Questions and Observations

Free Markets, Free People

Unemployment officially remains steady

As I expected, the official unemployment numbers showed little change from last month. The big spikes in private-sector unemployment came at the end of September. The government’s statistical collection period ends in the middle of the month, however, so all of that was missed by the official number. And today’s release is the last one prior to the election.

Still, it can’t be said that this is a good number, with the official rate hovering at 9.6%.

My personal calculation of the unemployment rate, using the historical average of labor force participation, shows the rate of unemployment also holding steady at 13.2%.

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The looming debt crisis

The other day Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, addressed a meeting of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council. During his speech, he did something Fed chairmen don’t usually do. He spoke about US fiscal policy. His words don’t really relay anything most of us don’t really know, but it is the fact that he felt compelled to say them that make them newsworthy. After I read them, I felt his uneasiness and, like many Americans, his frustration that the political leadership doesn’t seem to understand the problem or its urgency.

A few excerpts from his speech:

[I]n the United States, governments at all levels are grappling not only with the near-term effects of economic weakness, but also with the longer-run pressures that will be generated by the need to provide health care and retirement security to an aging population. There is no way around it–meeting these challenges will require policymakers and the public to make some very difficult decisions and to accept some sacrifices. But history makes clear that countries that continually spend beyond their means suffer slower growth in incomes and living standards and are prone to greater economic and financial instability.

Whether you agree or not that government must address health care and “retirement security”, there’s not much to argue with in the highlighted last sentence. This is Econ 101 stuff. This is something Americans running their own households know almost instinctively. The problem – and frustration- is that Americans suppose this point must be just as obvious to their elected leaders, yet with the wild spending continues. While politicians talk about fiscal sanity and pass bills like PAYGO (that they then promptly ignore or make exceptions too), nothing is really being done about the looming economic and financial instability in the debt load brought on by excessive and persistent government spending.

Failing to address our unsustainable fiscal situation exposes our country to serious economic costs and risks. […] In the longer term, a rising level of government debt relative to national income is likely to put upward pressure on interest rates and thus inhibit capital formation, productivity, and economic growth. Larger government deficits increase our reliance on foreign lenders, all else being equal, implying that the share of U.S. national income devoted to paying interest to foreign investors will increase over time. Income paid to foreign investors is not available for domestic consumption or investment. And an increasingly large cost of servicing a growing national debt means that the adjustments, when they come, could be sharp and disruptive. […]

Again, almost everyone recognizes the truth of Bernanke’s words. If you run household, you know that if you amass huge credit card debt you are going to see an increasing amount of your income stream going to service that debt and less of it available for your use. That means less consumption because you are sending that money to a “foreign lender” – the credit card company. That in turn may translate into less of a house than you wanted, a smaller car or no college for the kids. If you run a business you know that increasing the amount of debt you carry and service means an increasing limit to your ability to expand, invest, hire new employees, improve benefits or give raises. At some point, your priorities take second place to the priority of paying back what you owe.

That’s where we’re headed as a country and more quickly than we might want to admit. Most would like to believe that this problem is understood and a high priority for our leaders. But that doesn’t seem to be the case and we see budget projections out 10 years that pile more and more debt on our already staggering economy.

The politicians continue to tell us it is necessary. They assure us that once the crisis passes they’ll address this problem in earnest. But will it then be too late? James Bacon Jr. addressed that recently in the Washington Examiner, discussing the “tipping point” in which the percentage of debt to the GDP hurts economic growth. According to a paper he cites by the World Bank, that assumed tipping point occurs when public debt equals around 77% of the country’s GDP.

Where are we?

According to International Monetary Fund calculations, the U.S. debt/GDP ratio in 2009 was 83.2%, above the tipping point, and will climb to 109.7% by 2015. […] That implies that the U.S. is experiencing a small growth penalty today: about one-tenth of a percentage point yearly. By mid-decade, however, the growth penalty could swell to 0.56% yearly — more than a half percentage point.

Unfortunately there’s no end to deficit spending in sight. Part of that is because politicians in this culture are not rewarded for doing tough and unpopular things. They’re usually turned out of office. And with the rise of career politicians who enjoy the trappings and perks of power and don’t want to give them up, most politicians are risk averse. Their preferred method of dealing with the “difficult decisions” and “sacrifices” Bernanke says need to be made is to kick the can down the road.

The point Bernanke is making is we can no longer afford to do that. Which brings me to the final excerpt from his speech:

Herbert Stein, a wise economist, once said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." One way or the other, fiscal adjustments sufficient to stabilize the federal budget will certainly occur at some point. The only real question is whether these adjustments will take place through a careful and deliberative process that weighs priorities and gives people plenty of time to adjust to changes in government programs or tax policies, or whether the needed fiscal adjustments will be a rapid and painful response to a looming or actual fiscal crisis.

We have a choice right now – but either way, this is going to hurt. We can take charge and attempt a controlled crash landing to try and save as many as we can, or we can fly this problem until it naturally runs out of gas and deal with the consequences then. Unfortunately, it appears the latter choice is likely to be the only choice, given the current fiscal policy of this administration.


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Unemployment Preview

According to Gallup’s private read on unemployment, we currently stand with an unemployment rate of 10.1%. Gallup says:

Unemployment, as measured by Gallup without seasonal adjustment, increased to 10.1% in September — up sharply from 9.3% in August and 8.9% in July. Much of this increase came during the second half of the month — the unemployment rate was 9.4% in mid-September — and therefore is unlikely to be picked up in the government’s unemployment report on Friday.

The government’s final unemployment report before the midterm elections is based on job market conditions around mid-September. Gallup’s modeling of the unemployment rate is consistent with Tuesday’s ADP report of a decline of 39,000 private-sector jobs, and indicates that the government’s national unemployment rate in September will be in the 9.6% to 9.8% range. This is based on Gallup’s mid-September measurements and the continuing decline Gallup is seeing in the U.S. workforce during 2010.

So, when looking at the numbers we have from ADP, showing a 39,000 job loss for the month, plus the sharp spike upward in the last half of September, tomorrow’s unemployment figures from the BLS will miss most of the job losses, and will show a national unemployment rate that is smaller than it truly is.

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Federal Judge: HCR Mandate is Constitutional

U.S. District Court Judge George Steeh has ruled that the individual mandate to purchase health insurance is a constitutional exercise of Congress’ power under the commerce clause.

The plaintiffs have not opted out of the health care services market because, as living, breathing beings, who do not oppose medical services on religious grounds, they cannot opt out of this market…

As inseparable and integral members of the health care services market, plaintiffs have made a choice regarding the method of payment for the services they expect to receive. The government makes the apropos analogy of paying by credit card rather than by check. How participants in the health care services market pay for such services has a documented impact on interstate commerce…

Obviously, this market reality forms the rational basis for Congressional action designed to reduce the number of uninsureds.

The Supreme Court has consistently rejected claims that individuals who choose not to engage in commerce thereby place themselves beyond the reach of the Commerce Clause. See, e.g., Raich, 545 U.S. at 30 (rejecting the argument that plaintiffs’ home-grown marijuana was “entirely separated from the market”); Wickard, 317 U.S. at 127, 128 (home-grown wheat “competes with wheat in commerce” and “may forestall resort to the market”); Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964) (Commerce Clause allows Congress to regulate decisions not to engage in transactions with persons with whom plaintiff did not wish to deal).

The logical extensions of this ruling, if it were to stand, are obvious.  For instance, since everyone inevitably dies, Congress can require you to purchase life insurance, or a pre-paid funeral services.  Similarly, we all eat, wear clothes, etc.

Essentially, this decision gives power the Congress to regulate practically any area of human necessity.

Here’s something I’ve been re-reading a lot, lately:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

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Congress throws fuel on a raging currency war fire

In case you missed it, there’s a currency war going on. It may not be the sexiest thing in the world to talk about, but it is important to understand. Probably the most important thing to understand is, in the midst of all this financial upheaval, it’s not healthy for anyone. In fact that best thing right now would be to back off and let things chill for a bit.

That’s why the US Congress passed a bill calling China a “currency manipulator.” So much for cool heads. Blame it on election year politics and the need to seem to be sticking up for America … even if what you’re really doing is adding more heat to an already ferociously hot situation.

The baseline here is the US believes the Chinese yuan is undervalued by about 25%. And it has been on China’s case for some time to get them to revalue their currency upward. That would make US exports more competitive against China.

But, there’s more to the story than just that.

First thing to know is because of the horrific global financial climate, “Japan, Brazil, Peru and countries all over the world are trying to beggar thy neighbor (just as happened during the 1930s) and gain a leg up for their exports by cheapening their currencies,” according to The Market Oracle. So we have any number of countries trying to boost exports at the expense of their currencies.

You have to then dial it back to June of this year to understand the second part that makes this so complex.  June 19th specifically. Jack Perkowski explains:

That is the day that China, by far the world’s largest currency trader, announced that it would no longer peg the yuan to the U.S. dollar, but would instead peg it to a basket of currencies. What China’s announcement meant in practice is that at the margin, beginning on June 19, China would tilt its purchases in favor of buying assets denominated in the euro, the Japanese yen, the British pound or some other major currency, rather than those denominated in the U.S. dollar. When an investor with $2.5 trillion of buying power makes such a statement, markets tend to listen.

Here is what has happened since.

As of the September month-end, the euro has increased in value by 10.3% against the U.S. dollar since June 19, the pound by 6.3%, and the yen by 7.8%. In fact China’s purchases of yen-denominated securities has heightened trade tensions between Japan and China to the point where the Japanese have complained publicly that China is effectively pricing Japanese products out of the market with its yen purchases, threatening to derail Japan’s economic recovery.

In the broadest measure possible, the United States Dollar Index (“USDX”) has declined by over 9.6% percent since June 19. The USDX measures the value of the US dollar against a basket of currencies that includes the euro, yen, pound, Canadian dollar, Swiss franc and the Swedish krona — exactly the currencies that China is most likely including in its own basket and which are now appreciating as a result. The USDX began in March 1973 with a value of 100.000 and has since traded as high as the mid-160s. At its current level of 78.691, the USDX is approaching its 33-year low of 70.698, which was reached on March 16, 2008.

On the one hand you have countries everywhere trying to cheapen their currencies to sell their exports (China wants theirs to stay right where it is) in order to boost GDP growth. And on the other you have China’s move away from pegging the yuan to the US dollar to pegging it to a basket of other currencies, and driving those currencies higher and making their exports less competitive.

Unpegging from the US dollar has also driven the dollar down relative to those  other currencies but still much higher than the yuan, which has only appreciated 2%.

Back to the point about the bill just passed by Congress. It doesn’t really help:

But the former U.S. trade representative, Susan Schwab, says that – while there’s a very real problem in terms of China artificially keeping the renminbi low, this isn’t the way to solve anything. Schwab calls it "a signal-sending exercise during an election season". She says that the bill won’t really do anything, even if the Senate passes it and it is signed into law. Schwab says it "makes no sense", won’t solve any problems, will escalate tensions, and will only divert attention from the real trade problems between the U.S. and China.

In fact the “election signals” may blow up in our face:

Indeed, Schwab warns that other countries might decide that this U.S. bill means that it’s open season for addressing currency manipulation, and that other countries believe that the U.S. is manipulating our currency. She says there could be a "boomerang effect" from the legislation.

All we’d need now to kill our recovery as weak as it is, is to have a full blown, open season, take no prisoners currency war where the dollar would be weakened even more than it is now. And that’s especially true if the “quantum easing” (printing more money) the Fed has been hinting about is about to take place.

What no one seems to want to admit is now is not the time for any country to be revaluing its currency upward. The US is demanding of China what it wouldn’t do itself.  Until the financial crisis has passed, these demands that China push the value of the yuan up should be on hold. Then, as Zachary Karabell explains, it is in China’s best interest to see the value of the yuan eventually increase:

China has been revaluing its currency, nearly 20% between 2005 and 2008 and now nearly 3% since June when the government resumed that policy having shelved it during the midst of the global financial crisis. It is in the domestic interest of the Chinese government to raise the value of their currency because they are focused on building up on internal, domestic consumption market. They have no wish to be dependent long-term of the vagaries and whims of American consumers, and higher purchasing power for Chinese consumers is the answer. They are not revaluing quickly enough to suit an America stuck in second gear and looking for someone to blame, but revaluing they are.

And there’s the bottom line – the US recovery isn’t going as well as we’d like it and as seems to be the penchant among US politicians, they have to have someone else to blame for the problem.

Solution: throw gas on a raging fire. I sure hope China has cooler heads at the helm.


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Has North Korean succession been settled?

The answer to that question is “probably.”  That’s a step up from “possibly.”  But in the Hermit Kingdom, nothing is really ever certain.

The recent late night announcement by Kim Jong-Il of the promotion of his third son, Kim Jong-un to the rank of general in the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) has removed any lingering doubt as to which of his sons is his chosen successor. The promotion repeats a pattern from the past.  Kim Jong-Il was also promoted to a high post in the NKPA in 1991 by his father, Kim Il Sung, to establish his future claim to the top position in the country.

According to Dr. John Ishiyama, a Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas and expert on North Korea, the sudden rush to establish his third son as his legitimate and chosen heir to power has been accelerated by Kim Jong Il’s deteriorating health.

But, says Ishiyama, there are some other promotions, which have taken place, which are also important to understand and indicate how any succession in the near future might be handled.  Kim Jong-un is in his late 20s and is virtually untried, having had little or no experience to date within North Korea’s power structure.  If Kim Jong-Il were to die soon, he’d be left to fend pretty much for himself.

However Kim Jong-Il has now carefully prepared the way for a sort of “regency” if should die unexpectedly. Kim Jong-un’s consort is a visible part of the top leadership, and in the position of Kim Jong Il’s personal secretary for years, is thought to wield exceptional power. Additionally, Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Soong-taek, considered by some to be an opposition figure, has been reconciled with the family and promoted to the vice-chairmanship of the National Defense Council, solidifying his position in the power structure. Kim Kyon-hui, Jong-un’s aunt and Soong-taek’s wife, is a 4 star general in the NKPA as well as holding a powerful position within the ruling Korean Workers Party.

All of that suggests that the consort, aunt and uncle will form a power clique that will be the actual “power behind the throne”, until Kim Jong-un is deemed to be prepared to take the reins of power himself.

In the meantime, and unlike the careful grooming Kim Jong Il got from his father, Kim Jong-un will be set upon a relative crash course to learn what is necessary for him to survive and thrive in the leadership role his father will leave him. The recent promotion sets him on that path and the other promotions are designed to protect him and enable him to learn the levers of power there.

It won’t be an easy task by any means.

The totalitarian nature of the regime, the poor international standing of the nation, the sanctions imposed by other nations for its role in nuclear proliferation, another bad harvest and the subsequent rumors of starvation all combine to paint an even bleaker future for the country than present. All that can be realistically hoped for at the moment is that when the young Kim Jong-un does take power he will look outward with the aim of reform and rejoining the society of nations instead of looking further inward and remaining on the road to eventual catastrophic ruin.


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Blogrolling Says “Goodbye”

If you use Google Chrome, you may have noticed a horrific security warning that the Blogrolling RPC script is running malware. As of today, you’ll notice that the warning no longer appears. We’ve used Blogrolling for years to generate the links for the Bear Flag League and Old Dominion Blog Alliance. Those Blogrolling links have now been removed.

Tucows, the owner of Blogrolling, has also noticed these problems. Sadly, they’ve decided that it would cost too much to fix the malware and security problems. As a result, Blogrolling will be shut down completely. This is sad, because Blogrolling was really the first useful link aggregator for managing blogrolls. Now, it seems the march of technology has passed it by. I don’t know how blog alliance links will be managed in its absence.

If you are a blogger, and you use Blogrolling, you should be formulating your plans for how you are going to replace it.

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How did Democrats end up in this situation? Lack of leadership at the top

Gloria Borger, although she apparently doesn’t know it, has described why Obama and the Democrats are looking at the distinct possibility of an electoral avalanche that will sweep them out of the majority in the House in November.  As Borger notes, when Obama took office, it seemed it was a Democratic majority built to last for years.  Now “years” is down to “two”.

She points to one reason that is typical of any politician who wins an election – they read more into their win than is actually there:

Obama was elected as the corrective to the Bush years. Yet when you’re the winner, the temptation is always there to see yourself as something more than just an alternative — something larger, like a paradigm-changer or a transformational political figure. And Obama wanted nothing less than a change from conservatism to his own brand of 21st century activism.

"When you win an election," says political scientist Bill Galston, "you are always inclined to believe you won for the reasons you wanted to win."

In other words, you believe you won for the big stuff, not just because the voters didn’t like the other guy.

Watching Obama’s fading approval numbers and the ever increasing resistance to his agenda, it becomes clear that it was mostly about ‘the other guy’.

But there’s a larger point to be made as to why Obama and the Democrats are in the electoral shape they enjoy today:

Think back to the beginning. There’s an economic crisis, which the public believes Obama inherited. Then there’s his bucket-list of things he wants to get done. He has a choice: Handle the crisis or do the campaign to-do list.

And what does Obama decide? To do both. That is, the economy plus the rest of it — including health care.

"The irony is he didn’t even run on health care," says one Democratic pollster. "In truth, it wasn’t a large part of the general election campaign."

Interesting point.  “He didn’t even run on health care”.  Well he mentioned it, but it wasn’t his signature campaign issue.  But it sure was Nancy Pelosi and the liberal caucus’s number one priority – a wet dream they’d had all their lives.  And so while the economy was melting down and should have been the single dominant issued for the White House (and Congress), Obama allowed himself to be seduced into using all his political capital for something that wasn’t that important to the American people.

Borger attempts to make excuses for Obama that simply don’t ring true and certainly don’t pass the smell test:

Obama became convinced that solving the health care mess was key to solving the nation’s economic problems, especially bringing the deficit under control. In fact, when he first spoke of the importance of health care reform, it was all about "bending the cost curve," a slogan lost on most of the public.

BS.  Any sane person, with even a cursory understanding of economics, knew that the program outlined in the monstrosity that has since become known as ObamaCare had as much of a chance of “bending the cost curve” down as Togo becoming the first nation in the world to land a man on Mars.  Obama’s agenda was hijacked by Pelosi, et al, and he refused to stand up to them and say, “no – it’s the economy stupid”.

Democrats instead quickly passed an ineffective trillion dollar pork laden stimulus bill guaranteed to keep unemployment under 8% (or so they claimed) and then essentially turned away from the nation’s most pressing problem – other than to occasionally give it lip service – to their pet project, health care “reform”.

Borger claims it was Obama’s “ambitious agenda” that did him in and that the agenda “fed into the GOP narrative”.  Unfortunately, at the point this was done, the GOP had no narrative.   They were in a state of disarray and both powerless and voiceless. 

No, the “voice” came out of townhalls.  The “voice” showed up at “Tea Parties”.  The “voice” expressed anger and frustration.

And what the “voice” was saying and continues to say is Obama and the Democrats made the wrong choice when they chose health care reform over working on the economy.

Nothing’s really changed either.  Most of it – the position Democrats are now in – isn’t a result of any GOP narrative.  It isn’t even necessarily because of the bad economy.  It is a result of a poor leader caving into a special interest caucus within his party and putting that caucus’s priorities in front of the people’s priority.

Pretending it was anything else is simply nonsense.  Democrats are facing an electoral avalanche in November because Obama let Pelosi and Reid usurp the leadership role that was his.  And now they get to pay the butcher’s bill.


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The political class – how did we end up with these people?

Any political junkie worth his salt has at some time or another looked around at the wreckage that was once a proud country and asked, “how in the world did we get here”?

Simple – we allowed a malignant political class to arise and we, for some reason, chose to allow them to handle our affairs of state without close monitoring that is the job of any responsible citizenry.  The bottom line is we’ve been badly represented by that political class and we’re getting very close to “paying the piper” time.

So how did we get here?  Well I’ve been of the opinion that the perks and power that today’s politics promise are so heady and attractive that they draw a particular type person to pursue such positions.   Maybe not as much at local levels, but certainly at state and most definitely at a national level.  And for the most part this personality type is not who we want in those positions.

At one time, holding office was seen as a public duty, a service and temporary in nature.  A person served their time, did their duty – usually at a loss earnings-wise – and then went back to their former life.

Not anymore.  Now we have the Bill Clinton-type personalities whose entire focus in life is to become a politician.  It isn’t about duty or service anymore, it’s about a career and the trappings of power that go with it.  Couple that with a belief that they know better than you what your priorities and responsibilities in life should be and how you should live it, and we end up where we are today.

When the priority changes from being about service to being about a career, the incentives change as well.  Under the first scenario, a politician would consider it his or her duty to be a careful steward and do the people’s business with an understanding that his decisions will effect him and his family too.  He’d also have an incentive, then, to face difficult problems and solve them quickly before they get out of hand.  He’d also be less inclined to worry about the “political” effect of tough decisions since he had no designs on staying in the position of power any longer than necessary to fulfill his obligation to serve.

However, when the focus is on a career in politics, then the focus is decidedly not on the people’s business, but instead on that person’s business – their career.  And maintaining that career and lifestyle and the power that comes with it becomes the first and dominant priority.

Those wishing to get elected and stay elected must be prepared to break every moral rule they have ever known if the ends justify it. Economist Frank Knight notes that those in authority, "would have to do these things whether they wanted to or not: and the probability of the people in power being individuals who would dislike the possession and exercise of power is on a level with the probability that an extremely tender-hearted person would get the job of whipping master in a slave plantation."

That paragraph describes, with exceptions, the dominant political class in charge of our country’s politics today.  It also helps explain why they’re so out of touch with the rest of the country.  Their focus is inward, their constituency is within the party and the beltway, not the populace and they attempt to keep power by throwing out just enough bones to keep the populist dogs at bay.  They ensure reelection through devious device only open to incumbents known as  “constituent services” which in reality means they offer the only remedy to a situation or law they helped create and propagate to those caught up in its consequences.

In other words, all our politics now are about serving special interests and using those special interests to maintain elected office or advance to higher ones.  The issues themselves are somewhat incidental to the process of maintaining or advancing in office.  If it is useful to that end, then we’ll see politicians blather on about fixing this or doing that. 

For the most part, however, not much really gets done.  Oh some money may be thrown at a ”problem” and some bureaucracy set up or a study done.  But no solution is really ever forthcoming.  Look at how long Medicare and Social Security have been identified as future fiscal black holes.  Show me where anyone – anyone – has seriously addressed the real problems we face with them (and no, ObamaCare doesn’t address the Medicare problem, it instead exacerbates it) and taken steps to solve them?  We’ve seen them talked about endlessly.  We’ve seen accusations fly from one side to the other and back.  But when all is said, nothing is done, and the can is once again kicked down the road while politicians point fingers at everyone but themselves.

Meanwhile, those in power stay in power and the only thing that changes is the amount of money you and your family owe due to their profligacy.

Is it any wonder the Tea Parties have arisen?  My only question, looking back over the years, is why did it take so long?


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