Michael Hudson

‘D’ is for Debt

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Part D to The Insider’s Economic Dictionary


Debt: Only pure assets and equity ownership exist without corresponding debt. For financial saving, one party’s saving deposit, loan or credit appears as another party’s debt on the opposite side of the balance sheet. (Even net worth appears on the liabilities side of the balance sheet.)

Debt bondage: The obligation of debtors to provide their own labor and/or that of family members to creditors to carry the interest and principal charges on loans or other financial claims. In today’s postindustrial economy this obligation takes the form of homeowners and employees spending their working lives paying off their mortgages and other personal debts in an attempt to improve or merely to maintain their economic position.

Debt drag: Like fiscal drag, the rate at which leakage from the production-and-consumption sector to the FIRE sector.

Debt deflation: A diversion of the circular flow of spending between producers and consumers to pay creditors. Revenue diverted in this way is channeled into yet more lending, imposing yet higher debt-servicing charges which aggravate the debt deflation. Debt deflation and asset-price inflation usually go together in a symbiotic financial relationship as creditors use their receipt of debt service to make new loans that tend to further inflate asset prices. (See Compound Interest.)

Debt overhead: The cost of carrying debts (and hence, savings), including interest and dividends, amortization and other financial charges (late fees and overdraft penalties, which now absorb nearly as much as interest charges for U.S. credit-card companies). This overhead, which creditors euphemize as wealth creation, grows exponentially at compound interest. (See Fragility.)

Debt peonage: Ambrose Bierce observed: “Debt is an ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave driver.”

Debt pollution: Much as environmental pollutants such as DDT distort nature’s environmental balance and block the reproduction of life, so the buildup of debt halts economic expansion by absorbing income otherwise available for new investment and living. Debt pollution in the form of interest and amortization charges absorbs the economy’s surplus, preventing it from being used to replace capital, to say nothing of expanding the means of production and raising living standards. (See Conditionalities, Environment, IMF and Parasitism.)

Debt, public: The alternative to money and credit creation by the national Treasury, resulting in the need to tax the economy to pay carrying charges on the debt.

Decline of the West: This decline first occurred with the collapse of the Roman Empire under the debt burden that ended up stripping its capital and reducing economic life to the Dark Ages of local self-sufficiency (see feudalism). It threatens to recur today as a result of the postindustrial economy’s debt deflation and asset stripping.

Decontextualization: The tendency for Chicago School, Austrian and neoclassical economists to take markets and business behavior out of their social, institutional and historical context so as to exclude the effect of finance and property on production, consumption and general economic welfare. This methodological shortcoming results in Junk Science. (Contrast with Externality and Systems Analysis.)

Democracy: The political stage preceding oligarchy, according to Aristotle. It is now a term applied to any pro-American regime that supports the Washington Consensus, regardless of its political stripe but typically run by a client oligarchy, often using the slogans of free choice and self-determination. When Russia’s Vladimir Putin is called anti-democratic, for instance, what really is meant is anti-oligarch. This would seem to confirm the association between democracy and oligarchy. A safely democratic economy is one where big business moguls rather than the State own the TV stations, magazines and the popular press. Thus in Russia the Yeltsin junta spoke of its critics as “undermining democracy” during the election period, when the oligarchs’ TV steered voters away from any critical response.

Depreciation: The theory of depreciation as an element of value was developed by none other than Karl Marx in his critique of Quesnay’s Tableau Économique. He likened depreciation of capital equipment to that portion of the agricultural crop that had to be set aside as seed-grain for the next year’s crop. It follows that for buildings and other capital improvements, real-estate investors are allowed to recapture their original outlay in the form of depreciation allowances without having to pay income taxes, because depreciation is a return of capital, not a return on capital (profit).

The depreciation rate is supposed to reflect the rate at which machinery, buildings or other capital goods wear out or become technologically obsolescent as a result of being less productive than new higher-productivity equipment or other capital. However, the lifetime of buildings tends to be infinite, while their reproduction costs increase and their site value rises even more rapidly as a result of asset-price inflation. (See Over-depreciation.)

Dependency: The loss of choice. Establishing a world system based on foreign dependency is the aim of the Washington Consensus. This is achieved by indebting foreign countries, making them dependent on meeting IMF conditionalities to obtain the resources to avoid defaulting on their loans and seeing the market price of their currency fall (and with it the price of their labor and the domestic-currency cost of servicing dollar-denominated debts). The essence of dollar hegemony is to maximize U.S. choice by minimizing the choice of foreign economies to pursue policies not deemed in the interest of the United States, obliging them to depend on the United States for new dollar credit, food and technology.

Deregulation: A dismantling of anti-monopoly rules and safeguards so as to shift planning into the corporate sector run primarily by its financial managers for their benefit, not to maximize long-term growth and new investment as is so often portrayed. Inasmuch as the essence of rulers and government is rule-setting, deregulation represents an undoing of public power in society’s broad interests, on the ground that public power is inherently corrupt and run in the bureaucracy’s narrowly self-serving interest.

Developing country: A patronizing term for former European colonies hitherto called backward, aiming to cast their backwardness, economic polarization and international dependency in a favorable semantic light by implying a teleological tendency toward food dependency and financial dependency as a byproduct of the gains from trade resulting from the international division of labor. A less euphemistic synonym is “third-world countries.”

Development: As applied by economists to third-world countries, a process of specialization leading to food and credit dependency, usually the result of colonialism in the past and most recently, of predatory global financial behavior under Dollar Hegemony. See Stages of Development.

Devil: A special interest that usually works best unseen. As the poet Baudelaire noted, “The devil wins at the point he convinces people that he doesn’t exist.” Financial wealth long was called “invisible wealth,” in contrast to “visible” wealth in the form of landed property. Operating on the principle that what is not seen will not be taxed or regulated, real estate interests have blocked government attempts to collect and publish statistics on property values. (See Invisible Hand.)

Diminishing rate of understanding: As society grows so much more complex as to be “thing-oriented,” people tend to lose the ability to integrate the overall system. Perception is broken down into a series of sensations. Culture turns into a way of “amusing ourselves to death,” as Postman put it, rather than as a key to understanding the world’s structure and how individuals and society interact. But the main cause of a diminishing rate of understanding the economy results from analysis becoming a public-relations exercise based on euphemisms promoted by the vested interests to represent their behavior in a positive light and under no circumstances to be a zero-sum activity or otherwise exploitative and rent-seeking.

Diminishing returns: The idea, popularized by David Ricardo, that food production became increasingly costly as population expanded and forced recourse to less fertile (and more distant) soils. The effect was to increase food prices at the high-cost extensive margin of production. This price rise would increase economic rent on the more fertile soils already cultivated, Ricardo warned. It was to minimize this economic rent that he urged Britain to adopt free trade in grain. (Malthus countered that landlords would increase farm productivity at the intensive margin by investing their rent in capital improvements.)

Subsequent economists have assumed diminishing returns not for empirical reasons but because only this assumption enables them to close their mathematical models with a single determinate solution, which they have taken as the badge of true science. (Increasing returns have not simple determinate solution, but tend to change the economic environment and hence leave the realm of post-classical economic logic.) (See S-curve.)

Discretionary income: Income that recipients can spend at their own discretion after meeting non-discretionary obligations headed by debt service, rent and payment for basic necessities such as food and transportation. In government budgets, interest payments are classified as non-discretionary, while social welfare and other long-term programs are categorized as discretionary, meaning that they can be cut back as being of secondary priority to financial claims and those of political insiders generally.

Dismal science: A term coined by Thomas Carlyle to characterize classical political economy, based as it was on a combination of the Ricardian assumption of diminishing returns in agriculture (ironically formulated just at the time when Justus von Liebig, Ludwig Thaer and other agricultural chemists were discovering ways to chemically increase soil fertility, and while agriculture was being mechanized), and Malthusian population theory postulating that higher incomes would lead the working classes to procreate more rapidly (just at a time when national demographic statistics were showing that the higher the income group in any country, the slower the rate of population growth tended to be).

Dollar Hegemony: America’s ability to export dollars in exchange for foreign goods, services and asset ownership, as if these U.S. Treasury IOUs had an intrinsic value that would end up being worth something to their holders, e.g. as gold or other hard assets. (See Balance of Payments and Chartalism.) The basic principle is that U.S. consumer demand and military spending should be the “engine” that drives foreign production, rather than production abroad driving domestic consumption (as in Say’s Law). (See Parasitism.)

Dollar standard: An international arrangement in which central banks agree to hold their international savings in the form of loans to the U.S. Treasury rather than in gold or other assets.

Doubling time: The time it takes for an interest-bearing loan, savings deposit or debt (or other rate of increase, such as price inflation) to double. (See Compound Interest and Rule of 72.)

Dutch disease: The term refers to a country richly endowed with natural resources whose export pushes up its exchange rate, putting its manufacturing at a price disadvantage with respect to foreign competitors. In the 1960s and ‘70s the Dutch discovered natural-gas deposits that could be pumped out of the ground at low cost. Export of this gas led Holland’s currency to be overvalued relative to that of other countries. Wages were pushed up and the manufacturing sector lost competitiveness. Since it was the first time that this mechanism was observed at such a scale in a relatively developed country, it was called “Dutch disease.” (The phenomenon soon spread to Norway following that country’s discovery of North Sea deposits.)

Dutch finance: The term coined after Britain’s 1688 Revolution for the new royal policy of financing wars or other fiscal deficits by borrowing, especially from foreigners (in this case the Dutch), rather than by taxing property on a pay-as-you-go basis or creating its own credit. Interest charges on the bonds are serviced out of special taxes typically levied on essentials. Adam Smith opposed this taxation, the government debt that led to it, and the wars and colonial rivalries that led to this debt. Pointing out that Dutch finance was a means of making the war’s actual economic cost less visible to the population by stretching out its expense over time, Smith concluded that financing wars on a pay-as-you-go basis would deter popular support for royal military adventures.

Dystopia: A social system that leads to economic polarization and shrinkage, held together by repressive authoritarian or imperial policies. (See Inner Contradiction.)

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Part E to The Insider’s Economic Dictionary


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