Monday, June 10, 2013

Fractional reserve banking: the actual secret of Western prosperity

A lot of  talk - by academics, journalists and laymen alike - goes on about "successful economic models". Inspired by Max Weber's largely misunderstood and misquoted The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, economic success has first been attributed to White man's supremacy, then Japanese diligence, presently to Chinese Confucian ethics. 

Elaborate models show how this or that factor made or broke a particular country. Economists in particular can't get enough of singling out that elusive dependent variable that will couple perfectly with their fetish variable of economic growth. Back in the halcyon days of universal fascination with "development", anthropologists too used to look for magic secrets of  prosperity, e.g., Clifford Geertz in the conclusion to The Agriculutral Involution in Indonesia ruminated poignantly on "how come Indonesia is not more like Japan?"

Looking beyond the quality of Javanese volcanic soil and delusions of meritocratic world economy, at, as Arjun Appadurai put it, the "the promiscuous flows of global capital", reveals that access to cheap money by way of fractional reserve banking is the actual secret of Western prosperity.  Tempted with this giant carrot on a stick, whole countries jump up and embark on economic miracles. The fin-de-siècle Argentina used to be world's 3rd richest country, thanks to the British banks - until Evita ousted them, wherefore that coveted prosperity never returned to the land of tango and giant steaks. Oftentimes, it is the overspill of Western military expenses that proves an unexpected economic side-effect. The Korean War money fuelled Japan's skyrocketing to the top of world's pecking order. Thailand hugely benefited from serving as the US bulwark in the Vietnam War. The cases that superficially appear exceptions, in fact, rest on the same principles: for example, China's stunning rise owes a great deal to its unprecedented control of its finances that allows it to create its own giant carrot on a stick outside the reach of the so-called "world's financial institutions". The collapse of the Soviet Union may be partially attributed to its failure to develop a fractional reserve banking system.

Money is the blood of economy. The more you cook up, the more material prosperity people will produce, chasing that very carrot on a stick. However, crasheth that Ponzi scheme, crasheth the whole shebang. Among the structural factors that can bring about the eventual demise of this model are:
  1. Oversaturation of the market: there are limits to how much stuff people actually need. The ceaseless "oversize me" drive can only lead to a fate similar to Mr. Creozote's.
  2. Uncontrolled cooking up of money not backed up by any assets: the trillions allegedly hoarded in offshore accounts are exactly that, digits in the computer, in whose purchase power everyone happens to believe.
  3. Unchecked wealth distribution will effectively deplete mass consumers' purchase power: the goose that lays golden eggs will bite itself on the ass to death. Palliatives like limitless credit extension to every Tom, Dick and Harry has proven highly toxic as we witnessed in 2008.
The credit-based economic model did bring about a level of unprecedented material prosperity to the Golden Billion. At the same time, it has peaked out around the First Oil Crisis and has required an enormous effort and expense to sustain by way of creating fake stock exchange bubbles (dot com, prime mortgage, green technologies, carbon trading, etc.). It has also decisively changed the relationship between the nation-state and corporate capital. It has also brought up a obscenely staggering wealth gap both between the "developing"and the "developed" world as well as domestically in the West. To secure that gap a variety of highly destructive measures has been taken: waging wars around the globe, initiating ans sustaining perpetual wars on "drugs" and "terror", mass control through mass surveillance and culture of fear.

What kind of system will come in place of the current one is beyond any social engineering attempt or wishful prediction. On thing clear is that the contradictions that will bring it down are already present and will serve as cornerstone for a new emerging reality. Another clear thing is that no amount of wiggling and huffing-puffing within the framework of monetary economy will remove you from its morbid grip: attempts like the Brixton pound are sweet but deeply naive.

No comments:

Post a Comment