Posts tagged with: debt

I just read the introduction to Amity Shlaes’s forthcoming biography, Coolidge: Debt, Perseverance and the American Ideal. She has been very gracious in taking an interest in the work I have been doing on Coolidge and my recent Acton commentary on the 30th president.

Shlaes was interviewed in the Fall 2007 issue of Religion & Liberty about her book The Forgotten Man. I quickly realized in my own research there is no biography that captures Coolidge’s deep relevancy for today given the mammoth federal debt and the centralization of federal power. Coolidge took limiting federal power and its reach seriously.

Without naming names or titles, many of the Coolidge biographies in print are simply sub par. That will change with the release of her biography and this is a book that needs to be out now. There is no release date set in stone to my knowledge or I would offer it up to readers of the PowerBlog.

In the introduction, it is clear just how well Shlaes understands Coolidge’s leadership on economic issues and his emphasis on thrift. I love that she played off her title The Forgotten Man by calling Coolidge “The Forgotten President.” I’ve certainly noticed in my own talks when I go out and discuss Coolidge that so little is known about him.

In her introduction, Shlaes brilliantly draws out comparisons of Coolidge with George Washington, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, John F. kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan. Some of her insightful comparisons I would never have highlighted on my own. Shlaes is a gifted writer and I foresee this book being very influential with the ability to transform contemporary thinking about our national government.

One of the things that draws me to Coolidge is his appreciation for the past. He was a very modern president who oversaw great technological advances and an America that was modernizing at a rapid pace but he always reminded the people of who they were and the great heritage that gave birth to the American ideal. “If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it,” declared Coolidge.

One of my favorite books is The Word of Life by Thomas C. Oden. In the introduction to that book Oden quotes Henry Vaughan’s “Retreat:”

O How I long to travel back,
and tread against that ancient track! . . .
Some men a forward motion love,
But I by backward steps would move.

If Coolidge had heard those words, which is quite possible, I feel he would have loved them.

Virgil's Aeneas fleeing the sack of Troy with his father on his shoulders and leading his son by the hand.

“Even the conventional everyday morality,” writes Vladimir Solovyov,

demands that a man should hand down to his children not only the goods he has acquired, but also the capacity to work for the further maintenance of their lives. The supreme and unconditional morality also requires that the present generation should leave a two-fold legacy to the next,—in the first place, all the positive acquisitions of the past, all the savings of history; and, secondly, the capacity and the readiness to use this capital for the common good, for a nearer approach to the supreme goal. This is the essential purpose of true education….

According to Solovyov, there is a basic, commonsense morality by which most parents feel an obligation to leave an inheritance to their children and give them the opportunity and know-how to use it. He goes on to argue that this principle ought to be expanded generationally: “the present generation should leave a two-fold legacy to the next,” passing on what it has received and instilling in the next generation the ability and desire to use the heritage of human history for the common good. This, he believes, is the “essential purpose of true education.” As commencement ceremonies are celebrated throughout the country this month, how well, I wonder, do we match up to this standard in the United States today? (more…)

Why do democracies struggle with debt? One reason, as John Coleman notes, is that one of the problems is that debt is essentially an intergenerational wealth transfer:
(more…)

Blog author: flair
posted by on Friday, March 23, 2012

Would dissolving the European common currency, as proposed by the French free-market economist and entrepreneur Charles Gave in his book Libéral mais non coupable (“Liberal But Not Guilty”) free the Old Continent to stand upright on its financial feet again? Or would dissolving the currency drastically end the European project altogether, as some pro-Euro technocrats in Brussels fear?

Charles Gave, the chairman of the investment firm GaveKal, (and whose lecture I listened to at a 2011 Acton Conference Family Enterprise, Market Economies, and Poverty in Rome), offers an excellent economic policy analysis in answering these urgent questions.  However, as you will read below, the European side of the financial crisis cannot be fixed in purely economic terms.

In his chapter “Europe: A Turtle on its Back”, Gave says that the EU’s already slow-moving economic tortoise is now in a worse position while laying flat on its back – its shell “heavily weighed down by a systemic debt trap” whose origins are found in keeping the common currency afloat at all costs.

Gave believes that the only way to get the turtle walking upright again would be lighten its load by effectively dissolving the heavily debt-tied euro and restoring national currencies to pre-1999 monetary standards. In Gave’s opinion, a restoration of national currencies across the Eurozone would force member states to return to a culture of self-reliance, that is to say, to count more on their own national fiscal and monetary means and standards.

The positive effect would also mean abandoning the quasi-idolatrous ways in which Europeans go to save their common currency while closing a blind eye to less responsible member states’ reckless spending.

Gave’s criticism of local/national responsibilities and the very origins of debt raise deeper questions about the cause of the  European debt and monetary crises, but it is far from offering a  more complete picture of the problem.

Acton’s research director, Dr. Samuel Gregg, helps us fill in the gaps.  As he said in a recent editorial for the American Spectator:

Europe does indeed face huge monetary challenges. Having a common currency while permitting euro-members to violate mutually-agreed debt limits was always a recipe for disaster. Greece could happily splurge on adding tens of thousands of public sector workers to the government’s payroll and financing Chicago-esque patronage politics, while Portugal built dozens of now-idle, often half-finished soccer stadiums.  Why? Because everyone knew if things went bad, then preserving the euro (a ‘sacred cow’ for Europe’s political class) from the impact of nations’ defaulting meant that heavyweights like Germany would go to considerable lengths to try and prevent a currency-meltdown.

Yet this amounts to only a partial — and therefore inadequate — explanation of Europe’s present disarray…[It] can’t disguise the truth that there’s something even more fundamental driving Europe’s economic crisis.

From the beginning, post-war Social Democracy’s goal … was to use the state to realize as much economic security and equality as possible, without resorting to the outright collectivization pursued by the comrades in the East.  In policy-terms, that meant extensive regulation, legal privileges for trade unions, “free” healthcare, subsidies and special breaks for politically-connected businesses, ever-growing social security programs, and legions of national and EU public sector workers to “manage” the regulatory-welfare state…with little-to-no experience of the private sector.

None of this was cost-free. It was financed by punishing taxation and, particularly in recent years, public and private debt. In terms of outcomes, it has produced some of the developed world’s worst long-term unemployment rates, steadily-declining productivity, and risk-averse private sectors.

In sum, the idolatrous preservation of a European common currency and the ensuing “debt trap”  and “domino default” which Gave articulates in his book  is more fully understood when we link the European financial crisis to a crisis of Christianity — a  faith which makes challenging demands on practicing members’  moral interrelationships, levels of risk aversion, and practical ways in which they care for fellow citizens and see their moral duties relation to their neighbor and society.

Christianity, as defined so well by the Catholic Church’s teachings on subsidiarity, demands that social problems must be first solved at the individual, local level. Only if the local and personal proves insufficient should the problem to be taken to higher levels, with the state as the means of last resort.

Subsidiarity – a guiding principle to all responsible Christians – helps limit public debt by relegating moral duties first and foremost to the private sphere.  Subsidiarity is a check against  forms of collectivization and the expensive public costs involved. When too much of the moral duty is placed on the state, public costs grow and debt is possible.  When it is not, the state’s welfare machine is tends to shut down.

In conclusion, if it is true that the vast majority of Europeans no longer practice their Christian faith or take their charitable duties very seriously, one can rightly doubt how easily it will be them to free themselves from the weight of unsustainable debt  (see also Sam Gregg’s ALS lecture below on this topic). If non-practicing Europeans tend to pass on more of their individual moral responsibilities to the state  for the welfare of the elderly, sick and need people of society, it ends up being a costly delegation of Christian freedom and responsibility.  In economic consequences, this makes the EU a fertile ground for a systemic debt traps and precarious monetary crises.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1HZud5lHGc&w=350&h=208]

A week ago, Dr. Samuel Gregg addressed an audience here at Acton’s Grand Rapids, Michigan office on the topic of “Europe: A Continent in Economic and Cultural Crisis.” If you weren’t able to attend, we’re pleased to present the video of Dr. Gregg’s presentation below.

On Valentine’s Day, just one day before having to tender its application to the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, Italy’s pragmatic Prime Minister Mario Monti showed no romantic spirit by canceling his nation’s dream to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

In a last-minute decision made Feb. 14, Prime Minister Monti explained at a press conference that the already overburdened Italian taxpayers simply cannot afford to finance the estimated $12.5 billion to bring the 2020 Olympic Games to Rome.  “I do not think it would be responsible, considering Italy’s current financial condition.”  (See video below.)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTiq0oBT2cI]

The news sent shock waves through the national media and angered Rome’s Mayor Gianni Alemanno, who had aggressively put together the logistical plan and budget.

Yet Monti is no dupe and was honest enough not to hoodwink his nation into taking on financial responsibilities it is in absolutely no position to accept.  Finally, we are seeing an Italian politician demonstrating some degree of practical realism and sense of sacrifice. The Italian Premier, while spearheading historic fiscal reforms, wants the country to wake up and smell its caffe by finally shedding the need to fund unwarranted public expenditures.

While time will tell whether Monti and his government are making wise decisions, the heart-wrenching financial assessment was based on few simple black and white economic facts. Italy has an unbridled a national debt to GDP ratio, which has swelled from 115 percent  in 2010 to 120 percent in 2011 while experiencing stagnant growth and uncontrolled inflation over the last 10-15 years. Next you have the nation’s toxic dependency on massive public welfare programs, despite Monti’s drastic attempts to change Italy’s entrenched entitlement culture.  Then you add in widespread tax evasion, very little new entrepreneurship among young business persons, the Italian bond and spread crises, Standard and Poor’s further stripping of Italy’s credit rating (from A to BBB+) and downgrading 34 of the country’s top credit institutions at the start of 2012 and you got a country that is on the verge of insolvency.

It couldn’t get worse, but a day after Monti renounced any Olympics bid ANSA news service announced Italy had officially entered a recession with negative growth recorded for the last two quarters.

No Olympics, no gold. But whatever wealth seemed guaranteed at the end rainbow, it would be foolish to think the 2020 Games would bolster an entire national economy for more than a very limited period (and quite realistically, only the benefactors of Italy’s crony capitalism and the mafia-infested public works sectors). 

It is high time that Italians themselves start permanently growing their economy through new forms of entrepreneurship — just like it did in its economic boom era when Italy last hosted the Summer Olympics in 1960 –  and not count on riding on the tails of the government’s large-scale, short-lived public projects.

The Keynesians will have little to cheer about in this story. Yesterday I saw this report from CNN Money that said U.S. consumer credit card debt fell by 11 percent in 2011. Mississippians led the Union by reducing their card balance by 23 percent. While total household debt fell by only 1 percent last year, it is still a towering accomplishment when compared to the U.S. federal debt increase.

This is exactly the point Jordan Ballor and I made in our 2008 commentary “The Fiscal Responsibility of Mall Rats and Bureaucrats.” In that piece, we pointed out that the federal government is a significantly poorer steward of our resources when put up against the supposedly “materialistic” and “selfish” consumer.

The inability of the federal government to curtail spending should be considered a form of insanity when one simply looks at the numbers. Instead, as I pointed out before, government spending is now so sacred for some in the religious community, it is a shrine that must be encircled.

Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg has provided his reasoned take on the new document from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace — it’s up at The Corner. While its diagnosis of the world economy is fairly accurate, the council’s treatment plan is lacking in prudential analysis. Gregg’s disappointment is expressed at the end: “For a church with a long tradition of thinking seriously about finance centuries before anyone had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, we can surely do better.”

He’s got four main points (full text below): (1) the fiat money system that accelerated financial decline wouldn’t be reformed by a world bank; (2) neither would the proliferation of moral hazards, which might in fact be increased; (3) there is no mention in the document of public debt and deficits, which problems face most developed countries and can’t be ignored; (4) there is little reason to believe that a newly created world bank could avoid the mistakes made by the Federal Reserve and other sovereign banks in the lead-up to the 2008 crash.

Despite the Catholic Left’s excited hyperventilating that the document released today by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP) would put the Church “to the left of Nancy Pelosi” on economic issues, more careful reading of “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” soon indicates that it reflects rather conventional contemporary economic thinking. Unfortunately, given the uselessness of much present-day economics, that’s not likely to make it especially helpful in thinking through some of our present financial challenges.

Doctrinally speaking, there’s nothing new to be found in this text. As PCJP officials will themselves tell you, it’s not within this curial body’s competence to make doctrinal statements that bind Catholic consciences. Moreover, the notion that an increasingly integrated world economy requires some type of authority able to make decisions about what the Church calls “the universal common good” has long been a staple of Catholic social teaching. Such references to a global world authority have always been accompanied by an emphasis on the idea of subsidiarity, and the present document is no exception to that rule. This principle maintains that any higher level of government should assist lower forms of political authority and civil-society associations “only when” (as this PCJP text states) “individual, social or financial actors are intrinsically deficient in capacity, or cannot manage by themselves to do what is required of them.”

But putting aside doctrinal questions, this text also makes claims of a more strictly economic nature. Given that these generally fall squarely into the area of prudential judgment for Catholics, it’s quite legitimate for Catholics to discuss and debate some of this document’s claims. So here are just a few questions worth asking.

First, the text makes a legitimate point about the effects of a disjunction between the financial sector and the rest of the economy. It fails, however, to note that one major reason for this disjunction has been the dissolution of any tie between money and an external object of value that regulates the quantity of money and credit in circulation in the “real” economy.

Between the late 1870s and 1914, such a linkage existed in the form of the classic gold standard. This gave the world remarkable monetary stability and low inflation without any centralized authority. You needn’t be a Ron Paul disciple to recognize that fiat money’s rise is at least partly responsible for the monetary crises this document correctly laments.

Second, this document displays no recognition of the role played by moral hazard in generating the 2008 crisis or the need to prevent similar situations from arising in the future. Moral hazard describes those situations when people are effectively insulated from the possible negative consequences of their choices. This makes them more likely to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take — especially with other people’s money. The higher the extent of the guarantee, the greater is the risk of moral hazard. It creates, as the financial journalist Martin Wolf writes, “an overwhelming incentive to privatize gains and socialize losses.”

If PCJP were cognizant of this fact, it might have hesitated before recommending we consider “forms of recapitalization of banks with public funds, making the support conditional on ‘virtuous’ behaviours aimed at developing the ‘real economy.’” Such a recapitalization would simply reinforce the message that Wall Street can always turn to taxpayers to bail them out when their latest impossible-to-understand financial scheme goes south. In terms of orthodox Catholic theology, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the one who creates an occasion of sin bears some indirect responsibility for the choices of the person tempted by this situation to do something very imprudent or simply wrong.

Third, given this text’s subject matter, it reflects one very strange omission. Nowhere does it contain a detailed discussion of the high levels of public debt and deficits in many developed economies, the clear-and-present danger they represent to the global financial system, and their negative impact upon the prospects for economic growth (i.e., what gets people out of poverty).

Given these facts, how could governments provide the aforementioned public funds when they are already so heavily in debt and already tottering under the weight of existing fiscal obligations? By raising taxes? Even Bill Clinton thinks that’s not a great idea in an economic slowdown. Indeed, the basic demands of commutative justice indicate that governments need to meet their current obligations to existing creditors before they can even consider contributing to further bailouts.

Fourth, the document calls for the creation of some type of world central bank. Yet its authors seem unaware that much of the blame for our present economic mess is squarely attributable to central banks. Here one need only note that the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policies from 2000 onwards played an indispensible role in creating America’s housing-market bubble, the development of questionable securities products, and the subsequent 2008 meltdown.

Calls for a global central bank aren’t new. Keynes argued for such an organization 75 years ago. But why, given national central banks’ evident failures, should anyone suppose that a global central bank wouldn’t fall prey to the same errors? The folly of a centralized supranational body like the European Central Bank setting a one-size-fits-all interest-rate for economies as different as Greece and Germany should now be evident to everyone who doesn’t live in the fantasy world inhabited by EU bureaucrats. Indeed, it is simply impossible for any one individual or organization to know what is the optimal interest-rate for every country in the EU, let alone the world.

Plenty of other critiques could — and no doubt will — be made of some of the economic claims advanced in this PCJP document. As if in anticipation of this criticism, the document states, “We should not be afraid to propose new ideas.” That is most certainly true. Unfortunately, many of its authors’ ideas reflect an uncritical assimilation of the views of many of the very same individuals and institutions that helped generate the world’s most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression. For a church with a long tradition of thinking seriously about finance centuries before anyone had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, we can surely do better.

My commentary this week addresses the importance of federalism and our fundamental founding principles in relation to the problems that plague the nation. There was once plenty of commentary and finger pointing in regards to setting a new tone of political and civil discourse in the nation. However, the more the Washington power structure is threatened by those unsatisfied with where the leadership is taking us, the more those demanding a return to first principles will be splattered with, at times, revolting words and admonishment from those who think they know best. The commentary is printed below:

The Folly of More Centralized Power

by Ray Nothstine

Americans’ satisfaction and feeling of connection with Washington has dwindled to an all time low. According to a recent Rasmussen survey, only 17 percent of likely voters believe that the federal government has the consent of the governed. The numbers are hardly surprising. Congress recently cut a deal to saddle Americans with trillions of dollars in more debt. Shortly thereafter, one congressional member lashed out at a town hall last weekend demanding the tea party, which has been pushing back against big government, “go straight to hell.”

President Barack Obama, whose approval has sunk to a new low, is trying to recast himself as a Washington outsider as he heaps more blame on Congress, which is not exactly winning any popularity contests these days either. In The Washington Post, a political strategist offered this assessment: “The best place for a politician to be in 2012 is not on the ballot.”

Disenchantment with Washington is of course nothing new, but many Americans have grown weary of leaders calling for added federal spending and demands for shared sacrifice by way of tax increases. Washington’s inability to balance budgets and restore fiscal responsibility, a problem magnified by a crippled economy, has also bankrupted the public trust. Citizens who take summer vacations to the nation’s capital can easily connect the dots as they observe a Washington Beltway that is booming with jobs and opportunity as tax dollars siphon into the region, even while their own communities are ravaged by job loss and businesses struggle under regulatory burdens.

Earlier this month Salon Magazine ran a piece titled “The Real Confidence Crisis,” which proclaims that the solution to a broken government buried in debt by entitlements, runaway spending, and disorder is — more government. In other words, government must only be managed properly to work for us again.

Similarly, Time Magazine in 2010 published an article asserting that Washington was ineffective because bills were written to pass Congress, not to be effective. The problem solvers of our national ills only need to convince people that government can be competent again. All that America needs is a new generation of skilled technocrats to babysit the federal bureaucracy.

In contrast to this solution, in Federalist No. 45, James Madison declared, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite.” Madison further articulated the case against the centralization of power not specifically enumerated to the federal government by saying, “The powers reserved to the several states will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the state.”

The Acton Institute’s Principles for Budget Reform make the point that in order to solve the debt crisis and political crises that plague us, “it is incumbent to ask again the basic questions about the role of government, at federal as well as state and local levels.” Madison, the architect of the U.S. Constitution, also had a role in the development of Virginia’s Constitution. Included in that document are the lines, “That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”

Furthermore, those looking to the federal government to solve the nation’s ills and meet their needs will continue to be disappointed. People feel disconnected from their federal government not only because they are separated geographically, culturally, ideologically, but also because they believe that their access to the political process has been severed. They doubt whether their representatives actually have the best interests of the nation in mind.

Now more than ever, as Washington multiplies our country’s ailments instead of curing them, politicians will continue to attempt to shift the blame for a financially and morally broken government in their effort to cling to power. The fight for Washington to surrender power will produce an epic conflict, however. It’s not just the vitriolic rhetoric that evidences the upcoming battle; centralized power is now so sacred that, against any proposals to limit the powers of the state, some professional clergy stand guard, ready to encircle the bureaucracy in prayer and offer their bodies for arrest.

Some in our churches and in government may disparage the tea party, and even wish its members a speedy banishment to Hell. But the tea party might be the powerful reminder we need to remind us that Washington can’t create Heaven on Earth. The sooner we take that advice seriously, and get our house in order, the better off we’ll all be.

Over at ThinkChristian, I take the opportunity to sketch “what a comprehensive Christian response to the crisis of public and private debt might look like.” I focus “on five main areas: the individual, familial, ecclesial, economic, and political.” This is a brief and preliminary set of questions and observations.

But even so, I think even just provisional attempts to evaluate our values shows us that “the problems we face are far more than political – and far deeper than merely political solutions can hope to solve.”