In the Ponzi and Madoff schemes, participants were promised a generous monetary return on their monetary investments. In the capitalist version, the investment is not money, but labor. As individuals invest their labor in the production and distribution of goods and services, they are paid wages that enable them to purchase and consume the goods and services they themselves produce. Fair enough. This sounds like the standard description of the bedrock elements of an economic system. And it is the promise of a bountiful return on the investment of honest labor, presented in glorious high-definition color and high-fidelity Dolby sound, that drives the capitalist dream machine. In reality, however, the dream has become a nightmare.
The defenders of the capitalist Ponzi scheme can turn themselves inside out in an effort to explain and defend the indefensible, but in the end, the essence of the scam comes down to the following: The capitalist schemers who pay wages to the workers when they are producers are the same schemers who charge the workers when they become consumers, and they charge them more when they consume a product than they pay them when they produce the same product, the difference being a little something called profit.
In 2009, gross domestic product in the United States was valued at $14.5 trillion. Of that amount, $13 trillion, or 90 per cent, went to the workers who created it, while corporations who produced nothing of value themselves racked up profits of $1.5 trillion, or 10 per cent. Workers are paid $9 to make a widget and then charged $10 to buy it. It doesn’t take rocket science to see the flaw in this arrangement. With corporations annually skimming 10 per cent off the top, an amount equal to $5,000 for every man, woman and child, or $13,000 for the average American family, it should be obvious that a game based on such a formula would have a limited life expectancy. As time goes by, workers must inevitably fall further and further behind.
Sooner or later, underpaid workers/overcharged consumers will find it impossible to keep buying what they produce, thus setting in motion a downward spiral in economic activity. If the demand for automobiles declines, so does the need for workers to make them. The result: unemployment, leading to a further decline in sales, then more unemployment, and so on.
Such a situation represents a serious challenge to a system that, like Ponzi’s and Madoff’s schemes, requires continuous and endless growth. Like all Ponzi schemes, the capitalist scheme must grow or it too will collapse. There is no provision for a sustainable equilibrium. That is why the slightest decrease in the growth rate of gross domestic product evokes a panicked hysteria on the part of the schemers, raising the fear that the economic engine might actually slow to a halt and then start to drift backward into a recession.
Under those circumstances, what are the capitalist schemers to do? How do they keep the economic cycle going forward when individuals, as well as entire countries, begin to run short of money and can no longer maintain an ever-increasing level of spending?
Without the concept of credit, which, like money, has been around a long time, this capitalist Ponzi scheme would have collapsed a long time ago. But the capitalist schemers, in their infinite self-preserving wisdom, have kept the game going by lending some of their profits back to their underpaid workers so they could keep spending, a strategy that has yielded two major benefits to the schemers. First, it did indeed keep the economy going longer than it otherwise would have, so they could continue to reap their annual profit skim. And second, it yielded another income stream in the form of interest charges on the credit they granted.
By the end of 2008, consumer debt and residential mortgages in the United States totaled $13.6 trillion. That’s more than $45,000 for every man, woman and child, or $117,000 for the average American family. That same year, per capita disposable income amounted to $33,000. In other words, the average American carried a burden of personal debt equal to 16 months of disposable income.
All that lending was based on the assumption that it would be repaid, with interest. However, by mid-2007 a troubling increase in the number of families falling behind on their credit card and home mortgage payments sounded the alarm that the burden of debt had grown so large that it was no longer clear when it would be repaid, eventually leading to the far more troubling fear that it might never be repaid.
Then came those first clues that the entire monumental financial structure was on the verge of collapse: the decrease in consumer spending, followed by rising unemployment, leading to missed credit card and home mortgage payments, resulting in the unexpected rise in foreclosures that finally touched off a cascading series of financial disasters. As the financial bubble burst, all those trillions of dollars of reckless bets began exploding in the faces of those preening riverboat gamblers. The world’s highest and mightiest financial institutions were found to be empty shells, brought to their knees by their self-congratulatory arrogance.
Suddenly, the gamers made an about-face. Lenders abruptly stopped lending, credit dried up, consumer demand took a nosedive, and the entire economic cycle began to grind to a halt. We slid into a global recession, on our way to a global depression, all triggered when the capitalist Ponzi schemers finally ran out of the required endless flow of spenders in what is essentially a demand-driven economic system.
Now what to do? With trillions of dollars of bets gone bad, and no longer confident that debtors could be counted on to honor their credit obligations, the capitalist Ponzi schemers turned to their governments as borrowers, and spenders, of last resort, as well as guarantors of their reckless gambles. In the United States they insisted that it was up to the government to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars and spend it to stimulate the economy, while risking several trillion dollars to guarantee their solvency. Never mind that, by the time the burden of saving the schemers’ money-making machine was placed on the back of the government, the government was already in hock to the tune of $7.2 trillion dollars. And never mind that this frantic appeal to governments was actually an indirect way of expanding credit to individuals, since the burden and responsibility for repaying the growing government debt falls ultimately on the taxpayers and only delays the moment of reckoning. Now each individual’s share of the national debt, when combined with $2.3 trillion of state and local government debt, and when added to consumer credit and residential mortgage obligations, rises to $75,000, while each family’s share climbs to $195,000, or the equivalent of more than two years of personal disposal income. Furthermore, each trillion dollars the government subsequently borrows to stimulate the economy will increase each individual’s share by another $3,000.
The numbers herein refer to the United States economy. However, the American economy represents more than one-fourth of the world economy, and by its sheer size and weight, as well as its apparent success, it has influenced other developed and developing nations to follow its example, making this a worldwide economic crisis.
The strategy of using the government as a conduit for economic pump-priming does not address the central issue of wealth concentration and is therefore doomed to failure. Lending trillions of dollars to governments increases rather than ameliorates the problem. The wealthy continue to rake in their usual profits from their control of overall economic activity, and by charging interest to the borrowers − individuals and governments alike − they are now also making money with their money, and the relentless wealth-concentrating machinery grinds on. Furthermore, as each individual’s share of the country’s personal and national collective debt continues to balloon, as the government goes deeper and deeper into debt, and as workers continue to be paid less than what they need to survive, it becomes increasingly clear that this mountain of debt can never be repaid.
While the financial collapse was triggered by the sudden increase in the number of individuals and families who were no longer able to continue spending and, more importantly, no longer able to meet their debt obligations, it soon became apparent that governments, too, have reached a burden of debt so great that there is no longer any confidence that it can ever be repaid by the only potential source, the taxpayers. And thus comes the final jaw-dropping collapse of the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme, made possible by greed, deception, fraud, and the viral concept of money, the most lethal idea ever coughed up by the human imagination.
Meanwhile, here’s a voice from the Depression, Ronnie Tielenberg asking “Are You Making Any Money?“