Posts tagged with: debt

Until recently, many thought that Europe had escaped the worst of the 2008 financial crisis. Some even argued that the crisis has demonstrated the European social model’s superiority over “Anglo-Saxon capitalism”. In 2010, however, we have seen an entire country bailed out, riots in Athens, governments slashing budgets, and several European nations staring sovereign debt default in the face. Some are even claiming that the euro is finished. So what went wrong for Europe? How adequate have been the responses of European governments? And what are the consequences for America? The video is from the Aug. 2 Acton Lecture Series in Grand Rapids, Mich.

From Marketwatch today, “Morgan Stanley warns on sovereign defaults”:

“Outright sovereign default in large advanced economies remains an extremely unlikely outcome,” they said. But bondholders could suffer losses from forms of “financial oppression,” such as repaying debt with devalued currency, the analysts warned.

From last week’s Acton Commentary by Sam Gregg, “Deficits, Debt, and Self-Deception”:

Then there is the increased possibility that governments will resort to other, less-conventional means of deficit-reduction. As Adam Smith observed long ago in The Wealth of Nations, “when national debts have once been accumulated to a certain degree, there is scarce, I believe, a single instance of their having been fairly and completely paid.” Smith went on to explain that “the liberation of the public revenue, if it has ever been brought about all, has always been brought about by a bankruptcy; sometimes by an avowed one, but always by a real one, though frequently by a pretended payment.”

By “pretended payment,” Smith meant governments would seek to escape their debts by inflating the currency. In this way, governments could legally deny creditors what they are due in real terms, while simultaneously avoiding formal bankruptcy.

Of course, whenever a government resorts to inflation to diminish its debts, it has, for all intents and purposes, effectively acknowledged its insolvency. But such actions, as Smith noted, also constitute gross injustices against numerous innocents. Those who have been frugal and industrious suddenly find the value of their savings and capital arbitrarily reduced because of others’ financial irresponsibility. This also reduces the incentives for people to save and invest. For why should anyone bother to do so if they cannot be reasonably sure that the worth of their savings will not be suddenly diluted by government fiat?

Simon Johnson and Peter Boone wrote an interesting article the UK Telegraph Saturday called “The New Feudal Overlords of Europe will be the bankers of the ECB.”
Johnson is also the co-author along with James Kwak of a thoughtful and provocative book 13 Bankers as well as a blog on economics. Also on the ECB see my colleague Sam Gregg’s Piece at Public Discourse

Using Hayek’s famous phrase “The Road to Serfdom” Johnson and Boone argue the demise of Europe will not be the welfare state and the growth of government as Hayek predicted, but rather a “financial elite gone awry” They write:

Hayek had the sign and the destination right, but was wrong about the mechanism. Unregulated finance, the ideology of unfettered free markets, and state capture by corporate interests are what ended up undermining democracy both in North America and in Europe. All industrialised countries are at risk, but it’s the eurozone – with its vulnerable structures – that points most clearly to our potentially unpleasant collective futures.

As a result of the continuing euro crisis, the European Central Bank (ECB) now finds itself buying up the debt of all the weaker eurozone governments, making it the – perhaps unwittingly – feudal boss of Europe. In the coming years, the ECB and the European Union will dictate policy. The policy elite who run these structures – along with their allies in the private sector – are your new overlords

It is arguable who exactly are the peasants, the vassals and the lords under this model – and what services will end up being exchanged, but there is no question we are seeing a sea change in the post-war system of property, power and prosperity across Western Europe, just as Hayek feared. An overwhelming debt burden will bring down even the proudest people.

The ECB-EU approach will not return countries to reasonable levels of growth – the debt overhang is simply too large. The southern and western periphery of the eurozone cannot grow out of their debts under these arrangements and so will stumble from stabilisation programme to stabilisation programme – as did Latin America in the 1980s. This is bound to lead to hostile politics, social unrest and more economic crises.

The debt crisis must be addressed and I don’t disagree with their assertion that corporate-government collusion is a serious problem (See my article on Davos Capitalism) though I am unclear on how “Unregulated finance, the ideology of unfettered free markets, and state capture by corporate interests” exactly go together, or what they mean by “unfettered free markets.” Since Johnson and Kwak argue in 13 Bankers that we’ve had a type of oligarchic capitalism and Johnson and Boone matter of factly talk about “welfare socialism” I assume they aren’t arguing that the Europe or the US have had laissez faire free markets over the last decades, so I am not exactly sure what they mean. But on to their main points.

Johnson and Boone argue that current debt levels and the lack of political will to do anything about it will end up wreaking havoc on EU countries and ultimately on the US and the world.

The UK and US need to prepare themselves for more storms. The United States will be in the pleasant position as the world’s safe haven, but this will only encourage America’s profligate politicians to spend more and build more debt.

The UK will bear much more pain from euro devaluation and financial dislocation, all exacerbated by its own large deficit and debts. We might well see one more invasion across the channel, this time by bond vigilantes who question Britain’s ability to rein in inflation as it builds too large debts.

At the end of this great tumult, Europe and the UK will have sound fiscal regimes. Debt will be defaulted on or inflated away, and nations will have dramatically cut spending.

Hayek’s predicted demise of western society as he knew it will prove correct, but welfare socialism will prove the victim, erased by a political and financial elite gone awry.

Interesting and worrying stuff and the article is well worth reading as is 13 Bankers. But one thing the authors seem to ignore in this piece is that while welfare socialism may be the victim of the collapse (not a bad thing in my estimation), it is fully a culprit as well.

It is precisely a massive welfare state that is a part of the problem. It not only requires outlandish and unsustainable spending on the parts of governments who are afraid to address the challenge lest they lose popular support. But it also encourages a culture of irresponsibility, and inculcates a sentiment in the population that you can maintain an pleasant middle class life indefinitely without actually having to produce goods and services that people want and need. They suggest several austere measures as a solution but doubt the political will to achieve it. What may be really needed is a complete rethinking of the role of government and the whole idea of the current welfare state. That would not only require political courage, but cultural rejuvenation and this is something neither politicians nor bankers can provide.

This week’s Acton Commentary:

Our economic life is concerned with more than just the objective exchange of goods and services. Far from being morally neutral, it is an expression of how we understand our dependence on God and neighbor and is the means by which we fulfill, or not, our obligations toward them. Both for reasons of morality as well as long term economic efficiency, we cannot overlook or minimize the centrality of personal virtue, and of a culture of virtue, to the success of the free market. It is not enough for me to be good; we must be good together. Or at minimum, and whatever our personal moral shortcomings, culturally we must value and reward moral excellence.

Jack Cashill understands this and in his new book, Popes & Bankers: A Cultural History of Credit & Debt, From Aristotle to AIG, he traces the changing moral attitudes towards lending and borrowing in Western culture. From the beginning the author is clear that we cannot separate a conversation about debt and credit, and so the economics of the free market, from a conversation about our personal and cultural moral lives.

Quickly the author takes us through some 25 centuries of social history. Along the way we hear from Dante and Shakespeare. To my delight, The Merchant of Venice has a recurring role in Cashill’s analysis and he uses effectively the changing portrayals of Shylock to illustrate shifting cultural attitudes toward debt.

Aristotle and Aquinas also make an appearance and join a cast that includes Medieval popes, Renaissance Jewish lenders, Protestant Reformers, 19th Century American robber barons and financiers. And of course our favorite villains, the bankers, lenders and borrowers who figure so prominently in the recent economic collapse make an appearance. Though the tone is at time a bit too flippant for my tastes (especially when discussing the Medieval Catholic Church), the text offers a good historical overview of the cultural and moral debate about debt. Throughout the author highlights intimate connection between moral character and economic life.

Cashill locates our current distress in the gradual cultural changes in the “fifty or so years since interest rates” were last at 1 percent. This cultural shift has “had less to do with the behavior” of lenders and more to do with our unwillingness to censure “the behavior of consumers, especially the prodigal” among us. While not minimizing the “downside” of “major investment houses” shifting “from partnerships to corporations” (which both “democratized Wall Street” even as “it diminished long-term loyalty and distanced executives from the consequences of failure”) he locates our moral failure in our growing evermore “dependent on credit.”

Through governmental and private institutions, Western culture is now eager “to oblige its prodigals” and extend to them the credit that allows them to live, for a short time at least, above their means. In addition where once we thought of “prodigals as sinners” today we “think of them as they think of themselves–as victims.” Cashill points out that “the real divide in America today is not between left and right but between those who would sympathize” with the prodigals among us “and those who would not.” While we condemn “predatory lenders” we never even discuss, much less censure, the”predatory borrower” who also played a central role in the collapse of the housing market.

Ideally our willingness to go into debt reflects our confidence in the future and rather than a desire to fulfill momentary desires. For this reason, we should think of debt, as Cashill does (and as Western cultural has historically) as a profoundly moral and is not simply economic question. Because we have lost sight of the necessary connection between virtue and an efficient free market, we now face a widespread lack of confidence in the economy.

Our lack of confidence reflects a more fundamental a lack of trust in the future. To borrow from moral theology, the economic crisis is a crisis of despair; we have lost faith in the goodness of tomorrow.

So how do we reclaim hope in the economic sphere? As Aristotle has it, we must be “liberal.”

Needless to say Aristotelian liberality is markedly different than our contemporary understanding. For Aristotle to be liberal means that we not spend more than we have and then spend only “on the right objects.”

But true liberality can only exist within a living tradition of moral virtue. In our current circumstances we are sorely tempted to settle for merely technical solutions. Yes, these are important but what is needed most is repentance and the cultivation of the cardinal, and dare I say, theological, virtues. Whether this will happen or not depends on how we exercise our personal freedom and the decisions we make as a culture.

In any case Cashill’s work offers us a sound foundation from which to argue in the public square that our economic pursuits must take place within a “culture of life” and this is necessary not only morally but also for the efficient working of the free market.

The AP reports that of the roughly $379 million spent by the US government on relief efforts in Haiti, less than 1% has been in the form of direct government to government aid.

This has raised complaints from the Haitian president, Rene Preval, who says his government isn’t getting its fair share. According to the report, Preval spoke at a news conference and complained, “There’s a perception of corruption, but I would like to tell the Haitian people that the Haitian government has not seen one penny of all the money that has been raised — millions are being made on the right, millions on the left, it’s all going to the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations).”

But is that really so bad? If it is the citizens of Haiti who need direct assistance, why should more of the money be routed through the Haitian governmental bureaucracy?

Undoubtedly the government is struggling to provide any modicum of law and order in the chaos of the last two weeks. And whatever money the Haitian government receives should go firstly toward providing that kind of stability within which aid workers, food suppliers, and virtuoso entrepreneurs don’t have to be so concerned with theft and violence.

And in any case, the amount spent by the US government thus far is a small percentage of the nearly $2 billion in aid that has been sent in to the disaster zone. Indeed, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, private aid from America is running at about $470 million, topping the government’s contributions by nearly $100 million. Preval’s claims to a greater share of that aid money seem to not have much merit.

It isn’t the Haitian government that is the object of charitable aid; it’s the Haitian people, and that’s where the vast bulk of the money ought to be (and seemingly is) going. That’s also why calls for forgiveness of the Haitian government’s debts are so misguided, at least in the short term as the dead are still being pulled from the rubble.

In my commentary this week, “America’s Uncontrolled Debt and Spending is the Real ‘Waterloo,’” I offer the well known point that debt and spending threatens our liberty and prosperity. It is becoming very evident that it will be up to citizens to demand accountability from their lawmakers, as I mentioned. What has been tried before has not worked.

In terms of liberty, Thomas Jefferson declared, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” What the Founders articulated was that democracy and liberty is not the natural order of things, and that consolidated power moves toward tyranny. The U.S. power structure has borrowed from the income of future generations in an irresponsible and immoral manner, and citizens are culpable as well. What does that mean? I thought U.S. Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) recently articulated the consequences of the crisis very passionately on CNN with journalist John King.

As Dave Ramsey admits, all of the advice he gives is something that you would be able to get from your grandma. It’s a sad commentary on our society that this basic wisdom, that prudential use of money (i.e. thrift) is a virtue, is so alien to us.

Thanks to Clear Channel Radio, I was able to attend Dave Ramsey’s event in Grand Rapids last night. I used to listen to Ramsey on the radio quite a bit as a seminary student in Kentucky and I was always impressed by how much he was inspiring American families to live within their means and become better financial stewards of their resources and income. His own personal faith testimony is very real and inspiring and that brings me to another point concerning his presentation last night.

Last month, Acton’s director of communications, John Couretas, wrote a commentary titled “Obama and the Moral Imagination,” where he asked “If religious conservatives and free market advocates are to oppose Obama on those issues where there is fundamental disagreement, they will have to craft their own counter-narrative to ‘change the trajectory.’ No small task.”

One of my immediate impressions about Ramsey is his mastery of the narrative style of teaching and motivating. He effectively uses his own personal testimony to motivate people. By using his story in the fashion that he does, he disarms possible objections to his teachings and allows attendees to embrace and connect their story to Ramsey’s story. And I mean, not only his financial story, but also his own faith story as well. I would also add that his humor is far wittier and funnier perhaps than any stand up comedy I have ever heard.

How does this then relate to fiscal conservatism and the importance of free markets? Several times last night Ramsey stressed this by saying that “you are not going to spend like Congress anymore.” He uses the story and behavior of Congress to powerfully contrast that with a new found ability of a person to budget, save, and invest. Ramsey even expressed his strong desire to see Congress overturned. He expressed confidence in the long term benefits of the market, while simultaneously denouncing the stimulus bill. Here is a you tube clip of Ramsey on his radio show railing against what he calls the “spending bill.” Ramsey made a good point I stressed last week on a radio appearance of my own, and that is this: “When America is more financially responsible, they will demand more financial responsibility from their leaders.”

The entire event is a creative introduction to his financial teachings, what he calls the seven baby steps to get your financial future on track. He ended the event by sharing more about his relationship with God, and stressing that it is relationship with God that matters most, and it is the greatest life changing principle he teaches.

Picking up on themes we’ve touched on here, here, and here, last week NYT columnist David Brooks weighed in on the culture of debt in the United States.

“The social norms and institutions that encouraged frugality and spending what you earn have been undermined,” he writes. “The institutions that encourage debt and living for the moment have been strengthened.”

Brooks has his own proposed solutions for this cultural shift. Elsewhere Richard Posner and Gary Becker debate whether there has been a paradigm change and if so what it means.

I submit that a good place to start to look would be religious institutions. Max Weber had a profound insight when he pointed out the specifically theological backgrounds (even if he didn’t get the particular backgrounds quite right) and their impact on morally-informed behavior make all the difference between someone like Richard Baxter and John Wesley on the one hand and Benjamin Franklin on the other (the easy cloak vs. iron cage comparison). A divine mandate inspires and motivates in ways other things simply aren’t able.

Brooks wants us to return to Franklin-esque “bourgeois virtues.” But it may just be that those secular virtues don’t have cultural staying power on their own, and when divorced from religious undergirding become a waystation on the way to rampant consumerism.

But hey, at least this guy has figured out a way to make the economic stimulus package permanent (unlike the Bush tax cuts).

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
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Is this supposed to be capitalism?

Geoff Colvin writes that a motivating factor in the recent crash in corporate profits, as well as the sharp decline in home values, was the phenomenon that “people began to believe that the more they borrowed, the better off they would be. Their thinking went like this: With the cost of capital so low and asset prices rising steadily, risk was evaporating.”

The precipitating cause of the downturn was that consumers “began to live within their means, shutting down the profit-growth machine.”

Any business or industry profit model that depends on consumers driving themselves deeper and deeper in debt is morally flawed and economically unsustainable. That’s not capitalism, that’s consumerism.

Compare the latter with the former, represented by this statement of a first principle of capitalism, “Thrift the First Duty”:

…thrift is mainly at the bottom of all improvement. Without it no railroads, no canals, no ships, no telegraphs, no churches, no universities, no schools, no newspapers, nothing great or costly could we have. Man must exercise thrift and save before he can produce anything material of great value. There was nothing built, no great progress made, as long as man remained a thriftless savage. The civilized man has no clearer duty than from early life to keep steadily in view the necessity of providing for the future of himself and those dependent on upon him. There are few rules more salutary than that which has been followed by most wise and good men, namely, “that expenses should be less than income.” In other words, one should be a civilized man, saving something, and not a savage, consuming every day all that which he has earned.

You don’t need to agree with Andrew Carnegie about everything to recognize the truth of these statements. Thrift is one of the things that separates civilized capitalism from savage consumerism.