The casualty figures sound like they're from some particularly brutal war, possibly the American Civil War, or as some doctors have been saying, "World War III": more than 360,000 dead Americans, with predictions of more than 500,000 of us by the end of February. As for the poor, the evicted, the jobless, particularly people of color, the pain is almost beyond imagining. Yet, if in some sense this country looks like a warscape on a pandemic planet, a kind of ongoing hell on earth, then, in truth, there's also a heaven.
Yes, the numbers are truly terrible if you're looking at the jobless, the homeless, the hungry. But, speaking of heaven, the numbers are spectacular if you're looking at the more than one trillion dollars America's 650-plus billionaires added to their wealth during the pandemic or the staggering records that the stock market set as the year ended, figures so high that New Year's Eve was party time of the first order for the truly wealthy. After all, however his Amazon workers may be suffering, Jeff Bezos, the richest man on Earth at more than $182 billion and still rising no, wait, Elon Musk just zipped by Bill Gates and Bezos to take first place on that list with $185 billion is in heaven true. Musk may already, in fact, be heading for Mars, rocketed there by his earnings last year.
And speaking of Mars (and heaven and hell and war and all the rest), that superb TomDispatch regular Nomi Prins, author of Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World, is back with us as 2021 begins, considering just what that planet and Earth have in common in this pandemic moment of ours. Tom
War of the (Financial) Worlds
Or Let the Markets Go Wild While the People Go Down
By Nomi Prins
Sometimes things only make sense when seen through a magnifying lens. As it happens, I'm thinking about reality, the very American and global reality clearly repeating itself as 2021 begins.
We all know, of course, that we're living through a once-in-a-century-style pandemic; that millions of people have lost their jobs, a portion of which will never return; that the poorest among us, who can withstand such acute economic hardship the least, have been slammed the hardest; and that the global economy has been kneecapped, thanks to a battery of lockdowns, shutdowns, restrictions of various sorts, and health-related concerns. More sobering than all of this: more than 360,000 Americans (and counting) have already lost their lives as a result of Covid-19 with, according to public health experts, far more to come.
And yet, as if in some galaxy far, far away, there also turns out to be another, so much more upbeat side to this equation. As Covid-19 grew ever worse while 2020 ended, the stock market reached heights that hadn't been seen before. Ever.
Meanwhile, again in the thoroughly cheery news column, banks in 2021 will be able to resume their march toward billions of dollars in share buybacks, courtesy of the Federal Reserve opting to support such a bank-and-stock-market stimulus. The Fed's green light for this activity on December 18th will allow mega-banks to return to those share buybacks (which constitute 70% of the capital payout that they provide shareholders). In June 2020, the Fed had banned the practice ostensibly to help them better navigate risks caused by the pandemic.
Those very financial institutions can now pour money into purchasing their own stocks again rather than, say, into loans to struggling small businesses endangered by pandemic-instigated economic disaster. As soon as Wall Street got the good news from the Fed as 2020 ended, JPMorgan Chase, the nation's biggest bank, wasted no time in announcing its intent to buy a staggering $30 billion of its own shares in the new year. And as if by magic, those shares leapt 5% that very day. Other mega-banks followed suit, as did their share prices.
Now, for reasons you'll soon understand, take a little trip back in history with me to the eve of Halloween, 1938, when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre dramatized his adaptation of H.G. Wells' 1898 sci-fi-meets-dystopia-meets-imperialism novel, The War of the Worlds, on the radio. As Martians "invaded" New Jersey (it had been London in the novel) with mayhem in mind, panic evidently ensued among some radio listeners who thought they were hearing perfectly real reports about an alien invasion of Planet Earth. Later accounts suggest that the media blew that reaction out of proportion ("fake news," 1938-style?), yet people who tuned in late and missed the set-up about the fictitious nature of the program did indeed panic.
And it's not hard to understand why they might have done so at that moment. There had already been surprises galore. The world, after all, had barely recovered from the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed. It was also still reeling from the fiery Hindenburg disaster of 1937 in which a German airship blew up in New Jersey, as well as from the escalation of tensions and hostilities in both Asia and Europe that would lead to World War II. Perhaps people already equated or conflated the Martian invasion on the radio with fantasies about a potential German invasion of this country. In some papers, after all, reports on the reaction to Welles's performance were set right next to news of war clouds brewing in Europe and Asia. With or without Welles, people were on edge.
Whatever the case, fear has been both a great motivator and an anxiety provoker when it comes to the media, whether in 1938 or today. At the moment, the focus is on economic and health-related fears in all-too-ample supply. It is also on the disconnect that exists between the real economic world that most of us live in and turbo-boosted stock markets. These distorted markets are the result of wealth inequality that once would have been unimaginable in this country. In a way, economically speaking, you might say that today we're suffering the equivalent of an invasion from Mars.
From the Financial Crisis to the Pandemic
It's not hard these days to imagine the chaos people would feel if their lives or livelihoods were threatened by an external, uncontrollable force like those Martians. After all, we're in a pandemic age in which the gaps between the rich, the poor, and the middle class are being reinforced in endlessly stunning ways, a world in which some people have the means to remain remarkably safe, secure, and alive, while others have no means at all.
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