Posts Tagged ‘finance’


Utopian novels, it seems, are no longer published.* Instead, bookstores now feature non-fiction books about utopia (the latest of which is Erik Reece’s just-released Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Idea) and, as a counterpoint, a burgeoning section of dystopian fiction. Whereas books about actual utopian experiments (especially, as in Reece’s book, those that were imagined and enacted in nineteenth-century America) are inspired by a sense that things could be better (indeed, much better), and we might have something to learn from our radical predecessors, dystopian novels move in the opposite direction, imagining a much worse world, one created by our own evil impulses and institutions (or at least each author’s fears concerning the possible effects of one or another negative feature of contemporary reality).

Dystopias are, perhaps not surprisingly, popular among young-adult readers. Just think of the success (in both book and film form) of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy of novels, The Hunger Games, which take place at some unspecified time in North America’s future. Part social commentary (in the case of the Katniss’s world, a critique of both reality TV and of grotesque inequalities in the wider society), part a mirror of adolescent disaffection and angst (of life with unsympathetic parents and cruel schoolmates)—they’re mostly about “what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader.”

Adult dystopias are something different—more didactic, more scolding, in which the author often issues a dire warning about the dangers of one or another current trend. They make sense when the idea is readers can do something to correct the situation, which most adolescents do not share. The latter are caught in the maelstrom; adults are supposed to be able to shape events (or at least to be held responsible for not doing the right thing).

Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 is certainly that. It warns, it scolds, and it seeks to teach—perhaps even more than other novels in the new sub-genre of dystopian finance fiction. Given the financialization of the U.S. economy in recent decades and the spectacular crash of 2007-08, which has come to be closely identified with the bubble-and-bust trajectory of Wall Street, it should come as no surprise that the sub-genre itself exists.

But The Mandibles is perhaps even more didactic than other novels in the area, such as the closely related Cosmopolis: A Novel (published before the crash, in 2003) by Don DeLillo. While DeLillo’s novel certainly presents a disturbing view of reclusive billionaire Eric Packer and his financial machinations (including a spectacular bet against the yen, which goes badly for him as he travels in his limousine across New York City to get a haircut), it is more an exaggerated portrayal of certain features of contemporary life (including the deregulation of finance, the growth of inequality, the role of information, and the decline of affect) than a clear explanation of why and how we’re headed to the apocalypse if things continue as they are.

Shriver, however, uses the saga of four generations of the Mandible family after the “crash of 2029” to tell such a didactic story. And the story she has chosen to relate is a pointedly right-wing libertarian version of a cascade of possible events (reinforced by some absurd future slang) that stem from, in her view, a bloated Keynesian state and its escalating national debt (accompanied by out-of-control migration from south of the border and a coalition of hostile foreign powers).

The thinly veiled critique of contemporary political economy, borrowed in equal parts from Rand Paul and Donald Trump (with, toward the end, a celebration of the Free State of Nevada, of which Ayn Rand would be proud), does have its humorous, liberal-tweaking moments. I had to chuckle as I read about the head of the Federal Reserve (Krugman) and, later in the novel, the new presidential administration (of Chelsea Clinton), as well as the fact that one group of academics (economists) are mostly left unemployed as the economic crisis unfold.

But, overall, the economics of the novel (and the author does present a great deal of explicit economic theorizing, from the mouths of members of all four of the generations, especially the precocious self-taught economic savant Willing) are decidedly from the right-wing of the current political and economic spectrum. The economic apocalypse that engulfs the Mandible family and the entire country stems from the precipitous decline in the value of the U.S. dollar occasioned by a debt-financed explosion of federal financing for entitlement programs. A desperate nation (led by a Hispanic president) renounces its debts, both foreign and domestic. Other nations respond by devising an alternative currency, the “bancor” (the hypothetical name for the international bank money of an international currency union once devised by Keynes), which is not convertible into U.S. dollars. To refill the treasury, the federal government confiscates citizens’ gold, right down to their wedding rings.

We are then witness to the inevitable slide that tears apart the entire country, with a focus on East Flatbush where the various members of the clan are forced to gather. Fortunes are lost and people are evicted from their homes. Hyperinflation causes mind-spinning changes in prices, shortages provoke hoarding, and then, when basic goods are no longer available, life as we know it devolves (the replacement of toilet paper by cloth “ass-napkins” is the final ignominious assault on middle-class sensibilities). As for public order, the crime rate soars and public utilities no longer function properly (with water now in short supply). The Mandibles are forced to escape by traveling upstate to work on a farm (although a mercy killing-suicide en route means not all of them make it).

Years later, the remaining members of the clan (at least those who haven’t died or made it across the wall into the newly prosperous Mexico), led by now-grownup Willing, travel across the country, past factories (now owned by foreign capitalists and staffed by low-wage American workers) and geriatric facilities (for the elderly sent from abroad, attended to by low-wage American orderlies) to the only remaining sanctuary: the Free State of Nevada. The seceded state is on the gold standard, with a flat tax rate of 10 percent, no social safety net and no gun control, and where everyone has a chance to be a successful entrepreneur. It’s a society everyone there describes as “not a utopia”—with the obvious implication it’s the best alternative to the oppressive liberal-paradise-turned- dystopia the Mandibles have left behind.

If only they’d listened to the warnings about the “dodgy hocus-pocus” of Keynesian economics and the social-welfare state. They could have avoided the breakdown and their self-inflicted dystopia. That’s the lesson Shriver wants us to learn today.

As readers know, there is a well-founded critique of Keynesian economics and the problems of contemporary capitalism (which I’ve attempted to develop in some detail on this blog). However, the pressing issue, at least in the United States with its own sovereign currency, is not national debt or “easy money.” That’s for the Chicken Littles who stoke fears about a falling fiscal sky and want nothing more than low taxes, a diminished safety net, and the freedom of capital.

But that’s Shriver’s story and she spares no moment or patch of dialogue over the course of more than found hundred pages to attempt to drive it home.


*In fact, Fredric Jameson argues in his recent book, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, that the last real utopian novel was Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, published in 1975.


JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon knows something about manipulation. In a recent interview, he called the political environment “terrible,” and blamed talking heads on cable news for making it even worse: “They are just jazzing you up. You’re being manipulated.”

Which is exactly what Dimon did by way of a recent New York Times editorial, where he announced that he was going to raise “the minimum pay for 18,000 employees to between $12 and $16.50 an hour” (“depending on geographic and market factors”).

A pay increase is the right thing to do. Wages for many Americans have gone nowhere for too long. Many employees who will receive this increase work as bank tellers and customer service representatives. Above all, it enables more people to begin to share in the rewards of economic growth.

But as Annie Lowry [ht: sm] explains,

Were that it really benevolence, or that the raise was a meaningful one.

Wages have been rising as the unemployment rate has fallen below 5 percent and the labor market has tightened. Employers, in other words, are now competing to hire and retain workers, which means offering those workers more money and better working conditions more broadly. Dimon is doing what thousands of other corporate executives and managers are doing — and what all companies have to do when the economy is good. He just managed to convince the op-ed editors at the Times to give him some publicity for doing it.

Moreover, the raise is puny — $1.85 an hour, spread out over three whole years, meaning inflation will eat some of it up. “That’s a roughly 3.2 percent annual boost after taking projected future inflation into account,”noted Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-of-center think tank. “This hardly seems to deserve a parade.”

Just to put things in perspective, total financial sector profits were more than $700 billion in the first of quarter of this year. JPMorgan Chase itself made a net profit of $5.4 billion during the first three months of 2016, which rose to $6.2 billion in the second quarter.


Oh, and his own bank decided to pay Dimon $27 million (in cash and stocks) in 2015, up from $20 million a year earlier.


I know all about how corrupt a city can by. I live in Chicago, the “Capital of Corruption.”

And I hear all the time about all those other corrupt cities, most of them located in countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, which often fall low in the corruption perceptions indices like the one produced by Transparency International.

But for all the talk about transparency and the need to tackle corruption at the 2016 Anti-Corruption Summit in London, the host country itself may be the most corrupt in the world.

As Joel Benjamin [ht: ja] explains, the indices produced and disseminated by groups like Transparency International “only measure perceived corruption based upon the abuse of public office for private gain, i.e. the payment of bribes.” What they don’t account for is the fact that “While nepotism and subservience to finance capital is rife in Britain and its overseas dependencies, it is not illegal.”

At least Chicago’s corruption is transparent. Donate to the mayor’s campaign chest and you get a city contract or assistance with a development project. In the city of London (and other such financial centers in Britain, the United States, and Western Europe), corruption is based on money laundering and financial secrecy.


And if we measure those forms of corruption, then (as with the Financial Secrecy Index developed by the Tax Justice Network) the tables (so to speak) are turned: Switzerland ends up at the top, the United States rises to number 3, and the United Kingdom rounds out the top 15.

If anything, the bribing of public officials in Chicago, Lagos, Bogotá, and Bangalore is quite transparent—and often involves the siphoning-off of some of the surplus from the initial appropriators to their friends in high places in order to keep doing business. The corruption in Geneva, London, and New York is something quite different and even more pernicious: it involves the laundering of the surplus captured from the entire world so that the economic and political elites who capture it get to keep it and accumulate even more wealth, for themselves and their friends in high places.

All of it legal—and fundamentally corrupt.


Lynn Parramore [ht: ja], in reviewing Rana Foroohar’s forthcoming book, Makers and Takers: The Rise of American Finance and the Fall of American Business, presents a memorable image (straight out of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors):

Foroohar’s book explains how our financial system stopped funding new ideas and projects and started extracting precious resources from Main Street. Her writing leaves a vivid impression that once the financial wizards get their way, nobody is safe, from the young college grad next door drowning in debt owed to predatory lenders to the child halfway around the world whose dinner fell victim to commodities speculation.

As I turned the pages, I began to imagine Big Finance as a giant exotic vine from some florid disaster movie that has grown out of control, creeping onto the roofs of our houses, reaching into the food on our plates, tightening its hold on our wallets—even taking over our minds. I’m embarrassed to say how many times I hear phrases like “human capital” and “return on investment” issuing from my own lips: finance-originated concepts used to describe relationships and activities that have little to do with spreadsheets.

Still, it’s not quite as dramatic as Matt Taibbi’s reference to Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”


Cartoon of the day

Posted: 21 March 2016 in Uncategorized
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