Saturday, November 05, 2011

Understanding Our Confidence Crisis

Generally, I am not in favor of reducing things to their most digestible. We live in a complex world and reducing things to "good vs. bad" is rarely helpful. Topics take time to sift through and understand. This is only natural. Although, I also agree, sometimes a step back to the fundamental issues at hand is helpful. With few notable exceptions (Alan Woods, Martin Wolf), commentary surrounding Europe's debt crisis has been muddled at best and purposefully confusing at worst. If you aren't fluent in the technocratic economic vernacular of the various talking heads, things can get a bit distorted.

First off, it should be noted the crisis in Europe is not simply an "economic" crisis. It is a crisis of a certain kind of economics- a certain way we produce and distribute goods. It is a crisis of Capitalism. What started as a banking crisis in the United States has morphed into a national debt crisis in Europe. This has been complicated further due to the strange economic union European nations have, both formally and informally. The fact that many sovereign nations have given up some amount of sovereignty in order to share a common currency magnifies the woes of a certain otherwise fairly economically insignificant nation.

While there are many specific areas one could follow up on in that last paragraph, let us step back to recognize the inherent crisis. We hear a lot about confidence. Consumer confidence; business confidence; market confidence; etc. (One would think the world is made up of a bunch of teenage boys afraid to cross the dance floor and ask for a dance from the equally unsure teenage girls gathered on the other side.) Consumer confidence is fairly straight forward. Working people are less likely to spend money when they are not so sure they will have more money in the future. This is the result of orchestrated attacks on labor. We have less economic power, more job uncertainty, and wage stagnation. For some time credit masked this crisis of consumer confidence, but now that has largely dried up. Business and market confidence, however, are a bit different. Their confidence is more about making certain margins that will satisfy shareholders than any sort of tangible concern for the material needs of their future. They are concerned they can not bring back a certain amount of profit from whatever it is they produce, be it a securitization or a toothbrush. If consumers are timid with their ever increasingly limited finances, profit margins start to decline. It's a vicious (business) cycle. This leads us to one of the central, and tragically hilarious, contradictions of Capitalism. What we have is a crisis of overproduction.

We have too much stuff. Not, mind you, too much stuff in the sense that everyone has food, shelter, and security. These needs are not met, not even close. We have too much stuff in the sense that those who own industry can not make a large enough profit off of what is already produced. This is the tragically hilarious part. We have people starving while food rots in storage bins. We have people sleeping on the streets next to perfectly good homes wasting away unoccupied in foreclosures. If someone from another planet was to look at how we produce, distribute, and consume resources, they would probably conclude we are not an intelligent lifeform at all. (Perhaps this is the reason we have yet to be contacted by any extraterrestrials?)

Further compounding this central comedy/tragedy is the inability of the bourgeoisie to work together, even to save their own economic system. Their desire, and objective need, for profit has made them paranoid to an alarming degree. No one is to be trusted. Really, from their perspective, the crisis isn't too difficult to at least find a "working" solution. Either you bail Greece out or you don't. Either you take some of your massive accumulated wealth and invest it, as the Americans did with TARP, in saving your current structure, or you do not. Allowing a default, whether "orderly" or not, did not work with Lehman Brothers and it will not work with Greece. An "orderly" default is completely nonsensical. This is like allowing a glass bottle to fall to the floor and trying to guess where each one of the broken pieces will end up. It simply can not be done. The soap opera over the various half-hearted agreements the leaders of the Eurozone have come up with has been much more confusing than reassuring. This furthers the uncertainty the market hates so viciously.

Regardless, a "working" solution does not resolve inherent contradictions. In the United States this is most clear. The bank bail-out may have stopping the gushing blood, but the disease is still flowing throughout Uncle Sam's veins. Slow growth, high unemployment, and high debt are obviously issues that don't escape us here in America. Even with this so-called solution, things can not go back to what was normal.

The victim is blamed. The "lazy" Greek worker. The "entitlement culture" working people across the advanced Capitalist countries have grown accustomed to. The bourgeoisie tells us in order for their system to work again, our living standard must be brought down. The post-war boom is over. Austerity is the new "working" solution.

Here is where our confidence, that of the ninety-nine percent, is most needed. We have a problem of income distribution. This needs to be recognized. Too much of society's wealth is concentrated in too few hands. Far from being "job creators," the one percent are economy destabilizers. Instead of risky physical production, they have poured a massive amount of money into complex financial products which promised little risk and big rewards but have proved worthless at best and harmful at worst. The way to correct this is to put those who actually produce the goods and services we all rely on in control them. In reality, the one percent are the lazy ones. They are the ones who do little work which could be considered socially necessary. They have developed an entitlement culture that assumes they deserve massive profits because a piece of paper says so. They can barely hide their disdain for democracy. (Notice the reaction to the proposed, then rescinded, popular referendum on the bail-out agreement in Greece.)

We need the confidence, and leadership, to intervene in our own history. This, of course, is no easy task. It takes hard work, organization, etc. But, this is the only solution that really works for the ninety nine percent of us. Hyperbole aside, it is the only solution that will work for humanity.