Of Unbanked and “Underbanked”

Speaking of banks, as I did on this page a short time ago, there are those who are concerned that too many people in the United States are “unbanked” or “underbanked.” By the former they seem to mean those who do not use any banking services, particularly who do not have any bank accounts. By the former, they mean those who obtain some banking services from businesses that are not banks. The very existence of the terms, and the way that they are used by those who use them, implies that being “unbanked” or “underbanked” is a bad thing.

I will here disclose that I have worked for banks for nearly 10 years and for all I know may continue to do so for some time into the future. Whatever bias or color to my views that this condition provides I will nevertheless try to comment from a fair and factual point of view.

My first point, therefore, is that I am not prepared to assert that absolutely everyone should have a bank account. I can easily envision the value of a bank account for most if not all people, but I concede that they should be allowed to choose for themselves and that it would be terribly wrong to force people into banks. I acknowledge that there are some alternative providers of financial services who seem to please their customers, and I do not deny that banks can benefit from good competition. Banks have a long history of drawing upon the ideas and innovations of non-banks, just as non-banks have been eager to try their hand at successful new products and services that banks have pioneered. Bank customers have benefited the most from that process, as the variety and value of financial products have expanded, and the United States has led the world in the discovery of new and useful financial services.

Having said that, the nation cannot do well without a strong, vibrant, and prosperous banking industry. Our nation and people grow as we save financial resources and invest them in improvements for the future, whether new homes, new factories, or new ideas of how to do and make things better, faster, and cheaper. That is a major part of what banks do and are all about.

Moreover, there are a lot of things we do and a lot of places we go because we know that our ability to pay and get paid—to exchange things we value less for things that we value more (the reason we buy and sell things and use money to do it)—is secure, reliable, accurate, and relatively quick. That is our payments system, and banks created it and are at the center of it.

Americans also like the idea of becoming wealthier and expect to do so. If that seems a commonplace to you, recognize that it is not so in all parts of the world, where getting by from day to day is about the most to which people can aspire, for whom poverty is a way of life that they expect to bequeath to their children. To the extent that this miserable condition is becoming less the case in much of the world, that more people are beginning to believe that they can build and improve their wellbeing for themselves and their posterity, this new-found hope for accumulating wealth is attributable to the dispersion of principles of freedom and prosperity that Americans take for granted but which are new to much of the world. The global adoption of many American principles of prosperity has been a major contribution of the New World to the Old World and to all mankind.

Now get ready for the bold but true statement: you cannot get there and stay there without banks and the services that banks provide. Banks gather wealth, safeguard wealth, allow it to be used efficiently, and apply it to building the future. That is why governments pay so much attention to banks, and also why it is so harmful when governments try to capture banks and channel their services to the personal gain of themselves and their cronies. That is also why misguided bank regulations are harmful—even if in subtle but powerful ways—to the nation and its people.

Which brings us back to the agenda of the “unbanked” and the “underbanked.” In the United States, chief causes for people remaining “unbanked” are regulations that make banking more difficult and services more expensive; cultural barriers for people who come from societies where personal banking is either unknown or where the experience has been one of banks used by local governments to harvest wealth from people to enrich the governing elites and their cronies (much of Latin America, for example); and people who for whatever reason just do not prefer to use banks. The first cause regulators can solve but have largely been resistant to solving; the second can be overcome by time and experience and is showing signs of that; and the third cause is no more of a problem than people who prefer to rent rather than own their home, to eat eggs without grits, or who do not like the New York Yankees. I do not have to understand the personal preference to acknowledge it.

The concept of “underbanked” (that government needs to help banks figure out how to serve people who may get some banking services outside of banks) I fear may be a political device to harness American banks to serve the cronies of the “underbanked” advocates. We have already seen this game with the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) regulations, adopted ostensibly to ensure that banks lend to their local communities (as if bankers, unlike other businessmen, need government regulation to notice business opportunities right under their own nose). In practice, CRA has been used to coerce banks into providing loans and even grants to and through poverty advocacy agencies that tend to prosper more than the people whom they claim to be helping. The folks who fret about the “underbanked” have marvelous formulas and plans for other people’s money to solve problems about which the people to be helped seem little concerned. I have never heard of any truly “underbanked” people themselves calling for the firm hand of government to get them into the banking system; if they want banking services, they just go and get them.

I have the haunting suspicion that the “underbanked” advocates would if they could use banks the same way found in the abandoned societies of the “unbanked,” where banking services came through the hands of people who knew better than others and always made sure to get their cut for their benevolence. That is not really banking, and that is symptomatic of why people flee those lands. The wealth creation of such captive banks seems to be for someone else. If it happens in America, where will the people go?

Of Minorities and Society

The saddest chapters of history chronicle the breakdown of human society. Rights are abused, the innocent—if innocence is allowed to exist—are trampled. Poverty, hatred, violence, and uncontrolled human passion prevail. Destruction and degradation, physical and moral, replace human progress.

All society, except that of master to slave, relies upon an element of free association. Societies may have more or less elements of coercion as well, but it is the element of free association that allows the society to continue, that motivates its members to acquiesce in or even encourage the society’s continuation. Free, voluntary association is what gives a society its legitimacy. Without it, there is no society, just a group of people ruled by one coterie of thugs or another.

Cooperation in society cannot be taken for granted. When it is, when free cooperation, instead of being nurtured and encouraged, is replaced by coercive rules and compulsion, particularly rules and compulsion designed to benefit some at the expense of others, society declines, people interact more by will of others than by their own volition. With time either the situation is redressed or the society disintegrates, often to be conquered from the outside when its internal strength has turned to weakness.

In its latter years imperial China was prey to numerous foreign incursions because its society was a mighty empty shell, old traditions surrounding an empire of competing warlords. Ancient Greece, which twice when united proved too much for the Persian empire, became relatively easy prey to the Romans after the ties of Greek society had become tired and weak. Rome, in its turn, after a thousand years, was enormously wealthy but mightily weak in the internal strength to repel the roaming barbarians, vibrant societies powerful in their own internal cohesion. Much of Africa, Asia, and Latin America today remains mired in poverty from the inability of relatively young countries to develop cooperative societies that encourage the generation of wealth and its application to promote prosperity for the present and for the future.

With cooperation at the core of successful society, one would think that democracies must be the most successful. History records otherwise. There are no historical examples of a successful democracy, at least not one that lasted for long enough to matter. Like a match set to paper, democracies flare up brightly into power and glory but all too soon die away to ashes.

The problem with democracies has been that all too quickly the majority in the democracy learns that it can become wealthy by robbing the minority, under camouflage of statutes and government. That only lasts until either the minority successfully rebels, becomes a majority in its turn, or the wealth of the minority is exhausted. In reaction, the majority may seek to preserve its advantages by yielding to a dictator—a “mouth” for the majority—to govern in the name of the majority to discern and express its will. Few of these dictators have resisted the temptation to wear the mask of the majority to govern for the benefit of themselves and their cronies. That has been the case for every communist government, without exception.

But, is it not right and just for the majority to prevail? Perhaps, but to prevail over what? Everything? Consider: if majority rule is applied to deprive the minority of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, why should the minority cooperate? All that such society offers them is slavery, unrequited labor and service to fill another’s belly and pockets. In a pure democracy, there is no check on majority avarice, no refuge for the minority. The majority must always have its way.

Republics, however, are built upon a foundation of minority rights. Republican governments are granted only limited powers, exercised by representatives of the people, within boundaries beyond which the government may not go. A written constitution serves to enshrine and strengthen those rights against violation by the majority. The system gives a stake to all—not just the current rulers—in the continuation and strengthening of the society. No democracy, hereditary monarchy, or dictatorship can provide that.

In a nation as great and diverse as the United States everyone is part of a minority. Whether we consider age, ethnic background, religion, geography, culture, profession, or a multitude of other distinctions, we are a host of minorities. We can only come together and remain as a nation, strong and vibrant, if we are confident of protection in our minority rights, for protecting minority rights in America means protecting everyone’s rights. That is why the Founders proposed and the nation embraced a Republic formed on a federal structure of divided and limited government.

In that context, what are we to make of the current direction of American society? Are we preserving the Republic? Does our society feel like it is coming together? Recent public opinion polls find that more than 60% of Americans believe the nation to be going in the wrong direction. In another poll, a mere 22% believe that the current government rules with the consent of the governed.

What is the national political leadership doing about this? We have a President who aggressively pursues a variety of programs that have in common the taking of wealth from one minority segment of the nation to reward others. These wealth transfers are lionized for the undenied purpose of political and electoral advantage for the President and his supporters.

You will recognize the pattern. A crisis is discovered by the President, and an industry or group is demonized in public speeches and echoed in the establishment media as causing the problem and/or standing in the way of its solution. A plan is announced that involves confiscations from the demonized industry or group to fund benefices bestowed on Administration favorites.

Consider a few examples of many. Global warming is hailed as an imminent crisis with disastrous consequences; the coal, oil, and gas industries are identified as the foes of progress; and a variety of taxes and other restrictive policies are proposed, together with planned subsidies for businesses and companies favored by the White House. Banks are declared to be the nefarious forces behind the recent recession, new laws and regulations are applied that confiscate billions of dollars from the industry, much of which is then channeled to hedge funds and other political allies of the administration. Some millions of people are discovered to be without health insurance, doctors and the health insurance industry—among others—are fingered as being at the root of the problem, so a major overhaul of the entire structure of the health system is enacted that favors some at the expense of others. Administration cronies receive lucrative contracts to develop and administer the new system. There are many other examples, large and small, in education, welfare, housing, transportation, law enforcement, and many other government programs.

Is there any wonder that there is gridlock in the national government, when policy after policy is aimed at transferring wealth from some to reward others? Where is the room for cooperation and compromise, when the issue is how much of your family’s wealth is to be taken and given to someone else? The Roman Republic fell into gridlock after decades of appeals to mass acclaim for schemes of popular distribution of public plunder. It ended in the triumph of the Caesars, and later their eventual fall to the barbarians. It is perilous to abuse social comity.

President Obama has announced the transfer of wealth to be the chief focus for the remaining three years of his administration. Can our society weather that?

Of Claiming Good and Doing Bad

A very good book was published this month. Ostensibly, it is about our economy and the recession. It is actually about much more. It is the first book about the current American economy written by a philosopher, and it is perhaps the best book I have read yet about all the recent unpleasantness. Some might say that the economic trouble still continues, more like a long, slow convalescence from a serious illness than a healthy recovery. For many whose financial condition stagnates, for those who have replaced a full-time job with one or two part-time jobs, for graduates who have a degree in hand but no work in the field for which they have trained, and especially for the millions who remain out of work, talk of an economic turnaround can seem like a mockery.

For those and others, Infiltrated, by Jay W. Richards, can help make some sense of what hit us. The book does not suggest that there was a massive conspiracy to drive our nation into economic turmoil. It explains how turmoil came nevertheless as national policymakers followed the prescriptions of people who claimed to be doing good but tried to cheat the laws of economics and markets to impose what they might call “benevolence” on the rest of us.

It was their idea that in order to help more people own homes lenders should ignore such things as ability to repay a mortgage, strong history of employment and steady income, and having some equity in the value of the house so there would not be an incentive to walk away if prices dropped. They also agitated for the government to expand its guaranties for mortgages to people with poor credit histories and loans where lenders cut corners. And they badgered builders to keep building more houses.

Their plans horribly miscarried, and yet those people have even more control over us and our economy today and are more able and determined to try again. The recession, rather than educating and deterring them, has made them bolder.

I am reminded of what the late Louis Rukeyser, the very popular host of the PBS program Wall Street Week, wrote in the 1990s:

Washington has been taken over by an impregnable mob of short-sighted, power-hungry megaclowns.

They try their worst to micromanage every detail of the economy, but succeed only in whipping the markets back and forth, up and down in spastic patterns. They despise the gentler forces of a free market, which would moderate swings far more predictably.
(Louis Rukeyser, 1993 advertisement for his financial newsletter)

The people to whom I refer and whom Richards exposes in his book do not like the markets. They trust themselves more and think that you should trust them, too. They seriously do believe themselves smarter than the markets, and that is the problem. No one, other than God, is smarter than the markets. A large part of economic history, the tragic part, is a chronicle of the disasters caused when a small coterie of people are able to enforce their wishes and preferences on the rest of us in contravention of economic reality. It never works.

That was the story of the Great Depression, and it was entirely the story of communism, where whole societies were based upon the now well-proven fallacy that any group of people, no matter how smart or well intentioned, can gather sufficient data and know and understand enough to run a national economy. It is just far too complicated, with billions of economic decisions being made by millions of people all day and all night long. The markets make it all work, because the markets are the sum combined total of all of those economic actions and decisions interacting with each other. No human five-year plan for economic control has escaped failure.

What is worse, as well intentioned as such people may start out, all too often, as Richards’ book exposes, their efforts not only fail to do what they set out to do, they fail to stay virtuous and instead become enlisted in the service of private gain at the expense of the rest of us. The Soviet system might have worked pretty well for the party owners of the dachas along the Black Sea but only by impoverishing the workers their leaders claimed to be serving.

Do not let yourself be put off that Richards is a philosopher. His book is remarkably readable, one that you can take with you to the beach and actually enjoy, and feel that you have learned something—a lot—in the reading. Richards mixes real life narrative with hard facts and good research, unified by sound reasoning to expose a nasty and growing problem in American government today. The problem is a big part of why government is expanding and becoming more intrusive in all aspects of our lives, including our financial affairs, education, healthcare, energy use, the products we buy, the food we eat, and the entertainment we enjoy, and even the breath we exhale.

That is to say that the story told by Jay Richards, in Infiltrated, is actually a longer story, a story that began long before the recession, and continues afterward, a story that is bigger than his book. The recent economic events and their painful aftermath illuminate Richards’ core message, the human wreckage caused when some people are able to harness the coercive force of government to impose their personal notions of “benevolence” on the rest of us.

Roger Kimball, writing in 2011 in The New Criterion, warned that such efforts are “intoxicating, addictive, expensive, and ultimately ruinous.” (Roger Kimball, “Liberty versus benevolence,” The New Criterion, February 2011, p.6) Richards offers several well-described examples, well illustrating the truth of Kimball’s observations.

A valuable lesson for policymakers and for the people they would govern: the more discretion you give to government, the more you create the opportunity for abuse of that discretion for private gain. Europe in the 18th century was lousy with the practice. Our forebears sought to escape it and fought a revolution to get out of its grip. The men who threw the tea into Boston Harbor were acting in protest of the partnership between the British Crown and the British East India Company.

Beware the public-private partnerships. Jay Richards explains how some public-private mortgage partnerships went bad, very bad, for the partners and for all of us caught in the dust and debris of their collapse. I am reminded of the warning by former Congressman Dick Armey, that when you enter into a partnership with the devil, you are always the junior partner.

I conclude with the words of New York City Democrat Congressman Bourke Cockran, delivered 110 years ago:

That Government only is good, that Government only is great, that Government only is just, which has neither favorites nor victims.

(W. Bourke Cockran, speech given before the National Liberal Club of England, London, July 15, 1903, in W. Bourke Cockran, In the Name of Liberty, p.190)

Our government should be that government.

(First published August 18, 2013)