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.