James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The coming recession: Not an accident

Two things Americans need to realize now about the U.S. economy:

First, the downward slide triggered by belated recognition of the subprime mortgage fiasco has a long way to go – and it's going. Recession is certain, and, despite the entire chorus of economists, bankers and government officials to the contrary, a depression such as that of the 1930s is possible. The mortgage mess was the catalyst, but it's only one of many serious problems lurking in the American economy.

Second, the present flop and the agonies yet to come are not the result of what honestly could be called an accident or even simple failure to recognize the dangers inherent in the recklessness of the mortgage lenders and their top-of-the-ladder enablers.

In fact, though our corporate “news” media didn't tell us so, quite a few people predicted the mortgage collapse.

To a degree that would surprise the vast majority of the population, this unholy mess fits into the redesign of the United States drawn by the royalist neocons who hold sway over our economy and our government. (No, not George W. Bush, who hasn't the intellect to design a simple model train layout; I'm talking about the largely faceless people who've manipulated the economy and distorted the government under his nominal leadership.)

In plain language, we, the people, are in for a screwing the likes of which hasn't been seen since the 1930s. The very rich will gain enormously, even more than they have since the beginning of the Bush regime.

Barring an unlikely recognition very soon of what's going on, and even unlikelier effective action to head the thieves off at the pass, this is going to get ugly to a degree most people can't yet imagine and it will last...for decades, maybe until mankind chokes to death in its own offal.

Folks who bother to read this probably already understand the basics of the subprime mortgage collapse: With government regulation of financial institutions –- like almost all government regulation under Bushcheney -– deliberately shrunk to near invisibility, a bunch of hotshot “innovators” hustled millions of people into mortgages they couldn't afford.

They lied, they cheated, they conned. And now, of course, the political right says it's the fault of the victims because they didn't understand the terms of the loans and never mind that the loan initiators lied through their teeth.

Big “safe” entities, including almost all of the country's high profile financial institutions, bought the loans –- junk that the public was told was absolutely Grade A investment material. The people who originated the loans, having sold one batch, went out and hustled up some more suckers. They did it over and over. The geniuses of our financial institutions kept buying the certain-to-default mortgages, right up until this fall, even though by then tens of thousands of armchair economists such as myself knew beyond doubt that the game was about to go bust.

Inevitably, the folks at the bottom of this manure pile, the borrowers, began to default as unrealistically low initial interest rates suddenly jumped to loan-shark levels. The big institutions that bought the bad paper began taking losses, then more losses and still more losses. Their profits behaved like kids on a water slide, but with a lot less laughter. Whooosh. Splash.

The effects of such events spread, of course. The big money outfits were hurt as borrowers quit making payments and foreclosures soared. The stocks of the financial institutions have taken major hits, which means their stockholders also were hurt as share prices dropped. The institutions also got distrustful of each other –- hey, the other guy maybe has even more bad loans than you do -- and became reluctant to make loans to each other, which is what the business pages mean when they talk about “loss of liquidity.”

If an institution can't borrow, it can't loan. If it can't loan, other businesses can't borrow, and so it goes. Expansion, growth, even day to day operation in some cases, becomes difficult or impossible.

Well, most of you know the rest of it. Even the happy talkers admit that more hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of mortgages are going into foreclosure. That means more tightening of credit. It's a downward, self-sustaining spiral.

A result not much talked about yet is the fact that as a result of the high numbers of mortgage foreclosures, with more to come, property values are falling throughout the country. That's more true in some places than others, but one report I saw within the past few days said the over-all value of residential property in the United States will be down by 7 percent, at minimum, by the end of next year.

And that means that tax bases for cities, school districts, counties and other local governmental bodies fall. And that, in turn, means less property tax income for those governments –- less money for schools, less money for policing, less money for street and road maintenance and all the rest of it.

Under Bushcheney and often, as in Minnesota, under right wing governors and legislators, federal and state money for such expenditures already has been slashed to dangerous levels. That's why school districts across the country have been pushing referenda for increases in property tax levies.

Business pages and Fox Republican News, and even less reliably right-wing news outfits, keep talking about how basically strong and resilient the American economy is, and how it can withstand this shock and go on to better things, and how a dollar plunging on international markets and manufacturing shifting to slave labor in poor countries really are good things.

Two thirds of a page on last Sunday's New York Times was devoted to such phony reassurances. I have it right her beside me, with my notation at the top: "B.S. page."

Just remember the people writing that fiction are the same people who've been telling us how great the economy is even as most people have seen real earnings fall and most of the country's wealth has shifted in just a few years to the richest five percent (or fewer) of Americans.

Business Week, of all publications, recently ran an article admitting that “the American Dream,” of social and economic advancement is now essentially a myth. The article noted that, with a very few individual exceptions, the poor stay poor, or get poorer, the middle class is shrinking and the rich go on getting richer.

Business Week didn't say so in so many words, but the plain fact is that the United States now is a more class-ridden, class-divided country than England, with all its lords and titled graduates of Eton.

To refresh memories: Data from the Congressional Budget Office, confirmed by many economists, shows that between 1973 and 2000, the average real income of the lower 90 percent of Americans fell by 7 percent, while the income of the top 1 percent climbed by 148 percent. During the same period, the income of the top one tenth of 1 percent climbed by 343 percent. And the incomes of the top one hundredth of 1 percent grew by 599 percent.

And experts agree the distortion of income distribution has accelerated since Bushcheney came to power in 2000.

There also have been several reports recently showing that rather than continuing the upward social and economic mobility that began with Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, we have been going backwards in recent years. Our kids and grandkids, on average, will regress and be poorer and poorer from generation to generation if present trends continue.

This all fits beautifully into the neocon plans for our country.

Repeat: It is not accidental.

And, no, that's not hyperbole nor paranoid fantasizing. It's in their writings and their speeches to right wing audiences.

Something like the subprime mortgage mess simply had to happen once regulatory bodies were put into the hands of those who are supposed to be regulated, and the Bushcheney White House accomplished that more quickly and completely than any other Republican administration ever managed. Virtually every federal regulatory body now is headed by former lobbyists or lawyers for the industries they supposedly oversee, and once their stints are up, those people will go right back to their very highly paid industry jobs.

With no regulation, and given the unbridled greed now flaunted at the top levels of American business, there was no way the bankers were going to let principle or even common sense slow down their grasping for quick profits in whatever dark corners they could reach. And so we have the mortgage mess.

And, frankly m'dears, the neocons don't give a damn.

Or, rather, they undoubtedly are toasting each other in the inner sancta of the Heritage Foundation and other such places.

The very rich, the super rich, will take a few temporary losses in the looming recession (depression?), but as has happened throughout history, while you and I are being told that everything is going to be just fine, they're sheltering major portions of their wealth. Gold and other precious commodities? Shifting dollars to euros or other currencies? I don't know the specifics this time, but I do know my history.

And as always happens in major economic downturns, the poor and the middle class lose a portion of their piece of the pie, and the rich get that portion. The “market share” of the rich grows, and the piece we have is smaller, spread more thinly.

Even without a major recession, the distribution of wealth and income in this country has shifted rapidly and powerfully to the rich. Republican tax cuts have done nothing for the poor and very little for the middle class; the richest five percent get half of all of the tax cuts by dollar amount. In the 1970s, a corporate chief executive made, on average, 30 times the pay of the average corporate employee; today the CEO makes more than 300 times the income of the average employee.

As the rest of us are squeezed in a tight, possibly desperately tight, economy, the rich will be in a position to buy up still more of the country's assets and to bleed us. Those who work for a living are at the mercy of employers when jobs are scarce.

Now add to that picture continuing increases in medical costs while insurance availability continues to shrink. And factor in the disappearance of pension plans, quite possibly the deliberate destruction of social security. Consider the deliberate undercutting of organized labor by the U.S. government, begun under Ronald Reagan and continuing since. Definitely figure on further cuts in all sorts of “social programs” such as early childhood education, support for low-income housing, even general public education -- all targets of neocon hatred.

Where does that leave us, the great majority?

Either stand up and fight, howl at your political “representatives” and pound on their doors, and insist on real representation in government or stay silent and go out and buy knee pads while you can still afford them.