• Sarah Chayes

Happy Music




It may seem obscene to talk about money today: a day when our country is reeling with grief.



Grief at a knee on the neck of a man. One man who incarnates all our brothers and sisters who have suffered this country’s knee on their necks since this country was born. Stricken grief at the indifference on the faces of those police officers as they implacably crushed the life out of that man. Grief at the violence that erupted--the utterly logical, predictable violence, given the unending subjugation, given the likely deliberate acts of provocateurs, given the uproar when a prominent person launched as peaceful and dignified a protest as can be, by silently bending a knee. (Again, a knee.) This violence, tragically, savages the already savaged communities – and gives the other side a pretext to unleash its own…when the time comes. Our fresh grief is laid on top of grief over all the souls we have lost. We have lost our elders, our wisdom and memories, the keepers of our conscience, the singers of our songs. We have lost great swathes of those same savaged brothers and sisters. Many are called indispensable. But not indispensable enough to earn release from that knee, let alone be honored with a living wage.

Here is why I am writing about money. I had the radio on as I was cooking supper Monday night, and heard “Marketplace,” a half-hour segment devoted to economics that plays on many National Public Radio stations. What I heard on Marketplace was obscene.

The show has a gimmick for reporting the day’s stock market performance, an exercise it calls “doing the numbers.” One of three jingles adapted from old-fashioned jazz music lets listeners know before the news is spelled out whether the markets are up or down. If they are down, sad trumpet wails introduce the report. If there’s been a gain, the tune is exciting, upbeat. Monday, as we buried yet more dead, with at least forty million Americans out of work (and most therefore out access to a doctor), as we grappled with our grief and the exploding violence that was injuring more people and destroying businesses already crippled by nationwide lockdowns, and as we watched some of our cities get turned into military areas of operation, the music that came bouncing out of the radio was the happy music.

It was more than I could take.

There is a reason why the stock market is vaulting jauntily along when our hearts and our economy are shattered. It is a reason I have not heard on a single “Marketplace” treatment of this issue, or in any of the coverage on NPR (my alma mater), despite weeks listening for it and outreach to former colleagues. You can find that reason discussed in some specialized blogs and print outlets, or such offbeat venues as wolfstreet.com or nakedcapitalism.com. I will link specific articles and get into details in a later post.

But it boils down to this: the stock market is booming because the Federal Reserve (implicitly authorized by Congress) is dumping billions of dollars into the market, buying up the bad debt many corporations have taken on in a post-2008 orgy of low-interest borrowing and use of the cash to boost returns for executives and shareholders. The Fed’s purchases of such corporations’ bad debt -- together with the promise that if need be it will keep buying more and lower quality corporate bonds -- has kept the market buoyant. High-dollar investors know that they can make whatever ill-advised decisions they want. The mouth-watering yields on these "bets" are for them. The risk is for the Federal Reserve.

The money the Fed is using to bail out these poor decision-makers is invented out of thin air. No need to print it any more. Just enter some numbers on a computerized ledger. That means it is not technically taxpayer money. But it is government-created money. Five Fed governors decide how that money will be used (two seats on the seven-person board are vacant). The private companies BlackRock and State Street have been awarded no-bid contracts to do the actual buying. They get to choose which securities get bought from whom.

In other words, the Federal Reserve is printing (virtually) hundreds of billions of dollars, and spending them not on hospitals or healthcare workers across this country, not on cities and states grappling first with a viral pandemic and now a pandemic of outrage, while their tax receipts crater, not on assuring every American the minimum income he or she needs to make it through this crisis, let alone on what is needed to fundamentally transform the ethos of our police departments, or on securing our upcoming elections, revitalizing our urban neighborhoods, bringing basic services to our forsaken rural and tribal communities, or stanching the wounds of our treasured landscape, or any of our other burning national priorities. The Fed is spending those hundreds of billions on financial speculators. No wonder they’re happy.

Massive looting is going on in this country. And not on the streets of Minneapolis.

I am writing about money because we will never transform as a nation until we put our money where our mouth is.

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© 2018 by Sarah Chayes