"When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals.
We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues"

( JM Keynes, "Economic Possibilities for our Granchildren" 1930 )

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Right Answer for the Wrong Question

Whoever wishes to understand modern politics or economics must stay tuned to America. Despite the fashionable talk about its imminent decline, America is still the most powerful nation on Earth which its influence goes far beyond “hard” power. Visible trends and even underground streams developing in America are the marking paths to be followed by the rest of the world, whether as a vulgar imitation or as a reference point. It´s just impossible to ignore America

Accordingly I think that the annual State of the Nation speech is an event worthwhile to follow. This week ( January 2010) President Obama launched his annual message with some intersting ideas . First of all , the President made the economic worsening situation of millions of citizens the first priority of his administration, in his own words :

“.....But the devastation remains. One in 10 Americans still cannot find work. Many businesses have shuttered. Home values have declined. Small towns and rural communities have been hit especially hard. And for those who'd already known poverty, life has become that much harder...”.

Such a description ( which nobody can ignore ) sounds as the preamble for a major economic initiative. Still, the President was much specific when he turned to deal with a much thorny issue , the balance of public accounts :

“[F]amilies across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same. (Applause.) So tonight, I’m proposing specific steps to pay for the trillion dollars that it took to rescue the economy last year. Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. (Applause.) Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will. (Applause.)

Beyond the impressive rhetoric, any mainstream observer would notice the apparent incoherence between the two President´s messages : How this administration intends to create jobs while freezing public spending? Is the President adopting the classic laissez faire stance, counting on free market forces to turn around the situation? Is this an admission that the ultra expansionist policy with a record deficit of almost 10% out of US GDP and low interest rates had failed? Hard questions, big dilemmas....

Now, let me make it clear : the above “dilemmas” are typical mainstream questions which are drawn from a wrong analysis. The apparent dilemma between jobs and “fiscal responsibility” is an “issue” for those who consider the crisis as a deviation from a normal path. Under such a pespective , the economic system periodically staggers due to “exogenous shocks” ( such as the predatory habits if Wall Steet ..) and requires a temporal intervention . To put in it in a simple analogy ,the economy system is like an healthy person which suffers from a temporal disease and the job of the Doctor government is to apply the right dose of medicine. The dilemma is between the types of treatments, their intensity and the possible collateral damages.

Those who think that the actual crisis is a natural outcome of our economic system can be divided into two camps : right and left. The “Right” believes that tides are a normal behavior of a market economy and that the system is resilient enough to overcome the crisis. According to that view, public intervention just makes things worse since market is always smarter than bureaucrats. It is like adopting a “natural cure” attitude refusing to visit a doctor because “the body can heal itself”. These guys don´t understand the above “dilemma”. Mainstream observers consider that i the body cannot cure itself, the experiment can bring to a premature death ….what seems to be an interesting view might become a too risky option for the whole society.

The Left doesn´t consider any dilemma situation. view believes that crisis are a normal component of the economic system but not as a temporal “illness” but as a revelation of the inner contradictions and as a signal that things must change. In our case, I believe that the current crisis can accept only a Left interpretation . The crisis caused high unemployment and low capital utilization as a result of deficient demand ( sub consumption) . In simple words, the crisis is not because we, the economy, cannot produce more products but because there is not enough “money” around willing or able to buy what we can produce. How it comes? Doesn´t the market system balance between supply and demand? The economic system tends to concentrate wealth and consumption power too few hands. That creates a situation in which the economy is able to produce vast amounts of products, but since the majority does not have sufficient purchasing power, there is no buyer of these products , unless they are loaded with debt. Since the the only way “not to remain behind” is working harder or amassing debts

This is more or less what happened in the world economy in the last 30 years : a few Gates, Buffets and bankers earned millions and billions that cannot being spent. Their aim is not to spend that money but to accumulate more money ( Buffet is more than 80 years old and still hanging around, looking for new bargains) . The conclusion of such analysis is that only a redistribution of wealth and incomes can generate the demand to turn the wheels of the economy once again. The pathetic attempt to push the economy through bailouts , public spending or reducing interest rates to inflate financial and real assets is just a ideological fixation and will probably bring to a sovereign debt crisis ( the IMF is already warning) . The hole is too deep and the need to finance the public deficit brings back to the arena the cry for “fiscal responsibility”, but the error made by Obama and his Pseudo Keynesian advisors is to try and maintain the health of the public accounts through freezing, while the only available, logical and required step was to increase taxes on those wealthy people. Let us be clear : fiscal responsibility is not a monopoly of conservatives.....

Since US and the global economy are still , unfortunate, far away from such a “radical” idea ( not so radical as it is exactly how the American economy worked for almost 40 years after the Great Depression) , the crisis and its consequences, high unemployment, sluggish growth and poor horizons is what is expected from us , Courtesy from the “Change, Yes We Can “ President .

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Were the Pyramids Built by Slaves ?

Main stream press recently released news concerning a major archeological discovery in Egypt: Under the surface and nearby the Giza Pyramids were discovered a number of graves belonging to workers that built the local pyramids (app. 2400 BCE). According to the experts quoted, the discovery (and the subsequent conclusion) should not be considered trivial:

“….These tombs were built beside the king’s pyramid, which indicates that these people were not by any means slaves. If they were slaves, they would not have been able to build their tombs beside their king’s…” said Dr. Hawass (Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities).

The revolutionary conclusion from the graves is that the idea of the Giza Pyramids being built by slaves is a myth – it has never had any basis in archaeological fact. I am not sure that this specific discovery consisting of not more than a few graves, can support (or refute) such an overwhelming conclusion. Since the construction of these monuments involved many thousands of people, a few possible “lottery winners” (or foremen) allowed to enjoy their eternal life in vicinity to the royalty can hardly tell us anything about the fate of the vast majority of workers/slaves. However, that was a side note about the conclusion since the main interesting issue related to the Pyramids lies in another place.

On my humble opinion, the legal status of thousands of human beings which carved, shipped and piled millions of stones (along 30 years according to Herodotus) under the burning sun is a particular aspect of that matter though not the principal one. Any dispute concerning the legal status of the builders cannot hide the most pervert aspect related to the Pyramids: This enterprise is an enormous human effort dedicated for a useless purpose. A few figures are sufficient to reveal the magnitude of that effort; Giza Pyramid made from 2,5 Million 2,5 tons blocks each entailed the physical work of 10,000 people (Herodotus wrote 100,000) for 30 years. And this is just for one Pyramid ….and we still got plenty of Pyramids, Tombs, Temples and other magnificent monuments that literally cover the Egyptian soil.

Since the Pyramid is not more than a big tomb, it does not create any economic (in the sense of exchange or utility) value. Therefore, someone had to feed those laborers/slaves; someone had to supply cloth and other means in exchange for nothing. The only possible source for food and materials for that army of workers was the surplus the Nile valley originated beyond the level of subsistence of the population. That surplus funneled through somewhat coercive means mixed with a good dose of religion and property rights managed to feed thousands of workers which served the upper class and also transformed its muscle power into an impressive and useless pile of stones. Now, why wasn´t the surplus or the amazing skills applied, for example, to improve the infrastructure of the country? Alternatively, why weren´t these resources serve to allow more gifted individuals to devote their skills to science? Or to upgrade the medical services for a population whose life expectancy was about 35 for men and 30 for women, in which reaching adulthood was difficult as about one-third of the population died in infancy? (Remember that Egyptians were very advanced in many medical techniques as the mummification…). All those bothering questions make me define the pyramids construction as a “perversion”.

Are the perversions of ancient Egypt still among us? The British economist Lord Keynes in his famous General Theory observed that in the context of involuntary unemployment “…Pyramid-building, earthquakes, even wars may serve to increase wealth, if the education of our statesmen on the principles of the classical economics stands in the way of anything better…”. p. 129). This generally misunderstood and sarcastic comment reveals that pyramids (and other calamities as well) are very close to the solutions classical economics tend to provide to economic crisis with unemployment ( just think about it , Pyramids or wars as a solution to unemployment,,,,) . I think that these phenomena are even closer than what Keynes meant as he was wrong in one important detail: It was not the “…education ….on principles of classical economics” that stood between ancient and modern Pharaohs and “better ways” to avoid unemployment. Dear Lord, 5000 years ago there was no “classical economics” at all!.

The common denominator between classic economics and ancient pyramids is to be found in a different place . Whether you call it extraction of surplus from Nile peasants or the reduction of involuntary unemployment, the “real thing that stands in the way of anything better” is the willingness to maintain as much as possible the prevailing distribution of incomes, wealth and power. It´s a matter of power and exploitation, not only an education obstacle . If we understand that , the Pyramids turn become a symbol which embedding a clear message toward the rest of the mortals : Some of us deserve the work of most of you whether you like it or not.

True, Pharaohs´ pretentions seems to our modern eyes as absolutely perverse as they try not only to maintain their superior status but also to eternalize it . However, since the principles of classical pyramidal economics are still among us, I can easily find a lot of “modern pyramids” erected and managed around us as a mere and poor substitute for anything better that goes beyond the education and the interest of our statement. The choice is, on my humble opinion, a very relevant open issue even in our modern times.

A related final and not serious (?) comment: According to the biblical sources, the Israelites were enslaved by Pharaoh to build cities and warehouses, but the Torah doesn´t mention any Pyramid or another spectacular building. Anyhow, an interesting intent to bridge the gap between the Bible and the recent archeological findings would claim that that our ancestors were indeed wage earners, but they felt and treated as slaves… A modern interpretation for the Haggadah?