The solution to the global debt crisis

Paul Krugman has been blogging his head off dealing with various manifestations and aspects of what I call the global debt “crisis” (read my rationale for this in the next paragraph).  Debt arises when people who need to spend today don’t have the funds to do so and are granted credit by those who have funds today but don’t feel like spending them immediately.  The counterpart to this is that debtors will be able to draw from the stock of goods available today (for consumption or productive use) beyond their current means, while the creditors will willingly reduce their corresponding claims on today’s goods in exchange for — if things go as planned — more of them in the future.

To examine the issue, I propose (see my opening statement above) that, instead of looking at the U.S. public debt “crisis,” the Greek debt “crisis,” etc. separately, we view them all as what they truly are, namely manifestations of one and the same global debt “crisis.”  Here is a way to think of this: Consolidate the balance sheets of all households in the globe into two: (1) the balance sheet of the extremely rich (.0001% or so of the global population) and (2) the balance sheet of the rest of us.  Assume that everything (asset or liability) is ultimately held by households (or by individuals, it doesn’t matter).  And let each household take a flat proportion of its corresponding government(s)’s net worth (negative, if public liabilities overwhelm public assets).  Simple arithmetic.  (This division, by the way, will intersect almost exactly with the social division that Marxist economists and sociologists emphasize between those who own wealth as capital, the “capitalists,” and those who don’t and, hence, must make a living mainly via their labor income, the “workers.”)

Then we’ll clearly see this pattern:  The rest of us are net debtors and the extremely rich are net creditors.  This is to be expected.  It follows from the definition of extremely rich.  In other words, the U.S. public (and household) liabilities, Greek public (and household) liabilities, etc.  — all the debt issued by the rest of us one way or another — will be assets of the extremely rich.  They hold that debt in their portfolios as an asset.  This, by the way, suggests that the extremely rich are in a perfect position to demonstrate their love of humanity by forgiving that debt (or a small portion of it), which would amount to an immediate solution of the debt “crisis.”  But let me not get ahead of myself here….

Why is this a “crisis”? (At this point, I should probably remove the quotation marks.  I don’t want to give the impression that this crisis is merely an illusion that we can dispel by closing our eyes.  The point of the quotes is to note that the debt issue can and should be separated from the employment issue, at least in theory.)  Well, it is a crisis (see? — no quotes now) because the extremely rich are extremely nervous about the ability of the rest of us to repay it, and they do not want to admit that the debt is worth less than they thought it was worth when they got into it — and take a haircut.  When they lent the funds, they expected benefits from it (think some handsome real interest, real as in adjusted for inflation), but now they are questioning their judgment.   What were they thinking?

What Keynesians like Krugman are saying to the moronic ideologists of the extremely rich that just don’t get it is: “This doesn’t require the added grievance of unemployment except in your twisted minds.  In fact, unemployment will make it harder for the rest of us to repay that debt.  So, give us a break!  Unemployment can only make matters worse, since then the rest of us will have even lesser means to repay the debt. So lend more money to governments, have governments spend that money to reduce unemployment, and then the whole debt will look smaller (as a proportion of an augmented economy) and the problem will get under control.”  (And this is aside from whether we should keep military expenditures at their current level, which — in the U.S. case — are at record high levels!)

The Keynesian approach (fiscal and monetary expansion), if conducted seriously (as Krugman says, WWII suggests what kind of fiscal expansion is necessary to lower the unemployment rate to decent levels),  will translate into moderate inflation.  The neat thing about this approach is that inflation will sanction an effective redistribution of wealth from the extremely rich to the rest of us, but it will do it behind the scenes, as it were.  It will be something happening in the obscure guts of a monetary economy, which most mortals find as enigmatic as black magic.  So the populace won’t get ideas, you know.  The sacred institutions of private ownership, markets, and social inequality will remain in place.  In fact, they may even regain some of the credence and legitimacy lost in the crisis.  It seems like a reasonable deal for the extremely rich:  The angle of your slice will be narrower by just a few degrees, but because the whole pie will expand (and the system will avoid more radical challenges), you’ll wind up eating more pie.  And people won’t notice how that really happened.

But the moronic wing of the extremely rich don’t care for that. They hate it when the pecking order gets disrupted.  If the extremely rich remain extremely rich, and even grow richer in absolute terms, but they become relatively a tiny bit less rich by comparison with the rest of us, that is just unbearable for them.  They care a lot about preserving the pecking order.  Anything that disrupts it, that flattens the social hierarchy is intolerable for them.  So, no go.  Their “solution”? Unemployment! Liquidate, liquidate, liquidate! — which (as the Keynesians note) can only make the debt “crisis” worse.

But unless the rest of us become richer (compared to the extremely rich), we won’t be able to honor our debts to the extremely rich.  Catch 22!  So, one way or another, the solution will consist of some form of wealth redistribution.  Talking about Greece, allow me an abrupt digression here: I recently read about what is perhaps the first documented case in history in which a solution to a debt crisis occurred.  Apparently (I’m no expert on these historical matters and I’ll be glad to stand corrected if a better version of events comes forth), Solon’s reforms (Solon being one of the Seven Sages in Ancient Greece) in the emerging stages of the Ancient Greek civilization ushered for the the first time in documented history the legal framework of what we know now as private ownership.  Well, it turns out that, as a result of these reforms, after a spin of the wheel, households and the Greek proto-state accumulated very high debts that made creditors extremely nervous.  Before private ownership rights were introduced, people were just used to helping, and being helped by, one another without keeping a precise tab of what they gave or took.  Clearly, this arrangement wasn’t good for Greek society at this point, and that’s why private ownership was adopted.  I would claim that what was necessary in Ancient Greece is proving to be intolerable today, but let me leave that argument to my posts on socialism.  Suffice it to say here that, at some point, this polarization in wealth holdings forced Solon to push the reset button and decree the elimination of all debts, so that they could avoid social disintegration and get things going again!

I believe that some enlightened minds among the extremely rich that read Krugman (and understand him) can see that some version of Solon’s reforms are called for now.  I mean, the two of them who read and understand Krugman.  Given the situation, they ought to be willing to accept the haircut, as long as people don’t notice.  They just want for this solution to disguise what actually happens — modest wealth redistribution at their expense.  Perhaps this debt ceiling political brouhaha will help some of the moronic ones come around to the Keynesian approach.  Again, that approach will use inflation and financial wizardry to disguise the fact that wealth is being taken from the extremely rich and given to the rest of us to the point where the extremely rich feel less nervous about our ability to repay the debt, so they are willing to keep the capitalist casino open.

Krugman has referred to FDR and WWII repeatedly.  FDR’s case is, of course, a recent reenactment of Solon’s reform of his reforms.  But I can think of another case: Mexico in the late 1980s. It is well known that Carlos Salinas commits electoral fraud to become president in 1988.  As a result of low oil prices, high public debt service, and US Treasury/IMF-imposed contractionary macro policies that devastate the country for over half a decade, the Mexican government finances and the Mexican people’s tolerance are about to snap.  Fidel Castro tries to organize an international revolt against the banks in Latin America, the banks respond with divide-et-impera, and Fidel’s initiative doesn’t get much traction.  Soon after his inauguration, Salinas sends his people to negotiate with the banks.  While the negotiations are taking place, back in Mexico City, Salinas calls his ministers to a carefully choreographed urgent “secret” meeting.  A good actor, Salinas tells his ministers solemnly that “secrecy” is of the essence and that Mexico will default if the negotiation team comes back empty handed.  Even Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, leader of the opposition and victim of the electoral fraud, will come around to support him.  The country should get ready for a default and deal with Wall Street’s rage.  Banks learn of the “secret” plan and fold meekly.  Mexico’s foreign debt is effectively slashed by one fifth or so.  Mexico’s economy can breath again.  Solon and FDR applaud from the high heavens.  The banks insist on one condition though — do not make public this violation of the sacred rules of private ownership, keep it all shrouded in secrecy, and/or — since you can’t cover the sun with your thumb — use a series of sleight-of-hand, creative financial deals (a few “Brady bonds” here, a few “swaps” there, and similarly obscure schemes) to pretend that banks aren’t taking a substantial haircut.  No big deal is made of the affair.  In 2003, Argentina forces foreign banks to a similar “restructuring” of its debt, but the Argentinians are more vocal about it — which the banks hate.

So, if history is any guide, some form of wealth redistribution in our favor will ensue, sooner or later.  But, like in Mexico’s case, the later it happens, the more the extremely rich and their nasty political minions will make our lives miserable for that.  There is nothing like a prolonged economic depression to show people who’s boss.  That’s what they have for us in store.  But, why don’t we — “the rest of us” — try and get ahead of this tragic game?

I mean, What are we?  Chopped liver?  Isn’t it time to revolt and push everywhere we can for one version or another of debt repudiation?  We need to force the Solons of today to push the reset button again.  But, if we’re going to get into that trouble, shouldn’t we try and go for more?  How about working to remake the whole global economic arrangement?

History cannot be just an endless going on this ever-more-wasteful merry-go-round.  We need a truly democratic — i.e., a socialist — economic arrangement.  Pronto.



  1. I will add here, in the comments section, that, later on, the banks made up like bandits for the 1988 Mexican haircut. The opportunity arose when the peso collapsed in December 1994. The bailout organized by Rubin (Treasury) and Fischer (IMF) imposed harsh conditions on Mexico, which amounted to a de-facto renegotiation of NAFTA in favor of U.S. special interests.

  2. i think there is a little mix up between accounting and causation. in particular, i think that your post underplays the role financial institutions play. creditors don’t ex ante decide …to lend to borrowers;financial institutions make loans that result in a corresponding asset (the cash lent) and liability (the money owed) to the borrower who transfers the deposit balance in order to make needed purchases. as a result it’s not accurate to say that someone decided to forgo consumption for that person to borrow. no banker or bank employee forgos consumption (if only!) when they make a loan. someone receives the deposit after the borrower spends the money and hasn’t had the chance to decide what to do with the cash.

  3. Nathan and I continued our discussion on Facebook. For those with no access to my Facebook page, here’s what we wrote (slightly edited):

    * * *

    JH: Where exactly is the account and causation mix up? Regarding the role of financial institutions, we shouldn’t fetishize them. The extremely rich don’t save because financial institutions make them save: they *own* those financial institutions, in which they save. Saving means accumulating wealth, and because of the role they delegate on these financial institutions (and in the business firms they own), that wealth functions as capital (value that expands itself by exploiting labor). The rest of us don’t borrow because financial institutions make us borrow. We borrow because we *don’t* own much, and owning — in our society — is a sort of insurance policy. The role of the financial institutions (owned by the extremely rich) is constrained by this dual reality, which we can encapsulate in a single phrase — wealth inequality. That is the point I’m making. The solution to the debt crisis gets mystified if we focus on the role of money and financial institutions. The solution to the debt crisis is simple in theory — wealth redistribution. It is a class struggle. It’s really not about complicated public financial or monetary schemes or policies.

    JH: Addition to my reply to Nathan Cedric Tankus: You’re right I am “underplaying” the role of financial institutions. That is because that role is usually overplayed and clarifying matters requires that we “underplay” the appearance to highlight the essence. The role of specifically financial institutions is secondary and it’s so counterintuitive at first sight that it confuses people, when what we need is clarification.

    NCT: it is a class struggle but i think it’s a new kind of class struggle. to me it is very important to focus on the financial institutions. financial institutions attack industry and productive (surplus value producing!) industry almost as much as labor. they feed on both traditional capitalists and workers. to me the mix up was between accounting for creditors and looking at the causal mechanisms that create creditors and debtors. i can appreciate why you think focusing on finance distracts from other important issues, but i think the way that finance is able to redirect income towards itself and how individuals are able to steal (even under capitalist law definitions) using corporations and financial institutions is incredibly important (see​oks?hl=en&lr&id=SI3F8wEuT2​4C&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=willia​m+k+black+control+fraud&ot​s=UkHY1neOvn&sig=N8WM6UBcU​btEQ9gWsNl4Q5BKlAU this is one of the best books on the subject). i remain unconvinced that simply because rich people own banks, bank managers do not have separate interests from rich people. they do and that is crucial to understanding the functioning of corporations and finance. this does not mean that we shouldn’t make general points about wealth inequality or the need for wealth distribution. however, when we talk about the crisis in detail, we must disaggregate. i think you missed my point about savings. it doesn’t matter that no individual person is forced to save. what matters is that if they choose to spend that money it increases someone (or something) else’s income and thus their savings. for the savings rate as a whole to decline again tax revenues or import purchases must increase or spending or exports must fall.

    The best way to rob a bank is to own one
    ‎”Persons interested in the economics of fraud, the S&L debacle, the problems of…

    NCT: politically i also agree. the one thing i disagree with is i think they underestimate the political gains to be made by focusing on the intense criminality in the financial sector and downplaying (at least a little bit) more traditional class politics. making the finance is fundamentally unproductive argument is more intuitive to people (especially now) but can still lead to large progressive and equality gains.

    JH: ‎I think that you are tactically right. Getting out of the current situation will require us to think within the box of capitalist finance, central banking, etc. In other words, a capitalist (monetary) economy cannot be dismantled overnight. So we need reforms that, from a certain viewpoint, will be superficial. I’m not against reforms. But we have an obligation to point out the limits of reforming a building with rotten foundations. In my view, there is no way we are going to resolve the problems we humans face without going beyond capitalism. The first order of business is then to help people see that it is possible to build a more than decent social order without markets and inequality. That’s not an overnight thing, but we have to view it as possible. States, money, financial intermediation, etc. are not human nature. I doubt they’ve been around for longer than ten thousand years. We humans have been on earth for hundreds of thousands of years. We’ve lived without them. We can live without them. We must live without them.

    NCT: i think reposting a comment i put on a richard wolfe link today is pertinent.​conomic-crisis-capitalism-​delivers-bads/1311177245

    i don’t necessarily disagree. but i think there is danger in accepting these rather neoclassical arguments in order to support radical proposals. remember that a major piece of post war revisionism was how the post-war prosperity shows …how the radicals were wrong and capitalism could be fixed. by using these weak arguments to deny the possibility of reform it makes rejection of radicalism easy if or when the worst abuses are alleviated and people are given a reprieve. to me a better radical message would be to emphasize that both reform and revolution are possible but only once a plurality of people finally start resisting and fighting political and economic power structures. what should be emphasized in the choice is that capitalism is a dynamic system were private sources of wealth and power react incredibly quickly to limits and do everything they can to circumvent them if they think more wealth and power and be accumulated that way. in order to resist that a large and activist population must exist and readily frustrate power. rather then spending all of our time trying to box up corrupting influence we should instead eliminate them so that we can move on to the real project of building a better world, stronger communities and more enjoyable lives. to me that is a very powerful argument for radicalism that acknowledges reforms potential and limitations. pretending like reform isn’t possible is not, especially when reform happens and people feel an appreciable difference in their lives.

    In Economic Crisis, Capitalism Delivers the Bads | Truthout
    Throughout its history, capitalism never succeeded in preventing recurring econo…

    JH: ‎This is not neoclassical. I don’t mean that money is only a veil. I mean that money is *ultimately* a veil. The social objectivity of money (and commodity forms in general) hinges on the existence and enforcement of private ownership. If private ownership is becoming more and more costly for society to enforce, then it is doomed. The political awakening of working people (which is an expression of their humanity reclaimed) is, ultimately, the reason why private ownership is doomed, as a dominant social structure.

    NCT: sorry it was hard to separate out my response to richard wolfe with the pertinent parts so i didn’t try. none of that was directed at you.

  4. I admire your flip of the Laffer curve. If only the wealthy would reduce their tax on debtors, total production would grow and they would become absolutely richer. Ho! Good one.

    Unfortunately, Laffer was an inside joke. And since then, the wealthy have been gorging on privatized Keynesianism; they are extremely dubious that the government can do them one better. And Krugman is an incredibly dull witted scold.

    The wealthy know perfectly well the Keynesian spigots are, under certain conditions, to their benefit. Then they are glad for the Government to pick up where individual capitalists fear to tread. But at this time capitalists collectively are preventing collective stimulation because they’ve already milked the sucker dry. They vote no confidence to either turning on the spigots or their “tax” reduction (which are just variants of demand-siderism) because they killed it, because they believe there’s no hope for it what with slave labor in China and the onset of ecological and resource crises, and they never believed that bullshitter Laffer in the first place.

    Capitalists have graduated. To Fascists. OK, neo-feudalists. I admire Ralph Nader’s strategy, even though the two uber-capitalists he pitched on CSPAN, Peter Lewis and Ted Turner, were abject embarrassments. The incredible tension developing in the capitalist slab, between the necessity for survival and shame of brutality is bound to break some capitalist(s). Nader is firing his cannon in the hope that he can trigger the crown fracture. Brilliant, really. Go Ralph!

    That primary Bourgeois social cohesion, one-upsmanship, the public excuse for their frenzy, also hides other lines of cohesion. If Ralph can break some of those primary bonds, the others will flip a good number of capitalists and perhaps prevent the catastrophic avalanche.

    But of course, perpetual brinksmanship no longer has an ounce of credibility. It’s eco-socialism or barbarism, comrade.

  5. Nice try, but your understanding of debt economics is very poor. Why is the debt business is a big business? Because it makes a very good profit. Debtors take on extra liabilities, because it is profitable to do so. Creditors will stimulate debt holdings, even if there is not good economic reason for it. Therefore, to divide the world into nasty creditors and betrayed debtors is a pettybourgeois illusion, which neatly bypasses the real nature of capitalist debt.

  6. “Creditors will stimulate debt holdings, even if there is not good economic reason for it.” Is that capitalist charity? Nonsense, Jurriaan. Why is debt business, big business? Because it is a present demand creator, the debt market can be easily manipulated, and default is hedged and backed, ulitimately, by the government. It’s their joint venture.

    I suspect you are projecting misunderstanding.

    Here’s a greater challenge. Please explain how the following is not a vindication of the declining rate of profit:

    Capitalist debt (I hope you understand what I mean by that) doesn’t look like it will be big business much longer.

  7. Indian Jones whoever you are, your comment is brainless. If creditors stimulate debt holdings, that is because they make profit out of it. It has nothing to do with charity. There has always been a sizeable debt business, and there will always be so long as there is capitalism. It is just that from about 1980, the debt business really began to take off. This had a lot to do with the liberalization of international capital traffic, growing opportunities for international arbitrage, new emerging markets, and a low interest regime.

    Put very simply, if you had sufficient collateral, you could borrow funds and reinvest them at a profit much higher than your interest costs. This motivated businesses and individuals to take on more and more debt. In turn, that created repeated “financial bubbles”. The US subprime crisis happened, because rich investors enticed poor people to take out loans for real estate which they could not afford, in order to resell those loans for profit. They stimulated people to take out more and more credit which people really could not afford. At some point, US people started to walk away from homes which they could no longer pay off – something which is impossible in Europe – and that triggered an avalanche of debt defaults. However, if it had not been the subprimes, it would been some other default that would have set off a panic. Hence the concept of a “credit crunch” which already existed well before the crash; many analysts were already looking around where the triggers bursting the bubble would be.

    I do not know what exactly the variables are in your graph, and how they are calculated. But you seem to assume the primitive Marxist idea that the economy consists of production only, plus one interest rate. This is imbecile. In advanced capitalist societies, capital tied up in means of production is “at most” only 1/5 of the total capital assets in the domestic economy; a large part of the profit is profit from overseas operations, and it may only surface in tax havens. People like the Marxist hippy Guglielmo Carchedi – who currently inspires the International Socialists – confuse Marx’s abstract picture of the essence of capitalist production with the real world. Then they claim that the rate of profit is falling, when in the real world the rate of profit is rising! When this is queried, they claim that they have the “true” definition of the rate of profit! But when we examine their “scientific” measures, we find out that they are full of holes and just derived from the crudest data provided in official categories, of which the compilers themselves doubt the accuracy and meaningfulness! It is sad that Leftists fall for this rubbish!

  8. Again, Jurriaan, yours is not a dignified response. And they’re getting worse.

    That takeoff of the debt business, it’s liberalization, is the privatization of Keynesianism. And that sufficient collateral you mention, wasn’t that one of the prizes upon “an avalanche of debt defaults”?

    The chart originated here: There you can read that the debt variable includes financial and non-financial US domestic debt. So, please explain how “in the real world the rate of profit is rising!” I’ll wait for you to put words in your mouth. IMoreover, f you do not rely on the “crudest data provided in official categories” where do you get a “true” rate of profit from?


  9. Indian Jones whoever you are, I am not interested in Marxist or neoclassical ideological economics, I am interested in scientific economics. You provide a graph which you have lifted from a blog. The apparent author of this blog just makes up some statistics, and then claims fraudulently and without qualification this describes the essential nature of reality. But he hasn’t proved anything, and certainly not what he claims to prove. I worked four years as research statistician and five years as Phd student on these problems. If some Marxist hippy dickhead prattles about “falling rate of profit” I take a dim view of it. I can prove very easily that the graph is a misrepresentation simply by unpacking what the graph computationally does and does not mean. But why should I? I would be throwing pearls before Marxist idiots blind to anything other than their stupid unresearched dogmas! Anybody can lift a few figures from a blog! There exists no accurate macroeconomic data on the rate of profit. At best we can construct indicators which signal whether the profit rate tends to go up or down. The only proof we have that we can reliably show what the direction of the profitability trend is, because the majority of different profitability computations that you can do from the given data show the same trend, if not the same level. When Marxists get obsessed with 1/5 of the nation’s capital assets and claim to have explained why the economy behaves as it does, it’s a bit like the man who tries to prove that it is the tail that wags the dog. Yes, BEA shows that there was a dip in corporate profits during the slump. But afterwards corporate profitability recovered. The real controversy is not about the Marxist “falling rate of profit” wank, but about why, if profits have recovered, gross product growth and employment growth have not recovered at the same time. But if you want to understand why that is, you have to stop being a brainless Marxist hippy!

  10. in the real world the rate of profit is rising!

    There exists no accurate macroeconomic data on the rate of profit.

    I am interested in scientific economics.

    Sure you are. You’re characterizing the derivative of a quantity you can’t measure.

    How could corporate profits rise without employment or product growth? Obviously because “financial profit” is their empty product.

    Now you are projecting ideological blindness.

  11. Nobody in the present really benefits from leftists sowing panic or gloom and doom about the prospects of commerce in the future; at best it makes people anxious, but it does not equip people better to face the challenges in the present, nor does it provide real orientation in the present about what to do and get the most out of life.

    Is getting the most out of life from commerce a Marxist concern? Hmm. Perhaps you could estimate the mental calculation (and expression) wasted predicting, justifying, and analyzing the moves of capital in crisis. And here you claim it is not important to understand “the prospects of commerce.”

    More nonsense.

  12. Jones, you are a disgrace to everything Karl Marx stood for. Marx spent twelve years conscientiously researching some books that would stand the test of time. You just do your vague Marxist waffle, sound off your high moral opinions about everything while you don’t have a shred of integrity, and lazily lift a bit of data fraud from a blog to prove your case… That’s the trouble, these “Marxists” are a fraud, and that’s why Marx himself said “I am not a Marxist”. In addition, you are also libellous: according to you, I claim “it is not important to understand “the prospects of commerce.” But I never said any such thing. Say no more. The Marxist fraud is just a distraction.

  13. You have not informed my understanding of the present crisis one iota. I would suggest that your rather apoplectic tone and dubious insight are horrid exemplars of leftist failure.

    And I note that it was you who tied Marx to me and then denounced my purity. You, Comrade Bendien, are a disgrace to the left.

  14. Just for the sake of clarity, “Indian Jones” whoever you are: I am NOT any kind of “comrade” of yours, and have NIL association with your poisonous ilk. The term “comrade” is used by the Left when they connive in their so-called “friendly discussions” while in reality they are scheming to stab each other in the back! If the Left is “disgraceful”, it’s not my problem, except that if they get in my way, I remove them like any other nuisance.

  15. Even Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, leader of the opposition and victim of the electoral fraud, will come around to support him. /////// This reminds of the role of the Socialist leader Papandreou in Greece.

  16. Global Debt Crisis

    The greatest private fraud of human history.
    Who are the great fraudsters who are becoming the murderers of the human kind? How does the economy “illness” threaten Democracy and the freedom of people?
    By knowing what happened in indebted Greece, where loan sharks created “bubbles” and the current inhuman debt, one can understand the inhuman plan in total …understand where this plan started just to bring all states at the same end …understand how this type of plans are established…


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