Of Free Speech and Insensitivity Training

There is a poignant scene in “Lawrence of Arabia”, a movie with many poignant scenes, in which Lawrence demonstrates to a fellow officer how to snuff out a candle. He pinches the flame with his fingers. The other officer gives it a try but jerks back his hand when his fingers are scorched.

“That hurts,” the officer complains. Lawrence replies, “Certainly it hurts. The trick is not minding that it hurts.”

There is a lesson there, particularly important for a society that has become hypersensitive to injury, real or imagined. Hurt may come from something as small as a look—or failure to look. It may come from an article of clothing, either worn or neglected. Lately flags have been targeted as sources of personal and even societal pain. Hurt may come from something as small as a word. Indeed, I think that most often today and in our society, both words and our sensitivity to words have become sharpened.

If we are to preserve freedom of speech—in all its important varieties—we need to develop some insensitivity, as in not minding when it hurts. Freedom of speech only matters when someone hears something he does not like. The choice then is intolerance and silence or freedom and not minding the hurt.

Another way to look at it is that we most desire freedom of speech when we are the speaker. From the point of view of listener, we may have mixed emotions. We may like what we say, but when we do not like what we hear do we wish to silence the speaker, or do we accept the options of free speech, to turn away or to endure another’s unpleasant rodomontade?

Freedom of speech was made part of the First Amendment, because rulers and monarchs were at pains to inflict genuine physical hurt whenever they took offense at the words of their subjects. The First Amendment’s protection of free speech was needed to protect people using words that hurt people in government, that offended people in power.

Even though enshrined in the Constitution, freedom of speech has to be won by each generation, because it is constantly in jeopardy. Americans are nearly unanimous in their support of freedom of speech when it is speech that they like, speech that reinforces their own views, and especially speech that praises and flatters. We do not particularly need the Constitution to protect that kind of speech. Speech that is unpopular, speech that goes against the grain, speech that is obnoxious to our opinions, speech that challenges our beliefs, that is the speech the Founders fought to protect. Most of human progress has come from that kind of speech. It is speech that is worth protecting today and that many try to silence.

President Obama and his political friends are fond of declaring that “the debate is over,” whether referring to Obamacare, the Dodd-Frank Act, climate change, same-sex marriage, or other important issues of significant disagreement. I expect that soon we will hear President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other administration spokesmen insist that the debate is over with regard to the nuclear deal with Iran. In a free republic, can the debate ever really be over?

This is nothing new; it is a continuation of a very old struggle. Despots great and petty since early ages have exercised what power they might to silence ideas and expressions they did not want to hear, or did not want others to hear. The gallows, flames, and torture chambers of yesteryear are matched today by bullets, bombs, and bayonets from radical Islam and totalitarian governments. In the West, where constitutions solemnly embrace free speech, voices are silenced by public ridicule, elaborate and intrusive regulations on what can and cannot be said and when and where—reinforced by government fines, restrictions, confiscations, and jail time.

I recently visited my son at his new job at a large factory. He was very careful to spell out to me a lengthy list of subjects I should not bring up, whether from fear of his colleagues, company policies, or federal, state, and local regulations. I have been given similar training at my place of work.

When I was young I was taught to be courteous and not seek to offend. I was also taught to be slow to take offence. Do children today repeat the rhyme I heard as a child? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” I wonder. Or are our children taught today that there is great reward in being the sensitized “victim” of someone else’s “offensive” words? Where do we find freedom in that?

Of Banks and Over Taxed Regulators

Banks, who needs them? A quick question and a quick answer: a thriving, prospering banking system is essential for a thriving, prospering modern economy. Banks bring together the resources of savers and the needs of borrowers, particularly borrowers who seek funds to establish or expand businesses or families and individuals who use occasional borrowing to smooth out their income (good banking principles penalize people who would borrow in order to live beyond their means, but more on that at another time).

Banks also created and maintain the payments system, the means by which money is transferred quickly and accurately throughout the nation and even internationally. Bank services include as well a variety of wealth management tools by which individuals, families, businesses, and governments can store, grow, and make best use of their financial wealth.

Without banks, almost none of these services would be available. Many non-banks provide bank-like services, but they all come to find the need to rest their own services at some point on a bank.

Banking in the United States has grown with the nation, from very simple institutions in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to a wide variety of bank types, charters, and business models, as diverse as the financial demands of the customers of the largest and most diverse economy in the world. I once presented at a meeting in Chicago a list of about two-dozen different types of banks in the United States. We have national banks, state chartered banks, small community banks, larger regional banks, and very large banks with extensive national and international business products and services. All of these operate and compete together, with a body of customers behind each one who think that their bank offers the best available choice of services that they want. No other nation in the world has a banking industry like ours.

The recent recession and financial panic—and the inevitable politicizing of finance that came in its wake—have thrown much into confusion and imposed upon sound and prudent bank supervision harmful ideas born of reckless sloganeering and hubristic financial engineering. The complexity of banking—no more complex than information technology, communications systems, or modern manufacturing—has been superseded by even more complex bank regulation.

The rules governing banking are too much and too many to function reasonably. They have become more than the very human people in the multitude of bank regulatory agencies can manage. The disciplining role of markets and the valuable service of banker judgment have in large measure been replaced by bureaucratic procedures and the judgments of government officials. These officials have had little if any practical experience making loans, taking deposits and putting them to work, building financial wealth, or otherwise providing products to customers. Government officials cannot run businesses. Now, their government jobs have become so demanding and complex, that they will not be able to do their own jobs, either. Too much has been placed upon them.

Those most harmed by all of this are bank customers. For the moment, bank profits are up, but that is because their losses are down as they recover from the recession, not because services to customers are expanding. As a result of government interest rate policies, depositors earn almost nothing on the money that they place in banks. The expanding oversight involvement of bank regulators makes it dangerous for banks to offer new services to customers; the risk of breaking any of thousands of pages of regulations has become too great. It takes almost half an hour to open a new bank account, something that used to take minutes. Fewer credit-worthy borrowers today qualify for mortgages than just a year ago, before new regulations went into effect. The number of banks has been declining in recent years, dropping at the rate of nearly one for every business day, week in and week out. Only one new bank has been opened since 2010. We have fewer banks today than the nation had in 1893. A stagnant industry is less able to evolve to meet changing customer needs and preferences.

For the good of all of us who rely upon banking services, and for the sanity of financial regulators, we need to return to the principles of good banking. We need to restore a system of supervision that is measured, not by how much banker judgment it takes over, but by how it adds value to the ability of banks to serve customers. Government agencies—and the laws that they administer—that are derived from a founding document that begins with the words, “We the People,” should do nothing less, and nothing more.

On another day I would like to share some thoughts about how banks are being goaded to become their own enemies.

Of the Rule of Law and the Separation of Powers

In the 1990s I was part of a congressional delegation to Argentina. At that time the Argentine economy was growing strongly and steadily, inflation was low, the currency was pegged to the dollar, convertible 1-for-1. Trade barriers were being lowered, commerce was booming. I recall asking Argentines what could possibly darken what seemed to be a very bright future. They were quick to reply: “Here in Argentina we have no rule of law. You can have no confidence in getting justice from the courts.”

That reminded me of Washington Irving’s observation on a European judge, from his famous work, The Alhambra:

It could not be denied, however, that he set a high value upon justice, for he sold it at its weight in gold.

Not long after that visit, the politics of income redistribution and confiscation threw the Argentine economy into turmoil, where it has remained.

I recently spoke with an economist friend of mine, who was waxing eloquent about the attractive monetary and tax policies in Bulgaria. I remarked that this would probably invite foreign investment. He replied, “No, there is no rule of law there.”

The point is that good economic policy cannot long survive inadequate legal safeguards. Many businesses that made major investments in China, attracted by a market of a billion people, have learned that the lack of a reliable legal and justice system in China has undermined much of the business value they thought to find. A similar story has been holding back investment and economic development in Russia.

Bringing that home, I would venture that concern for changing rules (or even lack of rules)—the substitution of arbitrary bureaucratic powers in Washington over objective rule of law—has been inhibiting more robust investment in the United States, a major cause for our current anemic economic recovery.

An ancient king in the Western Hemisphere, named Mosiah, warned, “because all men are not just it is not expedient that ye should have a king or kings to rule over you.” (Mosiah 29:16) Because men are not consistently just, freedom has historically rested upon rule by law rather than rule by men.

Fundamentally, that was the very reason for the American Revolution. Our revolution was based on the rule of law, an assertion of the rule of law, a response to violations of the rule of law by the English king and parliament. Most of the Declaration of Independence is a lengthy litany of violations of law by the English rulers. The Revolution was designed to take power away from man and men and rest it upon laws and rights, soon to be secured by a written supreme law embodied in the Constitution. Any erosion in the force and effect of the Constitution is an erosion of the rule of law and of the freedoms that rely upon law for their defense.

The Progressive Movement that thrived about a century ago, and found a major advocate in the federal government in President Woodrow Wilson, aggressively proposed an alternative to the rule of law. This program was the Rule of Experts. Their new view—and it really was a very old view though they dressed it up in modern-sounding rhetoric—was that there are Benign People, Experts, who know the process of modern government better than most people do, to whom we can safely yield governing authorities.

It sounds akin to the ancient theory of Divine Right of Kings, that the monarchs of the world are chosen by God and endowed with greater wisdom and perspective than the average man and woman. To their benign expertise and fatherly care was to be entrusted the governance of the rest of us.

The modern Rule of Experts people have much the same view, that these experts were endowed by their universities and other sources of expertise with ability far above that of most, and it would be wise to trust ourselves to their benign care. Not very democratic, and in fact these Benign Experts make no secret of their impatience with the Congress and other constitutional brakes on arbitrary authority.

As King Mosiah wisely pointed out that men are not always just, it is also appropriate to recognize that putting men in government does not make them any more reliably wise than the rest of us. The American Founders thought to address this problem by dividing political power among not only three branches in the Federal Government but also by embracing the federal system of dividing government with the States.

The current regulatory structure and program of the United States rest heavily on the idea that Benign Experts should be entrusted with authority for many of the big questions facing Americans and for many of the much smaller questions, too. That is certainly the structure of the Dodd-Frank Act, to offer one recent, prominent example among many.

Charles Calomiris, of the Columbia University business school, described the theory of the Dodd-Frank Act and related regulations this way:

The implicit theory behind these sorts of initiatives, to the extent that there is a theory, is that the recent crisis happened because regulatory standards were not quite complex enough, because the extensive discretionary authority of bank supervisors was not great enough, and because rules and regulations prohibiting or discouraging specific practices were not sufficiently extensive.
(Charles W. Calomiris, “Meaningful Banking Reform and Why it Is so Unlikely,” VoxEU, January 8, 2013)

This program of federal regulation has been imposed increasingly in contravention of the basic constitutional principle of separation of powers, by merging legislative, executive, and judicial authority in “independent” regulatory agencies. The unelected federal regulator today decides the details and specifics of binding mandates, identifies violators of those regulations, assesses guilt, and applies penalties.

Taken together our current regulatory system, by merging rather than maintaining the separation of powers of the Constitution, is eroding the rule of law. It is returning us to the age old practice of rule by men, with all of the potential for abuse of rights and freedoms, abuses that fill up most of the sadder pages of human history.

During the debate over the creation of the new financial consumer Bureau, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Dodd boasted that with this new agency people would no longer have to come to Congress for the enactment of new consumer laws. The Bureau would take care of all that.

There are serious operational flaws—too often overlooked—in the program of governance by Benign Experts. First, the regulators are not dispassionate umpires, limited to calling the balls and strikes. These umpires are also players in the game, the federal agencies each having their own set of particular interests and incentives that they take care of first.

Second, reliance on Benign Experts assumes an unproven, undemonstrated level of knowledge, insight, and forecasting skills. AEI President Arthur Brooks, in his book, The Battle, provides one of many examples of this flaw:

Federal Reserve economists were still forecasting significant positive growth and moderate unemployment in May and June 2008. They believed that economic growth in 2009 would be 2.4 percent, and unemployment would be 5.5 percent. What we experienced instead was negative growth, double-digit unemployment, and the destruction of at least $50 trillion in worldwide wealth. No one can get the numbers exactly right, to be sure. But getting them this much wrong certainly lends a whole new meaning to the expression ‘margin of error.’
(Arthur C. Brooks, The Battle, p.46)

It is not that regulators are dumber than the rest of the population, but they are no smarter either. The regulatory problems are increasingly too great for any designated group of humans to solve.

Third flaw, mission creep: power attracts power. Even if the tasks are too great, require too much knowledge, insight, foresight, and other skills in unachievable degree, the regulators still take them on, especially if the task increases the reach and influence of the agency.

I offer two examples from an example-rich environment.

Basel III capital rules started from a simple idea, that banks all around the world should be subject to the same capital standards. Capital (the financial cushion a bank carries against losses) is one of the three key elements of sound banking, the other two being liquidity and earnings. These international rules did not remain simple. Developed by an international team of experts from around the world, who labored on them for years, the rules number hundreds of pages, affecting the entire financial structure and business model of a bank, any bank. Congress was not involved and has no particular role in approving the rules. When exposed to public review they attracted thousands of comment letters expressing dismay that they are a bad fit for the U.S. economy. In the end, though, the regulators can go ahead with what they alone think is best.

A second example would be the Federal Reserve. One hundred years ago this year the Fed was created with a specific, identifiable, and rather narrow purpose, to provide liquidity for the banking system in times of financial stress. Before long, the Federal Reserve gained control of monetary policy and built up the practice of controlling interest rates. Later, it was given the task of promoting maximum employment. Under Dodd-Frank the Federal Reserve’s role in supervising banks and bank holding companies was expanded to supervising any financial business considered to be significant for financial stability. Each of these powers has drawn the Federal Reserve away from its narrow, objective task, to broad fields of subjective authority.

Perversely, this expansion of authority into more judgmental areas is eroding the independence of the Federal Reserve, making it yet one more political player in Washington, with responsibilities that far exceed human ability to fulfill, but which reach to every business and every home. The Fed’s prolonged policy of keeping short-term interest rates at or about zero has penalized all who save and live off of their savings, transferring trillions of dollars from savers to borrowers, the biggest borrower being the Federal Government, a policy decided by a small group of Washington experts.

I offer a partial but simple solution to point us back toward strengthening the rule of law and reducing our exposure to the rule of man and men, however expert they might be. Return the lawmaking and the policy decisions to the elected representatives. It is a messy process, but exactly the messy process that the Founders intended to preserve freedom from the encroachment of arbitrary and oppressive government. The regulators, which are theoretically part of the executive branch, should be left with the duty of implementing the laws and policy decisions that the elected and accountable representatives make.

If Congress were required to write the rules and mandates and delegate to the executive agencies only the execution, the mandates of government would be circumscribed by the limitations of a legislative body forced to be directly accountable for what it has wrought. It is easy for legislators to complain about bad regulatory decisions, when all too often these are decisions that Congress never should have delegated to regulators in the first place.

We would still have laws and regulations, but the laws might be more direct and specific, and perhaps fewer and surely smaller. We would probably not have Dodd-Frank Acts that number thousands of pages read by no congressman or Senator, containing a cacophony of half-baked ideas and multiple solutions to the same problem, all left for the regulators to sort out.

And legislators might recall this caution, from Thomas Paine:

Laws difficult to be executed cannot be generally good.
(Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man)

(First published February 17, 2013)

Of Washington and the Life of the Nation

Washington, D.C., is a strange place. I speak from experience. My whole working career has been in Washington. In many meetings with people visiting Washington I have explained to them that Washington is not America. Few have been surprised by the remark. In many visits away from Washington (and in connection with my work I accept nearly every invitation to leave town and be among those whose lives too many in Washington try to run) I am ever and powerfully reminded how different the rest of America is from Washington. I have not been surprised. Kansas City is much closer to America than Washington ever was or will be.

In support of the point I offer a few painful examples. I see one each day that I drive into the city. Looking at the cars around me I note that very few are more than a few years old. At the same time I am impressed by how many of the cars are foreign luxury models. It is typical, when paused at a stop light, to notice that many of the surrounding cars are BMWs, Mercedes, Lexus, Acuras, Audis, and not an insignificant number of Jaguars, high end Range Rovers, and Porsches. I also see a lot more Prius cars and other hybrids. This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with driving any of these or any other late model high-priced cars. I merely note it as very different from what I see when paused at a typical traffic light in other cities and towns in America.

As an aside, I am grateful to the people who buy and drive a Prius or other model of hybrid, because they subsidize my purchase of gasoline. Their cars do use less gasoline (though not enough less to compensate their owners for paying so much more for their cars), leaving more for people like me who drive regular gasoline-consuming vehicles. That reduction in gasoline demand helps reduce the price.

The Prius drivers might be offended were I to tell them, however, that I am entirely unimpressed by their conspicuous token of environmental sensitivity. Their purchase and operation of a Prius, after all, is very likely more harmful to the environment than is my more conventional automobile. First of all, they pay $10,000 or more extra to buy their hybrid, and if the price system works at all efficiently that means that making a Prius or other hybrid consumes far more in resources than making a conventional car. Second, the hybrid car fans and their coteries in the D.C. area have convinced the masters of the highway networks to create special less-traveled commuter lanes that the hybrid drivers are permitted to use, meaning that they reduce the efficiency of the highway infrastructure. So, to the Prius drivers of the world I say, thanks for the subsidy, but save your enviro lectures for when you are looking in the mirror.

The automobiles of the nation’s capital region are a sign of an even more painful reality of how Washington is different from the rest of America. It is also the wealthiest part of the nation, by far. On April 25, 2013, Forbes magazine published an article about the richest counties in the United States in terms of average income (Tom Van Riper, “America’s Richest Counties”). Six of the ten richest counties are in the Washington, D.C. region, including the top two and one more out of the top five. While recession lingers in the rest of the nation, Washington and its suburbs are doing rather well, with unemployment down to 5.5%, well below the national average.

I will also say that I am not opposed to wealth and wealthy people. I wish all of the world to be wealthier and rejoice that it is far wealthier today than people of just a few generations ago could have dreamed. But we could all live so much better still. I ache that the policies of governments around the world stifle economic growth and development and hold so many of their people down in poverty. The poor nations of the world are not poor because their people are less talented and intelligent than others, but because their governments are so oppressive and have been for generations.

Therein lies my beef with the wealth of Washington and its environs and the key to its estrangement from America. That wealth is hard to explain from the perspective of value added to the rest of the nation. Washington is basically a one-company town. Unlike other one-company towns, however, it produces little that adds enough value to the lives of others that would allow it to prosper in open competition in free markets. The product of Washington instead is forced upon the rest of the nation, whose productive income is confiscated to keep the Washington wealth-eating machine going.

Try to name an economic product or activity that is not somehow subject to special handling by or permission from someone in Washington or controlled from Washington. After the Dodd-Frank Act, for example, all financial activities have become more subject to direction by Washington bureaucrats than ever before. Today, a bank has to pay more attention to its regulators than it does to its customers. Who gets the best attention out of that arrangement? The same is true for energy producers, communications firms, health care providers, and you can continue the list. All that special handling comes with a toll, payable in taxes, or borrowed from the financial markets, or layered upon private incentive and individual initiative. Today in Washington the most convincing argument for new rules and laws is to announce that something is “unregulated.” When you regulate liberty, how much liberty survives? How much of America survives?

Next year, 2014, will mark the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington by the British in the War of 1812. The curious thing about the burning of Washington was that it did not make a lick of difference. The rest of the nation went on about its business, little harmed or even affected. The same was true during the Revolutionary War when the British occupied Philadelphia. Rather than end the war it did nothing to bring the British victory. In America the nation was not run by its government, and in fact government was mostly irrelevant to the daily life of the people. That was very different from European experience, where nations were so dominated by their rulers that capturing the capital was tantamount to beheading the country.

Washington is strange to America. That can be tolerable, but only if it is smaller and less significant. Let the real nation draw its life from the people and live where they live their lives without direction from their rulers. Let us have a Washington whose disappearance would not mean much to the rest of the nation.

(First published May 18, 2013)

Of Liberty and Breaking the Rules

Sometime in the 1990s, before the days of YouTube, I received a homemade video from a man who owned and operated a small business near Dallas, Texas. He ran a landscaping company, had a handful of employees, and, according to the video, was in violation of some rule or regulation of the federal government every day. He did not intend to be in violation. He did not want to be in violation. As he explained, it was just impossible to comply with all of the requirements.

The video began with the owner sitting behind his desk, explaining the problem. He stood up and took the camera with him as he walked through different parts of his operations, pointing out what was required of him, his business, and his colleagues.

In the main office he described the employment rules, the tax laws, the related mandates and regulations that applied because he had hired other people. He walked over to the equipment and described the numberless “safety hazard” regulations, from warning notices that had to be glued beneath the seats of garden tractors, to how he and his workers used, carried, and stored their tools, gear, and machines, and what they were supposed to wear while using them. He discussed the multitude of formal requirements for managing and applying the fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals that are commonly used in his business, including their handling, storage, clean up, and their transportation. Speaking of transportation, because his company used trucks and other vehicles, there was another long list of rules and regulations that applied to that part of the firm.

Added to all of this, there were numerous reports, applications, notices, and other papers to be filed with a variety of agencies on a regular basis. When he was through, he sat down again behind his desk and said, “I break the law every day. I don’t intend to, but I cannot avoid it. I can’t keep up with it all as long as I stay in business.”

How did we get here? Is this America? Is this the land of the free and the home of the brave? Is this a land of freedom sustained by law? It is an unknown America, too unknown to most but too familiar to people who run a business, especially the people who own a small company. The rest of us see little of it, though perhaps we suspect it is there. Some of us catch glimpses.

In a large business it takes longer for the regulatory burden to become overwhelming. For a while the boss can hire more people to help carry the load. In the large firms of America there is a host of employees who produce no goods or offer any services to any customers. They spend their careers complying with their slices of these federal rules, laws, and mandates so that some of the other employees can be involved in what the business is all about, providing something to a customer for which the customer is willing to pay.

The customer may not realize that a large share of what he pays for he never receives; it goes to pay those people who work to keep the business in compliance with the government rules. More than businessmen would be wealthier without this heavy, dead hand clamped on firms, factories, and farms. The necessities and luxuries of life would all be a lot cheaper. Or, another way to say it, we would get more of the goods and services we pay for, less of our money sunk into these hidden costs for unproductive activity.

America’s Founders sought to create a land of freedom, not dominated by government and the officiousness of government functionaries. To them “unregulated” was a goal, not a criticism. They also knew the danger of what could happen, even in America. James Madison wrote, “It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood. . .” (James Madison, Federalist no. 62)

And yet here we are. What the Texas businessman faced in the 1990s has not become any lighter since. When was the last time that you read the full text of a law? Who has read the Obamacare statute, the Dodd-Frank Act, or any of the other voluminous, incoherent laws recently enacted, each written on more than a thousand pages? For each page of law enacted by Congress today government bureaucrats write ten pages of rules and regulations, all of which are enforced as law though never voted on by anyone who himself has been voted into office by the people.

In the land of the free, whose founding document begins with “We the People”, why do we tolerate it? One of the complaints against the king of England in the Declaration of Independence reads, “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.” And yet we have done the same to ourselves. The Dodd-Frank Act alone created several New Offices and has already stimulated the hiring of more than a thousand new officers.

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Scrooge trembled more and more.

“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”
(Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

There was a time when the chains had to be broken to restore the rule of law.

(First published August 8, 2013)