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The rich, as Voltaire said, require an abundant supply of poor.
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Top photo: Leo Russell
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Bottom photo: Leo Russell

From Adbusters #74, Nov-Dec 2007

The Empire of Debt

Money for nothing. Own a home for no money down. Do not pay for your appliances until 2012. This is the new American Dream, and for the last few years, millions have been giddily living it. Dead is the old version, the one historian James Truslow Adams introduced to the world as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

Such Puritan ideals – to work hard, to save for a better life – didn’t die from the natural causes of age and obsolescence. We killed them, willfully and purposefully, to create a new gilded age. As a society, we told ourselves we could all get rich, put our feet up on the decks of our new vacation homes, and let our money work for us. Earning is for the unenlightened. Equity is the new golden calf. Sadly, this is a hollow dream. Yes, luxury homes have been hitting new gargantuan heights. Ferrari sales have never been better. But much of the ever-expanding wealth is an illusory façade masking a teetering tower of debt – the greatest the world has seen. It will collapse, in a disaster of our own making.

Distress is already rumbling through Wall Street. Subprime mortgages leapt into the public consciousness this summer, becoming the catchphrase for the season. Hedge fund masterminds who command salaries in the tens of millions for their supposed financial prescience, but have little oversight or governance, bet their investors’ multi-multi-billions on the ability that subprime borrowers – who by very definition have lower incomes and/or rotten credit histories – would miraculously find means to pay back loans far exceeding what they earn. They didn’t, and surging loan defaults are sending shockwaves through the markets. Yet despite the turmoil this collapse is wreaking, it’s just the first ripple to hit the shore. America’s debt crisis runs deep.

How did it come to this? How did America, collectively and as individuals, become a nation addicted to debt, pushed to and over the edge of bankruptcy? The savings rate hangs below zero. Personal bankruptcies are reaching record heights. America’s total debt averages more than 0,000 for every man, woman, and child. On a broader scale, China holds nearly trillion in US debt. Japan and other countries are also owed big.

The story begins with labor. The decades following World War II were boom years. Economic growth was strong and powerful industrial unions made the middle-class dream attainable for working-class citizens. Workers bought homes and cars in such volume they gave rise to the modern suburb. But prosperity for wage earners reached its zenith in the early 1970s. By then, corporate America had begun shredding the implicit social contract it had with its workers for fear of increased foreign competition. Companies cut costs by finding cheap labor overseas, creating a drag on wages.

In 1972, wages reached their peak. According to the US department of Labor Statistics, workers earned 1 a week, in inflation-adjusted 1982 dollars. Since then, it’s been a downward slide. Today, real wages are nearly one-fifth lower – this, despite real GDP per capita doubling over the same period.

Even as wages fell, consumerism was encouraged to continue soaring to unprecedented heights. Buying stuff became a patriotic duty that distinguished citizens from their communist Cold War enemies. In the eighties, consumers’ growing fearlessness towards debt and their hunger for goods were met with Ronald Reagan’s deregulation the lending industry. Credit not only became more easily attainable, it became heavily marketed. Credit card debt, at 0 billion, is now triple what it was in 1988, after adjusting for inflation. Barbecues and TV screens are now the size of small cars. So much the better to fill the average new home, which in 2005 was more than 50 percent larger than the average home in 1973.

This is all great news for the corporate sector, which both earns money from loans to consumers, and profits from their spending. Better still, lower wages means lower costs and higher profits. These factors helped the stock market begin a record boom in the early ‘80s that has continued almost unabated until today.

These conditions created vast riches for one class of individuals in particular: those who control what is known as economic rent, which can be the income “earned” from the ownership of an asset. Some forms of economic rent include dividends from stocks, or capital gains from the sale of stocks or property. The alchemy of this rent is that it requires no effort to produce money.

Governments, for their part, encourage the investors, or rentier class. Economic rent, in the form of capital gains, is taxed at a lower rate than earned income in almost every industrialized country. In the US in particular, capital gains are being taxed at ever-decreasing rates. A person whose job pays 0,000 can owe 35 percent of that in taxes compared to the 15 percent tax rate for someone whose stock portfolio brings home the same amount.

Given a choice between working for diminishing returns and joining the leisurely riches of the rentier, people pursue the latter. If the rentier class is fabulously rich, why can’t everyone become a member? People of all professions sought to have their money work for them, pouring money into investments. This spurred the explosion of the finance industry, people who manage money for others. The now- trillion mutual fund industry is 700 times the size it was in the 1970s. Hedge funds, the money managers for the super-rich, numbered 500 companies in 1990, managing billion in assets. Now there are more than 6,000 hedge firms handling more than trillion dollars in assets.

In recent years, the further enticement of low interest rates has spawned a boom for two kinds of rentiers at the crux of the current debt crisis: home buyers and private equity firms. But it should also be noted that low interest rates are themselves the product of outsourced labor.

America gets goods from China. China gets dollars from the US. In order to keep the value of their currency low so that exports stay cheap, China doesn’t spend those dollars in China, but buys us assets like bonds. China now holds some 0 billion in such US IOUs. This massive borrowing of money from China (and to a lesser extent, from Japan) sent us interest rates to record lows.

Now the hamster wheel really gets spinning. Cheap borrowing costs encouraged millions of Americans to borrow more, buying homes and sending housing prices to record highs. Soaring house prices encouraged banks to loan freely, which sent even more buyers into the market – many who believed the hype that the real estate investment offered a never-ending escalator to riches and borrowed heavily to finance their dreams of getting ahead. People began borrowing against the skyrocketing value of their homes, to buy furniture, appliances, and TVs. These home equity loans added 0 billion to the US economy in 2004 alone.

It was all so utopian. The boom would feed on itself. Nobody would ever have to work again or produce anything of value. All that needed to be done was to keep buying and selling each other’s houses with money borrowed from the Chinese.

On Wall Street, private equity firms played a similar game: buying companies with borrowed billions, sacking employees to cut costs, and then selling the companies to someone else who did the same. These leveraged buyouts inflated share values, minting billionaires all around. The virtues that produce profit – innovation, entrepreneurialism and good management – stopped mattering so long as there were bountiful capital gains.

But the party is coming to a halt. An endless housing boom requires an endless supply of ever-greater suckers to pay more for the same homes. The rich, as Voltaire said, require an abundant supply of poor. Mortgage lenders have mined even deeper into the ranks of the poor to find takers for their loans. Among the practices included teaser loans that promised low interest rates that jumped up after the first few years. Sub-prime borrowers were told the future pain would never come, as they could keep re-financing against the ever-growing value of their homes. Lenders repackaged the shaky loans as bonds to sell to cash-hungry investors like hedge funds.

Of course, the supply of suckers inevitably ran out. Housing prices leveled off, beginning what promises to be a long, downward slide. Just as the housing boom fed upon itself, so too, will its collapse. The first wave of sub-prime borrowers have defaulted. A flood of foreclosures sent housing prices falling further. Lenders somehow got blindsided by news that poor people with bad credit couldn’t pay them back. Frightened, they staunched the flow of easy credit, further depleting the supply of homebuyers and squeezing debt-fueled private equity. Hedge funds that merrily bought sub-prime loans collapsed.

More borrowers will soon be unable to make payments on their homes and credit cards as the supply of rent dries up. Consumer spending, and thus corporate profits, will fall. The shrinking economy will further depress workers’ wages. For most people, the dream of easy money will never come true, because only the truly rich can live it. Everyone else will have to keep working for less, shackled to a mountain of debt.

_Dee Hon is a Vancouver-based writer has contributed to The Tyee and Vancouver magazine.

Adbusters Magazine
adbusters.org/the_magazine/74/The_Empire_of_Debt.html

Sorry… NOT!
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Image by eyewashdesign: A. Golden
New Yorkers Protest the US0 BILLION (US TRILLION) Wall Street BAILOUT: Wall Street, NYC – September 25, 2008

VOTE YOUR CONSCIENCE on 04 NOVEMBER 2008!

Photographer: a. golden, eyewash design – c. 2008.

Friends,

The richest 400 Americans — that’s right, just four-hundred people — own MORE than the bottom 150 million Americans COMBINED! 400 of the wealthiest Americans have got more stashed away than half the entire country! Their combined net worth is .6 trillion. During the eight years of the Bush Administration, their wealth has increased by nearly 0 billion — the same amount that they were demanding We give to them for the "bailout." Why don’t they just spend the money they made under Bush to bail themselves out? They’d still have nearly a trillion dollars left over to spread amongst themselves!

Of course, they are not going to do that — at least not voluntarily. George W. Bush was handed a 7 billion surplus when Bill Clinton left office. Because that money was OUR money and not HIS, he did what the rich prefer to do — spend it and never look back. Now we have a .5 trillion debt that will take seven generations from which to recover. Why — on –earth – did — our — "representatives" — give — these — robber — barons — $US850 BILLION — of – OUR — money?

Last week, proposed my own bailout plan. My suggestions, listed below, were predicated on the singular and simple belief that the rich must pull themselves up by their own platinum bootstraps. Sorry, fellows, but you drilled it into our heads one too many times: THERE…IS…NO…FREE… LUNCH ~ PERIOD! And thank you for encouraging us to hate people on welfare! So, there should have been NO HANDOUTS FROM US TO YOU! Last Friday, after voting AGAINST this BAILOUT, in an unprecedented turn of events, the House FLIP-FLOPPED their "No" Vote & said "Yes", in a rush version of a "bailout" bill vote. IN SPITE OF THE PEOPLE’S OVERWHELMING DISAPPROVAL OF THIS BAILOUT BILL… IN SPITE OF MILLIONS OF CALLS FROM THE PEOPLE CRASHING WASHINGTON "representatives’" PHONE LINES…IN SPITE OF CRASHING OUR POLITICIAN’S WEBSITES…IN SPITE OF HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE PROTESTING AROUND THE COUNTRY… THEY VOTED FOR THIS BAILOUT! The People first succeeded on Monday with the House, but failed do it with the Senate and then THE HOUSE TURNED ON US TOO!

It is clear, though, we cannot simply continue protesting without proposing exactly what it is we think THESE IDIOTS should/’ve do/one. So, after consulting with a number of people smarter than Phil Gramm, here’s the proposal, now known as "Mike’s Rescue Plan." (From Michael Moore’s Bailout Plan) It has 10 simple, straightforward points. They are that you DIDN’T, BUT SHOULD’VE:

1. APPOINTED A SPECIAL PROSECUTOR TO CRIMINALLY INDICT ANYONE ON WALL STREET WHO KNOWINGLY CONTRIBUTED TO THIS COLLAPSE. Before any new money was expended, Congress should have committed, by resolution, to CRIMINALLY PROSECUTE ANYONE who had ANYTHING to do with the attempted SACKING OF OUR ECONOMY. This means that anyone who committed insider trading, securities fraud or any action that helped bring about this collapse should have and MUST GO TO JAIL! This Congress SHOULD HAVE called for a Special Prosecutor who would vigorously go after everyone who created the mess, and anyone else who attempts to scam the public in future. (I like Elliot Spitzer ~ so, he played a little hanky-panky…Wall Street hates him & this is a GOOD thing.)

2. THE RICH SHOULD HAVE PAID FOR THEIR OWN BAILOUT! They may have to live in 5 houses instead of 7. They may have to drive 9 cars instead of 13. The chef for their mini-terriers may have to be reassigned. But there is no way in hell, after forcing family incomes to go down more than ,000 dollars during the Bush years, that working people and the middle class should have to fork over one dime to underwrite the next yacht purchase.

If they truly needed the 0 billion they say they needed, well, here is an easy way they could have raised it:

a) Every couple makeing over a million dollars a year and every single taxpayer who makes over 0,000 a year should pay a 10% surcharge tax for five years. (It’s the Senator Sanders plan. He’s like Colonel Sanders, only he’s out to fry the right chickens.) That means the rich would have still been paying less income tax than when Carter was president. That would have raise a total of 0 billion.

b) Like nearly every other democracy, they should have charged a 0.25% tax on every stock transaction. This would have raised more than 0 billion in a year.

c) Because every stockholder is a patriotic American, stockholders should have forgone receiving a dividend check for ONE quarter and instead this money would have gone the treasury to help pay for the bullsh*t bailout.

d) 25% of major U.S. corporations currently pay NO federal income tax. Federal corporate tax revenues currently amount to 1.7% of the GDP compared to 5% in the 1950s. If we raised the corporate income tax BACK to the levels of the 1950s, this would give us an extra 0 billion.

All of this combined should have been enough to end the calamity. The rich would have gotten to keep their mansions and their servants and our United States government ("COUNTRY FIRST!") would’ve have a little leftover to repair some roads, bridges and schools…

3. YOU SHOULD HAVE BAIL OUT THE PEOPLE LOSING THEIR HOMES, NOT THE PEOPLE WHO WILL BUILD AN EIGHTH HOME! There are 1.3 million homes in foreclosure right now. That is what is at the heart of this problem. So, instead of giving the money to the banks as a gift, they should have paid down each of these mortgages by 0,000. They should have forced the banks to renegotiate the mortgage so the homeowner could pay on its current value. To insure that this help wouldn’t go to speculators and those who tried to making money by flipping houses, the bailout should have only been for people’s primary residences. And, in return for the 0K pay-down on the existing mortgage, the government would have gotten to share in the holding of the mortgage so it could get some of its money back. Thus, the total initial cost of fixing the mortgage crisis at its roots (instead of with the greedy lenders) is 0 billion, not 0 BILLION.

And let’s set the record straight. People who have defaulted on their mortgages are not "bad risks." They are our fellow Americans, and all they wanted was what we all want: a home to call their own. But, during the Bush years, millions of the People lost the decent paying jobs they had. SIX MILLION fell into poverty! SEVEN MILLION lost their health insurance! And, every one of them saw their real wages go DOWN by ,000! Those who DARE look down on these Americans who got hit with one bad break after another should be ASHAMED.! We are a better, stronger, safer and happier society when all of our citizens can afford to live in a home they own.

4. THERE SHOULD HAVE BEEN A STIPULATION THAT IF YOUR BANK OR COMPANY GOT ANY OF OUR MONEY IN A "BAILOUT," THEN WE OWN YOU. Sorry, that’s how it’s done. If the bank gives me money so I can buy a house, the bank "owns" that house until I pay it all back — with interest. Same deal for Wall Street. Whatever money you need to stay afloat, if our government considers you a safe risk — and necessary for the good of the country — then you can get a loan, but WE SHOULD OWN YOU. If you default, we will sell you. This is how the Swedish government did it and it worked.

5. ALL REGULATIONS SHOULD HAVE BEEN BE RESTORED. THE REAGAN REVOLUTION IS DEAD! This catastrophe happened because we let the fox have the keys to the hen-house. In 1999, Phil Gramm authored a bill to remove all the regulations that governed Wall Street and our banking system. The bill passed and Clinton signed it. Here’s what Sen.Phil Gramm, McCain’s chief economic advisor, said at the bill signing:

"In the 1930s … it was believed that government was the answer. It was believed that stability and growth came from government overriding the functioning of free markets.

"We are here today to repeal [that] because we have learned that government is not the answer. We have learned that freedom and competition are the answers. We have learned that we promote economic growth and we promote stability by having competition and freedom.

"I am proud to be here because this is an important bill; it is a deregulatory bill. I believe that that is the wave of the future, and I am awfully proud to have been a part of making it a reality."

FOR THIS NOT TO REOCCUR, This BILL SHOULD HAVE BEEN REPEALED! Bill Clinton could have helped by leading the effort for the repeal of the Gramm bill and the reinstating of even tougher regulations regarding our financial institutions. And when they were done with that, they should have restored the regulations for the airlines, the inspection of our food, the oil industry, OSHA, and every other entity that affects our daily lives. All oversight provisions for any "bailout" should have had enforcement monies attached to them and criminal penalties for all offenders.

6. IF IT’S TOO BIG TO FAIL, THEN THAT MEANS IT’S TOO BIG TO EXIST! Allowing the creation of these mega-mergers and not enforcing the monopoly and anti-trust laws has allowed a number of financial institutions and corporations to become so large, the very thought of their collapse means an even bigger collapse across the entire economy. No ONE or TWO companies should EVER have this kind of power! The so-called "economic Pearl Harbor" can’t happen when you have hundreds — thousands — of institutions where people have their money. When we have a dozen auto companies, if one goes belly-up, we DON’T FACE A NATIONAL DISASTER! If we have three separately-owned daily newspapers in your town, then one media company can’t call all the shots (I know… What am I thinking?! Who reads a paper anymore? Sure glad all those mergers and buyouts left us with a STRONG and "FREE" press!). Laws Should have been enacted to prevent companies from being so large and dominant that with one slingshot to the eye, the GIANT FALLS and DIES. And no institution should be allowed to set up money schemes that NO ONE understands. If you can’t explain it in two sentences, you shouldn’t be taking anyone’s money!

7. NO EXECUTIVE SHOULD EVER BE PAID MORE THAN 40 TIMES THEIR AVERAGE EMPLOYEE, AND NO EXECUTIVE SHOULD RECEIVE ANY KIND OF "PARACHUTE" OTHER THAN THE VERY GENEROUS SALARY HE OR SHE MADE WHILE WORKING FOR THE COMPANY. In 1980, the average American CEO made 45 times what their employees made. By 2003, they were making 254 times what their workers made. After 8 years of Bush, they now make over 400 times what their average employee makes. How We have allowed this to happen at publicly held companies is beyond reason. In Britain, the average CEO makes 28 times what their average employee makes. In Japan, it’s only 17 times! The last I heard, the CEO of Toyota was living the high life in Tokyo. How does he do it on so little money? Seriously, this is an OUTRAGE! We have created the mess we’re in by letting the people at the top become bloated beyond belief with millions of dollars. THIS HAS TO STOP! Not only should no executive who receives help out of this mess profit from it, but any executive who was in charge of running his company into the ground should be FIRED before the company receives ANY help.

8. CONGRESS SHOULD HAVE STRENGTHENED THE FDIC AND MADE IT A MODEL FOR PROTECTING NOT ONLY PEOPLE’S SAVINGS, BUT ALSO THEIR PENSIONS AND THEIR HOMES. Obama was correct to propose expanding FDIC protection of people’s savings in their banks to 0,000. But, this same sort of government insurance must be given to our NEVER have to worry about whether or not the money they’ve put away for their old age will be there. This should have meant strict government oversight of companies who manage their employees’ funds — or perhaps it means the companies should have been forced to turn over those funds and their management to the government? People’s private retirement funds must also be protected, but perhaps it’s time to consider not having one’s retirement invested in the casino known as the stock market??? Our government should have a solemn duty to guarantee that no one who grows old in this country has to worry about becoming destitute.

9. EVERYBODY NEEDS TO TAKE A DEEP BREATH, CALM DOWN, AND NOT LET FEAR RULE THE DAY. Turn off your TVs! We are NOT in the Second Great Depression. The sky is NOT falling, Chicken Little! Pundits and politicians have lied to us so FAST and FURIOUS it’s hard not to be affected by all the fear mongering. Even I wrote to and repeated what I heard on the news last week, that the Dow had the biggest one day drop in its history. Well, that was true in terms of points, but its 7% drop came nowhere close to Black Monday in 1987 when the stock market in one day lost 23% of its value. In the ’80s, 3,000 banks closed, but America didn’t go out of business. These institutions have always had their ups and downs and eventually it works out. It has to, because the rich do not like their wealth being disrupted! They have a vested interest in calming things down and getting back into their Jacuzzis before they slip into their million thread-count sheets to drift off to a peaceful, Vodka tonic and Ambien-induced slumber.

As crazy as things are right now, tens of thousands of people got a car loan last week. Thousands went to the bank and got a mortgage to buy a home. Students just back to college found banks more than happy to put them into hock for the next 15 years with a student loan. I was even pre-approved for a USK personal loan. Yes, life has gone on with little-or-no-change (other than the whopping 6.1% umeployment rate, but that happened last month). Not a single person lost any of his/her monies in bank, or a treasury note, or in a CD. And, the perhaps the most amazing thing is that the American public FINALLY didn’t buy the scare campaign. The citizens didn’t blink, instead telling Congress to take that bailout and shove it. THAT was impressive. Why didn’t the population succumb to the fright-filled warnings from their president and his cronies? Well, you can only say ‘Saddam has the bomb’ so many times before the people realize you’re a lying sack of shit. After eight long years, the nation is worn out and simply can’t take it any longer. The WORLD is fed up & I don’t blame them.

10. THEY SHOULD HAVE CREATED A NATIONAL BANK, A "PEOPLE’S BANK." Since they’re really itching to print up a trillion dollars, instead of giving it to a few rich people, why don’t We give it to ourselves? Now that We own Freddie and Fannie, why not set up a People’s bank? One that can provide low-interest loans for all sorts of people who want to own a home, start a small business, go to school, come up with the cure for cancer or create the next great invention. And, now that we own AIG – the country’s largest insurance company – let’s take the next step and PROVIDE HEALTH INSURANCE FOR EVERYONE. MEDICARE FOR ALL! It will SAVE us SO MUCH MONEY in the LONG RUN (not to mention bring peace of mind to all). And, America won’t be 12th on the life expectancy list! We’ll be able to have a longer lifespan, enjoying our government-protected pension and will live to see the day when the corporate criminals who caused this much misery are let out of prison so that We can help re-acclimate them to plain old ordinary, civilian life — a life with ONE nice home and ONE gas-free car invented with help from the People’s Bank.

P.S. Call your Senators NOW !!! —> www.visi.com/juan/congress/

Since they voted against passing the extension of unemployment benefits and skipped out to "campaign" to us to be re-elected…call them and tell them you will vote for the other "guy" if they don’t get their act together!

UPDATE:

The Bailout Is A Truly Evil Disaster And Enabler Pelosi Must Go

We are hearing more and more reports of how badly the ill-advised banker’s bailout is being handled, multi-million dollar bonuses for Paulson’s old cronies at Goldman Sachs, billions going to finance the takeover of rival banks, making the "too big to fail" even bigger, and the taxpayer getting an otherwise rotten deal for their investment. We even heard a Republic senator asking how fast they could blow the money.

NONE of this could have happened without the fawning complicity of Nancy Pelosi, who infamously said it was Bush’s proposal, INSTEAD of coming forward with a robust alternative plan. Just like Bush, she believes she is immune, she believes she is unaccountable, and shame on us if we don’t do everything we can to defeat her this Tuesday, and replace her with Cindy Sheehan.

Here is Cindy’s last TV spot. Please make whatever donation you can to put this ad on the air in these critical final days.

Last Cindy TV Spot Action Page:
www.usalone.com/cindy/donations_tv2.php

There is still time for you to make a real difference. We thank all of our participants who have already donated so generously to make this campaign what it is. For those who cannot make a contribution, please consider helping with the phone banking, and there is a link for that also on the page above.

The one thing we know is that we must continue to speak out. We must continue to challenge. Surrendering is what our current so-called representatives in Congress are so prone to, NOT what we do. Ultimate victory is not only possible, it is assured if we work as hard as we can for real change, not just the rebranding of the same old boys’
network.

And we promise you, immediately after the election we will go right back to work on pure issue advocacy full time, to continue to build the base of action for the future.

Paid for by Cindy Sheehan for Congress

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