Posts Tagged ‘credit expansion’

Waste and Corruption Out of Thin Air

Friday, August 7th, 2009

If government proposed a “stimulus” program to give each American 50 million dollars, we’d immediately think of inflation.  At that scale, the proposal would meet its deserved ridicule.

However, I’d like to look at how it would work ex-inflation, so let’s pretend there is no inflation problem.  The Federal Reserve’s magic omnipotence determines that there’s “slack” in the economy so that government can create and give everyone 50 million dollars (and Goldman Sachs its commission), with no significant inflation.  We’ll make no assumption about ever repaying the 50 million per capita, which is a realistic expectation in the current real world of money and credit expansion anyway.

So with no inflation, should The Fed get really excited (they must have been at least starting to doubt the magic) and do it again?

No.  Even without inflation, the artificial abundance of credit money will cause plenty of other distortions to economic behavior.

For starters, some people will simply retire to become consumers only.  With their production removed earlier than it otherwise would have been while their consumption is still there (and may increase in early stage “stimulus” euphoria), over all wealth measured in production (rather than money out of thin air) has gone down.

In our decades long credit roller coaster this retirement miscalculation has certainly occurred, with credit expansion giving people false signals that they can retire or semi-retire when actually they still needed the economy and the economy still needed them (provided they could somehow have been directed to real production and not to bubbleland).

The scope of this gift from The Fed and the banking system to our seniors and near seniors is still unknown.  Some people soon to be forced into unretirement now that the credit veil has slipped will have skills they can market at the level they’re used to in the face of impaired economy headwinds, and some won’t.  Since that’s about all we can know for now, we’ll have to leave these folks high and dry where the helpful stewards of the economy have put them, and move on to other expansionary credit “life blood” effects.

With my 50 million, I’ll probably stop everything else to pursue a writing career.  Any other productive possibilities from me will be permanently (or at least until everything blows up even more) lost to society.

In the 50 million for everybody story, plenty of other part-time writers will join me in pursuit of the full-time dream.  Also, actors, film makers, dancers, models, painters, sculptors, chefs, fashion designers, musicians, and of course, singers.  American Idol will need at least a few extra rotations– maybe even its own network.

Something like this happens in real life credit expansion.  It’s not just directly bohemian pursuits, but other apparently more practical endeavors that become over indulged because of false expansionary signals: we get more retailers, restaurateurs, boutiquerateurs, financial and real estate tycoons in training, “internet marketing gurus”, advertisers, public speakers, and miscellaneous experts– every type and stripe of consultant who once did something successfully for a decade (or at least didn’t fail too publicly), and have now risen above doing the expert activity to advise others.

Pursuing the dream, or advising others on dream pursuit, isn’t bad as such (too late, I’ve insulted everyone– no one is reading anymore).  And it’s certainly not that many people in professions this piece may appear to denigrate aren’t exactly in their productive niche and awesome there.  However, regardless of whether we make those judgements that money and credit creation make the economy too fluffy, it clearly does make it too frothy– entrepreneurs get hasty in pulling the trigger, and then hang on waiting for the next boom that credit expansion signals have promised them.  This paper promise must eventually be broken since no amount of paper, nor any book keeping entry of whatever size, is ever going to eat a single restaurant meal, or otherwise consume anything except for a dwindling supply of economic clarity and perspective.

(It isn’t entirely a vacuumful of wishful thinking on the production side of course.  The psychological extremes of overreaching are naturally late stage, while consumers will all along have been helpfully translating their expansionary false signal receptions into “real” but ultimately regretted demand for dreamy non-essentials– the new era feedback loop that the Fed thinks it wants, and doesn’t really even seem to much doubt after it collapses.)

In the 50 million dollar story, Fed magic is still on the job, and there’s no collapse yet.  There are no laborers– everyone is retired, an artist, or an entrepreneur– but we still haven’t got to the true elephant in the central bank.

The “slack” has come out of the economy– at 50 mil per head, probably with a pop.  The artificial boom has ratcheted up the optimism of the players.  Those entrepreneurs with apparently successful businesses will be getting signals to expand them.  The Fed, not wanting to “choke off” the apparently vibrant economy, and getting plenty of cheerful feedback from the banking system that new credit can be “absorbed”, will feed the frenzy, as they were born and structured to do.

Now the future looks so huge that the entrepreneurs believe they can take on bigger and more distant expansionary projects.  Indeed, the situation seems to demand it.  The closer borrowed money gets to being free– a favorite central bank ploy– the more dangerous it seems to decline expansion.  Your competitor may be using the free money to grow to infinity and then smother you.

Because the credit is artificially created, it can signal temporary enthusiasm, but it can’t signal an actual match up to future available resources.  The flashing, screaming pedal to the metal promise of future resources to complete every entrepreneur’s project is a screaming pedal to the metal lie that no actual arriving future can possibly fulfill.  (For one thing there aren’t any laborers, somebody’s bound to notice that eventually.)

This is where the true “confidence” issue shows up.  It doesn’t matter if players are confident that government “will provide liquidity”.  Speeches, guarantees, backstops and loans of last resort don’t help– in fact make it worse, because these are rational doubts about what is and is not being produced from finite resources, how much of the future is being crammed into the present, and when exactly this denuded future will make it’s appearance (or from where we are at the moment, its curtain call).

No Bernanke or Geithner speech can address this, because all they can produce is debt and more speeches, and all that brings is economic and political miscalculation, waste, instability, and possibly on top of that, inflation.

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

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