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Cyprus, Iraq, North Korea

Loaves and Fishes, Banking, and War

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Tired of low interest rates at home after the crash of the international economy? Russian oligarchs (and other fat cats in countries we won’t mention) put their money in the largest bank of a pint-sized country with a gross national product less than the change in their pockets.  Ten percent interest!  Ten friggin percent, though where this interest was going to come from, they had no idea (nor did the bankers it turned out, but that wasn’t until later). The country produces nothing, imports almost everything it needs.  But somehow too many people believed that the interest rates could be many times what they could get at home.  Best of all, their money wouldn’t be reported to their own government—or anyone else. They wouldn’t have to pay any taxes on it.

The cause of the irrational search for high interest rates?  Not too long before the rich began stashing their money overseas, the President of the United States said that the country needed to invade Iraq and deal with the perpetrators of the attack on America—those who brought down the symbols of the country’s economic system and threatened its future with weapons of mass destruction.  The war wouldn’t cost much (probably about 50 billion dollars) and most of that would be paid by the countries that would join the coalition for the invasion.  Moreover, the liberators would be welcomed with open arms by people dancing in the streets and rose petals flying everywhere.  America’s the only country with any muscle, so why not use it?  Show the world what the nation really means.

Ten years after the invasion, America is broke.  So are plenty of other countries, including the dinky little island nation where many people sent their money.  America’s war of choice (and a related one in Afghanistan) has cost the country just a little bit more than the amount projected—2.5 trillion dollars so far, expected to be about three times that if veterans’ benefits continue as projected.  The United States has so little money  that its infrastructure is crumbling everywhere you look.  America has the highest sustained number of unemployed workers at any time in nearly three-quarters of a century.  But its bankers (who are paying a fraction of one percent on the deposits in the banks they run) are earning record salaries and bonuses that almost make you believe (1) that the country hasn’t been at war longer than at any other time in its history, (2) that everyone who wants a decent job has one, and (3) that interest rates and dividends are what anyone who is retired can rely on.

The little country where so much money was sent is so broke that it decides that the only way to fix the problem is to tax the largest depositors in its banks, implying that those depositors should have known better than to expect ten percent interest in the first place.  Other little countries that were broke didn’t do anything this drastic.  The decision to confiscate depositors’ money to balance the country’s budget sends shock waves all around the world.  Steve Forbes, Mr. Capitalism, has what only can be called a hizzy fit, which makes one wonder if he too deposited money to the tiny little country’s banks.  Pundits in The Wall Street Journal and Barron’s have begun asking whether their own broke big country might not begin confiscating (taxing) wealthy depositors’ accounts, ostensibly to balance the budget.  Or to pay for endless war.

In the midst of all these ruminations on the part of capitalist defenders and the fears of depositors around the globe, the fat boy leader of the world’s hermit kingdom suddenly decides to choke up an outpouring of rhetoric, informing the remaining superpower that its number is up, that it’s going to be attacked if it doesn’t–.  If it doesn’t what?  No one seems to know. The erratic pudgy boy was tricked into believing that a major Western publication, The Onion, had named him the most handsome man in the world—not realizing it was all a joke (humor rarely translates).  Others speculate that the chubby boy had a panic attack when he realized that he could no longer have Twinkies sneaked into his country in the diplomatic pouch.  Many of the plump boy’s people are starving; others will do anything to escape to another country.  The blubber boy’s country doesn’t even have decent roads to facilitate an invasion of its neighbor to the south.

What does fatso’s hostility attack have to do with real attack: wars of choice and interest rates so low that investors have begun looking for Midas?  There are hawks in America who apparently still believe that the solution to every economic problem is to start another war.  They not only want the country to smack bloated boy but also to attack Iran.  For good measure, why not attack the dinky little country that’s begun soaking the rich for their useless deposits?  That’ll show ’em.

As a critic of their plans, I couldn’t disagree more.  So what I propose instead is that we make it a condition of all future wars of choice that the decision also involves payment (or provisions for payment) in advance. Let’s give Steve Forbes a real panic attack and put the neo-cons who publish op-eds in The Wall Street Journal on notice that war is still a terrible decision, made even worse by cavalier suggestions of how to pay for it (“Go shopping”).  Let’s make that the bottom line for all militaristic decisions about the future: you pay your money and then you get your war.

Begin planning today.  But, maybe more importantly, watch those interest rates.  Ask yourselves how they got so low.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.