Clearances, Foreclosures, and Evictions

I used to wonder how it is that after generations of Americans spent their entire adulthood paying mortgages just as their parents had, only a tiny fraction actually owned their modest homes outright upon retirement. The next generation, in most cases, starts the process all over again with little if any inheritance. Where is the accumulation of wealth in home ownership? In the 1950s, interest rates were very low, around three per cent, and the credit card had not yet been invented. Of course, World War II had pulled the nation out of the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs had only partially alleviated the suffering against all odds and aggressive opposition by the wealthy. But after the full employment of the war and the educational and lending benefits of the GI bill, a returning veteran could get an education and a job with a wage to support a family. With most women staying home, a man could still support his family and save enough for that standard twenty percent down payment to purchase a home. That’s quite a contrast with conditions today.
I had been reading a lot about money and the debt-based economy before I began a trip through Scotland last August. But I wanted to get a sense of the lives of the Scots in the centuries past that were represented in the many historical sites I observed across that land, so I decided to read Neil Oliver’s A History of Scotland, as I traveled. The thick small paperback traveled well and the saga drew my interest, although I was a bit stunned by the incredibly bloody record of violent transitions among clan chiefs, noblemen, kings, and eventually the industrialists. That got me thinking about the possible inheritance of America’s culture of violence from Great Britain’s violent evolution. What I did not expect was to find parallels in economic history.
Then, later in Oliver’s book, I read of “the clearances,” which had occurred with the agricultural “improvements” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and had accompanied the early stages of the industrial revolution. After countless generations of attachment to the land through tradition and relations of fealty, large populations of both highlanders and lowlanders were forced off their land and into the industrial towns or expanding coal mines, or to emigrate to North America or Australia. James Webb chronicles the subsequent lives of the Scots-Irish descendants of those emigrants to the U.S. in his fascinating book, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. The landowners, clan chiefs and noblemen, needed to combine the small traditional plots into larger more efficient holdings to apply the new agricultural techniques with far fewer workers and vastly greater profits.
Those “clearances” reminded me of the eighteenth and nineteenth century English “enclosures” which ended traditional rights to common lands, but were accomplished by the legal means of the parliamentary “Inclosure Acts.” As I traveled through Scotland, that context brought to mind the current massive loss of the homes of American mortgagees. How could it not? Our national economic crisis was brought on by the vast concentration of “paper wealth” (indeed, more accurately, electronic forms of abstract wealth) in the shape of heavily leveraged sub-prime mortgage debt packaged into a falsely valued derivative “asset” pyramid that ultimately collapsed because investors could not be paid when inevitable losses occurred.
The government covered the losses of the Big Banks because the Treasury and Fed officials all came from Wall Street firms where their first loyalties (and wealth) could be found, and because too many in congress drank from the trough of Wall Street lobbyists. The Banksters kept their giant bonuses and nobody went to jail. But we know all that. My point is that in each case, a very small number of very wealthy people found a way to exclude very large parts of the population from any viable participation in the economy in order to vastly advance their own wealth.
New and old ways of removing people not needed for the current ‘capital formation’ game, and consolidating assets among the wealthiest 0.1%, are essentially much the same. The technological, economic, and political tactics have changed, but the plunder of the larger society by its most powerful elites remains the same. Having read of the bloody history of Scotland, I cannot say that today’s billionaire bandits are any more ruthless than their historical counterparts, except in the scale of the suffering their plunder causes. But they get to keep the suffering they cause at such a greater distance that they are conveniently insulated from it. It is clear that given the planetary impact of their misdeeds, the consequences for humanity are vastly greater.

Money: Banking on the Economy of the Absurd

Money and banking seem far too mysterious to far too many people.  Read all about it and you may feel that much of your time was wasted, simply because at root it seems not all that complicated.  Oh, the world of money and banking has been made quite complicated, but that’s because of who is running things and why they make decisions over all of our financial lives the way that they do.  With the endless elaboration of the complex institutions from which emanate the decisions that matter for the rest of us, the so-called “financial industry” has emerged as a much larger share of the economy than ever before.  But what does that mean?  Are we all wealthier?  Hardly.  As the “main street” economy has faltered while big corporations and banks grow ever larger profits, why has the financial industry—which claims to be so vital  to the nation’s economy—grown so large?

Along with the ideologically excused deregulation of banking and finance—driven, actually, by the growing influence of the big banks and their corporate companions over the laws that govern economic activity—have come a steady onslaught of banking practices that have made a very few people and corporations very, very rich and resulted in the rest of us falling further and further behind.  By expanding their control over the creation and lending of money, these institutions have expanded far beyond their usefulness to the nation. To big to fail?  Yes, if propped up by government bailouts.  But more important, too big to tolerate!

Have you ever wondered why over many generations people pay mortgages on their homes, yet very few of the succeeding generations ever live in a home without it being mortgaged?  Where is the accumulation of wealth?  Well, while complex interactions of a number of factors are at play, and individual cases vary, the “bottom line” is that we live in a debt-based economy, and it is debt based on purpose.  No, it wasn’t your idea and it wasn’t my idea.  It was the idea of the private bankers who took over the public function of banking way back when.  In a debt based economy, new money has to be created to pay the interest on old debt.  That requires endless economic expansion financed by new debt.  It is a never-ending cycle until one of two things happens:  1) a crash brought on by the excessive speculation in new debt—gambling—by the Banksters; or 2) the whole system expands beyond the carrying capacity of the ecological system on which we all depend.  The Great Depression of the 1930s has been matched by the real unemployment of the “Great Recession” of 2008-present as the absurd economy roars past sustainability.

Banking is an inherently public function.  In fact, money is a public institution.  Whether private banks control it has varied in time and place.  When you are playing Monopoly (the board game) the players are equivalent to the public but each acts as an individual, not as a member of that very small public—which helps to instill in the players an individualistic sense of what money is.  But the “play money” used in the game is “real money” for the purposes of that game.  One player is designated the banker, but only manages the allocation of money during play.  The players agree as to the initial distribution of money (usually equal) and to the rules of the game.

Eventually, through luck and skill, one of the players gathers so much money and property that the game is over—s/he won!  Oh, but then there’s no game anymore, unless the players want to start another game, in which case they have to redistribute the money so each player will have money with which to play.  In fact, once the game is over, there is no money, only amusing little pieces of colored paper in a box with the board and various symbols of property, etc.  But why does someone always win Monopoly?  The widely ignored fact of economic reality also ends every game of Monopoly.  Once a player has accumulated significant economic power, that player’s ability to gain economic power increases.  So it is in the real economy, with the added bonus of increased political power, which means that to keep the game going, something’s got to give.  The result has to be either collapse or some form of redistribution, that’s what history demonstrates.

So, you can see the difference between a game and social reality, or, technically, economic reality.  In the real world, the game can never be over, even when one element—the Banksters in our case—accumulates enough wealth to render the other players powerless to make a successful move.  In the real world, this holds right up to the point where some starve to death for lack of resources.  In the game, with all the money accumulated by a small number of lucky and/or skilled players, everyone else is out of the game.  In real life that is deadly and is bound to result in some kind of chaos, collapse, or major restructuring of the economy.  Look around, both in the world today and in history.  Money hasn’t been in play all that long.  It emerged slowly and in various odd forms when and where some surplus of valued goods was accumulated.  When, at various times when wealth became so concentrated in the hands of the elite, a monarch or emperor recognized that wealth had to be radically redistributed in order to keep the economy going.

The earliest examples of money and debt were in societies where sedentary agricultural practices replaced nomadic hunting and gathering.  Much of this is chronicled in David Graeber’s fascinating book, Debt: the First 5,000 Years.  Graebner is an anthropologist whose analysis of money and debt as cultural phenomena clearly breaks out of the illusions about money and debt upon which our deeply absurd, and equally unjust, economy is based.

Unless we face some very fundamental and widespread social illusions, we will be unable to grasp how debt drives our absurd economy and how deeply destabilized the system has become.  Sometimes these illusions have two sides, neither of which reflects economic or cultural reality.  For example, we have the “gold bugs” and the advocates of “fiat money.”  Gold bugs confuse symbols with reality and fiat money fanciers confuse wealth with abstractions of value.  Both obsess over the form of money, failing to see that the very essence of its existence is consensual rather than essential.

There is nothing in the essence of gold that makes it money and there is nothing in the essence of paper that prevents it from being money.  All manner of items at one time/place or another have been money because the conditions allowed and the people agreed to define them as money, from sticks to shells to stamped pieces of copper or other metal to beads to paper.  In no case did just any stick, shell or piece of paper do.  It had to have certain qualities or it couldn’t become money.

In one fascinating example, a stick with certain inscriptions would be split in two and the creditor and debtor each took a piece.  No other stick could represent that relationship of value-exchange because no two sticks will split in exactly the same way.  That made the stick parts a unique symbol of the value exchanged.  With gold, the size, ie., weight, of a nugget or shaped coin stands for its exchange value.  In every case of an object that becomes money, its value is designated in such a way that it cannot be altered.  So it is with paper.  With paper money, methods are devised to make it nearly impossible to duplicate without detection, but of course some counterfeiters have been very skillful, which results in a technology race between the legitimate and illegitimate printers of money.

Today, of course, most money takes the form of an electronic entry in computerized accounting systems controlled by banks and other financial institutions.  And that brings on an entirely new level of complexity and exploitability of what at base was a very simple relationship. But, as always, who controls the creation of money is still at the root of the way the money system works.

Because the nation so stupidly gave away the rights to control a fundamental public utility—money—to a cartel of private banks, the Federal Reserve, the creation of money (except for coins, which, trivially, are minted by the U.S. Treasury) is controlled not by public policy but by private banking interests.  “The Fed” is owned by its member big-private-banks yet is politically defined as a quasi-public institution even though it is entirely controlled by the cartel of private banks, except to the extent that the political system can influence its actions, which is almost nil.  Power flows from the banks to the government, not the other way around.

Well, you saw how well that worked out when the federal government essentially gave away the commonwealth by “covering” the bad bets of the world’s biggest gamblers—the Banksters, as I prefer to call them—because their agents, from Treasury Secretaries “Hank” Paulson and Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers, and the rest of the Wall Street gang were very much in control of the political response to the crisis.  These same Banksters had helped steer the congress to do away with the protections against gambling with depositors’ money that resulted from the Great Depression of the ‘30s.  The recent ‘Great Recession’ was the result of the same kinds of financial manipulations as precipitated the great crash, but now with lightning speed of computerized trading and lax limits on holding reserve capital to cover losses, as well as a whole new breed of “financial instruments” which are “derivatives” of complex combinations of debt.  The whole Dodd-Frank “reforms” were a smokescreen to cover continued abuse by the financial elite.

The whole system is, as they say, rigged.  And because it is entirely dependent on generating more debt in order to sustain profit, ultimately all that debt cannot be paid, since it is really a pyramid scheme basing illusory wealth on ever-expanding debt that cannot be sustained.  No, it is not about “the national debt” and “deficit spending” by the federal government, though they are part of the system.  And the “debt ceiling” is pure political theater.  It is about the centralized private control of the public means by which money is allocated to the actual people who participate in the economy as a way of sustaining their lives—through debt—with that private control being exercised in the sole interests of the so-called “masters of the universe,” the Wall Street Banksters and financial deal makers who have no idea what a real economy looks like.  It’s all about the art of the deal which generates paper profit [or, I should say, electronic profit] out of money generated with no other purpose, but which bounds the people to a system of debt over which they have no participation except as victims.

Therein lies the absurdity of the economy for you and me.  Money, the function of which had been to provide a medium for and a repository of actual exchange value—that is, the exchange of real objects and services of value to people in a real economy—has been perverted into a devise for generating false wealth—paper or electronic profit—which is treated as real wealth by the Banksters who control the Economy of the Absurd.