The War Against Nobody

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Isn’t this the second day of spring?

You wouldn’t think so. Here, it is just another cold, dark day in London.

And in the U.S. markets, yesterday passed as just another day without history. Nothing much happened. Still, we thought we felt a chilly wind…like a ghost crossing a room. We thought we saw the candles flicker.

History hesitates. History feints. History even seems to pause. But, history never stops. Here we offer a prediction: history will grind Mr. Greenspan’s reputation to dust — along with the finances of millions of American families.

“The national debt — currently over $8 trillion — is only the tip of the iceberg,” explains a review of Kevin Phillips’s new book, American Theocracy.

“There has also been an explosion of corporate debt, state and local bonded debt, international debt through huge trade imbalances, and consumer debt (mostly in the form of credit-card balances and aggressively marketed home-mortgage packages). Taken together, this present and future debt may exceed $70 trillion.

“The creation of a national-debt culture, Phillips argues, although exacerbated by the policies of the Bush administration, has been the work of many people over many decades — among them Alan Greenspan, who, he acidly notes, blithely and irresponsibly ignored the rising debt to avoid pricking the stock-market bubble it helped produce. It is most of all a product of the ‘financialization’ of the American economy — the turn away from manufacturing and toward an economy based on moving and managing money.”

Most economists would put it differently. They would say that the U.S. has moved from old industry — making things — to a new form of industry in which services are emphasized. But the service that is offered is a financial one — helping Americans borrow money they can’t pay back and spend it on things they can’t afford.

A recent study by the Fed tells us where this new service economy has gotten us:

“The typical family now has $3,800 in the bank, but owes $2,200 on a credit card. The typical family owns a house worth $160,000, but has a mortgage of $95,000 on it. The typical family earns $43,000 per year, but has no bonds, no mutual funds, no stocks, and no retirement plan.”

The Washington Post showed the figures to financial planners. “What do you think of this?” asked the newspaper. The planners were appalled. “I had no idea that it was this bad,” said one.

Meanwhile, inflation is supposed to be under control, but the typical family’s living costs continue to rise like suds at a sewage plant. “Gas price soars,” says an MSNBC headline. “Retirees face a costly burden for health care,” adds another source.

Why are costs rising? Well, the Bank of Greenspan, now the Bank of Bernanke, added $827 billion to the nation’s money supply (M3) in the last 12 months. The forces of deflation — India, China, the Internet, and Wal-Mart — kept prices down for many things. But, the new money had to go somewhere. So, it went into the items that cheap, globalized labor couldn’t touch: housing, education, health care, gold, and resources.

Eventually, globalization may cut into education and health-care costs, too — colleague Lila Rajiva tells us that you can get a perfectly good professional education in India for less than a quarter of the charge in the United States, but for the moment, American families struggle to keep up with rising costs on stable or declining earnings.

Well, thank you, Alan Greenspan.

And thank you, also, George W. Bush. No president has ever added so much to the typical family’s burdens. The debt ceiling has been raised four times during the younger Bush’s years. If it is raised any more, it may pose a hazard to Ben Bernanke’s helicopter — for, how will the government continue to borrow while the Fed is undermining the value of the currency it is borrowing in? And yet, the spending goes on. The War Against Nobody, alone, will cost the typical American family about $10,000 — or about a sixth of its entire net worth.

We don’t know why Americans stand for it, but they don’t seem to notice. Or it doesn’t seem to matter. History is dead, they believe. From here on out, everything just gets better.

But we thought we felt that chilly breeze…as if history had begun to stir.

u2022 Addison made an appearance on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” this morning to talk about Empire of Debt and discuss the economic choices that have put the United States in the current economic condition.

“I think it went well,” Addison said. “We talked for 45 minutes and covered a lot of ground.”

“The best part, though — the president had to wait for us to finish the interview. We held up Bush’s speech by 45 seconds.

“Heh.”

u2022 Just months after immigrant youths took to the streets in France to fight discrimination, more protests and subsequent riots cropped up again this past week. This time, students and labor unions seek to battle the Contrat Premiere Embauche (CPE), or the First Job Contract law, which states that an employer has the right to fire an employee within the first two years on the job without giving a reason.

In Paris, on Thursday, March 16, 2006, those opposed to the First Job Contract law made their voices heard. “Next to the capital’s famous Bon Marche department store, rioters torched a newspaper stand at the end of an otherwise boisterous and peaceful march by tens of thousands of whistling, chanting, drum-beating students in the Left Bank,” reports the AP. “Police fired rubber pellets to disperse the rioters, who formed a very small part of the demonstrators.”

u2022 India’s stock market just hit an all-time high, but in the Middle East, several markets collapsed last week.

“In Egypt, the Cairo stock market dropped 11.3 percent in early afternoon [Tuesday] trade, its biggest single-day drop in five years. The index was at 5,589 points compared with the close Monday of 6,296,” says Omar Hasan for Middle East Online.

“The Doha Securities Market closed down 3.3 percent at 9,282.42 points. It is 16 percent below last year’s close of 11,053.24 points and down 25 percent on its all-time high of 12,400 points recorded late last year.

“It is a chain reaction. Saudi investors have withdrawn much of their money from stock markets in the Middle East, including Egypt and Jordan, causing them to decline.”

Gulf markets have increased six- to seven-fold since 2001 due to abundant liquidity generated from a sharp rise in oil revenues. The upward trend and lucrative profits lured millions of small investors, including women.

“Almost 60 percent of Saudi investors are small dealers. They depend mainly on speculation and whenever a decline happens they try to exit, causing the market to slide,” Saudi economist Abdul Aziz al-Daghestani said.

“Recently it became like gambling and not investment in most Gulf markets. That’s why we are seeing the fast fall.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis.

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