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 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 Soviet Union and the European Union

Do you remember when the Soviet Union disappeared? Do you recall how and why? I hope that Vladimir Putin does. An accompanying question that needs to be considered is, why is Ukraine so attracted to the European Union?

To answer the first question briefly, we have to turn our attention to the final days of the old USSR, then led by Michael Gorbachev. Russia, the largest member of the 15 “Republics,” was led by Boris Yeltsin. Under Yeltsin’s leadership, Russia chose to withdraw from the Soviet Union. He said that Russia was weary of carrying the burden—economic, military, and otherwise—for the others. Russia just left, and after a brief try there was nothing that Gorbachev could do to make Russia stay. Without Russia, there was not much left to the Soviet Union, and the other members said “enough,” too. The Soviet Union was gone with hardly a whimper and little lamented except by the class of privileged communist leaders.

The word is that current Russian President, Vladimir Putin, wants to put the band back together, that he wants to reassemble the old Soviet Union, with the coercive influence of the Russian military as his chief tool. Not that he wishes to recreate the communist paradise of Lenin and Stalin. His vision reportedly reaches back to the great days of the czars—though presumably without the trappings of monarchy and royalty. Putin is through and through a Russian, so he wants to recreate a Russian Empire. Continuing along the path that he has set out, the path of creating an empire of the czars after the mode of the Caesars, he is unlikely to succeed. Been there. Tried that. Did not work.

It is hard to understand why Putin would choose that model. Why would he want to deal himself and the Russian people a losing hand? The Russian-dominated Soviet Union, assembled by the Red Army, failed. It did not fail because the Soviet leadership did not try hard enough, or was stingy in expending resources, or showed too little military muscle, to hold it together. It failed because—as Yeltsin recognized—it was costing too much to hold it together, draining too much life from Russia. The USSR was a bankrupt model (morally and financially) for building an empire, especially for keeping an empire. There were not enough hands to hold on tight to everything and everyone.

Perhaps Putin figures that without the burden of communism a strong Russian government could hold and control successfully where the commissars could not. In other words, he would reject the model of Soviet communism and embrace the model of a modern non-communist authoritarian regime, like the Third Reich. That one did not work so well, either.

There is a model available, tried and tested, that would work. It would unleash the power and greatness of the Russian people and at last make the most of the amazing resources of the Russian land. The results would exceed by far even the exaggerated dreams of czars and commissars. Does Putin have the vision?

I refer to the model of freedom, only briefly known to the Russian people, only occasionally offered in limited experiments, experiments that were always wildly successful, surprising only to the governmental leaders who tried them and then abandoned them, frightened by the successes. Applied boldly, we would see a Russian miracle that would change not only Russia but the world—all for the better. Free men and women, operating in free markets, protected by the rule of law enshrining individual rights, erected on the foundation of a constitutionally limited government, would be a model offering limitless growth and prosperity. Moreover, the variety of peoples and cultures in a land as vast as Russia could be recognized and accommodated, attracted and joined together, within a strong but genuine federation, united by the ties of thriving national markets, reassured by the rule of law supported by a just and independent judicial system to safeguard fundamental rights.

A dream? Perhaps it is, but a realistic one. This offers the answer to the second question. Why is Ukraine attracted to the European Union? Does not the European Union offer just such an option? Is not the economic prosperity and individual freedom—and room for national expression—found in the European Union obviously different from the offering of today’s Russia and the memory of the old empire? Is it not fear of the specter of the czars and commissars that haunts Ukrainians?

Was not the creation of the European Union once just such an impossible dream as a truly free and just Russian federation? For hundreds of years the fathers and mothers of the peoples of the European Union made war, large and small, upon each other, French against Germans, Germans against Austrians, Austrians against Poles, Poles against Germans, and round and round again. Today such wars among these same people are unthinkable.

Assembling such a federation takes time, patience, and skill. It may be too tempting for an impatient Putin to rely on his military muscle to make an empire. Perhaps for a brief time he could succeed by force to reassemble much of the old Soviet Union as a greater Russia. The greater challenge, the one that has proven impossible, is to hold such an empire together by force.

Such empire of force would very soon prove ungovernable, with rebellions large and small flaring up constantly. The brutality exerted to try to hold it all together would make the task of unity even harder and progress nigh impossible. It would drain away, once again, Russia’s strength in an unending effort, just as it eroded the strength of the USSR. Maintaining greater Russia by force has always proven a burden far greater than its worth, in the long run a losing effort that has collapsed in a weaker and vulnerable Russia. World War I was one example, the end of the Cold War yet another.

The people of Russia—along with its neighbors—can have a better and brighter future. A Russia built on individual freedom, free markets, free peoples, would unleash a new era of prosperity. Russia would become a beacon of wealth and success, with all Russians participating. Instead of Russians leaving to find their future, they would return to their homeland. If Japan can prosper on islands scarce in natural resources, imagine what free Russia could do, rich in resources, harnessed efficiently by the discipline of the markets.

Instead of an empire of force, a free and flourishing Russia would draw its neighbors to it as the European Union beckons to them today. No longer facing Russian fists, neighboring nations will come knocking at the door, eager to associate with Russia voluntarily, attracted by opportunities for betterment.

Of course, that is the theory. In practice, the more that Russia seeks the path of freedom and abandons the chimerical lure of military conquest, it will succeed. Russia would then achieve its real greatness in the world, the only way that it ever really could.

Of Incentives and Jobs

Remember the early days of the recession and its intensification by the policies of Washington? Remember how the politics of envy ended up causing more job losses as the demagogues in the White House and on Capitol Hill lambasted incentives employers offered to successful employees? Good thing that the politics of envy are now behind us, that we have all grown up and recognized how foolish it all is to feel better by pulling other people down. Then again, maybe my blog post from 2009 still has some relevance today.

Weird things happen when we decide by law who should have jobs and who should not and we order how people and businesses should spend money. I am not referring to the legality of telling people who receive money from the government how to live their lives and run their businesses. I am referring to the wisdom of it. And by “weird” I really mean “bad.”

On Friday a press release came across my desk, issued by seven travel-meeting-event industry trade associations. Their basic message was that the public beating up of companies over the meetings they hold and the incentive programs that they have for employees is killing the travel, tourism, and meeting industry and the people who work in it. They estimate that 200,000 jobs were lost in that industry in 2008, and a larger number of job losses are predicted for 2009.

Even the old communist governments figured out that workers respond to incentives. Under the power of incentives people work harder, smarter, and more creatively. They may even enjoy their work more. Sometimes incentives that take the employee out of the normal routine can be very powerful. If left to their own devices, businesses will experiment with different packages of incentives to guide their employees into the most efficient ways to accomplish company goals and objectives. Will they get it right? Often they will not. When they get it wrong, they try something else.

What is the best set of incentives, and should the incentives include travel and recreation programs? I do not know, and neither do you. No one has enough information, smarts, or involvement to know. You may know what works for you, but are you willing to say that others should be offered the same rewards or that you should be given the same incentive program designed by someone somewhere else or in some other line of work? Everyone meeting company goals gets a set of golf clubs. That may work fine for Harry, but how about for you?

While it may be lots of fun to rant about businesses sending employees to Florida for a weekend, do we have any idea how that might figure into the incentive programs in those businesses? If you take that option away, what other option will work as well or as efficiently? Again, I do not know, and neither do you.

Up until recently, I did not have to know or pretend to know. We left it for businesses and their employees to figure out. In view of the efficiency of our businesses–which efficiency continued to improve and lead the world even in 2008–American businesses have been getting the incentives much more right than wrong. When we decide to make those decisions for other people, especially when we try do so through government force, we can be pretty sure we will get it wrong. Who wants to explain to the 200,000 travel and tourism industry people who are in danger of losing their jobs why businesses should not be holding meetings in Williamsburg or San Antonio or Nashville? Step up now; a frozen turkey if you get it right.

(First published February 8, 2009)

Of Obama and Ethelred the Unready

As the troubled year of 2009 was approaching its final weeks I wrote a commentary, reprinted below, reflecting on how President Obama’s unreadiness for the job of President was endangering our soldiers abroad and weakening the economy at home. As we have witnessed a recovery that month after month remains so anemic that many Americans are not experiencing much of a recovery at all, as our retreat from world affairs encourages aggression by adventurers in Russia and elsewhere, and as the Obama Administration plans to return our Army to levels not seen since before World War II, it seemed to me appropriate to reprise my musings of November 2009. I also have to wonder whether the Nobel committee, which was so excited to award the peace prize to Barack Obama for promises to reduce American influence in world affairs, still considers its decision and the policy that it celebrated to have been wise and fortunate for the world.

Arguably the worst king of England was Ethelred the Unready. He was unready to rule his kingdom, he was unready to promote its prosperity, he was unready to repel the invader. The chief manifestation of his unreadiness was his inability or unwillingness to recognize reality. Reality eventually caught up with him—as it always does—and with his kingdom—as it always does for those subject to unready rulers.

The current President of the United States, Barack Obama, may be working hard to earn himself the title of Obama the Unready. The evidence is accumulating.

For months, the novice commander-in-chief has been at a loss to know how to respond to the urgent recommendations of the field commanders in Afghanistan. They have been pleading to increase the troop levels. The added troops are needed to respond to increased enemy activity. Unwilling to say yes or no, the President vacillates while American soldiers die because they are stretched too thin. He seems to have forgotten that American soldiers under President Clinton were similarly sacrificed in another poor corner of the world—Somalia—only because Clinton did not provide enough troops to do the job. Rather than decrease casualties, insufficient troop strength increases casualties, soldiers who would not die if given enough support to overwhelm the enemy. This week the White House announced that President Obama is still unready to decide on troop strengths for the mission in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Taliban is not waiting for him to make up his mind.

Also this week, President Obama gave a little speech about the economy. It was hard to miss the sense of frustration and perplexity in his remarks, made quickly as the Nobel laureate left town to seek more praise from his adoring foreign fans. He admitted that unemployment remains high, despite his economic program. He admitted that employers are reluctant to hire new people. He just does not seem to know why. His solution is to call a conference of economic talkers in December to talk about it. He remains unready to do something about his economic plans and government policies that are making it riskier for employers to take on more employees. Faced with half a trillion dollars in new taxes (many focused on small businesses), higher health care expenses from the trillion dollar “reform” program, new environmental plans to cool off the globe by cooling off economic growth, and dozens of other new plans to make it harder for businessmen to succeed, businessmen are reluctant to hire new people that they will later have to let go. All the while, the natural tendency for the economy to recover is weakened.

Consumer spending remains suppressed, while the Obama Administration and its friends in Congress pursue policies that make consumer credit more expensive and harder to get. Congress this year, with the Obama Administration cheering on, passed new credit card laws that make it difficult for lenders to have riskier borrowers pay higher rates. The result is that everyone gets to pay higher rates. Predictably, consumer credit declined by 15% in September and shows little sign of getting better. As we approach the holiday season, so important for the success of retailers, the Obama Administration and its Congressional allies are busily making it tougher for banks to run their debit card programs. Expect more debit cards denied at the checkout lines. Also expect the pace of store closures, already growing faster than swine flu, to continue to grow. Seen any empty storefronts at shopping centers lately? Be ready to see more, even as President Obama convenes his economic talk show in December.

Not to forget swine flu, the Obama Administration was eager all year to pump up the worry about a swine flu epidemic, in hopes that it might frighten people into supporting healthcare legislation. In the meantime, the Obama Administration’s health officials, who are heavily involved in development and distribution of vaccines (lawsuits that plague the medical industry have driven most vaccine manufacturers out of the business), were ready to promise but unready to deliver swine flu vaccine. Expect more of the same, of promises that do not meet actual needs as government becomes even more involved in regulating healthcare. Service and speed are what most people look for when they are sick, but service and speed are not what government programs are known to provide—any government program.

It should be no surprise that President Obama is not ready for the growing challenges of being President. Like Ethelred, Barack Obama had little training for the job. Governing has not gotten easier in the thousand years since Ethelred disgraced the throne of England. It is not getting any easier for Barack Obama. Fortunately for America, we do not invest all power in a king.

(First published on November 13, 2009)

Of Demagogues and Big Problems

One of the common tricks of demagogues, as cheap as it is common, is to denounce in high dander something for being “Big,”—“bad” because it is “Big.” Some of the recent targets have been Big Banks, Big Pharma (the drug companies), Big Oil, Big Insurance, and Big Business in general. The target is apparently chosen for its relation to the prescription that the demagogue already has in mind. Invariably the prescription involves granting more power to the demagogue, sometimes ceded from the freedoms of the targeted Big, but not infrequently taken from the liberty of the people who are somehow harmed by the Big, who are to be somehow made better by being less free.

Obamacare is one example, Big Insurance, Big Pharma, and Big Medicine all denounced to some degree in the effort to generate popular support to pass the legislation. In the end, as more and more people are recognizing, it is individual choice that has been lost, personal freedoms to choose doctors, medical plans, and available treatments (along with substantial sums of money) that have been taken, passed on to big bureaucracies identified by the demagogues.

Demagogues on left and right and even in the middle resort to this device of denouncing Big Bad, because it resonates with many people who do not consider themselves “Big” anything. We all can feel intimidated by something in our lives and experiences bigger than ourselves, making us all potentially susceptible to the demagogue’s pandering. It is also a favorite device of demagogues, because it does not require much thought or creativity to make the anti-Big speech. It seems almost required that the demagogue at some point refer to the Big Target as “Goliath” and modestly identify himself or herself with “David.” That tired jape is now getting to be about 3,000 years old, but demagogues think that their audiences just cannot get enough of it.

To be sure, there are some cases where being big is a good thing and some things that can be too big to be good. It all has to do with why they are big and perhaps how they got that way. Big savings are usually good. The Grand Canyon is big and magnificent, and I would say that the Empire StateBuilding is, too, at least as I behold it. On the other hand, big debts are to be avoided, big pits can be dangerous, and the L Tower in Toronto is an eyesore in my estimation (though I will acknowledge that others could be fond of it).

Government can be too big or too small, depending on what it does with our rights and freedoms. There are governments too small to promote and protect freedom, while there are many—most—that are too big, and ever increasing at the expense of individual rights, freedoms, and opportunities. That includes governments that are big enough to help their cronies become bigger by robbing the competition and the public. Businesses that are big because of government favor would be better for everyone if they lost the government favor and let competition, efficiency, and customer choices determine how big they should be.

Some are just big because they grew that way. Is Microsoft or Apple too big? I do not know, and neither do you. Exposed to the full discipline of the free market they will be the right size, and so will their competitors. What is the right size for banks in the United States? I do not know, and again neither do you nor does anyone else. The more that they are exposed to market forces, the sooner we will get the best answer, which I expect will be along the lines of “many sizes and shapes” in order to match the many sizes and shapes and needs of businesses, families, and individuals who rely on banks for financial services. Free competition in open markets has the power to right size commercial enterprises.

A word of caution. Part of the success of the war on Big consists in making the listeners feel small and helpless—unless rescued and led by the fearless demagogue. Besides belittling most people, the demagogue’s device diverts attention from the fact that just about everyone is part of something Big, a Big that may eventually be the demagogue’s next target. Maybe your church will one day be considered too “Big.” Or maybe the industry in which you happen to work will become a “Big” target, the town or region where you live, your race or your ethnic group, your savings and investments, the cars or trucks that you drive, your appetite, your use of water, the size of the lot of your house, the wealth of your nation. All of these, and many others, have already been used by demagogues in their Big harangues. The demagogue’s insatiable appetite for power never has enough targets. He or she is always looking for more.

Sometimes there is a kernel of something genuinely amiss in the demagogue’s Big complaint. Often, when you boil down the genuine substance of any of the complaints to the hard facts, it is hard to discover what is the Big Deal—at least in the problem. The Big Deal is to be found in the solution, which is what the demagogue is really after. Were the Popes in Rome really controlling the lives and governments of England in the time of Henry VIII? No, but the solution of confiscating Catholic Church properties and awarding them to the King’s cronies was a very Big Deal. The Nazi demagogues in Germany played the same game with their own people, the German Jews, and with their property and possessions.

The demagogue’s solutions, resting upon emotion and panic, seldom solve anything and often lead to more problems. The Climate Wars—one year the coming ice age, the next year global warming, today just climate “change”—is an example we have all seen unfold, inflicting untold billions of dollars of costs while enriching favored cronies, but which in even the most enthusiastic promises of the demagogues will do little to affect the climate in reality in our lifetimes.

The next time you hear a public figure fume about something being Big, carefully inquire into and focus upon what he or she is after. You may be a target just Big enough.

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)