Michael Hudson on the commodification of necessities
Excerpted from RP Live, September 19, 2022
Question (Jonathan Kadmon): I was hoping you could talk about how the hostage situation created by commodifying things like housing, healthcare, food, transportation, fuel—things that people need rather than want—is used to extract rents and siphon wealth out of the productive economy to service the wealth demand of the FIRE sector [finance, insurance, real estate]
Michael Hudson: Well, the free trade ideology that backs monopolies says that all markets are a function of choice. But the way to control a market is not to give the consumers a choice. And when you say hostage, what that means is people don’t have a choice between whether to eat or to pay a bank.
If they have to buy food or if they have to buy medical care, they have to pay whatever the going price is. Anatole France said that the rich person was as free as the poor person to sleep under the bridge when he didn’t have a house. So the objective of rent seeking is to essentially create a situation where people have no alternative but to buy the service or the good that you’re producing.
If they have no alternative, then you can charge whatever you want. This is the case with most public infrastructure. If you want to mail a letter, you have to pay whatever the going postage is, or whatever parcel service costs. Well, this is why, for about a thousand years leading up to the late 20th century, all governments kept basic services in the public domain – the post office, education, healthcare. You don’t want to privatize them and leave them to the market because if you leave them to the market, then it really isn’t a matter of choice at all.
It’s a matter of letting a monopolist take something that everybody needs, no matter what the price, and charge as much as the market will bear. And that’s a rent-seeking monopoly. That basically is the philosophy that Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and the free marketers developed since the 1980s, when you had a privatization of basic needs, especially in housing. The most important utility that’s been privatized of course has been money and credit creation – the banking system.
What has enabled China to avoid the financialization that’s occurred in the United States is because the Central Bank of China is run by the government, not by a financial oligarchy of bankers that get together to run the credit system for their own benefit. But if the government treats money as a public utility, everybody needs money, everybody needs credit, and the government will provide the credit as needed for the economy to grow.
And if the economy has a slowdown, or if a company runs into a financial problem, if you’re the government as a creditor, you can write down the debt. In the United States, if you’ve made loans to a company like General Electric and all of a sudden it can’t pay, the company either goes bankrupt or begins to sell off its assets piece by piece to other people and you have industry being turned into gentrified luxury housing.
So, the same thing with healthcare. If you privatize healthcare—everybody needs to go to the hospital, everybody needs doctor care—if you privatize it then, in the United States, 18% of your GDP is going to go to healthcare. The objective is to make healthcare as inefficient and cheap as possible to maximize the profits of the health insurance companies. And the sicker you get, the more money they make.
Also, by the way, the sicker you get, the more GDP goes up. GDP goes up because you have to spend more money healing yourself. So, that’s, a growing part of the American GDP – along with rent and debt service and interest. Well, if you keep healthcare in the public sector, the public sector is going to try to actually keep people healthy instead of sick. And they’re trying to minimize the expense of getting sick so that you leave more money in the hands of households to spend on the real economy of production and consumption, not on giving money to the monopolies.
But in the United States the main utility beside money that’s been privatized is government. Under the Citizens United ruling, the government is now really up for sale and auctioned off to the highest campaign contributors. In the Democratic Party, for instance, every Democratic representative has to raise a given amount of money from campaign contributors to give to the Democrat National Committee.
So whoever can raise the most money gets to be the committee heads. Well, you’ll have the pharmaceuticals industry giving a lot of money to some representative they want to be head of the health committee. You’ll have the bankers giving money to whoever they want to be the head of the banking committee and so on.
So, the function of government itself once it’s privatized is to make money for the donor class, which is basically the financial class and the monopoly class that finance creates. Banks have always been the mother of monopolies and the financial sector’s largest business market is in creating monopolies. So, you have basically the privatization of monopolies.
And the monopoly rent of these monopolies is used for paying interest to the banks that finance the corporate raiders, or whoever wants to take over and buy these monopoly privileges.