Of Warming Planets and Cooling Economies

Did you notice when the Obama Administration paused in its ballyhooing about global warming? President Obama and his officials had been busily hustling the warming of the planet and its attendant disasters—which they insist can only be fixed by increasing government control of our lives, from birthing to breathing. The President was in Florida, blaming the future hurricane season—which has not yet happened—on global warming. “The best climate scientists in the world are telling us that extreme weather events like hurricanes are likely to become more powerful.” What President Obama did not mention—anywhere in his speech at the National Hurricane Center in Miami—was that the scientists predicted a “below-normal” hurricane season for 2015. Was that mercy because of or in spite of global warming?

Perhaps we should not blame the President for leaving that little item of information out, since for each of the last several years the cited “best climate scientists” (whoever they are) had predicted extraordinarily active and destructive hurricane seasons. Since each season turned out to be unusually mild, the official forecasters have now changed their tune, putting themselves solidly in-sync with recent trends. Do not put yourself at risk with a long investment on it either way.

As for global warming, however, the President and those who say they agree with him insist that the debate is over (in either science or a free nation can the debate ever really be over?), meaning that it is unacceptable to disagree with them. If you can’t say something calamitous, then don’t say anything at all.

Then, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, the global warming talk stopped. There was a mercifully, if brief, moratorium on warming warnings. Instead of predicted calamity, a real calamity was at hand that required some ‘splaining. The most recent report on the nation’s economic growth was announced. Not only had growth slowed, as measured by government number crunchers, the economy had actually declined in the first 3 months of 2015. That seemed to come as a surprise to no one who is either without a job or working in a job that is something less than the job held before 2009. But it was unwelcome news to the Administration that has been working on economic revival for going on seven years.

Instead of global warming, the Administration needed cold weather to blame for the decline in economic activity during January, February, and March. The lead official White House explanative was, “harsh winter weather”. I did not make this up, and you are not supposed to notice how convenient White House excuses are. It was better that global warming talk was cooled for a moment lest people recognize the contradictions in the official propaganda and begin to wonder whether White House policies were working.

Winter weather is not a novel excuse for failed government programs. The old Soviet Union blamed repeated crop failures on harsh winters (in Russia? Who knew?). The similarity in excuses used by the Obama White House and the Soviet Politburo is not accidental. Central planners can survive only if they have at the ready a list of excuses of things beyond their control. The list could be a long one, since in the end there is not very much about the economy that central planners can control, if control means making things go they way intended. To quote the character Jayne Cobb, in Serenity, “what you plan and what takes place ain’t ever been exactly similar.”

Of Lessons of History and Preventing Wars

History does not repeat itself, not precisely. Humans, though, have been doing similar things for thousands of years. History offers patterns from which we can learn. That is to say, that there is nothing new that is wholly new.

There is too much for comfort in the current international situation—and the U.S. response to it—that feels like the 1930s. The republics of the West, focused inward, struggle with economic traumas and work hard to make them worse in the name of making things better. National leaders even when aware of storm clouds on the global horizons ignore them if they can, and minimize the dangers if they cannot, applying symbolic but ineffective remedies where action is unavoidable. Aggressive second rate powers strive for recognition as though first rate powers, conspiring to disrupt the international equilibrium and the peace that rests on it to get what they want. While potential enemies rapidly rearm, the West disarms in the name of peace, heedless of the wars and conflicts that fill the vacuums of their military retreats. Again, I am talking about today, not the 1930s, but the parallels are disquieting.

The United States has gotten into unwanted conflicts, especially in the 20th Century, when adversaries miscalculated our nation’s willingness to sacrifice to defend crucial interests. Weak-kneed, pusillanimous, or just unwise national executives invited war by giving enemies many reasons to doubt our will and resolve: unprepared armed forces, verbal warnings enforced with bluster, shirked fulfillment of pledges to help endangered friends. The Japanese thought that isolationist and poorly armed America would seek a negotiated settlement after Pearl Harbor, the North Koreans were confident that we were too war-weary to defend the South, Saddam Hussein—twice—believed that we would not want to fight a war in the sands of Iraq. Our responses to frequent goading did little to dissuade them. Logically following our miscues they each went too far at last. They all could have been stopped by a determined show of strength early while war remained avoidable, when we could have corrected their calculations at lesser cost to us and to them.

The communist leaders of China are by nature cautious. You survive the palace intrigues of the Forbidden City by avoiding mistakes, not by making them. But the Chinese leaders also have big plans, increasingly marked on a global map. The leaders of the regime in power are the heirs of their founder, Mao, who liked to refer to the United States as a paper tiger. For a time Nixon and Reagan disabused them of that notion, but they seem to be reconvincing themselves of Mao’s insights. Where is the recent evidence to the contrary?

At first, Chinese forays were camouflaged by equipping and supporting the adventures of the proxy North Koreans. Lately, the Chinese military itself has repeatedly hacked into U.S. civilian and military computer systems, with efforts ranging from nuisances to theft of military and technology secrets. The rapidly expanding Chinese navy is now building aircraft carriers, though it has no overseas enemies. In a related effort, the Chinese are dredging up artificial islands in the South China Sea, a thousand miles from their shores, closer to the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam than to the southern coast of China. With naval stations and air strips on the islands, the Chinese are asserting a dramatic expansion of territorial waters measured from these militarized sandbars. Connecting the dots from new island to new island (there are some half dozen or more of these land-creation projects underway), the Chinese navy alleges control of sea lanes and airspace, demanding that planes or ships not pass their theoretical net without Beijing’s permission. The U.S. has made protests, recently backed up by a reconnaissance plane flying across what has been international waters and free airspace since before and after World War II. At least for the moment the Chinese only fired words, eight times (according to a CNN story) warning the U.S. plane to stay away. “This is the Chinese navy. You go.”

This is a minor disturbance in a major geopolitical struggle. Busy trade lanes cross the South China Sea. In the context of Beijing’s acquisition of an offensive, MIRVed nuclear missile arsenal now approaching the size of Russian and U.S. nuclear forces (the U.S. being the only one developing plans to reduce its stockpile), the risks are becoming very high.

China has big domestic problems. The economy is slowing, if not already in recession. That will make it even harder for Beijing to keep quiescent a population only half of which has experienced extraction from grinding communist poverty. An aging population will be difficult for the declining workforce to support in coming years. And then there is the legacy of China’s one-child policy, more than 100 million males with no possibility of marriage and family. What to do with those restless men?

Throughout history, China’s biggest dangers have usually been from Chinese, vulnerabilities from the outside attracted only when there was weakness caused by internal struggles. Might the heirs of Mao seek to distract internal discontent with international adventurism? A lesson from history is that the more autocratic the regime, the more likely it is to resort to this gambit.

We need a foreign policy that convinces the Chinese leaders how dangerous and unrewarding such moves would be. That becomes harder to do the more we allow the Chinese to fool themselves that it might be otherwise. That was a pattern of disaster for Tojo, Hitler, and others—and for us.

Of the Federal Reserve and Taking from Savers

Ben Bernanke has a blog. You can find it here, courtesy of the Brookings Institution. Of course, what would the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board write about, other than decisions he made as Chairman, and why people who take issue with them are wrong? One would expect no less, and reading the light he sheds on previous decisions—offered in Fedspspeak at the time that they were made—is surely the chief lure of Ben Bernanke’s blog. Allowed to communicate in regular English, not worried about how Fed Watchers might construe or misconstrue everything he says and does not say, Ben is more able to speak his mind clearly.

The former Fed Head chose for his first blog post a vigorous defense of price controls on interest rates. In the process Bernanke demonstrates the assumption that we are safe letting government economists control the economy—an assumption continually disproven by real-world experience.

In fact, as a result of entrusting much of our economic freedom in the United States to government economists, we do not have a free market for interest rates, at least not short term rates, and we pay for that every day. The Federal Reserve sets short term rates in this country, and so far the market has had zero success in moving rates from the near zero interest rate range that the Federal Reserve has decreed and maintained for some years. Keep that in mind the next time you wonder why you earned $1.73 in interest on your savings account last year.

If you borrow money—when you can get a loan—then you might consider yourself lucky. The biggest borrower of all, in the whole world, is the United States Government. Uncle Sam must be feeling very lucky, because he is paying comparatively little on the $18 trillion of U.S. Government debt, increased by another half trillion dollars last year.

If you save money, though, especially for your retirement—and if you have to live off of those savings in retirement—you might not feel so fortunate. By keeping interest rates lower than the market would set them, the Federal Reserve is daily transferring many billions of dollars from savers to the Federal Government. And you thought that only the IRS takes your money.

Let me illustrate with an example. For the last three months of 2014, all of the banks in the United States, all of them together, paid no more than $11 billion to people who had their money in banks. Is that a lot of money? It depends. When that is the interest paid on nearly $12 trillion in deposits, the answer is, no, that is not very much money at all.

Do not blame the banks, though. They are in the saving and lending business, too. Try as they might, with the Federal Reserve controlling interest rates, banks could not pay any more interest to depositors. If a bank did, it would have more money than it could lend as people shifted their deposits where they could get a better return. To pay interest on deposits, banks cannot get much more interest from the loans they make than the Federal Reserve price controls allow, and many relatively good loans present more repayment risk (banks do need to be paid back) than those low interest rates would cover. Low interest earned means low interest paid.

All the banks in the nation have a little over $15 trillion in loans and other assets, on which they earned last year about the same amount as they did five years ago, when they had $2 trillion less in loans and other assets. In an environment of low interest rates, banks have to concentrate their lending on the safest borrowers.

That is how the low interest rates controlled by the Federal Reserve are oppressing the economy. When savers and lenders can only get a few cents on a hundred dollars lent, they place their money with the very safest of borrowers, since they cannot afford to take any losses. Someone who has a really good idea—which like all good ideas may or may not succeed the first time—has trouble getting the money to give his idea a go and hire people to help him try.

Ben Bernanke claims that the Federal Reserve’s near zero interest rate policy—called ZIRP—has been stimulating the economy. If so, where is the stimulation? Why has the recovery been so weak? There has been stimulus, but it has gone primarily to support Federal Government spending and to pay down the debt of the largest and healthiest businesses that can trade in their higher cost loans for the Federal Reserve’s lending bargains. The biggest increases in bank loans have been in Treasury debt and deposits at the Federal Reserve.

Ben Bernanke, in his blog, reminds me of the story of the lawyer representing a client charged with stealing a car and returning it damaged. The lawyer says, first, that his client never had the car; second, that he returned it in perfect condition; and, third, that it was already irreparably damaged when his client took it.

Bernanke begins by explaining that the Federal Reserve does not set interest rates, or that at most its ability to do so is only “transitory and limited.” He pleads that the Fed can only affect short term rates “in the short run.” He does not explain how seven years of ZIRP can be considered the short run. Then he progresses in his blog to describe how the Federal Reserve “influences” interest rates and then how the “Fed’s actions determine” interest rates. His argument, after denying that the Fed can set rates, is that the economy has been so weak that the Fed has had to lower interest rates for the nation’s own good. Bernanke next argues that the economy has remained so troubled (he does not say, despite ZIRP) that the Federal Reserve has had no choice but to continue with ZIRP, concluding that it is the economy after all the forces the Fed to do what it does. Do not blame the Fed Governors, they had no choice but to continue doing what they cannot do because it has not done any good so far. I think you need to have a Ph.D. in economics to make such an argument.

We cannot do it, we did what we had to do, and since it has not helped we cannot stop. I wonder how he reacted to those kind of explanations from his teenagers. Any responsible parent would reply, no, you cannot have the car, give me back the keys.

Of Predictions and Prophecies

Two dangers to which members of our society—and perhaps members of many another society—have been prone is the eagerness to know the future, and dismay and disillusionment when the reality of the future does not play out as expected. That makes predictors of the future in high demand and always at risk.

Experience also teaches us that most predictors of the future do not know what they are talking about and are highly susceptible to failure. That probably explains why the oracles of history and modernity are sphinx-like in their pronouncements, offering up vague prognostications whose insightful value can only be appreciated after the ensuing events occur and are appropriately explained—or explained away.

In modern times our most prolific prognosticators are sports-wizards who tell you before the season begins and as it evolves who will be the champions and who the losers. Not far behind are the political experts who make a living pronouncing who will win in the next elections, hoping greatly that their predictions will take the energy out of the doomed candidates and make the prophecy self-fulfilling. Also high on the list in recent decades are the economic gurus who predict with assurance and precision everything from jobless numbers to economic growth to interest rates.

Some of these last are actually becoming reliable after a sort in terms of how consistently wrong they are. An oft-cited economist from Standard and Poors comes to mind, who you can now generally count on getting his jobless predictions backwards. I am reminded of Raymond F. DeVoe, Jr., who generously remarked that, “Economists use decimals in their forecasts to show that they have a sense of humor.” (Raymond F. DeVoe, Jr., The DeVoe Report, February 7, 1996) Economists love to produce charts with erratic lines displaying the recorded past and smooth lines presenting their forecasts. These are helpful in that you can be sure that the future will look nothing like the lines of predicted future performance. It would be wise to keep in mind the observation of Alex Pollock concerning the recent recession, “Among the many losses imposed by the bubble is a well-deserved loss of credibility on the part of central bankers and economists.” (Alex Pollock, “2007 Bust: How Could They Not Have Known?”, Real Clear Markets, September 21, 2011)

All of this is not to say that it is impossible to predict the future. There are certain trends that can be predicted within tolerable levels of probability, such as that flooding the money supply will usually produce inflation, that you get less of what you tax (be that income, jobs, investment, or healthcare, for example), or that the Yankees will before long win another World Series.

Aside from acting upon reasonable probabilities based upon experience, good data, and rational analysis, it is safe to say that man cannot reliably predict the future. We can learn from history, because although history never repeats itself it can teach us lessons. In the world of human action there is nothing new that is wholly new. All of this, however, is in the realm of managing risks and probabilities, something that we all have to do every day just in order to act. Nevertheless, while we expect certain things to happen, none of us on our own can know what will happen.

God can and does know. He sees it all, and He is never surprised. God’s omniscience is not limited by time or place. Moreover, our loving and generous Father shares or withholds from us knowledge of the future, depending upon our need. God has shared with me enough glimpses of the future to help me prepare and be prepared for when the events arrived. Yet many is the difficult experience of life that I am glad to have had and learned and grown from, looking at the experience in the past, that I am not sure that I could have mustered the courage to face had I known with any clarity that it was coming. God withholds from most of us knowledge of our manner of death, all the while equipping us with the knowledge that we need in order to live well.

There is much that God does want us to know about the future, our individual future as well as mankind’s future, to aid us in our daily living, to give purpose and direction to daily activities that might otherwise seem pointless or even hopeless, or to elicit from us extra efforts and undiscovered talents. From the beginning of time our Father has sent to us prophets, fellow humans like ourselves, to whom He has revealed prophecies important to His children. The prophet Isaiah brought comfort to Ahaz, the king of Judah, when his land was invaded. He prophesied that the invasion would fail and to encourage him offered the sign of the coming of the Messiah and His miraculous virgin birth (see Isaiah 7:14-16).

Amos was another such prophet, who declared, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7) That is why Jesus Christ has sent us new apostles and prophets in our day, to inspire, counsel, comfort, uplift, and in many ways aid us by divine guidance in the difficult times in which people always live, we no less than God’s children in the past.

We need, however, to keep in mind the point that while God’s prophecies are reliable and never fail our loving Father is careful to tell us what we need while withholding what were better that we not yet know. That can leave room for misinterpreting God’s prophecies and assigning to them meanings and dressing them up with interpretations not included by God in the vision. When the prophecy is fulfilled in ways that vary from our own predictions and expectations it is not the prophecy of God that has failed but rather our own unwarranted assumptions.

Throughout ancient scriptures there were many prophecies of Christ’s mortal ministry as well as of His triumphal second coming. Many have confused the two, and such confusion led more than some to reject the Messiah when He walked among them in the land of Judea and Galilee. Jesus Christ fulfilled all that was prophesied for thousands of years about His mortal ministry, including His sacrifice and death. Yet many—but not all—eyes and ears were closed to Jesus because He did not fulfill mistaken expectations and traditions. A similar pattern is playing out today as the hour approaches for the Savior’s return.

Inasmuch as God sees all, there is much that He sees and knows that He could not possibly explain to men bounded by the extent of their own experiences. How would God explain to an ancient people some of the most common of daily happenings in our technological world? And certainly we are as far removed from the realities of heavenly experience as the ancients were from our daily 21st century experience. That is to say that God’s prophecies can be fulfilled in ways far beyond human expectation or even imaginings prior to their fulfillment.

When I was a missionary in 1979, I knew of the prophecy that the gospel of Jesus Christ would be preached to all nations, and I firmly believed it. Yet I did not have the slightest clue as to how missionaries would ever be allowed beyond the Iron Curtain. Little did I know that in less than a decade those barriers would come down peacefully and that the Soviet Union itself would cease to exist. Knowing of the prophecy allowed many to prepare. That preparation did not require knowledge of how God would work upon the nations to bring about His purposes.

I thank God for His ancient and modern prophets, and for the prophecies He has shared and continues to reveal, great and small, glorious and helpful. As the prophecies unfold, my plan is to adjust my expectations to the unfolding reality of God’s work and take comfort in knowing that all will be fulfilled as God continues to reveal to those who will listen everything that they will need to know.

(First published April 7, 2013)

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)