Debt is a bet

For as long as men have sought profit from investment there have been speculative bubbles. Every one of those investments are bets that the investment will become worth more than what was invested. The bet is based on expectation of growth in value, but that expectation is not always wise, and may be unduly influenced by the enthusiasm and greed of others. Some of those expectations are not fulfilled, and the investment becomes a loss.

As long as it is many investors making small investments in many different things, without imitating others or playing similar strategies based on the same information, the losses may be spread over time among the investors, but most of them may come out ahead, at least for a long while.

However, when too many play a similar strategy, or capital becomes excessively concentrated in the control of a few investors playing a similar strategy, we get a speculative bubble, a bet on growth that cannot be sustained, and which must end in a crash.

A crash of a bubble backed by commodities that cannot be replicated without limit will at least be contained in its severity and duration by the supply of the backing commodities. No so if the bubble is of investments in debt instruments backed only by other debt instruments and an expectation that the supply of the ultimate debt instruments will not grow faster than the gross product of the economy. If the speculative vehicles become untethered from commodities, the inevitable positive feedback loop will drive expansion of a bubble whose burst cannot be indefinitely postponed. Every effort to postpone the crash will make the crash worse. In an interconnected world economy, the cascade of business failures that a crash brings will bring extreme misery to almost everyone. The last time that happened it cost perhaps 100 million deaths, and that was before so many nations had nuclear weapons ready to launch against one another.

The coming crash is perhaps the most anticipated of all time. So many now expect that that the expectation is self-fulfilling. Yet it seems no one in a position of power is willing to admit it is coming, or to tell the people the truth that nothing can be done to avoid it at this late date. They make lying promises that they can at least stave off catastrophe by government spending to create jobs and stimulate demand, or by reducing taxes and regulations to encourage investment in jobs and growth, or that entitlement benefits can continue, or that government can borrow enough to pay for all of that.

These are all lies and in this campaign season we need to call the candidates out on it. We are not going to grow ourselves out of this one. Most of the growth that seemed able to do that over the last 60 years has been a series of speculative bubbles, some of which have already collapsed, and the rest of which are overdue to do so.

The main issue in the upcoming election is who will appoint which judges. It is essential that those appointments be of strict constructionists who will roll back 200 years of wrong decisions that have enabled departure from compliance with the Constitution as originally meant and understood. Those who rely on those departures will protest, but none of the apparent benefits they think the departures have brought are sustainable. They are all losing bets, and it will soon be time to count the money because the dealing's done.

No president or legislature or government can do anything but prepare for recovery after the crash has run its course. Of course, no candidate who is honest about our prospects can get elected, but if they are worthy of an office they need to abandon their effort to win and instead prepare the people for what lies ahead. Twenty years after the crash people may remember who told them the truth and tried to get them ready.

The solution, if we had acted sooner

The coming crash could have been avoided if we had taken the right steps at least 50 years ago, or even as late as 30 years ago, although that would have been much more difficult. The solutions begin with the realization that no government fiscal or monetary policy adjustments can manage the business cycle as long as currency is fiat and there are no mechanisms in place to prick bubbles while they are still small. But it is politically impossible to have a regime picking and choosing which bubbles to prick and when. Investors are going to speculate, and there is nothing government can or should try to do to manage how they do that. However, it can impose constraints that will schedule the pricking in a predictable way.

The solution is not new. It goes back to the ancient Hebrews, who called it shmita. It was a law that every seventh year the fields be left fallow (Exodus 23:11) and all debts be cancelled (Nehemiah 10:31). Some version of this law is what the nations of the Earth need today, not because it is Biblical law, but because it is a very good idea, for many reasons.

The idea is related to the experience of agrarian societies with cycles of abundant and lean harvests. We have evidence of this in the story of Joseph in Egypt who prescribed storing enough food during seven good years to sustain the people during seven years of bad harvests (Genesis 41:34). Of course, we have tried to have similar food bank programs in recent times, but those are currently unsupported.

Agrarian societies who depend on a single annual harvest have had to develop the technology, infrastructure, and governance to preserve and ration food consumption until the next harvest. Since not all harvests are good, they need to go further and preserve enough for perhaps another one or two years or more. Combined with the depletion of soil from unbroken annual cultivation, farmers have discovered through hard experience the need to allow fields to remain fallow for a year or more at regular intervals.

However, stored good is an asset that can become a speculative investment. It can be borrowed and repaid in an amount greater than the amount borrowed, even without a medium of exchange. That is debt, and by cancelling all debts on the same cycle as the suspension of production, speculative bubbles are never allowed to grow into a crash. They are all pricked at the same time whether they need to be or not. That takes any political heat off anyone who might otherwise attempt to prick the right bubbles at the right time and perhaps missing some.

To apply the solution of shmita to latter-day economies we need to suspend more than just agricultural production. We need to suspend all commodity production. The suspension need not be for an entire year, but it needs to be long enough to compel everyone do a minimal amount of storage and saving and not rely on just-in-time (JIT) deliveries of supplies. Competition now discourages the costs of storage, so a constraint is needed to offset that.

The U.S. Constitution presently does not provide authority for a shmita regime, and even if it did, for the U.S. or any one country to impose it on itself if other nations did not would put it at an unacceptable competitive disadvantage. There would need to be a treaty among the leading producing nations to impose nearly the same shmita rule on all of them, and it would need to be effectively enforced.

The following constitutional amendment, or one like it, might provide the solution:

Power to cancel or suspend economic activity
Congress shall have, and with a treaty with other nations collectively producing more than half of the world's tangible goods, shall exercise, power to do the following for each year evenly divisible by seven, for a shmita period at least three and not more than nine months:
  1. Cancel all debts, securities, fiat currencies, and derivatives thereof;
  2. Liquidate or break up all for-profit corporate entities and activities into organizations comprised of not more than 300 individuals and investors;
  3. Regulate emergent behavior that might act in concert like a corporate entity;
  4. Suspend all extraction, including mining planting, harvesting, and fishing, all manufacturing, and all transport beyond 100 kilometers of durable goods, other than those essential for defense, justice and law enforcement, water, power, or medical services;
  5. Promote storage systems to enable persons to endure the shmita period;
  6. Forbid the importation of goods subject to the shmita during the shmita period;
  7. Call out militia to enforce the shmita.

Note that the cancellation would include government debt and debt instruments like fiat currencies. It would encourage everyone to convert all their assets denominated in fiat currencies into tangible commodities every seven years. Any currency that remained would have to be backed by commodities, and not bear interest or pay profits or dividends. No more 30-year mortgages. People would have less than seven years to pay off a house or lose it, and if the lender failed to repossess on a defaulted loan before the shmita period kicked in, the borrower would have the debt cancelled and get to keep the collateral free and clear.

Compensation for labor also represents a debt, so everyone would be laid off during the shmita period. This would actually result in nearly full employment, which can only be attained by periodically making everyone unemployed except as volunteers, which would hopefully provide critical services.

For-profit corporate entities also represent a kind of debt, and this plan would disperse them into small units that might re-assemble after the shmita period, but perhaps in quite different configurations, with different strategies than were played by the parent organization.

The business cycle has become a national security threat. The collapse of the financial sector would cause damage that if done by a foreign power would be grounds for going to war. The administrative methods of the Dodd-Frank Act are totally inadequate. Something much more effective is needed, and that is what is proposed.

Politically impossible? Of course. Today. After the Crash, maybe not, if those of us who are still alive learn the right lessons from it. It will be a hard lesson, and there may not be enough to bury all the dead. The author of this piece does not expect to be one of the survivors, but perhaps one will remember these words.

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