(by Zeus Yiamouyiannis, Ph.D., September 9, 2016)
The world can no longer afford a taking economy where “make a killing” is the motto. Together we need to create a giving and sharing economy that helps us all “make a living.” This essay will unveil the present unjust and unworkable economic system that punishes responsibility and rewards fraud. It then outlines implications for the average person and ends with new, powerful, and practical principles and visions driven by connected communities. This essay brings together many of the ideas I will be discussing in a new series on Transforming Economy on GaiaTV.
Where we are now (or “It’s pretty bad out there.”)
“So we have a lawless system. What does this mean for citizens and investors? In the near term it means that the fundamentals will not apply. Anything that maintains or augments elite wealth and increases elite options will be supported, and anything that consumes or converts common people’s wealth and labor and restricts their choices will be pursued.” – Zeus Yiamouyiannis, Transforming Economy: From Corrupted Capitalism to Connected Communities
This is where we stand, but this does not have to continue. First, we need to become factually aware of “where we are now.” This allows us to take active responsibility as aware citizens without simply blaming ourselves for our personal and collective situation. In doing this we have to be courageous enough to learn about the unfair realities that surround us without capitulating to helplessness. Knowledge is power, and the next three sections will bring you into the dynamics of the present economy, empower you to avoid self-blame for problems you did not create, and alert you so you won’t be contributing to the mess. In the fourth section we will talk about proactive alternatives.
Why is it that 61% of “regular people” in the U.S. think they have not recovered from the Great Recession while the talking heads on 24-hour news shows seem to think everything is fine? The answer is simple: We now have a global two-tiered financial, ethical, and regulatory system. The rich and politically connected do not get prosecuted for outrageous fraud, while little guys get penalized for a tax return error. Billionaires can pay zero taxes, and you pay 25-30% of your modest salary. Rather than being marched into jail, corporate executives who preside over corrupt practices walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation. There is no active accountability in the system as it stands presently.
Economic fundamentals have ceased to apply. Consequences for disastrous or corrupt upper-level financial decisions roll downward and profits are drawn upward. Wealth is concentrating into fewer and fewer hands. Private companies hog revenue and dump financial liabilities on public taxpayers. When big banks screw up in a way that should bankrupt them, taxpayers bail them out, and then these same corrupt companies reward themselves with near record bonuses. Gold and silver prices are manipulated downward to keep the U.S. dollar and stock markets inflated.
Even house prices, food, and other commodities cannot escape this mess. One middle class salary could buy a house and a car in the early 1970’s. Now couples with two middle class salaries cannot afford a house. An uproarious and sobering interview on the Daily Show exposed the Mortgage Bankers Associations “strategic default” on their own 79 million dollar mortgage for a headquarters building in Washington, D.C. They could pay the mortgage but wanted to save money and rent a cheaper building five blocks away. This did not prevent the CEO of the Association from insisting that it was a moral responsibility for the little people who can pay their mortgages to stick with the initial agreement.
How did things get this bad? There are many factors, but one fateful feature stands at the center, the Zero Interest Rate Policy (or ZIRP), a decision at the highest levels of governments and central banks, particularly the U.S., to give trillions of dollars of (interest-)free money to private banks and offload the burdens and consequences of that decision to public citizens. When money is free, especially to the worst abusers, decadence for the well-connected (and suffering for the “regular person”) are sure to follow. That is where we stand now, but this iniquity does not have to be the last word. We can empower ourselves by treating this uncomfortable truth as a doorway to inspiration, genuine choice, and effective change.
What we know
“Virtually zero percent interest rates are to long-term economic policy what junk food is to nutrition—it tastes great going down, but later come horrible results… [that] pose dangers to all of us… ZIRP [is]…how the Fed (Federal Reserve) gave the U.S. Financial Diabetes.”—Gregory Bresiger, in Craig Smith and Lowell Ponte’s article, “The Biggest Bank Heist in History!” (http://www.swissamerica.com/ZIRP.php)
How much money has ZIRP looted from responsible savers to subsidize crooked banks? Since the financial, crash of 2008 (2009-2015), the total amount of yearly U.S. dollars in personal savings accounts over the last seven years is about 5.1 trillion dollars. At the typical near-zero interest bank savings rates of 0.02% to 0.03% applied to that 5.1 trillion dollars in savings account you get only 1 to 1.5 billion total interest for all personal savings for all Americans for 7 years. (To give you a perspective DARE [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] cost over a billion dollars and actually appeared to significantly increase drug and tobacco usage among teens!
Compare this paltry 1.5 billion dollars to the 85 billion dollars Americans lost in purchasing power for money left in personal savings accounts even against the low average inflation rate of 1.7% during those years. (Look at these charts here and here to see just how much purchasing power has declined for the average American, especially over the last three decades.)
To put the zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) in perspective, it would take a saver leaving $10,000.00 in a savings account (at .03%) over ten years just to recover one $35.00 overdraft charge. If you put one million dollars in a savings account averaging .025% compounded daily over the last seven years, your total interest would be a mere $1,752.00 or $250 a year! This is hardly enough to fund a retirement for two months much less seven years. Compare this to a 5% return compounded daily over seven years yielding $419,000.00 or $60,000.00 a year! Now you are seeing the personal true cost of the rigged economy.
ZIRP money also allows corporations, especially financial corporations, to buy up their own stocks. I call this practice “naked long buying.” It means that you buy up stocks to artificially boost stock demand and thus stock “value” with interest-free money. This creates false values and inflated prices unrelated to the productive fundamentals of the company. Because there is no effective cost to the money, a CEO can theoretically do this forever—goose the stock price by buying up a company stock, and then use the boosted stock price as collateral to borrow even more money to boost stock prices yet again.
All the while, the company’s CEO gets rewarded personally with outrageous compensation through stock options pegged to the value of the stock. Talk about conflict of interest! This “looting upward” is the opposite of “naked short selling’s” attempt to “loot downward” which depresses the price of a stock by putting in essentially false “sell” orders for stocks one does not actually own, canceling those orders, and betting separately on a “short” or price decline of the stock. This makes the naked short seller tons of money when other stockholders panic, thinking there is about to be an exodus from the stock, sell their actual stock, and lower the price of the stock for real.
The reality of lost purchasing power caused by ZIRP acts as extortion for John and Jane Q. Public to enter the stock market to keep personal financial asset values above inflation. This artificially inflates the stock market even more. This contrived demand keeps the stock market up, not fundamentals or the worth of companies. That is why we are seeing the Dow Index at 18,000 instead of 6,000.
ZIRP also helps to depress the price of gold, which usually operates as a hedge against a poor stock market. Gold has been flat for the past four years. ZIRP depresses good-paying jobs and wages by promoting debt-financed living, which serves as a substitute for better wages. Is it any surprise the federal minimum wage has not been increased in seven years? ZIRP depresses mortgage rates (which are now near record lows), which may seem like a good thing because it lowers monthly payments, until you realize that abnormally low mortgage rates along with tax-deductible interest hyper-inflates the sales price of homes far above the market-set rental rates of comparable homes.
People in the middle of a career may pick up extra work hours to cover income losses, but how is a Millennial or a retired person expected to survive in these conditions? They cannot currently be expected to cope without incurring further debt, which will swallow what little money they have left in earnings or savings. Currently large numbers of seniors are cannibalizing their retirement principal to get by, and Millennials are being subsidized with help from their parents. However, this strategy cannot go on forever. Principal runs out, and borrowing financial help without an opportunity for productive contribution and compensation simply drains the economy dry. As I say in my book, in the end with this system, there is no actual money. There are only IOUs.
All this is compounded and pressurized even more by the skyrocketing costs of college tuition and health care that far outstrip by many times both inflation and the consumer price index.
As I detail in my book, Transforming Economy, all this larcenous nonsense is undergirded by a complete lack of serious investigation, much less prosecution, of the crooked financial institutions who caused the financial collapse of 2008 and have since profited from laundering money for terrorists and drug cartels. Is it any wonder we have seeing growing criminal boldness like that evidenced in the recent scandal at Wells Fargo, where millions of accounts were created in the name of customers without their knowledge so the bank could charge customers fees. Yet, it looks like the head of this division of Wells Fargo will walk away with 125 million dollars in compensation rather than being held accountable.
What this means
“For any professional investor, this is the most difficult period we’ve ever experienced… You have high multiples of cash flows, low yields. I’ve never seen it in my career. It’s the most treacherous moment”—Joe Baratta, Blackstone’s global head of private equity (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-09-27/blackstone-s-baratta-says-now-is-the-most-treacherous-time-ever)
This quote above was taken from a very recent article on Bloomberg.com. In that article many investment firm executives are pinning the blame for the poor investment climate on ZIRP. Wise investment used to mean prudent saving and strategic, diversified allocation of money according to economic fundamentals. In a healthy economic system, money has to cost something (in terms of interest or some other productive equivalent like labor) or it basically has no value for investment purposes, because it cannot generate true growth.
Furthermore, cost-free money promotes spending beyond means for consumers and company executives alike. Traditionally, this irresponsibility would lead to inflation, higher interest rates, and “paying the piper,” curtailing the irresponsibility. But now, interest rates are being actively suppressed (along with responsibility) to a near-zero mark as a matter of long-term policy to keep the U.S. dollar, housing market, and stock market artificially aloft, i.e. out of the reach of up-and-coming savers, creating a stagnant condition in the movement, or “velocity,” of money.
Global central bank and government intervention, in order to save economic elites from the consequences of their poor financial decision-making and behavior, prevent the natural flows and counterbalancing that should normally occur in the various parts of the world economy. Self-correcting markets and price discovery (the process of determining the price of an asset in a marketplace through authentic interactions between buyers and sellers) have vanished. We don’t really know the financial value of anything with a dollar sign attached to it, because that value is, in essence, based in funny money.
As a result, there will be no completely safe individual investments, since economic fundamentals can no longer be relied upon in a rigged economy. It is as if some overarching authority just decided to simply change the size of an inch or a centimeter. How could you then measure your height in such a situation? How could you accurately measure how wealthy you are financially in our current rigged economic system? There no longer seems to be a rational alignment between economic cost and value. This means questioning so-called conventional wisdom and critically considering whether or not to even own property or go to college.
Here are some examples:
- In my own life, I owned a Florida vacant lot that would normally (and did actually significantly appreciate) in value, but the property was taxed so much in just a few years to pay for a municipal road that the taxes quickly ate up the entire value of the property, and I had to unload it just to stop the bleeding. Lesson: Get rid of property that cost more in maintenance and taxes than they are worth. Don’t let sentimental attachment prevent you from liberating yourself of economic burdens, whether they be real estate properties or old furniture in a paid storage facility.
- College tuition is eleven times more expensive over the last generation and college debt has skyrocketed and yet the wages of college grads have actually gone down over the last fifteen years. Lesson: Maybe developing a broadly educated critical and creative perspective along with specific, applied skills, apprenticeships, social entrepreneurialism are better investments than college.
- So-called economic stalwarts like McDonald’s hamburgers and Wal-Mart are experiencing unprecedented revenue and sales losses. This does not seem to make sense since they provide low-cost (albeit low-quality) goods to consumers who now have less to spend. Lesson: Maybe the values of health and quality are gaining strength over cheap junk food and cheap Chinese goods.
What you can do about it
Okay, we have a rigged system. There is no true money. We have a perfect storm of easy money for the 1%, economic burden for the 99%, and market distortion for all 100%. What can we do about it? In such a skewed climate, the best investment you can make will be in quality of life, simplifying/decluttering/forgiving debt, and building communities of relationship and exchange. We will have to get real about where we are now and invent our way forward together.
Extending more credit-debt and adding another few trillion dollars to the national debt is not a solution. This conventional practice to “extend (loan lengths) and pretend (that debt equals money)” does not work. In fact, kicking the can down the road only makes our collective coming-to-terms far more difficult. We need courage, compassion, and creativity. We will have to create our own community economies, ones that actually work and reward honesty, meaningful work, and collaboration.
When we have no champions, we will have to be champions for one another.
What might this look like? I will give a few examples below that I will be discussing in my GaiaTV series to be released over the next couple of months, starting today, but the more detailed opportunities are provided in the last third of my book, Transforming Economy (http://www.transformingeconomy.com/get-the-book.html) .
Transformed economic thinking and practice: Ten operating principles in the new economy (or how to have a higher quality of life through less money and better relationships)
1) Invest with integrity: If you don’t support what a company is doing don’t invest in it, no matter how much that company supposedly earns. If it gathers its earning on the backs of sweat shop workers or on the back of the environment, don’t invest in the company. If it supports new, cleaner, and more promising technologies and practices, consider investing. I chose specifically not to invest in oil at its low, even though I knew price would be rising in the future, because I do not want to support fossil fuels.
2) Consume and spend according to need and quality rather than greed and vanity: This may mean purchasing less but buying something that lasts longer. Refuse to be drawn into the manic extortion myth that we all must consume more or our economy will collapse. Our economy will adapt in the direction of our purchases.
3) Know your purchases have power: This principle is well explained in this short video by actor Woody Harrelson. Changes in purchasing force changes in market. A rise in the concern and demand over healthy eating has forced McDonald’s to offer more salads, Wal-Mart to offer organics, and big companies like Kraft foods to buy up smaller organic companies because they are losing market share.
4) Explore the possibility and beauty of house sharing: Single-family residences are becoming a thing of the past because of their cost and environmental impact. Think about it: Families living together can have brothers and sisters for their children even if a particular couple only has one child. Families living together can share food preparation, saving in time and cost. Families living together can share childcare, freeing up adult time to do other things.
5) Time banking: Time banking is a great way to respect the talents and contributions of others on an equal basis. In this system people trade skills, no matter how basic or refined, one hour matched to one hour. Gardening skills, graphic design, information technology, karate instruction all become, in essence, exchangeable currency on the common unit of time. This not only allows jobs to be taken care of without actual cash changing hands, but it builds community and respect for the talents of others.
6) Local currency (money printed and kept in a community for exchange of local goods and services), open-source alternative currency, and electronic currencies (like Bitcoin, etc.): These allow for grass-roots influence over monetary policy. You won’t simply have some technocrats devaluing the currency or raising or lowering interest rates on local currencies, for instance. These alternative currencies and the practices associated are so potentially powerful because they are voluntary, and dedicated to relationship and contribution and not simply individual extraction. They are run on a very different practical value system.
7) Debt forgiveness: Sometimes the simplest and most direct actions create a space of people to start a new life. When a person simply cannot pay a debt, oftentimes due to illness or divorce or a loss of a job, it does not make sense to force them into an even worse situation by piling up fees and interest on money that they owe. It actually helps everyone if debtors’ talents can be freed up from simply servicing debt. A simple way to start with this on an individual level is to retire debt owed within a family, with the expressed blessing that such a reprieve will pay itself forward in volunteer work and ability to pursue one’s passions.
8) Gifting each other tax-free money, goods, and services: Few people take advantage of the fact that the U.S. government allows Americans to gift any individual person (without limit to the numbers of people) up to 14,000 dollars per year without having to report it. The Internal Revenue Service does say that you have to value your services when given to another person, but who is going to exceed 14,000 dollars of services? We can be legal, and still generous, without getting tangled up in a bureaucratic mess. This principle extends to swap meets, tool lending libraries, and so forth. By enhancing direct face-to-face economic exchange through cultural exchange in MeetUps, library talks, and community strategy sessions, we are re-humanizing the economic system and taking back our power.
9) Voluntary simplicity: Self-chosen low income, tiny homes, and urban gardening: “Less is more.” “Small is beautiful.” The virtues of voluntary “downshifting” and sustainable living create their own, largely non-material, quality of life rewards. Less space can mean greater intimacy. If you don’t want to support a bloated military with your tax dollars, instead of being thrown into jail for tax dodging, why not make less than the personal exemption on your taxes, while making up the difference with community-oriented exchange of tax-free gift money and services? Simplicity psychically de-clutters the mind and the person does not have to worry so much about maintaining or losing material goods.
10) Refuse. Refuse. Refuse. “Unplug” from unethical businesses: What could be more revolutionary than for Wal-Mart executives to wake up one day and realize that no one is coming to their stores? What would happen if consumers made demands en masse that a store must pay a living wage or they simply will not shop there? We do have the power to organize around pro-social choices to force change in a non-violent way with our refusal to participate in unjust practices. If we are to be “we the people” and our government is to be a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” then we have to learn to assert our authority and responsibility in meaningful, impactful ways.