11 April 2009

Iceland, Hudson and debt peonage ~ Take it to the bankers

First, Iceland needs to take a census of the magnitude of debts owed at home and abroad, and of the institutions to which these debts are owed. Second, it needs to assess the economy’s ability to pay these debts. This was the principle on which the world’s creditor nations founded the Bank for International Settlements in 1931, to assess Germany’s capacity to pay. Reference must be made both to the magnitude of debt relative to current price trends for the collateral supposedly backing this debt, and to the economy’s ability to produce a domestic-currency and foreign-exchange surplus over and above basic needs, including capital replenishment to grow at historical rates over time.

By insisting on a fully transparent financial analysis of who owes how much to whom, Iceland can toss the ball back into the creditors’ court and ask the bankers to explain just how they propose that Iceland should pay – and what they anticipate will be the economy-wide effect of such payment. How much can Iceland afford to pay in the next few years without losing its democratic home ownership and property ownership patterns and without abandoning its social democratic public policies? How can Iceland pay its debts without bankrupting itself, abandoning its social democracy and polarizing its hitherto homogeneous population between a tiny creditor oligarchy and the rest of the population? The island is in danger of creating a new ruling class that will control its destiny for the next century. Again, Adam Smith warned that financial oligarchies act with concern only for how much they can extract, not what they can help produce. They are not good forward planners and do not act responsibly because it is easier for creditors to strip assets than to create new capital.

In taking this position Iceland will simply be following the moral philosophy laid down by every major religion and every body of ancient and modern law as a core principle: the idea that credit must be kept within the ability to pay. It is obvious enough that global lenders have extended credit far beyond Iceland’s ability to pay. For over two centuries the United States has an excellent tradition in how to deal with this problem. Already in the colonial period New York State enacted the Fraudulent Conveyance law, which has remained on the books ever since New York joined the new nation. The problem it faced was British creditors and speculators coming to upstate New York to cheat local farmers out of their rich, well-situated land. The ploy was to extend a loan to a needy farmer, and then call it in just before harvest-time when the debtor lacked the money to pay. Alternatively, the speculator might simply lend more than the farmer could afford to pay even under normal conditions. So New York blocked this predatory practice by passing a law saying that if a bank or other creditor made a loan without knowing just how the debtor was to repay it, the loan would be declared null and void. It would be wiped off the books.

This law received considerable attention in the 1980s when Drexel Burnham and its emulators began providing junk-bond credit to corporate raiders. Companies defended themselves by pointing out that the only way that these high-interest bonds could be paid was by breaking up the target company and downsizing its labor force. But most of all, the law has international relevance. Most U.S. bank consortia have a New York City lead bank negotiate with Third World governments and other foreign borrowers. So far, none of these debtors have sought to annul their loans on the ground that the only way they can pay is to sell off their public enterprises and other government assets. But the enabling legislation is there, and provides an excellent model for Iceland to emulate. By pursuing this policy Iceland would achieve the kind of economic freedom defined by the classical economists – a market free of technologically unnecessary overhead charges, headed by surplus extraction by a vested oligarchy.

For financial interests, by contrast, their idea free market is one that leaves them free to do the economic planning “free” from government regulation and democratic constraint on their extractive, predatory credit and foreclosure practices. Wherever they have gained sway they have shrunk economies. Since the 1960s their proxies at the IMF and World Bank have imposed austerity programs on Third World countries, extending foreign-currency loans whose effect has been to make these countries more dependent and driven them even deeper into debt. In the post-Soviet economies since 1991, financial strategists have focused on prying away public enterprise, selling it off or using it as collateral for loans. The result of “financializing” these economies has been to provide a free field for predatory vested interests in league with globalized domestic financial oligarchies. In sum, the neoliberal model victimizes debtors, preventing them from paying their debts. Instead of funding new capital formation, it strips economies of their assets and empties them out. Ultimately this drags down the creditor economies themselves, as occurred in ancient Rome, medieval Spain, and the United States and Britain in the Great Depression (not to mention what is unfolding today).

Iceland is facing a bold con job. Should it feel obliged to pay countries that have no intention of ever paying their own debts? To get paid, creditors must convince their prey to accept the falsehood that debts can and indeed should be paid. The lie is that they can be paid without dismantling social democracy, selling off the public domain and polarizing society between creditors and debtors.

The point of reference should be Iceland’s broad long-term picture – the economy’s survival and growth prospects for the future. Foreign-currency loans should be denominated in domestic currency at written-down (and de-indexed) interest rates, or repudiated outright. The guiding principle should be to annul debts taken out under terms that are destructive and extractive.

As for the nitty-gritty of negotiating a resolution to Iceland’s debt crisis, the nation needs to re-frame the terms of the debate by removing fictitious assumptions that have no basis in reality. The first trammel of the mind is the assumption that Iceland needs to negotiate in a way that wins the creditors’ approval in a compromise. It is not possible for any fair agreement to be reached in this way. Any negotiation between creditors and debtors is adversarial, and creditors have spent many decades refining demagogic public relations ploys to divert attention to abstractions about “fairness.” A typical ploy is to ask whether it is fair for some debtors to receive larger write-offs than others. Is it fair for the most highly indebted individuals to gain the most – more than people who were more responsible? The aim here is to inflame popular resentment that some debtors will get a bigger write-off than others (and some debtors are indeed as as guilty as the perpetrators who sold them on the idea that home prices only go up), so as to blame the poor and most highly indebted rather than reckless creditors.

The real issue is the health of the overall economy. The parties seeking the most are not the most indebted individuals, but the largest creditors. Their aim is to increase their dominion over the rest of society. Above all, their aim is to maximize the power of debt over labor. The worse the economy does, the stronger the creditor position will grow. This is a recipe for economic suicide that will lead to outright debt peonage as domestic depression intensifies. Creditors everywhere else in the world are writing down their claims for payment to reflect plunging property values. Iceland has an opportunity to make itself a model test case for economic justice. What better time to post the basic principle of what is to be saved – an unsupportable debt burden that must collapse in the end, or a society’s survival? Will the government defend its citizens from financial predators, or turn the economy over to them? That is the question.


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