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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Private Financial Interests in the Public Square: Crowding Out by Design

Is the typical American self-centered and greedy, or is there a civic-mindedness that yearns to bracket one's own interests?  In other words, is there more to American society than being the sum of the parts? Is there something more than the aggregate?  I don’t mean to criticize individualism here; creativity and liberty, for example, are individualistic traits that highlight a person's character and virtue. Nor do I mean to point to one of the two major parties. One could point to the democrats protecting unions at the expense of a free market for labor just as one could point to rich republicans holding tax cuts hostage unless they are included even though they could afford higher taxes.  If there is something more to American politics than asserting one's own interests, who is to represent the civic component?

The full essay is at "Private Financial Interests."

Monday, February 14, 2011

The EU and the US as Commensurate (albeit not twins)

Are the E.U. and U.S. commensurate? The conventional "wisdom" says no, but are most people, including most European leaders, missing something that in retrospect may be considered rather obvious? 

The full essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.

Twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell: Vor zwanzige Jahre ist die Mauer gefallen

It was a gray rainy Monday in Berlin, yet the sun was shining for those in Europe who are celebrating the fall of the iron curtain.   Twenty years ago from that day, it would have seemed surreal to the east Germans who could suddenly simply walk across a border without fear of being shot.  People simply walked through.  “I just wanted to set foot on your side,” one man said.  “Can I cross over there and visit my parents?” a woman asked.  The east German police could only say, “go ahead.”  There would be no criminal penalties.  Before long, people climbed the wall and started chiseling away.  “The wall has to go,” they cried, “sie ist zu ende.”
A state the size of Montana in the EU, the united Germany is today a positive force in Europe.  The fears that gave rise to the European Coal and Steel Cooperative are no longer extant.  To be sure, the existence of the EU renders Germany less a potential threat to its neighbors.  However, Germany is playing a far more positive role in European politics than simply being contained.  In fact, Germany is among the states that have been most supportive of the EU, both monetarily and in terms of supporting further political integration.   The lessons of war are not lost on the descendents of those Germans who lost two wars in the twentieth century. The lesson is: a federal union in Europe is the best chance to obviate future war.  The seventeenth century alone demonstrates just how much strife can occupy a century. 

The problem is perhaps how to give the European Union enough power to prevent war while not giving the union so much power that it can tyrannize over what is innately a heterogenious empire-scale continent.  The United States face the same problem, though that union is much closer to the consolidation end than to dissolution.   As much as Europeans may fear consolidation, justifiably looking at American history as evincing such a trajectory, I believe that the illusion that the EU is simply an alliance (in spite of having a supreme court, parliament, and executive branch) ought to be feared just as much.   The former east Germans ought to know the decadence in propaganda.   To be sure, the denial in the US of the empire-level consolidation is just as dangerous.  Both refusals to come to terms with how each of these unions has changed is like refusing to remove one’s blinders before driving.   In both federal unions, a realistic assessment is requisite to reforming the governance structures to achieve a balance of power between the unions and their state governments.   Common action, such as to forestall war and regulate interstate commerce, and cultural and ideological distinctiveness can each be accommodated; in fact, each can serve as a check on the other, such that neither one can snuff out the other.   Surely one of the lessons learned by the east Germans was that concentrations of power ought to be suspect, given human nature.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Integrity in the Job-Description of a US Senator: The Role of the Senate's Design and Purposes

Micheal Bennet, who represented Colorado as a U.S. Senator, told a journalist in 2009 that the possibility of losing his seat  in 2010 should not hold him back from voting for health-care reform even if it were unpopular in Colorado.   Voting in line with the best interests of his fellow citizens would evince a degree of political integrity that I suspect few in the biz have today. However, might a representative be wrong and his or her constituents right about the long term best interest? Is a U.S. senator necessarily smarter or more capable of insight? Lest Bennet be criticized here for failing to have represented his constituents, one might take a look back at Madison’s Notes to the constitutional convention. 

The complete essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.

U.S. Government Debt: On the Pathology of Living Beyond Our Means

Fourteen times a thousand times a billion.  Such a number can only be known abstractly to the human mind.  A person is not apt to see 14 trillion widgets and thus fully realize how many that number signifies.  Just in an abstract sense, however, the number can be understood represent debt that is beyond sustainability.   If not, then exactly how much signifies the threshold over which any additional debt will never be paid back? At the beginning of 2011, the U.S. Government's debt was at about $14 trillion.

Consider the following from The New York Times when the debt figure was just $12 billionin 2009. “With the national debt now topping $12 trillion, the White House estimates that the government’s tab for servicing the debt will exceed $700 billion a year in 2019, up from $202 billion this year, even if annual budget deficits shrink drastically. Other forecasters say the figure could be much higher. In concrete terms, an additional $500 billion a year in interest expense would total more than the combined federal budgets this year for education, energy, homeland security and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” As much as the interest expense is expected to be (and the implied difficulty in paying down the debt, let alone covering its interest expense, it may be even harder before long.  According to The New York Times, “Americans now have to climb out of two deep holes: as debt-loaded consumers, whose personal wealth sank along with housing and stock prices; and as taxpayers, whose government debt has almost doubled in the last two years alone, just as costs tied to benefits for retiring baby boomers are set to explode.”

While the deficit-spending is perfectly understandable in the context of a financial crisis and otherwise likely economic depression, such spending has hardly been saved for such times.  In fact, it has been part of “normal” US Government budgeting.  What the newspaper doesn’t mention is that even in the late 1990’s when the government was running surpluses and the economy was booming, only part of the surfeit was used to reduce the government’s debt.  At the time, Bill Clinton’s administration used the “rationale” that the boom that had been going on since the mid-1980s would go on for another fifteen years from the late 90’s.   Even had that forecast been realistic, I’m not sure that all of the government surpluses together could have eliminated the public debt.

In any case, fiscally the US Government has been out of balance for decades.   What might be the cause?  Two candidates come readily to mind.  The American culture is a rather self-consumption-oriented society wherein spending beyond one’s means is not a matter of moral disapprobation.  In other words, the problem may boil down to a “gimme, gimme, gimme” mentality—a lack of maturity, really.  Secondly (and relatedly), representative democracy itself may itself favor spending over taxation to cover it.  Any normative constraint that might operate at the individual level may not exist at the institutional level where representatives are effectively rewarded for bringing home the bacon and punished for raising taxes.  Although it could be argue that the representatives should be more responsible nonetheless (as their goal ought not be simply to be reelected), we can point to ourselves, the American citizens, as the force behind the unsustainable fiscal situation.  We don’t have to endure incumbants who have spent in deficits, but we do.  The US House incumbancy rate almost guarantees that once someone is elected, he or she can be virtually assured of being re-elected in two years, und so weiter.    The problem, in other words, lies within us.  Too few of us value self-discipline in ourselves.  We are unwilling to call other people on their profligate credit-card spending, and we refuse to vote out of office those representatives who have voted outside of a financial crisis for an unbalanced budget.  Consider how different a people we would be were to insist at the ballot box that our representatives actually make a contribution to paying down some of the debt (again, not during a financial crisis) each year during their terms.  How different we would be if we held our officials accountable for more than scandal.   How different we would be if we “just said no” to the credit card companies and went without the plastic (using debit cards that could be used only on positive balances and having a savings account for emergencies).  If we look at the US Government as unsustainable, what we are really saying is that we, ourselves, are fundamentally flawed as concerning being adults.  The problem, in other words, transcends finance and politics.  We are living beyond our means.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/23/business/23rates.html?_r=1&hp

Bankers Writing Financial Reform Law: A Case of the Wolves Designing the Chicken Coop

The financial reform bill approved in December, 2009 by the US House of Representatives proposed to regulate the financial industry and keep firms from growing “too big to fail.” The bill can be likened to a ship made of Swiss cheeze, yet seemingly seaworthy. A key intention of the bill was to gain control over the vast market in “over the counter” derivatives by forcing trading onto open exchanges, where regulators can monitor it. Unregulated derivatives were behind much of the havoc that nearly brought down the financial system in 2008, including the subprime-mortgage-backed securities that put many firms underwater and the credit default swaps sold by AIG, the giant insurance company that sucked up about $180 billion in bailout money. The $592 trillion global market in these mostly unmonitored derivatives remained in 2009 among the most profitable businesses for the biggest banks—Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley—and Wall Street doesn’t want Washington tampering with it. Early versions of Frank’s bill allowed many derivatives to continue trading off exchanges. The bill, Frank wrote, “could be subject to manipulation” by “clever financial firms” seeking to evade a requirement that they trade derivatives on open exchanges.

The full essay is at "Bankers Writing Financial Reform Law."

TARP and Foreclosures: A Matter of Misplaced Priorities

Neil Kashkari wrote up the U.S. Treasury department’s Break the Glass Bank Recapitalization Plan in April, 2008—months before the financial crisis—as a “just in case.” It was essentially the TARP program.  Karshkari states in his plan that governmental purchases of toxic mortgage-based assets would do “nothing to help homeowners without [there being] a complimentary program.” He notes that should there be a crisis, “there would be enormous political pressure” for relief going to homeowners in trouble.  Considering the noted downside to his plan, he may have viewed any such pressure from “the masses” as a problem to be ignored rather than even assuaged.  He also admits in his plan that it would provide “no guarantee banks [would] resume lending.”  It is odd that his was made explicit yet not dealt with.  He does gloss an alternative option (C) that would involve refinancing the troubled mortgages, though he assumes a (needlessly cumbersome) case by case basis and that the servicers would determine which loans to put into the program.  The culprits could opt out to insist on the higher payments. In other words, Kashkari was assuming that the government shouldn’t or couldn’t force the banks to take write-downs.  As a former Goldman Sachs man himself (like his boss at the time, Henry Paulson), Kashkari probably didn’t want to propose anything that the bankers wouldn’t view as being in their interest.

The full essay is at "TARP and Foreclosures."