Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Shallow Conceit of the North London Luvvie

Back in the 2000s Ross Ashcroft was briefly a BBCer and then an assistant theater director. But after the crash of 2008 he has reached for bigger things and in 2012 released a documentary on all the troubles of the world, entitled Four Horsemen. It got tons of awards at film festivals. It's available on YouTube.

You would expect that it to be pathetically banal and devoid of almost anything that might qualify as an idea. Why would it? You tell me. Where in the world would a theater person in today's London ever run into someone with an idea that wasn't safely approved by the left-wing culture that dominates the minds of everyone in the arts?

But let's take a look at Four Horsemen anyway.

The Four Horsemen of this modern apocalypse are: the rapacious financial system, escalating organized violence, abject poverty for billions, and exhaustion of our natural resources. Filmmaker Ashcroft reviews these problems in four sections of his documentary.

6:30 Empires. Empires do end, and the west has not yet come to terms with its fading supremacy. And it makes sense, from Gen. Glubb's life cycle of empires, 250 years from pioneers to conquest, commerce, affluence, intellect, and ending in decadence. Imagine an overextended military, conspicuous consumption, living off the state, and an obsession with sex. And debasement of the currency. In our decadent age everyone scrambles for the spoils amid the distraction of bread and circuses. And the baby boomers did it! Meanwhile millions of people go to bed every night hungry. So why are we still struggling to distribute wealth fairly?

16:45 Banking. Is the problem "systemic?" We review the evils of fractional-reserve banking, fiat currency, and we get the usual focus on greedy bankers and Goldman Sachs, and the evil of forcing mortgages on poor people. It's all based on the notion of "growth forever." Did you know that 97% of the money in the world is "debt?"

50:51 Terrorism. Ashocroft's got a "root cause" explanation of terrorism. The "inherent iniquity in our system of money, banking and politics has not just had consequences domestically," but also globally. Terrorism is thus a push-back against western neo-colonialism. First there's the military and its contractors, then the consultants and contractors that get the contracts from foreign aid and World Bank loans. But the aid benefits the local elites, and the people have to pay back the debt. Then there is Chile. Yes, we can still haul Noam Chomsky in front of the camera to remember that the US intervention in Chile in 1973 amounted to terrorism. But with all this outrage is it any wonder that people have no recourse but to resort to terror?

1:02:52 Resources. We have got to the end of the benefits of economic growth; the more we grow the more we create poverty. It's a question of competition vs. cooperation. We need a progressive move from globalization to localization, production not consumption.

1:13:00 Progress. There's a tendency to Hollywoodization these days. Everything must be a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. There's got to be a villain, and usually a sacrificial victim. So it's hard to see that the system is flawed.

So what's to be done? We need to make societies more equal and reduce income difference; that will help solve environmental problems. We need to understand that the problem is pretty simple. It's about power, and its about democracy. So we need to sweep away the disinformation of neoclassical economics and the academic gatekeepers with the cleansing truth of the internet. And we need to question the system of fiat money. It all comes down to a three point plan:

  1. Return to gold as the basis of money, and maybe stage a debt jubilee, since debt is slavery.
  2. Tax consumption instead of labor.
  3. Return to a system with workers owning the place where they work and produce.
It's hard to know where to begin in analyzing such a precipitate of shallowness, but let's start with the three point program.

Yes, going back to gold and ending fractional-reserve banking is a great idea, but it's a good idea to realize why we have a fiat currency and persistent inflation. The reason is that governments are forever running out of money, or crashing the economic system with their economic interventions. The easiest way for a government to "get out of a jam" is to print money, devaluing debt and stealing the savings of ordinary people. Any big government program, whether a war on fascism or a war on poverty, ends up with a lot of government debt, and ends up with some kind of debt default.

That's why banks are such a problem, whichever party is in power. Ever since the Dutch invented the National Debt in the 16th century the government's debt has been the foundation of the credit system and the credit system has been the foundation of the rest of the economy. The banks are merely intermediaries between the government debt and the rest of the economy. The reason that bankers seem to be manipulating the system is that they are being tossed around by the machinations of the government's debt and cheap money operations. The first and most important government program is the program to sell the government's debt; that debt gets sold to bankers who are directed to use government debt for their reserves. Over time, the government regulates the banks in more and more detail, and over time the bankers learn how to manipulate their masters in the phenomenon we call "regulatory capture." Thus "greedy bankers."

In the run-up to the Crash of 2008 the government manipulation was particularly egregious because the US government had developed a policy over decades to extend "affordable housing" to subprime mortgage borrowers (i.e. minorities). The government mortgage twins, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac developed policy to force banks to originate more and more subprime (i.e. low down payment, low credit rating) loans. But who would buy these loans from the banks and Fannie and Freddie? Simple. The investment banks like Goldman Sachs repackaged the loans and with a bit of financial trickery and sold securities that were rated AAA and could therefore be bought by pension funds and insurance companies. It all worked as long as the band kept playing.

If you read old stuff like Lombard Street by Walter Bagehot you get to understand how how the credit system works. It needs two things. And it needs debtors that can make their payments. And it needs debt that is properly collaterialized, so that the principal can be repaid if the debtor fails to service the loan.  When you get a situation where either of the two requisites are in question then you get a crisis of confidence; people start to wonder if their counterparty is sound or whether they might fail in a crash. So when the government floats about a trillion dollars in mortgages that are badly collateralized to borrowers that can't afford any downturn and maybe even can't afford to make payments right now... Well you get a financial system that is extremely fragile and will crash as soon as things start to go south and people really start to worry and take their money out of the market. Of course, you'll expose all kinds of bad apples when the market crashes, but the villain at the bottom of the story is not the greedy banker but the government that's mucking about with the credit system to give money or affordable home mortgages to its supporters.

So that's why we have fiat money. What about taxing consumption instead of labor? It's a good idea; that's what we all had in the 19th century during times of peace. But when the government gets above a certain size, consumption taxes become a real burden on the poor. And then you need to start taxing income. We could only return to a consumption tax system if we reduced government down to about 10-15% of GDP instead of the 35-40% of GDP right now. We could do it if we ended government pensions including Social Security, government health care such as Medicare, and government education.

The final item in Ashcroft's plan is to let the workers own the factors of production. There is already a government program to encourage this, the Employee Stock Ownership Plan or ESOP. But critics say that it's not such a good idea for ordinary employees to own a share in their employer's business. What happens if the company goes broke? Then the worker loses his job and his savings. There is another way to do this: privatize Social Security and let workers buy ETFs featuring the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ 100. Then workers get a part ownership in the income-generating potential of the whole economy. It's called diversification.

Now let's go back to the Four Horsemen.

Rapacious Financial System. The only way to fix this is to downsize government radically, so that government and its financing needs do not bulk so large in the financial picture. We have crazy banks because we have crazy governments.

Escalating Organized Violence. Yep, it's a problem, but it's localized at the borders of Islam. The Muslim peoples, particularly the Muslim Arabs, are having a horrific time, partly due to the west carving the Arab lands up a century ago at the end of World War I. Part of it is due to the pre-individualist, tribal society in the Middle East. Probably we are going to face a world war over Islam, and it ain't gonna be pretty.

Abject Poverty for Billions. Actually, people in the world are emerging from poverty at an astonishing rate, led by the economic growth in China and India. There has never been anything like it, ever. But then, as Deirdre McCloskey says, there has never been anything like the Great Enrichment of the last two centuries from $1 per capita per day to over $100 per capita per day in the rich countries, ever. Here's the chart on declining world poverty from the conservative think tank AEI. Don't trust the conservatives? Here's the word from the World Bank.

Exhaustion of Natural Resources. Trust the north London luvvies to be the last to know about the fracking revolution. Back in 2011 when, presumably, Four Horsemen was in production the revolution in shale oil and gas energized by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing was already common knowledge. There isn't a crisis in natural resources. And if we should start to run out we have our internet billionaires that can't wait to live out their boyhood sci-fi fantasies and go mine the asteroids.

That leaves just one thing, the Glubb theory of empires and our terminal "age of decadence." To have a north London luvvie worrying about that is, well, it's a start. But, in my view, the "root cause" of decadence is the problem of creativity, the people in the arts. In my world view there are three kinds of people: Slave People --  peasants and workers; Responsible People -- knowledge workers, business people, and merchants; and Creative People. The Creative People are the big problem because they cannot be happy unless they can do something original and creative. Almost anyone can be a slave; almost anyone can learn to be responsible. But with creativity, many are called but few are chosen.

The great problem of the modern world is what to do about disappointed creative people, and to stop them before they pull down the temple in impotent rage. You could start with the problem of a 90 minute documentary that is beautifully crafted but that retails a nonsensical farrago of half-digested north London conventional wisdom.

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