Of Losers and Presidential Candidates

Blindfold

Photo Credit:  Oscar Keys

In the early Autumn of 2008, the presidential election was vying for attention with the onset of financial panic—the latter aggravated by the unwise policies of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who repeatedly spooked the markets and drove investors to the sidelines.  At that time I published a blog post about the Democrats’ nominee for president, Barack Obama, “Of Con Artists and Presidential Candidates”.  I refer to that not because I take pleasure in being right about the calamities that followed, but because we are faced yet again with the potential election of a con artist as President of the United States.  I am not sure that we can stand in the White House a consecutive fomenter of calamities, though I hold to my great confidence in the resilience of our Great Republic.  As with ancient Rome, it will take a lot for the barbarians to overrun civilization, but the process is terrible.  In the end, it was repeatedly bad government that gave the Goths, Huns, and Vandals the victory.

I need not catalog the list of Goths, Huns, and Vandals that civilization faces today, but it starts with radical Islam, and mullahs of Iran, the mentally-disturbed dictator in North Korea, and the current would-be czar of Russia.  Not a one of these should pose a serious threat to the survival of the United States, and not a one of them would have achieved the level of danger that it poses today, were it not for the bad leadership of our nation (little relieved by any appreciably better leadership among most of our allies).

Which returns me to con artists.  At least three of the prominent presidential candidates have built their campaigns on the effort to con the American voters.  For the most part, our popular media are buying and supporting it all, either for its good copy or for its entertainment value, hard to tell.  I refer to Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump.  The greatest, or worst, of these is Donald Trump.  Hillary wears so many masks, one wonders whether she even knows who she is.  Bernie is the foremost in promising trillions of dollars in government freebies that could never be delivered, since trying to do so would collapse the economy—you have to pay for that stuff somehow, and the dollars will not come from economic decline.  Donald Trump, like our current president, is a classic demagogue—the bane of democratic government—saying whatever he may to stimulate and feed upon the failures, fears, and frustrations of significant segments of voters.

Donald Trump offers no discernible philosophy of government beyond bluster and hubris.  From his personal history one can find that he thrives—when he thrives—by networking cronies, including government officials whose favor he courts to support his “business” plans.  Pretending to be an outsider, he has lived by being a consumate courtier, a classic insider.

Is he a conservative?  Then why do his ideas so often turn to big-government solutions?  Does he believe in the Constitution? Constitutional constraints would get in his way.  The unifying theme of his shoot-from-the-hip ideas is an action platform of presidential dictatorship, with anyone who opposes them or him labeled as enemies, losers, or idiots.  He surely feels like the kind of person our Constitution was written to protect us from.

While Donald Trump does not often mouth the word “change,” (perhaps because that would make his likeness to Obama too apparent) he is clearly offering the same “change” formula as candidate Obama served up in 2008.  Obama’s “change” in 2008 was really more of the same of the tried and failed tax-and-spend programs of government control over our lives.  Donald Trump pretends to something new, to change government, when in fact his plan is all government, and government controlled of, by, and for his cronies.  That was the same way he ran his businesses.  He offers you his business model as a model for government.  Do not take the deal.  We will all be losers.

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 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 Signs and Deception

It may seem immodest of me to point out how “insightful” was my posting, published at the very doorstep of the 2008 election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. I think I am in no danger, however, as the predictions were all too easy to make, the signs too clear then to justify special credit now. More significant, I believe, are how the lessons taught then apply as we enter another presidential election season. Give the greatest weight to what candidates do and what they have done, particularly when such evidence is distinctly at variance with what they say.

 

A well-known principle of propaganda is that if you are going to tell a lie, the bigger the lie the more believable it will be. Most people are so trusting that they do not want to believe in the enormity of a big lie. They do not want to believe that someone can intentionally say something appallingly false. Rather than disbelieve the liar, they will want to disbelieve the person who exposes the lie.

One of the biggest of lies is asserting something to be exactly the opposite of what it is. Such is the warmonger who claims to be the leading pacifist, the thief who claims to be the victim of theft—and accuses the real victim of being the criminal—or the bigoted radical who accuses opponents of intolerance.

In recent travels on the streets, roads, and highways I notice at this time of the year the beautiful Fall foliage—and the many political campaign signs. While for some there might be a distaste for seeing these, I feel to rejoice in the signs as evidence of a vigorous system of subjecting our political leaders to public vote.

Having said that, I do draw the line at the steady growth of the mega-yard and curb signs, the five-foot by eight-foot broadsides. So, already inclined to dislike such construction-size boards, I have been particularly disturbed to see what appears to be a planned series of Obama-Biden signs advocating policies that these two Washington insiders have long worked hard to oppose.

I have noticed three in this series. There may be others. The ones that I have seen show the names of the two candidates, followed by a motto reading something like, “Better Schools,” “Lower Taxes,” and “Energy Independence.”

If facts matter, and I believe that they still do (even if they are optional in the mass media), such messages on the signs of these two politicians should be jarring to the honest in heart. The political record of Obama and Biden are unequivocal on these three issues. They both have strongly and consistently opposed school reform, supporting doing more of the same old stuff that has been steadily undermining the quality of government-run schools since the 1960s.

Both have been leading advocates for raising taxes and opposing tax cuts. Even in the current campaign they advocate new tax hikes. They try to disguise their intentions with the assertion that their proposals supposedly would reduce taxes on 95% of Americans (including the 40% who pay little or no income taxes), while raising them on the rest. Either they failed with the simple math, or they hope that voters cannot or will not be able to apply simple math, but you cannot get enough taxes out of 5% to pay for genuine tax cuts for 95%. In fact, their proposals are just another camouflage for the old tried and failed policies of tax and spend. Not only does that always put more power into the hands of the politicos who take and then redistribute, but it is a highly dangerous thing to do in the teeth of an economic downturn. Taxes fall on income and investment, and whatever you tax you get less of. Now is not the time for less income and investment.

And as for energy independence, both Obama and Biden support programs that will yield little and have yielded very little new energy—at very high expense in government subsidies—while staunchly opposing expanded use of the energy resources that are abundant in the United States, particularly oil, coal, and nuclear energy. Independence seems to me to increase reliance on your own resources. Obama and Biden are consistent supporters of policies that keep U.S. energy resources under lock and key.

This should not be surprising from two candidates who campaign on change while advocating the oldest political formula in the history of government, that government knows best, that decisions about spending, whether for health, education, or job creation, are best made by power brokers in the halls of Washington power centers, rather than by families in their homes. Calling that change may be the biggest lie of all.

(First published November 2, 2008)

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.