Jesus wasn’t just talking about sin when he told us to pray for the forgiveness of our debts. That’s one of the reasons the Pharisees hated him so much. Michael Hudson is interviewed concerning a very important trilogy of economic history he is writing:
MH: The key public concern throughout history has been to prevent debt from crippling society. That aim is what Babylonian and other third-millennium and second-millennium Near Eastern rulers recognized clearly enough, with their mathematical models. To make an ideal society you need the government to control the basic utilities — land, finance, mineral wealth, natural resources and infrastructure monopolies (including the Internet today), pharmaceuticals and health care so their basic services can be supplied at the lowest price.
All this was spelled out in the 19th century by business school analysts in the United States. Simon Patten [1852-1922] who said that public investment is the “fourth factor of production.” But its aim isn’t to make a profit for itself. Rather, it’s to lower the cost of living and of doing business, by providing basic needs either on a subsidized basis or for free. The aim was to create a low-cost society without a rentier class siphoning off unearned income and making this economic rent a hereditary burden on the economy at large. You want to prevent unearned income.
To do that, you need a concept to define economic rent as unearned and hence unnecessary income. A well-managed economy would do what Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Marx and Veblen recommended: It would prevent a hereditary rentier class living off unearned income and increasing society’s economic overhead. It’s okay to make a profit, but not to make extractive monopoly rent, land rent or financial usury rent.
JS: Will human beings ever create such a society?
MH: If they don’t, we’re going to have a new Dark Age.
JS: That’s one thing that especially surprises me about the United States. Is it not clear to educated people here that our ruling class is fundamentally extractive and exploitative?
MH: A lot of these educated people are part of the ruling class, and simply taking their money and running. They are disinvesting, not investing in industry. They’re saying, “The financial rentier game is ending, so let’s sell everything and maybe buy a farm in New Zealand to go to when there is a big war.” So the financial elite is quite aware that they are getting rich by running the economy into the ground, and that this must end at the point where they’ve taken everything and left a debt-ridden shell behind.
JS: I guess this gets back to what you were saying: The history of economics has been expurgated from the curriculum.
MH: Once you strip away economic history and the history of economic thought, you wipe out memory of the vocabulary that people have used to criticize rent seeking and other unproductive activity. You then are in a position to redefine words and ideals along the lines that euphemize predatory and parasitic activities as if they are productive and desirable, even natural. You can rewrite history to suppress the idea that all this is the opposite of what Adam Smith and the classicaleconomists down through Marx advocated.
Today’s neoliberal wasteland is basically a reaction against the 19thcentury reformers, against the logic of classical British political economy. The hatred of Marx is ultimately the hatred of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, because neoliberals realize that Smith and Mill and Ricardo were all leading to Marx. He was the culmination of their free market views — a market free from rentiers and monopolists.
That was the immediate aim of socialism in the late 19thcentury. The logic of classical political economy was leading to a socialist mixed economy. In order to fight Marxism, you have to fight classical economics and erase memory of how civilization has dealt with (or failed to deal with) the debt and rent-extracting problems through the ages. The history of economic thought and the original free-market economics has to be suppressed. Today’s choice is therefore between socialism or barbarism, as Rosa Luxemburg said.
JS: Let’s consider barbarism: When I observe the neoliberal ruling class — the people who control the finance sector and the managerial class on Wall Street — I often wonder if they’re historically exceptional because they’ve gone beyond simple greed and lust for wealth. They now seek above all some barbaric and sadistic pleasure in the financial destruction and humiliation of other people. Or is this historically normal?
MH: The financial class has always lived in the short run, and you can make short-term money much quicker by asset stripping and being predatory can by being productive. Moses Finley wrote that there was not a single productive loan in all of Antiquity. That was quite an overstatement, but he was making the point that there were no productive financial markets in Antiquity. Almost all manufacturing, industry, and agriculture was self-financed. So the reader of Finley likely infers that we modern people have progressed in a fundamental way beyond Antiquity. They were characterized by the homo politicus, greedy for status. We have evolved into homo œconomicus, savvy enough to live in stable safety and comfort.
We are supposedly the beneficiaries of the revolution of industrial capitalism, as if all the predatory, polarizing, usurious lending that you had from feudal times (and before that, from Antiquity), was replaced by productive lending that finances means of production and actual economic growth.
But in reality, modern banks don’t lend money for production. They say, “That’s the job of the stock market.” Banks only lend if there’s collateral to grab. They lend against assets in place. So the result of more bank lending is to increase the price of the assets that banks lend against — on credit! This way of “wealth creation” via asset-price inflation is the opposite of real substantive progress. It enriches the narrow class of asset holders at the top of the economic pyramid.
JS: What about the stock market?
MH: The stock market no longer primarily provides money for capital investment. It has become a vehicle for bondholders and corporate raiders to borrow from banks and private funds to buy corporate stockholders, take the companies private, downsize them, break them up or strip their assets, and borrow more to buy back their stocks to create asset-price gains without increasing the economy’s tangible real asset base. So the financial sector, except for a brief period in the late 19th century, especially in Germany, has rarely financed productive growth. Financial engineering has replaced industrial engineering, just as in Antiquity creditors were asset strippers.
The one productive activity that the financial sector engaged in from the Bronze Age onward was to finance foreign trade. The original interest-bearing debt was owed by merchants to reimburse their silent partners, typically the palace or the temples, and in time wealthy individuals. But apart from financing trade – in products that were already produced – you’ve rarely had finance increase the means of production or economic growth. It’s almost always been to extract income. The income that finance extracts is at the expense of the rest of society. So the richer the financial sector is, the more austerity is imposed on the non-financial sector.