Free Markets, Free People

Obama Administration

Notes on the “Big Plan”

Two major points about the budget plan the Obama administration has out there (from the Heritage Foundation):

Spending: Obama’s budget proposes $1.13 trillion in regular discretionary spending for 2010. This is a full 12% increase over the 2009 spending baseline. On top of this the Obama budget increases entitlement spending by another $700 billion. The proposed post-recession spending level of 22% of GDP has been exceeded only 8 times in the post-war era. And these numbers do not include the spending priorities of the unchecked far left in Congress.

The Chicago Tribune reports today “President Barack Obama will break a campaign pledge against congressional earmarks and sign a budget bill laden with millions in lawmakers’ pet projects … Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, identified almost 8,600 earmarks totaling $7.7 billion.”

Deficits: The Obama budget claims to cut the deficit in half by 2012, but relies on audaciously optimistic economic forecasts that no one believes in. Adding the “stimulus” bill to a realistic budget baseline yields a projected 2010-2017 cumulative budget deficit of $8.4 trillion – 2.5 times the size of President Bush’s deficits over the same 8-year time period. Before the recession, revenues were 18 percent of GDP and spending was 20 percent. After the recession, President Obama would maintain revenues at 19 percent of GDP, and spending at 22 percent. In other words, all new tax revenues would finance new spending, rather than deficit reduction. President Obama’s structural budget deficit would exceed President Bush’s.

So you have, in the time of economic contraction and massive deficit, a 12% increase over the 2009 spending baseline in discretionary spending. 12%. And entitlement increase of $700 billion. In an 8 year time period (should he be re-elected in 2012) Obama plans to add 8.4 trillion to the debt – a full 2.5 times larger than the huge debt George Bush added. This is a phenomenal and eventually crippling level of borrowing and spending. There is no end in sight. Where the Bush administration spent 2% above the revenue, even with an increase in revenue from increased taxation, the Obama administration plans on maintaining a 3% spending gap of revenue/spending.

Untenable, unsustainable and ultimately, utterly destructive to a market economy.

~McQ

Our Ironic Foreign Policy

A billion dollars of your tax dollars is on its way to Palestine, 300 million of it earmarked for the Gaza Strip where Hamas still rules:

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday will pledge about $300 million in U.S. humanitarian aid for the war-torn Gaza Strip, plus about $600 million in assistance to the Palestinian Authority, a U.S. official said Sunday.

State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood told reporters traveling with Clinton Sunday that she would announce the donations at an international pledging conference at this Red Sea resort. The conference is seeking money for Gaza and the Palestinian economy.

So thanks to your generosity, Hamas doesn’t have to ante up $300 million to support its own people. Yes, your subsidy will allow them to instead purchase some new munitions and rockets with which to attack Israel.

This is the same Secretary of State who recently was peddling our debt bonds to the Chinese, ostensibly so we could borrow more money to, what, fund Hama’s war on Israel?

Isn’t life ironic?

~McQ

Speaking Of Federalism And Freedom

This is “change” (with the appropriate hat tip to the Obama administration) I can support:

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is sending strong signals that President Obama – who as a candidate said states should be allowed to make their own rules on medical marijuana – will end raids on pot dispensaries in California.

Radley Balko says:

It’ll be interesting to see if this tiny bit of federalism will hold should some states or cities decriminalize or even legalize marijuana entirely.

That’s the true test. While what Holder is saying is encouraging, the proof will be how the feds react to the types of moves Balko notes above. If the states are going to truly be left to make their own rules, that will be the test.

After the federal Drug Enforcement Agency raided a marijuana dispensary at South Lake Tahoe on Jan. 22, two days after Obama’s inauguration, and four others in the Los Angeles area on Feb. 2, White House spokesman Nick Schapiro responded to advocacy groups’ protests by noting that Obama had not yet appointed his drug policy team.

The president believes that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws” and expects his appointees to follow that policy, Schapiro said.

We’ll see if this precedent (and policy) is confined to things like MJ laws or will be extended to such things as school vouchers and the like.

~McQ

Semantics

That’s pretty much all that President Obama is left with when it comes to Iraq:

President Obama declared Friday that the United States has now “begun the work of ending this war” in Iraq as he announced the withdrawal of most American forces by the summer of next year while leaving behind as many as 50,000 troops for more limited missions.

Nearly six years after American troops crossed the border into Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, Mr. Obama said “renewed cause for hope” produced by improved security would allow Americans to begin disentangling militarily and turn the country over to the Iraqis themselves.

“Let me say this as plainly as I can,” the president told thousands of Marines stationed here. “By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.”

Sound a bit like “major combat operations have ended?”. Of course it does. He’s imposing a semantic marker here in an effort to declare he is fulfilling his campaign promise.

Of course, he’s not. In fact, it’s not even close.

Very carefully he’s declared “combat operations” to be complete by that date.  In fact they’ve been complete for a while.  But he’s not declaring our presence in Iraq is over, which was the crux of his campaign promise.

His word salad hasn’t fooled Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid:

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, who complained Thursday that a 50,000-member residual force was too big, put out a more tempered statement Friday, calling Mr. Obama’s plan “sound and measured,” while adding that he still wants to keep “only those forces necessary for the security of our remaining troops and the Iraqi people.”

A person briefed on the closed-door White House briefing for Congressional leaders said Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House speaker, was particularly upset about the residual force. She kicked off the public criticism on Wednesday by saying she did not understand “the justification” for 50,000 troops staying.

The justification, of course, is “reality”, a concept the “reality based community” has difficulty with at times. As with many of the decisions Obama has made, it was an attempt to please everyone all while spinning it as something it isn’t .  In this case I’m fine with that.

But let’s call it what it is.

In fact, with the residual force in Iraq through 2011, Mr. Obama has agreed to Mr. Bush’s withdrawal plan while pretending he hasn’t.

~McQ

To The Left – Don’t Get Too Giddy

A lot of high-fives on the left concerning a portion of the budget dealing with energy.  The Center For American Progress, in a post entitled “Energy Budget Is Sunlight After Eight Years of Darkness” says:

The most significant energy proposal in this budget is the inclusion of revenue in 2012 from the auction of all greenhouse gas emission allowances to major polluters under a cap-and-trade system. The budget assumes that this program will raise $646 billion between 2012 and 2019. Some of these funds would create jobs via a $120 billion investment in clean energy technologies over the same period. The auction revenue would pay for a “global warming tax cut” for working families with $526 billion. It would fund Making Work Pay, which provides a refundable income-tax credit for low-income working families. Any remaining funds would go to other families and businesses to offset higher energy prices.

In other words, CAP believes that adding huge additional costs onto the already high cost of producing goods, services and energy will “create jobs” to offset those lost apparently. And the money collected will be redistributed to make things fair.

As so-called members of the “reality based community”, you have to wonder if they’ve ever bothered taking off the rose colored glasses and glanced around the real world.

Alan Wood in Australia asks:

CAN the Senate save Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong from their global warming folly? It can, and it might, if it rejects the Government’s attempts to prematurely lock Australia into a flawed carbon trading scheme. Ask yourself, do you believe that the worst global recession since the Depression, with job losses accelerating, is the time for Australia to introduce a carbon trading scheme that will squeeze growth, jobs and investment? Business certainly doesn’t.

Is there anyone in the Congress who can do the same for Barack Obama? Probably not.  Do they understand that the carbon trading schemes in place around the world are literally melting down?  Again, probably not.

And jobs?  Well right here at home we can learn from the impact of the draconian regulations and resultant costs imposed on industry by such schemes  and what that means.  California, as usual, provides the case study:

California regulators Thursday adopted the world’s first mandatory measures to control highly potent greenhouse gases emitted by the computer manufacturing industry. “The financial impact is going to be severe,” Gus Ballis, a spokesman for chip maker NEC Electronics America Inc., a subsidiary of NEC Electronics Corp. in Japan, told the board. Ballis warned, “We’re potentially on the chopping block — whether they are going to keep us or pull our production back to Japan.” 

And elsewhere:

The painful loss of 1850 jobs at Pacific Brands in NSW, Victoria and Queensland is more than a byproduct of the global recession. The main reason for shifting to China, chief executive Sue Morphet said on Wednesday, is that manufacturing in Australia “is no longer a competitive advantage” to the company. The Prime Minister owes it to businesses large and small, as well as to Labor’s core constituency, workers, to re-evaluate the impact on employment of his emissions trading scheme, especially in mining, where Australia has such a strong comparative advantage.

Biofuels? Fail:

The German biofuels industry is facing bankruptcy according to their industry association, despite millions of state-sponsored subsidies in recent years. “It is five to twelve, but few politicians understand,” said the chairman of the Association of German Biofuel Industry (VDB), Kurt Stoffel. “The biodiesel market for trucks has come to a complete halt,” said Stoffel.

Reality? Dawning:

Britain said on Thursday it backed the building of new coal plants and would make a decision soon on whether these must have expensive, climate-friendly technologies fitted called carbon capture and storage (CCS). “We will need new fossil fuel plants including coal if we are going to maintain diversity in energy mix and energy security….”,

Yet here we are getting ready to implement a scheme that is already seen to be worsening the economic conditions around the world (and being abandoned by those realing the losses).  Unsurprisingly our implementation would most likely occur just as we are beginning to see an end to the recession.

The administration certainly seems to be aware of the cost of such legislation but still plans on pursuing it:

Steven Chu, President Barack Obama’s new Secretary of Energy, told The New York Times earlier this month that reaching agreement on emissions trading legislation would be difficult in the present recession because any scheme to regulate greenhouse gas emissions would probably cause energy prices to rise and drive manufacturing jobs to countries where energy was cheaper.

Yet, with blinders fully in place, and giddy at the prospect of sticking it to evil corporations while redistributing their ill-gotten gains, the left applauds a plan which will cripple our economy for decades to come.

If ever there were budget proposals poised to send us into darkness, it is this plan put forward by the Obama administration.

~McQ

Who Is “We” Mr. Broder?

In the Washington Post, David Broder ends his op-ed with:

When we elected Obama, we didn’t know what a gambler we were getting.

Is he kidding? Certainly for most of the campaign, we didn’t have the fiscal calamity hanging over our heads, but if Broder thinks that anything that has come out of the Obama administration to this point is a surprise or represents a gamble, I have to wonder what he actually expected.

Obama signalled everything he’s been doing and planed to do for two years, for heaven sake. Where was Broder during all of that?  This isn’t a “gamble”, it’s an agenda.

Health care? Check. Tax increases on the rich? Check. Education “reform”? Check. Green tech/cap-and-trade? Check. Infrastructure “investment” (the fiscal mess just gave him the appropriate excuse for huge deficit spending)? Check. Gitmo, Iraq and A’stan? Check, check, check.

The fact that the Obama administration is moving on all fronts at once is ambitious, no question, but surprising or a gamble? Well only to those who somehow missed what he was saying and projected onto the “hope and change” mantra what they expected instead.

Seems Broder, and much of the MSM, can raise their hands and nod yes to that.

~McQ

Here’s A Bit Of A Surprise

Eric Holder talked about reviving the assault gun ban. But he’s meeting opposition from unexpected quarters.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will join Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in opposing any effort to revive the 1994 assault weapons ban, putting them on the opposite side of the Obama administration.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said the Nevada Democrat will preserve his traditional pro-gun rights voting record.

“Senator Reid would oppose an effort (to) reinstate the ban if the Senate were to vote on it in the future,” Manley told The Hill in an e-mail late Thursday night.

There’s a pretty political explanation for the opposition.

A) gun bills are always losers for Democrats. It seems that Pelosi and Reid have finally figured out (at least in this case) that it is rather stupid to hand your opposition ammo (no pun intended).

B) unpopular legislation like this wastes time and goodwill. They have a much more ambitious plan to sell us down the river than piddling stuff like this, and they don’t want to be distracted by something that will be virtually ineffective the second it is signed into law (but put the pro-gun lobby front and center for a while).

C) Reality.

A number of House Democrats lost their seats after being targeted by the National Rifle Association for voting for the 1994 ban.

And finally, it is a way to make sure the Obama administration knows that it is Congress they must coordinate these things with before they go shooting their mouths off. Eric Holder said, without such coordination, that he planned on trying to reinstate the assault weapons ban. Pelosi and Reid used the opportunity to send a message.

That said, be aware that Holder certainly appears to have an anti-gun agenda, or, at least, so it seems.

~McQ

Budget Voodoo

Barack Obama is about to submit his first budget to Congress.

Finally, because we’re also suffering from a deficit of trust, I am committed to restoring a sense of honesty and accountability to our budget.  – President Barack Obama to a joint session of Congress, Feb 24, 2009

That’s the promise.  The reality, as the Washington Post observes, isn’t quite in keeping with the promise:

President Obama’s spending plan is built on the assumption that lawmakers can resolve some hugely contentious issues — and it relies on a few well-worn budget tricks.

The tricks?  The usual stuff – calling something what it isn’t and inflating future spending numbers to make the future real numbers appear to be “savings”.  For instance:

And though Obama told Congress on Tuesday that his budget team has “already identified $2 trillion in savings” to help tame record budget deficits, about half of those “savings” are actually tax increases, administration officials said. A big chunk of the rest of the savings comes from measuring Obama’s plans against an unrealistic scenario in which the Iraq war continues to suck up $170 billion a year forever.

The tax increases, of course, include an increase in taxes on the top 2%.  And further savings are based on pretending that the Bush administration planned on spending $170 billion (seems like a small number when compared to the numbers being thrown around these days, doesn’t it?) beyond 2011 when it planned on pulling the bulk of the troops out of the country.

“It’s a hollow number,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, who recently withdrew as Obama’s nominee to head the Commerce Department. “You’re not getting savings if you’re assuming spending that isn’t actually going to occur.”

What accounts for the other major source of income?

 But to pay for it, the president counts on a big infusion of cash from a politically controversial cap-and-trade system, which would force companies to buy allowances to exceed pollution limits. 

The promise that energy costs are going to skyrocket seems one promise he’s bent on keeping.  That of course will require more spending to offset the consequences (but don’t figure on being in on the subsidy, you probably won’t qualify).  And then there’s the redistributionist “spread the wealth” bonus to be realized from cap-and-trade:

Obama also wants to use the money to cover the cost of extending his signature Making Work Pay tax credit, worth up to $800 a year for working families. That credit, which will cost $66 billion next year, was enacted in the stimulus package, but is set to expire at the end of 2010.

Cover the cost is a way of saying, making the program permanent.

Then there’s the deficit promise.  Obama has set a goal of cutting the deficit in half by the end of his first term.   As observers say, there’s absolutely nothing difficult about reaching that goal:

This year’s budget deficit is bloated by spending on the stimulus package and various financial-sector bailouts, expenses unlikely to be repeated in future years. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently predicted that the deficit could be halved by 2013 merely by winding down the war in Iraq and allowing some of the tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration to expire in 2011, as Obama has proposed. That alone would cut the deficit to $715 billion, according to the CBO.

Notice that final number, folks.  That’s “half” of the deficit.  In other words he’s going to be running a deficit north of $700 billion dollars and trying to convince you how well he’s done.  In fact, all he’ll have done is add several trillions to the debt with several trillions more to come if reelected.

The era of big deficit financed government isn’t just back, it’s back on steroids sitting in a rocket sled pointed at economic  hell.

~McQ

Healthcare: A 634 Billion Dollar “Downpayment?”

The Washington Post tells us:

President Obama is proposing to begin a vast expansion of the U.S. health-care system by creating a $634 billion reserve fund over the next decade, launching an overhaul that most experts project will ultimately cost at least $1 trillion.

I put those words in bold so you would understand that even the WaPo considers his plan to be “a vast expansion”.

Now, a question for you – when is the last time you remember “experts” who projected anything to do with the cost of a government program coming anywhere close to the ultimate cost? Or overestimating the cost?

So what can we really expect the true “ultimate” cost to be? Well if history is any guide somewhere around 2 to 3 times what they’re “projecting.”

And how will he pay for this?  Why the same way Medicare has – by shifting costs to patients with private insurance and letting them pick up the slack:

Obama aims to make a “very substantial down payment” toward universal coverage by trimming tax breaks for the wealthy[tax increases - ed.] and squeezing payments to insurers, hospitals, doctors and drug manufacturers, a senior administration official said yesterday.

 BOHICA

Of course, understand that when the cost of your private health insurance benefit goes up because of all the “squeezing” (i.e. cost shifting) going on, your company will either cut benefits, raise your insurance premium or both.  And you shouldn’t at all be surprised that if given the option of dropping health care insurance for a government run system or continuing to pay through the nose for a private one, your company takes the first option.  That is also part of this plan, although unstated.

~McQ

Dead Ed, the Collapse, and eBay Saves Us All

My first reaction to Pres. Obama’s speech last night was depression.  Here were the Democrats giving the president standing O’s for completely converting the Republic into a social democracy.  I mentioned that on Facebook, and one of my readers said it reminded him of Amidala’s line from Star Wars Episode III:  “So this is how liberty ends…with thunderous applause.”

But on more careful review, I find that I am not, in fact, depressed over the long-term.  Indeed, last night’s speech seems to me not to herald the beginning of a new era for big government and socialism, but rather the last gasp of a dying ideology.

We are, I think, at the cusp of a new era, but it isn’t the one that Pres. Obama and his acolytes in the Congress are thinking it is.  Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans, it is clear, have any idea about what is happening.  Very few people do.  I am going to try and explain something very complicated, and do so very simply, and as briefly as I can.  So, with the realization that all simplifications are inevitably wrong in some particular, let me explain.

“Ed’s dead, baby.  Ed’s dead.”*

We stand now, I think, in a very historically similar position to the one described by Barbara Tuchman, in the beginning chapter of her monumental work on the outbreak of Word War I, The Guns of August:

20 May 1910:  The past passes in review

20 May 1910: The past passes in review

So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when 9 kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, 3 by 3 the sovereigns rode though the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came 5 heirs apparent, 40 more imperial or royal highnesses, 7 queens, and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented 70 nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled 9 by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

Four years later, the world order of 1815-1914 was drowned in fire and blood.  The Age of Royalty was over, and the Age of Democracy had begun.  I believe that Pres. Obama’s speech of last night may very well be the historical equivalent to Edward VII’s funeral.

Ever since it began in late 2007, a blog called Fabius Maximus has been arguing that we are watching the decline and fall–indeed, collapse–of our current economic and financial system.  A précis of the argument can be found here, and a more comprehensive archive can be found here.  Just as the black-clad crowds lining the streets of the capitol of the British Empire on the morning of May 20, 1910 might have found it inconceivable that their generation would witness the collapse of both the European geopolitical regime, and, ultimately, the British Empire itself, so it may be inconceivable to us that we are witnessing the collapse of the Post-WWII economic and political regime.  But I believe it is nevertheless true.

“MONEY! Doesn’t it make you feel good just to say that, Jerry?”

Let me start by explaining what money is.  Money is a medium of exchange, that is, it is an object of some kind that I can exchange for goods and service, rather than trying to barter with people to obtain what I need.  It may consist of elaborately carved cowry shells, tiny beads painstakingly stitched to strips of leather, round pieces of metal with the image of guys named Julius or Claudius hammered into them, or little pieces of high-quality paper that say “Federal Reserve Note” on them.

But whatever it is, money has certain minimal characteristics.  It must be convertible, i.e., if I do a job for you, I have to be willing to accept it as payment, and whoever I buy bread or clothes from has to be willing to accept it in exchange, too.  It also has to be difficult to replicate, so that when I accept it, I am reasonably assured that it is the genuine article.

Get 'em while they last.

Get 'em while they last.

For nearly all of recorded history “money” has been synonymous with gold or silver.  And right up till the late 18th century, it was more or les the perfect money.  It was intrinsically valuable, in that raw silver or gold was as easily convertible as hammered or minted coins.  It was also practically impossible to counterfeit, the best efforts of alchemist to convert dross into gold notwithstanding.  It was also relatively rare, and it difficult to obtain new supplies of it without intensive–and extremely expensive–mining operations.

Additionally, there simply wasn’t much to buy.  Most people grew their own food, produced their own clothes from flax or wool, and built their own houses by hand.  Money was essentially a luxury, and it bought mainly luxury goods for fat cats.  Kings could raise and equip armies with it.  Merchants could buy nice clothes. But for the most part, money was a tool for use by the rich, and by the relatively few urban dwellers.  And, as such, gold or silver was perfect for that level of economic activity.

By the 19th century, though, there were lots more things to buy, and lots more city dwellers, and that trend was increasing rapidly.  Hard money became…problematic.  The thing about having a hard currency based in gold or silver is that, at the end of the day, whether you run a fully convertible gold standard, or some sort of fractional reserve system, the size of the money supply is always constrained by the amount of gold or silver on hand.

If the economy takes off on a tear, it’s extremely difficult to expand the money supply to meet the demand.  When the supply dries up, the economy just shudders to a quick stop, because nobody has enough spare money to fund more expansion.  So the economy collapses until it reaches equilibrium with the available money supply, and the cycle starts again.  Look at a chart of US economic activity in the 19th century and you see it’s a system of booms and busts, which were far steeper than any we’ve seen since the depression.  So the fundamental problem with a gold standard is that it’s relatively inflexible when used by a vibrant, diverse economy.  When everybody needs gold, and the demand is unpredictable, gold is very difficult to use unless you’re willing to live with severe booms and busts.

The Great Depression was the death knell for the gold-based world economic system.  Those nations that jettisoned gold the fastest, recovered the most.  Of course, WWII intervened in the depression, so it took a decade or so to get back to the business of commerce–as opposed to the business of building things to kill Nazis.   But, by 1944, everyone–on the Allied side, at least–had recovered enough breathing room to meet at Bretton Woods, NH, and hammer out a new economic system.

What they came up with was a system of fiat currencies, all freely convertible in the FOREX market.

Now, governments could adjust their money supplies appropriately by printing more money or less of it, and taxing their populations more leniently or more severely, as needed.  This is the system most of us have grown up with…and it’s dying.

It’s dying because of something innate in human nature that the gold standard was better equipped to deal with:  the urge to loot the system.

It’s an urge that has always been there.  Sometimes it has been the result of intentional government action to cheapen the currency.  If you were, say, the king of Persia, you didn’t need to consult the priests of Ahura Mazda to know that if you changed from using 10 grams of gold per coin, to using only 9 grams per coin, you could stretch your gold supply by 10%.  You could then take the extra gold, and buy yourself a nice hat.  Or use the extra gold to make one.  Whatever.

Of course, people would notice this pretty quickly, and items that used to cost 9 gold pieces would cost 10 pieces–inflation!–but because gold had an intrinsic value, the same weight of gold could be exchanged.  It was still pernicious, of course, but because gold had an intrinsic value–and because the supply of gold was relatively inflexible–it wasn’t usually seriously pernicious.

Sometimes, the urge to loot the system has been done by private individuals, who figured out that if they shaved a bit off the edges of their gold pieces, they could accrue enough gold shavings to buy themselves a nice hat, too.  This, by the way, is why when we began minting coins instead of hammering them out. They were minted with milled edges, making shaving attempts immediately obvious.

By the 19th century, the looting attempts became widespread, populist movements, like the “Free Silver” movement.  At the time, gold was real money.  If you took a bunch of gold to a Minting facility, the mint would return you an equal weight in gold coins–minus a nominal minting fee.  After huge silver deposits were discovered at places like the Comstock Lode, populist agitation began for minting silver in the same way, at a ratio of 20 ounces of silver for 1 ounce of gold.  The massive amount of silver floating around would, of course, have made this an extremely inflationary policy, and the farming and borrowing interests would have benefited by paying off bills for less than they had borrowed…enabling themselves to use the extra saving to buy a nice hat.

But during the First Age of Money, the looting was always constrained by the fact that gold had an intrinsic value, and that the supply of gold was inelastic.  There were, therefore built-in constraints to the looting impulse.

When the Bretton Woods Agreement launched the Second Age of Money, it solved the problem of the inelasticity of the money supply, and enabled monetary authorities to fine-tune the money supply in response to economic activity.  That was a good thing in the sense that it flattened–although did not eliminate–the business cycle fluctuations.

But the bad thing was that it completely removed any physical restraint on the money supply.  It depended on governments and monetary authorities to exercise self-restraint, rather than impersonal, externally imposed constraints.  The result has been 65 years of continually expanding credit, more or less constant inflation to a greater or lesser degree, and unrestrained spending and borrowing.

Governments–and their democratic (small “d”) constituencies quickly learned that they could loot the system.  Social insurance, medical care, military expansion…whatever the Big Idea of the minute was, we could have it.  And if we didn’t want to pay the taxes to the government to pay for it–and, mostly, we didn’t–we could simply borrow it.  We could obtain a whole bunch of little green pieces of paper now in exchange for a promise we’d pay back more little green pieces of paper sometime in the future.  In the meantime, we could buy all the hats we wanted!

But now, we are obligated to pay back various people about fifty trillion pieces of green paper.  Unfortunately, the entire household worth of everyone in the country is worth about forty trillion pieces of green paper.

How can the current economic and financial system possibly be considered solvent at this point?  How will re-expanding the cycle of debt re-invigorate it?

No, we’ve had our fun.  We got to loot the system for 65 years.  Now, the hat bill is coming due.

I suspect we’ll pay the hat bill the same way that Germany repaid their war reparations debt after WWI.  “Hey, you remember that reparations bill for 3 billion marks that we’re supposed to pay next week?  Yeah.  I just wanted to let you know that we’ve sent that order off to the printers, this week, and we should have that printed up for you by Tuesday.”

The result was massive hyperinflation, the collapse of credit, and 5 years of compete economic stagnation, serious economic pain, severe unemployment…and the ability to start over in the mid-20s with a clean balance sheet.  Clean enough, in fact, that by 1936 Germany had more or less completely emerged from the Great Depression, while the employment rate in the United States hovered at around 18%.

What Pres. Obama is proposing may result in nothing more than additional spending that helps bring about the collapse of the Post-WWII economic regime, while at the same time providing–temporarily–a social safety net that will provide some help as we pass through a difficult transitional period.

“I was there at the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind…”

OK.  Maybe it’s not that grandiose, but I think we are seeing the dawn of the Third Age of Money.

No one in the government realizes how the economic world is changing.  So their proposed solutions are likely to be exposed over time as ineffective and, perhaps even counter-productive.  The credibility of governments around the world is now invested in staving off an economic collapse.   When their failures become evident, and their “solutions” are exposed as fantasies, that credibility will collapse.  Who will want to buy government bonds, or use worthless government money?  Who will trust the governments who lead us into the economic abyss?

Unfortunately, rather that realizing that we are entering a transition, and trying to discover how to shepherd us through that transition, they are invested in preserving the dying system of government-regulated money supply and credit.  And even if they realized that we were in a transitional period, they would still do nothing about it because it would require voluntarily releasing their power over the economy.

Governments have always been in charge of money; determining what money is, how it will be exchanged, how new money will be created, etc.  In part, this is traditional, in that only government had the resources and ability to fund and oversee mining and exploration activities, regulate what legal tender consisted of, and all of the other monetary functions.  There simply were no other large organizations in existence to perform those tasks.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that organizations began to emerge that could begin performing those tasks, and not until the 18th century that it became practical.  Private money of various types began to sprout up everywhere.  18th-century America was, for a time, replete every decent-sized bank issuing its own currency based on deposits.

Eventually, the Federal government cracked down on that private money, not so much from jealousy of the government’s role as the issuer of currency, but because private banks suffered from the same tendency to loot the system, issuing more and more inflated currency until it was worthless, and they ended up wiping out their depositors in the collapse as their obligations came due.  There were some solid money banks of course, but the spectacular failures of so many private currency attempts led the government to tax them so heavily that private currency issuance became uneconomic. Governments may not have been perfect, but the constraints of the gold system meant that they didn’t fail as completely and spectacularly as private banks did.

What was missing in private currency of the time, and what has been missing in the current post-WWII financial system is feedback.  Yes, there is some, but it takes a long time to filter into the monetary authority, and is derived indirectly from statistics on economic activity, rather than by any sort of direct observation.  The Fed raises interest rates today, for instance, and it takes around eight months to observe the indirect effects of the monetary policy change.   This is why the role of the Fed, has often been described as steering a car by looking through the rear-view mirror.  Based on seeing where you’ve been, you make decisions about where you must go.  That may be a form a feedback, but it is so separated in time from the inputs that it’s an inherently unstable system.

By the same token, what killed depositors in banks that issued private money was a lack of feedback.  It wasn’t possible to see that bankers were looting the system in time to withdraw your money.

We call this lack of feedback asymmetrical information.  We’ve never been able to even approach the ability to have full information about what a bank or government is doing that may affect the money supply, or economic activity as a whole.  We’ve never been able to see all sides of the story, as it were.  So, we’ve had to more or less leave it in the hands of government, simply because governments have been the only organizations with the size and scope to reduce, even partially, the problem of feedback.

So, it seems pretty hopeless, doesn’t it?  The financial world we’ve grown up with is collapsing under the sheer weight of looting.  If governments can’t do it, and a return to the gold standard can’t do it, then where are we?  At the edge of another dark age?

Not quite.

I foresee the rise of private money once again, and returning in such force as to negate the government’s role in the economy.  In fact, the pieces for creating the Third Age of Money are already there.

Your new ATM

Your new ATM

The Internet will be the platform for the new money.  But it’s just the platform; the communications media.  The actual objects that make up the Third Age of Money will almost be located in cyberspace.

First, there is encryption.  In the not-too-distant future, you will go online with a persona, i.e., an online identity with a unique, highly encrypted digital signature.  No more logging in with different user names and passwords at 100 different web sites.  Your persona will be uniquely identified as you through the use of 4096-bit or 8192-bit public key encryption.  Your persona will be impossible to forge or duplicate.  It will be unique.  Your “bank” and your “money” will be similarly encrypted.

Second, is your ATM/debit card.  It won’t be exactly the same, of course.  It will be far more secure, probably through the use of biological identification systems to verify authorization, such as retinal scans.  It will be linked directly to your persona’s bank account.

Third, is the ability of all the major banks and credit card companies to do online transactions, and to convert one system of private money to another at a publicly known exchange rate.  So, you can pay directly to your account–or withdraw from it–in Discover Dollars, or MasterBucks, or Credit Suisse Francs.  Or perhaps there might even be a universally acknowledged unit of currency–the “Credit”–that all the private companies agree to use.

But, the most important element of creating a reliable private money system that is resistant to looting the system is feedback. The reduction of asymmetrical information.  And that exists, too.  eBay has been using it for years.  Indeed, in no small way, the system implemented by eBay may be a key element of our future.

Imagine a system where, every time I do business with your persona, I rate your reliability, and it doesn’t matter of the persona is an individual or a bank…or a government.  Every day, millions of people who do transactions in MasterCard can rate the reliability and value of the MasterBucks system.  Private companies like Standard and Poors or Moody’s would not only rate MasterBucks, but consumers would rate the reliability of S&P or Moody’s judgments.

And not only are the bank’s persona’s being rated, but your persona is as well, by every one who does business with it.

Put them all together and you have a secure form of private money that’s convertible, impossible to forge, and is subject to constant feedback about its value and performance.  Does MasterBucks have too high a debt ratio or too much exposure to non-performing loans at MasterCard?  No problem.  It’s instantly convertible to Credit Suisse Franks.  And the conversion rate lowers MasterBucks reliability ratings even more, signaling the company to correct its course, or lose its depositors.

Think of the implications this has for taxation, especially income taxation.  Keep all your money in Credit Suisse Francs, say, and the US government will never even be able to see a record of your deposits or withdrawals.  How will they track your income?  And who will want to pay governments that failed to prevent the collapse for…well…anything?  Who will accede to the demand for money by governments that repudiated their debts, and destroyed the life savings of millions?

I can foresee huge implications for the future that are very pro-liberty.  In the long term.  In the short term, though, if I’m right, and the current financial system is collapsing we will be in for a very rough decade or so.  Very rough indeed.

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*Apologies to Quentin Tarantino.