Posts tagged with: credit

AHB with tank.jpgThe Great War began 100 years ago last week.

From an economic perspective (from Pulitzer Prize economist Liaquat Ahamed) the European nations paid for WWI not with taxes, but with massive debts financed largely by America. The warring nations could not pay their way out of debt so many resorted to the easier route: inflation. But that inflation destroyed the savings of the middle class and that did not make European nations more stable.

Germany finally defaulted on its war debts after the 1929 crash. The international financial system also collapsed. Of course, German people listened to Hitler’s ideas about blame and solutions, while France, half destroyed by the war, looked at Germany (where few battles were fought) and wanted the Germans to pay for that destruction. The Depression made each nation more economically isolated which added to the misery as trade shrank. Europe was ripe for WWII.

WWI could be taken as a lesson on the perils of excessive debt. Governments have discovered three nasty advantages:

  1. They can borrow beyond emergencies (war) to pay for anything.
  2. Government pensions (more debt) are excellent ways to buy votes with the vague idea that ‘future growth’ or ‘future generations’ will easily cover the massive pension obligations.
  3. Governments have more recently seen that they can lower interest rates and ‘print money’ without being held accountable as they will be bailed out by other countries through central banks which will do, as Mario Draghi famously said, “whatever it takes.” These financial gimmicks look like serious plans because the men wear suits and because their ideas work, at least until the office holders retire.

However, as with WWI debt and the Crash of 1929, a severe crisis will come and prove that these leaders (while possibly not as incompetent or corrupt as the political leaders of Detroit) were wrong.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Most commentators, apart from Virginia Postrel and the like, seem to think that it would be tragic for the city of Detroit to lose the art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in the city’s bankruptcy proceedings. I agree that liquidating or “monetizing” the collection and shipping the works off to parts unknown like the spare pieces on a totaled car would be tragic.

Diego Rivera - Detroit Industry MuralsBut at the same time, there’s something about the relationship between the DIA collection and the city government (not to be confused with the people of the city itself) that would seem to warrant the city government’s loss of this asset. When you are a bad steward, even what little you have will be taken from you.

Now one could argue about the details of the DIA’s day-to-day operations, the compensation package for its director, and so on. But apart from these details of stewardship of the DIA itself, the real object lesson in bad stewardship has to do with the city government. Rife with structural corruption, cronyism, and incompetence, the city has been unable to provide the basic services and protection that it is responsible for, despite the best efforts of so many individuals working within the city government. So when the city cannot do the primary things it needs to do, it should lose the privilege of overseeing the secondary things, at the very least until it proves itself to be a responsible steward.
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noun_project_19538As the US federal government sidled up to the debt ceiling earlier this week without quite running into it, one of the key arguments in favor of raising the debt ceiling was that it is immoral to breach a contract. The federal government has creditors, both from whom it has borrowed money and to whom it has promised transfer payments, and it has an obligation to fulfill those promises.

As Joe Carter argued here, “Member of Congress who are refusing to raise the debt ceiling (or raise taxes) until their ancillary demands are met are acting immorally, since they are refusing to pay the debts they themselves authorized.”

But as Connie Cass writes, the idea that the United States has never defaulted isn’t quite true. As she writes,

America has briefly stiffed some of its creditors on at least two occasions.

Once, the young nation had a dramatic excuse: The Treasury was empty, the White House and Capitol were charred ruins, even the troops fighting the War of 1812 weren’t getting paid.

A second time, in 1979, was a back-office glitch that ended up costing taxpayers billions of dollars. The Treasury Department blamed the mishap on a crush of paperwork partly caused by lawmakers who — this will sound familiar — bickered too long before raising the nation’s debt limit.

So if it is immoral to default, then America has done so at least twice.
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Blog author: johnteevan
posted by on Monday, October 7, 2013
Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver via Compfight cc

This first appeared in my newsletter, Economic Prospect, in late 2008. Looking back after five years I still like it.

The American failure to save is matched by our insistence on spending to have it all. One part of the problem is the consumer’s love of debt. The other part is the government’s love of debt. Both love debt to enjoy things now and to put off the day of reckoning. How did we get so far from the idea of being content with having enough food, clothing, and shelter?

  1. This is a complex issue based at first in ‘scarcity’ which leads people to create products to fill real needs. When these products are produced people have jobs and can afford more products. Say’s Law says that production creates its own demand.
  2. There comes a point where we move beyond some invisible line and marketing takes over to create imagined needs in people. These needs are filled by more products creating more jobs. This happened after WW2 and made us very prosperous.
  3. Then there is a third stage when the credit industry takes over and tries to convince people to borrow not just for houses or cars (durables) but for anything to enhance their way of life. This started in the 1970s. Consumer debt is $2 trillion but this kind of borrowing creates still more jobs at least for as long as the party lasts.

But the day of reckoning has arrived. Will we get the point and change our behavior? Apparently not. First, the government sold bonds, then raided the trust funds (Social Security), then we borrow to stimulate the economy…then we just borrow without limit.

If Americans are not saving, who will loan us all this money? The answer is the Chinese and Asians who are amazing savers. They will loan us the money. China already owns nearly $2 trillion in U.S. government bonds. This is not a small issue.

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At the height of the housing crisis, it was estimated that 11 million homes in America were mortgaged for more than they were worth. That debt crisis may soon be dwarfed—if it hasn’t been already—by the student loan debt problem:

With college enrollment growing, student debt has stretched to a record number of U.S. households — nearly 1 in 5 — with the biggest burdens falling on the young and poor.

The analysis by the Pew Research Center found that 22.4 million households, or 19 percent, had college debt in 2010. That is double the share in 1989, and up from 15 percent in 2007, just prior to the recession — representing the biggest three-year increase in student debt in more than two decades.

Unlike an negative equity mortgage, student load debt is not dischargeable in a bankruptcy. It’s also non-transferable—the college degree that was “bought” with the debt cannot be sold or traded. That makes degrees that are not “marketable” or that were acquired for reasons of personal growth an expensive luxury good.

Obviously many people (including me, with some qualifications) believe that the value of obtaining a liberal education is worth taking on debt. But what about graduates who will receive neither a life-broadening education nor a vocationally useful skill-set from getting a college degree? Should we continue to encourage them to take on debt to pay for higher education?

In Crisis Magazine, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg has a new article that looks at how Catholics reflect on a wide range of financial questions ranging from the federal government’s fiscal woes to consumer debt to a fragile banking system.

Today one looks in vain for Catholic thinkers studying our debt and deficit problems from standpoints equally well-informed by economics and sound Catholic moral reflection. We don’t, for instance, hear many Catholic voices speaking publically about the moral virtues essential for the management of finances such as prudent risk-taking, thrift, promise-keeping, and assuming responsibility for our debts — private or public.

Instead, one finds broad admonitions such as “put the interests of the poor first” in an age of budget-cutting. The desire to watch out for the poor’s well being in an environment of fiscal restraint is laudable. But that’s not a reason to remain silent about the often morally-questionable choices and policies that helped create our personal and public debt dilemmas in the first place.

One Catholic who has proved willing to engage these issues is none other than Pope Benedict XVI. In his 2010 interview book Light of the World, Benedict pointed to a deeper moral disorder associated with the running-up of high levels of private and public debt. The willingness on the part of many people and governments to do so means, Benedict wrote, “we are living at the expense of future generations.”

In other words, someone has to pay for all this debt. And clearly many Western Europeans and Americans seem quite happy for their children to pick up the bill. That’s a rather flagrant violation of intergenerational solidarity.

Read “Debt, Finance, and Catholics” on the Crisis Magazine website.

Last night Gideon Strauss of the Center for Public Justice was generous enough to join us for a public discussion of the recently-released document, “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal for the American Debt Crisis.” This document has occasioned a good deal of reflection here at the PowerBlog, and Gideon took the time to engage this reflection, introducing the context of the Call and answering questions about it. Gideon got to chide me for not signing the document and I got to elaborate a bit on why I have chosen not to affix my imprimatur.

We recorded the event and hope to have the discussion, including some lively Q&A from the audience, up on the site early next week. Meanwhile, this week’s edition of Capital Commentary features a series of short reflections on the Call, from both signers and non-signers. My summary statement is included:

NO: While I praise the Call for its effort to bring the moral aspects of the public debt crisis facing America to broader attention, I have not signed on for reasons of both principle and prudence. With regard to principle, I find no coherent framework contained in or entailed by the Call for judging what the federal government’s primary responsibilities are, whether with respect to national defense, criminal justice, infrastructure, foreign relations, entitlements, or other social programs. The Call moves too easily and quickly from God’s clear concern for the poor to endorse particular federal governmental responsibilities. This gives the clear impression that direct federal assistance to the poor is somehow divinely mandated, an impression that does not do justice to the responsibilities of other social institutions, particularly the church. On the prudential level the Call does not make the case strongly enough that various entitlement programs are the core of the budget dilemma, and signers of the document are construing it in ways that are mutually exclusive. We are in a situation where difficult choices need to be made about governmental spending, and the Call does not provide a principled or prudentially helpful framework for making these tough decisions.

—Jordan J. Ballor is a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama commented that “even though banks on Wall Street are lending again, they’re mostly lending to bigger companies. Financing remains difficult for small-business owners across the country, even though they’re making a profit.”

He then offered some of our tax dollars to help: “So tonight, I’m proposing that we take $30 billion of the money Wall Street banks have repaid and use it to help community banks give small businesses the credit they need to stay afloat.”

The irony is that our government helped create this problem in the first place, both Republicans and Democrats. By repeatedly bailing out big corporations, Washington signaled the markets that it will protect “too-big-to-fail” companies if they should falter. So is it any surprise that big companies are attracting the lion’s share of the available credit?

What else has the government done to help? Well, it’s gobbling up an obscene portion of the world’s available credit by borrowing unheard of amounts of money. And by holding interest rates artificially low, it’s preventing the price function from coordinating the supply and demand of credit.

With help like this from the federal government, it’s a wonder there’s any credit left over for small businesses.

Memo to documentary filmmaker Michael Moore: Free markets didn’t cause the financial crisis. The biggest culprits were government planners meddling with the market. That’s the message of Acton’s newest video short.



So why on earth is Michael Moore (Capitalism: A Love Story, Sicko) so eager to route even more power and money through Washington? Centralized planning is economic poison. Doubling down isn’t the cure.

(Also, Acton’s resource page on the economic crisis is here.)