Archive for the ‘Stagflation’ Category

Prospects for the Economy Under Trump

January 1, 2017

This article will come in two parts. This month, I examine policies of the Federal Reserve and Trump’s domestic policies. Next month, I will end this series with an examination of Trump’s global economic policies.

The Federal Reserve and Donald Trump

On December 14, 2016, the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee announced that it had finally decided to raise the federal funds rate—the rate that commercial banks, not the Fed itself, charge each other for overnight loans—by a quarter of one percent. Instead of targeting a rate of 0.25 to 0.50 percent like it did between December 2015 and December 2016, its new target is 0.50 to 0.75 percent.

Since Trump’s victory on November 8, long-term interest rates have risen sharply. This combined with the decision of the Fed to finally nudge up the fed funds rate indicates that the money market has tightened since Trump’s election. In the course of the industrial cycle, once the money market starts to tighten it is only a matter of time before recession arrives. The recession marks the end of one industrial cycle and the beginning of the next.

As it became increasingly likely that Trump could actually win the Republican nomination, the Fed put on hold its earlier plans to raise the fed funds rate multiple times in the course of 2016. The normal practice is for the Federal Reserve System to raise the fed funds rate repeatedly in the later stages of the industrial cycle. Indeed, this is central banking 101. These policies are designed to hold in check credit-fueled “over-trading” (overproduction), as well as stock market, land and primary-commodity speculation that can end in a crash with nasty consequences.

If the central bank resists raising interest rates too long by flooding the banking system with newly created currency, this leads sooner or later to a run on the currency, which is what happened in the 1970s. The result back then was stagflation and deep recessions with interest rates eventually rising into the double digits, which effectively wiped out the profit of enterprise—defined as the difference between the total profit and the rate of interest. At the end of the stagflation in the early 1980s came the explosion of credit, sometimes called “financialization,” the aftereffects of which are still with us today.

Under the present dollar-centered international monetary system, the repeated failure of the Federal Reserve System to push up interest rates would lead to the collapse of the U.S. dollar and the dollar system. The inevitable result would be a financial crash and thus the military and political crash of the U.S. world empire, which has held the capitalist world together since 1945.

In this cycle, however, the Federal Reserve waited more than eight years after the outbreak of the crisis in August 2007 before it began to push up the federal funds rate. The reason for the prolonged delay is that the current U.S. economic expansion, which began in 2009—representing the rising phase of the current industrial cycle—has been the slowest on record.

During this extraordinarily feeble expansion, the U.S. GDP has grown, with some fluctuations, at a rate of only about 2 percent a year. This performance contrasts sharply with the double-digit U.S. GDP rates of growth that occurred during the expansion of 1933-1937 and again after the severe but brief recession of 1937-1938 during the Great Depression. Far more than in the 1930s, the current era has been marked by “secular stagnation” in the U.S. as well as Europe and Japan.

Beginning with the panic that broke out with the failure of the giant Lehman Brothers investment bank in September 2008, the Federal Reserve engineered an explosion in the dollar-denominated monetary base designed to stave off a new super-crisis that could have been much worse than the one in 1929-1933. This effort succeeded in preventing the crisis from reaching the extremes the earlier super-crisis did in most countries—but not all. For example, the crisis/depression that began in the U.S. in 2007 has been far worse in Greece than the crisis of the 1930s was in that country. But even in countries where a full-scale repeat of the 1930s Depression was avoided, the post-crisis stagnation has been far more stubborn than anything seen in the 1930s.

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Can Trump Become the Next U.S. President?

March 27, 2016

In the “super-Tuesday” primaries held March 15, Donald Trump solidified his lead in the struggle for the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency. He knocked right-wing Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida out of the race.

Rubio had been considered one the best hopes of the pro-Wall Street establishment Republicans in their increasingly desperate struggle to stop Trump. The only bright spot for the Republican leadership was that John Kasich, the establishment Republican governor of rust-belt state Ohio defeated Trump in that state’s primary.

However, Kasich has few delegates pledged to him. In normal circumstances, that would mean that he would have virtually no chance of winning the nomination for the presidency. He would simply be a “favorite son” candidate who would be expected to release his delegates to vote for the eventual winner. At most, Kasich might hope to win the vice-presidential nomination.

The super-Tuesday results barely keep alive the hopes of the Republican leadership that Trump might still be denied enough delegates to clinch the nomination before the Republican convention to be held this coming July in Cleveland, Ohio. If this proves to be the case, there remains the possibility a majority of delegates might be scraped together to nominate a more traditional Republican for president, but who that might be is anybody’s guess at this point.

The only other Republican besides Trump and Kasich still officially in the race is Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz mixes extreme “neo-liberal” economics with an appeal to the religious fanaticism of the so-called Christian Right. His colleagues in Republican Party leading circles consider him personally obnoxious. They also fear that he is likely to lose big time in November to the presumed Democratic nominee, Wall Street darling Hillary Clinton, due to his neo-liberalism combined with his support of extreme sectarian Protestant Christian religious fundamentalism.

While it is possible that Trump has considerable support among the coupon clippers in the country club locker rooms—I don’t know, since I don’t personally move in these circles—serious political strategists of the U.S. ruling class, whether Democrat or Republican—what Marx called the “political bourgeoisie“—consider Trump completely unqualified to assume the U.S. presidency. This is not because they doubt Trump’s loyalty to the capitalist system. On the contrary, Trump is a multi-billionaire and therefore has a personal stake in the survival of capitalism greater than all but a handful of his fellow billionaires.

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Big Challenges Facing Janet Yellen

February 23, 2014

Yellen testifies

Janet Yellen gave her first report to the House Financial Services Committee since she became chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board in January. In the wake of the 2008 panic, her predecessor Ben Bernanke had indicated that “the Fed” would keep the federal funds rate—the interest rate commercial banks in the U.S. charge one another for overnight loans—at near zero until the unemployment rate, as calculated by the U.S. Labor Department, fell to 6.5 percent from over 10 percent near the bottom of the crisis in 2009.

However, the Labor Department’s unemployment rate has fallen much faster than most economists expected and is now at “only” 6.6 percent. With the U.S. Labor Department reporting almost monthly declines, it is quite possible that the official unemployment rate will fall to or below 6.5 percent as early as next month’s report.

But there is a catch that the Fed is well aware of. The unexpectedly rapid fall in the official unemployment rate reflects the fact that millions of workers have given up looking for jobs. In effect, what began as a cyclical crisis of short-term mass unemployment has grown into a much more serious crisis of long-term unemployment. As far as the U.S. Labor Department is concerned, when it comes to calculating the unemployment rate these millions might just as well have vanished from the face of the earth.

In reality, the economic recovery from the 2007-09 “Great Recession” has been far weaker than the vast majority of economists had expected. Indeed, a strong case can be made that both in the U.S. and on a world scale—including imperialist countries, developing countries and the ex-socialist countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as well as oppressed countries still bearing the marks of their pre-capitalist past—the current recovery is the weakest in the history of capitalist industrial cycles.

The continued stagnation of the U.S. economy six and a half years since the outbreak of the last crisis has just been underlined by a series of weak reports on employment growth and industrial production. For example, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, U.S. industrial production as a whole declined 0.3 percent in January, while manufacturing, the heart of industrial production, declined by 0.8 percent.

Yellen, as the serious-minded policymaker she undoubtedly is, is well aware of these facts. She told the House committee:”The unemployment rate is still well above levels that Federal Open Market Committee participants estimate is consistent with maximum sustainable employment. Those out of a job for more than six months continue to make up an unusually large fraction of the unemployed, and the number of people who are working part time but would prefer a full-time job remains very high.”

Over the last several months, the growth of employment, which serious economists consider far more meaningful than the the U.S. Labor Department’s “unemployment rate,” has been far below expectations.

Bad weather

Most Wall Street economists are sticking to the line that the recent string of weak figures on employment growth and industrial production reflect bad weather. The eastern U.S. has experienced extreme cold and frequent storms this winter, though the U.S. West has enjoyed unseasonable warmth and a lack of the usual Pacific storms, resulting in a serious drought in California. So it is possible that bad weather has put a kink in employment growth and industrial production.

But there is also concern—clearly shared by the new U.S. Fed chairperson, notwithstanding rosy capitalist optimism maintained by the cheerleaders that pass for economic writers of the Associated Press and Reuters—that the current global upswing in the industrial cycle has failed to gain anything like the momentum to be expected six years after the outbreak of the preceding crisis.

Two ruling-class approaches

This growing “secular stagnation”–lingering mass unemployment between recessions—has produced a growing split among capitalist economists and writers for the financial press. One school of thought is alarmed by continued high unemployment and underemployment. This school thinks that the government and Federal Reserve System—which, remember, functions not only as the central bank of the U.S. but also of the world under the current dollar-centered international monetary system—should continue to search for ways to improve the situation. Another school of thought, however, believes that all that has to be done is to declare the arrival of “full employment” and prosperity.

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The Fed Tapers as Yellen Prepares to Take Over, and the Unemployed Get Screwed Over

January 19, 2014

In what may be its last official action under Ben Bernanke’s leadership, the Federal Reserve announced in December that it would reduce its purchases of U.S. government bonds and mortgage-backed securities from $85 billion to $75 billion a month as of January 2014. This indicates that the Fed hopes to slow down the growth of the dollar monetary base during 2014 from the 39 percent that it grew in 2013.

Considering that before the 1970s the historical growth rates in the monetary base were 2 to 3 percent, and from the 1970s until the mid-2000s they were around 7 percent, a 39 percent rate of growth in the dollar monetary base is viewed by the Fed as unsustainable in the long run.

The bond market reacted to the announcement in the textbook way, with interest rates on the U.S. 10-year government bonds rising to around 3 percent. The last time interest rates on 10-year bonds were this high was just before the Fed put the U.S. housing market on “life support” in 2011.

It seems likely that the latest move was made to smooth the transition from the Bernanke Fed to the Yellen Fed. Janet Yellen, the newly appointed, and confirmed, chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, is considered a “dove.” That is, she is inclined to follow more expansionary monetary policies than Bernanke in order to push the economy in the direction of “full employment.” As defined by bourgeois economists, this is the optimal level of unemployment from the viewpoint of the capitalists – not unemployed workers. With this move, the money capitalists are “assured” that the Fed will be slowing the rate of growth of the U.S. monetary base despite the new Fed chief’s “dovish” views, while relieving Yellen of having to make a “tightening move” as soon as she takes office.

The gold market, as would be expected, dropped back towards the lows of June 2013, falling below $1,200 an ounce at times, while the yield on the 10-year bond rose to cross the 3 percent level on some days. This reflects increased expectations on the part of money capitalists that the rate of growth in the U.S. dollar monetary base will be slowing from now until the end of the current industrial cycle.

Though the prospect of a slowing growth rate in the monetary base and rising long-term interest rates is bearish for the stock market, all things remaining equal, stocks reacted bullishly to the Fed announcement. The stock market was relieved that a stronger tightening move was not announced. The Fed combined its announcement of a reduction in its purchasing of bond and mortgage-backed securities with assurances that it would keep short-term interest rates near zero for several more years, raising hopes on Wall Street that the current extremely weak recovery will finally be able to gain momentum. As a result, the stock market is still looking forward to the expected cyclical boom.

Long-term unemployed get screwed over

On December 26, Congress approved a measure, incorporated into the U.S. budget, that ended unemployment extensions beyond the six months that unemployment benefits usually last in the U.S., which added to Wall Street’s holiday cheer. During recessions, Congress and the U.S. government generally agree to extended unemployment benefits but end the extension when economic recovery takes hold. It has been six years since the recession began – 60 percent of a normal industrial cycle – and the Republicans and the bosses agreed that it was high time to end the unemployment extensions.

Some Democrats dependent on workers’ votes have said that they are for a further extension of emergency unemployment benefits. President Obama claims to oppose the end of the extended benefits but signed the budget agreement all the same. The budget agreement as it stands basically says to the unemployed, it is now time to take any job at any wage you can find. If you still can’t find a job, tough luck.

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Change of Guard at the Fed, the Specter of ‘Secular Stagnation,’ and Some Questions of Monetary Theory

December 22, 2013

Ben Bernanke will not seek a third term as chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors – “the Fed.” President Obama has nominated, and the U.S. Senate is expected to formally approve, economist Janet Yellen as his successor. The Federal Reserve Board is a government body that controls the operation of the U.S Federal Reserve System.

“The Fed” lies at the heart of the U.S. central banking system, which under the dollar standard is in effect the central bank of the entire world.

A professional central banker

Janet Yellen is currently vice-chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board. She has also served as an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley and chaired President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic advisers. She headed the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco from 2004 to 2010, one of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks within the Federal Reserve System. If there is such a thing as a professional central banker, Yellen is it.

Yellen will be the first woman to serve as head of the Federal Reserve Board and will hold the most powerful position within the U.S. government ever held by a woman. Yellen’s appointment therefore reflects gains for women’s equality that have been made since the modern women’s liberation movement began around 1969.

Like other social movements that emerged out of the 1960s radicalization, the modern women’s liberation movement began on the radical left. The very name of the movement was inspired by the name of the main resistance organization fighting U.S. imperialism in Vietnam – the National Liberation Front. However, as a veteran bourgeois economist and a long-time major policymaker in the U.S. government, Yellen would not be expected to have much sympathy for the 20th-century revolutions and movements that made her appointment even a remote possibility.

Significantly, Yellen was appointed only after Lawrence Summers, considered like Yellen a major (bourgeois) economist and said to be the favorite of the Obama administration to succeed Bernanke, announced his withdrawal from contention. Summers became notorious when as president of Harvard University he expressed the opinion that women are not well represented in engineering and the sciences because of mental limitations rooted in biology.

Summers was obliged to resign as president of Harvard, and his anti-woman remarks undoubtedly played a role in his failure to win enough support to be appointed Fed chairman. In addition, Summers attacked the African American Professor Cornell West for his work on Black culture and his alleged “grade inflation,” causing West to leave Harvard. This hardly made Summers popular in the African American community. His nomination would therefore have produced serious strains in the Democratic Coalition, so Summers was obliged to withdraw.

Ben Bernanke like Yellen is considered a distinguished (bourgeois) economist. He had devoted his professional life to exploring the causes of the Great Depression, much like Yellen has. Essentially, Bernanke attempted to prove that the Depression was caused by faulty policies of the Federal Reserve System and the government, and not by contradictions inherent in capitalist production – such as, for example, periodic crises of overproduction. Bernanke denied that overproduction was the cause of the Depression.

Like Milton Friedman, Bernanke blamed the Depression on the failure of the Federal Reserve System to prevent a contraction of money and credit. Bernanke put the emphasis on credit, while Friedman put the emphasis on the money supply. Blaming crises on currency and credit, according to Marx, is the most shallow and superficial crisis theory of all.

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Michael Heinrich’s ‘New Reading’ of Marx—A Critique, Pt 3

September 1, 2013

In this month’s post, I will take a look at Heinrich’s views on value, money and price. As regular readers of this blog should realize by now, the theory of value, money and price has big implications for crisis theory.

As we have seen, present-day crisis theory is divided into two main camps. One camp emphasizes the production of surplus value. This school—largely inspired by the work of Polish-born economist Henryk Grossman, and whose most distinguished present-day leader is Professor Andrew Kliman of Pace University—holds that the basic cause of crises is that periodically an insufficient amount of surplus value is produced. The result is a rate of profit too low for the capitalists to maintain a level of investment sufficient to prevent a crisis.

From the viewpoint of this school, a lack of demand is a secondary effect of the crisis but by no means the cause. If the capitalists find a way to increase the production of surplus value sufficiently, investment will rise and demand problems will go away. Heinrich, who claims there is no tendency of the rate of profit to fall, is therefore anathema to this tendency of Marxist thought.

The other main school of crisis theory puts the emphasis on the problem of the realization of surplus value. This tendency is dominated by the Monthly Review school, named after the magazine founded by U.S. Marxist economist Paul Sweezy and now led by Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster.

The Monthly Review school roots the tendency toward crises/stagnation not in the production of surplus value like the Grossman-Kliman school but rather in the realization of surplus value. The analysis of this school is based largely on the work of the purely bourgeois English economist John Maynard Keynes, the moderate Polish-born socialist economist Michael Kalecki, and the radical U.S. Marxist economist Paul Sweezy.

Kalecki’s views on markets were similar to those of Keynes. Indeed, it is often said that Kalecki invented “Keynesian theory” independently and prior to Keynes himself—with one exception. Kalecki, like the rest of the Monthly Review school, puts great emphasis on what he called the “degree of monopoly.” In contrast, Keynes completely ignored the problem of monopoly.

Needed, a Marxist law of markets

A real theory of the market is necessary, in my opinion, for a complete theory of crises. Engels indicated in his work “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific” that under capitalism the growth of the market is governed by “quite different laws” than govern the growth of production, and that the laws governing the growth of the market operate “far less energetically” than the laws that govern the growth of production. The result is the crises of overproduction that in the long run keep the growth of production within the limits of the market.

This, however, is not a complete crisis theory, because Engels did not explain exactly what the laws are that govern the growth of the market. Unfortunately, leaving aside hints found in Marx’s writings, Marxists—with the exception of Paul Sweezy—have largely ignored the laws that govern the growth of the market. This, I think, would be a legitimate criticism of what Heinrich calls “world view Marxism.” As a result, the theory of what does govern the growth of the market has been left to the anti-Marxist Keynes, the questionably Marxist Kalecki and the strongly Keynes- and Kalecki-influenced Sweezy.

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John Bellamy Foster’s Latest Attempt To Reconcile Marx and Kalecki

May 12, 2013

In the “Review of the Month,” entitled “Marx, Kalecki, and Socialist Strategy,” in the April 2013 edition of Monthly Review, John Bellamy Foster once again attempts to show that the views of economist Michal Kalecki (1899-1970) are fully compatible with Marx. Foster even quotes Marx’s “Value, Price and Profit” to show that Marx agreed with Kalecki—and Keynes—that higher wages lead to higher prices.

Foster writes, “Although a general rise in the money-wage level, Marx indicated, would lead to a decrease in the profit share, the economic effect would be minor since capitalists would be enabled to raise prices ‘by the increased demand.’”

Foster’s promotion of the theory that higher money wages cause prices to rise is so out of line with Marx’s whole body of work in general and “Value, Price and Profit” in particular that I could not let it pass without comment.

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Economic Stagnation, Mass Unemployment, Budget Deficits and the Industrial Cycle

February 17, 2013

A few months ago I had dinner with a some friends from the old days. One of them expressed the view that the current economic situation of prolonged economic stagnation, continuing mass unemployment, and falling real wages represented a fundamental change in the workings of the capitalist system. He asked what is behind this change? This a good question and is worth examining in a non-trivial way.

A month or so ago the media, which had been painting a picture of a steadily improving economy, was startled when the U.S. government announced that its first estimate showed that the fourth-quarter GDP declined at an annual rate of .01 percent. Though slight, this would be a decline nonetheless.

Those economists who make a business of guessing the U.S. government’s GDP estimate expected an annualized rate of growth of 1.5 percent for the fourth quarter (of 2012). This would represent a historically low rate of growth, but growth nonetheless.

The media has been working hard to create an impression of a recovery that is at last gaining momentum. Therefore, if we are to believe the capitalist press, a “new era” of lasting prosperity is on the way. This latest “new era” will be fully assured if only the Obama administration and both Democrats and Republicans can settle their differences on the need to bring the current deficit in the finances of the U.S. federal government under control.

This is to be done by some combination of “entitlement cuts” for the working and middle classes and very modest tax increases for the rich. With the tax question settled by the New Year’s Day agreement, the only question now is how deep the entitlement cuts will be, spending on the military and “national security” being largely untouchable.

Thrown somewhat off balance by the estimated fourth-quarter GDP decline, the economists, bourgeois journalists and Wall Street brokerage houses—ever eager to paint the U.S. economy in glowing terms in order to sell stocks to middle-class savers—explained that “special factors” were behind the slight fall in the estimated GDP, not a new recession.

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A Major Attack on Labor Rights in the U.S. as the Federal Reserve Makes Another Inflationary Move

December 23, 2012

December 11 brought news of a major new attack on basic labor rights in the United States. The following day, the Federal Reserve announced new inflationary measures designed to end the economic stagnation the U.S. economy has been mired in since the “Great Recession” bottomed out in July 2009.

The new attack on labor rights occurred when Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed a so-called “right to work” bill in the state that is the home of the U.S. auto industry. Unlike the attacks in Wisconsin and some other U.S. states that targeted the labor rights of state employees, the Michigan legislation—though it affects state employees, with the police being a significant exception—is clearly aimed at Michigan’s highly unionized automobile industry.

So-called “right to work” laws in the U.S. have absolutely nothing to do with the right of workers to a job. The leaders of U.S. capitalism recognize no such right. Rather, under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, U.S. state governments can pass “right to work” laws that outlaw the union shop. Under a union shop, all workers are required to pay union dues after their probation period as new hires ends.

Traditionally, such laws have existed in the southern states, with their long history of slavery and post-slavery apartheid-type Jim Crow segregation laws. Ultimately, the “right to work” laws of these states, where unions have always been weak, can be seen as part of the heritage of slavery itself. However, the passage of such legislation in Michigan, a northern state that was never a slave state and was at the very center of the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations—CIO—is another matter altogether.

Michigan is the home of the United Automobile Workers, the most powerful industrial union created by the great strike movement of the 1930s. For the first time since the auto bosses were forced to recognize the UAW, the passage of this legislation opens up the real possibility that they are preparing to bust the UAW altogether.

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Greek Election Signals New Stage in Social and Economic Crisis

June 10, 2012

The May 6 Greek election set off political and financial shock waves and seems to have opened a new phase in the prolonged economic crisis-depression that began in July-August 2007 with the U.S. sub-prime mortgage crisis and has increasingly taken on the form of a social and political crisis as well.

Last February, a deal was worked out in which the Greek governmental debts were written down by about 50 percent. In return, the Greek government was forced to agree to a stiff austerity program aimed at both the employees of the state and workers employed by private capitalists.

Financial circles openly admitted that the austerity polices would further extend and deepen the already five-year-old Greek recession. But they claimed that a really deep recession throughout Europe had been staved off, and the U.S. media reported that the American recovery was now at long last gaining momentum.

The U.S. Labor Department reported a decline in the unemployment rate from around 9 percent last year to just over 8 percent last month. What the capitalist media largely overlooked, however, is that the decline in the unemployment rate was achieved by an alleged decline in the number of people actively looking for work, the exact opposite of what would normally happen during a period of economic recovery.

If it were calculated honestly, the U.S. unemployment rate would show no real decline since the “Great Recession” bottomed out in 2009. The most that could be claimed using U.S. Labor Department data—but not their phony method of calculating the rate of unemployment—is that the U.S. unemployment crisis is not getting any  worse. However, the most recent unemployment figures indicate that once again the growth in total employment has fallen well below the level necessary to prevent a long-term rise in unemployment when the growth in the size of the working population is taken into account. So in reality, the long-term U.S. unemployment crisis is still growing.

In Europe as whole, the situation is even worse. While the crisis first broke out in the U.S. in 2007 and reached a climax on Wall Street in the third quarter of 2008, the crisis more recently has been more severe in Europe. Official unemployment is now 11 percent, the highest since 1995, when figures began to be kept for European-wide unemployment.

But unemployment varies considerably from country to country. In Germany, Europe’s most economically powerful country by far, the official unemployment rate is “only” 6.7 percent—considerably better than the official U.S. unemployment figures—while in Spain it is over 24 percent, almost matching the quasi-official U.S. unemployment rate of 24.9 percent in early 1933 at the very bottom of the Great Depression. In Greece, it is 22 percent and rising. Therefore, as far as Spain and Greece are concerned, a new “Great Depression” is no longer a threat—it is a reality.

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