Bound and dug in debt and glut

Two stories roiled Massachusetts this summer. Seemingly unrelated, the two are connected by the contradictions between incalculable wealth and spreading poverty, a glut of capital and deepening individual and governmental debt, and extraordinary monopolization and growing social atomization.

In July, a large chunk of concrete fell from the ceiling of Boston’s “Big Dig” tunnel onto a passing car, killing an immigrant worker. The Big Dig is a 7-mile-long highway boondoggle that has clogged Boston for 15 years.

At $16 billion (before interest), it is one of the most expensive and wasteful urban projects ever. Bechtel is the lead contractor. Since the fatal ceiling collapse, inspectors have identified additional problems and parts of the road remain closed.

In August, “Debtors’ Hell,” a Boston Globe investigative series, exposed systematic collusion between courts, sheriffs, lenders and debt collectors.

Lenders and collectors filed 575,000 lawsuits in Massachusetts — one for every five households — between 2000 and 2005. Most suits were filed in small claims courts, where cases are limited to disputes of $2,000 or less. The majority of back debts were for less than $1,000, although the amount ballooned as lenders, collectors, courts and sheriffs each tacked on hefty fees.

The court actions often led to the loss of cars and jobs, liens on homes, and even prison sentences. Big banks were implicated — Chase and Capital One are among those named.

The Globe investigation summarized its findings as follows: “Many small-claims courts have effectively become accomplices of collection firms, routinely giving them the upper hand in court cases while casually disregarding the rights and dignity of ordinary citizens. Collectors almost always win the lawsuits they file, without being asked for evidence that the debts they are chasing are actually owed. Debtors frequently receive no notice of the suits against them, because collectors provide courts with outdated addresses.

“The disabled, elderly and working poor are often talked into repaying their debts from their monthly government checks, which by law are protected from legal judgments,” the report continues. “And an obscure posse of law enforcement agents — constables and deputy sheriffs — operate freely as the blunt instrument of collection firms, with neither their steep fees nor their sometimes heavy-handed tactics regulated.”

The article quotes a lawyer for one of the debt collectors. “Some judges, if they have trouble with debtors, will put handcuffs on them and make a big show of it, and the money comes out from everywhere,” the lawyer said. “The relatives come out and everything.”

How is Debtors’ Hell connected to the Big Dig boondoggle? The glut of capital is one place to start.

“The country is literally awash in capital,” one management professor explains, dismissing beliefs that shortages of capital lie behind recessions. “The problem is … that the truly good [i.e. profitable] uses to which it can be put are scarce.”

War, plunder and speculation aside, what better way is there for the rich to add to their piles of money than extracting interest from governments and individuals? In “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” John Perkins describes his work drawing governments of oppressed countries into debt traps on behalf of Wall Street. One favored method was to sign countries onto expensive and wasteful construction projects, using bribery backed by force.

Perkins brings up Bechtel’s name repeatedly — the same Bechtel supervising the Big Dig. “Bechtel was the world’s most powerful engineering firm,” he explains, “and a frequent collaborator with Chas. T. Main.” Main was the “consulting firm” that organized “economic hits.”

In his book “Empire of High Finance,” the late Victor Perlo demonstrated that Bechtel is controlled by the same few families that also control the biggest U.S. oil monopolies and biggest banks. All are big profiteers from today’s Iraq war.

Another “good use” for surplus capital is to push credit on to individuals, much like one would push heroin. Today, the Globe writes, “an estimated 40 million Americans are three months or more behind on home, car and student loans, utility and medical bills.” In addition, “an estimated 20 million are three months or more past due on credit card accounts.”

The Bush-league wars, courts and the “reformed” bankruptcy law contribute at once to the glut of capital and Big Dig messes, the concentration of wealth and impoverishment of the masses. Overcoming social atomization and organizing effective struggles against monopolized capital demands the leadership of labor and the Communist Party.

economics@cpusa.org