Why Bondholders Can’t, and Shouldn’t, be Paid: Wall Street’s War on the Cities

Published on Counterpunch, by Michael Hudson, Aug. 31, 2012.

The pace of Wall Street’s war against the 99% is quickening in preparation for the kill. Having demonized public employees for being scheduled to receive pensions on their lifetime employment service, bondholders are insisting on getting the money instead. It is the same austerity philosophy that has been forced on Greece and Spain – and the same that is prompting President Obama and Mitt Romney to urge scaling back Social Security and Medicare.  

Unlike the U.S. federal government, most states and cities have constitutions that prevent them from running budget deficits. This means that when they cut property taxes, they either must borrow from the wealthy, or cut back employment and public services.

For many years they borrowed, paying tax-exempt interest to wealthy bondholders. But carrying charges on these have mounted to a point where they now look risky as the economy sinks into debt deflation. Cities are defaulting from California to Alabama. They cannot reverse course and restore taxes on property owners without causing more mortgage defaults and abandonments. Something has to give – so cities are scaling back public spending, downsizing their school systems and police forces, and selling off their assets to pay bondholders.

This has become the main cause of America’s rising unemployment, helping drive down consumer demand in a Keynesian nightmare. Less obvious are the devastating cuts occurring in health care, job training and other services, while tuition rates for public colleges and “participation fees” at high schools are soaring. School systems are crumbling like our roads as teachers are jettisoned on a scale not seen since the Great Depression.

Yet Wall Street strategists view this state and local budget squeeze as a godsend. As Rahm Emanuel has put matters, a crisis is too good an opportunity to waste – and the fiscal crisis gives creditors financial leverage to push through anti-labor policies and privatization grabs. The ground is being prepared for a neoliberal “cure”: cutting back pensions and health care, defaulting on pension promises to labor, and selling off the public sector, letting the new proprietors to put up tollbooths on everything from roads to schools. The new term of the moment is “rent extraction.”

So having caused the fiscal crisis, the legacy of decades of property tax cuts financed by going deeper into debt are now to be paid for by leasing or selling off public assets. Chicago has leased its Skyway for 99 years to toll-collectors, and its parking meters for 75 years. Mayor Emanuel has hired J.P.Morgan Asset Management to give “advice” on how to sell privatizers the right to charge user fees for previously free or subsidized public services. It is the modern American equivalent of England’s Enclosure Movements of the 16th to 18th century … //

… To achieve this financial plan, it is necessary is to frame the problem in a way that rules out less anti-social alternatives. As Margaret Thatcher put matters, TINA: There Is No Alternative to selling off public transportation, real estate, and even school systems and jails.

Dismantling public education and police departments to pay bondholders: … //

… The public pension squeeze is part of the overall debt crisis:

Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan and Texas Governor Rick Perry have characterized Social Security as a Ponzi scheme. This is true in the obvious sense that retirees are supposed to be paid out of contributions to new entrants. That is how any pay-as-you-go system is supposed to work. The problem is not that the system needed to be pre-funded to provide the government with revenue to cut taxes on the 1%. The problem is that new contributions are drying up as the economy buckles under its expanding debt overhead.

Social Security can easily be paid. After the 2007 crash the Fed printed $13 trillion on its computers to give to bankers. It can do the same for Social Security – and for federal grants-in-aid to America’s states and cities. It can pay state and local pension obligations in the same way it has paid Wall Street’s 1%. The problem is that the Fed is only willing do what central banks were founded to do – finance government deficits – to give to the banks. The aim is to save bondholders and the banks’ high-flying counterparties, not the 99%.

The problem is that the financial system itself is rotten. This has turned today’s class war into a financial war, with the major tactic being to shape how voters perceive the problem. The trick is to make them think that cutting taxes will lower their living costs and make housing cheaper, rather than enabling banks to take what the tax collector used to take. That is the key perception that needs to be spread: cutting taxes leaves more “free lunch” income available for banks to lend against, loading the economy deeper into debt.

Here’s why the present track can’t possibly work. State and local pension funds are $3 trillion behind because they are only making 1% returns these days (the only safe return), not the 8+% that they were told to make in order to pay pensions by “capital” gains (that is, the bank-financed free lunch). The Fed is keeping interest rates low in an attempt to re-inflate real estate and other asset prices back to the happy decade of Bubblemeister Greenspan. If interest rates rise – by enough to enable California, Chicago and other localities to obtain enough interest to pay retirees what they promised – then banks will see the collateral for their mortgage loans fall.

So the Fed has locked the economy into low returns. Neither Democratic nor Republican politicians are willing to raise taxes on the finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sector. They vote in line with what their campaign contributors are paying for – to make Wall Street rich.

At issue is the old Who/Whom choice. Given the mathematical fact that debts that can’t be paid, won’t be, the question is who should get priority: the 1% or the 99%?

Debt-ridden austerity and downsizing government is being urged as if it is inevitable, not a policy choice to put bondholders and the 1% over the 99% – a reward for the lobbying money it has spent on buying politicians and misleading voters to believe that cutting property taxes and cutting taxes on the rich will help the economy.

But if America still lets the 1% write the laws – or what turns out to be the same thing these days, to contribute to the political campaigns of lawmakers – then the economy will get much poorer, quickly. The era of America growth will be over.

Something has to give: If bondholders won’t be paid, states cannot pay labor’s deferred wages in the form of pensions, and will have to cut back public services.

So it’s time to default. Otherwise, Wall Street will turn us into Greece. That is the financial plan, to be sure. It is the strategy for today’s financial war against society at large. In Latvia, I spoke to the lead central banker, who explained that wages in the public sector had fallen by 30 percent, helping push down private-sector wages nearly as far. Neoliberals call this “internal devaluation,” and promise that it will make economies more competitive. The reality is that it will up the internal market and drive labor to leave.
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