Saturday, November 19, 2005

Prelude to Review: The Death of Credit (1880)

A Soldier's Story
Omar N. Bradley

Prelude to Review: The Death of Credit (1880)

One reviewer commented that this book is surpassed by the magnificent volumes of Winston Churchill. While I read only a soft-cover abbreviated edition of his volumes about a decade ago, I prefer Bradley's style currently (my feelings may change on the matter) as it is more about actions and decisions made on the field of battle during the Second World War in Europe than it is addressing all of the theatres and encampments as Churchill does. Bradley does not try to meet every event with an explanation. Churchill often appeared preachy in his prose style and tried to cover much more content, but his defense would be that the reason for such unabbreviated ranting and rattling on is necessitated due to the UK's three year head-start into global conflict. Again. One might try to begin to pick-up ahead of the game where history often appears a little foggy or hazy. One really has to start in the 1880's or so to understand exactly why Bradley was on the battlefield to begin with in the 1940's. There is the danger in hindsight to paint glory over what occurred from 1939-1945. Victors often gloss over the suffering, and the fact that, "War is Hell", as Grant determined it to be.

Bradley does not gloss, he merely polishes facts as he saw them. It simply takes even the most general international business texts, if any one takes the time to read them, such as those written by Charles Hill, to get a grand scope of the achievements of globalisation and the economics of business at the turn of the last century. I am an amateur in history but I will attempt to mark some of the milestones that carried the world through two world wars.

The 1880's began a period of the largest spiked jump in consumption and production of manufactured goods in world history thanks to the streamlining of the industrial revolution. It was concurrently a period of few worker defined roles, only the beginning of modern thought or philosophy on the rights of the common worker, and even then often limited to agricultural labourers working with combines and threshers for the first time. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) took decades to form and was born toothless and clawless. Industrial man became like a cog in the wheel of steam propelled industry. This period gave rise to the scientific management methods of Charles Taylor which dehumanized the working classes even further and pushed enlightened thinking, in the realms of social theory, further forward towards attempts to re-balance or set compromises on what was obviously only a new evolution in the divisions of rich and poor, particularly the increasing, ever increasing gaps between the richest of the rich and poorest of the poor in terms of income and gross control of capital. Corporate mercantilism began to fade, flowering instead an enormous mutation of old traditional guild-type monopolies in a monstrous way, what corporatism became, which pushed blue collar workers further towards communist manifestos which always look good on paper, but in reality result in broken Chinas and Russias.

In the west, the compromise was organized labour, a union movement completely spun internationally but begun in the U.S. and the beginnings of minimum working and safety standards, which owed a lot to the principles of Fabian Socialism in the western world. It was a small 'give' considering what was 'taken' from the Tsar and eventually from the various permutations of puppet nationalists in the PRC. It was one way an aspiring merchant class could hope to grow forward, onward and upward to amass conglomerations, limited liabilities and what is seen today as international or multinational corporations.

E.M. Forster, especially in his novel "Howard's End" was not singular among his contemporaries to symbolically depict a foreshadowing of trouble brewing between the British and the Germans, economically, socially, and geo-politically, cleary three to four decades prior to the outset of the Second World War. The rivalry was no surprise. It was almost engrained since the beginnings of recorded history. Even among his contemporaries such as John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, P.G. Wodehouse and the like, the status quo of the time in the English reading world (and the result, speaking) was always that a war between Britain and Germany was inevitable to settle a long running question of continental dominance. No such ideas of peace movements existed per se. The pros and cons of war were discussed. The chaos and mayhem were always distant realities. The scene and setting had been built by the drive among European competitors to industralize, and industrialisation would now determine the winners and losers fresh from continental European battles a la Napoleanic Wars raging on and off every couple of generations to start with. Industrial man thought war could be easily waged and settled almost mechanically, cleanly, humanely, as easily as a process or production cycle. Every few generations it appears, as the intervening years obviously dull the slate, far too many forget the costs of war. Only the spoils appear apparent from age to age. So it was at the turn of the century.

Great economic success, Great Britain and Germany were both seeking among others to out-strip their competitors in export dominated growth, increased domestic productivity and multiplying rates of consumption, improvements in technology and standards of living. The Europeans were caught in a cycle which depended on the continual opening and closing of trade between nations and colonies, requiring faster and faster production and delivery cycles to stay ahead of the race. Unfortunately, Germany was hemmed in with fewer ports for slower logistical advances, fewer international contracts for infrastructural projects, even though industrially advanced in many ways.

Britain maintained a debt payments based strangle-hold on global capital markets that determined largely which European nations would benefit in speculation, which was almost always in the form of extension of new loans contingent upon the payment of current debts rather than upon the extension of bonds issues on debts, hedges, or equity swaps. Capital was almost exclusively generated on accrued profits alone. This maintained a slow rate of growth in comparison to today's standards. Germany felt quite tied to a losing markets strategy. War was seen as a ready method by which to accrue capital gains based on resources, territorial expansionism, and the assumption of global colonial markets and the associated federal gains in taxes, productivity, and self-sufficency. These are the same moderating tendencies which exist in the economic world today. Economists measure and rate increases and declines in trade balances, and attempt to adjust factors of production and captial gains or flight to adjust to minimize losses. But at a certain point, the localized capital markets could not keep up with the desire on the part of national European governments and their local powers to compete and grow in areas of military strength, economic colonial rivalry, and social reorganisation. A new player on the economic block began to provide new, bigger, easier to finance loans. The U.S. corporate banking industry.

International banking to fund war drive efforts were in their infancy. The U.S. was financing all parties, similarly to their Swiss counterparts. Especially prior to the immediate outbreak of war, munitions and their commodities were becoming more and more efficently produced in the U.S. mostly because U.S. industry proved more quickly capable of standardizing and minimizing production process and parts or materials design, increasing supply rates and reducing unit costs, providing more profits and more investment capital to be funnelled into what was becoming a credit-financed global economy. For the first time, corporate financing could guarantee that national governments could owe more than they owned. What the U.S. was able to produce was bought and sold on U.S. corporate loans guarantees as well as European innovations in areas of newer, better, more efficient weapons produced with U.S. commodities. The role was extended to Canadian business interests as well. Nearly every private industry in North America was somehow involved. So current account balances began to bend in US favour for obvious reasons. A steady supply of exported products, paid for by outstanding and building current account deficits in capital movements financed by U.S., Canadian, Swiss banks. It was not so important which banks were involved, it was the act of extending the largest credit lines and loans to "western allies" and "western potential enemies", for decades of build-up. This was the beginning of the end of a purely European War. For these reasons, US and Canadian trade surplus grew and grew, and exponentially standards of living and GNP also expanded. Mostly on the sale and trade of associated commodities and armorments.

A zero sum game for British and European methods of amassing capital gains, it was economic suicide, but only in a sense that outstanding principles on long-term loans were with often flexiblized interest rates, which works quite well in a credit-based capital distribution system were settled in a flip of capital accounts control to the larger international banks. It becomes more important who owns the debts, who pays the interest, and who collects the interest to issue more debts to pay the interest. A pyramid scheme. So there were hawks and doves as there always are in every camp, but industry never suggested a slow-down in the production of war materiel to encourage those camps to start aggravating for war.

Thus the profits and the sales of three to four generations of production were ground into the dust of the First World War from 1914-1918 just as an entire generation of young men in virtually the entire western world were similarly used. The U.S. delayed its entry, out of an unwillingness publicly to involve itself in foreign military affairs. Already the distinctions between allies and enemies were hard to define. Eventually, the U.S. allowed provocations such as the status quo shift following the sinking of The Lusitania off the coast of Ireland carrying many Americans to their deaths in 1915 as evidence of a moral duty to enter the allied war efforts. But economically, the longer the U.S. delayed, the lower the costs, in materiel, human losses, and national spending rather than international lending. Once the war was fully underway, the U.S. government offered to underwrite every Allied purchase in the U.S. starting with the announcements made by President Taft to the effect that no supplies would require payment in future. The Europeans credited heavily. Following the end of the war, he provided his "Allies" with the bill, to the effect that it guaranteed repayments which continue to this day. The governments of Britain and its WW One Allies are criticized for arranging debt repayments and reparations agreements which even according to Keynes, following the Armistice agreements from 1918-1919, could predict the collapse of the German economy decades ahead of the fact.

The pyramid scheme shifted. The U.S. instead of accepting orders for new products, began receiving massive reparations payments and interests due on debts outstanding, and continued to lend money to European nations in the private banking sectors to guarantee reparations dues. The European economy was shattered by the war, and hopes for recovery were slim to none, especially in Germany, still a perceived threat to world peace, its threat was guaranteed by the impoverishment of its populace, a decade ahead of the World Depression which was blamed on U.S. instigated trade barriers on those goods which could be sold under the principles of competitive advantage. Thus, German political right wing elements took over, as they often do in such economic circumstances, in the form of the Nazi movement. The Europeans scrambled to keep up with reparations rather than enforce strict military rearmourment programs, and the U.S. banking industry, following the 1929 collapse, heavily relied even more on profits gained from the financing of European military build-ups.

In effect, Bradley arrived to fight in first Africa, and then Europe, mostly because a fully globalised economic mushroom had grown for more than fifty years without a watchdog and created the very embodiment of five wasted decades. It was the birth of the US finance-based global economy. And the long death of credit.

(Photo: Harry Dexter White & John Maynard Keynes)

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