Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Best Explanation of the Depression I Ever Read!

From Badtux the Snarky Penguin: A side excursion on money
Now, some of you have been reading my tomes about how the problem is that a bunch of money is about to evaporate out of the economy if we don't do something quickly, and are, like, "what the fuck? What's this money we're talking about? I thought we were talking about mortgage-backed bonds!"

Okay, let's back up then. Open up your wallet. Pull out one of those green pieces of toilet paper with a picture of a dead white guy on it. Let's say you pull out a $5 bill, or about what it takes to buy a couple of cheeseburgers and a coke at Micky D's. Looks pretty, huh? Now: Instead of going to Micky D's and getting a couple of cheeseburgers and a coke, eat the $5 bill instead. Uhm, excuse me, you say? Eat it? Ick!

Now what was the point of this exercise, you ask? Well, my point is that those green pieces of toilet paper with pictures of dead Presidents have no great intrinsic value. Unlike two cheeseburgers and a coke, you can't eat it and get any real nutrition out of it. About the only intrinsic value it has is as toilet paper, and really, that's not very good toilet paper okay? Rather, the reason it has value is because you can trade it for something that *does* have intrinsic value. You can trade it for that cheeseburger and fries, for example.

In short: Money is *anything* that can be traded for something else of value. We tend to differentiate between those forms of money that have intrinsic value (turnips, cheeseburgers, whatever you might want to trade for something else) and those forms of money that have only extrinsic value. But the point is that yes, toilet paper with pictures of dead paper is money. As is toilet paper that says "Mortgage-backed bond" on it, because said toilet paper can be traded for other things that have value. You can sell it to someone else in exchange for cash money, then use that cash money to buy cheeseburgers, for example. That makes it money. Not what you conventionally think of as money, but still money.

Now, let's go back and party like it's 1929. One of the things that baffled me, as a young college student, was the role that the stock market crash of 1929 had in triggering the Great Depression. I mean, c'mon. Here I am, a young penguin who grew up in the piney hill country, been out in the oilfield digging ditches and shit. I had a working man's disdain for those who didn't actually, like, make shit, who just sat behind a desk and pushed a buncha goddamned paper around. What the fuck does a buncha goddamned pasty-ass paper pushers got to do with anything? What's valuable is purple hull peas and turnip greens and oil and gas and land and cars and houses and shit like that, real shit, shit you can put your hands on, right? Well yes. Unless there are legal obligations upon them. Like, say, a loan.

And that is where the value of money comes in. The value of money is how much shit you can buy with it, right? Well, basically, the value of money is the amount of money in the economy divided by how much goods and services are in the economy. So let's say you got a loan to plant some corn. Between the time you took out that loan and the time you harvest your corn, half the money in the economy evaporates out of the economy. Well, then, you can only get half as many dollars as you planned for that corn. You got lots of corn, the folks buying your corn have half as many dollars, you might hold out for more dollars but there just ain't no more dollars out there. So you take half as many dollars in trade for your corn as you expected when you borrowed at the beginning of the year to plant your corn. This is fuckin' financial disaster. Pretty soon the bank comes by and repo's your land and auctions it off to your rich and wealthy neighbor, and you're fucked.

So anyhow, that's what happened in 1929 (or, rather, in 1930, when those loans started coming due). When those stocks were suddenly worth half of what they'd been worth a few hours before, it not only made those stocks worthless. It also made all the derivatives worthless. And they were money too, because they could be traded for money. Remember, if you can trade something for money, it is money. Ain't no difference between a nugget of gold and a stock certificate currently trading for $70 on Wall Street, me boyo... they're both money, albeit they're not U.S. currency, i.e., the funny green toilet paper fiat money issued by the Federal Reserve and backed by the economic output of the United States.

So anyhow, that evaporated money from the economy. And now the farmers can't pay their debts and are getting their farms repossessed. And they're pissed. So what do they do? They tell the politicians, "get farm prices back up again so we can pay off our debts!". And the politicians look around and say, "well, the problem is we got too much corn." No, the problem wasn't too much corn, the problem was that there wasn't as much money in the economy, the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve needed to start printing money (i.e., the U.S. Treasury selling U.S. bonds to the Federal Reserve, and the Federal Reserve issuing dollars in exchange for said bonds), which would then be spent in the economy or otherwise used to re-inflate the currency. But did they do this? Noooo! That wouldn't have been "fiscally sound"! You know what those stupid fuckers did? Those stupid fuckers went and started dumping corn into landfills to try to drive up the price of corn!

And you know what? They succeeded. Corn and wheat and other food items got more expensive. The problem is, there still wasn't enough money in the economy and the Fed wasn't gonna print none because that wouldn't be "fiscally sound". So people were spending all their available money to buy food now, which left nothing for buying anything else. So all the factories and shit started closing down. Which meant even more people couldn't afford to buy food. Which is when the food riots started. And things just altogether went to hell, and we only barely avoided our own Mussolini or Hitler, and that's only because FDR proved to be one hell of a scrapper, not like Democrats today, who cringe in terror at the sight of their own shadow like a buncha whipped goddamned puppy dogs. FDR couldn't get the currency re-inflated back to what it used to be. But at least he could end the food riots, get people working again, and start getting things looking sorta normal again. He did this with blatantly socialist programs like the CCC, he did this by imposing high taxes on the rich (who had benefited from all this by buying the assets of ordinary folks for pennies on the dollar at foreclosure auctions and such) to force them to re-distribute some of their wealth back to ordinary folks, and eventually WWII came along and forced the Republicans in Congress to allow FDR to print literally bundles of currency and people's debts got inflated out of existence again and the Great Depression was over.

So anyhow, here's the deal: The root problem in the current crisis isn't mortgages. The root problem is money. As in, preventing fucking boatloads of money from, well, just turning into a goddamned pumpkin when the clock strikes twelve, something which will make a helluva lot of debts other than mortgages absolutely unpayable. If that happens, you better goddamned well have an FDR in the wings to pick up the pieces -- and frankly, ain't neither of the current Presidential candidates fit to lick FDR's boots. Obama is a free market moderate, McCain is just fucking old and doesn't have the flexibility or stamina or willingness to think outside the box. Of the two, Obama might be able to break out of the box, but fuck. Let's just not go there, okay? Okay?!

-- Badtux the Rude Monetary Penguin

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