Saturday, December 28, 2019

William Greider – in memoriam – (1936 – 2019)

William H. Greider
(August 6, 1936 – December 25, 2019)

Just a few days after Paul Volcker and Felix Rohatyn finally relieved this planet of their mortal existence, William H. Greider passed on Christmas. There are, I suppose, some good things to be said about Volcker and Rohatyn, but I don't know what they might be.

However, I do know a lot of good things to write about William Greider. Just a partial list of the books he wrote is enough to realize that a giant who walked among us may be no more, but the shadow he cast will linger for a long while.

Secrets of the Temple, How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country
(Simon and Schuster, New York, NY, 1987)

Who Will Tell the People?: The Betrayal of American Democracy
(Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 1992)

One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism
(Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 1997)

Fortress America: The American Military and the Consequences of Peace
(PublicAffairs, 1998)

The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy
(Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2003)

Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (And Redeeming Promise) Of Our Country.
(Rodale Books, 2009)

Greider was born in Cincinnati at a time when dominance of that city's economy had shifted from meat packing and the Ohio River steamboat trade to industrial manufacturing. Most notably, the city had emerged as a center of machine tool making: R. K. Le Blond Machine Tool Co.; Lodge and Shipley Machine Tool Co.; G. A. Gray Co.; Cincinnati Shaper Co.; American Tool Works Co.; Cincinnati Planer Co.; Cincinnati Bickford Tool Co. and the company that was then the largest machine tool maker in America: Cincinnati Milling Machine Company, later named Cincinnati Milacron. And like other centers of machine tool production historically -- the Connecticut River valley (called Precision Valley in the first half of the twentieth century), Philadelphia, and Chicago, the ethos of Veblen's producer class ran strong and deep. I have no doubt that this producer class ethos helped shape Greider's life in profound ways, fitting him for the unique and powerful role of a leading critic of de-industrialization and financialization. His study at Princeton University thankfully did not inflict him with trained incapacity.

His professional writing career began at The Washington Post. as a national correspondent, then assistant managing editor for national news for 15 years. In 1981, Greider wrote an essay for The Atlantic titled “The Education of David Stockman,” which was probably his writing with the most immediate impact. It caused a national uproar, and led to President Reagan dismissing Stockman as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. In one of several passages that illuminated the venality and hypocrisy of the Reagan administration, Stockman told Greider, “None of us really understands what’s going on with all these numbers.” It was soon expanded and published as a book by the same name.

In 1982, Greider jumped to Rolling Stone, eventually becoming national affairs editor, even while he challenged some of the most powerful political and economic institutions, such as the Federal Reserve, and the military-industrial complex. Here is a link to Greider's articles at Rolling Stone.

His last stint as national affairs correspondent was with The Nation, beginning in 1999.

In this excerpt from his 1987 book, Secrets of the Temple, How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country, Greider captures the central issue of political economy in our time. Remember that this was written 32 years ago.
The question of who owned financial wealth--or who did not--was the buried fault line of American politics. Wealth holders whose money circulated through Wall Street markets were an untypical minority of Americans, with distinctly different economic interests than the majority. The distribution of wealth was the subtext beneath nearly every important economic question that faced the government, yet it was seldom discussed in politics. Political leaders, instead, treated wealth like a taboo subject, cloaked in euphemisms, as if the hard facts of who owned capital might excite class jealousies they could not satisfy or raise questions about the system for which they had no answers. 
Nevertheless, the concentration of wealth was the fulcrum on which the most basic political questions pivoted, a dividing line deeper than region or religion, race or sex. In the nature of things, government might choose to enhance the economic prospects of the many or to safeguard the accumulated wealth held by the few, but frequently the two purposes were in irreconcilable conflict. The continuing political struggle across this line, though unseen and rarely mentioned, was the  central narrative of American political history, especially in the politics of money. (pp. 37-38)
Near the end, are a few lines that summarize the events and decisions Greider chronicles in the book.
The collapse of monetarism as a practical theory involved more than the embarrassment of selected economists. Volcker and the Federal Reserve had embraced the money aggregates too and allowed M-1 to guide their policy decisions. The bankers and financial professionals had bought into the same belief, an alluring faith that offered a simple answer to bewildering complexities. Regulating a single economic variable, the money supply, could somehow produce order in all the others. (pp. 685)
At the beginning of final chapter, "The Triumph of Money," is some classic Greider writing, which beautifully captures the humanity and pathos of the people he wrote about. It was this capacity to share in the humanity of his subjects that made Greider such a great writer. Also note that Greider describes the political alienation and working class despair that has come to dominate our own time. Not only was Greider a great writer -- he was far ahead of his time, with an unerring instinct to identify and explain national trends many years before they became apparent to lesser observers and began to dominate the news.  
Catastrophe was general in Iowa. Thousands of farmers faced liquidation on old debts or their banks refused to grant new credit for the approaching growing season. The value of Iowa farmland was decreased by half and small towns withered as the local commerce disappeared. Iowa lost fifty thousand of its citizens. The price of corn, which had been above $3.50 only a few years earlier, fell steadily, headed toward a ruinous low--corn at $1 a bushel.... 
On a farm near Unionville, Iowa, a group of distressed farmers gathered in the living room of Clifford and Evelyne Burger to exchange tips on fending off the bank foreclosures, to console one another and to search for answers. The Burgers had been missing debt payments sporadically since 1983; the local bank had just turned down their loan application for spring planting, the money to buy see and fill their fuel tank for the '85 crop. The Burgers and their friends though they had found the explanation. Their failure, they decided, was caused by a remote conspiracy of bankers, operating through the Federal Reserve. 
"First, the Powers pump up inflation, then they start the propaganda that we have to reduce inflation," Jim Phillips, a grain farmer from Centerville, explained."They established this policy for the personal gain of the Federal Reserve and the bankers that control it....  
Mrs. Burger distributed an illustrated pamphlet entitled "Billions for Bankers, Debt for People," a polemical tract on the money question that was circulating widely in Iowa and the other afflicted farm states. The Federal Reserve, the pamphlet explained, was "a system of Banker-owned Mammon that usurped the mantle of government, disguised itself as our legitimate government, and set about to pauperize and control our people.  
The farmers talked quite familiarly about this conspiracy against them, reciting old names and obscure events from the Federal Reserve's early history. A web of international bankers had designed the central bank back in 1913 in order to dominate the world; their unseen control extended to grain companies, major conglomerates, the financial markets and tghe news media. These manipulations, the farmers earnestly explained, were guided by the "Power 300" and the "Inner Circle" and, ultimately, by the "Zionist Jewish conspiracy."  
....Like others, John Sellers was trying to combat the personal depression that accompanied economic failure. "It's a very gray world and you feel like you’re ninety years old,: he said. "You're in quicksand and there's no way out. People take to bed and sleep and sleep and sleep.  Many blame themselves. (pp. 668-669) 
Note how Greider anticipated the infection of the body politic with the affliction of conspiracy theories.

At the end of 1989, Greider joined with Lawrence Goodwyn -- the unsurpassed historian of the 19th century populists, and 20th century revolutions in Central Europe, who was also a tireless progressive activist -- to give a presentation in St. Louis commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Populist Sub-Treasury Plan for financial reform. Here are some of Greider's remarks from that presentation, Democratic Money: A Populist Perspective. Note its title.
It is perfectly plausible for the financial system of this country to put money into people's hands, to make credit available for ordinary Americans at rates they can afford. The economy could be managed prosperously and equitably, serving all groups -- not perfectly, but with some sense of justice that we would all recognize. 
There is no physical reason in economics why that can't happen. There are huge, intimidating political reasons why it did not happen in our history. In fact, at the very center of our politics is this subject, called "money and the regulation of credit, that we have been told we can't talk about.
Again, Greider was years ahead of his time. In January 2019, the History Department at Harvard University joined with Harvard Law School to host a two-day conference on Money as a Democratic Medium, explicitly exploring money as a political creation, and considering how to bring the creation and distribution of money under more democratic control. There are well over a dozen presentations available to watch on YouTube, but the one I most highly recommend is that by Mehrsa Baradaran of the University of Georgia Law School, and author of the seminal work The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap (Harvard University Press, 2019)

In a pair of tweets, John Nichols, national affairs correspondent for The Nation, called Greider
a friend and comrade and occasional co-conspirator... "He taught me so see politics not as a game but high-stakes struggle for power in which the Democrats, sadly, yielded far too much ground to an increasingly right-wing Republican Party....  
Born in the year of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's greatest electoral triumph, William Greider was in many senses the last New Dealer. His death, at age 83, represents a stark loss for American journalism. And for those of us who knew his great generosity of spirit and intellect."
Another colleague tweeted:

Farewell to William Greider, who was for real. This is from Who Will Tell the People? (1992!)

In One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (1997), Greider exposed the fraud of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the whole paradigm of "free trade," a paradigm almost all mainstream economists still cling to fiercely and unquestioningly. One World, Ready or Not evoked only scorn and ridicule from most mainstream economists, including Paul Krugman, who was an apostle of free trade at the time. But it is Greider's predictions of accelerating deindustrialization and outsourcing, and the destruction of the working class, that have proven to be more accurate than anything offered by pro-NAFTA economists.

Here are some of the articles inspired by Greider, posted here at Real Economics:

May 25, 2010
The austerity ghouls in USA
After giving the public's spare change to the crooked banksters, it was inevitable that someone would come to the "brilliant" conclusion that this should be paid for by raiding Social Security. 3,2,1... 
Whacking the Old FolksBy William Greider / The Nation
August 9, 2010
Did anyone mention deflation?
This is the latest from William Greider who quite literally wrote the book on the operation of the Federal Reserve. 
Deflation, Not Deficit, Is the Real Threat
By William Greider / The Nation
November 8, 2010
Greider on "free" trade

December 22, 2015
March 25, 2016
Greider on how Trump could beat Clinton

March 12, 2015
William Greider: Is Hillary Ready for Us?
The trouble is, the [Clintonite] New Dems are now the Old Guard. Their center-right program—financial deregulation and “free market” globalization—has not only run out of gas but is rightly blamed for laying the groundwork for financial catastrophe. Yet the New Dem wing still holds the high ground, with big money and loyal supporters as well as Clinton clones populating the key governing positions. The labor-liberal insurgency has a weak bench because for a generation its promising young people were excluded from governing ranks—systematically screened out by both Clinton and Obama administrations—if they showed telltale signs of leaning leftward or embracing non-conformist ideas that resonate with the party’s New Deal values. By contrast, Republican regimes since Ronald Reagan have always made a point of appointing thousands of young right-wingers to second-level government posts as the training ground for long-term governance. Dems still invoke sentimental rhetoric from the New Deal era, but the practical reality is that the party’s economic policy makers went to school on Wall Street, either before or after their public service (sometimes both).
And, finally, what William Neil reminded me was one of Greider's best essays, “The End of New Deal Liberalism” which appeared in The Nation, January 5, 2011, and has been reposted by Physicians for a National Health Program as William Greider’s message for us. Perhaps it is as fitting as it is disconcerting to end a memorial to William Greider, with what threatens to become William Greider's memorial to the experiment of American republican democracy.
We have reached a pivotal moment in government and politics, and it feels like the last, groaning spasms of New Deal liberalism. When the party of activist government, faced with an epic crisis, will not use government’s extensive powers to reverse the economic disorders and heal deepening social deterioration, then it must be the end of the line for the governing ideology inherited from Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson. 
Political events of the past two years have delivered a more profound and devastating message: American democracy has been conclusively conquered by American capitalism. Government has been disabled or captured by the formidable powers of private enterprise and concentrated wealth. Self-governing rights that representative democracy conferred on citizens are now usurped by the overbearing demands of corporate and financial interests. Collectively, the corporate sector has its arms around both political parties, the financing of political careers, the production of the policy agendas and propaganda of influential think tanks, and control of most major media. 
What the capitalist system wants is more—more wealth, more freedom to do whatever it wishes. This has always been its instinct, unless government intervened to stop it. The objective now is to destroy any remaining forms of government interference...
The power shift did not start with Obama, but his tenure confirms and completes it. The corporates began their systematic drive to dismantle liberal governance back in the 1970s, and the Democratic Party was soon trying to appease them, its retreat whipped along by Ronald Reagan’s popular appeal and top-down tax cutting. So long as Democrats were out of power, they could continue to stand up for liberal objectives and assail the destructive behavior of business and finance (though their rhetoric was more consistent than their voting record). Once back in control of government, they lowered their voices and sued for peace. Beholden to corporate America for campaign contributions, the Democrats cut deals with banks and businesses and usually gave them what they demanded, so corporate interests would not veto progressive legislation. 
Obama has been distinctively candid about this. He admires the “savvy businessmen” atop the pinnacle of corporate power. He seeks “partnership” with them. The old economic conflicts, like labor versus capital, are regarded as passé by the “new Democrats” now governing. The business of America is business. Government should act as steward and servant, not master.

William Greider on the "Democrats' Money Dilemma"
YouTube Feb 10, 2009

NC WC 2020-01-6
‘The Fed Is a Political Institution That Pretends Not to Be Political’ (interview) William Greider, FAIR. From Counterspin in 2007; still germane.


  1. Tony:

    This is a fitting tribute with depth and breadth. I had forgotten about the riches buried here at this website.
    Thanks for reminding me and others. And in that essay you cited at the close, the one I did as well in my brief posting at the Daily Kos, Greider acknowledges the missing understanding and appreciation of political economy in the American political discourse. Sanders has begun to change that, and we'll see what happens this Primary contest season.

    If you or anyone else can enlighten us on whether Bill Greider had anything to say on the Green New Deal's emergence, please let us know. I could infer from some snippets about Bill's following his grandchildren's baptism in politcs, that he liked the direction; unfortunately, my last conversations with him were about 18 months or so ahead of the Feb. 2019 press conference roll-out of the Green New Deal resolution.

    That and Bill's stance on MMT are questions I hope I can fill in with clear answers; from some of your sources here, not just in books, but the conference comments, one would think he would lean in that direction; how strongly or with what reservations, if any, I don't know. We may never know.

  2. Thank you for this lovely tribute to a beautiful spirit