The title of this diary is a quote from the Vietnam era that sums up for many the arrogance and pointlessness of American aggression in Asia two generations ago. It keeps coming to mind each time I read President Bush’s (paraphrased) statement this week: We had to nationalise the banks “to preserve the free market.”
There is no free market when the government owns the actors and sets the terms of transactions. There is no village once it has been burned to the ground.
The collapse of the financial sector is unacceptable. It is unacceptable to bankers who have vested careers, status and equity wealth in the disproportionate expansion of the financial sector. It is unacceptable to politicians who have risen to high office doing the bidding of the financial sector in ceding progressively more generous taxpayer subsidy and regulatory forbearance to its chieftains.
And so in the US, UK and EU we have politicians appropriating more petrol to hand to the arsonists who started the conflagration which is consuming our economic and political fabric. The regulators whose forbearance is a root cause of the current conflagration are handing the arsonists fresh zippo lighters. The policies adopted in these debtor nations will fail, must fail, because they destroy what remained of market economies. In the meanwhile, however, the bankers and the politicians and the regulators cannot conceive of failure and so insist on more of the same – ordering hundreds of billions in more incendiaries to fuel the blaze. The same tax breaks. The same housing subsidies. The same regulatory forbearance. The same ill-transparent, off balance sheet, accounting sleight of hand. The same eradication of market incentives to productive, disciplined saving, investment and labour.
Those who would prudently save will be punished with negative real interest rates and asset deflation. Those who would prudently invest in productive industry will be starved of scarce capital and forced into liquidation. Those who would prudently labour for a decent wage will be slowly robbed by inflation and kept docile by the threat of unemployment.
There can be no more iniquitous alliance than to have the politicians at the service of the bankers, unless perhaps it is to have the military at the service of the bankers too. The US seems to have committed itself to this worst of all possible combinations, with Congressmen threatened by the imposition of martial law if they failed to acquiesce to the Paulson Plan. Thankfully the British and EU militaries are too small and ineffective to be leveraged into a similar threat to global or domestic peace and security.
Subsidised banking seems a faster method of going bust than military adventurism, but the two together will see the US bust even more certainly. The $700 billion appropriated for the Paulson Plan and the $840 billion extended in parallel by the Federal Reserve last month are together more than three times the expenditure on US wars for the past five years. The federal borrowing requirement for 2008 is now in excess of $1.02 trillion, and for 2009 is now estimated between $1.5 and $2 trillion.
Such hyperbolic growth in the fiscal deficit and debt is unsustainable, even with such very tolerant creditors as the Japanese, Gulf Arabs, Russians and Chinese. They can see that each dollar added to the Fed’s balance sheet is tinder for burning those already held or denominated in their reserves. They can project the curve forward. At some point, they must react and restrain further debasement of their reserves and investments, either by collectively raising the prices charged for the resources and products they export, the interest charged on existing and future debt, or the forced exchange of debt for equity ownership of real economic assets.
Or all three.
The cycle of debt deflation is just getting rolling. The banks were only the first bailout and already the federal deficits are ballooning unsustainably. What will be the recourse when municipalities and states face default through catastrophic tax and revenue shortfalls? What will be the recourse when large commercial employers, industries and infrastructure confront failure from collapsing consumption expenditure? What will be the consequence when unemployment, homelessness, political disaffection and crime are resurgent and threaten the political fabric?
We are at the end of the beginning. Hank Paulson has played a clever game for the past decade of exporting dodgy paper to the US creditors abroad while forcing a middle class subsidy of the tax exempt corporatists at home. Now he plays a clever game of devaluing all currency and paper assets, exporting the pain to foreign taxpayers and investors. But this is not a game that America can win without the debasement of everything America once represented as holding value in its formerly prosperous market economy.
In my experience, there is nothing so permanent as a temporary expedient. It is hard to see how partially nationlised banks will ever be more than the means of political redistribution of wealth and power, and so corrupt both the economy and political system.
We had to burn the village to save it.
Perhaps someday we will hear a remorseful Mr Paulson or Mr Brown echo Robert McNamara, early architect and aggressive propagator of the Vietnam War: “We were wrong, terribly wrong.”
I will be out of touch for most of the next nine days, but will check in as and when I can. There may be a guest blogger here next Friday who I'm confident will be enthusiastically received, if he accepts.