Posts Tagged ‘credit collapse’

We Can Put a Man on the Moon (And That’s About It)

Saturday, June 20th, 2009

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain– all of these mainstream presidential candidates used the “put a man on the moon” comparison.  The logic is that we put a man on the moon, therefore we can solve X, where X = something that inspires (and/or annoys) voters.

However, the campaigns didn’t fully explore the fun side of the comparison.  Since there are no limits to the limits that our man on the moon achievement can’t remove from the public purse, we could:

  • Give Hugo Chavez, as a return gift, a bottle of cologne that seems normal before he puts it on, but then permanently smells like Satan.
  • Prove a 12th dimension to string theory and teach everyone to understand it with a psychedelic Muppet movie, also in 12 D.
  • Develop safe nuclear human shrinking technology to take the Guinness record for world’s shortest man away from China, so we’ll still have bragging rights about something if they get their own moon walk (and own most of the earth) by 2024.

One of the first things we might notice if analyzing men on the moon today, is that there aren’t any.  If our intention is to achieve “universal health care” or “energy independence” at great expense for a week, and then stop indefinitely, then yes, we should strongly consider the Apollo program as our model.  But making Hugo Chavez smell like Satan has a practical element that most popular man-moon comparisons lack– it’s a technical closed-ended project.

No program with a time horizon of forever can possibly be simple.  Permanent universal health care is more complicated than putting a man on the moon.  The probable outcome for a man on the moon project model if used for an open-ended concept is to freeze out the future.

Realistically, no one either hopes for or expects the future.  The vision instead is of a slightly tweaked version of the past, with a little more or less of the seer’s favorite things depending on their level of optimism. We try to get rid of what we see as a thoughtless free for all and since the future on some level must be thoughtless, the best solution will be thrown away (maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of our lives).

Someday blood-borne nano robot “doctors” may be mass produced for pennies to diagnose and treat us constantly throughout our lives– affordable universal health care, case closed.  But the constituencies that grow and feed from today’s top-down “solution” will do what they can to stop that, or anything else that might threaten to leave them behind.

Cost control is another piece that gets thrown out in man on the moon top-down thinking.  Government planners believe that their job is to stretch our capability and resources beyond where they can otherwise go.  In a sense that top-down conceit succeeded for awhile, in that with the help of our system of maximum credit expansion we stretched our capacity to its consumerist limit for decades, but then we inevitably found those limits with a credit collapse.

The setup and “payoff” of the credit collapse make a good example of fogging up (so to speak) economic and cost/benefit calculation, but at least the fog is sometimes perceived as fog.  The man on the moon comparison has an insidious apparent clarity– the fog itself is hidden.

The Apollo program can be looked at as the cherry on top of a rather wretched sundae, with the space program as the cream skimmed from WWII cauldrons.

Scientifically butcher 70 million people while also wasting several generations worth of non-human resources in a couple years of pyrotechnics, gather up the best and brightest survivors from that unprecedented education (including many from the enemy side), and voila, a successful “public-private partnership”, ready and able as a guiding beacon to lure the next dozen generations into a confused public-private rathole that never quite measures up because, thankfully, we never match that level of unmeasured precursor costs.

Probably there’s a sub-set of economic activities that a military command model (and a military industrial complex full of “public-private partnerships”) can do well, but one would hope to get some acknowledgement that this model isn’t appropriate for the general permanent organization of society.  (The expression here might run something like, “We put a man on the moon, you can’t tell me that we can’t destroy our future as a free society with an entrepreneurial culture to attempt energy independence and universal health insurance coverage, until our enslavement and bloatation makes it all fall apart.”)

In a scientific closed-ended project, enable or kill are pretty much the congressional choices, and the project’s actors only have to defend it to the end.  Compare that to a politically footballish, open-ended project, poked with partisan pointed sticks to see if it might bleed pork fat or stir up a crucial constituency, from now until the end of political time.  If the program might start out making partial sense, give it a decade or two– it will be staggering around the beltway like a wounded brontosaurus.

If your project is a moon walk– a highly technical, voyage of discovery type closed-ended project, politicians for the most part have to pick some project leads and let go.  Opportunities to meddle might not be zero, but the risk is always around that a committee chair ends up face to face with one of the world’s pre-eminent scientists in the field, saying, “Hi there, you don’t know crap.”  This compared to the usually mousey performances of CEO’s in front of congressional committees in finance, health care, or even oil– areas that have gradually been politicized into subjectivity and submission.  (If it’s science, we can defend ourselves, but if it’s politics, politicians win, and the chips can be cashed in for more power.)

The uncontested acceptance of the man in the moon comparison shows that the mainstream parties are biased towards a leadership model of social organization, and away from models of self-organization.  The bias was fertile ground for a credit collapse.  Underlying the inflation, debt, and burning down the house “solutions” is a pretense that good leadership makes anything possible.

It doesn’t.

In pretending otherwise, we neglect an opportunity for another (if less sexy) voyage of discovery: How are good decisions made, who can make them, at what level, and over what time frames?  It would be nice to stop boondoggling for long enough to explore this, but most of economic fashion is not only poor for such study, it’s pretty much designed to avoid the topic and pretend that everything is just a matter of stretching capacity so more men can be put on more moons.

Since at least as far back as the first moon walk debt has been treated as a solution, not a problem.  The result if not the time frame was predictable– debt is crashing on our heads. A war (and a half) didn’t help– mortgage securitization didn’t help– but in the context of the economic collapse these are just types of debt.  We know that these are secondary causes because all experience shows that regardless of any disasters– whether skirted or firmly stepped in– we would have continued exploring the limits of the debt envelope until we found them with a pop.

George Bush and Barack Obama, Angelo Mozilo and Bernie Madoff– they all could have never been born and sooner or later we’d have been right about where we are, because it was a pattern of beliefs and behaviors and not one particular action that got us here.  No president, no congress, and very few Americans have had any respect for the risks and consequences of debt for as long as any of us have lived.

In our current struggles the fading interest in checks and balances is disturbing.  Hope that we might be able to walk and chew gum– that society could be psychically capable of yearning for “the leader” while refusing compromise on the price seems like a confirmed pipe dream.  This isn’t specifically a comment on President Obama. Politicians are reflexively reaching for this trade if it might buy any partisan trinket, and we’re letting them.

Even if the general view of government always tracks toward the delusive, we could at least make a greater effort to study where government has its best odds at success—where its most muted mediocrity might lie.  Cost containment may never be a strength.  We may sometimes wish that warfare was rather less of a core competency.  A starting point might be to look only at programs that are technical, closed-ended or involve a complete hand off, and are largely non-partisan under normal, non-crisis circumstances.

Not easy, but if we could even just start to examine our systemic flaws, that would be a much prouder achievement than walking on the moon.

By Les Lafave
Monetary and Banking Reform –
Originally Published at Strike The Root




Globalization: Spreading the Wealth (of Mistakes)

Monday, November 10th, 2008

What would the U.S. be doing now if the rest of the world wasn’t infected by our credit collapse?

Probably a good imitation of an old fashioned emerging market collapse, which is a good imitation of a fire in an over-crowded roller skating arena, just after the concession has spilled a vat of popcorn machine butter in front of the only unblocked exit.

Right now the U.S. economy is getting an odd, two pronged support from the export of the credit crisis– demand for dollars from foreigners struggling to support and pay down dollar denominated debt, plus foreign central banks throwing up their hands and cutting interest rates, narrowing the differential with U.S. rates.  (I recently saw business analysts debate whether the Bank of England would cut a half point or three-quarters of a point– they cut one and a half points.)

If not for the remnants of the dollar’s reserve currency status, the credit collapse in the U.S. would have much more of that emerging market bubble flavor (possibly without the imitation butter)– among the primary features, a crashing currency and soaring interest rates.

The circulation of the credit collapse has to seem pretty sickening overseas, but the apparent high dollar, low interest boon for the U.S. is in fact a slow motion tragedy.  Our leaders are grabbing the wrong signals with desperate enthusiasm, trying to recover the past and oblivious to the future.

As bailout and stimulus trial balloons expand absurdly, but with little or no reaction yet from the U.S. dollar and interest rates, a new level of hubris sets in.  Astoundingly (or perhaps typically, it’s hard to choose), most politicians and market players are again getting trapped by a perception of limitless American government power.

Charts of the U.S. monetary base at this point basically show a line going straight up– disinflationary head winds better not let up for a second, or we’ll need Zimbabwean advisors at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

On the subject of U.S. interest rates, Michael Pento from Delta Global Advisors says, “One of the major ramifications of having our national debt move above the $10 trillion mark is that the sustainability of the government, consumer spending and the economy rests on the continuation of artificially low interest rates. In fact, low rates that are the result of money printing have become our addiction… it is only because interest rates are at record lows that the debt service is still manageable.”  Pento doesn’t believe this can last.

The temporary artificial strength from U.S. dollars and bonds means that these key yardsticks are being misread by our leaders.  There should be huge storms smashing these markets every time there’s a prominent discussion of another hundred billion of stimulus or bailout– dramatic signals that even politicians and Wall Street bankers could understand. Instead, by the standards of the times, these markets remain placid.

If American politicians were giving any consideration to what could happen if foreigners turn away from the U.S. dollar, they couldn’t possibly contemplate any more “stimulus” or bailout packages.  The mind set of American leaders is that of complacently snooty parents; the U.S. dollar their sheltered spoiled brat who’s about to launch into real world competition brimful of bratty misplaced confidence.

Sometime soon there won’t be enough economic actors able to suspend disbelief at the mismatch between the fatuous talk of ever expanding bailouts and stimulus plans, and the reality of destroyed real capital and already unmanageable (to say the least) debt.  We’re looking at another pop, and as scary as a stock market collapse or even a credit collapse can be, a currency collapse can be worse.

Politicians have been saying that “of course” the current economic crisis is not analogous to America’s Great Depression.  I think that secretly most now believe that this crisis is like the Great Depression, but they’re actually taking a kind of comfort from it– to many of them, the New Deal is familiar ground.

Certainly if we’re talking about its expansionary credit causes, this crisis is indeed analogous to the Great Depression.

While there are some ways in which this situation is better thus far than the Great Depression (not exactly a point of pride), there’s at least one potentially scary difference.  The New Deal programs that didn’t work the first time when government was smaller, “only” causing an unprecedented “double dip”, will not work when tried the second time, but with our enormous indebted government, will gift us a black box launcher of waves of venomous black swans (a weapon that the Pentagon may have actually been working on, but it looks like other Feds are working overtime with the mixed economy to beat them to it).

If a black box launcher of waves of venomous black swans sounds worse than a double dip, it may well be (depending on the venom of the swans).  A possible next salvo is a crack in the dollar or a spike in interest rates.  Only the box and the swans know for sure.

By Les Lafave

Banking Reform –

Can’t Wait to Get My Piece of the Bailout Profits

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

The hubris of assuming that all you need to do to make a profit is find a spread between borrowed and lent funds should sound familiar– that’s how Wall Street (with a little grease from the Fed) got us into apocalyptic trouble.

So… Congress is going to take over the financial industry’s disastrous investments, and their disastrous methods, and then, being the nation’s experts on profit, quickly turn a profit.  It’s only a matter of deciding how to divvy up the loot.

Mutual fund manager John Hussman points out that if the Paulson plan means buying the distressed assets at distressed prices, then balance sheet deterioration continues: “The only way that buying the questionable assets will increase capital on the liability side of the balance sheet is if the Treasury overpays for them.”

In other words, you can’t have it both ways– will it be a bailout, and lose money, or will it fail in its purported mission, and make a profit?  (This is politics– it’ll lose money.)

But after all, there’s no other choice right?  Without money and credit created out of nothing so that we have exponentially expanding debt as a stable base for the economy, and a congress to direct it all, there’d clearly be no economic activity at all.  We’d all sit on our butts, suffering C-Span withdrawals– building, creating and doing nothing.

The few lonely voices who predicted this credit collapse years ago, are now even more lonely.  Jim Rogers and Peter Schiff, for example, say that doing nothing is indeed an option– the best of a lot of bad options.  American T.V. bookings for them appear to have actually gone down.

Producers had booked them in the past to keep panel discussions lively.  It wasn’t possible that they could actually be right (they were saying bad things about Wall Street and government).  Now it’s either too embarrassing or too scary to invite them back.  The expanded crisis coverage is dominated instead by those analysts who, with stunning brain-deadness, were forecasting even two months ago that there wouldn’t be a recession.  By and large it’s these incorrect forecasters now demanding our attention again to tell us “there’s no other choice”.

The old saw that if you’re in a hole, the first thing is to stop digging, can’t be heard over the sound of turning shovels. Congress will manage to stagger into some sort of active crisis role.  A bad bailout package is unlikely to be their last effort to throw sand in the gears, but they can always unload their failures on “the free market” (which they badly and intensively regulate).

By Les Lafave

Abolish The Federal Reserve –