American history between the Revolution and the approach of the Civil War, was dominated by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Background rumbling was from the French Revolution. The War of 1812 was merely an embarrassment.
American banking was invented in Philadelphia. The banking center of America has moved away and changed in extraordinary ways but the foundations remain.
Sociology: Philadelphia and the Quaker Colonies
The early Philadelphia had many faces, its people were varied and interesting; its history turbulent and of lasting importance.
Philadelphia: Decline and Fall (1900-2060)
The world's richest industrial city in 1900, was defeated and dejected by 1950. Why? Digby Baltzell blamed it on the Quakers. Others blame the Erie Canal, and Andrew Jackson, or maybe Martin van Buren. Some say the city-county consolidation of 1858. Others blame the unions. We rather favor the decline of family business and the rise of the modern corporation in its place.
Worldwide Common Currency and Corporate Headquarters
The Death of Money
A New Era in Politics: Clinton, Obama, and Trump
New forms of communication made the party system largely obsolete.
Dislocations: Financial and Fundamental
Sudden wealth creation, whether from the discovery of gold or oil, the conversion of poverty into useful cheap labor, or the sudden abundance of cheap credit, is of course a good thing. Sudden wealth creation can be compared with a stone thrown into a pond, causing a splash, and ripples, but leaving a somewhat higher water level after things calm down. The globalization of trade and finance in the past fifty years has caused 150 such disturbances, mostly confined to a primitive developing country and its neighbors. Only the 2007 disruption has been large enough to upset the biggest economies. It remains to be seen whether a disorder to the whole world will result in a revised world monetary arrangement. One hopes so, but national currencies, tightly controlled by local governments, have been successful in the past in confining the damage. This time, the challenge is to breach the dikes somewhat, without letting destructive tidal waves sweep past them. Many will resist this idea, claiming instead it would be better to have higher dikes.
It is the suddenness of new wealth creation in a particular region which upsets existing currency arrangements. Large economies "float" their currencies in response to the fluxes of trade, smaller economies can be permitted to "peg" their currencies to larger ones, with only infrequent readjustments. Even the floating nations "cheat" a little, in response to the political needs of the governing party, or, to stimulate and depress their economies as locally thought best. All politicians in all countries, therefore, fear a strictly honest floating system, and their negotiations about revising the present system will surely be guilty of finding loopholes for each other; the search for flexible floating will, therefore, claim to seek an arrangement which is "workable".
In thousands of years of governments, they have invariably sought ways to substitute inflated currency for unpopular taxes. The heart of any international payment system is to find ways to resist local inflation strategies. Aside from using gunboats, only two methods have proven successful. The most time-honored is to link currencies to gold or other precious substances, which has the main handicap of inflexibility in response to economic fluctuations. After breaking the link to gold in 1971, central banks regulated the supply of national currency in response to national inflation, so-called "inflation targeting". It worked far better than many feared, apparently allowing twenty years without a recession. It remains to be investigated whether the substitution of foreign currency defeated the system, and therefore whether the system can be repaired by improving the precision of universal floating, or tightening the obedience to targets, or both. These mildest of measures involve a certain surrender of national sovereignty; stronger methods would require even more draconian external force. The worse it gets, the more likely it could be enforced only by military threat. Even the Roman Empire required gold and precious metals to enforce a world currency. The use of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) implies attempts to dominate the politics of the IMF. So it comes to the same thing: this crisis will have to get a lot worse, maybe with some rioting and revolutions, before we can expect anything more satisfactory than a rickety negotiated international arrangement, riddled with embarrassing "earmarks". Economic recovery will be slow and gradual unless this arrangement is better, or social upheavals worse, that would presently appear likely.
|Prime Minister Gordon Brown|
WITH voters watching three weeks before the 2008 American presidential election day, finance ministers and their political masters met to decide a basic question: dare they risk disaster to save the existing system, or play it safe by sacrificing small banks to rescue big ones? That is, guess if the situation is so bad only strong rowers can be allowed in the lifeboat, or whether things are really manageable enough to try to save everybody but at the risk of worse consequences for failure. For example the credit default swap mystery; there are $60 trillion notional value insurance policies in existence to cover $20 trillion of bonds. Is that massive double-counting, or an actual disaster so severe it makes every other consideration trivial? Answer quick, please, the ship looks like it might sink. At first, it seemed strange a Labor government in England would propose saving only the strong until you realize that Prime Minister Brown is protected from his Left, while the Democrats in America want to use a fairness argument to win their election. A Republican lame-duck president must do the deciding, a man who has been shown to be both a tough politician and a fearless gambler; playing things safe is not his style. The Dow Jones average soared a thousand points in a day's trading on the prayer that things were finally under control. But take a look around.
On the other hand, little Hungary has a negligible banking system, so Hungarians commonly borrow money from foreign banks. The national currency devalued by half in this crisis, so most Hungarian mortgages doubled in price. Reserve systems based on national governments suddenly look obsolete.
Try another approach. Little Ireland went ahead and guaranteed all deposits in its financial institutions. Money from England and the rest of Europe immediately poured in to enjoy that guarantee, forcing other grumpy nations to match the unwise Irish offer. There's a sense that nations are losing control of their affairs.
Europe consists of 27 nations, of which fifteen are in the Euro zone. There are common currency and a constrained central bank, but can this gaggle of geese possibly agree on concerted action in this crisis? America was once in this situation under the Articles of Confederation, but even after almost losing the Revolutionary War, George Washington was nearly unable to get the colonies to form a union. Even after this experience, the Southern Confederate States later adopted the same system of a central currency without a central government and really did lose their war.
Are we to infer from Prime Minister Brown's attitude toward banks that he might soon suggest ditching little nations in order to save bigger ones?
Let's begin this discussion of international finance by relating the story of how the United States solved the same problem in 1913. This wasn't a ho-hum bit of history, it set the pattern the world is now about to adopt or reject. Remember, our current lame duck President comes from Texas.
|Federal Reserve Building|
In 1913, the Federal Reserve system was created. It had various purposes, but it essentially stripped the state governments of the ability to adjust interest rates and placed that power in Washington DC. The appointment process to the Fed board was tinkered with to achieve as much independence from politics as possible, although it was unrealistic to think politics would be totally excluded. Politicians never give up power voluntarily, but in this case, they also escaped blame for the unpleasant things a central bank is occasionally called on to do, so it was a deal. The remaining uncertainty thus became the question of whether the states would yield to federal authority on interest rates, something they had consistently resisted ever since the Constitution was ratified. The first resister was Texas.
|Franklin D. Roosevelt|
It suited the Texas economy to have lower interest rates than other states, but the fledgling Federal Reserve decreed that the nation as a whole needed higher rates. In a fairly typical Texas style, Texas just lowered rates anyway. Almost immediately, nobody would deposit money in Texas banks, who were flooded with requests for loans from the rest of the country. That situation couldn't last more than a few days, so Texas capitulated, and no state has defied the Federal Reserve since then. In this little story lies the hope that a similar international banking arrangement can be devised, and announced shortly after November 15. That would probably put George W. Bush in a class with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in the history books, his current low popularity not withstanding. For that reason alone, there is cause for concern about the newly elected incoming President. The worrisome historical model at this level lies in the refusal of newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt to cooperate with the lame duck Herbert Hoover during a similar economic crisis of 1933. On the level of "practical" politics, Roosevelt got away with this deplorable behavior, by enacting many of Hoover's proposals six months later and taking full credit. The country was much worse off as a result, but Roosevelt nevertheless seems to have achieved enduring historical praise for his imaginative ideas. This time, one would hope that fear of the blogosphere, the London Economist and the Wall Street Journal would make such behavior politically unprofitable for either Obama or the maverick McCain. But you never know.
Now, to return to the present crisis. In a sense, every type of financial institution from banks to hedge funds, every nation from America to Zimbabwe, and every expert from Hank Paulson to Barney Frank -- has been tested, and occasionally failed quite visibly. People are scared, have every reason to be. But on the other hand, sound reasoning will never defeat politics and financial greed, except in a rare crisis containing obvious general danger. So, this mess represents an opportunity for the think tanks to be given a chance at leadership, just as John Maynard Keynes was listened to respectfully at Breton Woods in 1944. It was just about the last time a guru got his way without the use of financial power or an overwhelming voter mandate. As Franklin Roosevelt is reported to have said, "I don't understand a word the man says, but we must do something."
Let's use a few examples out of a great many available. Ireland issued a guarantee for all the deposits in its banks. Immediately, money poured into Irish banks from British depositors, unsettling the British banking system. So the United Kingdom had to issue the same guarantee, and then other nations followed. America rescued Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, and AIG, and finally called a halt at Lehman Brothers. Other nations copied this approach of rescuing institutions in trouble until the Bank of England copied the Swedish approach of 1991 of reversing this approach. If you are in a sinking lifeboat, you want to rescue the best rowers, not the weakest. But there are some small countries with big banks, like Switzerland and Iceland, where it would be impossible for a small government to rescue a huge international bank within its borders. Conversely, the Eastern European countries have essentially no local banks. In the case of Hungary, most home mortgages were held in Austrian and Swiss banks. When the flow of funds forced a devaluation of the local currency, the cost of almost every mortgage in Hungary doubled, and the national government could do nothing about it.
Let's mention what may well be the largest such factor in this international banking game, the so-called Japanese carry trade. When the overheated Japanese stock market collapsed fifteen years ago, the Ministry of Finance responded by lowering interest rates to one or two percent. Taking into account the inflation rate, Japanese banks were paying the borrower to take their money. So, the international banking community promptly responded by borrowing money in Japan at 2% and lending it out in Germany at 8%. Amounts of money in the trillions churned through this money machine. An unknowable but large amount of this money originated in China, which was trying to prevent its surpluses from provoking a revolution with inflation. The Japanese carry trade is at an end except in reverse, as money is flowing back to the now seemingly safe Japanese economy. Perhaps even a casual reader can look up from the World Series and the presidential election, to realize that absolutely everybody is scared, and possibly scared enough to do something cooperatively. It means loss of national power and sovereignty for everybody, a reconsideration of the European Common Market, and setting aside any disruptive schemes to discipline Premier Putin's behavior as a hidden by-product. As Frank Roosevelt said, we don't understand a word of it, but we must do something.
|The World Bank Logo|
Among the small practical ideas advanced, one of the most promising is to persuade the Chinese government to float its currency. We have historically tolerated small primitive countries when they try to struggle out of poverty by artificially cheapening their currency. In China's case, and before that in Japan's, cheapening the currency in order to stimulate exports has been politely referred to as "pegging the currency to the dollar". Pegging it low, that is. But Japan and China are no longer barefoot and aspire to become important figures in international finance. China is said to resist this proposal on the grounds that it needs 7% annual growth to prevent social unrest leading to a revolution. To some extent, this is probably just bargaining talks, and the counter-proposal offered is to strengthen Oriental power within the International Monetary Fund, as part of the process of increasing the power of the now-indolent IMF. We will have to wait for November 15 to see if clever little schemes like this one will suffice for the purpose. Much depends on China's willingness to cooperate, but even more, depends on the validity of blaming present messes on currency manipulation for the purpose of mercantilism. Beggar thy neighbor behavior has certainly been common; the question is whether it was the main cause.
If all those think tanks led by the Bank of England, have found the stone whose removal will start a benevolent avalanche, a second Breton Woods conference might just get us out of the soup; within two years we should be pleased with the way our cleverness restored the world to prosperity. If not, more grandiose ideas must be desperately considered. Europe must abandon all those silly five-hundred-page constitutions and form a national union. In our own case, that worked for eighty years and then we had a civil war, but even a repetition of all that sounds better than what we now face. If Europe simply cannot seize the moment, it is very likely to retreat into insignificance. Under those changed circumstances, the world economy will amount to three nations: China, India and the USA. We have yet to learn whether the Chinese and particularly the Indian governments can summon up enough domestic leadership to deserve a place in international leadership. And that presently is far from certain.
Banking is a comparatively recent invention; in its present form, it's only a couple of centuries old. Paper certificates circulated as money, representing precious metals like gold and silver in the bank vaults, eventually concentrated in Fort Knox as Federal Reserves. When the economy grew faster than the supply of gold, silver was also monetized, then diluted by only partial reserving. Finally a couple of decades ago we abandoned precious metal reserving entirely, and resorted to partial reserving leveraged to a virtual concept known as Federal Reserves whose quantity depended on the behavior of American inflation. Almost the whole world soon depended on the American Federal Reserve to stand behind its virtual dollars, formerly redeemable in gold or silver, but now based on inflation targeting. That is, the Fed sets a target of something like 2% inflation a year, and either absorbs currency or floods the world with currency, sufficient to maintain a steady match to the target. It's a little uncomfortable to see the standard of measurement shifting, from inflation as most people understand it, to "core" inflation, which subtracts the cost of food and oil. Especially oil. It's additionally disquieting to realize that the Fed is dependent on its own computers, reading other people's computers, all subject to the frailties of computers. to determine the degree of match to the target. We sort of got into this fix because the supply of precious metals was inelastic; perhaps the present expedient could become a little too elastic because it is so heavily dependent on vast streams of computerized information. Garbage in, garbage out?
|Federal Reserve Bank|
Meanwhile, banks simply had to surrender to the obvious efficiencies of using electronic stored-program calculators. Paper checks, canceled checks, and bank tellers are consequently disappearing. Banks themselves are disappearing, as anyone can see by looking at the abandoned stone tombs on America's main streets. At the moment, the process is one of concentration of smaller banks into bigger ones; eventually, there will be some kind of transformation of the way they conduct business to a point where banking could effectively disappear. Who needs banks, anyway? One significant answer to that question is that, the Federal Reserve Bank needs them. And the rest of us need the Federal Reserve because that's how the value of money is determined nowadays.
Customers, however, don't need banks for deposits; money market funds pay higher interest rates. There's no need for banks to provide loans; credit cards do that for small borrowers, while big borrowers float bonds through an investment banker. Bank vaults may be useful to store grandmother's pearl necklace, but no one needs vaults to store securities, which are now mainly held as bookkeeping entries in "street" name. People used banks for the origination of mortgages, but other institutions could serve as well. Anyway, home mortgage origination is what broke down in August 2007, when banks eluded Federal Reserve lending constraints by selling mortgages to subsidiary corporations they often owned. To repeat, we need banks because the Federal Reserve needs banks to control the currency, through regulating loan volume, which is achieved by regulating the number of reserves that banks are required to maintain. Reflect on how that matters to currency.
Before a bank makes a loan, only the depositor owns the money in question. After a loan is made, two people have a claim on the money, the borrower and the depositor. Although there is a fine distinction between money and credit, between money and liquidity, the real point is that making a loan effectively doubles the money. If a bank is then only required to keep half of its total loan volume in reserve, the money in circulation is multiplied four times what it was, and so on. Loan volume is also controlled by its scarcity value, which is indirectly affected by setting short-term interest rates. Unfortunately, cheaper money is worthless -- the dollar goes down in relation to the currency of the rest of the world. There are probably other ways which could be devised to control the currency, but a time of frozen credit markets is a dangerous time to consider radical changes in the currency. If the Fed is forced to make such changes, they had better be correct.
It's unfortunately also true that radical changes can only be made when people are scared stiff by a crisis. Is it entirely out of the question that we may soon need to scrap the Federal Reserve system? Just think back to the bitterness when Hamilton and Jefferson, later followed by Biddle and Jackson, fought about whether central banks were necessary at all. Or, more recently in 1913, when Wall Street and the Progressive movement fought about whether there was a need to create a Federal Reserve. Disputes about financial matters have been at the core of most political party disputes, since the founding of the Republic. Decisions made in the past have not always been the right ones. Nevertheless, since the banks anyway appear to be on a long slow slope to extinction as a result of the computers that briefly made them prosperous, maybe we should revise the way the Federal Reserve controls currency. Without the Fed to defend them, banks' prospects look bleak.
|The honking of the Horn|
The Internet has made computing power ubiquitous. No longer need individuals to be at the mercy of institutions with whom they do business. However, new habits are hard to learn, so individuals still hesitate to challenge institutions. Sophisticated but inexpensive software from companies like Intuit nevertheless makes it nearly effortless for humble customers to have every bill and transaction cross-checked for them, and actually, in the resulting arguments. Its high time balance was restored because computers do send out lots of errors which have the effect of creating or destroying wealth. Indeed, much of the current credit muddle grows out of abbreviated records systems, organized for the convenience of only one party in a transaction. The transaction system would be streamlined, not hampered, by more adversary challenge and cross-verification at the level of individual items rather than merely cross-footing the totals. Indeed, add the filtering of information by third-party intermediaries, plus monitoring by regulators, and a need for some defined fault-tolerance emerges from the hopeless complexity. We must restructure relationships to ensure that small errors are trapped and isolated, not allowed to aggregate to a point where a mysterious failure of the books to balance can bring enormous systems to a halt. In this article, we mention the vulnerability of banks, financial derivatives, the Federal Reserve system, and the health insurance system. If everything worrisome went wrong at once, it could be quite a mess.
For the opening example, this article was written two days after the author discovered a sizable error in his stock brokerage reporting. It was in my favor, else I might sound less relaxed. Even so, the condescending stone-walling encountered was a powerful warning, since at the end of the day it proved to be entirely the fault of a software vendor for several brokerage houses. A few decades ago, a housewife would have been in a stronger position with her department store billing department because it was effective to refuse to pay the bill. Just try that today: the current practice of employing vendors to handle merchant billing soon separates the dispute from the circumstances of it. That's an underlying difficulty with all third-party arrangements; expedients selected to avoid a problem often make matters even more frustrating for the defenseless counterparty, who eventually longs for government intervention.
To a certain extent, customers have been forced to agree to this situation voluntarily, because of the mind-boggling complexity or greater cost of not agreeing. Until about fifteen years ago, it was conventional to place engraved stock certificates in a safe deposit box. Dividends were received as paper checks, endorsed and deposited in a bank. The bank microfilmed the checks, the customer could photocopy them.
Power was then reasonably symmetrical, arms-length and simple in concept even if overall it was an expensive, inefficient transaction. A mountain of receipts, a quarterly blizzard of mail. At tax time, an error-prone chore to manage the papers. So, in response to the gentle suggestions of tax accountants, it seemed heaven-sent to take certificates out of bank vaults and place them in "street name" with a broker. Tax time condensed to attaching a single piece of paper, the Form 1099, to the tax form. Instead of calling a broker and asking, "How's the market?" people now go to his website and review how a whole portfolio is performing, hour by hour. The efficiency gain is enormous; the transaction cost reduces at least 90%. But then -- you discover seven-figure errors can be created by an invisible computer programmer, initially denied as impossible and then defended with a blizzard of words. Worse still, the error did not come from an employee of the broker, it came from an employee of his software vendor in another city. The error did not surface in the brokerage house records, but in what was transmitted to a second software company a continent away, whose phone is answered in India. Two questions arise: what would have been the predicament if the error had been against me instead of in my favor? And secondly, what might have happened next if the misinformation about my imaginary windfall had been sent, not to a software house, but to the Internal Revenue Service as a Form 1099?
Now think of another order of magnitude. Instead of a housewife coping with the department store bill, replace her with a million brokers, a million investment bankers, a million electronic exchanges, and regulators, and tax collectors. Just one quantitative trader is known to handle ten thousand transactions an hour. Since transactions are global, a zillion foreign counterparties get orders for a zillion transactions. Underneath all this, a magnified error can emerge from one software vendor placing unwarranted faith in one programmer trainee, in a hurry to get home for dinner.
In 1789 while arguing for the establishment of a National Bank, Alexander Hamilton made one of the most famous counter-intuitive assertions of his controversial career. "A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing".
The very suggestion of such an idea enraged Thomas Jefferson and his Calvinist adviser, Albert Gallatin. James Madison, ever the political schemer, immediately recognized a new bargaining chip in his move to relocate the national capital to Virginia. Political parties were promptly invented to mobilize votes on both sides, and the national bank remained a divisive issue for half a century afterward. Neither a borrower nor a lender is; how could anyone, then or now, say the debt was a blessing?
Indeed, that's evidently how the leaders of Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, China, and several other prosperous states still feel about it. While not eliminating taxes, these countries accumulated surpluses and created sovereign-wealth funds. Having paid off the national debt, and still finding a national surplus, what else are you going to do with it?
These countries hired investment advisers to buy stock for the funds, evidently feeling American stocks were the safest bet; it's hard to criticize that conclusion. In the present credit crunch, they are investing five and ten billion per transaction in the equity of America's premier investment banks. So far, they only acquire 5 or 10 percent ownership, but then the credit crisis may not be over yet. For them eventually to acquire 51% controlling ownership somewhere is not at all inconceivable. An ominous sign of where that might lead is found in our own captive pension funds. The state employee pension funds have quickly become captive to unions with their own agenda, with the result that the prosperity of the companies in the portfolio could be sacrificed to the benefit of interest groups. And yet, it wouldn't be so hard for America to do the same thing. If Congress had adopted the Bush proposal of three years ago to create an investment fund for Social Security, we ourselves would soon have what amounts to the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. Could this be a solution to the weakness of the Federal Reserve in controlling the currency with bank debt? Could we somehow create a common world currency based on a common fund of sovereign wealth funds and with that, create a new definition of wealth based on equity rather than debt? The technical answer to the potential corruption issue would probably lie in stripping the voting power from such shares and then submerging them in a world index fund. The United Nations sound of it nevertheless still boggles the mind. Are people who oppose an equity-based world currency going to be forced like Gallatin to eat their own dusty words when the reality of debt-based currency sinks in? How many of the ambassadors of ideas about such suggestions, both pro, and con, would eventually surface as sneaky connivers like Madison, with a hidden side-agenda? After all, in a democracy, everyone is expected to marshal every argument, weak or strong, for his own self-interest.
The loss of banks as a tool for the Federal Reserve would undermine the way the Fed does its job. A deeper reality is that many governments really don't want the job to be done perfectly and independently. The European common currency, the Euro, is already irking the French and other national governments who sometimes hanker to inflate away their debts or deflate their way out of the subsequent inflation. A perfectly automatic currency regulation threatens an important ingredient of the sovereignty of nations, thus the whole concept of nationhood. Somehow, the desire of markets to enhance wealth must come to terms with the desire of governments to re-elect themselves.
It will take more than the present crisis to provide credibility for ideas as wild as substituting equity-based currency for the present debt-based one. Unless someone devises a better-sounding scheme, it seems more likely that financial Jacobins will propose sacrificing the unwelcome intruder. Derivatives, whatever that means, started this mess. Maybe we should make them illegal.
Creative destruction seemed a violent driver for the past two centuries, injuring a lot of harmless occupations and provoking their resistance to progress. The Industrial Revolution was bad enough, arousing Engels and Marx. But the computer revolution works faster, putting the pedal to the floorboard in a lot of ways, changing almost every life in some way, only faster. We could be approaching a violent second Luddite reaction if we don't keep our heads.
The legitimate complaint about the electronics revolution is that it is going in the right direction, but exceeding a reasonable speed limit. Elegant novelties that function smoothly deceive us into expecting perfection too soon, developing a habit of depending on innovations which are still a little shaky. But the banking industry, which presently bemoans securitized mortgages, swaps, and other products of the computer age, could not possibly have coped with the vast expansion of bank transactions without computer assistance. Computerized fraud is a problem, but street crime has markedly declined in response to ubiquitous cell phones in the pocket of every innocent bystander. The press is vexed by Internet competitors and bloggers by the million, but democracy is the better for it. Sometimes a simple solution will solve a problem created by computers, but to a major degree, only computers can get us out of the fix we are in.
For example, it seems plausible that the flaw in securitized mortgages lies in the inevitable loss of diligence by banks who originate mortgages with full knowledge that they will immediately be sold. Requiring an originating bank to retain 10% of the mortgage permanently would also force it to maintain an accurate tracking system for the other 90%, providing analysts a way to assess the performance of the originator, and regulators a way to control the volume. Maybe a simple rule like that would suffice, but if not the solution would probably consist of a massive computer programming effort to maintain records in excruciating detail.
It's probably true that five years ago hardly any bank president could have offered a simple coherent explanation of what a derivative is, and it is certainly true that's the case for 99% of the population today. But that is the worst possible reason to destroy derivatives, which offer a breath-taking advantage in scale and diversification, and ultimately in risk abatement. Bundling thousands of mortgages leads to a much more precise estimation of the risk of the bundle than a banker could make of a single mortgage. If you know the risk with precision, the assessment of risk will be more accurate and almost certainly cheaper. There will be, there must be dislocations of prices as one system morphs into another. Temporary halts and moratoriums are justified, but demagoguery and Luddite riots are pitiful harmful responses. Politicians up for election are a menace in any crisis, where they come in various guises. There's giggling while the heads roll. There's also Charles de Gaulle, purring that he wanted to go to Heaven, he just was in no particular hurry to get there.
|Charles de Gaulle|
But let's be careful of our slogans, here. It certainly is preposterous to say that anything which is poorly understood must be a villain. It's also unwise to be drawn into a swamp. The banking industry faces dissolution if they can't keep up with electronic advances in their industry, so it is inevitable that speeding up wrong approaches will only make some parts of the credit crunch worse. Most of the cost-effectiveness of computers in the past have grown out of revising and replacing old methods, not from speeding up dumb ones. For example, if you want to know why health insurance is so expensive and cumbersome, you need only ask why it is so profitable. Once the huge investment in computerizing a system has been made, replacing it with a better system gets to be nearly impossible.
Ultimately, our present dilemma is this: we don't yet know how bad the problem is. It seems a reasonable possibility that this crunch happened just in time. Bad, it is true, but not yet catastrophic. If 3% or even as much as 10% of mortgages are foreclosed, the present system can absorb the loss, learn its lessons, and move on. A loss of a hundred billion dollars would probably lead to business more or less as usual. A loss of four hundred billion would however probably imply a serious recession, but when you start talking trillions, you are talking disaster. Most of the immediate uncertainty arises from ARM, the adjustable rate mortgages, and the degree of leverage in the debts of financial intermediaries. It's quite uncertain how many people took out mortgages they will not be able to afford at higher future rates of interest, or how many people took advantage of low rates for five years knowing they were planning to sell and move on during that interval, anyway. With regard to business loans, a mild drop in the economy will make it hard for businesses to cover highly leveraged loans. A huge drop will make it impossible for many businesses to survive, and they won't. A trillion-dollar aggregate loss would certainly provoke some welcome bipartisanship in Congress, but it might trigger a collapse of the Chinese economy or other unthinkable contingencies. Forcing more transparency into the present murk is the most urgent need, and that might well imply a concerted crash electronic analysis effort, with the way opened by some enabling legislation. Speeding up is only a good thing if you are headed in the right direction.
The Northeast portion of America is cold; most of its public concern traces back to high prices for fuel oil. The Southwest, however, is warm and more concerned with house prices and mortgages. Air conditioning has been the main source of the South's revival. This geographic split in attention will have a powerful effect on politicians in an election year. We can only hope the ambivalence cancels out and restrains legislative action until it is at least clear what the extent of the damage is. Meanwhile, don't do something, just stand there. A central question is whether there are too many houses in California, or too few. For decades, Westward migration outpaced housing construction, so California house prices have long been too high, mortgage lending too "innovative". While it is natural for western builders to feel there are now too many houses for sale in California, a case can be made that present noises are merely squawks as house prices settle to more reasonable levels. With luck, the West may just ride it out. But after adjustment for current emigration, an excessive number of housing units per capita might just warrant paradoxical solutions for California. Empty houses usually breed slums, that's pretty simple. But please, could someone explain securitized mortgages?
Other sorts of people should be pondering where the long slow decline of banks is going to lead. It makes a difference whether regular banking and investment banking will merge -- or have a collision. Much will depend on how well the two industries manage their massive computer systems; the heavy reliance of commercial banks on software vendors (rather than doing their own programming) is not an encouraging sign. The person who can fix their problems lives in India. Something is going to have to change in the way the Federal Reserve manages the money supply if money is largely borrowed abroad. Commercial lending migrates toward non-bank sources and eventually deprives the Fed of useful tools. Commercial banks, investment banks, and the Federal Reserve all have different sorts of risk. But when a complex system is placed under stress, it is the weakest link in the chain at that moment which breaks.
Happy New Year, every one.
The Internet provides new blessings, but new problems as well. Identity theft has now ballooned from a rarity to a fairly serious issue. After initial turf confusion, the issue has been assigned to the U.S. Secret Service. If it happens to you, that's where you make your anguished call. (1-877-ID-THEFT) or www.consumer.gov/idtheft
There's a certain logic to regarding identity theft as a modern form of counterfeiting, which has been with us since the days of William Penn. Shirley Vaias, representing the Philadelphia regional Secret Service, recently addressed The Right Angle Club of Philadelphia on the topic. It makes sense to learn the Service is headquartered on Independence Mall, across from the Mint. The crude forms of printing in the 18th Century made counterfeiting easy, and ever since the early days, there's been a race between improvements in technology and improvement in counterfeiting. We now have a paper with little red fibers in it, watermarks, serial numbers, color-shifting inks, microprinting of secret messages in the portraits, special magnetic strips, and probably lots of other clever things we aren't told about. The Bureau of Printing and Engraving is changing the currency, one bill at a time, and recently there was a new ten-dollar bill. A counterfeit version was in circulation within six hours.
ATM machines are equipped with counterfeit-recognition devices, and special gadgets are provided for banks and retail stores, but one detection device traditionally catches most fake bills. After handling huge amounts of currency, bank tellers catch a counterfeit just by the feel of the paper. Color photocopiers are getting better and cheaper, but of course, they can't change the serial numbers, so they aren't as smart as they seem. About one-hundredth of one percent of the currency in circulation appears to be fake, so you are pretty safe, but the possessor of a bad bill is deemed to be the one out of luck. The consequence is that many citizens suspect a bad bill, take it to a bank and have it instantly confiscated without recourse. That would seem to discourage reporting a counterfeit, encourage passing it off to an unsuspecting friend, and overall seems terribly unfair; but it results from the wisdom of the ages. Experience shows honest citizens are indeed tempted to try to pass the money on. While the banks don't enjoy being policemen, the effect is that counterfeits will circulate until they hit a bank, and thus confiscation is fairly comprehensive.
As the printing of money gets more complicated, the special presses needed to produce good money has become a monopoly of certain German companies, who sell the machines to other countries. Some of the American presses thus got into the hands of some Russians, who sold them to the North Koreans. So for a while at least, the North Korean government was printing American currency. It provoked vigorous countermeasures, the nature of which is confidential.
A bill of any denomination costs the government about half a cent to produce and lasts about four years in circulation. When tons of old bills are retired from circulation, the serial numbers are recycled; to an outsider, that sounds like an impossibly tedious job, but they say they do it. There's also the issue of seignorage, a term for the profit the government makes when the paper currency gets destroyed in one way or another, costing less than a cent to replace. Just how profitable the currency business is, cannot be accurately determined, because a lot of it is buried or hidden in mattresses and might someday resurface. But there is a substantial profit, which like any shrewd businessman, the government weighs against the cost of detection. Bail bonds and casinos are big sources of bad money, as could be readily imagined, and hence it is in their interest to get pretty sophisticated (and extremely unpleasant) about detection. On balance, however, it can be expected that legalized gambling in Philadelphia will promote more counterfeiting in the local economy, and hence is an offsetting cost of the tax revenue.
Over the centuries, governments have learned how to cope with counterfeiting, and there is actually much less of it than a century ago. You win some and you lose some; life just goes on. With internet identity theft, however, the criminals are developing techniques faster than governments have learned to combat them, and it is governments who struggle to catch up. Unfortunately, everybody takes a business-like approach to the matter, asking whether the precautions cost more or less than the losses. It would seem that if money continues its migration from paper currency to bookkeeping entries, it will eventually seem unsatisfactory for only one party in a transaction, a bank let us say, to keep the books while the public simply trusts them. Eventually, each individual will be forced to seek the protection of some sort of computerized system keeping the counter-parties honest, on behalf of the public, and to prevent a paralysis of commerce. Identity theft is getting expensive enough to warrant the effort.
Just how to do all that is not too clear. So, in the meantime, just let the Secret Service figure it out.
On St. Patrick's Day, 2008, Bear Stearns became insolvent and was given to J P Morgan. The Federal Reserve assumed all risks. Effectively, the fifth largest investment bank in America was nationalized for $2 a share, because no private bank would buy it at any price. A year earlier it was worth $170 a share, even one trading day earlier it sold for $26.
At the heart of this catastrophe were "repo's", or repurchase agreements. (They should not be confused with repossessions of cars and other hard goods bought on time, which are also called repo's.) Although most people had never heard of the high-finance version of repo's, the volume of these instruments had grown to $5 trillion by January 2005, presumably even several times larger than that when they caused the nationalization of Bear Stearns. Newsmedia accounts offered the guess that 16% of the resources of the whole financial sector were caught in open repo's when the music stopped. Repo's must be awfully good, or awfully bad.
They were both of these things at once. Like so many innovations in the post-computer era, they offered a major cost saving to an inefficient transaction system but were so successful they overwhelmed the institutions which flocked to their reduced cost. The unanticipated difficulties might have been imagined, but they were not adequately guarded against. Essentially, these loans limited exposure to a few days, a feature that made them appear quite safe. Unfortunately, tons of these loans could expire simultaneously if a rumor got started and everyone held off using them for a week. With a run on a bank, at least people have to take action to withdraw their money; but with these things, simple inaction quickly led to massive cash shortages at the bank. Speeding up the loan process had made it cheaper, but made it vulnerable.
Consider the inefficient complexities of a bank loan. The bank wants collateral, perhaps 80% of the value of the loan. The ability of the borrower must be investigated, a clear title assured, and papers arranged for transfer in case of defaulted collateral. Lawyers must organize the agreements, and it all takes time, costs money. To go through all this for a one-week loan for anything less than huge transactions is simply not practical. So the idea was devised to sell the collateral to the lender at a discount, together with a repurchase agreement to buy it back at full price. For safety sake, the discount could be greater than the interest cost, and part of it returned if all went well. The collateral could be held by a third party, who essentially guaranteed the details while the collateral itself never moved. Bear Stearns had perfected these variations at such favorable prices they dominated the market for them with hedge funds; the margin for error narrowed when interest rates dropped, cash got scarce when investors got uncomfortable, the whole hedge fund industry was suddenly paralyzed, and everything connected to hedge funds was frozen secondarily. Much of this was handled automatically by computers, so huge volume made it impossible for anyone to know who might be insolvent. It seemed comparatively harmless to decline to play this game for a few days, but it was not harmless if most people decided to do so at the same time. The daily variations of interest rates and/or duration generate a ("Gaussian") normal distribution curve for the risk, predicting serious deviations will occur once every two centuries. But when events --even false rumors -- suddenly get everyone's attention at once, small daily fluctuations no longer bear much relationship to the frequency of violent fluctuations. Once-in-a-century events start to happen every few years. At those times, the public stops speaking with a million voices and shouts in unison. Quite often, there is no cataclysmic event to trigger it. Like the conversational babel of a dinner party, it can all stop at once for no particular reason.
The mathematics of this matter could be taught to a tenth-grade math class. It starts to get beyond everybody's anticipation however when two such Black Swan events happen at the same time. In this case, an unanticipated pause for a few days bumped into the rule that non-bank institutions must mark their portfolios to the market every day. But for days at a time in this crisis, there could be no trading in certain issues; there was no market to mark to. How then can you demonstrate your solvency -- what might your competitors be hiding during these unannounced market holidays? And, since banks are in the same pickle but aren't required to mark to market, how can you trust them to pay bills? When you see European banks, who must obey new rules called Basel II, go bankrupt and get nationalized, how can you be sure American banks, who needn't obey Basel II until 2009, are any safer bet?
Progress is progress, but how much of it can we cope with?
Frank Pace, formerly Secretary of the Army, founded SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, in 1964. Philadelphia was one of the main founding chapters but tended to dwindle as business large and small dwindled after the bombing of West Philadelphia by the then-Mayor; former executives living in the suburbs lost interest. In December 2006, Mark Maguire took charge and gave SCORE a new direction. This former executive of Rohm and Haas is not related to the baseball home-run king, but at least his name is easy to remember.
The new sociology of center city demanded that more small businesses be started by minority residents, who have very little family and cultural experience in this sort of activity, which nevertheless is recognized as the main source of job creation in any area. It turns out that the main source of energy in the minority community is among minority women, who are particularly unfamiliar with the problems of small business. So, SCORE needs to dispel a number of misconceptions and unrealistic ambitions, and familiarize these budding entrepreneurs with the tax and regulatory headaches ahead of them, and teach them to be watchful of common traps and obstacles, learn to cope with fair competition, and how to recognize the signs of fraud before it happens to them.
The usual vehicle for teaching these elements of commercial life is to induce the writing of a detailed business plan, which executives can criticize for lack of realism or inadequate capitalization, suggesting ways to succeed in a field that experiences 50-60% failure in the best of circumstances. Some of this requires face-to-face discussions, lectures, and required reading. But much of it can be handled with weekly email consultations, a favorite tool of Philadelphia's SCORE chapter. Much of it can be addressed by referring the client to the proper agency or service business, or bank. SCORE has a strict ethical code for its volunteers, including a prohibition of becoming a vendor or participant in the business.
In addition to the changing nature of new small businessmen, there is a changing demographic of the volunteer executives who do the advising. Over 80% of them describe themselves as retired, but in fact, it is rare for one to be totally retired from all business activity. These guys really like to work, and a thirty-year vacation is not their goal in life. Just by acting as an example, they are establishing an important goal for the young businessmen and women who look to them for guidance. Work is how you accomplish something in life, and work, believe it or not -- is fun.
|American Stock Market|
Novation is a term that perhaps nobody but a specialist expert can now define, but is nevertheless destined to be politicized in the coming election campaign to the point where almost everybody could be shouting it like a war cry. That is unless the hired political consultants decide some other feature of credit derivatives serves warcry purposes better. We're talking sixty trillion dollars here, about five times the size of the domestic American stock market.
Someone owned or thought he owned pieces of paper worth this staggering sum, which can be regarded as side bets on the bond market. Just as in a horse race, where you don't usually own the horse when you bet on the winner, you needn't own the bonds to bet on whether they will default. The side bet is often between two outsiders who acquired their bets through, well, novation. The process begins as a credit derivative, in which someone gets paid an annual sum in return for agreeing to pay off -- if the bond defaults. That could be regarded as a useful insurance policy, making more credit available by making it safer to buy bonds. The bondholder gives up a little interest in return for assurance the bond is now completely safe. Sucker.
|Sun Belt Mortgage|
Like the Sun Belt mortgage originator, the originators of these derivatives often wasted little time clipping off a fee and passing the carcass to someone else. And that process got repeated until the accumulating fees in the chain slowed the process to a point where the weakest or most reckless holder got into danger. The game might have slowed to the point where it became self-correcting, but what actually seems to have happened is that much of the long-term debt involved was financed by short-term borrowing, and the start of some rumors triggered a run on the bank. Not exactly, of course, but when institutions which had made one-week or one-month loans stopped lending, it only took a few days for the money to run out and Bear Stearns was quickly unable to pay its bills even though it started the week with $18 billion in reserves.
|Securities and Exchange Commission|
That short description is about the best that can be made out of an opaque situation, based on what the Securities and Exchange Commission is willing to tell reporters about its investigation. More will be forthcoming, and no doubt some villains and fools will emerge with a lot of blame. For example, the price of credit derivatives concerning Bear Stearns debt had been creeping up steadily during the month before the explosion; whether somebody knew something bad, or whether there really was something bad is presently unclear. It's disconcerting to learn that Goldman Sachs was dumping this paper, and JP Morgan Chase was mostly buying it, but it's early days for unfounded suspicions. More will come.
Now to return to novation. We legal novices learn that novation transfer is the same as assignment transfer, except all parties have to agree to novation before it can take place. That's going to make it harder for a lot of people to deny they knew what was happening. The astonishingly large sums involved are apparently not entirely real, because in some way the old debt is not extinguished, and the new debt is merely added to the sum total outstanding. That surely means the same debt is counted several times, and the apparent sum is to some unknowable extent much larger than the underlying reality. This also accounts for the amazing speed of growth. In January 2007 the total was said to be about $25 trillion, in January 2008 it was reported to be $42 trillion, and in May 2008 it was said to be $60 trillion. Things which move that fast can quickly spin out of control, especially when short term creditors need to do nothing much for a couple of weeks as their money emerges from the pool. Some people did sell short, of course, but whether that was panic or malicious must probably be left to politicians to declaim.
Surely the most terrifying part of this simple story is that so much money could be moved around without public awareness. When the $25 trillion figure emerged, a number of people asked what in the world was going on, and kept asking that question for eighteen months. Nobody knew nothing.
Americans generally do not begrudge the success of neighbors; the achievement of someone else takes away nothing from me. In that spirit, we like to see developing countries rise up out of poverty. A more prosperous world is a safer one.
|Philadelphia Federal Reserve|
Rising international prosperity can, however, disrupt matters. When developing countries become producers, they can get inflation if they suddenly have more money than they know how to spend. Sudden wealth can come from discovering oil or gold or copper; slowly learning how to manufacture something is a safer way to prosper. Inflation and huge internal income disparities often lead to revolutions, so the wiser countries sterilize local money by exporting it. Coups and dictatorships are what happens if a developing country doesn't export its inflation; sudden wealth gives the appearance of being underserved. Conversely, our recent dot-com and Sunbelt real estate bubbles show what happens to the neighbors if developing-world inflation gets dumped on them. Eventually, of course, developing countries eventually balance their new production with new consumption, and the world settles down to a new balance. Never mind denouncing the rubbish the newly-rich decide to consume; its only problem for others lies in using up the world's resources faster. Developing countries commonly export inflation to other nations in the form of commodity inflation. The neighbors can soon have a commodity bubble on their hands; when any bubble bursts, a sharp recession can quickly follow, and after that, some other kind of bubble appears. What is new and disruptive is not oil or gold or copper; it is too much money.
With luck, these disruptions consequent to a neighbor's prosperity are soon overcome by improvements in productivity. But productivity itself can create a bubble. One huge productivity windfall for America is the astonishing thirty-year extension of longevity we have experienced; in time, we will surely devise occupations for retirees more productive than thirty-year vacations. Such balancing adjustments right now seem most likely to grow out of electronic productivity, using home sites as work sites.
So in short, America must read just like everyone else and one systematic readjustment has just surfaced at the Federal Reserve. The flood of money from China and the Persian Gulf sought an outlet in our economy, adopting the device of shifting American credit sources from banks to Wall Street ("securitization"). Cheap money once derived from bank deposits in local banks; since it now often originates abroad, it now must travel through the "carry" trade and similar innovative channels for foreign surpluses to get to Wall Street investment banks, which in turn distribute the money ("credit") to American businesses which can use it more productively than the developing countries can. Through securitization (turning loans into securities), Wall Street was able to make home mortgages directly, with only token involvement of local banks. Credit markets froze up because the new procedures had neglected to enlist local bankers in the process of checking the credit-worthiness of borrowers. So long as Wall Street can continue to find new sources of cheap money, this upheaval of finance is likely to be permanent because it is desired by both sides. Access to cheaper loans and access to safer investment harmonize the needs of the haves and the have-nots. Because in its haste this new development precipitated a banking crisis, there is some danger that Congress will overreact by prohibiting securitization rather than correcting its flaws. In every participant's eyes, it's cheaper and more efficient, but new efficiency threatens old inefficiencies. This one threatens the old deposit-based banking system, and since the Fed's control of the currency is based on its control over the depository banks, it threatens the Federal Reserve. That's the real driving force behind the Fed seeking control of non-traditional credit sources; that's now where the money is.
On March 16, 2008 things came to a head with the impending collapse of Bear Stearns, a Wall Street investment bank heavily involved in Credit Derivatives. There are rumors the rescue plan implemented over a weekend had actually been devised and held ready long before then. Many imperfections now surface with experience, but at least the plan had likely been explored as thoroughly as logic without direct experience ever allows. For example, the dispersal of manufacturing around the globe favored making pieces of a product and selling them to an assembler, rather than enveloping the whole process of making a product in one giant corporation. It's cheaper, that's why they do it. But the process of buying and selling pieces to other companies greatly expanded the need for short-term credit. Therefore, it was quite unexpected that Lehman Brothers, which specialized in such short-term loans, suddenly went bankrupt for lack of quick access to capital. In the panic, it is unfortunate that Lehman apparently concealed its situation from investors. There is a danger that Congress will draw the wrong moral and somehow block the globalization of manufacture.
The Federal Reserve Act was passed by Congress in 1913, and most observers believe the Fed's inexperience in 1932 repeatedly made matters worse in that formerly greatest of all bank panics. The new plan of 2009, therefore, had to step around some limitations imposed by Congress in the past, the political pressures generated by an impending presidential election, and the powerful resistance from private industries whose future was affected. The adroitness with which such a complex matter was handled over a weekend will surely become legendary, but maybe not soon. Probably because of existing legal roadblocks, three "lending facilities" were created, but a single device was at the heart of it. Instead of lending money, the Federal Reserve offered to swap securities with new non-bank managers of retail credit. The investment banks held massive security for loans which could not be sold in paralyzed markets but could be swapped or used as security for a loan, particularly if the government stood behind the innovative transactions. Wall Street in a word had plenty of wealth, but could not turn it into money fast enough to pay its bills. So sidestepping the legal constraints, instead of giving Investment firms money as a lender of last resort, the Federal Reserve swapped Treasury Bills for the "frozen" assets held as security for mortgage loans. The securities had been "caught in a loan" as the expression goes. There isn't much difference between Treasury bills and cash, or between exchanging bonds and selling them. But the new approach could be quickly and legally accomplished, and once done, the Federal Reserve was the master of investment banks. It became effectively their lender of last resort. A great deal of advance thought must have gone into devising this readjustment to the reality that over half of loans were not backed by bank deposits, but by the securitized debt of foreigners. Regulations will ensue, hearings will be held and laws passed, but the Fed has regained control of the money supply if it can manage to make this maneuver understandable by the public.
There was a moral hazard in this; the presence of a lifeguard tempts swimmers into deeper water. It was somewhat inflationary in the midst of an inflation threat. No doubt the Federal Reserve regards these negatives as prices worth paying, and they probably are. The decisive remaining issue is not whether the initial shape of this transformation is exactly correct; it surely isn't. Just as was true in 1932, what will ultimately matter most will be whether, with this altered stance, the Fed will adjust quickly and appropriately to future difficulties. And whether politicians will even permit it to do the right thing, assuming anybody then knows what the right thing might be.
A journalist, John Ghazvinian, recently toured the many countries of Africa, wrote a book about it and carried his message to the Right Angle Club of Philadelphia. Philadelphia does not think of itself as particularly involved in oil matters, or African ones. But the fact is the refineries on the Schuylkill down by the airport generate two-thirds of the gasoline now used on the East Coast, and right now it mostly comes from Nigeria. There was a time when the crude oil coming to Philadelphia came from Venezuela, but politics are a little unpleasant there at present, and anyway Venezuelan oil is heavy and full of acids. The refineries which specialize in that kind of heavy oil are on the Gulf Coast. Long before the Venezuelan era, the Philadelphia refineries were constructed to refine crude oil from upstate Pennsylvania. They were once the main source of the dominance of the Pennsylvania Railroad, because oil refining from Bradford County gave the Pennsy a return freight, whereas the competitive railroads running out of New York and Baltimore had to return from the West without cargo.
There are 54 countries on the continent of Africa, quite different from each other in character. One dominant characteristic of Africa is its lack of natural ports, and even the Mediterranean ports are cut off from the rest of the continent by the huge transcontinental stripe of Sahara desert. Major wars and famines, monstrous genocides, unspeakable cruelty, and poverty go on there without much notice by the rest of the world.
The largest country in Africa is Nigeria. Anyone with even minor dealings with Nigeria soon sees that corruption and dishonesty pass all Western imagination, and they have serious tribal warfare as well. The discovery of large deposits of oil in the region faced the international oil companies with a rather serious difficulty. For instance, Shell Oil has had over 200 employees kidnapped for ransom and is seriously contemplating abandoning its whole venture. At the moment, corruption is coped with by constructing oil wells a hundred miles out in the ocean.It's almost true that the huge tanker ships make from Philadelphia and return, without the crew talking to any natives of Africa.
They have oil in the South of Sudan so we may hear more of it. Chad has poverty and oil, and civil war. They have a big Exxon facility, but there isn't a single gasoline station in Chad. At the moment, Angola has paused in its enormous civil war, which killed millions, and Chevron will surely encounter unrest before it is done. Gabon appears to be extremely prosperous, from oil money of course, but they are being ravaged by the Dutch Disease, of which more later.
|Mbasogo and Jintao|
President of Equatorial New Guinea got his job by shooting his uncle. But don't feel too sorry for the uncle, who used to have an annual Christmas morning celebration, consisting of herding his enemies into a football stadium, and shooting them for the edification and entertainment of the populace. After listening to Mr. Ghazvinian, it seems small wonder that so few American tourists, or journalists, or even missionaries, manage to complete extensive African excursions. As everyone notices, if you don't have journalists, there is never any news.
Let's turn to the Dutch disease,
of which Africa currently displays many examples likely to torment economics students for decades after Africa eventually rivals Houston. Let's start with David Ricardo, who electified the Nineteenth Century world of economics with his principle of comparative advantage. Ricardo pointed to the obvious truth that always and everywhere a nation does best for itself by identifying its best economic feature and then sticking to it. If every country wakes up and does that, every country must then trade with its neighbors for other things it isn't so suited to make. Consequently, tariffs and trade barriers are a hindrance for everyone, in time impoverishing all nations in the cycle, whatever short-run advantages of tariffs may seem enticing.
|North Sea Gas|
So far as I know, Ricardo was quite right, but someone had better hurry up and reconcile his underlying premise of comparative advantage with the Dutch Disease. The Dutch disease was identified and named by an anonymous writer for the London Economist about thirty years ago. Noticing that the Netherlands experienced a marked worsening of its general economy after the discovery of North Sea gas deposits, the observer for the magazine concluded that sudden accumulation of wealth in the gas industry led to a rise in the value of the Dutch currency, soon making it impossible for non-gas industries to export, unable to compete at home with now-cheaper foreign imports. Naturally, investors rushed to invest in gas, sold their holdings in other industries, and Holland was propelled in the direction of a one-industry economy, quite at the mercy of fluctuating prices of gas. This was the Dutch Disease born, and Ricardo's principle of comparative advantage exposed to quite a severe challenge from which it has not completely recovered. This is important, so how about a simpler description: When gold is discovered, people drop tools to have a gold rush. Wealth lost from dropping tools is greater than wealth gained from the gold.
Fear of the Dutch disorder seems to be the reason why the Chinese are buying our Treasury Bonds, the Japanese engaging in the astonishing "carry trade," and the Arabs buying American private equity funds. The common strand through all these schemes is this: By sending their bonanza savings abroad, they "sterilize" them from their tendency to force their currency upwards. They are exporting inflation, but also endangering their own struggling non-bonanza industries, which are the main hope for diversifying their economies and getting rid of the Dutch effect. Somewhere during this balancing act, politicians get involved and make things worse. So they call in their generals and admirals, to explore solutions we prefer they were not in a position to explore. Simpler description: When you discover oil, inflation soon follows. And all too often, revolution follows that.
The 1787 the American Constitution unknowingly cured thirteen cases of the Dutch Disease, by imposing absolute freedom of interstate commerce. After eighty years, the benefits of this national union would persuade the North to bleed and die for it. Although the Confederacy thought they were fighting for their way of life, meaning slavery, even the Southerners today recognize they are better off in a Union. Unfortunately today, the European nations are still having a hard time believing the benefits of union could possibly outweigh their allegiances to language, religion, and the wartime sacrifices of their ancestors. They are very wrong, but we are wrong to sneer at them. Except for maybe Switzerland, it is difficult to name another instance in all of history where several independent states gave up local sovereignty for the benefits of a diversified economy with local pockets of comparative advantage. Let's restate it again: the Dutch disease is a result of sudden single-industry prosperity in a country too small to control it.
By the way, what eventually happened to the Dutch? It seems likely that absorption of little Holland into the European Common Market helped dilute the corrupting effect of gas prosperity. It suggests the possibility that Dutch can be reconciled with Ricardo through the common denominator of reduced national barriers to trade and currency-- reduced sovereignty in a milder form. But it's a hard slog. Maybe we could envision annexing Alberta to soften the commotion of oil tar, but it takes a lot of imagination to see the amalgamation of China and India, any time soon. There may thus be nations too big to merge, but nevertheless, it would probably be less destabilizing to merge with all of Canada than just with Alberta if you overlook the obvious fact that it is easier to persuade a small country than a big one. Just kidding for the sake of example, of course, since Canada shows no interest in the idea.
Meanwhile, take a look backward from the highway overpass the next time you travel to the Philadelphia Airport. There's a lot more going on in those refineries than just black liquid flowing into steel pipes.
|Freddie Mac Corp.|
A year after potential financial collapse burst on the scene, the public (and Congress) are beginning to understand what collateralized debt obligations (CDO) are, and how Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac work. It begins to seem they are much the same thing in different clothes, that securitization of mortgages began with Fannie Mae if not Farm Credit in 1916, and that these bewildering new Wall Street CDO creations are just new variations of an old idea. The devil, as always, is in the details.
|Freddie Mac Corp.|
Originally, Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSE) began in 1916 with the Farm Credit System and entered the home mortgage secondary market in 1938 with the creation of FNMA (Fannie Mae). Populist in the first case and Depression-fighting in the other, the idea was that third-party reinsurance would make mortgages safer, and thus lower interest rates for a favored population segment (farmers and homeowners). Although no promises were made to bail out failing loans, GSEs eventually grew large enough to seem able to force the government to rescue them in the event of failure. They were claimed to be "too big to be allowed to fail". In addition to this implicit government backing, there was a twist created by making debt interchangeable with equity. "Securitization" was a process of bundling many mortgages into a package sold to the public as a stock issue. Since FNMA was a creditor, rising interest rates created profits for the shareholders, while falling interest rates depressed share prices. Steady predictable mortgage prices could be offered to homeowners, while the risk was transferred to the shareholders. To a certain but much lesser degree, some of the risks of falling real estate prices were transferred to the shareholders as well. Finally, the reduced risk in this arrangement led to lower prices for mortgages, regardless of the state of the economic cycle.
To some unknowable degree, enthusiasm for mortgage-backed securities in the private sector was enhanced by fear or even loathing of government involvement in the financial system style of banana republics or the Weimar Republic in 1922. To compete with the lower interest rates of government-backed security, the efficiency of the private sector could be combined with innovations made possible by the computer. Mathematical models were devised to calculate mortgage interest rates by working backward from the default rate in a huge universe of mortgages. During the savings and loan crisis two decades earlier, Michael Milken had promoted the idea that prevailing interest rates on mortgages were higher than were justified by the prevailing rate of default in a large pool. If the uncertainty of risk for a single mortgage could be submerged within the fairly certain risk of a large pool, it should be possible to offer generally lower prices than even those of the government-backed GSE system. In spite of the recent panic, the reasoning behind both systems, government and private, seemed to suggest that securitization of debt continues to be a sound idea.
What appears to have been unanticipated was that house prices would rise in a bubble stimulated by a flood of money from the Far East and the Middle East. When that bubble inevitably burst, the resulting drastic decline in house prices would trap everyone who had borrowed a fixed amount as a mortgage at the top of the real estate market. Those who bought and held their houses before 1980 could ride out the gyrations of the real estate market, but everyone who bought an overpriced house after that was at risk that prices would eventually return to normal -- and bankrupts them with that high fixed debt. If these people outnumber the rest of the country, they can use their voting power to force the rest of the country to bail them out, but that's the way civil wars get started. It remains to be seen whether some political compromise can be arranged between those who bought houses at foolish prices, those who felt enriched by owning more valuable houses, and those few who watched with dismay.
Meanwhile, there is another important decision to be made, as to whether to permit either form of securitization to be used as an American scapegoat for a mess caused by Chinese prosperity. There is indeed much to be criticized in retrospect about the conduct of Main Street, Wall Street -- and K Street.
|Fannie Mae Corp.|
It would be pardonable to say that since securitization of home mortgages is a generally good thing, we might overlook any minor differences in approach between Fannie Mae (FNMA) and CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations), and let the customers decide which approach is preferred. Unfortunately, they both encompass a fatal flaw that has somehow escaped adequate notice. As mortgages pass from one holder to the next in sequence, both the buyer and seller seek to avoid the worst-risk mortgages and retain for themselves the best-risk ones. Get stuck with too many bad-risk properties, and you will go broke. When the credit markets suddenly woke up to this reality in August 2007, it was impossible to know who was holding good stuff and who was holding toxic mortgages. The markets "froze", which is to say most traders just walked away from participation until the situation clarified.
|Rising house prices|
Furthermore, with existing systems this seems to be something that will inevitably happen. A small-town bank tries to sell every mortgage it originates to an aggregator, but a few mortgages just aren't salable. The small town bank might well be able to sell mortgages to people who can't afford a house, but the aggregator is wise to the world, and won't buy the worst of them, so they silt up in the hands of the originating bank. Some originating banks may be deft enough to hold on to the very best risks and sell the rest, but a lot of banks will be turned away by dealers who are smarter than they are. At every step in the chain, there will be the same contest, so eventually, everybody comes under suspicion. Add to this trap the irony that an environment of rising house prices simply increases the size of the defaults when the pyramid finally topples, and it may temporarily blind everyone to the risks being run, thus making it all worse. Somehow or other, the average down payment on the mortgages you hold must be larger than the average drop of house prices in a slump, else you will be transferring the risk from the homeowner to yourself. A strong case can be made that the fault in the recent crash was not predatory lending; it was a failure to demand adequate down payments.
However you define an "adequate" down payment, it is clear that the recent rise of house prices particularly in the regions of greatest overbuilding, put a conventional 20% down payment completely out of reach of many first-home buyers. Since house prices have declined 20% and may decline 20% more, a determination of lenders not to lend more than 80% would have prevented a lot of overbuilding. If mortgage aggregators had refused to purchase mortgages that lacked an adequate down payment, the originating banks would soon have stopped issuing them. Consequently, the necessary fortitude should have been applied at the last step before securitization. It's possible to believe the people at Bear Stearns now wish they had done so.
If we then turn to the GSEs, the significant extra risk of Fannie Mae is political. Holding $5 trillion of debt more or less guaranteed by the U.S. Government, the Secretary of the Treasury repeatedly told congressional hearings that assuming its default would double the national debt. Double the national debt is what is meant by being "too big to be allowed to fail." Since this appalling situation willy-nilly relieves Fannie Mae of any worry about collapsing, the only way to force Fannie Mae to insist on adequate down payments is by Congress passing a law that they must. Congress seems to lack the political will to pass such rules in an election year, or probably any other year. The mandate for fifty years has been for Fannie Mae to make housing "affordable" and keep homeowners from losing their homes. It would be an unimaginable tragedy if Congress ran away from this dilemma, and accepted the hyper-inflation which would result from suddenly doubling the national debt. Unimaginable, but likely.
|American Philosophical Society|
Jay Robert Stiefel of of the Friends Advisory Board to the Library of the American Philosophical Society entertained the Right Angle Club at lunch recently, and among other things managed a brilliant demonstration of what real scholarship can accomplish. It's hard to imagine why the Vaux family, who lived on the grounds of what is now the Chestnut Hill Hospital and occasionally rode in Bentleys to the local train station, would keep a book of receipts of their cabinet maker ancestor for nearly three hundred years. But they did, and it's even harder to see why Jay Stiefel would devote long hours to puzzling over the receipts and payments for cabinets and clock cases of a 1720 joiner. Somehow he recognized that the shop activities of a wilderness village of 5000 residents encoded an important story of the Industrial Revolution, the economic difficulties of colonies, and the foundations of modern commerce. Just as the Rosetta stone told a story for thousands of years that no one troubled to read, John Head's account book told another one that sat unnoticed on that library shelf for six generations.
The first story is an obvious one. Money in colonial days was mainly an entry in everybody's account book; today it is mainly an entry in computers. In the intervening three centuries, coins and currency made an appearance, flourished for a while as the tangible symbol of money, and then declined. Although Great Britain did not totally prohibit paper money in the colonies until 1775, in John Head's day, from 1718 to 1754, paper money was scarce and coins hard to come by. Because it was so easy to counterfeit paper money on the crude printing presses of the day, paper money was always questionable. Meanwhile, the balance of trade was so heavily in the direction of the colonies that the balance of payments was toward England. What few coins there were, quickly disappeared back to England, while local colonial commerce nearly strangled. The Quakers of Philadelphia all maintained careful books of account, and when it seemed a transaction was completed, the individual account books of buyer and seller were "squared". The credit default swap "crisis" of 2008 could be said to be a sharp reminder that we have returned to bookkeeping entries, but have badly neglected the Quaker process of squaring accounts. As the general public slowly acquires computer power of its own, it is slowly recognizing how far the banks, telephone companies, and department stores have wandered from routine mutual account reconciliation.
|John Head's Account Book|
From John Head's careful notations we learn it was routine for payment to be stretched out for months, but no interest was charged for late payment and no discounts were offered for ready money. It would be another century before it became routinely apparent that interest was the rent charged for money and the risk of intervening inflation, before final payment. In this way, artisans learned to be bankers.
And artisans learned to be merchants, too. In the little village of Philadelphia, chairs became part of the monetary system. In bartering cabinets for the money, John Head did not make chairs in his shop at 3rd and Mulberry (Arch Street) but would take them in partial payment for a cabinet, and then sell the chairs for the money. Many artisans made single components but nearly everyone was forced into bartering general furniture. Nobody was paid a salary. Indentured servants, apprenticeships trading labor for training, and even slavery benignly conducted, can be partially seen as efforts to construct an industrial society without payrolls. Everybody was in daily commerce with everybody else. Out of this constant trading came the efficiency step for which Quakers are famous: one price, no haggling.
One other thing jumps out at the modern reader from this book of account. No taxes. When taxes came, we had a revolution.
Things which normally dominate newspaper front pages, like presidential elections and World Series baseball, are now found back among the brassiere ads -- displaced by the stock market, credit market, banking and investment crisis of 2008. However, like the wake of a ship at sea, the past could be pointing to the future. Contemplate all the mighty financial institutions which have simply vanished.
It may even be trivial to say that Lehman Brothers and Bear, Stearns have disappeared. The fact is every investment bank has disappeared.
And that's not all by a long shot. Savings and Loans have disappeared. Small commercial banks, and even most of the pretty big ones have disappeared. We may soon be left with half a dozen major banks and no lesser ones. Commission-based stock brokerage is now a rarity. Insurance? Well, the longevity increase of thirty years over the past century gave life insurance an enormous unearned windfall; when that flattens out, will such institutions still prosper? Individual corporate stocks are quickly vanishing into the homogenized soup of index funds, just as the securitized debt was digesting home mortgages before the current uproar. The ranks of stock analysts are thinning out; it no longer matters as much if they have a conflict of interest with nonexistent investment banks and stock brokers. All of this disappearance of institutions is in the recent past, and it mostly isn't coming back. Perhaps hedge funds and private equity companies will take over, but it is really too soon to say if they will survive, either.
Credit cards have been overused and abused; that can be corrected. But the credit card system is supported by exorbitant fees charged to participating merchants; the card industry could easily disappear if the merchants devise a way to escape this private taxation; merchants universally wish to do so. The currency version of money is trying to disappear as fast as practical ways can be devised to measure value and transactions electronically. The remorseless pressure behind reducing all transactions to electronic form is created by the greatly reduced cost of it. And that pressure is magnified by electronically speeding up transactions; the faster money turns over, the more its virtual size increases. The converse, of course, is that a slow-down reduces its size. Like a giant tuna, the money supply dies of lack of oxygen if it slows down.
It can be seen in retrospect that banks are dying because everybody else stole their products by providing cheaper alternatives, mostly with computers. In the process, the national economy gets more uniform, less dependent on local agencies. Something of value has been lost, of course, particularly the local assessment of the capabilities and requirements of local customers; somehow, that seems to be expendable. But one thing, perhaps two, cannot be dispensed with.
For fifty years, we have grown accustomed to the idea that the electronic records of our institutions are accurate. That's definitely not so. Even a reliable firm makes a myriad of errors in its many transactions, catches them with redundancy and cross-checks, and presents the cleaned-up product once a month or maybe even once a day. But even though the illusion of flawlessness is maintained for the customer as much as humanly possible, it is not inherently flawless. Systemic breakdowns will always expose uncorrected flaws caught in the process, while disincentives are created by this one-sided system to spend money perfecting and refining its quality control. It's better than the old manual systems, of course, but its flaws are constantly exposed by the remorseless external pressure to do things faster, in bigger volume, in greater complexity. We approach the point where every individual needs to maintain a duplicate computer system to verify his accounts. Individual telephone bills, for example, require the aid of a computer to explain what another computer produced, brokerage transactions need computerized counterparty challenge to expose hidden fees and costs. We all know how lack of transparency brought securitized mortgages to their knees. We will soon learn that the meaning of credit default swaps defies even expert comprehension. The mysteries of university tuition discounts, hospital insurance, and even supermarket discounts cry out for safeguards to generate transparency. It may be true that even billionaires like Warren Buffett do not bother to check the accuracy of all accounts presented to them, trusting the fairness of the counterparty. But that does not contradict the need for balance. Institutions of independent public accounting are surely going to make an appearance in the future, telling people what they have and what they are paying for.
The other component which seems to be missing in our transaction system is a well-developed and widely available profession of financial advisors, equipped with electronic tools to provide their badly needed services affordably and accurately. Not only do agents and advisers need some tools, but they also need the political power to force high-handed vendor systems to permit universal customer verifications; the hooks and portals to their private systems need to be developed to make this system workable, and that will not be willingly forthcoming. But they must be provided because any independent advisor/auditors need to be subject to constant reverse-confirmation if we are to escape creating a gigantic imperfect-agency problem. But it always remains that a vendor is not an agent of the customer; his ultimate duty is only to provide an arms-length transaction with transparency. It is the customer's duty to secure his own verification system. When that occurs, it will become part of the third party duty to consent to safeguards against his own imperfect agency. But that's for later. At the moment, independent auditors of the sort needed, scarcely exist.
Much can be gained by searching to correct the flaws of the past whose significance is suddenly apparent. With a stroke of genius, the 2008 reforms of the Bush administration offered a government guarantee of safety for bank accounts which pay no interest. The light finally dawned that businesses use banks for settling up accounts and are more or less indifferent to the interest paid on deposits. When there is a bank panic or a run on a bank, deposits are shifted from bank accounts to Treasury bills in order to find safety; that's now unnecessary. If a bank account pays no less interest than a Treasury bill and is just as safe, why move it? Under the traditional system, deposits seeking safety depleted the load capacity of the bank and erected a barrier to recovery from the slump that often caused the problem. Why didn't we think of this before?
One of the sources of panic in 2008 was the enormous size of credit default swaps, several times larger than the entire American stock market, many times larger than the national debt. How could we allow such a vast over-insurance to occur? But as some appreciation of a large amount of credit swapping with foreign nations began to grow, things calmed down. If that should unravel the mystery, it is certainly far easier to determine the proportion of international swapping than to set up detailed accounting reports for $60 trillion of default insurance, particularly when the record-keeping intermediaries suddenly go bankrupt.
As soon as the calamity of mortgage-backed securities made its appearance, hands were wrung that originating banks were not required to retain a piece of the mortgage. It seems sensible to impose this requirement on the only party in the chain with the opportunity to evaluate and screen the risks, face to face. So, we can probably expect legislation with the effect of requiring originating institutions to retain "a piece of the action". The principle may need to be extended into other areas, as well. Investment banks until fairly recently were partnerships, not corporations. The capital of an investment bank was supplied from the personal resources of the partners, who usually retired at quite an early age rather than retain big risks without actively coping with the constant pressures of hands-on oversight. Investment banks found they could not raise enough capital from rich partners who were constantly tempted to cash out, so they incorporated and sold stock to the general public. The consequence was the managers were placed in the position of taking big risks with other people's money, and able to pay themselves huge salaries without the constant snooping of rich partners at the next desk. For the time being, investment banking has been totally absorbed into other institutions, but the culture shock of mixing risk takers with risk avoiders will surely lead to something else. Like originating banks with mortgages, the originators of IPOs need to acquire some personal risk of their own, because their essential innovations will always race ahead of the imagination of underpaid plodding regulators. Instead of making a game of outwitting the regulators, investment banking must place much more reliance on the examples within their midst, of rich young kids turning themselves into paupers by assuming the wrong risks.
While we are wallowing in the idea of reconfiguring world finance to avoid the mistakes of the past, some thought should be given to goals. Alan Greenspan was able to win every argument with his reputation of guiding the economy through eighteen years without a major recession. Now that we have resigned ourselves to a return of the business cycle, maybe we should ask whether it is wise to go eighteen years, or even five years, without a correction. Some of this has to do with election cycles, so it isn't easy. But perhaps we have learned that perpetual prosperity is a mirage, small frequent readjustments are better.
|American Philosophical Society Seal|
In the age of the Enlightenment, science was called natural philosophy; that accounts for the present custom of awarding PhD. degrees in chemistry and botany. The sort of thing which interested Ralph Waldo Emerson was called moral philosophy, and you will have to visit some other place than the A.P.S. if that is what interests you. Roy E. Goodman is presently the Curator of Printed Material (some would say he was chief librarian) at the American Philosophical Society, founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin who was clearly the most eminent scientist of his day, having discovered and explained the nature of electricity.
|Roy E. Goodman|
Roy Goodman is descended from cowboys and rodeo stars, but in spite of that he gave an entertaining talk recently at the Right Angle Club about this society devoted to useful knowledge, this oldest publishing house and scholarly society in America, once the home of the U.S. Patent Office, and scientific library and museum. They have many rare items in their collection, but the unifying theme is not a rarity, but curiosity. You might say some of the items reflect the whimsy of Franklin, but it would be fairer to say it is an enduring monument to Franklin's universal curiosity about all things.
|Nobel Prize Medal|
There are about 900 members of APS, about 800 of them Americans, about 100 of them winners of a Nobel Prize. Let's just make a little list of a very few notables in the past and present membership. Start with the first four Presidents of the United States, add Alexander Hamilton and Lafayette, David Rittenhouse and Francis Hopkinson and you get the idea that Founding Fathers got in early. Robert Fulton, Lewis and Clark, Alexander Humboldt, John Marshall were early members, and more recent ones were Madame Curie,
Someday, books will be written about who discovered what, and sold what, to make S & P futures suddenly go up and down 300 points in ten minutes on August 17, 2007, soon followed by violent volatility in many other markets. Confusion reigned for a few days, but within a week there was general agreement about the difficulty: the "spread" of interest rates between risky loans and very safe ones had been too narrow for months, and was reverting back to normal. Risk had been mispriced; a risky loan was just as risky as it ever was, as everyone should have realized. If the risky borrower was unwilling to pay higher interest rates, why would any lender bother with him? Since this had been obvious all along, why had lenders temporarily believed otherwise, charging rates scarcely higher for dodgy loans than for well-secured ones?
Alan Greenspan (in 1996) had called this question a conundrum, but it's getting easier to understand. The emergence of prosperity in one decade among 200 million impoverished Chinese had resulted in wealth which found its way into international markets, much like a gold rush or the discovery of oil. Sudden huge wealth often cannot be easily assimilated, hence was available to loan at cheaper rates. The globalization of world finance has vastly improved the speed of markets to absorb money gluts, but in this case, had the unfortunate effect of spreading it out into less sophisticated corners of the world economy. It particularly affected residential mortgages, which proved to be the weakest link in the chain of lending and borrowing. Ten years of low-interest rates pushed up the prices of existing homes, tempting builders to overcharge for new construction, and inexperienced buyers to pay those inflated prices with cheap mortgages. Between them, Congress and the banks had devised ways to exploit this situation, making the collapse worse when it came. The interest on home mortgages was preferentially tax deductible, so it became the favorite way to borrow. Banks made it easier to refinance at a lower rate as the spread gradually narrowed. To make it even easier, reverse mortgages converted home ownership into an ATM machine with tax deductibility. Because home prices were steadily rising, banks were willing to reduce down payments, on the assumption that home equity would soon rise to represent the amount formerly required as a down payment. As it would have, perhaps, if homeowners had not promptly drained it out the back door of reverse mortgages. Second homes became a cheaper way to have a vacation; steadily rising prices encouraged outright speculation, called flipping. Congress reinsured mortgages, eventually most of them, through FNMA, and then pressured Fannie Mae to insist on spreading the joys of home ownership to people who could not afford the no-down-payment houses they were romanced into buying. Investment banks offered to buy the mortgages from the local originating banks in order to package them into securitized bundles, which thus deprived the originating banks of any incentive to reject eager buyers, no matter how dubious their credit standing. What is more, this process provided a conduit for spreading bad credit risk into the equity markets, including the equity of the banking system itself, and creating the temptation for hedge funds to start runs on the banks in novel forms. There once was a time when customers lined up at the back door to make withdrawals in a bank run. Since investment banks obtain their deposits by borrowing wholesale, they simplified the process of starting a bank run when the speculative process reversed. Which it did on August 17, 2007, possibly not spontaneously, but certainly inevitably.
Home mortgages were once loans for thirty years; even now, they extend for many years. Homeowners stay in one house for an average of seven years. For legal reasons going back two hundred years, they are non-recourse loans, meaning the house alone is at risk to the mortgage lender, who may normally not pursue the homeowner for assets other than the foreclosure, even if the other assets are considerable. In a housing bubble, this creates a special hazard for lenders during the inevitable decline of house prices back to normal. As house prices fall, as they should and will, many homeowners will find it is cheaper to walk away from a foreclosure than to pay off the mortgage. It has been calculated that potentially as many as 50% of mortgages might eventually find themselves in this squeeze. The situation differs from a car loan, for example. Every new car is worth 20% less than the sale price, immediately after the sale. But this does not tempt car buyers to walk away from their loan, because the car loan is a recourse loan. The uncomfortable prospect is that financial reverses alone might not be the reason homeowners submit to foreclosure. If this particular antisocial behavior loses its stigma, a very large proportion of mortgages could be foreclosed on owners who are perfectly able to pay them off.
|Barney Frank and Chris Dodd|
For all these reasons, house prices are the main bubble in an economy overstimulated by cheap money, and mortgage financing is at the root of a banking crisis. The banking system itself is precarious because it too responded to the temptation of abundant credit at abnormally low-interest rates. The process took the form of over-leveraging in order to magnify profits in a competitive market. Greed was not the only motivation; corporate raiders in the form of Private Equity could swoop down on any company unwise enough to accumulate internal cash. The new owner would then substitute debt for cash, and the prudent company (under new management, of course) was no better off than if it had itself over-leveraged. The Federal Reserve limits commercial banks to loaning thirteen times their stockholder equity, but investment banks had the foolhardiness to borrow thirty times equity. A decline of only three percent in the value of their loans wipes them out. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, by the way, is leveraged at over a hundred times its equity. The Fed can print money to pay its debts, of course, but the result is a falling value of the dollar in international exchange and ultimately, world inflation. No one predicts the half-way point in this decline to be sooner than two years, which means a recession lasting at least four years. The first two efforts of public officials to halt the decline, the purchase of toxic debt and direct lending to banks, have been abandoned as failures, and the Barney Frank/ Chris Dodd offer for Congress to repurchase mortgages was simply pathetic, with only two hundred responses when over two million were anticipated. If the public loses faith in the ability of the government to do anything about the matter, prices can be expected to overshoot on the downside, not just return to normal. House prices do need to decline, but slowly enough to avoid a panic. And American banks and businesses need to reduce the extent of their borrowing, but without measures which impair the ability of new businesses to make loans, or the ability of shaky businesses like the Detroit auto industry, to survive.
In closing, a word is needed to explain why the foreclosure of $100 billion of California and Florida bungalows should threaten a collapse in the trillions. Economists have fallen into the habit of equating interest rates with risk; the more risk, the higher the interest rates become. That's true, but the risk is not the only factor affecting interest rates. Since they are essentially the rent paid for the use of someone else's money, interest rates respond to the supply of money interest rates, just as supply and demand of rental housing affect rents. The flood of liquidity from developing countries into the world economy pushed interest rates down, but somehow that was taken to imply that risk had decreased. When interest rates go up again, for whatever reason, the money will effectively evaporate. The best example of this relationship is in the bond market. When interest rates go up, the principal value of existing bonds declines. With interest rates of 5% as an example, bond prices go up and down twenty times as much as the interest rate, but in the opposite direction. To repeat: when general interest rates rise, money in the economy disappears about twenty times as fast. That's a succinct description of what started to happen, when the prevailing risk premium returned to its normal higher level, on August 17, 2007.
|Consolidation Map 1854|
Philadelphia is still referred to as a city of neighborhoods. Prior to 1854, most of those neighborhoods were towns, boroughs, and townships, until the Act of City-County Consolidation merged them all into a countywide city. It was a time of tumultuous growth, with the city population growing from 120,000 to over 500,000 between the 1850 and 1860 census. There can be little doubt that disorderly growth was disruptive for both local loyalties and the ability of the small jurisdictions to cope with their problems, making consolidation politically much more achievable. A century later, there were still two hundred farms left in the county which was otherwise completely urbanized and industrialized. For seventy-five years, Philadelphia had the only major urban Republican political machine. By 1900 (and by using some carefully chosen definitions) it was possible to claim that Philadelphia was the richest city in the world, although this dizzy growth came to an abrupt end with the 1929 stock market crash, and the population of Philadelphia now shrinks every year. In answering the question of whether consolidation with the suburbs was a good thing or a bad thing, it was clearly a good thing. But since Philadelphia is suffering from decline, it becomes legitimate to ask whether its political boundaries might now be too large.
|Philadelphia Map 1762|
The possible legitimacy of this suggestion is easily demonstrated by a train trip from New York to Washington. The borders of the city on both the north and the south are quickly noticed out the train window, as the place where prosperity ends and slums abruptly begin. In 1854 it was just the other way around, just as is still the case in many European cities like Paris and Madrid. But as the train gets closer to the station in the center of the city, it can also be noticed that the slums of the decaying city do not spread out from a rotten core. Center City reappears as a shining city on a hill, surrounded by a wide band of decay. The dynamic thrusting city once grew out to its political border, and then when population shrank, left a wide ring of abandonment. It had outgrown its blood supply. Prohibitively high gasoline taxes in Europe inhibit the American phenomenon of commuter suburbs. The economic advantage of cheap land overcomes the cost of building high-rise apartments upward, but there is some level of gasoline taxation which overcomes that advantage. Without meaning to impute duplicitous motives to anyone, it really is another legitimate question whether some current "green" environmental concerns might have some urban-suburban real estate competition mixed with concern about global warming. Let's skip hurriedly past that inflammatory observation, however, because the thought before us is not whether to manipulate gas taxes, but whether it might be useful to help post-industrial cities by contracting their political borders.
Before reaching that conclusion, however, it seems worthwhile to clarify the post-industrial concept. America certainly does have a rust belt of dying cities once centered on "heavy" industry which has now largely migrated abroad to underdeveloped nations. But while it is true that our national balance of trade shows weakness trying to export as much as we import, it is not true at all that we manufacture less than we once did. Rather, manufacturing productivity has increased so substantially that we actually manufacture more goods, but we do it with less manpower and less pollution, too. The productivity revolution is even more advanced in agriculture, which once was the main activity of everyone, but now employs less than 2% of the working population. This is not a quibble or a digression; it is mentioned in order to forestall any idea that cities would resume outward physical growth if only we could manipulate tariffs or monetary exchange rates or elect more protectionist politicians to Congress. Projecting demographics and economics into the far future, the physical diameters of most American cities are unlikely to widen, more likely to shrink. If other cities repeat the Philadelphia pattern, the vacant land for easy exploitation lies in the ruined band of property within the present political boundaries of cities, or if you please, between the prosperous urban center and the prosperous suburban ring.
Many American cities with populations of about 500,000 do need more room to grow, so let them do it just as Philadelphia did a century ago, by annexing suburbs. But there are other cities which have lost at least 500,000 population and thus have available low-cost low-tax land which would mostly enhance the neighborhood if existing structures were leveled to the ground. Curiously, both the shrunken urban core and the bumptious thriving suburbs could compete better for redeveloping this urban desert if the obstacles, mostly political and emotional, of the political boundary, could be more easily modified. But that's also just a political problem, and not necessarily an unsolvable one.
The Right Angle club was pleased to hear the City Controller, Alan Butkovitz, give us an insider's view of the municipal finances, but was a little startled to hear how badly the national banking crisis has affected our city. While of course the city does a lot of things, its present finances can be summarized as mainly consisting of two things: the pension system and the management of police/fire/corrections.
Mayors of this city for several decades have been following the national pattern of government to transfer its deficits to the pension funds of the employees. That has the effect of shifting the cost of present operations into the far future and avoiding present confrontations by promising even more generous pension benefits in the future. Over time, the future gets closer and closer; to a large degree, it is right now. Pension funds are largely independent organizations, supposedly receiving current contributions to be invested for future distribution. That requires an assumption about how much investment growth will be achieved in the meantime, now set by the Philadelphia Board of Pensions at 9%. That's not impossible to achieve in some medium-term intervals. But it's optimistic, even inconceivable, for long-haul investing; over periods of thirty or more years, most experts say that 4% is about all anyone gets. More to the point, 9% is particularly unachievable right now, in the present crash of national financial markets. That's bad enough, but repeated shortfalls in contributions to the fund have left it funded at 53% of the calculated requirement to pay the pensions of the future, even using the unrealistic 9% return assumption. A few years ago, Mayor Rendell worried about the underfunding and brought it up to 70% with a billion-dollar bond issue. Unfortunately, the crash in the markets has brought it right back down to 53% again. So, it's fair to say the pension fund is a couple of billion dollars short, even if you accept a 9% income accumulation -- which you probably can't, but at least it brings the pension fund to 70% funding in forty years. Call it four billion dollars short, just to be conservative, since it is presently admitted to being two billion. That isn't Mayor Nutter's fault, but it's sure his problem; and if it gets worse, it will be seen as his fault.
The other expense item of note includes 42% of the budget in the police, fire and prisons systems (education is handled separately through the school board). If you fired all those people, or they quit, we wouldn't have a city, we would have a jungle. But the Controller describes all three as terribly mismanaged, with the local police stations in a deplorable state of disrepair and degradation, bathrooms you wouldn't think of using, and so on. The fire department has only a minor number of fires to fight, perhaps four or five hundred a year, but it includes the emergency rescue services which respond to a couple hundred thousand calls a year. The rescue people report to the firemen, and there is social friction between the two, working to the disadvantage of rescue. It costs about $500 to respond to a call, and it isn't entirely satisfactory to send a fire truck to help someone with a heart attack. The Controller had a number of horror stories about administrative mismanagement in this area. As far as prisons go, everybody knows prisons are bad places, and ours are no exception. Confrontation with the unions is definitely in the future for the Mayor, and the city is going to be in pretty bad shape if he doesn't win some arguments.
That's the expense side of the municipal budget; the revenue side is equally gloomy. The offhand comment was that real estate taxes could double without bringing the pension system under control for twenty years. If our taxes are significantly higher than neighboring cities, or even just the same as in cities with superior uniformed services, it will be hard to attract and hold business taxpayers, causing municipal finance to spiral downward. Along the course of this patter-song, it isn't exactly reassuring to learn that it now takes the City 21 days to process a check and that absenteeism in some departments runs to 20%. We've heard a lot of denunciation of Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg in New York, but their absenteeism runs 3% because investigators are sent to the house of an absentee, who is subject to court martial if he isn't home.
Somewhere in this nightmare lurks the hidden migration of the unionized workers. Starting with Mayor Rizzo or even earlier, the uniformed services were the main political support of the Democrat political machine. Quietly, they have moved out to the suburbs where the schools are better and the taxes are lower, and it is now said that 70% of union workers live (and vote) outside the city limits. The unions talk tough, bluffing through the uncertainty when their members can no longer provide the votes to be so fearsome. To some degree, their weakening political power is augmented by using their pension funds to provide construction loans for new commercial real estate. Some of that political clout is used up by the need to get zoning variances and tax abatements for the projects. A lot of these power shifts are hard to assess from the outside, but a trend is clear.
The controller didn't mention it, but the city is not only a pension investor in bonds but also an issue. Interest rates are about as low as they can get while the Federal funds rate is nearly zero, so there is only one direction they can go in the future -- sooner or later they will go up. By the iron law of bond financing, the value of the underlying principle will then go down. That could provide an opportunity to buy them back at lower prices, or it could break the city's financial back financing higher interest payments. However, for the pension fund side of things, exactly the opposite is true. Maybe Hizzoner can tap-dance around these dangers and opportunities, but most mayors would have trouble pronouncing the words.
It's part of the job description for the controller to be a pessimist. But the most you can make of this mournful dirge is to hope he is completely wrong.
The Right Angle Club was recently edified at lunch about wind-power generated electricity, by Craig Poff of Iberdrola Renewables, the largest producer of renewable-source electricity in the world. Iberdrola is a Spanish firm, headquartered in Bilboa where they have Basques, near where the Spanish Armada once started its ill-fated journey to battle Sir Francis Drake. Furthermore, it's near where there are caves with wall paintings several thousand years old. Craig is pure American, however, with a background in real estate sales. That isn't as remote a connection as it may sound, because it takes several years and a lot of salesmanships to assemble the leases necessary to create a windmill farm.
We've all seen photographs of these silvery towers, with what looks like aluminum propellers glinting in the sun. They are actually made out of fiberglass in much the same way boats are made, and quite often both are made in the Trenton region. So to speak, two hollow clamshells are held together with masking tape to form a propeller blade. Eventually, it revolves slowly, slowly in the wind, starting around 15 miles per hour, and getting turned off when the wind gets so fast it's dangerous. The blades modify their pitch at different speeds, and the entire contraption rotates to meet the wind. Sometimes one windmill will "steal" the wind from its neighbor, so the middle ones get turned down or turned off. There are local "met masts" to measure the wind and its direction and respond with appropriate directions via computers. There are also regional computer centers, and finally, electric power distribution is controlled by computers in Bilbao. Electricity can't be stored very well, so sometimes a perfectly good wind must be ignored when electricity isn't needed. Scientists are working on big batteries, and also on storing energy by pumping water uphill into storage reservoirs or compressing air into caves. Storing wasted electricity is a major issue, and high hopes are held out for innovation in batteries.
|Senator Ted Kennedy|
A typical tower is about 123 meters high, with a wingspan of about 300 feet; the towers are separated by roughly 1500 feet, but by much more when they are downwind. It's easy to see how negotiations with local farmers can be difficult, requiring months of public relations in a new community. Sometimes they encounter someone like Senator Ted Kennedy, who just plain dislikes how windmills look. Negotiations have to be conducted to obtain access roads to the wind farm, and access to the power transmission grid. Negotiations have to be conducted both before and after construction to satisfy game commissions who worry about the birds and the bats. As it works out, a farmer gets about $7000 a year to lease out his land, but windier areas are more prized, so jealous bargaining abounds. It's probably no wonder only 2% of electric power is presently generated this way, even though Pennsylvania law requires the power companies to reach 18% by 2020. Requires? What's the reasoning behind that? At present, the windmill nearest to Philadelphia is in Pottsville.
It's nice this electricity gets generated by a source so clean, which also can't be shut off by the Iranians. But awkwardly it's expensive to make electricity this way, particularly if you include the subsidies it enjoys. Yes, yes, it's true that lots of things are receiving dubious subsidies, and some of them are competitors to wind power. But the unwillingness of wind power advocates to acknowledge the relative costs of their product suggests to any skeptic that relative costs must be extremely high, indeed. Yes, it's clean, but it's expensive and needs a subsidy. Industries that consume large amounts of power have been offered power purchase agreements that constitute a hedge against future cost volatility for many years in the future. That's both a hedge against rising costs and a promise of reliability; some businesses will pay for that. The competitive economics are that the initial cost of wind power is quite high, but future maintenance costs are quite low. More typically, most household consumers feel they have a right to know more precisely what the competitive prices really are, absent loss leaders, subsidies and hype. When we know that for sure, we consumers will decide whether a somewhat cleaner environment is worth the price. The investors in this technology must gamble they can persuade us that it is, and one can be fairly certain competitive energy producers will seek to persuade us that it isn't. What the farmers who lease their land think, also matters. But the farmers will mostly matter in the legislature voting on clean air mandates, where city dwellers tend to lose their influence. You can sort of see how the legislators think: the farmers know how much they have been offered for the land leases, but the city dwellers can only guess at how clean the environment will get, and how much the electric costs will rise.
|President George Washington|
"It is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity, watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can, in any event, be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of any attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts."
Stuart Taylor, who spent twenty years working for the Pennsylvania Railroad in the company of our member Bill Brady, recently gave the Right Angle Club his observations about urban transportation, which grew out of his second career as a consultant. As he describes the evolution from the horse-drawn omnibus carriage to the horse-drawn trolleycar, to the steam-driven trolley, to the electric trolley, to the underground subway, certain parallel historic movements occurred to at least one member of this audience.
|Horse-Drawn Trolley Car|
In the first place, mass transportation is only of value when cities grow to a large enough size to justify the expense. And the growth of cities in the 19th Century was propelled by the Industrial Revolution attracting mass immigration into urban centers. Whether the Industrial Revolution is over or not, is a topic which could be debated, but it was the gasoline engine which made buses and autos attractive, and the decaying slums made cities sufficiently unattractive to cause the flight to the suburbs in the 1920s and 1930s, heavily resumed after World War II in the 1950s. During the heyday of city growth, the evolution of mass transit seemed to be driven by technology, and that in turn attracted private ownership. When the gasoline engine and/or the decline of the Industrial Revolution made the Flight to the Suburbs possible, it made urban transportation unprofitable and hence unattractive to private business owners. Somewhere just before or after the 1929 Crash, the changing situation made it more attractive to live and/or work in the suburbs. A sign of this change in dynamics was the total disappearance of private ownership of public transportation and its supporting infrastructure, and replacement by public ownership and public tax subsidy. As local politics began to reflect this change, Urban politics somehow became dominated by Democrats, and Suburban politics became dominated by Republicans; so the enthusiasm for mass transit has waxed and waned as the political domination of federal subsidies has shifted between the parties. That's probably only an outward sign, however. The real issue is that urban transportation now has to be subsidized since its base has shrunk to the point where people like Widener and Elkins invest in other things. And do so from their homes in exurbia, where the neighbors could care less about subways, let alone pay taxes to subsidize them. And until the city gets control of its crime, public schools, and taxes, it's hard to see what will attract them back in town.
That's perhaps an overly censorious view, coming from a resident of the suburbs. A more economic view of things would be that the construction of underground subways now costs about a billion dollars a mile. Very few cities and no private entrepreneurs can justify costs of that magnitude since the potential ridership cannot afford the costs per ride which are implicit in that capital expenditure. Until the cities can manage to entice the suburbanites back into town, those people will solve their air pollution problems by avoiding the cities. Living to the windward seems much more plausible to them. China is just beginning this process, but they have the advantage of building the subways first, then the surrounding skyscrapers, and thus greatly reducing the costs of avoiding underground sewer systems, etc. If you could call it that, the Europeans had the advantage of massive war destruction, along with much more expensive farmland to inhibit suburbanization. None of this is an argument that we shouldn't build subways, or clean up the atmosphere. It's just a warning of the daunting construction costs and staunch political opposition to mass transit. Not to mention featherbedding, over-hiring, massive hidden benefits costs, and other features which seem to be inherent in union activity, at least of the historical variety.
A member of the Right Angle audience asked the speaker what he thought of the proposed Market Street light rail line. Insane, was the answer. No visible ridership. And that seemed to summarize the present debate.
Except that it really shouldn't frame the argument for Philadelphia. Philadelphia doesn't need a mass transit network, it already has a mass transit network. Much of it is growing obsolete, but the land costs and local opposition to change are greatly diminished when the network is already there. If any city can do it, Philadelphia can. The technology will surely evolve enough for our purposes if the money is there, and the money will be there if people return to using the city. What Philadelphia needs is a return of business headquarters and other sources of employment, bringing the ridership and the public demand along with it. And for that, what is essentially needed is for government to address our problems of uncontrolled crime, inferior public schools and maladministered taxes.
The rise of the Tea Party movement in 2010 reopens a lifetime question in my mind. What was the American Revolutionary War all about; surely, a tax on tea isn't outrageous enough to go to war over, is it? It only aggravates curiosity to learn this particular law passed by the British Parliament, actually lowered the price of tea.
A somewhat different importance for the 21st Century is, of all the dozens or even hundreds of little civil wars that have popped up in the past two centuries, this American one seems to have had the biggest impact on the thoughts and behavior of the civilized world. The French Revolution comes close, but we meant to speak of persuasive influence on serious minds, not merely bloodiness and lasting grievance. Here are three suggestions, maybe four.
In retrospect, we can see the outlines of three major revolutions, coming together at the end of the 18th Century. The first is the Industrial Revolution, which had its beginnings in England around the city of Manchester. That was a region of major Quaker concentration, many of whom migrated to William Penn's social experiment in seeing what peace could do. The Industrial Revolution flourished in Great Britain far more readily than in France, and in a sense more than in America. But of the three major countries, America had the largest amount of unsettled land and the greatest natural resources of the three major countries. America was able to think bigger and broader, necessarily requiring broad support from an immigrant population. Diversity was often later to prove a mixed blessing, but in the Industrial Revolution it was vital.
|Dissent, French Style|
The second major revolution taking place at that time concerned the place of property in the life of every citizen. Up until that time, the King owned all the land and could redistribute it to suit his political needs. What critically mattered was not who formerly owned the land, but rather what was the latest King's latest word on who owned it right now. The American system gravitated to the notion that when the King or any other owner sold the land, it was no longer his; we now think that's quite self-evident. Each successive owner can sell it to his neighbor or bequeath it to his heirs, and at that moment it is no longer his, either. This idea of private property spread throughout the world, but in America, it was a clean sweep. Adopting the rather brutal rough justice of the frontier, the Indian prior ownership just didn't count. They had sided with the British in our revolution and were insistently resistant to assimilation. And anyway, Pope Nicholas in the 13th Century had established the notion of first discovery, which applied to Christians, only, and so Indians didn't count. Fair or unfair, this was going to be the way it was, from that point forward from 1787 when the Constitution was enacted. The longer the situation lasted, the more unlikely it became that it would ever change. America had so much land and so little coinage, that land itself became a sort of monetary standard. The particular American advantage was there was so much land that early settlers and landed gentry could not monopolize it; from meaning land at first, property soon meant any valuable possession. No King, particularly not George III, was going to take this away from the whole population on this side of the Atlantic. England could do as it pleased with its land and its King. If we needed Independence to preserve a general right to hold private property, plenty of men were willing to die to achieve it. And the whole Western world soon followed our example.
The third revolution was the one you read about, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill and the Tea Act. That whole chain of events chronicles how America came to be Independent but somehow fails to explain why we wanted Independence. The Industrial and the Property revolutions explain it better, but such theorizing would certainly mystify the Revolutionaries themselves.
And finally, one begins to wonder if we aren't toying with a reversion to the ideas underlying monarchy when we examine some currently widespread views. There's a notion going about that everybody owns everything, which if carried to an extreme means no one owns anything. When you can notice people who live on the 70th floor of a Manhattan apartment building, proclaiming a right to tell Alaskans whether or not they can drill for oil, you behold this monarchy of the many. And when you see prosperous educated adults shouting at rallies, you can see Alaskans, for example, want to tell New Yorkers to mind their own business. This land, they seem to say, isn't everybody's at all, it is mine.
It never really was entirely the King's, either. The King was a single person, sometimes a rather brutal one who wasn't likely to tolerate advice from his subjects. At times of crisis, somebody has to make a decision, any decision, and act on it. But most of the time, kings seemed to be in the position of that Czar. The one who said, "I don't rule Russia. Ten thousand clerks rule Russia."
President John Kennedy's sister was mentally retarded; he is given credit for immense transformation of American attitudes about the topic. Until his presidency, mental retardation was viewed as a shame to be hidden, kept in the closet. Institutions to house them were underfunded and located in far remote corners of a state. Out of mind. And while it goes too far to say there is no shame and no underfunding today, we have gone a long way, with new laws forcing states to treat these citizens with more official respect, and new social attitudes to treat them with more actual respect. We may not have reached perfection, but we have gone as fast as any nation could be reasonably expected to go.
However, any social revolution has unintended consequences; this one has big ones, surfacing unexpectedly in the public school system. For example, the king-hating founding fathers were very resistant to top-down government, so federal powers were strongly limited. So, although John Kennedy can be admired for leadership, the federal government which he controlled only contributes about 6% of the cost of what it has ordered the schools to do, and the rest of the cost is divided roughly equally between state and municipal governments. As the cost steadily grows, special education has become a poster child for "unfunded mandates", increasingly annoying to the governments who did not participate in the original decision. We seem to be waking up to this dilemma just at a time when the federal government is encountering strong resistance to further spending of any sort. The states and municipal governments have always been forced to live within their annual budgets, unable to print money, hence unable to borrow without limit. As Robert Rubin said to Bill Clinton when he proposed some massive spending, "The bond market won't let you."
The cost of bringing mentally handicapped individuals back into the community is steadily growing, in the face of a dawning recognition that we are talking about 8% of the population. Take a random twelve school children, and one of them will be mentally handicapped to the point where future employability is in question; that's what 8% means. Since they are handicapped, they consume 13% of the average school budget and growing. The degree of impairment varies, with the worst cases really representing medical problems rather than educational ones. Small wonder there is friction between the Departments of Education and the Medicaid Programs, multiplying by two the frictions between federal, state and municipal governments into six little civil wars, times fifty. An occasional case is so severe that its extreme costs are able to upset a small school budget entirely by itself, tending to convert the poor subject into a political hot potato, regularly described by everybody as someone else's responsibility. There are 9 million of these individuals in public schools, 90,000 in private schools. They consume as much as 20% of some public school district budgets.
All taxes, especially new ones, are bitterly resisted in a recession. Unfortunately, the school budgets are put under pressure everywhere by a growing recognition that our economic survival in a globalized economy depends on getting nearly everybody into college. Nearly everybody wants more education money to be devoted to the college-bound children at a time when there is less of it; devoting 13% of that strained budget to children with limited prospects of even supporting themselves, comes as a shock. Recognizing these facts, the parents of such handicapped children redouble their frenzy to do for them what they can, while the parents are still alive to do it. It's a tough situation because a simultaneous focus on specialized treatment for both the gifted and the handicapped is irreconcilably in conflict with the goal of integrating the two into a diverse and harmonious school community, with equal justice to all.
As school budgets thus get increasingly close scrutiny by anxious taxpayers, handicapped children come under pressure from a different direction. It seems to be a national fact that slightly more than half of the employees of almost any school system are non-teaching staff. Without any further detail, most parents anxious about college preparation are tempted to conclude that teaching is the only thing schools are meant to do. And a few parents who are trained in management will voice the adage that "when you cut, the first place to cut is ADMIN." Since educating mentally handicapped children requires more staff who are not exactly academic teachers, this is one place the two competing parent aspirations come to the surface.
Unfortunately, the larger problem is worse than that. When the valedictorian graduates, the hometown municipal government is rid of his costs. But when a handicapped person gets as far in the school system as abilities will permit, there is still a potential of state dependence for the rest of a very long life. The child inevitably outlives the parents, the full costs finally emerge. We have dismantled the state homes for the handicapped, integrating the handicapped into the community. But when the parents are gone, we see how little help the community is really prepared or able, to give.
Soon after discovering widespread hard and soft coal, Pennsylvania found in Bradford County it also had oil. Local oil was particularly "sweet", with a low sulfur content. Long after much cheaper oil (cheaper to extract, that is) was found in Texas and Arabia, Pennsylvania oil was prized for the special purpose of lubricating engines, which commanded a higher price. This discovery of oil in the western part of the state also provided a vital competitive advantage for local railroads. Other east-west railroads like the New York Central and the Baltimore and Ohio lacked a dependable return cargo like this, so the Pennsylvania Railroad lowered prices and became the main line to the west for a century. Refineries were built in Philadelphia, and continue to dominate Atlantic coast gasoline production, even though the source of crude oil is mostly from Africa. When oil and coal declined in use, Pennsylvania's industrial mightiness declined, too. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh lost much of their competitive advantage, while the center of the state just about went to sleep. When even Texas oil later ran low, America's industry turned to computer-improved productivity to keep its prices competitive, helping California at the expense of Pennsylvania. The bleakness for Pennsylvania may not last, however. Suddenly, we discover we have another enormous source of cheap energy, shale gas.
It's rather deep, however, even deeper than our supply of fresh water. The next layer below surface minerals is porous rock filled with fresh water, the so-called aquifer. Gas bearing shale is layered just under the aquifer. We'll return to the aquifer later.
There is and will be abundant oil in the world, well into the future; but cheap oil has been selectively depleted. When military and economically weak nations like the Persian Gulf had cheap oil, only transportation costs were irksome. But now Russia is emerging as an oil-rich state, previously impoverished states like Iran are asserting themselves, the existence of an international oil cartel becomes more threatening because it reinforces oil price with military threats. Raw material discoveries -- gold rushes -- are always destabilizing because they are tempting to the dictator mindset. That's known in the political literature as the source of the "Dutch Disease", not because Netherlanders are aggressive, but because North Sea oil discoveries destabilized the politics of even that little peaceful nation. America has now made a universal decision to establish energy independence. It once was credible to make predictions that in a decade or two, we would run out of competitively priced energy. To be both rich and weak invites aggression and we knew it.
There's little question America is profligate with its energy, so the need for energy conservation is undisputed. Actually, we are already five times more efficient with energy use than China is; furthermore, we have improved energy efficiency by 20% while China has defiantly worsened. We'll do better, but unfortunately, our immense investments in inefficient home heating and transportation are too costly to discard abruptly in both cases. There is also little question that American research and development of alternative energy sources has been neglected, while China is subsidizing R & D appreciably. In our frenzy, converting food into gasoline by subsidy is a bad joke, electric cars are subsidized and widely described as "Welfare buggies", wind power is twice as costly as carbon-sourced energy and needs better battery development to be able to store it, atomic energy has been encouraged by the French government, but totally held back by ours, in response to public anxieties. The long and the short of it is this: we face a fifteen-year period of doubtful energy sources, a vulnerability our international competitors and enemies might easily use against us.
And then along came shale gas, like a gleaming savior on a white horse. For seventy-five years, the world has known unlimited amounts of petrol carbons are locked into vast stores of shale. Unfortunately, it is buried deep, and located where it is expensive to transport to market. The techniques for extracting such carbons were unacceptably expensive in a world that shrugged off abundant oil. Politics and geology turned against us; we now need fifteen years of catch-up to make alternative energy sources more affordable. Cheap oil ran out before non-carbon sources became practical. But miraculously shale gas is now upon us, right here in Pennsylvania. It takes a long time to map out the existence of shale from Canada to Texas, when it is 8000 feet deep; it was first recognized in 1839 from a cliff outcrop around the little town of Marcellus, New York and vigorously explored in the disappointed hope it would lead to discoveries of bituminous coal, iron ore or other minerals. Land speculators have been roaming Pennsylvania for two centuries. Now, they are offering $5000 an acre plus royalties, just for the right to drill. In 2010, probably 5000 leases will be issued. Needless to say, the discovery is popular with local farmers, and "gas fever" has enormous political momentum. With techniques discovered around Fort Worth, Texas, about 10% of the existing gas can be extracted easily, serving America's energy needs for much of the 15 years required to make renewable, non-fossil, energy cheap and practical. This long history paradoxically accounts for the apparent suddenness of the current popularity; it's not a new mineral discovery, it is the development of practical extraction methodology at a critical political and marketing moment.
And equally needless to say, the environmental movement is being called to its barricades. Whatever is their objection to drilling for gas, 8000 feet below the surface of a wilderness? In the first place, just cutting roads through the forests is destructive to migrating and local bird populations. In a well-known process of "fragmentation", the cutting of roads allows an invasion of raccoons and similar bird predators. Forest fragmentation simply cannot be avoided if drilling rigs are to enter and leave the forests; some vulnerable bird species are bound to go extinct. This particular region is particularly prone to emissions of radon, which is a radioactive gas traveling along the stone layer and occasionally entering the basement of houses; will drilling through to the shale layer make radon seepage better or worse? Furthermore, since this sedimentary shale layer lies underneath the aquifer, drilling must go through the freshwater-bearing caverns before it gets to the shale; expensive sealing methods may be needed to keep the contaminants below from seeping up through and around the drill holes. The practice of fracturing the shale by high-pressure mixtures raises issues with water, sand, and chemicals. Water consumption is millions of gallons per year per well, seemingly enough to drain the rivers and creeks. Some operators will be tempted to use the aquifer as a surreptitious source of water, leading to consequences hard to anticipate. The sand is meant to support the walls of the rock fractures but may clog up other channels unintentionally. And the composition of the chemical drilling components is a trade secret which the extraction companies naturally wish to keep private; it's pretty hard to get public approval of a secret. So to sum it all up, there is a legitimate need to hurry the drilling, and there are legitimate environmental safety issues to be addressed, slowing it all down. New York State has passed laws prohibiting further drilling. Is that an opportunity for Pennsylvania, or a warning we should heed?
|Where's My Aquifer?|
This is a time for serious negotiation, and the spending of serious amounts of money on study and monitoring, not for shouting. Politicians sense you can't make omelets without breaking eggs. For them, it's a question whether to choose to be blamed for the inevitable problems of exploring new science, or whether to be blamed for lack of patriotism in a national emergency. The amount of heedless rhetoric is predictably extreme, and the money available to spin it is daunting. If there is anything resembling a middle road in this uproar, let's explore it. In the first place, some sensible discussion between scientists of both sides can be held immediately. Geologists are probably unaware of issues like forest fragmentation, while naturalists are probably unfamiliar with radon hazards and available drilling precautions. Some concerns are exaggerated, some are unsuspected; let's get the experts together quickly and establish most of the knowns and unknowns before popular media runs away with the issue. Let's get the responsible leaders of the gas extraction industry into continuous dialogue with the responsible leaders of environmental protection organizations, so wars they get dragged into are real and not hysterical. Let Congress consider the issue and appropriate funds immediately to study the issues everybody agrees need to be addressed. It seems very likely the huge corporations involved in this issue will rather easily agree among themselves on responsible positions unless they get rattled by overly vocal denunciations. Since this is a gold rush, however, it is also likely that underfunded small operators will start to employ short-cuts and rush heedlessly into dangerous territory; large operators will wish to have laws passed to restrain everybody, small operators will plead fairness. The more transparency this field has, the better. And the most immediately obvious area of resistance to transparency is the natural wish to protect trade secrets in the composition of drilling fluids. In time, the other continents of the world will develop satisfactory drilling fluids; the secret won't last long. The situation cries out for the large operators to negotiate among themselves so those who have an incentive to protect secrecy can tell us how to do it responsibly, while those with a political incentive to expose secrets can be offered time limits related to the how fast the rest of the world catches up. Politicians particularly need to be offered some mechanism for assuring the public about those secret injection ingredients.
Anyway, let's negotiate a way to take chances we have to take, but avoid the costly blunders of studying the issue to death. Hurry up, folks, it's a matter of time before problems have to be faced.
Recently, Jason Duckworth of Arcadia Land Company entertained the Right Angle Club with a description of his business. Most people who build a house engage an architect and builder, never giving a thought to who might have designed the streets, laid the sewers, strung out the power and telephone lines, arranged the zoning and otherwise designed the town their house is in. But evidently it is a very common practice for a different sort of builder to do that sort of wholesale infrastructure work -- privatizing municipal government, so to speak. A great deal of what such a wholesale builder does involves wrestling with existing local government in one way or another, getting permits and all that. In a sense, the existing power structure is giving away some of its authority and does so very cautiously. Sometimes that involves suing somebody or getting sued by somebody. Perhaps even greater braking-power on unwelcome change is that the wholesale builder is in debt until the last few plots are sold, and realizes his profit on stragglers. Since it often happens that the last few plots are the least desirable ones, this is a risky business. Big risks must be balanced by big profit potential, and one of the risks of this sort of privatization is that too much consideration may be given to the players at the front end, the farmer who sells the land and the builder who must keep costs down, at the expense of the long-range interests of the people who eventually live in the new town. Top-down decision making is much more efficient, but its price is decreased responsiveness to citizen preferences.
As it happens, Arcadia specializes in towns designed to look like those built in the late 19th Century. Close together, a front door near the sidewalks, front porches for summer evenings. To enhance the feeling of being in an older village, Arcadia specifies certain rules for the architecture, to make it seem like Narberth or, well, Haddonfield. Until recently, suburban design emphasized larger plots of land, and few sidewalks, with streets often ending in cul-de-sacs instead of perpendicular cross-streets in the form of squares. The "new urbanism" appealed to those who were seeking greater privacy, revolving around the idea that if you wanted anything you drove your car to get it. Three-car garages were common, groceries came from distant shopping centers. There are still plenty of new towns built like that today, but Arcadia appeals to those who want to be close to their neighbors, want to meet them at the local small stores scattered among the houses. In the 19th Century, this sort of town design was oriented around a factory or market-place; since now there are seldom factories to orient around, the appeal is to two-income families who want to live in an environment of similar-minded contemporaries. The whole community is much more pedestrian-oriented, much less attached to multiple automobiles.
Since Mr. Duckworth mentioned Haddonfield, where I live, I have to comment that the success of living in a town with older houses depends a great deal on the existence of a willing, capable yeomanry. Older houses, constantly at risk of needing emergency maintenance, need available plumbers, roofers, carpenters, and handy-men of all sorts. Because it is hard to tell a good one from a bad one until too late, this yeomanry has to be linked together invisibly in a network of pride in the quality of each other's work and willingness to refer customers within a network that sustains that pride. A tradesman who is a newcomer to the community has to prove himself, first to his customers, and almost more importantly to his fellow tradesmen. If you happen to pick a bad one, good workmen in other trades are apt to seem mysteriously reluctant to deal with you as a customer, because you too are somewhat on trial. Maybe you don't pay your bills, or maybe you are picky and quarrelsome. In this way, the whole community is linked together in a hidden community of trust. Over time, the whole town develops certain recognizable social characteristics that a brand-new town doesn't yet need. If that time arrives without a network of reliable tradesmen, the town soon deteriorates, house prices fall, people move away.
It's curious that the residents of such a town are a breed apart from the merchants in the nearby merchant strip. If the merchants of town life in that same town, there is much less conflict. More commonly, however, the merchants rent their commercial space and commute from distant places. That disenfranchises them from voting on school taxes and local ordinances and creates a merchantile mentality as contrasted with a resident community, dominated by high school students. One group wants lower taxes, the other group wants to get their kids into Harvard. One group wants space for customer parking, the other group is opposed to asphalt lots. And in particular, the residents want to avoid garish storefronts and abandoned strip malls. Since the only group which has an influence on both sides of this friction are the local real estate agents and landlords, their behavior is critical to the image of the town. When real estate interests are not residents of the town it is ominous, and they are well advised to remember that the sellers of houses are the ones who choose a real estate agent for a house turn-over. There's more to this dynamic than just that, but it's a good place to begin your analysis. Suburban real estate interests are constantly tempted to get into local politics, but politicians are the umpires in this game, and it soon becomes bad for their business if real estate agents potentially put their thumb on the scales.
All politics is local, but all real estate is not entirely local. The present intrusion of the Federal Government into what is normally a purely local issue has become more pointed in the present real estate recession. Almost all mortgages are packaged and sensitized by "Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac". By overpaying for the mortgages they package, these two federal agencies are subsidizing the banks they buy the mortgages from. Or, that is half of the subsidy. The other half is the Federal Reserve, which presently lends money to banks at essentially zero interest. Acquiring free money from the "Fed", while selling mortgages to Fannie Mae at above-market rates, the federal government supports the banks at both ends. And that's not quite all; there is something called the FHA, Federal Housing Authority, which guarantees mortgages. Essentially an insurance policy, the FHA guarantee is issued for a cost to home buyers who meet standards set by Congress (for which, read Barney Frank and Chris Dodd). Although houses during the boom were selling for 18 times the estimated rental value, they are now selling for 15 times rental. FHA will insure such risks, but the banks won't lend more than the normal proportion, which is 12 times rental. Consequently, almost all mortgages are FHA insured, while the federal administration storms with a fury that the banks "won't lend". And indeed it begins to look as though banks will never issue uninsured mortgages until home prices fall another 25%. If home real estate prices do decline to a normal 12 times rental, a lot of people (i.e. voters) will be unhappy, and not just homeowners who bought at higher prices. The market is fairly screaming that you should sell your house and rent, but so far at least, these federal subsidies seem to be holding prices up. When normal pricing arrives, the recession is just about over, but it certainly won't feel that way if you are a seller.
The Right Angle Club of Philadelphia recently heard two presentations on newer investment strategies, one by our member on hedge funds and private equity, and a week later by his guest from Black Rock, on ETF funds. For the purpose of this review, both presentations ultimately got around to the same issue.
In the case of private equity, the investor purchases a share of aggregated profits from a company in the business of buying a substantial or controlling interest in corporations, usually underpriced or underperforming ones. And then, the private equity fund attempts either to fix up the company and sell it or fix it up and hold it indefinitely. Whether or not he achieves a profit, the individual investor in the fund loses the opportunity to vote the shares, or has it offered in such an awkward way the opportunity is meaningless.
A hedge fund similarly buys and sells stock on its own account, employing the money of investors, and generally adding huge amounts of borrowed debt. In this case, the stock is often held for such short times that voting rights are lost in the registration requirements. Taken as a whole, however, the issue is substantial, since it is reported that 70% of recent transactions have been conducted by unattended computers operating by pre-arranged contingency instructions, often responding in fractions of a second. While the resulting immobilization of voting rights is substantial, the main problem with hedge funds has been the way very small profits have been magnified by staggering amounts of borrowing, potentially causing very large losses if the transaction system is slowed for whatever reason. While hedge funds did perform well during the 2007-2009 crash, it will be 2012 before the incredible volume of transactions can be analyzed to see how close we were to disaster. There is definitely a risk in doing nothing, but probably less than the risk of ill-informed legislation making matters worse in some way.
In the case of ETF, the operator or "manufacturer" of the fund attempts to buy blocks of stock in all or representative samples of the companies listed on some index, weighted in proportion to their weight in the index. The intent is never to sell that stock, merely evaluating the fund price and its dividends as a mathematical exercise, and repurchasing or reselling the calculated bundle to other investors, but never disturbing the contents of the bundle unless the index changes its composition.
In all third-party investing cases except hedge funds, the advantage is that reduced tax and transaction activity saves costs, and avoiding internal selling of stock means essentially no taxes are payable until the investor ultimately sells the fund. The managers of funds maintain that these tax and overhead savings completely compensate for losing whatever opportunities for profit would come along and be exploited by expensive "active" managing of the funds. (Some investment funds employ more Ph.D.'s than any American University does.) Even if the performance turns out to be somewhat lower, there is a safety factor of exactly matching the averages, and thus agreeing to surrender the opportunity to join half of the universe of investors in beating the average, in order to avoid joining the other half of investors in doing worse. Furthermore, distributing the investment over a large group of corporations confers diversification, and thus surrendering the chance of a windfall profit in return for avoiding the occasional disastrous loss. In a sense, the fund investor no longer hopes for a company to do well, he hopes for the whole nation to do well. Summarizing the details, these funds provide safety of diversification and reduction of turnover costs, in return for assured but marginal above-average performance. Since this outcome is so greatly superior to the actual experience of non-professional investors overall, it is highly attractive to many investors and should be attractive to more of them.
In addition to these common features, the hedge funds and private equity expose the investor to the risks and rewards of choosing a skillful manager, who may or may not choose the portfolio wisely, and who may or may not use leverage wisely. The choice of portfolio companies, on average, justify a greater degree of borrowing as their quality improves, and all investment borrowing involves a risk that interest rates may go up for reasons unrelated to the investment. In the recent debacle, hedge funds did comparatively well, but nevertheless, there are times when it is unwise to borrow against even the safest securities. And finally, because of the risk of stock market raids by outsiders, hedge funds are quite secretive about their portfolio contents and force the investor to "lock in" his illiquid investment for several years at a time.
There remains one characteristic of both funds, and for that matter mutual funds, annuities, life insurance and all other forms of aggregated investing through a third party. The third party retains the right to vote the shares, admittedly with some little-used and generally unworkable opportunities for investors to request their own proxies. Such third parties almost always vote the shares in their custody in favor of management. There are occasional exceptions, as when union-managed funds will vote their shares in a political manner, or as when some mutual funds attempt to obtain pension fund business in return for cooperation on selected proxies, or in one legendary story the custodian was instructed: "Always vote AGAINST any management proposal." But these are presently exceptional situations. In the vast majority of cases, the proxy votes effectively disappear, and control of the companies in the portfolio gradually gravitates into the hands of those few stockholders who retain direct ownership and take the trouble to vote it. In fact, it is increasingly the case that the most effective way to frustrate a management proposal is not to vote against it, but to abstain entirely, in the hope that a quorum cannot be assembled.
Another popular movement augments this unfortunate situation. Increasingly, it is urged that top management be paid substantial parts of its reimbursement by stock in the company or options on it. The argument is that it is important to align the motives of top management with the rest of the stockholders. Reflecting concern about some recent events, such stock is or should be forced to bear the covenant that it may not be voted in a stock take-over by an outside raider, to frustrate the commonly used inducement to the manager to sell out his stockholders in a merger. Even when this particular contingency has been foreseen and prevented, the effect of increasing the shares in the hand of management and decreasing the voting shares in the hand of the outside public by freezing them in third-party funds -- soon puts the idea in the heads of managers that they own the company. The recent public indignation about inordinately high salaries for top management, can in large part be traced to the plain fact that voting control of the companies is visibly shifting into the hands of the people who receive those salaries.
|King George III|
BECAUSE America had recently revolted to rid itself of King George III, the Constitutional framers of 1787 sought to construct a government forever free from one-man rule. Inefficiency could be accepted but central dictatorial power, never. It is unrealistic however to expect a wind-up toy to keep working forever, and our Constitution creates the same worry. After two centuries, some chinks have appeared.
Political parties existed in 18th Century England and Europe, but the American founding fathers seem not to have worried about them much. Within ten years of Constitutional ratification, however, Thomas Jefferson had created a really partisan party which naturally provoked the creation of its partisan opposite. James Madison was slowly won over to the idea this was inevitable, but George Washington never budged. Although they were once firm friends, when Madison's partisan position became clear to him, Washington essentially never spoke to him again. Andrew Jackson, with the guidance of Martin van Buren, carried the partisan idea much further toward its modern characteristics, but it was the two Roosevelts who most fully tested the U.S. Supreme Court's tolerance for concentrating new powers in the Presidency, and Obama who recognized that the quickest way to strengthen the Presidency was to weaken the Legislative branch.
Dramatic episodes of this history are not central to present concerns, which focuses more on the largely unnoticed accumulations of small changes which bring us to our present position. Wars and economic crises induced several presidents, nearly as many Republicans as Democrats, to encourage migrations of power advantage which never quite returned to baseline after each crisis. Primary among these migrations was the erosion of the original assumption of perfect equality among individual members of Congress. A new member of Congress today may tell his constituents he will represent them ably, but when he arrives for work he is figuratively given an office in the basement and allowed to sit on empty packing cases. This is not accidental; the slights are intentional warnings from the true masters of power to bumptious new egotists, they will get nothing in their new environment unless they earn it. Not a bad idea? This schoolyard bullying is a very bad idea. If your elected representative is less powerful, you are less powerful.
|Houses of Congress|
Partisan politics begins with vote-swapping, evolves into a system of concentrating the votes of the members into the hands of party leaders, and ultimately creates the potential for declaring betrayal if the member votes his own mind in defiance of the leader. The rules of the "body" are adopted within moments of the first opening gavel, but they took centuries to evolve and will only significantly change direction on those few occasions when newcomers overpower the old-timers, and only then if some rebel among the old timers takes the considerable trouble to help organize them. In the vast majority of cases, after adoption, the opportunity to change the rules is then effectively lost for two years. Even the Senate, with six-year staggered terms, has argued that it is a "continuing body" and need not reconsider its rules except in the face of a serious uprising on some particular point. Both houses of Congress place great weight on seniority, for the very good purpose of training unfamiliar newcomers in obscure topics, and for the very bad purpose of concentrating power in "safe" districts where party leaders are able to exercise iron control of the nominating process. Those invisible bosses back home in the district, able to control nominations in safe districts, are the real powers in Congress. They indirectly control the offices and chairmanships which accumulate seniority in Congress; anyone who desires to control Congress must control the local political bosses, few of whom ever stand for election to any office if they can avoid it. In most states, the number of safe districts is a function of controlling the gerrymandering process, which takes place every ten years after a census. Therefore, in most states, it is possible to predict the politics of the whole state for a decade, by merely knowing the outcome of the redistricting. The rules for selecting members of the redistricting committee in the state legislatures are quite arcane and almost unbelievably subtle. An inquiring newsman who tries to compile a fifty-state table of the redistricting rules would spend several months doing it, and miss the essential points in a significant number of cases. The newspapers who attempt to pry out the facts of gerrymandering are easily gulled into the misleading belief that a good district is one which is round and compact, leading to a front-page picture showing all districts to be the same physical size. In fact, a good district is one where both parties have a reasonable chance to win, depending for a change, on the quality of their nominee.
So that's how the "Will of Congress" is supposed to work, but the process recently has been far less commendable, and in fact, calls into dispute the whole idea of a balance of power between the three branches of government. We here concentrate on the Health Reform Bill ("Obamacare") and the Financial Reform Bill ("Dodd-Frank"), which send the same procedural message even though they differ widely in their central topic. At the moment, neither of these important pieces of legislation has been fully subject to judicial review, so the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet encumbered itself with stare decisis of its own creation.
|Three branches of government|
In both cases, bills of several thousand pages each were first written by persons who if not unknown, are largely unidentified. It is thus not yet possible to determine whether the authors were affiliated with the Executive Branch or the Legislative one; it is not even possible to be sure they were either elected or appointed to their positions. From all appearances, however, they met and organized their work fairly exclusively within the oversight of the Executive Branch. Some weighty members of the majority party in Congress must have had some involvement, but it seems a near certainty that no members of the minority party were included, and even comparatively few members of highly contested districts, the so-called "Blue Dogs" of the majority party. It seems safe to conjecture that a substantial number either represent special interest affiliates or else party faithful from safe districts with seniority. The construction of the massive legislation was conducted in such secrecy that even the sympathetic members of the press were excluded, and it would not be surprising to learn that no person alive had read the whole bill carefully before it was "sent" to Congress. It's fair to surmise that no member of Congress except a few limited members of the power elite of the majority party were allowed to read more than scattered fragments of the pending legislation in time to make meaningful changes.
The next step was probably more carefully managed. No matter who wrote it or what it said, a majority of the relevant committees of both houses of Congress had to sign their names as responsible for approving it. Because of the relatively new phenomenon of live national televising of committee procedure, the nation was treated to the sight of congressmen of both parties howling that they were only given a single day to read several thousand pages of previously secret material -- before being forced to sign approval of it by application of unmentioned pressures enabled by the rules of "the body". When party members in contested districts protested that they would be dis-elected for doing so, it does not take much imagination to surmise that they were offered various appointive offices within the bureaucracy as a consolation. As it turned out, the legislation was only passed narrowly on a straight-party vote, so there can be a considerable possibility of its likely failure if the corruptions of politics had been set aside, with members voting on the merits. Nevertheless, since this degree of political hammering did result in a straight-party vote, it leaves the minority party free to overturn the legislation when it can. The prospect of preventing an overturn in succeeding congresses seems to be premised on "fixing" flaws in the legislation through the issuance of regulations before elections can open the way to overturn of the underlying authorization. Legislative overturn, however, is very likely to encounter filibuster in the Senate, which presently requires 40 votes. Even that conventional pathway is booby-trapped in the case of the Dodd-Frank Law. The Economist magazine of London assigned a reporter to read the entire act, and relates that almost every page of it mandates that the Executive Branch ("The Secretary shall") must take rather vague instructions to write regulations five or ten times as long as the Congressional authorization, giving the specifics of the law. The prospect looms of vast numbers of regulations with the force of law but written by the executive branch, emerging long after the Supreme Court considers the central points, years after the authorizing congressmen have had a chance to read it, and well after the public has rendered final judgment with a presidential election. The underlying principle of this legislation is the hope that it will later seem too disruptive to change a law, even though most of it was never considered by the public or its representatives.
|Bill become a Law|
The "regulatory process" takes place entirely within the Executive branch. Congress passes what it terms "enabling" legislation, containing language to the effect that the Cabinet Secretary shall investigate as needed, decide as needed, and implement as needed, such regulations as shall be needed to carry out the "Will" of Congress. Since the regulations for two-thousand-page bills will almost certainly run to twenty thousand pages of regulations with the force of law, the enabling committee of Congress will be confronted with an impossible task of oversight, and thus will offer few objections. The Appropriations Committees of Congress, on the other hand, are charged with reviewing every government program every year and have the power to throttle what they disapprove of, by the simple mechanism of cutting off the program's funds. Members of the coveted Appropriations Committees are appointed by seniority, come from safe districts, and are attracted to the work by the associated ability to bestow plums on their home districts. By the nature of their appointment process, unworried by the folks back home but entirely beholden to the party bosses, they have the latitude to throttle anything the leadership of their party wants to throttle badly enough. The outcome of such take-no-prisoners warfare is not likely to improve the welfare of the nation, and therefore it is rare that partisan politics are allowed to go so far.
The three branches of government have become unbalanced. These bills were almost entirely written outside of the Legislative branch, and the ensuing regulations will be written in the Executive branch. The founding fathers certainly never envisioned that sweeping modification will be made in the medical industry and the financial industry, against the wishes of these industries, and in any event without convincing proof that the public is in favor. This is what is fundamentally wrong about taking such important decisions out of the hands of Congress; it threatens to put the public at odds with its government.
|Justice George Sutherland|
There is no need to go further than this, harsher words will only inflame the reaction further than necessary to justify a pull-back. And yet, the Supreme Court would do us mercy if it doused these flames; the Supreme Court needs a legal pretext. May we suggest that Justice George Sutherland, who sat on the court seventy years ago, may have sensed the direction of things, short of using a particular word. Justice Sutherland recognized that although it is impractical to waver from the principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse, it is entirely possible for a person of ordinary understanding to read law in its entirety and still be confused as to its intent. He thus created a legal principle that a law may be void if it is too vague to be understood. In particular, a common criminal may be even less able to make a serious analysis. Therefore, at least in criminal cases, a lawyer may well be void for vagueness. In this case, we are not speaking of criminals as defendants or civil cases of alleged damage of one party by a defendant. Here, it is the law itself which gives offense by its vagueness, and Congress which created the vagueness is the defendant. Since we have just gone to considerable length to describe the manner in which Congress is possibly the main victim, this situation may be one of the few remaining ones where a Court of Equity is needed. That is, an obvious wrong needs to be corrected, but no statute seems to cover the matter. The Supreme Court might give some thought to convening itself as a special Court of Equity, on the special point of whether this legislation is void for vagueness.
We indicated earlier that one word was missing in this bill of particulars. That would be needed, to expand the charge to void for intentional vagueness, an assessment which is unflinchingly direct. It suggests that somewhere in at least this year's contentious processes, either the Executive Branch or the officers of the congressional majority party, or both, intended to achieve the latitude of imprecision, that is, to do as it pleased. Anyone who supposes the general run of congressmen voluntarily surrendered such latitude in the Health and Finance legislation, has not been watching much television. Given the present vast quantity of annually proposed legislation, roughly 25,000 bills each session, the passage of a small amount of vague legislation might only justify voiding individual laws, whereas an undue amount of it might additionally justify a reprimand. However, engineering laws which are deliberately vague might rise to the level of impeachment.
Last week I had a cataract extraction; it went well. I now see like an eagle, there was no pain at any time, and it only interrupted my life for about six hours, including travel time. While I suppose there is a chance of complications during the next month after surgery, I'm an optimist and statistics are on my side. As they say in South Philadelphia, faced about it.
Those were of course not the serene thoughts I had in advance of the surgery, which carries certain risks. Persons with myopia like me often have a mismatch in the size of their eyeball and the size of the retina inside so the retina can tear or detach during the first few days after the eyeball's integrity has been pierced. The lens can get stuck and break apart as it is being removed, hemorrhage can occur. The surgeon's hand can slip; he can sneeze at the wrong moment. So, bad things could have happened to me, making my twinge of anxiety entirely justified. But that's all behind me now; I even forgot to ask the surgeon what type of lens he intended to implant so I could argue with him. Let the Captain run the ship. I was surrendering my fate to the largest eye hospital in the country. They perform between fifty and a hundred of these procedures every day, and my surgeon is the chief of the cataract department.
And yet, and yet, I have a few grumbles, leading to some generalizations about health care for the elderly. In the first place, I was told by an administrator who sounded terribly fierce that I had to be there at 8:15 AM, in the company of the person who would drive me home, or they wouldn't do my surgery. I told her I doubted that, so we got off to a poor start. The procedure ought to take less than ten minutes to perform, perhaps twenty if you count the formalities. Furthermore, I was a consultant to that hospital once, and still had a certain amount of standing in the Philadelphia medical community, having once been a trustee of almost everything you can be a trustee of. Sure enough, when my driver and I arrived at 8:15, there were more than fifty others waiting. They finally called my name at 1:30 in the afternoon, and by roughly 2 o'clock I was out of there. I was by no means the last one waiting to be called, and it sort of felt as though we were all treated like logs of wood. While I was inside the operating room, a couple of nurses were chattering, and one said she much preferred to work on weekends because there were no administrators around. I could see what she meant.
To keep this essay from sounding like constant whining, let me tell a little of the history of this operation. Until perhaps twenty years ago, a cataract extraction involved keeping the patient in the hospital after the operation with the head in sandbags, for two full weeks. Now, it takes ten or twenty minutes, and you are free to have lunch with a friend in an hour unless you give in to your driver who has been waiting five hours and wants to go home. The results are far superior, and you don't have to wear glasses that look like the bottom of Coke bottles afterward; in fact, I already see pretty well without any glasses before a week is up. In the past, the great fear was a complication known as sympathetic ophthalmitis, in which disturbing the lens of one eye would set up a sort of allergy which could also make you blind in the other, good, eye.
In the famous Battle of Britain in the Second World War, the British pilots to whom so many owe so much were covered with a plexiglass canopy in a fighter plane called the Spitfire. Enemy machine gun fire would often shatter this canopy, and among a lot of other damages, shards of plexiglass got lodged in the eyeballs of the pilots. For the most part, it was left in place because other injuries needed tending more urgently. Long after the Battle, it finally dawned on a British ophthalmologist that this wasn't supposed to happen, it was supposed to cause sympathetic ophthalmitis and the pilots were supposed to go blind. From this, it was finally deduced that plexiglass was safe to use as a lens implant, a so-called "hard implant". You can still see people walking about with these lenses, recognizable because their eyes seem to glow when the light shines into them, like crocodiles along the Amazon at night.
The second step in the migration to modern cataract surgery was the insight that soft pliable forms of plastic retain a memory of the shape they were molded into. So, the old lens can be scooped, lasered or sucked out of place, and a squeezed-down soft lens can be shoved into the vacated space. Retaining its shape-memory, it springs back into the correct shape for a lens, and you are all set.
And finally, there was the stitch. If you cut into the side of the cornea, you have to stitch it up after you are through. And then later you have to remove the stitch. An eye surgeon who should be more famous if he were more popular then invented a form of curved incision which did not requite a stitch because the pressure within the eye held it closed. It was a simple and brilliant idea, which took scarcely a few extra seconds but eliminated one of those sources of complications which dogged the statistics. There was only one problem. This surgeon decided to apply for a patent for his invention, and the medical world had a fit; not only did he patent the curved incision, but he also sent bills for royalties to every eye surgeon he could prove was using it. I happened to be seated the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association when this matter came up, and the uproar was considerable, including some ribald limericks which were read the House "as a matter of personal privilege". Shortly afterward the courts did the right thing and disallowed the patent.
So that pretty well summarizes how cataract surgery became a modern miracle, with a great many elderly people now playing demon bridge when they would otherwise be fed with a spoon. Somehow, the national gratitude is not quite equal to its obligations, and we hear people grumble that eye surgeons make too much money. When the achievements of politicians match those of the average eye surgeon, perhaps they will have a point. But not sooner.
But I'm allowed to complain, and perhaps obliged to issue a warning to my fellow elders about the true source of our discontent. It seems to start with eye drops, but it's more than that. There's a simple technique for instilling eye drops, which involves pulling down the lower lid, creating a pocket, and putting the drop in the pocket, after which the subject blinks his eye and spreads the drop around. Works slick takes no extra time, and little trouble. And while a half-dozen nurses put drops in my eye, and must put fifty drops in fifty eyes every day, not one of them did it right. The drops were spattered on the eyelids and eyelashes, much of them running down my cheek. One extra-large nurse with an attitude put her thumb on my upper eyelid and spread the lids so painfully apart that I cried out in protest. It's supposed to hurt, was the unwelcome answer. I resolved then, and soon carried out the threat to scold the surgeon and the Physician-in-Chief about the responsibilities of supervision, but there are two other more serious issues behind this indignity.
In the first place, the reimbursement mechanisms were modified so that hospitals were no longer paid for maintaining a school of nursing. Within a few years, all hospitals had trimmed this expense, and nurses went to college to be trained in nursing, miles away from the nearest hospital, and eventually trained by other nurses who had themselves had scant experience with patients. Although it is boasted that they now have bachelor's' degrees instead of mere diplomas, their skill with patient care is far inferior to that of the generations which went before them. Instead of being well trained, they are rule-ridden.
The other underlying issue lies with us, the patients. In France people retire at fifty I hear, and in this country, we retire at sixty-five. But we sit around, essentially quite healthy, until eighty-five or later. Everybody knows we have nothing important to do, so they waste our time. Or rather, whenever there is a choice of wasting a minute of working-person's time or an hour of a retired person's, it is the retired person who is dumped on, and it's only going to get much worse with time. Hey, folks, it's degrading to be so useless. Go to work and accomplish something. Don't let the younger generation treat you like logs of wood.
Dealing with a topic as complicated as the causes of the 2007 financial crisis, it's quite possible for two viewpoints to be entirely in agreement, until abruptly coming to different conclusions. In this paper, we consider the relative merits of blaming government housing subsidies in various forms, relative to blaming the unanticipated effects of the computer revolution. The subsidy argument has just been succinctly and effectively argued by a lawyer, Peter J. Wallison. Agreeing with every word he writes, I nevertheless hold the perspective that the disruptive effects of the computer revolution were equally responsible, if not more so. Politics versus technology, choose your poison.
Mr. Wallison served as a lawyer in the financial loins of Washington, and thus has the perspective of a Reaganite who sees government as the main problem; with the significant distinction that his proposals for solution also lie in government corrective action, particularly "covered bonds" and step-wise privatization of the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). While agreeing with both reform proposals, my concern here is about too little general recognition in the analysis of how vulnerable the banking system has become, to revolutions made possible by even primitive computers of the 1960s. Such revolutions soon grew many times magnified by the inexpensive high-speed internet. If that analysis is correct, it predicts mere legislative action for the housing industry will prove inadequate; banking has taken a radical new direction.
Mr. Wallison's argument in the January 3, 2011 edition of the Wall Street Journal is admirably succinct. He points out the New Deal Federal Reserve deliberately suppressed interest rates to the benefit of the housing industry, but made a significant exception for the Savings and Loans. (It was forced to abandon that approach by the innovation of money market funds, in turn, made feasible by the widespread adoption of the IBM 360 computer.) When the collapsed, that segment of the market was awarded to the GSEs (Fannie and Freddy Mac, insured by FHA). In 1992, Congress imposed the goal of promoting "affordable housing" on the GSEs, which is to say the subsidization of "subprime" (i.e. high risk) mortgages. By 2007, half of all mortgages were subprime, and by September 7, 2008, Fan and Fred were insolvent, effectively replaced by the Federal Reserve (i.e. the taxpayers) as the final guarantor against national insolvency. It will take a decade to restore the economy from its present setback, but Mr. Wallison's proposals do indeed have some chance of eventually leading to a viable economy. He proposes the threshold for "jumbo" mortgages be reduced by $50,000 every six months until mortgages are effectively privatized. And he also suggests we create a pool of mortgage assets as security for a bond issue, thus privatizing existing mortgages in the way Europeans describe as a "covered bond" system. Go ahead, do it; it might work, and nothing else is on offer.
|IBM 360 Computer|
Meanwhile take a look at banks; we seemingly can't get along without them. But other institutions are undermining them, with cheaper products made possible by computers. For two centuries, banks transformed short-term borrowing into long-term loans; no one else could do it. It's a simple idea, and it works, that a constant or even rising pool level can be maintained by a steady inflow of short-term deposits. But it is risky; the risk is that some event will precipitate a sudden rush of withdrawals, a run on the bank. Sooner or later, the law of averages catches up. The risk is real, it happens every few years. A price in the form of interest must be imposed to maintain reserves against occasional bank runs, and collectively the whole nation must maintain a central "bank", charging interest to maintain reserves against simultaneous runs on multiple banks. No device has ever been created for a nation to protect against a universal bank panic, which is as effective as placing the risk in the hands of private bankers who can expect to be stripped and shorn if things get out of control. Robert Morris demonstrated this point in 1779, and the nation seemingly must re-learn it every few decades. The IBM 360 computer made it possible to transform short-term into long-term in greater volume and lower cost by allowing banks to get bigger; but it could also perform the short-long transformation in cheaper ways than depository banks do, and from there the bank-competitive process we know as securitization has gone on to commercial credits, auto loans, credit cards, high-velocity stock trading, and mortgage-backed securities. These approaches are often cheaper and more convenient than the trusty old banking system and Credit Default Swaps show its power isn't exhausted; any legislation to prohibit CDS is sure to to be circumvented. Insurance is also on the edge of being threatened. An industrial revolution of this magnitude takes decades of tweaks to become stabilized, but it will suffice for now, if we can establish reasonable protections against the risk shifted into the securitization or investment banking arena. As risk shifts, remuneration for accepting risk must shift as well. This new system for generating capital must not be starved because depository bankers resist the loss of their share of profitability; politics will have much to answer for if that happens.
Most likely, the main obstacles to getting this system fixed will come from overseas. Fifty years of disillusionment with the United Nations will make nations, the United States chief among them, resist loss of sovereignty in something so vital as finance. But that's for the future. For nearly a century, the past has been disrupted by idle notions of the fairness of coerced redistribution, in ways Mr. Wallison has succinctly described. But meanwhile we almost willfully ignore technological upheavals which everyone welcomed but no one fully anticipated.
The Right Angle Club was recently visited by Troy Adams, representing the Greater Philadelphia affiliate of the regional Chamber of Commerce. Sustained by contributions from sixty local corporations, the Greater Philadelphia organization is a major storehouse of data useful for businesses, supported by a staff of analysts and computer experts. The purpose of this institution is to help businesses who are trying to decide whether or how to locate in the Philadelphia region. With such an organization behind him, Mr. Adams was able to show a number of slides displaying the demography, geography, and statistics about our region, and his appearance is greatly appreciated. This is definitely the place to go if you have questions of that sort. It would probably also be a good place to go for opinions and gossip about the politics and inside baseball of the town, but the Chamber has a strict rule about avoiding any involvement in business moving from one district to another within the region or hearsay that might lead to such internal friction.
One really important insight into the potential of our region concerns South Philadelphia. Historically, this was the place where the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers met, and was once a very big swamp (wetland, nature sanctuary or whatever). Over time, the swamp became a trash and garbage landfill, and over still more time it became a big flat uninhabited area right next to a big city. But then an Interstate Highway (I95) was built on its circumference, and several rail lines, and an international airport, not to mention extensive port and shipping terminals for ocean transport. While it is true that a certain number of houses would have to be purchased and demolished to accomplish it, the potential exists for the construction of an intermodal interconnection which would be almost unique in the world.
|South Philadelphia Ports|
There would be plenty of lands left over for industries related to freight forwarding and the like (the food distribution center is a good example of the general concept), and all of this would be within twenty minutes of the center of a major city. SEPTA already sends a passenger rail spur from the very heart of the city to the very center of the airport, and there is no reason it could not be extended to include ocean, bus, and distribution terminals. Whether this exactly fits with the extensive sports stadium complex in the area is unclear, but these entertainment features are doing no harm to the intermodal interchange idea in the meantime. Judging by the city government's willingness to tear these structures down every five or ten years, there should be no great resistance to moving them elsewhere if the need should arise.
Here's some advice for new authors of books: You can't write the first chapter until you have written the last chapter. That is, you have to hit the reader between the eyes in the first chapter, draw him into the argument, making a pauseless transition from a general statement of the author's thesis into a relentless march of evidence toward the conclusion. This general design comes easier with practice and is therefore much harder for beginners to accomplish. But even experienced authors are usually unable to keep the overall design of their message constantly in mind, to be able to sit down and write the book straight through from beginning to end. It's true that Sir Walter Scott was said to turn over the last page of a book, and immediately begin writing the first page of the next one without getting up from his desk. But we aren't talking about pot-boilers, we're talking about serious books. That includes almost all non-fiction and the great majority of serious fiction.
As a matter of fact, the description includes the majority of short articles as well; newspaper editorials would be a good example. Although the style of an editorial is to start with a generality, marshal a description of some recent events, and end up with a short summary, that isn't in fact how it is usually composed. The editorial writer starts with a one-liner, or call to action, organizes some recent events and some historical arguments as a reason to issue such a call, and then ends up by summarizing things in the first paragraph. Having mentally designed the editorial into such a three-step pattern, with experience a professional editorialist can sit down and write the editorial from beginning to end and, after a few touch-ups, it's ready for the printer. He really has gone through the organizational process which a book author needs to go through, but the article is short enough so that reconstruction is performed in his head. In a book, it is generally necessary to write out the chapters in a jumbled way, and later re-organize them. A new author with his first manuscript generally doesn't adequately appreciate the truth of this and has to be muscled by the editor, at least just a little bit. One of my editors summarized his job as follows: you tell every new author to take the first four chapters of his book and throw them away,
That's cruel, of course, and is seldom accepted graciously. The brusqueness is justified by understanding that the fresh new author thinks he's all finished when he isn't. He's silently telling himself he means to tell that editor, "Don't you touch a single comma of it." In the old days, authors were rare and had to be coddled. Book publishers in the Eighteenth century purchased the manuscript in its entirety, either then losing money or making a huge fortune, but leaving the author with only his manuscript price. At that time, publishers called themselves booksellers. As things evolved, booksellers often had to support a starving author while the book was being written, offering an "advance" payment to be deducted from royalties paid after final sales to readers. Author royalties were about ten percent of sales. The royalty system persists today, but advance payments are uncommon and negotiated around the tax code effects. All of these payment evolutions reflect the underlying issue: good authors used to be rare, but now are frequent. Book publishers used to be wealthy, but now are rapidly going bankrupt and extinct. Authors of excellent books have a hard time finding someone to publish them. The advent of the personal computer around 1980 is what caused this.
In 1980 I published a book, writing it on my brand-new Radio Shack TRS-80, Mod I. The editor of the publishing house had never heard of such a notion, scoffed at it, and declared he would never touch such a thing as a computer. In 2010 there were more than 800 million personal computers manufactured and sold, and by this time almost no publisher will accept a manuscript without an accompanying magnetic disc to make revisions cheap and easy, and to shift the costs of key-entry from the publisher to the author. At first, manuscripts were shipped to India for key entry. Now, it is the diskette which is mailed or e-mailed to India, and the editor is often located in India. We are soon approaching a day when the keyboard and author remain at home, sending material to gigantic server computers in China, from which the editor anywhere in the world can retrieve the material and revise it, returning the material to the server computer where the author can comment on the revisions without moving from his desk. After that stage, looms the prospect of the reader paying a fee on his credit card to access the "book" directly from the server, and reading it at home. At that point maybe the book will have been completed, and maybe it will be revised some more. In a sense, a book will never be definitely finished and allowing the public to read it will only be an episode within an unending process of revision. Newspapers, magazines, and books are all struggling to find a way to cope with this unpredictable evolution. Like most revolutions, this one doesn't have a clear idea where it is going.
So let's reflect back on the central process of authoring. In addition to the old maxims of the trade, there is the Euclidian reality that you can't write the last chapter until you somehow write a first one. The original first chapter, the one the author struggled so hard to compose, is destined to be cast off and replaced by a new first one, one that succinctly announces what is about to be said. After that must come a new second chapter, which takes the reader from the initial disconcerting summary back to the origins of the problem now about to be clarified. Followed by a third chapter, probably one shifted forward from the assorted chapters of evidence back into prominence as the key piece of evidence which leads to other confirmatory pieces of evidence; after that marches the parade of confirmatory evidence, ending with one zinger of a conclusion.
Voltaire or some other cynic would probably comment that what has here been outlined is merely an elaborated process of what editorial writers do: start with the conclusion and find slanted facts to fit it. Some may indeed do that. But there is some hope that the inevitable impact of technology on authorship can bring us to a system where many authors will assemble the facts, and only then derive a conclusion from them. If politicians would only adopt that system, maybe we could hope for a perfect world.
In the early years of the 21st Century, Ireland lowered taxes on corporate profits to a 12.5% rate, far lower than neighboring countries. Whatever else it did, it promptly encouraged corporations in Germany, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and other neighbors -- to move headquarters to Ireland where taxes were so low. Ireland is primarily rural, and a housing shortage developed in the cities as workers migrated to take advantage of the new jobs. Home prices went through the roof, mortgage applications overwhelmed local banks, who promptly re-sold mortgages to foreign banks. Sound familiar? It caused a housing bubble and then a horrendous international financial crisis. The European Union is financially and politically strained by the consequences and threatened to break apart over it.
That sounds pretty bad and should be a lesson to others. What Canada and a number of the individual United States got out of it was mainly this: if you lower corporation taxes, it causes prosperity. And so it might if politicians would do it gradually and moderately. Gradually and moderately are unfamiliar words in politics. Furthermore, there has long been a fundamental unfairness in taxing corporate profits twice -- once when the profits are made, and a second time when dividends are paid to shareholders. But it is obviously dangerous business, particularly when the governments involved are inexperienced. Canadians started talking about lowering their taxes to 16.5%, and no one could say whether that is a safe level or not. Within weeks, twenty-nine states with Republican governors were sending up trial balloons about joining this movement, and Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana was much in demand as a consultant, and maybe a Presidential candidate, because Indiana had lowered corporate taxation some time ago, with favorable results.
This was exactly the sort of behavior James Madison had in mind when he designed the United States Constitution; it gave the people a way of disciplining overbearing state governments. Raise our taxes, and we will move. So there are strong arguments that these governors are approaching the right thing, and equally strong indications that everybody had better be plenty careful how this is approached.
The basic idea is good; double taxation should stop, and there is nothing in Madison's Constitution to prevent the Governors from doing what they say they would like to do. So how's this for a suggestion: if this movement gets started, let's take the opportunity to reduce all corporate income tax to zero. If everybody has the same zero rate, the incentive to migrate will disappear, and that's a good thing.
But if a major revenue source for the states disappears, what will take its place? At that moment of what would look like a crisis, it would be time for a national reconsideration and revision of the tax codes. And that would be an even more desirable outcome, provided it is done in an orderly and sensible way.
In 1917, Congress passed a law, quite possibly not understanding its full implications. From the founding of the republic until that time, Congress had approved the exact amount of each bond issue as enacted, neither more nor less. With the First Liberty Bond Act of 1917, however, Congress began to allow the administration to issue bonds as it pleased, up to some specified debt limit. Periodically since that time, as the amount in circulation approaches the debt limit, Congress raises the limit. No doubt this procedural change seemed like legislative streamlining, making it unnecessary for Congress to interrupt other activities to respond to a debt level which creeps up on its own time schedule. The overall effect of this change was significantly different, however, and probably unintentionally.
If the authorized debt limit is raised by large enough steps, it effectively amounts to Congress turning over debt decisions to the executive branch. Conversely, raising the limit only a small amount soon triggers a repeat request, which by routine becomes so inconsequential that Congress stops paying attention to it. Regardless of the size of the block grant, bulk authorization of blocks of debt results in the power of debt creation shifting toward the President. That was not what the Constitutional Convention intended.
The Founding Fathers remembered taxation as one of the main issues of the revolt from England. Whether by King or President they had no intention of permitting the Executive to tax as he pleased; the issue traced back to the Magna Charta. Nor would they permit unlimited federal borrowing to generate escape hatches which would soon enough transform into higher taxes. Taxes, therefore, must originate in the House of Representatives, and bond issues were approved one by one. Following the 1917 liberalization, it required only fifty years before unrestrained bond limits reached a point where future national debt obligations loomed beyond the easy ability to pay them off. If they were ever pronounced unpayable by the international bond market, interest rates would rise, and eventually, federal bonds would become unsalable. With Greece, Portugal, and Ireland already flirting with bankruptcy, the approaching danger seems quite understandable to the voting public.
The issue is constrained by another barrier. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, Section Four, forbids dishonoring "the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law." Enacted after the Civil War, this Amendment was intended to prevent future states or congresses from reversing the Reconstruction Acts, but it has the additional effect of preventing future Congresses from dishonoring interest and debt repayments on existing debt. The present Congress, therefore, retains the latitude to prohibit the issuance of additional debt but is forbidden from dishonoring existing debt.
This seems like a good principle to re-emphasize, entirely disregarding the merits of the TARP, the Dodd/Frank Act, or Obamacare. Indeed, restating the Constitutional intent for Congress to be chiefly responsible for taxes and debts, seems like a very good thing to do, quite regardless of whether present national debt limits ought to be raised. The 1917 Act was a mistake, probably an unconstitutional one, and should be reversed. Holding conferences in the White House about whether to issue debt raises uncertainty about whose duty it is. The responsibility belongs to the House of Representatives, and should stay there.
The mouth of the Delaware River once teemed with white swans, but black swans were unknown until the French explorer Nicolas Baudin brought home a few from Australia, where they are now celebrated as the state animal of Western Australia. Empress Josephine Bonaparte was delighted with them, made them known as her birds, and thus made the term "Black Swan" more or less synonymous with rare chance occurrences. The implied inference that every white swan contains a remote potential for breeding a black one is doubtful biology, however. More likely, black swans are a distinct species -- Cygnus atratus-- confined to Australia and New Zealand, and just about extinct in New Zealand. In that view of things, the rarity of black swans is equivalent to the prevalence of black ones, mixed within the population of generally white ones. Nevertheless, for this article, it is convenient to continue the unlikely conjecture that most, or perhaps every, white swan contain a small potential to hatch a black one.
|Credit Default Swaps|
Many theories exist for the discovery that financial crises are commoner than chance alone would seem to predict; if they follow a Gaussian normal distribution curve, it must be somehow different from the distribution curve of smaller fluctuations. Observing this discordance is more or less how the phenomenon was discovered. The normal volatility of economic activity is calculated from the fluctuations observed in, say, twenty years. When that derived curve is extrapolated to include cataclysmic events which by a theory of the unmeasured "long tail" occur every hundred years, speculators have later discovered by actual measurement that, alas, such disasters actually occur much more frequently. Calculated risks derived from such extrapolations have upended many insurance companies and insurance-like vehicles like Credit Default Swaps, who set their premium charges to match the mathematics. Since CDS approached a hundred trillion dollars in the last crisis, it is important to understand the mechanics of this kind of Black Swan if we possibly can.
One way to do that is to question the conventional equivalence of risk and volatility ; that is, that the more markets bounce around, the riskier they become. Why should that be true, we might ask. And if it is somewhat true, why does that make it is converse true, those calm seas are safe ones? Those of us who sit and watch the ocean shore soon adopt the habit of speech that high waves at the shore mean a storm is approaching, not that it will ever arrive. After all, the center of the storm may be traveling parallel to the coastline, not directly toward it. And calm seas are particularly undependable predictors; no matter how calm it may be, the next storm might arrive in a few hours, or it may not come for months. Many other analogies spring up, once one puts aside the basic assumption that world economies can be depicted as a linear electrocardiogram. At the very least, they are two-dimensional, possibly three. Possibly four, if you regard time as a dimension.
It must be noticed that market volatility is universally viewed as linked to bad things, and many efforts have been made by central banks to reduce risk by constraining volatility. Alan Greenspan is famous for having controlled the economy for seventeen years without major depression. Is that necessarily a good thing? Is it equally possible that kinetic energy was constrained within the inflating balloon until the bursting of it was a far more damaging explosion than small planned deflations would have been?
Experimental testing of these ideas has itself been constrained by an inability to predict the explosion point of expanding financial balloons. Planned deflations have been particularly feared, because of lack of assured ways to get them to stop deflating. But practical warnings such as these are not the same as claiming that lack of volatility is always the ideal state.
Phase One: An early recession, with ominous signs of inflation. (Six months of blind man's buff. Stocks down 8-10%, signs of inflation, moderate foreclosures, house prices decline around 10%, increased unemployment, consumer confidence down, oil and gold up, dollar down.)
Phase Two: Government attempts to put out fires. Priorities are set by emergencies as they arise. So far, lowered interest rates, $600 per person stimulus package, offers to substitute government bonds for securitized debt, expand Fannie Mae. The critical need is to abandon these approaches quickly unless they somehow correct the underlying problem and assist in long-term reforms.
Phase three: Long term reform. Task forces, gathering ideas from all sources, seek to identify the critical issues that caused this problem and keep it from happening again. Dangers: politics (D v R), conflict between East (mainly concerned with fuel prices) and West (mainly concerned with housing surplus), foreign meddling or hostility, collapse of China or other developing economies. We may assign too high a priority to those who are suffering, and neglect to do what will work. Some short-term emergency may get out of hand and disrupt more basic solutions. All problems begin as solutions.
What are the possible underlying problems?
1. We have too much debt and leverage, and far too much is concentrated in home real estate mortgages. Did the slanted tax exemptions do this? Did the innovative mortgage methods do it? Did we develop an excess inventory of houses just by too rapid a pace of good things?
2. The cost of buying a house is greatly in excess of the cost of renting a comparable house, overturning a century of the previous history. Meanwhile, owner equity is less than half of national home prices. If prices decline, owner equity will be even less.
3. Banks and insurance companies are becoming obsolete. Should we rescue them, or put them out of their misery?
4. Wall Street got rich by doing obscure things. Should we punish them, or are they the only people able to save the situation?
5. What will we do if China collapses, the cheap dollar ruins Europe, or international trade is paralyzed by protectionism?
6. Should we revise the entire world monetary system, either by going back to a commodity-based currency, or switching to an equity-based currency? If that is too radical, how do we control a completely debt-based currency now that its flaws are appearing?
A KING who conquers a new country theoretically gains the chance to revise all its laws. However, thousands of years of experience demonstrate that those who are good at wielding the sword seldom have much interest in, or aptitude for, devising a legal code. Napoleon seems to have been an exception, and Alexander the Great was tutored by Aristotle, but most conquerers have been illiterate in the law. Therefore, earlier conquerors merely extended their native laws into additional territory or else left the whole business to a permanent priesthood of judges. In this way, an independent judiciary could survive unless, like Thomas a Becket or Thomas More, it grew stubborn about thwarting the wishes of the King. The concept of citizen rights more or less defined feasible limits to what the King was allowed to do. British law went still further, distinguishing between rights of the people and rights of the sovereign. It identified those few things even a King was not allowed to do, as well as those many things he alone must be able to do in order to govern. The latter were collectively called the King's Prerogative. Today, we would call it a job description.
Along those lines, the English Civil War had been fought, briefly transferring the power of Prerogative to Parliament, and incidentally clarifying some disadvantages of doing so. Americans, after fighting an eight-year Revolutionary War to be rid of a particular king, had developed a sentiment for eliminating all kings entirely. However, the memory of the English Civil War and subsequent abuses by the Cromwell Parliament restrained that impulse. The alternative idea grew of transferring sovereignty to the people, to be translated into action by their elected representatives in the Legislative branch. Although such sovereignty would be unlimited, the intermediate steps taken by the Legislature could be deliberately slowed down, and particularly worrisome actions might be tangled up in complicated steps of legal process by a vocal minority. Such a complicated system required an umpire, which Chief Justice John Marshall eventually positioned the Supreme Court to be. Conducting elections every two years was a simple way to allow the people to restrain its agents from the misbehavior of a more general sort. Since George Washington was confidently expected to be the first President, it was left to him to devise protections against presidential abuse, since he had notoriously and repeatedly expressed his intense dislike of kings. In modern times this system of checks and balances has only been severely tested once, in 1937. Immediately after winning a landslide re-election in 1936, Franklin Roosevelt nevertheless was slapped down hard by public outcry forcing Congress to thwart his Supreme Court-packing scheme.
|Sir Francis Bacon|
Such subtle, complicated ideas cannot be implemented by writing 6000 words on a piece of paper, and they certainly cannot withstand two hundred fifty years of subsequent nit-picking by dissenters, no matter how carefully crafted the 6000 words may have been. The complexity of the political system it describes would long ago have fallen apart without a million little accommodations and revisions, just as every other nation's constitution has done during that same period of time. And that fine-tuning process was made possible by starting with a more or less blank slate, with thousands of lawyers and legislators debating every particle of common law for more than a century. In 1787 it was decided to adopt English common law as a default position, and to invite a host of legislative bodies to debate and replace any part of it with a "statute". It was a laborious process. Measured by pages of law books, the volume of statutes only grew to equal the volume of common law by the time of the Civil War. The English common law was certainly a good place to start, having been created by Sir Francis Bacon two hundred years earlier as the legal equivalent of the Scientific Method; based on real, adversarial contested case decisions, a hypothesis was created, then tested, revised, and tested again. By actual count, one state legislature only enacted three statutes in the year before the Constitution was ratified; all its other activity was concerned with adjudicating disputes within the boundaries of the existing common law. But when the Constitution suddenly rearranged the balances of power in 1787, almost every sentence of common law had to be regarded as potentially requiring modification to reflect the new Constitutional rearrangements. During the first half century there existed great enthusiasm for almost all of the new Constitution except those parts which affected slavery, the fine-tuning was almost universally intended to strengthen it or repair some oversight. If it failed in some way, adversaries were quick to point out the flaws. In short, every lawyer in the nation was involved to some degree for a century in the process of re-writing the English common law for American purposes, in American circumstances, for the grander purpose of strengthening the American commonwealth.
And everyone knows what happened next. The state legislatures who considered it normal to pass fewer than a dozen laws in a year started passing fifteen hundred in a year and kept it up for many years. Today, almost every state legislature considers more than a thousand bills and passes two or three hundred. Since the colonial legislatures passed few laws and spent most of its time adjudicating disputes about existing law, the character of the law changed as it gradually gave up adjudicating, stopped being like a court. The tendency of early law was to state principles to guide the judges. In recent times, our over-lawyered system specifies all imaginable conditions and exceptions in excruciating detail, so that our laws tend less and less to speak of "reasonable amounts" and more and more to define drunken driving, for example, in milligrams per deciliter of the defendant's blood. We have better measuring devices, so we measure. But who can deny that a legislature accustomed to making judgments itself, will more confidently rely upon the good judgment of courts, than a legislature which spends its time going to committee meetings to consider the testimony of experts, often never visiting a courtroom?
Our lawyers, who once enlisted the efforts of the entire profession for a century into refining the English common law into the American statutory law, are to be encouraged to extend equal effort into the process of turning off the faucet. Or possibly, having done such a good job at this assignment, seek another line of work?
Kiyohiko Nishimura is currently the Deputy Governor of the Bank of Japan (BOJ), and as such is expected to have wise things to say about finances, as indeed he does. Japan has a far older culture than the United States, and a botanical uniqueness growing out of the glaciers avoiding it, many thousands of years ago. But its latitude is approximately the same as ours, and its modern culture is affected by the deliberate effort of the Emperor to westernize the nation, following its "opening up" by our own Commodore Matthew Perry in 1852. Perhaps a more important relationship between the two cultures for present purposes is that Japan has been suffering from the current deep recession for fourteen years longer than we have. We don't want to repeat that performance, but we can certainly learn from it.
Mr. Nishimura lays great stress on the aging of the Japanese population because, in all nations, houses are mainly purchased by young newly-weds, and sold by that same generation years later as they prepare to retire. If a nation has an elderly population, it can expect a general lowering of house prices someday, reflecting too many sellers leaving the market at the same time. The buyers of those houses are competing with other young people, so the simultaneous bulges and dips of the population at later stages combine to have major effects on housing prices. At the moment, younger couples are having fewer children as a result of women postponing the first one. Nishimura goes on to reflect that something like the same is true of stocks and bonds, although at age levels five or ten years later. One implication is that retirement of our own World War II baby boom is about to depress American home prices, which will likely stay lower for 10-20 more years. Furthermore, our stock market will have a similar effect, stretching the depression out by as much as 5-15 years. The Japanese stock market has been a gloomy place to be during the past fifteen years, and by these lights might continue in the doldrums for another five or so. Meanwhile, our own situation predicts an additional generation of struggle while Japan is recovering. It's best not to apply these ideas too closely, of course, but surely somebody in our government ought to dig around in the data, at least telling us why we ain't goin' to repeat this pattern. Please.
Perhaps because they eat so much rice and fish, the Japanese already have a longer life expectancy than Americans do, but in terms of outliving your assets, that's not wholly advantageous, the way a love of golf might be. The best our nation might be able to do is to examine some of our premises about housing construction. In Kyoto, most houses were built with paper walls, for example.
|Commodore Matthew Perry and Japan|
The house walls of the town of Kyoto were in fact made of waxed paper, which seems to work remarkably well. While no one now advocates going quite that far, we might think a second time about building the big hulking masonry houses so favored in our affluent suburbs. Such cumbersome building materials almost dictate custom building and strongly discourage mass production. How likely are such fortresses to survive in the real estate markets of fifty years from now? Judging from my home town, not too well. Haddonfield boasts it has been around since 1701, and there are at most three or four of its houses which have survived that long. We favor great hulking Victorian frame houses, with a good many bedrooms unoccupied, and high drafty ceilings, very large window openings and little original insulation. The heating arrangements have gone from fireplaces to coal furnaces, to oil, and lately to natural gas. The meter reader who checks my consumption every month tells me that almost all the houses now have gas heat, so almost all the houses are using their second or third heating plant, along with their eighth or tenth roof, and thirty coats of paint. This kind of maintenance is not prohibitively expensive, but just wait until the plumbing starts to go, and leak, and freeze, with attendant plastering, carpentry, and painting. Our schools and transportation are excellent, so we have location, location, location. But when the plumbing, heating, and roofing start to require financial infusions all at once, you get tear-downs. A tear-down is a new house in which a specialist builder buys the old house, tears it down, and looks for a buyer to commission the new house on an old plot of land. Right now, there appear to be six or eight such Haddonfield houses, torn down and looking for a buyer to commission a new house on that location, location. If we repeat the Japanese experience, there will be some unhappy people, somewhere. And that will include the neighbors like me, who generally do not relish languishing vacant lots next door, but fear what the new one will be like.
The thought has to occur to somebody that building the whole town of less substantial materials in the first place would be worth investigation, replacing the houses every forty years when the major stuff wears out. At the present, when a town of several thousand houses has five or six tear-downs, the neighbors would not tolerate replacing tear-downs with insubstantial cardboard boxes. Seeing what has happened to inner-city school systems, the neighbors would be uneasy about "affordable housing" built in place of stately old Homes of Pride. In time, that might lead to a deterioration of one of the two pillars of location, location -- the schools -- and hence to a massive loss of asset value. And yet when those houses empty out the school children, leaving only retirees in place, the schools will not be worth much to the owners or in time to anybody else. There's an unfortunate tendency for local political control to migrate into the hands of local real estate brokers, so you had better be sure any bright new proposal is tightly buttressed with facts.
The only real hope for evolution in this obsolete system may lie in the schools of architecture, strengthened perhaps by some research grants. Countless World Fairs have displayed the proud products of their imaginative thinking, but mostly to no avail. Perhaps the ideas are not yet ripe, but since it would take more than a generation to create a useful demonstration project of whatever does become ripe for decision, let's start thinking about some innovative suburban designs, right now.
About half of the American public pays federal income taxes, and among the half who don't, a great many receive a green government payment check, meaning they have negative income taxes. The tax assistance companies, H. and R. Block and the like, had little for their offices and staff to do in January, February and March until someone hit on the idea of processing "fundable tax credits" for a fee. That is, the lower-income segments of the population get the promise of an April tax "rebate" as the consequence of tax-form preparation, so H. and R. Block just loans them the money, discounted for fees and interest. It keeps staff busy, generates revenue. Hardly anyone in the upper income half of the population is aware of all this, so there is little political friction. This whole system of income redistribution quite effectively keeps the two halves of the population sitting in the same chairs at the tax-preparation offices, but in different months of the year; one half getting paid, the other half coughing up the payments.
It thus becomes possible for two inflammatory slogans to bandy about, without starting fistfights or revolutions. The first was overheard at a local bank, one stranger remarking to another, "Has it ever occurred to you that taxes are a form of consumption?" To which the other person replies, "Yes, and taxes are the largest expenditure I make." A nation which once went to war over a two-cent tax on tea is remarkably passive about the ways things have evolved, but this essay is not devoted to unfairness. Prepare to hear how the upper income brackets might reduce their taxes, whether that counts as decreased consumption or not. Whenever you tax something, you get less of it; if you tax public income more, the public will earn less. So, this little essay is serious when it proposes that we all earn less, so we can get taxed less. And being taxed less, we need save less for our retirements.
The general principle is this: income is usually taxed in the year it is earned, with some exceptions, rebates and deferrals. The exceptional situations are often referred to as "loopholes" and therefore live in political jeopardy. However, if a person spends the money or dies while these deferrals continue to exist, the income may escape taxation entirely. In a sense, the largest loophole of all lies in the present fact that nearly half the population pays no income taxes at all, so saving income earned under those circumstances may lead to investment capital, which is later spent during highly taxed periods of that same person's life. Money earned by a child, usually on investments donated by a relative, is an example. Since at present, a child may receive annual gifts of $13,000 tax-free, as much as a half-million dollars can be accumulated in this way, always at the risk that laws may be changed and, further, at risk of spendthrift abuse by a psychopathic child. Whether these are wise risks for a parent to take, depends in large part on what sacrifices are made for the purpose, especially loss of parental restraint of unwise spending. A much more serious argument grows out of the possibility that money in the hands of children who lack experience in deferred gratification may actually provoke recreational drug use, or other sociopathic behavior.
Finally, lack of planning may create opportunities as much as planning does. A person who has paid little attention to financial planning may arrive at an advanced stage where life expectancy is considerably shorter. Savings at that point may be divided into money on which deferred taxes must be paid when you spend it, and money on which taxes have already been paid. More savings will be consumed if the individual triggers deferred tax liabilities, than if he just uses up money on which taxes have already been paid. Therefore, if he ignores lifetime habits and spends after-tax capital first -- the whole nest egg will last longer. But none of this deferred-income tax issue can compare with the problem of income on which taxation has been completely forgiven at the time it was spent, the so-called tax expenditures. The largest such tax expenditures are on the interest of home mortgages, on employer-paid (but not self-paid) health insurance, and employer-paid retirement income. Of these, the least consequential are the retirement income, because the tax is merely deferred, not completely forgiven. The two biggest items are home mortgages, which lie at the root of the 2007 financial crash, and employer-paid health insurance premiums, which triggered the Obama health proposal of 2009. The Obama plan purports to rein in health costs, but is estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to cost the Treasury $100 billion a year.Extra! In the Fall of 2011, this boring matter suddenly came to the surface, in the form of huge American deficits threatening to bankrupt the country, as they were apparently actually going to do in Greece. As politicians do, many attempts were first made to rename the over-spending issue for partisan advantage. It was, for instance, tax expenditure. It was, possibly, a sovereign debt crisis. In any event, the Congressional Budget Office included such wealth redistribution under the heading of tax expenditure, which totalled a trillion dollars. Since everyone was searching for a painless category to eliminate in order to balance the budget, this term was hard to avoid. As far as Congress is concerned, the national deficit is whatever the CBO says it is, and in this case it lumped a lot of things together which politicians would like to split apart. When you take things in small pieces, it becomes possible to boil the frog by slowly heating it up before it realizes it is cooked. Lumping things together induces the frog to jump out of the pot, but however that may be, it has got lumped together by the referee of such matters, and there is a strong possibility it will stay lumped.
The essential point for accountants to focus on, is that tax expenditures are all counted as revenue when any non-accountant can see they are expenses. For political speech-making purposes, this distinction is vital and no opponent will let another politician wiggle out of it. And the beauty part of it is that it also spotlights three of the most besetting evils of modern politics: the tax exclusion of employer-based health insurance, the home mortgage interest tax exclusion, and the "earned" income tax credit. The first of these is responsible for our health insurance mess, and the other is responsible for our home mortgage crisis; the two main political problems of the day are suddenly plopped into the limelight, just when a lot of people are looking for ways to hide them. Furthermore, this bombshell was fired by a panel of the four outstanding tax economists of the nation, each of them roundly denouncing them as unthinkable ideas that never should have been born in the first place. Alan Greenspan, famous for unintelligible speech, simply said all of these tax expenditures, every one of them, should be eliminated immediately. One would hope that is clear enough. Martin Goldstein, formerly chairman of President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisors, agreed. As did former Governor Engler of Michigan, widely acknowledged to have rescued his state from impending bankruptcy. Senator Nelson, a Democrat from Florida and chairman of the committee, positively beamed with pleasure. It was hard to think this was anything but a turning point in history; let some political candidate disagree, and he can expect to have his audience shown a videotape of this succinct epic in the history of Senatorial hearings. These greybeards said, in what was obviously an unrehearsed moment, just eliminate these three terrible ideas in one stroke, and the national deficit will be reduced by a trillion. That's what they said, and it's easily proved that they had said it.
A DOZEN episodes from American revolutionary times might be called pivotal, but a single debate in the Pennsylvania Legislature seems to have begun our political parties in their present form. Two debaters, their topic, and its consequences all rise to dramatic, even operatic, heights. In another place, we intend to explore the clashing philosophies of the Eighteenth century, with Hegel and Hume at the apex, but two quotations from Adam Smith are more intelligible. Charles Dickens nearly ran away with the topic in his novel A Tale of Two Cities, but Charles Brockton Brown and Hugh Henry Brackenridge were local authors, Pennsylvanians present at the scene. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson debated for decades about which of them was the main protagonist. But all of that is the background for one operatic scene at Independence Hall, where the real David and Goliath were William Findlay and Robert Morris.
Robert Morris, it must be remembered, was probably the richest man in America, a signer of the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. He was one of three men, including Ben Franklin and George Washington, about whom it could be said: the Revolution could not have been won without them. Morris essentially invented American banking, founded the first bank, the Pennsylvania Bank, invented investment banking, corporate conglomerates, American maritime insurance, and dozens of financial innovations. His merchant house probably had 150 ships sunk by the enemy. George Washington lived in his house for years. Today, he is mostly remembered for going bankrupt at the end of a busy life.
William Findlay, on the other hand, was a Scotch-Irish frontiersman with a flamboyant white hat, elected by others like him from the Pittsburgh area to promote inflation through state-issued debt paper, so as to finance land speculation in the West. He had no education to speak of, no accomplishments to mention. He made no secret of his self-interest in land speculation, and therefore no secret of his opposition to rechartering the Bank of North America, which Morris had founded for the purpose of restraining inflation and speculation. Findlay wanted the bank to disappear, get out of his way, and he boldly denounced Morris for his self-interest in promoting a bank where he owned stock. He utterly denied that Morris had any motive other than the profit he would make for the bank, so in his opinion, they were equal in self-interest. Let's vote.
Prior to that time, Findlay had politically defeated Hugh Brackenridge, using the two strong arguments that Brackenridge had gone to Princeton, and written poetry; how could such a person possibly represent the hard-boiled self-interest of frontier constituents?
Morris was positively apoplectic at this sneering at everything he stood for. As for the country's lack of trust in a man who had risked everything to save it, well, what has he done for us, lately? America had lately thrown off the King, but what it had really discarded was aristocracy. Every man was as good as every other man, and each had one vote. Under aristocratic ideals, a man was born, married and educated in a leadership class, expected to be utterly disinterested in his votes and actions, scrupulous to avoid any involvement in trade and commerce, where temptations of self-interest were abundant. Washington never accepted any salary for his years of service and even agonized for months when he was awarded stock in a canal company, wanting neither to seem ungrateful nor to make private profit. John Hancock, who came pretty close to having as much wealth as Morris, gave up his business when he was made Governor of Massachusetts. Benjamin Franklin was only accepted into public life when he retired from the printing business, to live the life of a gentleman. That's how it was, everywhere; every nation had a king and depended on rich aristocrats to supply the leadership for war and public life. But, now, America had become a republic where every man was equal. Morris and the Federalists he represented wanted to turn the clock back to an era that would never return.
Goaded too far, Morris impulsively resigned his business interests, to prove he had the nation's interest at heart in opposing inflation. It didn't help. Findlay won the vote, and the Bank of North America was closed. America was ashamed of how it behaved after the Revolution, but not ashamed enough to change.
|Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution: Robert Morris: Charles Rappleye: ISBN-10: 1416570926||Amazon|
THE Revolutionary War ended militarily with the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, and diplomatically with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The careers of Washington and Franklin appeared to be complete, while the economic and financial career of Robert Morris seemed likely to stretch for decades into the future. But as matters actually turned out for these three fast friends, it was Washington who was propelled into a new political career, Franklin soon died, and Morris got himself into a career-ending mess. The financial complexity and economic power of the United States did grow massively in the next several decades, but unfortunately, Robert Morris was soon unable to exert any leadership. At the end of Washington's eight years as President, the power of the Federalists, and particularly the three men most central to it, was coming to a close. John Adams had a tempestuous single term, and then Federalism was all over.
The end of the Eighteenth century marked the end of The Enlightenment and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, accompanied by many national revolutions, not just the American one. This was a major turning point for world history. The momentum of these upheavals still continues, but it is clear that the Industrial Revolution of which the Morris banking revolution was an essential part swept the world far faster than the social and political revolution, in which he also played a pivotal role. In the banking and industrial revolution, it is universally agreed that Morris was almost always right. In the social and political world, it is conversely agreed he was quite wrong. Essentially, Morris assumed that a small minority, an aristocracy of some sort, would rule any country. Within weeks of the ratification of the new Constitution, or even somewhat in anticipation of it, America made it clear that replacing an aristocracy of inheritance with an aristocracy of merit would not satisfy the need. Morris, born illegitimate and soon an orphan, was obviously in favor of promotion based on merit. John Adams defined leadership even more narrowly; he said a gentleman was a man who went to college, and he probably meant Harvard. Nobody extended the leadership class to include Indians and slaves, but the backwoodsmen of Appalachia made it clear that power and leadership at least included them. Thomas Jefferson was the visible leader of this expansion of the franchise, but changed his mind several times. James Madison switched sides; Thomas Paine switched in the opposite direction. The leaders of Shay's Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion lacked coherence and consistency on this point; instead of agitating for a refined goal, they mostly seemed to be running around looking for a leader. William Findlay, on the other hand, knew what he wanted. The issue might be defined as follows: it was obvious that hereditary aristocracy was too small and too inflexible to suffice, but it was also obvious that every man a king was too inclusive. An expanded leadership class was needed, but its boundaries were indistinct and contentious. But to return to Findlay, who at least had a clear idea of what he wanted.
William Findlay was a member representing Western Pennsylvania in the State Legislature, in 1785. It would be difficult to claim any notable accomplishment in his life; he was largely uneducated. The new leadership class must, therefore, include both the uneducated and the mediocre. The Legislature at that time met in the State House, Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, where no doubt the unconventional dress and manners of backwoodsmen did not pass without audible comment. Findlay made his own political goals quite explicit; he was for paper money to facilitate land speculation which could make him rich. Wealth was a goal, but it did not confer distinction. The rights of the Indians, the rights of the descendants of William Penn, the rights of the educated class and the preservation of property were all just obstacles in the way of an ambitious man who had carefully studied the rules. Everybody's vote was as good as everybody else's, and if you shrewdly controlled a majority of them, you could do as you please. If this meat-ax approach had any rational justification, it lay in the essential selfishness of every single member of the Legislature, working as hard as he could to further his own interest. If someone controlled a majority of such votes, then the majority of the public were declaring in favor of the outcome. Those who believed in good government and the public interest were saps; the refinements of education mostly just created hypocritical liars. There was a strain of Calvinism in all this and a very large dose of Adam Smith's hidden hand of the marketplace. If you were rich, it was proof that God loved you, if you were poor, God must not think much of you, or He wouldn't have made you poor. Findlay had the votes and meant to become rich; if his opponents didn't have the votes, they could expect soon to be poor. In this particular case, the vote coming up was a motion to renew the charter of the Bank of North America. Findlay wanted it to die.
|America's first bank, the Bank of Pennsylvania|
It came down to a personal debate between Findlay, and Robert Morris. Morris had conceived and created America's first bank, the Bank of Pennsylvania. Today it would be called a bond fund, with Morris and a few of his friends put up their own money to act as leverage for loans to run the Revolutionary War. After a short time, it occurred to Morris that the money in a bank could be expanded by accepting interest-bearing public deposits and making small loans at a higher interest rate, which is the way most banks operate today. Accordingly, a new bank called the Bank of North America was chartered to serve this function, which greatly assisted in winning the Revolutionary War. There was no banking act or general law of corporations; each corporation had its individual charter, specifying what it could do and how it would be supervised. When the charter came up for renewal, Findlay saw his chance to kill it. Morris, of course, defended it, pointing out the great value to the nation of promoting commerce and maintaining a stable currency. The reply was immediate. Morris had his own money invested in the bank and only wanted to profit from it at the public expense. His protests about the good of commerce and the public interest in stable money were simply cloaking for this rich man's greed to make more money. Findlay made no secret of his interest in reverting to state-authorized paper money, which could then be used by the well-connected to buy vast lands in Ohio for speculation. There were enough other legislators present who could see welcome advantages, and by a small majority the charter was defeated.
At this point, Morris made a staggering mistake. After all, he was a simple man of no great background, largely uneducated but fortified by his ascent in society from waterfront apprentice to the highest of social positions, a friend of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, acclaimed as a financial genius, the man who saved the Revolution, very likely the richest man in America. For many years, he had harbored not the slightest doubt of his personal genius, his absolute honesty, and total dedication to the welfare of his country. To have this reputation and accomplishment sneered at by a worthless backwoodsman, a man who would stoop to using the votes of other backwoodsmen to accomplish self-enrichment, was intolerable. Morris announced and actually did sell out his entire business interest as a merchant, at a moment when he fully understood the new nation was about to enjoy an unprecedented post-war boom. So much for his self-interest. It helps to understand that John Hancock and Henry Laurens had done the same thing in Boston and Charleston, against what we now see as a strange aristocratic tradition of prejudice against bankers and businessmen. In even the few shreds of aristocracy now surviving in Britain and Europe, the tradition persists that a true aristocrat is so independently wealthy that no self-interested temptations can attract him away from purest attention to the public good. The original source of this wealth was the King, who conferred high favor on those who served the nation well. A curious exception was made for wealth in the form of land, the only dependable store of tangible wealth, and transactions in land. Wealth was something which came from God and the King in return for public service. Land ownership was its tangible storage and transfer medium. Otherwise, grubbing around with trade and manufacture was beneath the dignity of a true gentleman.
We now know what was coming. Wealth was soon to be the reward of skill and merit, recognized by fellow citizens in the marketplace, by consensus. Findlay and his friends wholly accepted this conclusion, unfortunately skipping the merit part of it for several decades. In their view, you were entitled to the money if you had the votes. As the nation gradually recognized that rewards must be durable, and once granted were yours to have and to hold, the new nation gradually came to see the need for durable ownership of property. Unless or until the owner places it out at risk in the marketplace, legislative votes may not affect its ownership. Our system ever since has rested on the three pillars of meritorious effort, assessment of value by the free market, and respect for pre-existing property. That's quite a change from the Divine Right of Kings, and therefore quite enough material to keep two political parties agitated for a couple of centuries. And quite enough change to bewilder even so brilliant a victim as Robert Morris.
IN 1783 the Revolution was over, in 1787 the Constitution was written, but the new nation would not launch its new system of government until 1790. It was a fragile time and a chaotic one. Earlier, just after the British abandoned their wartime occupation of Philadelphia in 1778, Robert Morris had been given emergency economic powers in the national government, whereas the state legislatures were struggling to create their own models of governance, often in overlapping areas. While the Pennsylvania Legislature was still occupying the Pennsylvania State House (now called Independence Hall) in 1778, it -- the state legislature -- issued the charter for America's first true bank the Bank of North America, and in 1784 the charter came up for its first post-war renewal. Morris was a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly both times. Although he was not a notable orator, it was said of him that he seldom lost an argument he seriously wanted to win. Keeping that up for several years in a small closed room will, unfortunately, make you many enemies.
|Tavern and Bank|
Morris was deeply invested in the bank, in many senses. He had watched with dismay as the Legislature squandered and mismanaged the meager funds of the rebellion, issuing promissory notes with abandon and no clear sense of how to repay them, or how to match revenues with expenditures. There was rioting in the streets of Philadelphia, very nearly extinguishing the lives of Morris and other leaders, just a block from City Tavern. Inflation immediately followed, resulting in high prices and shortages as the farmers refused to accept the flimsy currency under terms of price controls. Every possible rule of careful management was ignored and promptly matched with a vivid example of what results to expect next. Acting only on his gut instincts, Robert Morris stepped forward and offered to create a private currency, backed by his personal guarantee that the Morris notes would be paid. The crisis abated somewhat, giving Morris time to devise The Pennsylvania Bank, and then after some revision the first modern bank, the Bank of North America. The BNA sold stock to some wealthy backers of which Marris himself was the largest investor, to act as last-resort capital. It then started taking deposits, making loans, and acting as a modern bank. Without making much of a point of it at the time, the Bank interjected a vital change in the rules. Instead of Congress issuing the loans and setting the interest rates as it pleased, a commercial bank of this sort confines its loans to a fraction or multiple of its deposits, and its interest rates are then set by the public through the operation of supply and demand. The difference between what the Legislatures had been doing and what a commercial bank does, lies in who sets the interest rates and who limits the loans. The Legislature had been acting as if it had the divine right of Kings; the new system treated the government like any other borrower. As it turned out, the government didn't like the new system and has never liked it since then. Today, the present system has evolved a complicated apparatus at its top called the Open Market Committee of the Federal Reserve, most of whose members are politically appointed. Several members of the House Banking Committee are even now quite vocal in their C-span denunciations of the seven members of the Open Market Committee who in rotation are elected by the commercial banks of their regions. Close your eyes and the scene becomes the same; agents of the government feel they have a right to control the rules for government borrowing, while agents of the marketplace remain certain governments will always cheat if you don't stop them. This situation has not changed in two hundred years and essentially explains why some people hate banks.
That's the real essence of Morris's new idea of a bank; other advantages appeared as it operated. The law of large numbers smooths out the volatility of deposits and permits long-term loans based on short term deposits. Long-term deposits command higher loan prices than short-term ones can; higher profits result for the bank. And a highly counter-intuitive fact emerges, that making a loan effectively creates money; both the depositor and the borrower consider they own it at the same time. And finally, there is what is called seigniorage. Paper money (gold and silver "certificates") deteriorates and gets lost; the gold or silver backing it remains safe in the bank's vault, where it can be used a second time, or even many times.
For four days, Morris stood as a witness, hammering these truisms on the witless Western Pennsylvania legislators. At the end of it, scarcely one of them changed his vote, and the bank's charter was lost. But at the next election, the Federalists were swept back into the majority, defeating the opponents of the bank. Although, as we learn the way democracy works, still leaving them unconvinced of what they do not want to believe.
|Relic of the Past?|
EVER since we finally went off the gold standard completely during the Nixon Administration, the Federal Reserve has adjusted our money supply to create a fairly steady 2% inflation. If inflation is ever less than 2%, the Fed puts more money into circulation. Since many bonds are paying less than a 2% dividend, everybody who buys and holds them at par will lose money in "real" terms. That is, everyone who buys bonds when they are issued and sells them when they mature will lose spending power. Since they fluctuate in the meantime, it is possible for a trader to buy them when they are undervalued by the market. That trader will possibly make money, but only because someone else lost money. Something like that occurred during the recent financial crash bailout, when interest rates declined from 3% to less than 2% but were repurchased by the Fed as "Quantitative Easing", effectively giving speculators a 33% profit at government expense. But that doesn't happen often, and just guess who ultimately lost the money the speculators made. There is also that daunting question: when the time comes for the Federal Reserve to disgorge them, just who is going to buy all these cheapened bonds? In Japan, bonds paid a dividend of less than the rate of inflation for more than a decade; it's hard to think of a reason why the same thing could not happen in America. So it's also hard to imagine a reason why buy-and-hold investors should not abandon bonds, perhaps suddenly all at once, at some unknown time in the future. At that point, many of them will resolve never to try that, again. The whole idea is troubling.
It's particularly troubling in view of the lack of success, so far, of TIPS. These vehicles are new; perhaps the algorithm is set to ignore minor inflation and will over-respond to more major inflation, ultimately rewarding those who buy them. But at least so far, they are a disappointment. Furthermore, TIPS are quite cleverly designed to be inflation-protected, while unfortunately inflation usually does not follow a straight line but is volatile, or saw-toothed; the jury is still out. The jury better hurry up, because all investors look for net income after expenses, which include brokerage costs, taxes, and inflation. A long-term bond might have to pay a dividend approaching 4%, just to emerge with the same net value it started with; after five years of 4%, you could be 20% behind. And yet, the bond market with or without inflation protection is far larger than the stock market and compares in size with all other kinds of market. Who buys them, especially in these huge quantities?
Somebody must maintain statistics which answer this question, but as a guess, the main buyers are insurance companies, endowments, annuities, hedge funds, banks. And foreigners, of course, to whom our follies seem trivial compared with their own. The great argument for bonds is the safety of principal, and although safety is in question anywhere there is inflation when the topic is cash flow, safety is definitely an issue. Cash shortages are what cause bankruptcies, which are mainly useful in providing time to liquidate underlying wealth to pay restless creditors. The management of a non-profit organization must meet its payroll out of cash flow, so non-profits protect themselves from dissolution by having a regular flow of nominally secure bond dividends. Income from donations and contributions can be particularly weak during times of economic stress. Since most for-profit organizations also experience variable periods of time without profits, their situation does not differ greatly from nonprofits. That's particularly true when a for-profit organization has a vocal, activist stockholder group, who will protest fiercely if the management retains abundant cash. For such a predicament, holding bonds creates safety by some definition. The price of that safety is the long-term average loss on the bond portfolio; the company's alternative losses are whatever it takes to maintain a stable work force during unstable times. The business school assessment of this tradeoff is that bond losses can usually be passed through to the customers as a business cost, while layoffs and strikes may not be.
To restate the characteristics of willing bond purchasers, they are governments and corporations who have no common stock issuance alternatives, but regularly face a need to have money available for payroll. They also include borrowers and lenders at nominal interest rates like banks and insurance companies, who can afford to ignore inflation because their own liabilities are in nominal dollars, or come due at a date certain. And then, there are a host of beneficiaries of special-interest bond provisions, like "Flower bonds", state and municipal governments, foreign aid, student aid, etc. As an overall statement, natural bond buyers are those who either do not possess steady equity (common stock) alternative to offer investors or else are shielded in some way from the inflation and tax costs of buying bonds. Speculators and traders are excluded from the discussion because fixed-income trading is a zero-sum game, something you should teach your children to avoid. Other than these special niche opportunities, bonds should be regarded by the ordinary investor as trading opportunities when interest rates get too high, which is roughly every fifteen years or so.
Things in the bond market were not always so bad; Robert Morris, Jr. was a genius for devising this market in 1784. But the equity market was then not so well developed, life expectancies were shorter, and a minimum 2% inflation was not guaranteed by the Federal Reserve. The income tax had not been invented. It was possible to enjoy the promised benefits of lending in those days, for decades or even lifetimes. It was much harder to find investments of superior performance, without getting involved in business management. Meanwhile, the bond market just got huger and huger. Modifying or dismantling it in logical ways would have enormous disruptive effects. So enormous, the Congress has just adopted the stance called "kicking the can down the road", which is a debt you never seriously intend to repay.
Are we waiting for the bond market, the bond vigilantes, or speculators to find some vital vulnerable flaw, and topple it all into the ashcan of history? Or is there some better plan that no one has mentioned?
For many decades, at least since the Second World War, the Northeastern part of the country has been losing population. And business, and wealth. In recent years, New Jersey has been the state with the greatest net loss, and the Governor who is making the greatest fuss about it. Statisticians have raised this observation to the level of proven fact, although lots of people are even moving into New Jersey at the same time. This is a net figure, and it remains debatable what sort of person you would want to gain, hate to lose; so it's hard for politicians to be certain whether New Jersey's demographic shifts are currently a good thing or a bad thing.
Take the prison population, for example. Most people in New Jersey would think it was a good thing if the felons all moved to some other state because it would imply less crime and law enforcement costs. But one of the major recent causes of a decline in violent crime seems to be the universal presence of a portable telephone in everyone's pocket. Just let someone yell, "Stick 'em up!" loud enough, and thirty cell phones are apt to emerge, all dialing 911. On the other hand, cell phones are the universal communication vehicle for sales of illicit drugs and other illegal recreations, and the increase in automobile accidents is a serious business for inattentive drivers. Add to this confusion the data that capital punishment is more expensive for the State than incarceration is, and you start to see the near futility of knowing what is best to have more, or less, of.
What the Governor and his Department of Treasury mostly want to know is whether certain taxes end up producing a good net revenue for the State. That is, whether more revenue is produced by raising certain taxes more than others, or whether some taxes are a big component of the Laffer Curve, causing revenue to be lost by driving business, or business owners, out of state, in spite of the immediate revenue gain. The studies which have been done are fairly conclusive that executives tend to be most outraged by property taxes, since they have a hidden effect on the sale price of the house, and the amount of money available for school improvements. At least at present levels, a Governor is better off taking abuse for raising income or sales taxes, even though the apparent tax revenue might be the same as a rise in property taxes. Since property taxes are mostly set by a local municipal government, while sales and income taxes are usually set by state governments, a decision to raise one sort of tax or another can have unexpected consequences, or require obscure manipulations to accomplish.
Some politicians who believe their voting strength does not lie in the middle class, would normally want to hold up property values, not taxes because the data show that higher home prices drive away from the middle class and in certain circumstances are positively attractive to wealthy ones. Higher prices appeal to home sellers, at least up to a point. Wealthier people who are buying houses are likely to have an old one to sell; that's less true of first-time home buyers or people presently renting. Certain issues can even be reduced to rough formulas: a 1% increase in income tax would cause a 1% loss of population, but a 5% loss of people earning more than $125,000. A $10,000 increase in average home prices, on the other hand, causes a net loss of population, but mostly those with lower income. One important feature of tinkering with average home prices and property taxes is that these effects are "durable" -- they do not fade away over time.
New Jersey is financially a bad state to die in, but the decision to move to Delaware, Florida or Texas is often made over a long period of years in advance of actually doing it. It has been hard to compile statistics relating changes in inheritance tax law to net migration of retirees and to present such dry data in an effective manner to counteract the grumblings that rich people are undeserving of tax relief, or dead people are unable to complain. But rich old folks are very likely to own or control businesses, and if you drive them out of state, you may drive away a considerably larger amount of taxation relating to the business in other ways. This is the underlying complaint of Unions about Jobs, Jobs, Jobs; but state revenue also relates to sales taxes of the business, business taxes, employee taxes, real estate taxes on the business property, etc, etc. Sometimes these effects are more noticeable in the region they affect; the huge population growth of the Lehigh Valley in recent years is mainly composed of former New Jersey suburbanites, who formerly earned their income in New York. The taxes of three different states interact, in places like that.
The audience of a group I recently attended contained a great many people who make a living trying to persuade businesses to move into one of the three Quaker states of the Delaware Valley. The side-bar badinage of these people tended to agree that many of the decisions to relocate a business are based on seemingly capricious thinking. The decision to consider relocation to the Delaware Valley is often prompted by such things as the wife of an executive having gone to school on the Main Line. Following that, the professional persuaders move in with data about tax rates, average home prices, and the ranking of local school quality by analysts. Having compiled a short list of places to consider by this process, it all seemingly comes back to the same capriciousness. The wife of the C.E.O. had a roommate at college who still lives in the area. And she says the Philadelphia Flower Show is the best there is. So, fourteen thousand employees soon get a letter, telling them we are going to move.
And, the poor Governor is left out of the real decision-making entirely, except to the degree he recognizes that home property taxes have the largest provable effect on personal relocation. And lowering the corporate income tax has the biggest demonstrable effect on moving businesses. But the largest un-provable effect is dependent on the comparative level of the state's inheritance tax.
JOHN Dickinson had been highly critical of England's treatment of its colonies. As early as 1768 he had written a book called Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer which is credited with strongly influencing the colonies in the direction of resistance to the British Ministry. When it came time to write the Articles of Confederation, Dickinson was the lawyer selected for the task. His good friend Robert Morris had been less outspoken in opposition to the Ministry's behavior, quite possibly because he was adept at finding workarounds for his own personal business problems. But possibly he was merely maintaining an ambiguous negotiating posture, since in a hotly contested election with this as the main issue, Morris was elected by both sides in the argument. When July 4, 1776, forced the issue both Dickinson and Morris had refused to sign the Declaration, but within a few months both of them were actively fighting for the Rebellion. The truest test of their evolving attitudes might have emerged when Lord North sent the Earl of Carlisle as an emissary after Burgoyne's defeat at Saratoga, offering peace with a sort of commonwealth status for the colonies. Not much is written about this curious episode, leaving it unclear whether the British were serious, and even if they were, whether the Americans understood the offer as serious. On the surface, the British offer conceded taxation with representation as the rebellion had been demanding. But it was rejected by Gouverneur Morris acting for -- who remains unclear. It seems possible the British were exploring the true feelings of people like Dickinson and Robert Morris but were disappointed. The earlier treatment of Ireland after it had agreed to a similar half-hearted autonomy did leave British sincerity in legitimate doubt.
The thirteen colonies had united to fight the British King, but many of them were reluctant to unite for any other time or purpose. Rhode Island was perhaps the extreme example of this view of what Independence was supposed to mean, but the feeling existed to some degree in many colonies. Concern for the power of this feeling of tentativeness may have contributed an important reason the Articles placed heavy emphasis on declaring the document to represent a perpetual arrangement. Recognition of the weakness of this intent may have been an important reason why George Washington was later willing to sweep the issue aside, even though he of all people was most concerned to avoid the appearance of acting as an arbitrary king. For these and other reasons mainly revolving around state boundary disputes, the Articles remained unratified for years. Finally, in 1781 Robert Morris became convinced that failure to ratify was encouraging the states not to cooperate, and successfully pushed ratification through its steps. At that time, Morris was effectively running the country, even providing his own credit and funds to do it. People were reluctant to oppose his wishes, but they were also unwilling to provide the taxes, supplies, and troops that Morris imagined were being blocked by failure to ratify. Ratification of the Articles accomplished very little except to convince Morris: the Articles were flawed and must be replaced with something conferring more central power.
|The Goal: 1787|
Little is known about the evolution of Constitutional thought in Morris' mind between 1781 and the Constitutional Convention in 1787, although a great deal is known about his other numerous activities. It is clear, however, that his experience with the recalcitrant Pennsylvania Legislature had been dismal, while he came to see the one insurmountable flaw in the current Federal government was its inability to levy taxes and consequently, to service national debt. The states were able to levy taxes under the Articles but erratic in doing so, resorting to paper money inflation at the first sign of tax resistance. In Morris' view, the key to the effective government was to reverse the situation; let the national government tax, let the states spend. The key to such rearrangement would be to permit the national government to spend on a very limited list of vital purposes, but bedazzle the states with a substantially unlimited shopping list if they thought they could afford it. As the accounts to pay for the Revolutionary War totaled up, it was apparent that the National Government had twice as much debt as the states. Therefore it would at most, need twice the state taxing power to service such a debt; presumably, wars would be infrequent and it would be less than that. Pay this one off, and potentially the need for future federal spending would be small. Indeed, under the presidency of James Monroe, the national debt was completely paid off, although briefly. It was almost as if Robert Morris and his pupil Alexander Hamilton had a crystal ball.
|Decline and Fall, Anyone?|
Robert Morris was brilliant and had six years to fashion his strategy, but he also had some help. For one thing, George Washington lived next door much of that time. By then, almost no one dared confront Washington. Adam Smith had written his book The Wealth of Nations in 1776, and Morris gave this extraordinary work as presents to his friends. Morris had corresponded with Necker, the genius financier of France, and through his good friend Benjamin Franklin, gathered insights from the rather advanced British national finance. And James Madison brought in scholarship about politics and statecraft accumulated by Witherspoon, Hume and the Scottish enlightenment. The year 1776 was a remarkable moment for new ideas. In that year, Edward Gibbon also published the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The warning behind that important book had an important impact on the minds of important thinkers of the era, too.
Once you grasped all the central ideas, in this environment the resulting strategy almost worked itself out.
Banks have long operated in a dual system of regulation, state and federal, which permits some shifting back and forth between regulators. Mergers sometimes confuse matters further, and a system of one-bank holding companies adds to the stew. Local banks, waving the red shirt of domination by Wall Street at their state legislatures, have resisted interstate banking in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes a customer finds that funds transfer between two branches of the same bank must be treated as out-of-state action, and so on. Inevitably there is a certain amount of dealing by subsidiaries which are not recorded on the books of the home bank of a bank conglomerate in ways prescribed by the subsidiary's regulator, or not recorded at all. Equally inevitable is the accusation of off-the-books illegality by competitors, politicians, or the merely captious. Fine points of these legal and accounting arguments must be left to experts, peer review, and courts. Muttering Enron at every opportunity, accusers may be right that some of these arrangements have stepped over the line; partisans in Congress and the legislatures, on the other hand, may be correct that existing law is bad law. This is not a good place to debate either point.
It does seem appropriate to notice that banking has long been massively inefficient and that much of this inefficiency has been imposed by regulators. Regulators represent the public, more or less, and the public is rightly nervous about stewardship of its assets. Dual regulation offers refuge from the ancient fear of confiscation by the sovereign and is worth a certain amount of inefficiency if it works. But it does create loopholes, and it does impair transparency. In the case of the credit crunch of 2007, it sequestered bad debt in off-the-books ways, perhaps creating tax avoidance, but mainly creating distrust among counterparties. In those days of awful turmoil, no one knew what was going on, multi-billion dollar losses were being confessed by premier institutions, so transactions were delayed, avoided, or rejected. Transactions with anybody. When the time comes to reconsider regulations, it should be emphasized that by far the most damaging component of the whole mess was lack of transparency. Once more, a massive computer programming effort is entirely capable of restoring transparency to the existing regulatory structure, highly pigglety though it may be. After we achieve transparency we might consider achieving efficient transparency, and after that perhaps ponder fairness in transparency. When a trader calls another and asks to buy a zillion shares, the happy recipient of the call likes to glance up at his screen to see what the other fellow is worth, before he shouts, "You got it!"
What the Federal Reserve might well call the highest priority calls for respect, as well. Ever since we began the century-long transition from a gold standard for money, there has been a concern that the Fed might not be able to determine how much money, or credit, or liquidity -- is actually in existence. We have reached a point in this process where the Fed has largely stopped trying to measure monetary aggregates, and merely adjusts its tools to keep the money supply sailing between the rocks of inflation and recession; if neither rock is in sight, the amount of money is about right. That system has served us for eighteen years, long enough to spark hope that it can be permanent. But when a rocky shore does make an appearance, the Captain of the ship must know how much slack he has, and how reliable his sonar. For huge sums to be obscured within bank subsidiaries or delayed marking to market, is to increase the chance we will run up on the rocks when it might have been avoided. He too needs transparency, but he also needs prompt obedience to his orders. The rest of us passengers are rightly concerned when he appears before Congress and admits he is not sure what the situation is. As long as that is the case, fairness -- and dogma -- be damned.
Taking a step backward, the whole credit crunch has brought to the world's attention that real estate transactions are both immense, and immensely inefficient; a great deal of money is to be made if any step in the chain can be streamlined. Therefore, real estate agents, real estate lawyers, title insurance, surveyors, advertisers, inspectors and everyone else who makes a living from real estate sales -- can expect to be drawn into an annoying process of inspecting the premises, promises, kickbacks, referral fees and marketing costs of a whole expensive process, first blasted open to inspection by implementation defects while computerizing the mortgage step. It appears to be high time for it.
|The Industrial Revolution|
The term "Rust Belt" makes clear that Philadelphia is only one city in a whole region which lost its industrial core. The Industrial Revolution surely isn't over, it has moved. When we had too much of it, we deplored the smoke and fog of industry, its acid rain, its grimy desolation. But now that industry has obliged us by departing, we miss it, if for no better reason than it imposed structure on the city. It was the organizing principle, which we now need to replace with something more than the dreams and sketches of architects and planners. Figure out what we want the city to be, or at least try to figure out where it is going. And then, the city will shape itself. Philadelphia is far from the worst afflicted city in the region; compared with Detroit, it was hardly affected. What determines relative success within regional decline is whether a city has other assets, sufficient to create substitute routes to success. In Philadelphia's case, non-profit activity provided survival, but the avoidance of profits soon became altogether too praiseworthy.
My friend the railroad lawyer gives an unexpected answer to the question why we no longer have much industry in Philadelphia. The cause, in his wry phrase, is air conditioning. Not even Congressional logrolling would have been able to push industry into Huntsville, Alabama or even Atlanta, without air conditioning to make those places inhabitable. He jests. The South has developed the infrastructure to take its place in the industrial world and has a lower wage scale at all levels of society. The Second World War stirred them out of their provincialism, the GI Bill educated them. And let's face it, the migration of their black people from the rural south to the urban north reduced the strain on southern education and welfare, at the same time it imposed much of that burden on the haughty Civil War victors. There had been a massive migration westward of the white South, fleeing the devastation of the Civil War; but the blacks didn't much participate in that. Their migration from the former slave states came by the busload after the end of World War II.
We focus on the newly industrialized South as a competitor because it is more personal; we know the cities of the South and Southwest are growing rapidly, and we have a fair idea of who is moving there. Meanwhile, the rest of the underdeveloped world is flowering, economically developing, at a far faster rate. Over a billion Chinese and Indians have been lifted out of unspeakable poverty and transformed into serious economic competitors. Air conditioning sort of gets the idea across. But the word we are searching for is -- globalization. Philadelphia is a perfectly wonderful place to live, particularly if you are able to retire here. What we lack is a sustainable way to earn a living.
It took the destruction of eight railroads to break the back of the industrial unions. The union movement has shifted to the public sector by exploiting a highly dubious partnership with urban political machines. This sort of thing must not be permitted to continue unresisted, if only to avoid the example of New Jersey with the apparent invasion of politics by the Mafia entering by way of union politics, maybe by way of the legalized gambling industry. It requires no advanced degree in economics to see that aggregation of non-productive sectors into a political force is incompatible with success in a globalized world. Foreign competitors will destroy businesses which yield, and the bond market will teach the public sector a bitter lesson.
Globalization did not destroy the Rust Belt, it simply gave a shove to a tottering structure. By the 1920s, our industries had enjoyed their expected seventy-five-year life span; the 1929 crash was a belated recognition of the facts. The ensuing Depression and World War II protected our obsolete industrial plant from foreign competition, but by 1960 our monopoly was under attack by modern new factories abroad, enjoying cheap labor, copying our methods. In what has proved to be the most astute investment judgment of a century, the DuPont family perceived the facts and sold General Motors, just as they had earlier given up the gunpowder business to make nylon stockings. It would be exaggerated to say that political subsidies kept the auto business alive for another forty years after the duPonts got rid of it, but that would appear to be approximately true. The seller of any business is in position to foretell its future better than most buyers and is looking for top dollar to dress it up and cash out.
We thus arrive at the conclusion that no one in particular killed Philadelphia industry, at least to the extent it is unproductive to search for villains. My friend the lawyer feels maritime unions were more guilty than other unions, and he has no reason to love railroad unions. But if it can be accepted that Philadelphia's main problem was to fail to replace aging industries with new ones, the more productive search lies among correctible obstacles for new businesses. Since globalization has apparently resulted in Philadelphia's impaired competitiveness for untrained and uneducated workers, it would seem most productive to educate more of them up and out of that class. Our clearly dysfunctional public school system must either be improved or radically revised; the teachers' unions seem to be a serious problem to address. For some reason, the most serious problems appear in the fourth grade.
|Father Time Baby New year|
Our criminal justice system seems to be in a circular pattern which must be broken. We spend too much on police, prisons, and courts, to the point where convicted criminals exceed the prison capacity, and courtroom procedures seem designed to avoid convictions. Our local judges are a national joke, with an excessive tendency to settle cases out of an inexperienced judge's fear of his own inability to conduct a trial. In fact, the chief justice of our state supreme court is presently accused of corruption in the location of the family courts. Apparently much could be accomplished simply; the number of liability filings is down over 50% in a few years, simply by a few changes in civil procedures. Increasingly, lawyers are turning to alternative dispute resolution under private auspices. Apparently, litigants on both sides find it preferable to pay for private judging than to utilize the free judging provided by the Commonwealth. Surely, both the law schools and the bar associations are derelict in their implicit duty to guide the public through this arcane labyrinth. Perhaps the solution, and maybe the source of the problem, is to be found in the State Legislature.
The Legislature, now there's a piece of work. Between the gerrymandering they create and the single party urban machines which command their nominating primaries, it is hard to believe a reform movement can have more than transient effect, or that a tea party could unite around an effective solution. Proposition Fourteen in California (open, non-party primaries) is a promising idea, but probably it will not be possible to amend the state legislative process with a single stroke, and then everybody could go home. This project seems more likely to require large private contributions to multiple in-depth studies of the history and intricacies of the local governance problem, together with a series of tentative steps and revisions over at least a decade. Perhaps a portion of the money now being spent purchasing and trading professional sports teams could be diverted to generating the ideas and research, maybe the publicity, required to accomplish such an ambitious project. But for a beginning, Proposition Fourteen has the right idea; politics keeps its stranglehold on reform through iron control of the nominating process.
In addition to cleaning up the governance mess, we need to look at the industries we have driven away, to see how to mend our ways.
|President Barack Obama|
Any idea of a smoothly orchestrated introduction of the new law was jarringly interrupted by the U. S. Supreme Court, which granted a hearing to a complaint by 26 State Attorney Generals, that the ACA Act was unconstitutional. It was big news that the whole Affordable Care Act might be set aside without selling a single policy of insurance. The timing (before the Act had actually been implemented) served to guarantee that the constitutional issue, and only that issue, would be discussed at this Supreme Court hearing. By implication, there might be more than one episode to these hearings.
While many could have declaimed for an hour without notes, about difficult issues perceived in the Obama health plan, questioning its constitutionality had scarcely entered most minds. Then of a sudden, near the end of March 2012, a case testing the constitutionality of mandatory health insurance was granted certiorari and very promptly argued for three full days before the U.S. Supreme Court. Twenty-six state attorneys general brought that case, so it was not trivial. In jest, one Justice quipped he would rather throw out the whole case than being forced to spend a year just reading 2500 pages of it. But Justices are practiced in the art of quickly getting to the heart of a matter; it soon boiled down to one issue: was it constitutional for Congress to force the whole nation to purchase health insurance? Is there no limit in the Constitution about what the federal government can force all citizens to do, even though the federal government itself is severely limited in scope? Even though the Tenth Amendment states that anything not specifically granted to the federal becomes the province of the states? Would a people who fought an armed revolution for eight years over a 2-cent tax on tea, now consent to a much larger requirement which it was not constitutionally authorized to impose? Most people finally wrapped their heads around some formulation of this non-medical concept to a point where they vaguely understood what the Judges were arguing about. This was beginning to look like a topic where We The People made a covenant with our elected leaders, and reserve the sole right to change it.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
The Constitution describes a Federal system in which, a few enumerated powers are granted to the national government but every other power is reserved to the state legislatures. The Constitution had to be ratified by the states to go into effect, and the states had such strong reservations about the surrender of more than a handful of powers that they would not ratify the document unless the concept of enumeration was restated by the Tenth Amendment. If states could not be persuaded of the need for a particular power to be national, they might refuse to ratify a document which enabled permanent quarrels about the issue. That wariness explains why The Bill of Rights goes to the extra trouble of declaring certain powers are forbidden to any level of government.
Separation of powers further explains why Mr. Romney's mandatory health insurance plan might be legal for the Massachusetts legislature but prohibited to Congress. After Chief Justice Roberts got through with it, whether that truly remains the case will now depend on whether it is described as a tax, a penalty, a cost, or whatever, and only if the U.S. Supreme Court later agrees that was a proper definition. Because -- to be considered a tax it must be too small to be considered coercion. The law itself apparently does not underline this distinction in a way the Justices felt they could approve. Indeed, while Mr. Obama in his speeches firmly declared it was not a tax, later White House "officials" declared it might be. There was agreement the Federal government could tax, but no acknowledgment that taxes might have any purpose other than revenue.
Under circumstances widely visible on television, however, it was clear that the House of Representatives had been offered no opportunity to comment on this and many other points in this legislation. To a layman, that fact itself seems as clear a violation of constitutional intent as almost any other issue, since the Constitution indicates no idea was ever contemplated that any President might construct laws, nor like the courts, interpret their meaning. The first three Presidents repeatedly raised the question of whether they had the authority to do certain things we now take for granted. And Thomas Jefferson was similarly boxed in by a clever Chief Justice, who said, in effect, Agree to This Decision, or be Prepared to Get a Worse One. The Constitution says it is the function of the Executive branch to enforce the law, "faithfully". Presumably, all of the thousands of regulations issued by the Executive Branch under this law must meet the same test.
Given that the Justices now hold it constitutional for the federal Congress to mandate universal health insurance, based on some authority within taxation, the immediate next issue is paying for it. Millions of citizens, usually young and healthy but sometimes for religious reasons, do not want to buy health insurance and would be forced to do so by this law because the only available alternative is to pay a revenue tax. The purpose of including them is to overcharge people who will predictably under-use community-rated insurance, and thus enable the surplus to reduce costs for those who do want to buy health insurance. (Here, the Court had the pleasure of reducing an unusually opaque law to an unusually succinct summary.) To avoid the charge of a "taking", the Administration must either surrender on the universal mandatory point or else surrender the level premiums of community rating. The lawyers for the complaining attorneys general laid great stress on this particular issue in their arguments, and it occasioned much of the discussion from the bench. However, until the law is in action there is as yet no cause for damages.
Here it will depend on whether you call it a permissible activity for Massachusetts or for the Federal government. The Constitutional point seems to be that it is a legitimate Federal power to tax for the "general welfare", so it now becomes essential to know if the taxes for noncompliance in Obamacare are really a penalty. The Justices seemed to be questioning whether the whole scheme would collapse with the forced subsidy eliminated, and because of that be deemed to have been a "general welfare purpose" adequate to meet the constitutional requirement of a permissible enumerated purpose. Lawyers can generally find such a defined purpose in the words of the Constitution, even if they have to dip into the penumbras and emanations of the words. So the question might just devolve into whether a majority of the Justices wish to declare the penumbra to be within the enumerated powers of Congress. To all of this, the lawyers for the attorneys' general reply that such an enumerated power is impossible because there is no limit to what could be done by this method. Congress would then be allowed to mandate that everyone eat broccoli for dinner, or buy a General Motors car in order to pay for the deficits of rescuing that company from bankruptcy. Almost anything could be mandated by establishing a penalty called a tax; including a mandate that everyone buys a product in order to pay for the deficits of mandating it, illustrates there exists at least one circularity of enumerating something like a power of Congress. According to this reasoning, mandated health insurance cannot, therefore, be an enumerated power of Congress, either now or at any time in the future. The sort of speculative law outlined in this paragraph is exactly the sort of thing the Supreme Court dislikes and shows the utility of denying access to the courts to anyone who cannot claim "standing", defined as a claim of actual injury from a law.
The Justices undoubtedly had to weigh the fact that the American public has a strong distaste for this sort of convoluted reasoning, which sounds like a convention of Jesuit priests having fun. On many other occasions, however, the public has accepted the judgment of people it hired to understand this sort of thing; that's called respect for the law. Eighty years ago in the Roosevelt court-packing case, there was the same sort of collision between the Court and the President, and the Court knuckled under even though the public supported the Court. In both cases, the Court seemed to be yielding to the President, with the unspoken compromise that the President would not pursue his earlier course with quite so much vigor. Since the really central 1937 question of overturning the Interstate Commerce clause ("Commerce among the several states") was left unaddressed, the velvet glove might yet contain an iron fist.
WHEN mysteriously crashing financial markets caused transactions to freeze in terror in 2008, no one was brave enough to explain what had happened, because no one was sure. It had happened before and in many nations, but no comprehensive theory was acknowledged to exist for all such crises, and certainly no coherent explanation existed for this one. That is an assessment some people might dispute, of course. But during the worst of the crisis, chairmen of major financial houses, professors of economics, and assorted other notables were asked by the news media to explain the situation, and most of them confessed they really didn't know. As the crisis continued, tentative partial explanations were offered, and eventually, political partisans or competitors were emboldened to assign blame to indignant participants in various financial trades, apparently using the logic that if no one really knew the answer, then everybody was permitted to offer one. Gradually, however, some serious theories have been announced, along with reasonably credible evidence, but no more than that. After the dust had settled somewhat in November 2012, Walt Bettinger published an article in the Opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal which plausibly helps explain a piece of it.
Mr. Bettinger is the CEO of Charles Schwab Corp., which owns several large money market funds, and he credibly offers a theory about the money market part of it. Briefly, it is that large institutions with both sizeable investments in money market funds, as well as strong computer and mathematical resources, were in a position to withdraw their investments during the days of chaos, whereas smaller public investors have to wait until the end of the trading day to learn that a fund had abruptly developed too few assets to justify paying out a dollar for every dollar's worth of obligation. That is, in a "mark to market" situation there weren't enough reserves to cover the liabilities. If the public became aware of this situation, it might suddenly withdraw its deposits and throw the fund into bankruptcy; that is, it might start a run on the bank. In the past, this sort of thing has happened to money market funds from time to time, and the institution which owns or sponsors the money market fund has -- so far -- supplied its own money to prevent potential disaster from a bank run. However, in a serious crash with uncertain causes, someday that might not be their choice or their assets might not be sufficient to stop the run. The consequences are uncertain, but the dangerous potential is clear.
The remedies for this situation might well be numerous, but the simplest one would be to isolate large investors from small ones by setting a top limit for large accounts, perhaps even automatically transferring large accounts to a large-account fund at the instant the account exceeds some limit. Apparently, similar proposals have been made privately, and there is opposition whose validity must be addressed. However, in the confines of an Op-ed article, a fully exhaustive discussion of a technical proposal is not possible. Ideally, this sort of proposal could be adopted privately, using the advance consent of the two involved parties, the bank, and the big customer. No doubt there is some legitimate concern that widespread publicity might trigger unfortunate legislative over-reaction. After all, most members of the public are unaware that "breaking the buck" is even a possibility. If the possibility of a run can be eliminated by skipping the alarming discussion of whether it potentially exists, or how serious it might or might not become, it would be a mercy. It only seems to be required that the parties agree it is a risk worth avoiding.
THERE is little doubt many state legislatures behaved in a capricious and high-handed way in the twenty years prior to the 1787 Constitution. Outrage at this behavior was one of the important stimulants to writing the Constitution, as well as putting public pressure on state legislatures to ratify it in 1788. Section 10 of Article 1 is devoted to limitations on state behavior deemed to be generally offensive or otherwise contrary to the national interest. Among the comparatively short list of absolute prohibitions is found "No state shall......, pass any law.....impairing the obligation of contracts, or grant any title of nobility." This section condemns certain behavior as indefensible but does not specify the Federal government to be similarly limited, along with the states. However, the government which was established as one of the limited federal powers. Unless a power was specifically granted to the Federal government, the Tenth Amendment announces it belongs to the states, or, as the Ninth Amendment would have it, to the people. There seemed no need to limit the scope of a power which could not exist. The Tenth and final Amendment in the Bill of Rights ended the 1791 Constitution with the words:
X. The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
A modern capsulation might be: the Federal Government is no more empowered to impair the sanctity of contracts than it is to grant titles of nobility.
The Framers of the Constitution were inexperienced in the habits of a republic, or they might have anticipated the general tendency of those who are empowered to enforce the law, to flout it in their own behavior. Around the smallest courthouse in the nation, one need not be surprised to find the Sheriff or other local worthies, parking their cars in illegal spots without fear of punishment. It is not just state legislatures who are tempted to disobey the laws they pass, but a general tendency of all authority to do so. It requires a local citizenry with a very short fuse, displaying instant hostility to the first sign of this sort of swaggering, to keep their local newspapers from filling up with scandal stories in the weeks before an election. Many of these stories are politically motivated, of course, but it must be admitted that in a naughty world, they are necessary.
No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.
No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it's inspection Laws: and the net Produce of all Duties and Imposts, laid by any State on Imports or Exports, shall be for the Use of the Treasury of the United States; and all such Laws shall be subject to the Revision and Control of the Congress. No State shall, without the Consent of Congress, lay any duty of Tonnage, keep Troops, or Ships of War in time of Peace, enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power, or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay.
|Article One, Section 10|
A 21st Century illustration is found in a letter sent to current beneficiaries of Social Security, reducing their monthly check by twenty or more percent in some cases, and in other cases just a few dollars. The notice says that this deduction is based on IRS reports of the individual's income, using material supplied by the Internal Revenue Service, thereby triggering an additional side question about the right of the government to use supposedly private information to impair the obligation of the Social Security contract. Setting the privacy issue aside, what is illustrated is an even more discouraging violation of the expectations for fair dealing. This is a privacy right which might have been enforced by an excruciating repetition of the time-consuming requirement of manual specification. Now that computers are more common, what formerly needed no specification, now perhaps begins to need it, since endless repetition is now so tediously conventional.
Governments casually violate the sanctity of contracts when it is self-serving to do so, and presumably, it can be shown that they neglect to violate, or even punish those who violate, whenever such violations are to the advantage of anyone else. It has been said that this matter has been adjudicated in favor of the government in the past, thus creating a precedent, stare decisis, so to speak. Whatever the logic of such precedents, growing Constitutional literacy among the public is going to demand that the matter be re-argued. That is to say, it is comparatively easy to imagine growing knowledge about the Constitution among the citizens, while it will never be easy to expect the public to puzzle through the steps in a judicial chain which explicates how the reverse is now a superior view. Therefore, the demand for re-argument should be a growing one.
This-here speaker at the Right Angle Club began a discussion of the "Fiscal Cliff" razzle-dazzle of 2012, by changing his mind about the causes of the financial crash of 2007. Originally, it seemed as though globalizing 500 million Chinese out of poverty had destabilized the exuberant American mortgage market by flooding it with cheap credit. Supplanting that idea, or perhaps only supplementing it, must now be added the overextension of national debt itself to a point of bringing national borrowing to a halt.
Early in the Eighteenth century the Dutch and English had monetized national assets through a system of national borrowing formalized by Necker in Europe, and Robert Morris and Alexander Hamilton in America. Aside from a handful, no one could understand what they were talking about. Try reading that sentence a second time.
It amounted to guaranteeing all the private credit in the banking, investment, and commerce systems, with a national debt (in the form of Treasury bonds) which monetized all the assets of the whole nation. That action more or less doubled their value, just as any bank loan is seemingly owned by two people at the same time. Carried to an extreme, it might imply that America could turn Guam and Hawaii over to China if we defaulted on our debt. That was never actually intended to happen, and it never has, because all nations now fear the deflation which could result from triggering a massive exchange of national assets. The nebulous issue of "National Sovereignty" interferes with territorial transfers by any means other than war. If one nation defaults against a second nation which is afraid to go to war, it is just the stronger nation's hard luck about the debts it has chosen to support unless a transfer of assets actually happens. The Treaty of Versailles did transfer assets to the victors, and set off World War II, although it is considered bad manners to mention it. That's a simplified view of our international financial system, which admittedly skirts uncertainty about how much national debt is too much.
In fact, no one knows how much is too much until everyone runs for the exits. Now that politicians have control of computers and "big data", a modern description places the blame on Alan Greenspan the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve. For eighteen years Greenspan produced delicious world prosperity by steadily increasing American national debt faster than the American economy was growing. Sooner or later this approach was going to uncover how much was currently too much Federal debt. With silver and gold removed from the equation, one could see that default would certainly loom whenever the size of the debt became so large it could never be serviced by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and possibly sooner than that, if enough people could guess what was coming. This reality might be obscured temporarily by reducing interest rates, modifying international trade balances, and inflation. When the stars were in alignment however, the system just had to collapse and start over. Because it happened gradually, perhaps it would unwind gradually. In 2007 what happened was that everybody tried to get out the door at the same time. Essentially, our two political parties made opposite assessments: the party of Hamilton -- Republicans -- announced this system was doomed, while Democrats --the party of Andrew Jackson -- announced they could stave off disaster by making the rich Republicans pay for it. Both parties were partly right but essentially wrong, and the Democrats hired a better magician.
It will take months or even years to be certain just what strategy was pursued. It would appear the Democrats chose to repeat the performance of the Obamacare legislation, eliminating national debate by eliminating the Congressional committee system of examining details in advance of a vote. Given one day to digest two thousand pages prepared by the Executive branch, no time was allowed for public opinion to form about Obamacare. In the case of the fiscal cliff episode, Congress was given less than one day to consider 150 pages allegedly prepared the day prior to the vote. Some will admire the skill of the executive branch in orchestrating this secret maneuver, but eventually, it must become apparent that policy decisions have been transferred from the legislative to the executive branch of government. Perhaps the Congressional Republicans are as stupid as the Democrats portray them to be, but it is also possible that a decision has been made to tempt the Democratic leaders into repeating this performance several times until eventually, the public is ready to consider impeachment for it. No matter what the strategy, we are now threatened with imagining some moment when gun barrels come level and live rounds slide home. We may pass up the opportunity to criticize Henry Clay for concentrating undue power in the Speaker of the House, or to uncover the way Harry Reid was persuaded to surrender Senate power to the Executive; both miscalculations are fast becoming irrelevant in the flurry of events. We came close to borrowing too much, exceeding our means to pay it back, that's all. A New York Times editorial economist feels we can "grow" our way out of this flirtation with danger, and we all certainly hope so.
Seemingly, there are only two ways to cope with over-borrowing, once we step over the invisible line. A nation may cheat its citizens with inflation, or it may cheat foreign citizens by defaulting on their currency. We are indebted to Rogoff and Reinhart for pointing out there is no difference between inflation and default except the identity of the cheated creditor; so most politicians prefer to cheat foreigners. Either way, cheating makes deadly enemies. Two centuries ago, Alexander Hamilton suggested a third way out of the problem, which we would today call "growth". But here, cheating is pretty easy: If the limit is some ratio of debt to GDP, find a way to increase nominal GDP.
|Shale Gas and Argentina|
The most astonishing current example of the power of "growth", is shale gas. It may not be totally clean, but it is cleaner than oil or coal, and far cheaper. We suddenly have so much of it the price of energy is artificially lowered, and we talk, not merely of energy independence, but of restoring the balance of international payments by exporting it. Germany is constructing steel mills to utilize iron ingots made in America with gas instead of coal. Pittsburgh was once the center of steel production because that's where the coal was, the most expensive ingredient to transport. Suddenly it is now apparently cheaper to transport the energy source to wherever you find limestone and iron ore. JP Morgan got rich the other way, transporting limestone and iron ore to Pittsburgh, where the coal was. Russia now finds it has lost its leverage over Eastern Europe's energy supply, and the Arabs (?Iranians?) will no longer have a monopoly to provide the wealth supporting Middle-Eastern mischief. China may lose interest in Africa. And in America we may develop the courage to rid ourselves of the corn subsidies for gasoline; cutting the wind and sunlight fumbles also emerge as obvious ways to cut the deficit. That's what we mean by growth. It's so powerful it makes action by any American President seem trivial by comparison.
Presumably, President Obama does not welcome being upstaged by an economic force he doggedly resisted. He may seek ways to imply it was his idea all along. When that happens, rest assured that everyone else is then a fracker. But there is another alternative Presidential path, which in extreme form is emerging in Argentina without much media attention. In short, Argentina discovered signs of oil deposits but was unable to exploit them. A European oil company was enticed to develop the oil reserves at its own expense, and effectively did so in expectation of reward from the resulting oil sales. Suddenly, the Kirchner government expropriated the oil company, paying for it with Argentine bonds. The ink was scarcely dry before the Argentine government abruptly turned around and offered to buy back the bonds for 24 cents on the dollar. And unless someone is willing to send gunboats, the previous owners of the oil company are just out of luck. Appeals to the UN are futile; because on the one-nation, one-vote principle, there are more expropriator votes in the UN than potential victims. The only thing visible which could save capitalism in South America from the revolution in shale gas competition. Presumably, Argentina has lots of shale gas, but who will lend them the money to frack it?
They Don't Make That, Anymore These words from the nice young lady in the drug store, left me astonished, baffled, bewildered, and angry.
Although I am retired from the practice of medicine, my limited license permits me to prescribe ethical drugs for myself. I had not realized, until that very moment, that to some extent it also isolated me from the experiences of my fellow patients. Let me explain.
The drug involved was tetracycline, which I had surely prescribed a thousand times, and to which I had a sort of loyalty growing out of the fact that I took it myself. In the days when I was a college student, I came down with a form of pneumonia that involved a lot of coughing, like whooping cough. It was then called virus pneumonia because it was somewhat different from ordinary pneumonia, even though it was called Primary Atypical Pneumonia in polite academic circles. Eventually, we learned that its cause was neither a virus nor a bacterium, but rather something in between in size, called Mycoplasma. All of this is important to know, because it tends to appear as a question on a certification examination, but the fact of the matter is, it was a disease for which there was no effective treatment. We could cheer up a little to know that of four hundred recruits at an Alabama training center who came down with it, only one died. On the other hand, Legionnaire's Disease is also caused by a Clamydia and lots of them died, probably because most of them were older. But no matter, in 1944 there was no treatment, and I can tell you it is very unpleasant for a very long time, no matter how young you are.
In 1950 I got it again, but this time I was a doctor and knew there was a good treatment. It sounds strange to say so, but I was sort of happy to be able to try out the new medicine, which was then called Aureomycin because the powder was golden yellow. Aureomycin was a trading name, with a patent, and when the patent expired the generic form was called Tetracycline. It worked just fine, and in three or four days I was out of the hospital, perhaps a little weak and shaken, but cured. Incidentally, I discovered an interesting feature of the disease which I believe has not been previously reported. It had long been observed that the chest x-ray showed pneumonia while the stethoscope perceived very little abnormality, a feature which disconcerted those of us who were concerned with the cost of medical care, particularly members of a generation who felt sniffy about the dependence younger physicians displayed for x-rays, and nowadays for CAT scans and MRIs. Unfortunately, in this particular instance, x-rays are clearly superior to stethoscopes.
My third time around for "viral" pneumonia was a few years later; I was sitting on a park bench near the hospital when I recognized the old symptoms were coming back again, so I went straight to the x-ray department and had a chest x-ray less than an hour after the symptoms appeared. I planned to have an x-ray to prove it, go get some tetracycline and be all better over the weekend, with a rollicking anecdote to tell doctor friends about. Unfortunately, the x-ray was normal, so I was admitted into the hospital to see what was wrong. The next morning the x-ray showed a densely consolidated lung, so it had been viral pneumonia all along. And so my old prejudices were vindicated; it was possible to be too quick to order x-rays after all. Unfortunately, the extra twelve hours without treatment allowed me to get a lot sicker than I had to be. I think I know this because, doggone it, I developed the same disease several decades later, took no shortcuts to the drug store, and was fine in a couple of days after I immediately started taking tetracycline. You could say this strange recurrence of Mycoplasma pneumonia over one-lifetime sort of illustrates how medical care of the disease has become progressively cheaper. Instead of a month in the hospital with no treatment, it was now a matter of skipping the stethoscope, skipping the x-ray, skipping the hospital, and just swallowing some cheap tetracycline capsules. You have to have the nerve to do it, of course, and ethically you probably only have a right to do it to yourself, knowing the risks and being willing to accept them. There is, however, one flaw in this story.
When Aureomycin first emerged from the clutches of the FDA (and well before that accursed Kefauver Amendment), it seemed astonishingly expensive. Because I knew what it weighed (250 milligrams per capsule), and I knew what gold cost ($35 an ounce), it was easy for an idle mind to calculate that Aureomycin cost more than gold. Gold now sells for $1700 per troy ounce, so you could take this story in the direction of inflation. I rather prefer to take it in the direction of nominal dollar amounts, because Aureomycin retailed for $5 a capsule the third time I had the disease, and $1 per capsule when it lost its patent and became tetracycline. The fourth time I had the disease, I bought a container of fifty capsules for 76 cents. But as you have already heard, by the fifth time I couldn't buy it for any price, because everybody had stopped making it. Since my view of the economics of useful commodities is that low prices will only cause shortages if there is artificial market interference, the usual cause of shortages is rationing. Somebody who understands the 2500 pages of Obamacare better than I do will have to tease out the way rationing has caused shortages of tetracycline. And when they are done confusing the public, let them explain why you also can't buy KMnO4 crystals (potassium permanganate), which has cured more cases of athlete's foot for twenty cents, than all those cans of stuff in spray canisters.
After defeating Washington's troops at the battle of Germantown, the British then occupied Philadelphia for the better part of a year. The town was a mess, with food shortages typical of the squalor of any occupying army equalling the existing population. Washington was forced to fall back to the natural fortress of Valley Forge. The city of Philadelphia was not exactly under siege, but it was as difficult a place for British troops to live as a besieged city. For his part, Washington was forced to shiver and starve in the nearby mountain valley, at least consoled by distant news of American achievements. General Burgoyne and his army were soon captured at Saratoga by General Gates under humiliating circumstances. Clearly, the dashing hero of this event had been Benedict Arnold on a white horse leading the charge, getting wounded in the leg in the process.
|Benjamin Franklin in Paris|
Benjamin Franklin in Paris trumpeted the news of this victory, reminding the French of Washington's earlier victory at Trenton, and maneuvering it all into a treaty of alliance. With the French fleet in the nearby Caribbean, Philadelphia was no longer a safe place for the British to stay a hundred miles upriver, and the idea of abandoning occupied Philadelphia began to grow. Having gambled on British victory in defiance of London's orders, the Howe brothers were not in a position to argue with new orders. The British soldiers inside the city were more comfortably housed than the American troops outside it, but nobody was exactly comfortable. The American Congress had, of course, fled to the hinterlands. All in all, it suddenly became uncertain who was going to win this war.
The American population at this time has been described as a one-third rebel, one-third Tory, and one-third trying to hunker down to see who would win. Many of the seriously committed Tories had fled from Philadelphia when the rebels took charge, while pacifist Quakers were a little hard to classify. Generally speaking, the prosperous merchant class had never been persuaded King George was all that bad, while the less prosperous artisans were the fervent patriots. Under such conditions, many people who privately leaned in either direction found it was best to seem non-committal. The British were billeted in private homes; the Officers in the best houses of the merchant class, the common soldiers generally housed in the homes of the artisans. Although the soldiers and the artisans did not mix very well, circumstances permitted the aristocratic officers getting on pretty well with the merchants whose houses they occupied. The girls in the colonial families seemed immediately attractive to the British officers, who were far from home, while the officers also seemed pretty glamorous to the girls. So, it is not exactly surprising that the most beautiful colonial belles like Peggy Shippen and Peggy Chew found themselves frequently in company with dashing officers like Major John Andre. Andre would likely have been a heartthrob in any circumstance since he had risen to the rank of adjutant-general at a young age, wrote poetry and plays, reputedly was rich, and was regularly the life of any party. Nor is it surprising that generations of Peggy's descendants have treasured a lock of his hair.
|Margaret Oswald Chew Howard|
When the decision was finally made to abandon Philadelphia, six of the British officers personally contributed twenty-five thousand dollars to throwing Philadelphia's most famous, most splendiferous party, called The Machianza. It went on for days, had real jousting matches between officers dressed like knights in armor, banquets and all that sort of thing. It was Andre's idea, and he was enthusiastically in charge. Surviving records of the event do not show that Peggy Shippen was present, but in view of what happened later, much of her correspondence has been destroyed. It's pretty hard to imagine she wasn't there.
|Major General Benedict Arnold|
The British then marched away, and Washington's troops cautiously followed, assuming control of the city. Major General Benedict Arnold had been sent from Saratoga to Valley Forge to recover from his leg wound, and probably also to raise morale among the troops celebrating the now-famous hero. Washington more or less immediately decided to pursue the British across New Jersey, thus leading to the battle of Monmouth as the two armies raced for the Naval vessels in lower New York harbor. Since General Arnold had not fully recovered from his wounds, he was installed as the military governor of a somewhat bedraggled Philadelphia. Naturally, he was the center of the social scene, and soon was pursuing Peggy Shippen in every way he knew, which included some pretty gloppy letters in Romantic style. Peggy's father was uneasy about his intentions but was eventually mollified by Arnold's purchase of the house called Mount Pleasant, now a tourist attraction in Fairmount Park. With this evidence that his prospective son in law was at least likely to stay in Philadelphia, Edward Shippen finally repented of his opposition to the marriage of his daughter. But the new couple were soon off to West Point, where Arnold had kept up a persuasion campaign with George Washington, to get himself appointed the commandant of the main northern defense of the Hudson River. A point for Philadelphian tour guides to remember is that Peggy and Benedict never got a chance to live in Mount Pleasant.
Arnold originally lived in New Haven, Connecticut, where he had established quite a sea-faring reputation as a merchant, some would say privateer, others would say buccaneer. There is no doubt he was aggressive, and combative, and considered himself a little bit above the law. These qualities made him outstanding at Fort Ticonderoga and Saratoga, and are always more highly valued in young men in a war. Unfortunately, he made a bitter enemy of Joseph Read who was briefly his neighbor, and later was President of the Continental Congress. Read accused Arnold of smuggling and trading with the enemy, and was so determined about it that Arnold was scheduled for court-martial, but postponed. Arnold was loudly defensive about the whole matter, and public sympathy was on his side. In view of what soon happened, he might well have been cleared by the court, but likely there was some truth to the accusations. Using Peggy as a go-between, he entered into a correspondence with Andre (then the adjutant-general in New York) offering to deliver the surrender of West Point, three thousand prisoners, and possibly George Washington himself in return for what might today be half a million dollars. As a note of realism, he was willing to accept half that in the event of failure. The British were particularly anxious to acquire American prisoners to exchange for their own troops captured at Saratoga. Unless Arnold was a total sociopath, he must have thought he had quite a grievance.
Things went along surprisingly well at first, with negotiations for price back and forth, plans for attacking West Point moving along with the Navy, and Andre disguising himself for a visit to Arnold in his house to the south of the Fort on West Point. Much of the success was due to the movie-star reputation of Benedict Arnold; few could imagine such a hero doing such an unheard-of thing. However, the plot was discovered while Washington was away visiting the Fort, and Arnold hastily abandoned his family and fled to a waiting British warship. Andre decided to make his way south to the ship through rebel territory, but local soldiers and farmers were much more suspicious than others had been, and after penetrating his disguise, found incriminating papers concealed in his boots. Since he was out of uniform behind enemy lines, Andre was by definition a spy, which required hanging. He made a plea to be shot like a gentleman, but Washington with tears allegedly in his eyes refused. With much bravado, Andre jumped atop his own casket and placed the noose around his own neck, a behavior much admired by his compatriots when they heard of it
Meanwhile, Peggy had put on a crazy-woman act which apparently convinced Washington to be lenient, and allow her to rejoin her husband. The couple stayed in New York for a few months, toying with commands of loyalist troops in the south, but eventually taking ship for England. Lord Cornwallis was on the same ship and they became pals as shipmates, pleasing Arnold quite a lot. Unfortunately, British society was only stiffly polite to them, and many did not trouble to conceal their disdain for traitors to any cause, and thus life in England was not smooth. By that time, it is possible that many had begun to suspect the whole idea of treason was Peggy's idea from the start, as is today the conventional view of it. As an American aristocrat, she was uncomfortable with the rebels in Philadelphia, and as the impetuous wife of an accused smuggler, it was difficult to fit in with either the Quakers or the merchants with loyalist leanings. No doubt she heard some catty whisperings among her friends and relatives about her other romantic associations. The British paid them their promised pensions, but a career in the British Army was out of the question for her husband. But the real shock would come, from discovering the British as a whole didn't much care for their behavior, either.
|George H.W. Bush|
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed on December 17, 1992, by President George H. W. Bush for the United States, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for Canada, and President Carlos Salinas for Mexico. It was intended to eliminate tariffs from the North American continent, with long-run benefits for the three nations who made the agreement. Essentially, it was President Bush's idea, growing out of the long period of public service in which he prepared himself for the Presidency in most of the major components of the American government. After his election, he immediately started to implement the many ideas he had formulated, characteristically worked out in considerable detail, and assigned to government officials he had worked with and knew he could trust. The twin results were that he advanced sophisticated ideas much more quickly than is customary, but then experienced backlash from a public which was accustomed to understanding programs before they assented to them. NAFTA was a prime example of both the advantages and disadvantages of an expedited approach.
Tariffs are a tangled ancient political dispute between nations; George Bush got his two neighbors to sweep them away in a remarkably short time for diplomacy. However, plenty of people benefit from the pork barrel, the unfairness and the economic drag of tariffs, so Bush even got ahead of that opposition, essentially presenting it with a done deal. However, he failed to be re-elected because his fellow Texan Ross Perot campaigned as a third party candidate, thundering about a "giant sucking sound" which was predicted as American businesses would flood into Mexico. Whatever Bill Clinton may think, he won the election as a result of the third-party divisiveness of Ross Perot. And Clinton furthermore got to take credit for NAFTA largely because he claimed the credit. Poppy Bush followed Reagan's strategy of winning by letting others take the credit.
NAFTA had a lot of minor provisions, but the main feature was to help Mexico with manufactures, compensating for America hurting Mexican agriculture with cheaper United States agricultural imports. The usual suspects howled about the unfairness of such a dastardly deed, but they lost. Helping Mexican manufactures took the tangible form of the "maquiladoras", which were assembly plants from the United States re-located just south of the border, assembling parts made abroad into machinery and other final products, for sale in the United States. The general idea behind this was that Mexican immigration was mostly driven by a hunger for better jobs; give them jobs in Mexico, and they would stay home. That's a whole lot better than an endless border war. Even today, it would be hard to find anyone who would contend that fences, searchlights and police dogs were a superior way to control the borders.
For a while, the maquiladoras were a huge success. But then, China got into the act, paying wages so low that even Mexicans could not live on them. No doubt Ross Perot rejoices that the maquiladoras promptly collapsed, leaving abandoned hulks of factories just across the dried-up Rio Grande. And eventually, we even have tunnels bored under the border and more illegal Mexicans in America than we have people in prison who might take the same jobs. Not the least of the consequences came from the other parts of the same country. Mexico traded an injured agricultural economy for the promise of high-paid manufacturing jobs in maquiladoras. So, masses of impoverished Mexican farmers were made available for illegal immigration, up North.
It is now anybody's guess whether Chinese wages will rise enough, soon enough, to reverse the economics of their destruction of the Mexican economy. The election of a union-dominated Clinton/Obama presidency in the meantime does not bode well for actions which would reverse that result, which now would threaten American-Chinese relations of an entirely different sort. It is true that Chinese wages are relentlessly rising, and that transportation costs now favor assembly-factories closer to the American consumer. But maybe the moment for this approach is passing, or possibly has passed.
|George H. W. Bush: The American Presidents Series: The 41st President, 1989-1993: Timothy Naftali, ISBN-10: 0805069666||Amazon|
The two highest achievements of James Madison, had been and still remain, the writing of the Bill of Rights, and acting as a close collaborator with George Washington in fleshing out the role of the President in the new government. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments made it clear that the federal government was to be constrained to a limited and enumerated set of powers, while all other activities belonged to the states. This was already clear enough in the main text of the Constitution, which Madison also dominated after close consultation with Washington before the Constitutional Convention. So he had battled and successfully negotiated one matter twice, before the most powerful and distinguished assemblies in the nation. As to the second matter, circumstances had promoted a shy young bookworm into the role of preceptor to the most famous man in America. In the earliest days of the new republic, certainly during the first year of it, Washington and Madison worked closely together in defining the role of the Presidency.
During the first weeks of that exploratory period, Washington induced Congress to create a cabinet and the first four cabinet positions, even though the Constitution did not mention cabinets. It all was explained as an "implicit power", inherently necessary for the functioning of the Executive branch. Soon afterward, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury proposed the creation of a national bank. Madison and his lifelong friend Thomas Jefferson were bitterly opposed, using the argument that creating banks was not one of the enumerated powers granted by the Constitution. Hamilton's reply was that creating a bank was an "implicit power" since it was necessary for running the federal government. Of course, Hamilton and Jefferson both had other unspoken motives for their position: for and against promoting urban vs. rural power, for and against the industrialization of the national economy, and dominating the states in matters of currency and financial leadership. It empowered a national rather than a confederated economy.
For Madison, the legalism probably carried considerably more weight than it did for Jefferson and Hamilton because it demonstrated the enduring consequences of being vague about the boundaries of any constitutional restriction. If this loophole got firmly established, it might reduce the whole federal system to a laughingstock. In order to promote the "general welfare", anything at all could be called an implicit power, and both separation of powers and enumerating federal powers would soon become quaint flourishes. The whole Constitution might fall apart in endless debates. On a personal level, Madison's highest achievements would have to be supplanted by something more practical. Besides which, Madison was a Virginian, a rich slave-holding farmer, and a young politician, seemingly on the verge of a promising career which might easily lead to the presidency for himself. Hamilton his most visible opponent, was already proposing a tax on whiskey which would almost surely antagonize farmers to the west, and assuming the Revolutionary debts of the states was equally divisive.
As matters eventually worked out, the main disputants made ostensible constitutional arguments, while the real political dispute would be settled by a political deal struck at a dinner. It traded relocation of the national capital to Virginia, for the assumption of the debts of all states (when Virginia had already paid off its debt.) Location of the capitol opposite George Washington's home at Mt. Vernon also took care of difficulties coming from that direction. By the time the uproar about this arrangement subsided, the precedent for settling the inherent conflict between enforcing Constitutional limitations versus enlarging their boundaries had been set. The most opportune time for stricter interpretation was fading while the most likely advocates of it were restrained by their own example. The negotiation was a little unseemly, and probably encouraged similar decisions to migrate to a less conflicted body, which eventually John Marshall would define as the U.S. Supreme Court.
Traditionally, the biggest financial problem for governments -- whether kings or democracies -- have been paying for wars. The Revolutionary War (Robert Morris and the King of France), the War of 1812 (Stephen Girard), and the Spanish American War (J.P. Morgan) were essentially financed by a single institution allied with the government. However, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, were so big that ways of spreading the debt had to be found. In all wars, monarchs seek to maintain control of the nation in spite of their own uneasy dependence on funding sources. The Federal Reserve founded in 1913 was thus founded as a private institution with a Federal partner; it was a public-private partnership.
The enormous sums involved created temptations to extend the Fed's power beyond wars into other cataclysmic financial events. The nature of war changed, both as a cause and a consequence. However, in a sense, politics never change. We hear congressional chairmen ask why the private sector has so much to say, and we hear bankers announce the government has no place in private finance. The Federal Reserve itself maneuvers within boundaries of its "independence". Most central banks have a mission statement limiting them to maintaining price stability (against both inflation and deflation), but the United States Federal Reserve has the additional mission of reducing unemployment. Recently, the targets are stated to be 2% inflation and 6.5% unemployment. The Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke, now seems to feel the traditional tool of manipulating interest rates is inadequate for severe economic shocks, and perhaps inadequate to maintain both goals indefinitely. He has therefore introduced a novel approach, mysteriously called Quantitative Easing.
Acting as the lender of last resort, central banks have used their regulatory power over banks and currency to manipulate short-term interest rates. Because commercial banks make a profit in the spread between low short-term borrowing and higher long-term lending, the "yield curve" controlling short term rates is ordinarily an adequate lever for Fed purposes to control long rates indirectly. This is possible because so many short-term loans are rolled over repeatedly; the extra interest for a similar long-term bond represents public attitudes about the risks of the future. However, in major financial upheavals adjusting short term rates may become inadequate, and Bernanke sought a way to control long term rates directly throughout the private economic sector.
By controlling both ends of the spread, Bernanke gained more control, but with lessened market guidance, he acquired a greater risk of misjudgment. In any event, the Federal Reserve began to accumulate huge amounts of dubious or "distressed" debt. Andrew Mellon once advised Herbert Hoover to "wring the rottenness out of the system". Mellon meant that any bank foolish enough to offer loans to weak counterparties, deserved to go bankrupt, while those foolish enough to accept such loans deserved to be punished. Although such utterances by a very rich man were politically unacceptable during a depression, Mellon was surely correct in observing that extreme financial panics were basically a psychiatric problem. Irrational exuberance occasionally drives markets too high, panic then drives them too low. The modern twist is, at the turn, when everyone tries to get out the door at the same time, markets can freeze up. Mr. Bernanke civilized Mr. Mellon's approach somewhat, but the underlying idea was the same: get the bad loans out of circulation, so bankruptcies and foreclosures stop feeding public overreaction. Underneath this approach runs the assumption most people are not hopelessly overextended; the economy is basically sound. However, bankruptcy has one advantage here, over gentler kinder ways of isolating bad from further injuring the good. When an institution disappears, its problems are permanently removed from the economy. To a large degree, "sterilizing" operations are only useful if market crises are really artificial ones, which fail to notice how sound the economy really is. As our measuring systems get more precise, of course, market crises might someday actually represent the facts of the matter.
Three signal events extended Mr. Bernanke's latitude to act. His personal credibility had been enhanced by successful QE1 management of the 2008 freeze-up of financial markets. He had loaned when others were reluctant, unfroze the markets, and returned a profit for the government. Secondly, the two-decade Japanese recession showed how "zombie banks" resulted from paralyzed inaction on bad loans. And third, the Scandinavian countries had a glamorous recovery from a brief depression, apparently as a result of adopting Calvinistic punishment of economic exuberance. It was a fearsome "good bank, bad bank" approach. The general public may not have this view of events, but they meant a great deal to the Federal Reserve Board of Directors. His credibility allowed Bernanke to survive his unsuccessful attempt through QE2 to stimulate the economy with trillions of dollars in make-work employment financed by the public sector. In essence, QE3 consisted of buying every bond the market refused to buy, even including billions of dollars of mortgage-backed bonds where politicians were excoriating into accepting prices lower than their probably worth. The Federal Reserve accumulated trillions in bonds but did not pay for them by printing money, but rather by increasing the reserves of commercial banks. This allowed them to pay essentially zero interest rates, but maintain a steep interest curve (between short and long term) as an inducement to the banks to loan. So far at least, banks have refused to loan, partly because banks are trying to de-leverage thirty years of excessive lending, and partly because chastened borrowers refuse to borrow. Meanwhile, the "hard goods" the public had accumulated, autos and refrigerators, mergers and infrastructure, were gradually wearing out; someday they would need to be replaced and constitute "growth". In the meantime, the Fed seems to plan to retain the bad debts in its vaults, safely immune to "marking them to market", which is to say holding them until the bond markets assign them higher values while proclaiming their current market value is temporarily under-appreciated. Nevertheless, these bonds will eventually reach their expiration date, and the market price at that moment will reveal the true cost of replacing them with new loans. With charming modesty, Mr. Bernanke admits there are many outcomes he is unable to predict.
Although Ben Bernanke has not announced it, he seems presently willing to hold these bad debts indefinitely. Interest rates are low, so not only is it cheap to hold them, but their value is artificially overstated. Presumably, however, he is unwilling to run a Zombie Federal Reserve indefinitely. Interest rates will, therefore, return to normal, sending the interest cost to the government soaring. Somehow, the public repeatedly fails to appreciate that lowering interest rates increases the market value of bonds by making money appear like magic, whereas raising interest rates depresses bond values by making money vanish. It requires a vibrant economy to withstand such a shock, so raising interest rates can easily precipitate a deep recession. At the first sign of interest rates rising, the prices of all bonds could plummet. Almost every investment advisor in the nation is already advising clients to "lighten up" on bonds. Meanwhile, the elderly small savers holding their savings in banks, are suffering from lack of income; it is remarkable there has been so little complaint, but when it comes, it will persist and have political force. Somewhere the spring is coiling. One real danger is the economy will still be unready for normal interest rates when politics force them to go up. It is frequently estimated to require ten years to be sure that (unlike 1937) a major second depression will not emerge when short-term government debts come due. The big problem with all borrowing that never changes is that someone expects you to pay it back.
Another bleak possibility is that a currency war will break out during the vulnerable interval. The U.S. dollar recently declined sharply, and other countries responded immediately with devaluations of their own. That may have been a test, but if it was, we failed. Just as industries will move to a U.S. state with low taxes, they will move to nations with undervalued currencies. The new multinational corporation permits rapid internal transfers within companies that they need not move their headquarters. Immigrants do move, and if forcibly restrained, will start riots or even revolutions. Currency wars are also very bad news, powerfully inhibiting government action. Consequently, there is a tendency to substitute international debt default, which is the same thing as devaluation in being sudden and done with, unlike inflation which can be insidious. Since it cheats foreigners more than local citizens, politicians prefer devaluation of the currency. But otherwise, there is no great difference between devaluation and inflation.
To repeat, there is little difference between Country A inflating, and Country B defaulting. Mr. Bernanke has temporarily sterilized the inflation alternative by funding his QE3 by expanding bank reserves rather than printing currency. Unfortunately, this has so far hardly stimulated bank lending at all, which itself is beginning to tempt private investors to get directly into the banking business because it offers them a chance for high yield. However, if any significant number of university endowments or pension funds try their hand at being bankers, they are apt to learn there is more to banking than they imagine.
If Quantitative Easing becomes widespread in a world-wide recession, some nation is going to prove to be insolvent. That is, when the central bank has sold off the profitable or break-even securities in the portfolio, the probability exists that some country will find it cannot service its debt. That debt anyway has been shown to be worthless because no one will buy it. Its credit may then be worthless, its currency without value, its markets in an uproar, and its people in revolt. Other countries will be urged to support the failing one, and who knows how panic will spread. Somewhere along the line, the bond markets may take "the bull by the horns" and -- and what? If foreign governments try to intervene, their own currency could plummet. There is, indeed, quite a lot we don't understand.
So it all boils down to two disastrous alternatives for the Federal Reserve to start liquidating QE3 bonds before the economy recovers. Either the bond markets intervene, or the Federal Reserve just continues to hold those trillions of bonds indefinitely, as a Zombie central bank. We could have a second recession, or another rush to get out the door. The prospects are so horrifying that we all have to hope Mr. Bernanke keeps his cool, and gets lucky. As a fallback, whether all that sequestered debt could be transformed into the international reserves for a new Bretton Woods agreement, is now too distant a prospect for outsiders to have a reasoned opinion about. Nevertheless, the interest earnings of debt that large might be able to moderate considerable deflation. Further, the seemingly unlimited ability to create or destroy money through interest rate manipulation should be able to modulate considerable volatility of currencies, perhaps of economies. Ever since the gold window was closed in 1971, it has been asked whether currencies without the backing of some commodity can survive, and the present economic travail may be the test of it. But since an international currency exchange probably cannot be created except in a crisis, let's hope we never have to learn the answer.
|First Bank of Philadelphia|
Some things are easier to understand when they start before they get complicated. That's true of banking, where it can now be puzzling to hear there was a strong inclination to forbid banks by law. While we were still a colony, the British discouraged bank formation, fearing strong concentrations of wealth at a great distance could lead to ideas of independence. Anti-bank sentiment was thus a Tory characteristic, although as the Industrial Revolution progressed, Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels stamped it permanently with a proletarian flavor. Large owners of farmland were displeased to see their power weakened by urban concentrations of wealth, while poor recent settlers of America wanted to buy and sell land cheaply, so they favored a currency that steadily declined in value. People with wealth have an incentive to keep money stable, but people with debts have an incentive to pay them off with cheap money. After these battle lines clarified and hardened, the debate has transformed from an original dispute about banks, into catfights about a strong currency. As Rogoff and Reinhart have pointed out, inflation is a way for governments to cheat their citizens, devaluation is a way of cheating foreigners. Naturally, politicians prefer to cheat foreigners, but national tradition curiously seems to favor one style more than another. Essentially, they are the same thing with the same motive, although outcomes may be different. One is restrained by fear of revolution, the other by fear of an international currency war.
While George Washington was America's first president, Alexander Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury and Thomas Jefferson was Vice President; the cabinet contained only four members. Although Hamilton was born poor, the bastard brat of a Scottish peddler in the view of John Adams, he had learned about practical finance in a counting-house, and later gained Washington's confidence on the headquarters staff; Washington eventually made him a general. Jefferson was part of the slaveholding Virginia planter elite, elegant in writing style and knowledge of art and architecture, sympathetic to the French Revolution; eventually, he died bankrupt. Early in the Washington presidency, Hamilton produced three long and sophisticated white papers, advocating banks and manufacture. Jefferson was opposed to both, one facilitating the other, which we would today describe as taking a green, or leftish position. Banks were described as instruments for accepting deposits in hard currency, or specie, and lending it out as paper money. The effect of this was a degrading of gold into paper money, or if not, an inflationary doubling of currency. Banks would be able to create money at will, a capriciousness Jefferson felt should be confined to the sovereign government. Just keep this up, and one day some former banker from Goldman Sachs would be able to tell the President of the United States, "The bond market won't let you do that." In this sense, the bank argument became a dispute about public and private power.
Hamilton, a former clerk of a maritime counting house, could observe that sending paper money on a leaky wooden boat kept the real gold in the counting-house even after the boat was lost at sea. To him, prudent banking transactions enhanced the safety of wealth, reducing risk rather than enlarging it. Later on, he learned from Robert Morris that a bank floating currency values on the private market disciplined the seemingly inevitable tendency of governments to water the currency. Once more, banks should enhance overall safety in spite of being vilified for creating risk. To both Hamilton and Jefferson, all arguments in an opposing direction seemed specious, designed to conceal ulterior motives.
Banks came and went for a century. By the time they almost were a feature of every street corner, banks were taking paper money (instead of gold and silver) as deposits and issuing loans as paper money, too; the gold was kept somewhere else, ultimately in Fort Knox, Kentucky. With experience, deposits could stay with the bank long enough that only a rare run on the bank would require more than 20% of the loans to be supported by physical ownership of gold. By establishing pooling and insurance of various sorts, banks persuaded authorities it was safe enough for them to hold no more than 20% of their loan portfolio in reserves. By this magic, loans at 6% to the customer could now return 30% to the bank. A few loans will default, a reserve for defaults was prudent, so the bank with a 2% default rate could settle for a 20% return rate. A bank which was deemed "too big to permit it to default" was invisibly and costlessly able to trim its reserves, and thus receive a 25% return by relying on the government to bail it out of an occasional bank crisis. With this sort of simple arithmetic, it is easy to see why multi-billion dollar banks were soon arguing that 5:1 leveraging was too small, a reserve of gold and silver was unnecessary, and the efficiencies of large banks were needed to compete with big foreign banks. By the time of the 2007 crash, many banks were leveraged fifty-to-one, which even the man on the street could see was over-reaching. The ideal ratio was uncertain, but 50:1 was certain to collapse, probably starting with the weakest link in the chain.
This brings banking arguments more or less up to date. Except in 1913, an "independent" Federal Reserve Bank was created. It was a private reserve pool balanced by a public partner, the government. In time, the need for gold and silver was eliminated entirely, by the wartime Breton Woods Agreement, and the Nixon termination of it. The predictable inflation which could be expected to result from a world currency without physical backing was prevented by allowing the Federal Reserve to issue, or fail to issue as necessary, the currency in circulation. This substitution was deemed possible by having the Fed monitor inflation, and adjust the flow of currency to maintain a 2% inflation rate. Although 100% paper money was an historic change, it has endured; it has withstood efforts by the politicians to re-define inflation, undermine the indices of its measurement, and brow-beat the vestal virgins appointed to defend the value of the dollar. The old definition of money has changed: it is no longer a store of value, it is only a medium of exchange. The store of value is a nation's total assets. Jubilant politicians have added an additional burden of preventing unemployment, to the original one of defending price stability. In practical terms, the goal is defined as maintaining a 2% inflation rate, while achieving a 6.5% unemployment rate. It remains to be seen whether the two goals can exist at the same time, particularly if the definitions of inflation and unemployment become unrecognizably undermined.
And it even remains to be seen whether the black-box system can be undermined from within. The Federal Reserve is so poorly understood by the public that his enemies now accuse Alan Greenspan of causing the present recession. It is argued that the eighteen years of banking quiet which his chairmanship enjoyed, was only gradual inflation, deeply concealed. It is contended that the unprecedented steady rise of the stock market during those eighteen years was financed by a small but steady loosening of credit by the Federal Reserve. Perhaps what this means is: the definition of inflation must be tightened so its target can be made and adjusted, not to 2%, but to some number slightly less than that, measured to three decimal places. Or that the 6.5% unemployment target must be jettisoned in order to preserve the dollar. With that prospect including international currency wars as its corollary, it will be an interesting debate, and immigration policy is related to it. Because one alternative could become the abandonment of the fight against inflation, in order to sustain the new objective of reducing unemployment, Jefferson would have won the argument.
|The History of the United States: Course 8500, 15 Hamilton's Republic: ISBN: 156585763-1||The Great Courses|
|This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly: Kenneth Rogoff, Carmen M. Reinhart: ISBN-13: 978-0691152646||Amazon|
Nobody likes to execute a guilty prisoner, but in finance, it is surely true that allowing bad debts to remain unresolved harms the whole economy. It makes little difference whether a bank fails to mark its debts to market, whether debts are "extended", or insolvent institutions are subsidized. Andrew Mellon once advised Herbert Hoover that he should "wring the rottenness out of the system", but that is such poor politics that even Hoover rejected it. In time, the process of "good bank, bad bank" was devised to isolate bad debts into a single institution so the rest of the economy could begin to recover. QE3 is a version of a good bank, bad bank. Unfortunately, the public is easily misled in these matters, so although all three Q's involve the Federal Reserve buying long bonds, QE1 unfroze a frozen financial marketplace (successfully), QE2 meant to stimulate the economy (unsuccessfully), but QE3 seems to have much grander ambitions. So it is unfortunate that three different activities share the same name, and still more unfortunate that name is made so mysterious. Let's forget about the first two, and concentrate on QE3.
The Federal Reserve is well along in a program of buying huge quantities of questionable long bonds and has announced it is going to keep buying huge quantities until either inflation exceeds 2.5% or unemployment falls below 6.5%. That's not exactly the same as buying every bad bond in existence, but it could come to that. Instead of letting the holders of those bonds go bankrupt, the Fed is buying the bonds out of circulation, which could rescue a great many investors. Small businesses do not ordinarily issue bonds, so there is some bias in favor of large businesses and banks, but surely not an intentional bias. The effect is to make the Federal Reserve both a good bank and a bad bank at the same time. The main difference between this and wringing the rottenness out is that bankrupt institutions cannot come back to haunt you, while in the more benign purchase of bonds, you have assumed an obligation to pay them back. When you sell them back you drive the price down and the money disappears. Furthermore, when the price of bonds declines, interest rates will rise and the national debt will increase more rapidly. If the economy cannot withstand higher interest rates, a recession will deepen. You have to get the timing right, and the world is in such a delicate state that it is impossible to get the timing entirely right for everybody. Because interest rates are now essentially zero, they cannot go lower, so investment advisors are increasingly advising clients to sell some bonds while they still can. If that gets out of hand, it could start a panic.
|United States Federal Reserve|
However, the United States Federal Reserve is not an investor, it controls the currency and can print unlimited amounts of it. There is nothing which can force it to sell its bond holdings, ever. Without going into the details of the Bretton Woods Treaty, the tie to gold was eliminated nearly fifty years ago. Meanwhile, its bonds are paying interest, which at the moment it is returning to the U.S. Treasury to reduce the national debt. It can reduce this outflow more or less at will, and it can increase it by raising interest rates (ie by selling bonds, as described). With a few extra steps, this enormous pot of debt could become the basis for an international currency reserve. At the least, it could bring a halt to an international currency war. If it chooses, it can decide to wait as long as fifteen or twenty years for economic demand to recover from a century of overleveraging, and then pay it back by letting the bonds reach maturity. But there is at least one big flaw in this dream.
At some point, the bond market may decide to take the bull by the horns and raise rates before the Federal Reserve wishes to. Political appointees come and go, and the bond market could easily decide that a misjudgment has been made by somebody. It could easily happen that public apprehension could grow that something doesn't smell right. In that climate, a few heavy sales could trigger a panic. And then everyone will try to get out the door at the same time.
|The Bretton Woods conference in 1944|
Stripped of its mystery and irrelevant details, the Bretton Woods conference agreed that all nations would make their currency convertible into U.S. dollars, and the U.S. would make its currency convertible into gold. Since World War II had left the United States with the only major working economy, it sold goods to the rest of the world and the rest of the world sent us their money to be converted into dollars; we had a "favorable balance of trade." Somewhere in the 1960s the rest of the world got on its feet, and we began to have an unfavorable balance of trade. After a while, foreigners started converting their dollars (the "reserve" currency) into gold. By 1971, the depletion of gold from Fort Knox became alarming, and the United States stopped converting its currency into gold. From that point onward, all currencies became effectively computer notations, whose value as a medium of exchange was what their government said it was.
Paradoxically, it is hard to see how this system would work without a government in charge of it, although private substitutes would probably soon appear if governments relaxed their monopoly on currency. Since a great many people dislike their governments for one reason or another, they chafe at a system which forces them to keep their governments in order to prevent commercial chaos. For those who do not adequately understand this, governments all stand ready to maintain themselves with force, and many other people dislike that feature even more. Since it took place at the same time, the Vietnam protest movement may have had some relation to this major change in the nation, misunderstood perhaps, but viscerally perceived. In view of President Nixon's central role in all of this, one is even tempted to speculate that his electoral promise of a secret means to end the Vietnam conflict, coupled with the subsequent peaceful surge of China and the financial recycling of Chinese money through Treasury bond purchases, may all have been subjects discussed during his historic trip to China.
However that may be, it is a fact that the Vietnam War ended, the Chinese economy flourished with American help, and the deposit of Chinese money in our economy helped fuel a massive economic bubble, and the weakest links in the chain -- mortgage-backed securities -- were the place the bubble burst. Not much of this could have occurred with a gold standard, and in many circles, this was regarded as proof that gold was a barbarous relic. In retrospect, few would deny we had been leveraging our economy to dangerous heights, for nearly fifty years. In 1996, Alan Greenspan denounced our "irrational exuberance", and yet the bubble did not burst for another twelve years. If we succeed in deleveraging our economy until it reaches 1996 levels, it will be regarded as a remarkable success. But the Chairman of the Federal Reserve at that time described it as a dangerous level. And looking back over the centuries, an indescribable number of kings were dethroned or beheaded because they evaded the rather irrational restraints of a scarce, hence precious, barbarous relic. Balanced against that, a billion Asiatics have been raised out of poverty, and the economy of the world overall would seem opulent to our grandfathers. Somehow, we must find the wit and the self-restraint to solve this problem.
|The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order:z Benn Steil: ISBN-13: 978-0691149097||Amazon|
Peter Conn, a member of the Franklin Inn of Philadelphia, is recently retired from the University of Pennsylvania. Since he has adoption in his family, he became curious about the matter, found that almost nothing has been written about the history of this topic, and decided to write a book about it himself. At a recent monthly meeting of the club, he described his findings, which are pretty surprising.
In a vague sort of way, everyone's general readings do confirm his findings that adoption was frequent among the American Indians, and also among the ancient Romans. In early 6th century Europe, however, it seems to have died out, only to return as a common experience in the 16th century. The first American law that Dr. Conn could find establishing the rules and legal conditions of adoption was passed in Massachusetts in the 19th century, at roughly the time American states were passing laws forbidding abortion. Whether there is a connection between the two movements or not is speculative. However, it does seem pretty likely that our current perceptions about adoption are surprisingly recent, reflecting a strong likelihood that Roman and Indian traditions have nothing to do with it, but fairly recent history might well have a lot to do with it.
Just a little reflection about all the stories we read, alluding to orphanages, foundlings, wards, primogeniture, romantic love, choices of marriage partners, and the like, quickly confirm a realization that conditions and attitudes about reproduction must have changed a very great deal, and fairly recently. It was not very long ago that children were apparently so numerous they could be treated as expendable. Considering how dangerous childbirth has been until recently, current attitudes about "valuable babies" , motherhood, and even the role of women in society must be evolving quickly without our realizing it, and in directions so recent they may well require further revision. Just whose views are old fashioned and whose views reflect modern insights are both judgments we probably should classify as tentative for at least a few more decades.
For example, the dates of major changes in attitudes about foundlings inevitably generate reflections about the attitudes of the Catholic Church. That ancient organization probably has enough troubles with bedroom issues, without adding this one. But the coincidence of the dates with the rise of the Church in Europe, and the subsequent rise of Protestantism, inevitably generate questions about Church attitudes as the cause, or possibly some sociological changes in society which transform both church and reproductive attitudes at the same time. What were the roles of the Crusades, and the Arab invasion of Europe, or the Ottoman invasion? Or the black plague and the white plague, or the Industrial Revolution? We have to know more about these cataclysmic events in order to have even a small idea of whether they might have influenced each other.
|Milton Hershey founded the Hershey Industrial School|
It makes a lot of difference whether a culture needs agrarian workers or not, to understand why "the best interests of the child" should only recently have been established as a legal basis for oversight of contested adoptions. Or why inheritance by adoptive children has only been such a recent phenomenon, endorsed by law. What happened to cause the abandonment of all the orphanages we used to have? Why have we chosen to split the issue between adoption and foster care, and treat the two so different? Where do the Girard College and the Hershey School fit into this transition? Why do the Russians feel they are injuring America by forbidding American adoption of Russian orphans?
And get this: during the 19th century in America, when there was a surplus of women on the East Coast resulting from a massive migration of males to the West, about 250,000 American orphans were packed on various trains and sent West. We are told they stopped at a station and let the local settlers select a few, and then the train continued going West, letting off more and more adoptees until they were all gone. Transcontinental railroads were only built after the Civil War, so this sort of child disposal was not more than a century before the political battles of Roe v Wade. We have a lot to learn, and probably a lot to be humble about. So let's not bury the truth under a mountain of political correctness, but let's not have any witch-hunts, either.
|Adoption: A Brief Social and Cultural History: Peter Conn: ISBN:ISBN-13: 978-1137332202||Amazon|
Tourists like to banter about their favorite place in the whole world; until recently, mine was Cyprus. It's an eastern Mediterranean island, where it was possible to swim from beaches in the morning, ski in the afternoon, and luxuriate in an inexpensive but posh hotel in the evening. The locals had their ethnic rivalries, but what would tourist care. Since I was last there, apparently Russian and other billionaires discovered the place, and now three local banks are bigger than the GNP of the nation. Like Ireland, Hungary, Iceland, and several other small European nations, this dystrophic growth made it impossible for the government to guarantee the assets of the banks, as the familiar "lender of last resort" because the banks were bigger than the government. Accordingly, the local government was forced to declare a protracted bank holiday, to forestall what was certainly going to turn into a run on the banks as depositors all tried to get out the door at the same time. International stock markets immediately dropped a noticeable number of points, as the whole world suddenly discovered Cyprus wasn't such a nice place to put your money after all. The Russians might possibly be nasty people, but in this matter of bank deposits, people all link arms internationally like brothers.
There have been lots of other bank panics in small nations without much agitation, so what seems to have bothered the markets was the decision of the Central European Bank to tax the depositors 10% to support the system. Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, said she thought it was a good idea to tax depositors, and that really upset a lot more people. Ms. Lagarde is French, but the IMF which she heads is located a few blocks from the U.S. White House, so the suspicion grew that Mr. Obama might approve of placing a tax on bank deposits, too. As things started to get out of hand, everyone hastily dropped the whole idea, and even the Cypriote Parliament voted against it. There was no time for even the large organizations devoted to managing the news to manage this one. World opinion was instantaneously mobilized, and thunderous in voicing its low opinion of taxing bank deposits, by anyone, anywhere. What was accidentally aroused was the realization that since the World went off the gold standard in 1971, the world's money is backed by nothing at all except a computer notation? Irrevocably taxing it in bank accounts could be done in an hour.
In 1944 the international conference held at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, agreed that other nations could exchange their currency for American dollars, but only the U.S. dollar could be converted into gold. As long as the U.S. ran a trade surplus, the gold remained undisturbed in Fort Knox. But when other nations began to export their goods in the 1960s, their dollars began to be changed into gold. Gresham's Law took over quickly since when two currencies of unequal value circulate together, the more valuable one will quickly disappear; the shifting balance of trade had made gold more valuable than dollar bills. When President Nixon began to see that Fort Knox was soon going to be emptied, he put a stop to the exchange. He "closed the gold window". At that point, we were all off the gold standard, but nothing much happened. It remained possible to continue to speak of gold as a "barbarous relic", and by implication, any standard like silver or oil or land was also a barbarous relic. But the experience of Cyprus taught the world that everyone did want the value of a currency to be independent of the whims of government, and like the Emperor's suit of clothes, was just waiting for someone to point it out. A system of monetary exchanges, or exchanges of goods and services, really can be run without backing by anything except the word of government. But inflation targeting does need a government to run it, and thus governments have acquired a power over currencies which centuries of experience had taught people not to trust for a moment. North and South American hemispheric trade had been comfortably run without governments for centuries, as long as there were Spanish pieces of eight in actual circulation. But the modern Cyprus government could not run for a week without the trust of depositors, and neither can any other government. Conversely, it is impossible to run an economy without a government to guarantee the international value of money. People don't like that situation, and the threat of chaos in the streets is not much different in any place in the world which does not run a brutal military system. When you reach a point where even the soldiers refuse to be paid with paper money, you are about at the point General George Washington found himself after the Revolution. Robert Morris convinced him it would be possible to base a currency on the credit of the nation, and General Alexander Hamilton had been taught how to run such a thing. The rest of the country didn't understand what that meant, but they did understand that it seemed to work. But it would only work if the people trusted their Constitution, and the government is designed. But then, our government never tried to put a tax on bank deposits. In fact, it took another hundred years before the American public was completely certain you could trust banks even to exist. The good ol' mattress, that's where to keep your money. If it's in gold coins, that is. Paper money might just as well be in a bank because its value is only symbolic of a government promise.
|The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order: Benn Steil: ISBN-13: 978-0691149097||Amazon|
|Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution: Charles Rappleye: ISBN-10: 1416570926||Amazon|
|Bitter Lemons: Lawrence Durrell: ISBN-13: 978-1604190045||Amazon|
|Dr. Ronald J. Granieri|
Dr. Ronald J. Granieri of the office of Secretary of Defense recently spoke to the Right Angle Club about recent threats to the unification of Western Europe. One of his more striking points was that the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union ending the Cold War, may have unintentionally thwarted the plans for a European Union. The Iron Curtain running from the Baltic to the Black Sea had served as an Eastern boundary for European dreams. When the curtain suddenly disappeared, the European Union was flooded with applications for membership from the recently liberated, formerly Communist-dominated, Eastern Bloc. It was understandable why these countries would wish to get away from Russia, and equally understandable that Russia would be annoyed. But bedazzling expansion was quite unexpected by the European Founding Fathers, who were having enough trouble without doubling their number with weak economies. If Napoleon or Bismarck or some other empire-builder had been in charge at that time, Europe would either have been expanded by brute force, or its borders slammed shut with brute force. But in the clutch, no one was thinking big. Acquiring twenty new nations was an undreamed-for opportunity, but a technical headache for academic theorists. It called for bold action at a time when bold actors were not in charge.
Although it hurts European pride to admit they were following the American model, most of the problems they were encountering were the same problems our own Founding Fathers encountered in 1789. There were two main differences, however, one of which had been written into our Constitution. The other went largely unnoticed. The written difference was we had a bicameral legislative branch, designed to address the issue of voting rights straddling three big states and nine little ones. Pennsylvania had already gone through a dispute over the unicameral Pennsylvania Legislature, which proved to have so much power it unbalanced the three-branch system of government. Consequently, the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, held in that same building, was already uneasy about unicameral legislatures. It was John Dickinson the delegate from little Delaware, who went to James Madison (of Virginia, then the largest state) and told him bluntly that if Virginia persisted in demanding a unicameral Congress with representatives elected by population size, well, there just wasn't going to be any Union. The three big states refused to participate in any one-state, one-vote, system, while the nine small states wouldn't submit to large-state domination by population size. Either voting by state or voting by population would inevitably result in one side winning every hotly contested vote in a unicameral legislature. So, we had solved our problem by having two legislative houses, one of each kind, and agreeing that legislation would only proceed if both houses were in agreement. What made any legislation possible under these terms, was the informal system of "logrolling", in which informal agreements on seemingly unrelated matters would compensate the loser branch of government, and the states they represented. Since in modern Europe, any group of ten or twenty states in a union would surely have memberships of unequal size, bicameral legislatures seem to Americans to be a perfectly sensible arrangement, so get on with it. The insistence by the League of Nations and the United Nations for one-vote, one-nation arrangements, is a major reason the United States never permitted these supranational forums to have much power.
It's an unspoken truth however, that other nations do not see it our way. That's partly because the German and other parliaments going all the way back to the Roman Senate had established a unicameral tradition in Europe. The other main but unwritten cause of Constitutional differences between the two continents is that we had been surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean, and never had to consider the danger that external and internal enemies would join forces to frustrate our decisions. It is true that many attempts were made to do just this, but they were immediately recognized and easily quashed in the past. As long as the Iron Curtain was operational, Europe thought it might have such ocean-like protection as well, but events in 1989 swept that idea away. With a large addition of formerly hostile states, some members were occasionally bound to join forces with Russia or China, even though they were nominally loyal citizens of the EU. Traitorous behavior had long been an underlying cause of splinter parties and brutal suppression, but that was when Communists were thought by everyone to be agents of a hostile foreign power. With the end of the Cold War, they might become misguided local citizens exercising freedom of speech, claiming a right to argue for behavior which would have formerly been denounced as traitorous. Nations harboring few such inclinations soon became cautious about joining a government with nations who had a great many of them. Citizens of recently enslaved nations were particularly resistant to soothing arguments about unity. It must be confessed that the example of our own Civil War lends force to this feeling of what might happen.
|Baltic and Black Seas|
It may be claiming too much to describe the fall of the Iron Curtain, as the major reason for the decline of interest in forming a political union in Europe. That decline did occur and was replaced by the rather weak stratagem of leaving unified government to another time. In its place appeared a strategy of economic unification, hoping the benefits to everyone would become so apparent that unified nationhood would follow. A substrate emerged, narrowing it to a unified currency, the Euro. Bankers and other financial experts argued that such unification would be fairly simple and effective. And so it proved until the same difficulty appeared in a different form. The design of the Euro Currency Zone had apparently underestimated the problems of a foreign currency operating together with the Euro, and variants of Gresham's Law surfaced. Small nation members like Iceland and Cyprus found their small banking systems could not cope with huge inflows of flight money, escaping to tax havens within the Eurozone. As well, underdeveloped member nations actually romanced non-member capital to relocate to their shores. Since local currency is ultimately supported by the full faith and credit of the nation, local banks and economies cannot easily deny equal protections to foreign capital, except temporarily while exchange controls are applied. But when a sufficiently small nation is thus forced to guarantee a sufficiently large amount of foreign money, local banks and markets will be destined to crash. If, in addition, the member nations are deprived of the ability to devalue their currency as the Eurozone could, some type of informal arrangement for a two-value currency had to be devised unless more prosperous members like Germany were willing to subsidize the money flows. When two currencies of unequal value circulate together, said John Gresham to Queen Elizabeth I, the more valuable one will quickly disappear.
Howard Callaway, noted historian, recently held forth at a meeting of the Franklin Inn Club about the Progressive Movement of the early 20th Century. His interesting point was that perhaps William James really started it all. The James brothers, William and Henry, were very rich and spent nearly twenty years in Europe. Their ideas may not have originated in Europe, but they certainly had a European tinge to them. Perhaps it is fair to surmise that the Progressives grew out of reaction to the Gilded Age, around 1870, which Howard feels was the last great episode of globalization before the present one.
In spite of the very European origins of Queen Victoria and her family, the British aristocracy has always feared and distrusted Europe. When Britain discovered it couldn't conquer Europe (or America), it turned its attention to developing a great commercial empire by colonizing Africa and East Asia. That led to building a Navy and establishing naval refueling stations at strategic places around the globe. Meanwhile, the Spanish empire was deteriorating, and colonization took on the form of competition between England, France, and Germany for the remnants of the Spanish empire. For background music, the Dreyfus episode led to or was prompted to lead to, an anti-military attitude that had considerable world-wide effect, essentially none of the above. In time, the none of above military attitude fused with Progressivism of the environmental sort which viewed industrialization as the enemy.
In a sense, American attitudes were influenced by William McKinley, who managed to convince labor they would be better off by advancing the cause of their bosses. Part of the reaction to this was the Populism of William Jennings Bryan and Robert LaFollette. McKinley's assassination and the promotion of Teddy Roosevelt was an unexpected turning point in American politics. Meanwhile, Admiral Dewey's fleet was stationed in Hong Kong. This association between America and Great Britain, along with secret German attempts to intervene in unobtrusive ways during the Spanish-American War were important factors in the later alliance between Britain and America in World War I. The burgeoning alliance between labor and management which McKinley was well along toward making the dominant force in American politics, was thus precipitously switched toward Progressivism by McKinley's assassination, which revealed he had made the one major blunder of selecting Teddy Roosevelt as his vice president, who in turn made the same blunder in reverse by selecting William Howard Taft as his own successor. The splitting of the Republican party between Roosevelt and Taft made possible the election of Woodrow Wilson, the college professor.
It thus can be concluded that the repeated switching between Conservatism and Progressivism during the Presidencies of McKinley through Wilson was the main source of the present rearranged coalitions we call the Republican and Democratic parties. It only remained for Franklin Roosevelt to complete the process by fitting the South, Catholics, and Jews into the Democratic Alliance, and Richard Nixon to undo it partially with switching the South and the Catholics back into the Republican party. The demography of the parties has changed more than the ideology, which tends more toward a coalition of business and Southerners versus blue-stocking progressives linked with labor union populists. Underlying all of this is the general acknowledgment of the need for a two-party system. Instead of having five or six small parties, the ultimate choice is whether a dissatisfied sub party is disaffected enough to switch parties. The nation is geographically so large and the subgroups so scattered that almost everyone except recent immigrants instinctively respects the two-party imperative.
Millions of people were unexpectedly canceled by health insurers at the onset of the Obama Insurance Exchanges. The President repeatedly told the public under Obamacare they could keep their old plans if they wished, even after notices to the contrary were mailed out. Insurance spokesmen firmly responded that the terms of the law required they could not keep the old plans for a single day. This promise was reinforced by the original section 1251 but later amended in confusing ways. The public had been told nothing like that during a three-year opportunity to be open about it; in their view, it was sprung on them. Maybe they had even been lied to; more likely, someone objected, causing revision that could be interpreted in several ways. In any event, postponement of the large-employer plans made it moot for the customer but not for the voters. To quell the uproar, the President quickly delayed the cancellations for a year, then extended the suspension, and soon provoking alarmed announcements from the insurance industry that such insurance would lose money. It suddenly became a question whether he could make the insurance companies take them back, and some said they wouldn't, even for just one year. It all sounds like an uproar on the other side of the curtain. The irresistible conclusion emerges there is more to this arrangement than is revealed, with further surprises to be feared. After all, the old rates had been set by the insurers, so something extra must have been added by someone else, but possibly it triggered some clause in the risk corridor provisions. Long accustomed to caveat emptor from salesmen, the public will have trouble getting over the assumption that insurers had been promised more expensive products to sell, in return for doing something of value for the Obama administration we haven't yet learned about.
In a world long accustomed to government anti-trust constraints, that higher prices with less competition could be mandated by law was almost too good for insurance companies to imagine. But now, after the deal is suddenly "postponed", any other industry groups who may have negotiated secret accords, are warned of the price: they must expect to absorb some costs whenever this President is forced to abandon his side of a bargain. The National Journal recently quoted an interview with an insurance lobbyist that large amounts of insurance money helped finance Tea Party meetings, suggesting internal dissension within the industry.
In any event, the canceled policies were almost entirely individual policies in the end, and the ultimate goal is speculative. A different way of expressing the thought is, a large collection of individual policies can more easily resist pressures to cross-subsidize other favored clients. One thing is almost uniformly true of persons who hold individual (as opposed to group) policies: they pay for health coverage with after-tax dollars and therefore are out of pocket by 20-30% extra for equivalent insurance. Many of them may well resist higher-priced products for that reason. Eliminating individual policies would cost the government considerable tax money and indirectly raise premiums. There must be some other motive for animosity toward individual policies, but we will have to wait to find out what it is. It may be just as simple as reducing the visible cost gap between the old system and a new one.
Macroeconomics of The 2007 Collapse
World Finance, Columbus Day 2008
Europe's leaders met in Paris, while finance ministers met in Washington over the three-day weekend in October 2008. Should nations chance total collapse to save the whole system, or sacrifice the weak to save the strong? Unfortunately, the source of the answer may not be financial but political.
Rescuing International Finance?
On November 15, 2008, the world financial managers are meeting, either to resolve the whole currency mess -- or to plunge us into unimaginable chaos.
Bye, Bye, Banks
We're off the gold standard. For only a couple of decades, it seemed safe to replace gold with inflation targeting, whatever that is.
As Computers Displace Money, Trust But Verify
Mainframe computers have been available for fifty years, personal computers for twenty-five. Unless the two come into better balance soon, we foresee a nightmare of government regulation, and perhaps worse.
National Debt, National Blessing
National surplus is the opposite of national debt. Sounds good, but can it even be contemplated?
Computerized Finance to the Guillotine
Computers may well have helped create a world financial muddle, but that's no reason to go back to the abacus.
2008 -- A Time to Reflect
Let's hope it's just a bump in the economic road. But worry about the price of oil and the cost of houses. And ponder the collision of banks and investment banks.
Report Identity Theft to the Secret Service
Identity theft is now under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Secret Service.
What's a Repo?
With a dozen small variations, repurchase agreements are a new and streamlined way to make short loans in big volume. Bear Stearns dominated the repo market for hedge funds but the volume got too big to manage when interest rates shifted.
The Service Corps of Retired Executives has taken a new turn in Philadelphia, primarily serving minority start-ups, a majority of which are founded by black women.
HowTo Create A Subprime Derivative
It's easier than you thought
Here's an obscure legal term at the heart of a sixty trillion dollar perplexity.
Federal Reserve Changes Its Business Model
On March 16, 2008, the Federal Reserve stepped in to stop an impending bank panic. It also changed the rules of the game, rather significantly.
Africa Comes to the Schuylkill
African oil, refined in Philadelphia, supplies 2/3 of the gasoline on the East Coast.
After a Year of Crisis, Fannie and Freddy Finally Get the Spotlight
Fannie Fannie Mae and Wall Street's chancy new CDOs are much the same things, only with different sponsors and a few modified features. Important issues are: which model is better, whether continued competition between the two is useful, or whether both should be abolished.
Securitization: Pass the Hot Potato
Securitization of home mortgages is a generally good thing, but it has one major flaw. Unless we somehow fix it, it will fix us.
John Head, His Book of Account, 1718-1753
The equivalent of the rosetta stone for colonial commerce had been sitting on George Vaux's shelf for six generations.
Financial Institutions of the Future
Impending financial crisis has pushed everything else off the front page. But looking backward may show where we are likely going.
Philosophy Means Science in Philadelphia
At least until he met Madame Helvetius, Benjamin Franklin displayed little interest in moral philosophy. His interest was in science, which was called natural philosophy in the Eighteenth Century. The American Philosophical Society is America's oldest and most prestigious society of scientific scholars. If investing is a science, the APS is good at that, too.
Taking Risks Demands Its Price
For a few days in August 2007, no one knew why financial markets were suddenly in a jumble. After a week it became clear, risk spreads had been too narrow and were reverting to normal. It would be painful.
Philadelphia City-County Consolidation of 1854
Prior to 1854, Philadelphia City was one of twenty-nine political entities within Philadelphia County. After that, it became one big city without suburbs. Growth pressure now reverses toward suburbs without a city. Political boundaries should thus shift inwardly.
Philadelphia City Controller
A City Controller is expected to criticize the city's administration. Alan Butkovitz does his duty.
There isn't a windmill within a hundred miles of Philadelphia, but wind power is being actively promoted.
George Washington on the Federal Union
On September 17, 1796, George Washington declined another term for President, taking this occasion to urge the cause of Federalism.
The industrial revolution made cities grow, and thus made mass transit desirable. The flight to the suburbs then made mass transit attractive only to urban politicians.
Three Revolutions at Once, Maybe Four
Asking the cause of the American Revolutionary War may be a little simplistic; civil wars pop up, all over the place, all the time. The more important question to ask, is why did this American Revolution have such a dramatic effect on the whole world?
Special Education, Special Problems
Until recently, mentally retarded children weren't even considered in school budgets. But in recent decades, they have become one of the biggest challenges.
Marcellus Shale Gas: Good Thing or Bad?
There's a gold rush, in gas not gold, in Pennsylvania. What are the unintended consequences?
Selling Entire Towns
Some builders build whole towns without houses and then sell them to custom home builders.
Disappearing Stock Power
The proxy voting power of corporate common stock is disappearing every day, by thousands of shares.
Political Parties, Absent and Unmentionable
Our Constitution is much praised for exquisitely balancing power between the three branches of government. It would even be an achievement to require two centuries to find a way to unbalance them.
Cataracts and Deference to Seniors
Cataract extraction is now the commonest surgical operation in America. It doesn't receive the deference it deserves.
Causes of the 2007 Crash: Political and Technological
After 4 years, we are gradually piecing out the causes of the second great crash. It seems two main causes were government subsidies of cheap housing in one form or another, and the impaction of computers on banking.
South Philadelphia: Ideal Intermodality Transportation Site
Very few places on earth have rail, airport, ocean port, and Interstate Highway exits all crowded in a small place. An ideal location for intermodality connections, twenty minutes travel from the center of a major city.
Future Directions for Book Authoring
Personal computers have already revolutionized book authorship by greatly expanding it, and revolutionized book publishing by drowning it in authorship. What comes next?
Lowering the Taxes on Corporations
When Ireland lowered corporate taxes, inviting corporate immigration, and then precipitating an international financial crisis, it drew attention from others. Instead of warning them, it encouraged them to imitate Ireland.
Power of the Purse
Establishing and revising a national debt limit was a mistake in 1917. Its mistakenness becomes progressively more evident as national debt approaches the point where we could not possibly pay it off, and several foreign countries demonstrate what can then happen.
Black Swans (Financial Variety)
How many financial crises can be understood as "Black Swans" if we regard a financial Black Swan as a case of constrained energy kinetics?
Reconsidering All Our Laws
The legislatures of America were handed a clean slate for statutes by the 1787 Constitution, and thus given the opportunity to review the entirely legal system. It took nearly a century to accomplish and is still proceeding.
Ageing Owners, Ageing Property
From Japan, we get a fresh view of our assets. Kiyohiko Nishimura observes that the price of a house, even of a stock portfolio, has something to do with the age of the owner who is selling it.
Taxes as a Form of Consumption
Most people find taxes are their biggest expense. Why not reduce them?
The Revolution is Over, Every Man for Himself
Although his personal wealth in modern equivalents approached that of Bill Gates today, Robert Morris abruptly quit his business after a debate in the Legislature, just to show he had no personal bias. It ruined him, but John Hancock and George Washington did much the same thing. Ben Franklin agreed, but was shrewder about it.
Morris Upended by a Nobody
Adjusting to winning the Revolutionary War was almost as painful as losing it would have been. Especially for Robert Morris.
Morris Defends Banks From the Bank-Haters
To understand why lots of people today reflexly hate bankers, it's useful to review the courtroom defense of the man who invented America's first bank, facing ruin if he proved unconvincing.
Bonds--Do They Have A Future?
It's increasingly hard to imagine why investors buy bonds because it's increasingly difficult to imagine an end to inflation.
Moving your place of residence has many influences, but property taxes seem to have the biggest influence on business executives decided to move. By contrast, property prices have the biggest influence on the middle class.
Two Friends Create the Articles of Confederation
John Dickinson and Robert Morris were good friends who pushed the Articles of Confederation through to ratification. Both of them had been active critics of Great Britain's treatment of the colonies, but both hesitated to sign the Declaration, and both later relented and fought for Independence. Dickinson's final position is less clear, but it was Morris who first saw the weakness of the Articles, and pressed on for their replacement by the Constitution.
Bank Accounting Off the Books
Recent waves of mergers, one-bank holding companies, and subsidiaries have tangled the assessment of losses in the credit crisis, slowed the acknowledgment of losses, had an inflationary effect, and the appearance of illegality in an environment of blame seeking.
Who Killed Philadelphia Industry?
Until recently, Philadelphia was a thoroughly industrial city. Why has industry abandoned us?
Obamacare's constitutionality was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in late March, 2012.
Breaking the Buck
Several years after the financial crash of 2008, the question is raised whether money-markets might have played an unsuspected role. If so, what should be done about it?
Sanctity of Contracts
Article I of the Constitution, states in section10 that "No state shall......pass any law.....impairing the obligation of contracts, or grant any title of nobility." While the Constitution does not precisely say the Congress may not do so, or the President might not, it is definitely omitted from the list of limited federal powers. And it is the enduring expectation of the citizenry that the federal government is no more encouraged to impair the sanctity of contracts than to grant titles of nobility.
National Debt, Presidential Hat Tricks, Shale Gas and Argentina
The Franklin Inn Club discusses Obama's maneuvers in the context of what might have been a better approach.
"They Don't Make That, Anymore"
Pharmaceutical drugs seem to follow a trajectory of fifty years, from new and expensive, to cheap, old and eliminated.
Peggy Shippen and Benedict Arnold: Fallen Idols
The hero of the Battle of Saratoga married the Queen of Philadelphia society, but then betrayed the country.
Mexican Immigration and NAFTA
NAFTA was a brilliant innovation by Poppy Bush, but it was perhaps a little too sophisticated.
Implicit Powers of the Federal Government
The Constitution strictly limited the number of federal powers, but did not define their boundaries. Intending to be flexible, it opened a permanent loophole.
Federal Reserve Power Play
Evidently, the Federal Reserve feels it never has to restore those bonds it holds to the private sector. The bond market may not stand for it, so hold your breath.
Why Jefferson Hated Banks and Hamilton Loved Them
For centuries, Americans have quarreled about whether banks are good or evil. Some of the arguments are good and bad, but hardly any are new.
Bernanke's QE3: A New Titanic, or A New Bretton Woods?
Ben Bernanke is crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope.
The Bretton Woods conference in 1944 was very simple. The U.S. dollar alone was convertible into gold, but all other currencies were convertible into U.S. dollars. To prevent Fort Knox from being completely depleted of gold, the convertibility of dollars into gold was also soon discontinued. Effectively, all money everywhere was thus just a computer notation, controlled by the U.S.government. Temporarily, the dollar became a reserve currency, supplementing gold. Effectively, we were testing whether we needed a metallic standard at all.
Although the Romans frequently adopted children, the practice died out in the 6th century, and only became common a thousand years later. Curiously little has been written about this matter, so speculation is probably unwise.
Stress Tests for the European Union
Ending the Cold War in 1989 may have generated an unexpected obstacle to European unification.
William James and the Progressive Movement
Did William James start the Progressive Movement?
Higher-cost Health Insurance is What's Mandatory
Cancellations of millions of health insurance policies show the Affordable Care Act aimed to mandate a few specific types of policies, and not merely to the uninsured. Without a government subsidy, most plans would cost more. The promise that you can keep your old plan, and keep your doctor, was an empty one.