working conditions to dangerous cost cutting that verges on asset stripping – while CEO mega-salaries and bonuses, interest and management fees to parent financial conglomerates end up absorbing most of the operational cost savings.
This bankers’ eye view of the wealth of nations is a travesty of what Adam Smith advocated.
Capitalizing rent-extraction privileges and selling them off to buyers on credit – whose interest charges are treated as a tax-deductible cost of doing business – builds in a rent overhead that adds to society’s cost of living and doing business. The financial sector encourages prospective buyers to bid against each other, with the winner being the one who agrees to pay the highest proportion of rental income to the banks or other creditors.
This turns monopoly rent into financial overhead, much as mortgage lending does in the case with land rent.
Buyers on credit are willing to pay rental income to bankers because they hope to come out with a capital gain. Their first policy is to squeeze more money out of customers – rental tenants or the users of the basic infrastructure being privatized.
The second policy is to lower the cost of labor, especially by shifting from unionized to non-union labor, as well as by downsizing (working the existing labor force harder as employees retire or leave) and outsourcing. Working the staff longer hours and cutting vacations is trumpeted as “productivity gains,” as if they came from technology and superior management rather than from a retrogression toward the exploitative practices of bygone sweatshop days.
But most of all, buyers of real estate and privatized enterprises hope to gain by asset-price inflation. The result is a Bubble Economy, sponsored by central banks to help promote commercial bank lending as a way to get rich by riding the wave of higher land prices and stock market gains.
Today’s tax system subsidizes the capital-gains process in two ways. First, it treats interest as a tax-deductible cost of doing business rather than a choice as to the mode of financing as compared with equity.
Second, capital gains are taxed at a much lower rate than wages and profits (“earned income”). This fiscal bias supports debt leveraging and financial rent seeking, while regressive tax policy and deregulation opens the floodgates for real estate and monopoly rents.
The rent recipient’s gain is at the expense of the remaining taxpayers. This is what economists call a zero-sum activity when viewed from the perspective of society at large.
Yet real estate is given tax preference over industrial capital formation. In the United States, the commercial real estate sector paid almost no income tax from 1945 to 2000, even as land rents rose sharply. Investors can treat interest as a tax-deductible expense. Also, U.S. depreciation schedules even let their tax accountants pretend that buildings are wearing out and hence losing market value– even as land prices (site values) are soaring. And to top matters, states and localities have been shifting taxes off property and onto labor since the 1930s.
All this creates capital gains. But sellers of property don’t even have to pay a tax on their gain if they turn around and use the sales proceeds to buy a new property. That is considered “preserving capital.”
The Progressive Era’s tax and financial reforms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries sought to prevent such favoritism. What helped defeat this movement was the financial sector’s powerful lobbying for real estate and monopolies. The bankers’ spokesman David Ricardo had developed his theory of ground rent in 1817 to oppose the Corn Laws’ agricultural protectionism for Britain’s rural landowners.
But by the end of the century, real estate had become the banking system’s major customer. Bankers had expected manufacturing to create their major market in trade financing, but found it most profitable to ride the wave of real estate gains and monopoly power by extending mortgage credit and lending to owners and buyers of monopolies.
It was to free economies from financial and fiscal policy dictated by rentier interests that a broad reform platform flowered in the 19th century. The thrust of its reform logic dates back to the time that medieval Europe emerged from its Dark Age and private bankers replaced the Church banking orders that took the lead in legitimizing and initially even sanctifying money-lending, fueled by the bullion the Crusaders looted from Byzantium after 1225. The major borrowers were kings, to wage war – and they issued bonds secured by taxes.
This was the major “rent problem” that theorists addressed. A rente was a French government bond, so bondholders were rentiers, receiving interest at specific calendrical intervals.
The idea of a regular payment, stipulated in advance, applied to landlords as well. As noted above, the concept of economic rent – revenue in excess of the necessary cost of production – emerged from medieval discussions of interest and Just Price: How much was it fair for a banker to charge to lend or transfer money abroad, taking into account the risk of losing his capital? So we are brought back to the logic of Thomas Aquinas and the other Schoolmen who laid the groundwork for the labor theory of value.
4. Where has the surplus gone – and why aren’t we living in an economic utopia?
Since the 1980s the rentier interests have won radical yet almost unchallenged victories reversing much of what the classical liberals fought for. These early reformers saw their logic as so reasonable – and so strongly supported by democratic political reform, they believed – that they spent little effort in defending against intellectual and political counter-revolution.
The vested financial and real estate interests seemed old and on their way out. A scientific, technological and hence largely impersonal material upward trend of technology promised to usher in a post-industrial world of leisure almost automatically.
There was no worry that the term “post-industrial” would connote a dynamic of finance capital superceding industrial capital formation, and would throw its political and economic weight behind the creation of rent-extracting monopolies to lead the world down the road to debt peonage.
The concern was that people would be so wealthy that they saved too much and the internal market would shrink, not that people would be driven so deeply into debt that they would have to work longer and longer hours, at more and more jobs, just to break even.
The one threat that people worried most about was that of war – the underside of technology. And the world seemed to put that threat behind them by creating the United Nations in 1944, followed by the start of European integration in 1957 with creation of the European Economic Community.
Environmental and ecological concerns were just beginning to raise their head, catalyzed by Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring in 1962. People did start to worry about DDT and other pesticides polluting the environment. But nobody raised a voice about the proliferation of debt pollution (or global warming, for that matter).
A widespread impression had been spreading since the early 20th century that the world would be living in a Utopia by now, thanks to technological progress. Suppose you were told when World War II ended over half a century ago in 1945 about the breakthroughs in medicine, electronics and information processing, computers and telecommunication, atomic power and jet aircraft. Or that agricultural productivity would soar even more than manufacturing productivity in the United States, as would productivity in mining – just the reverse of what Ricardian rent theory forecast.
If you had been told all this in 1945, the natural expectation would have been that we would all be living a life of leisure by now.
So why are employees working longer hours each week and more intensively? Why are entire families – wives as well as elderly men – being forced into the labor force instead of having the carefree life that technology seemed to promise? Why are people being driven deeper and deeper into debt and losing their homes instead of saving more? Why has home ownership, education, medical care and retirement involved a proliferation of debt pollution?
Nobody expected this. People are suffering and see that something is wrong. But nobody has explained why it does not have to be this way. Indeed, to do so is not a path to career advancement in today’s world – certainly not to public policy-making positions or to applause by judges placed in the leading foundations, universities, political and business centers that shape popular economic ideology.
Economic futurists talked about the promise of technology, not about the threat of debt, monopoly power and a resurgence of the old vested interests. They talked about the world becoming more equal. “Diminishing marginal utility” would make the wealthy more relaxed and less acquisitive. There was talk of Madison Avenue using “hidden persuaders” to confuse consumers into buying specific brand names, but not of politicians creating a deceptive populism based on junk economics. And nobody expected the academic curriculum to drop the study of economic history and the history of economic thought to eradicate warnings from the past about the road to debt serfdom along which today’s world is careening.
The great problem of our time is the financialization of our economic life – our business and corporate enterprise, our personal life and the government itself. The debt problem is the most burdensome since medieval war-torn states and ancient Rome (and even then, there was no corporate debt; tangible capital was debt free).
By financialization I mean capitalizing every form of surplus income and pledging it for bank loans at the going interest rate: personal income over and above basic expenditures, corporate income over and above cash flow (that is, after meeting the break-even cost of doing business), and whatever the government can collect in taxes over and above its outlay.
From the banker’s point of view, equilibrium is reached at the point where the entire economic surplus is committed to be paid out as interest. The whole economy is capitalized – and the capitalized value of its income pledged to bankers is taken as the measure of the nation’s financial wealth. It is as if economies grow by being able to borrow more from banks against their earning power, rather than by tangible capital investment and rising living standards.
The problem is that paying out all the economic surplus as interest leaves nothing over for living standards and what economists in the 18th and 19th centuries described as the human capital formation (training and education) required for labor productivity to rise.
There is no cash flow left over for corporations to invest in new tangible capital formation, and no government spending for infrastructure or other social and economic needs. An economic and even political Dark Age is descending as financialization threatens to become a form of neo-feudalism, especially as bankers prefer to lend against collateral already in place than to finance new enterprise, and to back rent-seeking rather than more risky new direct investment.
Frederick Soddy pointed this out in the 1920s, describing financial claims as “virtual wealth,” on the opposite side of the balance sheet from tangible capital formation. Adam Smith had argued that money is not real wealth. Bank loans, stocks and bonds are financial claims on wealth.
The essence of balance-sheet accounting is that assets on the left side equal liabilities on the right-hand side, plus net worth (assets free of debt). It would be double-counting to add an economy’s physical means of production (the asset side of the balance sheet) together with the debt and property claims on these assets (on the liabilities side). Yet most public discourse focuses more on asset prices than on the even faster growth of debt.
Soddy was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1921, showing that good economists sometimes do win – except that he won for his contribution to chemistry, not economics. In an analogy to Ptolemaic astronomy, today’s academic gatekeepers depict an economic system shaped by consumer choice rather than revolving around finance.
This blind spot regarding debt is what makes the worldview sponsored by financial interests so ironic. Chicago “monetarist” economists talk about money and credit as if they are not simultaneously debt but merely a veil, and about “rational markets” as if debt leveraging is a rational way to increase the wealth of nations. Their approach misses what should be central: a debt overhead diverts income to be paid as interest and amortization, while leading to foreclosures and forced sell-offs of private and public assets, concentrating on property ownership centripetally in the hands of creditors.
As John Kenneth Galbraith quipped, a precondition for becoming head of the Federal Reserve or other financial agency is that the candidate not understand how banking works or the debt burden it creates.
The Great Depression was mainly a debt phenomenon. But to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, what was needed was more credit, not debt relief.
The vested financial interests and their foundations look for such men who see only the asset side of the balance sheet being bid up to create gains, not the debt side. Alan Greenspan was an ideal choice as salesman for bank credit.
He promised that debt leveraging would make homebuyers rich while powering corporate financialization and takeover lending that raises stock prices to enable pension funds to grow fast enough to enable people to retire at their leisure.
Thinking along these happy lines deters people from looking at how debt pyramiding leaves them more insecure, and hence afraid to strike or complain about their working conditions, being “one paycheck away from foreclosure,” and with less “consumer choice” as more of their paycheck is set aside to pay debt, as well as the taxes that financial lobbyists pay politicians to shift onto labor’s shoulders. Yet post-classical economics depicts this indebtedness as being an exercise of “consumer choice,” not reflecting an outright need to obtain access to housing, an education or simply to maintain living standards.
Prices for real estate, corporate stocks and other assets are whatever banks will lend. Housing and commercial property prices, for example, are set at the point where the successful bidder mortgages the property’s full rental flow.
Corporate raiders make a similar calculation when they calculate the prospective cash flow they can pay their bankers and bondholders. Raiders and “activist stockholders” borrow to buy their companies’ own stock in an attempt to increase its price, and hence the size of their annual bonuses set by the “value added” to the company’s stock-market capitalization.
The payout to creditors is increased by what the tax collector relinquishes. The revenue is capitalized into higher bank loans that absorb the income “freed” from taxation. Rolling back taxes on property and finance obliges the government either to cut back its spending or run deficits, borrowing from the classes from which they previously taxed.
In practice, most governments choose a third option: to shift the fiscal burden onto labor (“consumers”). This tax shift shrinks the domestic market for goods and services, over and above debt deflation. So in effect, every tax cut on property and finance doubles the overhead – the taxes end up being paid anyway – by the “real” economy of production and consumption, not wealth – and the tax savings by property owners are paid out to the bankers and bondholders.
No wonder the financial sector has taken the political lead in sponsoring “libertarian” pressure for tax cuts. Every dollar of tax cuts ends up in its pocket, at least in the short run. The problem, of course, is the long run. This fiscal favoritism for finance and debt pyramiding shrinks the “real” economy, leaving less and less surplus to be collected either by government or the creditors.
The blind spot in contemporary economic theory: how economic rent is turned into interest
This ultimately self-defeating character of debt leveraging is not what business schools teach students. Just the opposite: The idea is to turn over the entire surplus to the financial sector. The result is a shrinking economic universe. But financial interests have sought to exclude the analysis of this debt deflation from economic thought ever since the day of David Ricardo, whose economic model excluded the analysis of debt that had become commonplace.
Little financial revenue is spent on goods and services or invested in new means of production. Two hundred years ago, Thomas Malthus argued that Britain’s economy needed its landlord class to spend their rents on coachmen and carriages, tailors and other luxuries. But only a small part of financial and property revenue trickles down to be spent on consumption, as compared to trophies (art already produced, foreign vacations, etc.).
The great majority of financial income is lent out to load yet more property and income streams down with debt. The economy’s bottom 90 percent is driven increasingly into debt to the wealthiest 10 percent.
This recycling of debt service and financial gains (and government bailout grants) into new loans reaches its limit at the point where debt service ends up absorbing the entire economic surplus, leaving no cash flow for new capital investment.
Depreciation (untaxed revenue) is paid out to creditors rather than being used to replace equipment that is wearing out or becoming technologically obsolete. No seed money is left, no revenue for governments to spend on infrastructure because all is earmarked to pay bondholders. Families are unable to afford an education or save for their retirement. The economy collapses.
Debt ridden economies turn down not for the reason that John Maynard Keynes worried about in his General Theory – people saving too much as economies become more prosperous. Economies are shrinking because of debt deflation.
Families, industry and the government have run too deeply into debt to afford to buy enough goods and services to keep the circular flow (“Say’s Law”) intact between production and consumption. Market demand and employment shrink. This is the problem that is plaguing economies today.
National income statistics quantify the degree to which the financial, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sector (we may think of it as Economy #2) extracts interest and rent charges from the production and consumption economy (what I call Economy #1).
Land rent and monopoly rent is paid out in the form of interest and other pseudo-costs (enormous paychecks and bonuses, stock options, etc.) that are not part of the production process as such. This is why Mill defined economic rent as what a landlord can make in his asleep – without working, without enterprise, simply by passively receiving what Henry George called “a payment of obligation.”
The classical economic reformers addressed this problem by explaining that land is no more a factor of production than air, water or sunlight. It is a property right – a privilege to charge for access to a site for production or housing. Money and credit likewise are not factors of production. They are claims for payment or a commission (e.g., as a credit card or foreign exchange agio), created by legal institutions that differ from country to country.
These rights can be traced back to insider dealings (as in America’s great railroad giveaways or the post-1991 privatizations in the Soviet Union), military conquest, monopoly rights granted by lobbying governments, and so forth.
The fact that they are the result of specific historical circumstance provides an opening for post-classical economists to argue that they should be excluded from “scientific” analysis, on the grounds that they are not universally identical but are “institutional” and hence to be exiled to the academic sub-basement of “sociology.”
What is universal, it is claimed, is individual psychic utility (pleasure and pain) and technology. The inference is that economics should focus on these “real” core relationships “in the mind,” excluding property and finance as “givens” or simply as “exogenous” considerations.
Rather than making economics scientific and more relevant to policy making, the result has been to trivialize the discipline. The analysis of markets is reduced simply to measuring supply and demand – what individuals buy from the menu put in front of them. Micro-economists focus on individual choice, but few ask what creates the market in the first place – who created the menu’s contents, how high a price actually needs to be paid, and most of all, who gets wealth and how fortunes are acquired, e.g., by inheritance, special privileges, insider dealing, or by their own labor and enterprise.
Yet these were precisely the issues that classical economists discussed. So economics has retrogressed, not gone forward. And the same can be said of economic statistics, especially regarding the FIRE sector. The last land assessment in Britain, home of the great Domesday Book, was in the 1870s.
There hasn’t been one since.
Traumatized by the writings of Mill and subsequent socialist reformers, the landed aristocracy pressured the government to stop estimating land value. The timeless guiding principle is that if the tax collector doesn’t see the land’s rental value, there is less chance of it being taxed. So land – which used to be deemed “visible wealth” (in contrast to finance as “invisibles”) became statistically invisible, not only to the tax collector but to government policy makers and the economics profession.
Wall Street raiders, to be sure, spend much of their time poring over corporate balance sheets looking for undervalued land, hoping to buy out companies based on current earnings projections rather than the “breakup price” of selling their land at a capital gain. Academic and public sector economics thus lags behind pragmatic wealth seeking by ambitious Wall Street leaders and their investment bankers.
It was the invading Normans, after all, who ordered compilation of the Domesday Book in 1200 to extract rent as, in effect, military tribute from a defeated land. It always is the absentee owner, outside buyer or their creditors who have the major interest in calculating the return to land, not the occupants and users themselves.
About ten years ago the mayor of London, Ken Livingston, sent his economist Alan Freeman over to the United States for an Eastern Economic Association meeting in Boston. I introduced him to my colleague Ted Gwartney, the property assessor for Bridgeport, Connecticut. Ted explained that his job was to draw up a land map of the city’s properties. His methodology in making this map was so simple and straightforward that he won every court case brought against the city by property owners who protested that his assessments were too high.
The British economist asked how long it took him to make such a map. Ted said that he had two assistants, and it took three months. The economist looked wide-eyed and said: “This is incredible. You should win the Nobel Prize for this! Are you the only person in the world who does this? I’ve never heard of such efficiency.”
Ted laughed and told him that there are thirty thousand assessors in the United States that do just what he does. They do it for every city and county in the nation every two or three years. The Englishman was amazed, and we discussed whether London might sponsor a similar study.
The proposal never came to fruition, largely as a result of lobbying by property interests. Real estate investors certainly want to know what they are buying and selling, but want outsiders to know as little as possible. They worry that if the government measures land value – especially the appreciation of land prices – political pressure will arise to tax it.
The upshot is that governments measure wages and corporate profits, but have only the roughest estimate of wealth, its distribution and rate of growth. Only Japanese statistics have good measures of land prices. No national income statistics today measure the most important asset on which classical economics focused: unearned income and unearned wealth.
This is the concept most seriously lacking from post-classical economics: recognition of the fact that someone can earn an income without producing a service of equal social value. Matters almost have got to the point where if someone robs you in front of a bank teller or ATM and says “Your money or your life,” the national income and product accounts would depict this as a life-saving service, not as a zero-sum transfer payment.
The NIPA incorporate this kind of circular reasoning. Newspapers and television report gross domestic product as if it were actual product, not simply “gross domestic cost.”
Rather than measuring economic well being, GDP includes a widening FIRE sector overhead wedge that is a purely extractive zero-sum activity, not a productive one. The idea of unearned revenue that has no counterpart in the actual cost of production has become anathema, and with it the idea of economic rent as a product of legal privilege to extract income without having to produce a corresponding real service. Yet this is what occurs when financial CEOs give themselves tens of millions of dollars of salary and bonuses. This revenue has no necessary cost of production.
If it wasn’t necessary twenty years ago or ten years ago, it is not necessary now. But it is counted as adding to GDP in payment for producing a “financial service,” just as the U.S. Congress has a Financial Services Committee without recognizing that this term is itself an oxymoron.
I find it remarkable that nobody has pointed out that Adam Smith did not say what neoliberals repeat when they count him as their patron saint. His aim, like that of subsequent classical reformers, was to free society from privatized land rent, monopoly rents, and financial interest and fees.
These revenues come from purely property rights and privilege, not from basic technological or economic necessity. It was to isolate these forms of overhead that classical economists developed their analysis and quantified it in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Inevitably, the rentiers fought back. They naturally preferred a post-classical economics that was careful to avoid looking at what is really important in life, especially at how wealth was being obtained. Wealthy people like to think of themselves as earning income, not extracting it or getting a free ride. They even like to think of themselves as hosts, not as parasites – it is the poor, the welfare recipients and even their employees who are the parasites whose income is to be minimized, not their own privileged rake-off income, which they demand should receive special tax benefits because the wealthy financial classes are so essential for economic survival.
The symbiosis between predatory finance and land ownership is an old problem – one that buried the Roman economy two thousand years ago. Individuals who managed to gain wealth bought landed estates, seeking the prestige of joining the gentry rather than pursuing enterprise, which was disparaged as ungentlemanly. And wealthy landowners accumulated clients and had their slaves or sleeping partners lend out their money at usury.
Yet modern discussion over what caused the decline and fall of Rome no longer points to the debt crisis described in great melodramatic detail by its own historians Livy, Plutarch and Diodorus. Just as debt problems have been excluded from the economics curriculum, they have become buried in the narrative of Western civilization’s social history.
The reason is not hard to understand. A realistic economic theory would describe the problems caused by the tendency of debts to grow faster than the means to pay. Recognizing the phenomenon of debt deflation would lead to political pressure to stop the process and save the economy by writing down debts to the ability to pay.
This would prevent the asset stripping and concentration of power in the hands of a financial class. Although this would save the economy – and indeed, enable it to continue to grow – it is not what the financial class desires. Its aim is to check any public power threatening to save the economy from indebtedness.
Prior to Roman antiquity, starting in the Bronze Age Near East where nearly all of civilization’s financial practices began, the major creditors were the public temples and palaces, not a private oligarchy. It was easy for rulers to cancel debts when most were owed to themselves or their royal collectors. But by classical antiquity, the oligarchy overthrew kings and their practice of preserving widespread liberty by debt relief. But that is another story …
The post-classical road to neo-feudalism and debt peonage: Latvia’s disastrous “Baltic miracle”
The banker’s-eye view of the world has a blind spot, which is reflected in today’s political economy. Probably the most seriously affected victims are the former Soviet States. When the old Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, Russia, the Baltics and other East Bloc economies agreed to adopt an identical predatory Western financial program. Neoliberals were sent from various U.S. universities – the Harvard Boys to Russia, Washington University boys to Latvia, and so forth.
In every case a voucher program pretended to give workers ownership of all the industry and public enterprises. This was called “peoples’ capitalism” – an Orwellian Doublethink term that Margaret Thatcher had coined for Gen. Pinochet’s Chile, which became the dress rehearsal in 1974 for the post-Soviet states after 1991 (and Iceland after 2001).
At the time the former obtained their political independence from Russia, these economies had no debt at all, no property claims for rent or interest. Yet over the past decade they have become the world’s most debt-ridden countries, borrowing against real estate, public enterprises, natural monopolies and mineral deposits.
This bank lending has enabled buyers to bid up prices for these assets, prompting the World Bank to applaud the “Baltic Miracle” in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Insiders and other appropriators got rich by selling off what the former Soviet Union had put in place – and Western bankers and investors have collected much more. The West got the credit for the debt-leveraged run-up – and “old Soviet” mentality was blamed for the crash.
The West showed itself so negligent – and indeed willfully blind when it came to refusing to see how its own narrow self-interest was predatory with regard to its post-Soviet victims – that the disaster it created must be deemed deliberate, the final blow of the Cold War.
The West subdued the post-Soviet population and appropriated the economic surplus from the property it had built up, along almost identical lines that had occurred in Latin America in the 16th and 17th centuries, and Africa in the 19th century, replete with client chieftains, tax “freedom” for the predators and, in due course, debt peonage for the local labor force.
The post-Soviet trade problem was clear enough at the outset. The USSR had been a far-flung economic unit, dispersing most industrial production throughout its member states. These linkages were uprooted when the post-Soviet states emerged from Russian domination. Breakup of intra-Soviet trade left these economies dependent on Western imports for consumer and capital goods, food and many other essentials.
To pay for this trade dependency they needed credit. They hoped that their commitment to join the European Union would be reciprocated by something like Marshall Plan aid, and above all with advice to help them develop along the path that Europe had taken. This expectation turned out to be drastically wrong.
Europe misrepresented its history in so blatantly dishonest a way that one can only regret the lack of an international law against destroying a population by imposing an economic ideology with almost religious intolerance (not exactly a novel crime for Europeans to have imposed on the world).
Most European countries had developed by tariff protection, headed by the Common Agricultural Policy subsidizing enormous dairy and crop surpluses for export. Europe also had nurtured its manufacturing and a middle class by public subsidy and infrastructure support, anti-monopoly regulations and progressive taxation of income and wealth. However, the last thing that European governments wanted was to nurture the Baltics and Central Europe as rivals.
“Old Europe” saw them crassly as prospective markets for agricultural surpluses and other exports, and as financial colonies and markets for bank loans. Austrian banks, for instance, made hard-currency loans to the nation’s historic Hungarian market, and Swedish banks set up Baltic affiliates to lend euros as well as Swiss francs and sterling to buy the real estate and other assets being privatized from the public domain from an initially debt-free position. Local populations throughout the post-Soviet bloc borrowed to buy the homes occupied without formal ownership rights under Soviet rule. Political insiders developed hotels and the Old Town areas of major cities as tourist centers.
By 2004 a property bubble was well underway, as it was in the West. Housing and office prices soared toward equality with European capital cities. This fueled a real estate bubble that seemed to be a banker’s dream because its low starting point triggered a wave of sales and re-sales. Nearly all this mortgage lending was denominated in foreign currency against the real estate and other public assets being privatized. Some 90 percent of Latvian mortgages are denominated in Euros or foreign currency.
It was this borrowing from foreign banks that provided the post-Soviet economies with the foreign exchange to pay for their trade deficits. This was the great trade-off – increasing debt for current imports. It was bound to come to an end at the point where all the real estate was fully “loaned up.” And this point arrived when the global real estate bubble burst in 2008. Since then, mortgage lending to these countries has dried up – and housing prices have plunged between 50 and 70 percent in Latvia (and also in Iceland, discussed below).
Yet their trade deficits persist. The post-Soviet economies still need to import consumer goods, fuel and food, machinery and other essentials. But Europe had done little to help them put in place export industries to cover the cost of these imports.
These countries simply ran up mortgage debts against their real estate and other assets inherited from Soviet times. So the only alternative to default on foreign-currency loans has been to take out yet new loans – to borrow the interest due. And this time around, the borrowing is being done by the post-Soviet governments and their central banks, not by the private sector. This means that not only are the new debts owed to foreign governments rather than to commercial banks, but that the terms are much more onerous, destructive and, in a word, neo-colonialist.
Inter-governmental loans are problematic, because they are explicitly nationalistic on the part of creditor nations – and correspondingly injurious to the debtor country. They sacrifice policy-making autonomy to the International Monetary Fund and, in the post-Soviet case, to the European Union bureaucracy.
The EU and IMF basically use debtor countries as vehicles to extend credit to their own banks and exporters. Over the past two years they have “helped” the post-Soviet countries maintain their exchange rates by sacrificing their domestic economies. The aim of this policy is to sustain the payment of mortgages to European banks that otherwise would have to take heavy losses on their loans to real estate debtors unable to pay the higher carrying charge that would result from their domestic-currency revenue falling against the euro.
The EU has made it clear that its credit is not to finance domestic investment or spending, but just the opposite. It requires debtor governments to impose austerity and even run budget surpluses to squeeze out foreign exchange by limiting the population’s ability to afford imports and presumably “free” output for export. (It never works.)
This policy of economic shrinkage is just the opposite of Keynesian counter-cyclical spending such as Mr. Obama’s Stimulus plan to help pull the United States out of its own downturn. Austerity plans are only for export to economic dependencies – and make them even more dependent on the financial core.
Latvia’s GDP fell by 18 percent in 2009, and is forecast to shrink altogether by nearly 30 percent from the crisis’ onset in autumn 2008 until the end. More people already are out of work (the year end 2009 unemployment rate is reported to be 16.8 percent), so default rates are rising. Housing and other real estate prices have plunged by about 50 to 70 percent in most markets, and new construction has all but stopped.
In the public sector where shrinkage is most drastic, Latvia had over 150 hospitals and clinics when the Soviet period ended in 1991. By 2009 it had only around 40, and the IMF and World Bank demanded that it close half of them. Many needed services were closed, including trauma centers and ambulance services.
Public health standards have worsened and life spans shortened by several years for men, as has been the case in Russia. There has been an exodus of doctors and health specialists, especially to the richer neighboring Scandinavian countries – part of a serious emigration of highly skilled and unskilled workers alike. According to a recent poll, about a quarter of the male population aged between 20 and 35 years old plans to emigrate during the next five years. And as for the training of new professionals, formerly free universities are now charging tuition, so money rather than talent now obtains higher education.
This is the result of financialization as Latvia shrinks its economy to pay foreign creditors.
One motive spurring emigration is to avoid being reduced to a lifetime of debt peonage. Homeowners find themselves frozen into their homes almost as serfs as property prices plunge below the amount of their mortgage debt. They cannot move out, because they would have to pay banks the balance due on their negative equity. They, not the banks, must absorb the loss on the bad loan.
Unable to find a buyer at a price that covers their mortgage, debtors remain personally liable to save the Swedish bankers from taking a loss, by making up the difference out of their own future earnings. And the situation is getting worse as rents fall in the shrinking economy. There is no way to find renters to cover the mortgage debt. Many debtors are deciding that it is easier to leave the country. This is what many parents are urging their children to do today.
So the economy seems to be in a death spiral – not only economic death but a demographic crisis as well. Matters threaten to worsen if Latvia’s trade deficit forces the currency to be devalued. Carrying charges on the 87 percent of Latvian mortgages denominated in foreign currency would soar. But the only way to stave off devaluation is to keep on borrowing from the EU and IMF.
Worse yet, the financial dictates of the Washington Consensus call for rolling back wages and living standards, taxing labor all the more and slashing public spending and investment even further! Instead of coming up with a plan to extricate the economy from this debt peonage, Latvia’s neoliberal government can only repeat its faith in “restoring equilibrium” by tightening the fiscal and financial screws.
Iceland’s cruel neoliberal experiment threatens neo-feudal financial colonialism
Much the same has occurred in Iceland under neoliberal advice to shift planning into the hands of a narrow banking and financial class. In 2001, a decade after the post-Soviet states separated from Russia, Iceland gave away its commanding heights to political insiders and privatized the country’s three leading banks in an atmosphere of deregulation, with the usual insider corruption.
Foreign loans and deposits flowed in, and were lent out to bid up housing prices – while providing the central bank with enough foreign exchange to sustain a splurge on imports. In just seven years Iceland rose from a fishing and farming backwater to become one of the stars of world financial and real estate markets, before blowing in a convulsion of debt-ridden bankruptcy.
Icelanders imagined themselves getting rich during the first few years of this process. As recently as 2007 the United Nations ranked their country as the world’s happiest. But its plunging currency has led property prices to fall by 70 percent since its financial system went bankrupt in October 2008. Having given away its banks, the government is being held liable for the debts that they ran up to British and Dutch depositors in Icesave’s on-line bank accounts.
But tax revenues are plunging as the economy shrinks, leaving the government broke.
The population is in the same state. Mortgages are indexed to consumer prices, which are set by import prices. The effect is to denominate Icelandic mortgages in euros, while income is earned in soft domestic krónur in a shrinking economy.
As in Latvia, denominating debts in euros or sterling protects creditor interests, but has turned Iceland into a debtor’s hell. Mortgages at interest rates from about 5 to 5-6% are indexed to the rate of price increases, which means in effect to the foreign exchange rate. This imposed an 18% financial tax charge on Icelanders by spring of 2008. On balance, homeowners had to pay over 23% mortgage interest (18% + 5%) on property that had fallen so far as to be unsalable.
Homeowners remain personally liable if they move, as in Europe.
Bankruptcy rates are rising, and so is the suicide rate. Labor is emigrating, and foreign labor already has left. As many as a third of the Icelandic young adults are reported to be planning to emigrate to escape mortgage debt and the collapse of employment. So much for being a happy debt-financed economy! Its legacy is debt peonage, the final stage of neoliberalism.
Iceland held parliamentary elections in April 2008. I met earlier with a number of Icelandic political leaders and former Prime Ministers to discuss how the currency faced further depreciation as a result of the debt overhang and chronic trade deficit.
They worried that it would upset most voters to bring up so intractable a problem before the elections. The usual tendency in democracies these days is to vote for politicians who promise the best future. So the election proceeded without serious economic discussion. The Social Democrat-Green coalition won, with a prime minister who promised to take the country into Europe.
At that time about two-thirds of the voters still thought that Europe wanted to help them. (This was the same hope that the post-Soviet states earlier had held.) By early 2010 only about 40 percent want to join Europe, and the government faced a no-confidence vote by a number of parties over what to do about the debts that Britain and the Netherlands are claiming to be owed. In summer 2009 in Parliament, Gordon Brown was asked about depositors who had lost money in Kaupthing, a British bank owned by Icelandic investors.
As a domestic affiliate, it came under Britain’s public regulatory authority. Gordon Brown said in Parliament that he intended to lean on the IMF to refuse to lend any money to Iceland, and indeed to block its attempt to join the EU if it didn’t pay what he was demanding – full reimbursement plus punitive interest charges!
By contrast, IceSave was organized as a branch of Landsbanki, and hence fell under Iceland’s own domestic, purely private insurance scheme. Its computerized internet accounts offered a very high rate of return – higher than normally were available, reflecting the risk of losing money to a banking system whose national bank insurance had been thoroughly privatized and neoliberalized with little regard for risk, and with scant oversight of the kleptocratic insiders using deposits to gamble in the world’s financial casinos.
Yet I’m told that local council authorities in England were directed to deposit their money in Icesave because they had a “fiduciary responsibility” to put their savings where they could get the highest interest rate.
“Blame the foreigner” is always a winning political ploy. In demanding compensation in the face of their own regulatory failure, the British and Dutch acted without regard for the law. Like most lawbreakers, they have refused to submit the issue to third-party arbitration.
What is being brought to bear is the exercise of pure creditor power – the power to destroy an economy, depopulate it and starve it of essentials in what is the equivalent of a military blockade. As in war, the effect is a loss of life. Icelandic suicide rates are rising, emigration is rising, and life spans are shortening, just as in the Baltics and other debt-strapped economies.
This is financial neo-feudalism!
European Union rules give a three-month breathing time for any bank that goes bankrupt to withhold settlement from depositors, and two more three-month extensions. So under EU law the Icelandic banks had nine months to settle. But to save face in the wake of the Northern Rock bank collapse in Britain, Gordon Brown moved in just two days to repay all the depositors, using anti-terrorist laws against Iceland.
Branding it as a terrorist nation was the quickest way to freeze and take over Icelandic assets. The absurdity of this is that Iceland has no army. It is hard to imagine any accusation that could have made them more resentful.
To cap the insult, Mr. Brown’s threat to lean on the IMF to act as a debt collector was illegal, because Iceland technically didn’t owe the money. To hold its government responsible, the British and Dutch took a hard line with Icelandic negotiators, who capitulated and returned to Iceland with a bad deal calling for Iceland to pay 4% of its GDP growth over and above 2007 levels to settle with European Icesave depositors over a period of seven years.
From 2010, there would be a seven-year waiting period, and from 2017-2024, Iceland is pay the balance due.
The governing coalition supported the plan, but a political scandal over the terms led it to add the condition that after 2024 Iceland would re-examine the remaining debt, and no further payments will be made if it is deemed that this would cause extreme distress. This would be logical, especially in view of the fact that according to the letter of EU law, Iceland can argue that it owes nothing to either the British or Dutch governments.
But in a show of hubris Mr. Brown and the Dutch rejected this condition. They continued to threaten not to let Iceland join Europe unless the government agrees to pay them in full for the mistake that their own bank insurance agencies made in jumping the gun.
Iceland’s Althing duly knuckled under, but Iceland’s President refused to sign the deal, and insisted that such an important agreement – one that would destroy the national economy for a generation and drive perhaps a third of the population out of the country, reducing the land to neo-feudal status – should be put to a vote, which was scheduled for March 5, 2010.
Public opinion polls showed some 70 percent of the population oppose the agreement – and have soured on the very prospect of joining the EU, seeing it as an exploitative financial power rather than the Social Democratic union they earlier had imagined it to be. The actual election showed less than 2% of Icelanders voting in favor of the agreement. (Some 93% voted against it, and another 5% turned in blank ballots in what was characterized as a silent protest.)
The nation is being treated as a financial colony, not as an equal. Matters got so bad by February 22, 2010, that Iceland’s prime minister felt driven to beg U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to help ensure that the Icesave dispute would not be permitted to threaten completion of the IMF loan that was keeping the currency above the level where mortgage debtors would owe yet higher indexed debt service each month.
An alternative economic program to that of the neoliberal Washington Consensus
Like many other post-Soviet economies, Latvia is a combination of the native population and Russians whom Stalin moved in during the 1950’s, when he deported the middle class and others with professional backgrounds.
Some 38 percent of Latvia’s population are Russian speakers, and they form the major support for the Harmony Center (“Concord”) Party. Joined last year by ethnic Latvians frustrated with poor governance, it became the ruling party of Riga, the capital city. National elections will occur in October 2010. I head a Committee of Experts charged with drawing up an economic platform to rescue the country from the neoliberalism to which it has been subjected since it achieved political independence from Russia in 1991.
Our first recommendation is that in view of the fact that the currency is under pressure to be devalued – with 87 percent of mortgage debts being denominated in foreign currency – banks should only able to take the house itself when they foreclose. This is the collateral that was supposed to back the loan, after all.
It is what makes mortgage loans different from personal loans. Banks must share responsibility for keeping loans within the debtor’s ability to pay. That basic rule has been violated throughout the world in recent years. This has been largely a result of the banks’ greed in making loans more than 70 percent of the property’s value, as was long the rule in the United States. Personal liability is not going to be permitted. I don’t know any other way to prevent banks from making irresponsible loans and then trying to blame the debtor. This is unconscionable, and we are going to prevent it from recurring.
Second, we urge that all loans and obligations should be re-denominated in domestic currency. This is similar to what U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt did in 1932 when he overruled the gold clause in most loan contracts. (The clause stated that if the price of gold changed, the debt had to paid in gold equivalence.)
This was intended to prevent creditors from obtaining a windfall gain and indeed, a gain beyond the ability of debtors to pay and hence at the expense of economic recovery. The economy comes first, not the bankers. This is especially important in today’s world, where there is no longer a constraint on the banking system’s ability to monetize credit.
A third plank of our program is designed to cope with the problem of abandoned housing, squatters and crime that has plagued foreclosures in the United States. Upon insolvency or foreclosure of residential and commercial property, the foreclosing bank must put it up for auction within one month, to be sold at a market price. The current occupant (either the indebted owner or renter) will have the right to match the bid.
Our plan is for the government to set up a bank to lend the occupant funds to buy the property, converting its current rental value into mortgage debt service. At current prices, the new mortgage may be about 30 percent of the existing debt – and it will be denominated in domestic currency. The oligarchs seem happy with this, because loans on the large public utilities and other assets they have taken over and borrowed against also will be re-denominated in domestic currency.
In October 2009, Latvia’s neoliberal Prime Minister endorsed the first plank of this program, saying that there should be no more personal liability for mortgage debt. The Swedish finance minister became furious and said that this would break all tradition.
The Harmony Centre (“Concord”) Party replied that the tradition to which Sweden seemed to be referring was feudalism, and reminded Sweden that Latvia threw off the Swedish yoke back in the 15th century – and threw out the German land barons in 1905.
I have seen no discussion of this in the press, except for my own write-ups in the Financial Times. There is a case of cognitive dissonance when it comes to structural financial and fiscal reform.
Most people are not aware that a workable alternative exists, one that was viewed for a century as being the free market alternative – a market free of unearned income and “empty” pricing. Students no longer are taught that economic thinkers have spent the last seven centuries discussing better modes of taxation, banking and pricing, based on the ability to distinguish between economically necessary costs and income, and unnecessary costs.
The classical reformers sought to complete what they viewed as the economic program of industrial capitalism: to throw off the remaining legacy of feudalism, above all the landlord aristocracy that used to be called the idle rich, and also predatory bankers – a cosmopolitan interest typically working with absentee owners, monopolists and other rent-extracting parties.
Landowners, privatizers and monopolists are now backed by their international bankers, joining forces to become a new aggressive power as financial speculators. Their activities are not necessary for the industrial economy to operate, but are a rentier overhead that slows it down.
The most important plank of our program concerns the tax system. Like most other post-Soviet economies that have been neoliberalized, Latvia has a dysfunctional flat tax on labor. It is so high – about 59 percent – that it is the single major factor pricing Latvian labor out of global markets. We are urging that the tax be shifted off labor and its employers onto where the classical economists urged it to be placed: on the land and natural resources.
This would “reform the reformers.” We expect that the EU and its commercial bankers will fight against this tax shift, fearing that it might spread to other countries. And of course, that is the whole point.
Fiscal reform must be a key element in financial reform, because the two prongs of reform are symbiotic. Taxing the land will save its rental value from being capitalized into bank loans. Our aim is for bank credit to focus on creating new means of production, not to bolster the price of unproductive, extractive privileges and property claims.
Now that you‘ve been here a week, what is your analysis of the Australian economy?
It’s hard to be an instant expert on an economy. It seems self-destructive for Australia to raise interest rates, ostensibly to slow the financial and real estate bubble. Raising interest rates will hurt public finance in three ways. Raising the rate by ¼% will oblige the government to pay more to bondholders.
Homeowners with variable-rate mortgages also will have to pay more to the banks. This will leave less revenue available for spending in the domestic market. But most important is the third effect: Raising interest rates above those of other countries will enable arbitrageurs throughout the world to borrow from U.S. banks at less than 1% and lend to Australians at 3¼%, pocketing the difference.
This foreign exchange inflow to buy Australian dollars will bid up the exchange rate, making exports more expensive. So higher interest rates will raise prices – just the opposite of what usually is taught in academic models.
This week I’ve read in the newspapers that manufacturing companies are lowering their profit forecasts because they realize that they can’t make export sales – or even hold onto the home market with so high an exchange rate.
This is what plagued Swiss industry for many years as a result of its bank inflows from crooks, tax evaders and kleptocrats throughout the world. Once Switzerland became a tax avoidance centre, the franc went way up. Pharmaceutical companies moved their operations across the German border to operate at a lower cost.
The nation’s Manufacturing was rendered uncompetitive because of the franc’s high exchange rate. I remember that when I went there to consult for Ciba-Geigy, a Coke cost 60 cents in the United States but was $3.50 in Basel. High living costs meant high production costs as the economy was sacrificed to Swiss banking interests.
The same thing is happening here in Australia. A friend of mine who works for the Canadian government e-mailed me today saying that Canada is going through what seems to be happening here in Australia. Because of its soaring export proceeds for raw materials, the Canadian dollar has risen sharply against the U.S. dollar. That is hurting profits for Canadian oil and gas producers, while its manufacturers are losing out to U.S. industry.
The moral is that trying to regulate the housing and financial cycle by raising interest rates penalizes the economy, by raising its cost of living and doing business. Interest is a cost of doing business, and imports become more expensive, providing an umbrella for domestic producers to raise their prices.
Yet I have heard no public discussion here of holding down real estate prices and mortgage debt by increasing the land tax. Politicians avoid this because voters react negatively to any kind of a tax rise. The distinction between efficient and inefficient taxes has been lost from public discussion.
A revenue-neutral tax shift – lowering sales and income taxes on wages by the amount that property taxes are raised – would not take in any more tax revenue than now. But it would levy taxes in a way that holds down property prices. And it would leave less revenue available for banks to capitalize into interest charges. Holding down housing and real estate prices – and debt – would lower the cost of living and doing business. This would make the economy lower cost. That should be the aim of every economy – to minimize the cost of living and doing business.
As matters stand, Australia’s tax system favors property speculation, and thus maximizes the cost of living and doing business. People seem to believe that they are getting rich from seeing their home rise in price. (Actually it is not the home as such that rises, but the land site.) But this does force them further into debt to buy a home. And raising interest rates to slow the property bubble has the effect of raising the foreign exchange rate. This leads manufacturing to leave, and even erodes profits on mining, while giving the financial sector a windfall gain.
How can we implement your reform? How would it work from the ground up?
The same way that classical economists advocated in the 19th century. You start by making a land map on which to base the property tax – away from buildings, onto the land. You explain to voters that this tax will leave the rental value of land unchanged, because rents are set by the “marketplace.” But instead of being paid to the banks as interest as at present, this rent will be paid to the government to form the major tax base.
Homeowners will pay the same amount each month – but will gain as property taxes enable the government to lower income and sales taxes by an equivalent amount. A land tax thus will lower the purchase price of property, because land rent no longer can be capitalized into a bank loan, to be converted into an interest payment to the bank. You cannot pay the same rental income twice – and what the tax collector receives is unavailable to the banker.
But at present, the rental value is indeed paid twice – once to the banker, and then, by “crowding out” the government’s fiscal revenue, forcing taxes to be levied on labor and consumers – over and above the land rent that they pay to their bankers.
You would explain that you indeed want to see capital investment in houses and other construction, and you realize that they have to make a profit on their capital expenditure. But this does not mean that they need to make a profit on the increase in price of the land’s site location – that is, what the landlord makes in his sleep.
Today, real estate buyers bid against each other, and the winner is the one who pays out the rental value to the mortgage banker who creates the credit to finance the property purchase. So the financial sector has joined forces with the real estate sector to lobby against taxing property, and to tax labor and consumers – and industry – instead. This is the major political problem that Australia faces: the lobbying power of the symbiotic FIRE sector.
Along this same line you could enact a natural resource tax. Nature has provided Australia with subsoil wealth in the form of minerals, oil and gas with a lower cost of extraction than other countries have.
So you can tax land and minerals without increasing their price.
To the extent that you remove a similar volume of taxes from labour and capital, you lower the economy’s cost of living and doing business.
This should be the objective, as it was to classical economists hoping to make their national economies more competitive by keeping market prices in line with actual costs of production – and making the distribution of income more fair in the process, by collecting the “free lunch” of economic rent as the natural tax base, as it was for thousands of years in wiser times.
Listen to the original audio from the event that this article is based on here
 Where did all the land go?
 No Help in Sight, More Homeowners Walk Away, DAVID STREITFELD, The New York Times, February 2, 2010, reports: “It would cost about $745 billion, slightly more than the size of the original 2008 bank bailout, to restore all underwater borrowers to the point where they were breaking even, according to First American.”
 The New Monetary Order: Borrow? Devalue? Restructure! (Toronto: Butterworth, 1978, published for the Institute for Research in Public Policy [IRPP]).
 America’s Protectionist Takeoff: 1815-1914 (2010).
 “Entrepreneurs: From the Near Eastern Takeoff to the Roman Collapse,” in David S. Landes, Joel Mokyr, and William J. Baumol, eds., The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010):8-39.
 Trade, Development and Foreign Debt (1992; new ed. ISLET 2009).