Monday, October 27, 2008

Risk, Rewards, and Competition

In my last post, I mentioned my gratitude for FedEx. I recently read Russell Roberts’ book The Price of Everything. Late in the book Roberts drops the name of Fred Smith, the founder and CEO of FedEx. One of the book’s main characters makes a point that there must be rewards available to encourage people to dream big enough to risk entrepreneurship. Contrasting the U.S. with Cuba, she says (p. 160):
“We dream and they don’t. We imagine. We look to the future in a way that lets us plan. We save. We invest. We forego pleasure today for something greater tomorrow and we understand why we’re doing it. Jonas Salk dreams of curing polio or Fred Smith dreams of a way to get a package to someone overnight or Steve Jobs dreams of a way to carry 20,000 songs in your pocket…. And it’s not just the entrepreneurs doing the dreaming. We dream, too. Just to take one example, millions of Americans now try to lead healthier lives than they did in the past. They decide to exercise more and eat better. Think of the enormous range of things that have to happen and that do happen to let those plans and dreams come to reality. New kinds of food in the grocery store. New kinds of grocery stores. New kinds of running shoes and racquetball shoes and walking shoes. New kinds of clothes made of new materials that make sweating more pleasant. New kinds of exercise machines. Videos to go with them. New kinds of bikes. More tennis rackets. New kinds of tennis rackets. People to make all those things and work in all those places making and selling and explaining to people about the new choices that are available. An enormous army of workers and creators springs into action. The plans of all the people who want to eat better and exercise more got matched with the plans of all the entrepreneurs who strove to make money meeting those desires.”
There is a good discussion in the book as well about why monetary rewards are essential to this system and why purely altruistic motivations don’t produce these kinds of results. Perhaps I’ll post about this in the future.

In a comment on my Oct. 24 post, I referred to an interview with Fred Smith. While I don’t agree with everything Smith is reported to have said, I think he has some keen insights on the causes of our current financial debacle. He notes that federal taxes are structured to benefit the financial sector and harm asset-intensive sectors, such as manufacturing. Smith explains how this hurts business, reduces productivity, and limits growth of good jobs. He also suggests that our system encourages over-leveraging by the financial sector.

We didn’t arrive at our current tax structure in a moment and there have been many lobbyists that have influenced tax policy over the years. But it seems that the most popular policies among our political class are specifically designed to exacerbate the problems rather than make them better.

I note that the politicians are experts at putting these policies in pretty packages and promoting them, much like the retailers that are now trying to hawk heavily advertised junk toys for Christmas. I explain to my kids that the toys rarely work as well or bring the kind of satisfaction as portrayed on TV. The same holds true for many tax policies.

Regardless of whether one agrees with Fred Smith’s view of public policy or not, I am grateful that he has dreamt up and developed a business that makes it possible for HP to fix my laptop and have it back on my desk in a few days’ time.

One of the main characters in The Price of Everything is challenged for holding the politically incorrect view that “Wal-Mart is good for America.” She retorts (p. 144), “No, I think the process that produces Wal-Mart is good for America.” When asked if that isn’t the same thing, she says:
“Not at all. If Wal-Mart can’t meet its competition’s quality and prices, I want it to go out of business. Which it probably will some day, just like many of its competitors before it.”
I would say that, despite the fact that I think FexEx provides a good service, what she says goes for them as well. This character goes on to discuss government rules that require businesses like Wal-Mart to pay their workers more or to provide better benefits for them.
“These ideas, even when they’re well-intentioned, will end up hurting the people you’re trying to help by making it more costly to hire workers. And they’re not always well-intentioned. Most of the impetus for those moves comes from competitors who want to handicap a successful rival. That’s a bad option to offer a company—instead of finding a better way of pleasing your customers, spend your time in Washington or your state capitol trying to convince politicians to give you an artificial advantage.”
The recent mantra from Washington and Wall Street has been that government assistance is needed to save financial institutions that are “too big to fail.” The argument is that so many of us rely on these firms that failure would devastate the economy in unacceptable ways. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that failure of these big firms would devastate the lobbying efforts of these firms and the future prospects of some key politicians.

But if these firms really are too big to fail, we need to ask precisely how they got that way and what needs to be done to remedy the problem. The anti-competitive regulatory structures that many of these firms have lobbied for need to be corrected. The corporate welfare that protects these firms from competition needs to be stopped. And in case you’re wondering which politicians support this stuff, check out who is receiving masses of campaign donations from these sectors.

If we want more businesses to spring up that better meet our needs and wants, we need to permit rewards. But we also need to foster healthy competition. Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of message we are sending to our politicians nowadays. We want rewards without the risk. This cannot be had in the long term. Pursuit of such a path produces the kind of financial problems we have today, as expertly noted here by celebrated economist Arthur Laffer. It’s time to change this.

A Happy Ending to a Hard Drive Crash

Two weeks ago the main hard drive on my laptop computer went belly up. I had just done an operation that required a reboot and when it tried to boot back up the hard drive made a quiet but abnormal clicking noise.

I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’ve heard noises like that before, so I wasn’t surprised when I got the black screen saying that the operating system could not be found. I ran out of time to mess with the problem that day. But the following day I was actually able to get the machine to boot one last time. Then it was done.

I got on another of our computers and contacted HP’s tech support via chat. The technician was very thorough and helpful. I performed a battery of procedures per her instructions. She finally said that the machine would need to be sent to HP for repairs. I didn’t want to do that because I can generally repair things of that nature on my own. However I was pleasantly surprised when she insisted that my machine was still under warranty, despite my protestations that it was 20 months old.

When I got home from work on Thursday, I found a box containing packing materials and instructions that had been shipped via FedEx. I put the laptop in the perfectly-fitted packaging, taped the box shut, and applied the supplied pre-printed FedEx label. I looked on the FedEx website, found the nearest drop off point, and drove there. Since it was late in the day, I was informed that the package wouldn’t ship until the following day.

I had a tracking number, but I was busy that weekend and didn’t bother to check it. Imagine my surprise when I returned from work on Tuesday to discover a notice stating that FedEx had tried to deliver my repaired laptop. I contacted HP by chat on a Tuesday evening and could have gotten my repaired laptop back the following Tuesday afternoon. I was favorably impressed.

The only problem was that HP required a responsible person at our address to sign for the computer and the FedEx guy came by when nobody could be at home. After we received another notice on Wednesday, my wife called the FedEx office on Thursday to see if they could bring it by earlier in the day. Consequently, I spent a lot of time this past weekend restoring my laptop.

I have learned a few things from this episode. HP’s support performed superbly in this instance. I am grateful for the efficiency of FedEx. It’s important to keep current backups of essential data. I was a few weeks behind on my backups, so I have ended up having to restore some things from hardcopies.

I had been using Mozilla Firefox, but my two older sons prevailed on me to try Google Chrome when I was restoring my computer. I like Firefox and I have no complaints about it. But I must say that I like Google Chrome better. This is a subjective view, of course.

I’m just glad to have my computer back on my desk and working again.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Federal Government Is Not the Answer to Our Current Financial Mess

A few months ago I dropped couple of posts (here and here) about how our nation’s money policy is at the root of our current financial quagmire. I followed up in August with this post that suggested that the Fed needed competition. I recently ragged on the Fed even more and discussed the concept of competing currencies in more detail in this post and in comment #3 on the post.

Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s testimony before Congress the other day was a debacle. In effect he said, “Boy, I didn’t see this coming, but it’s OK to trust my judgment now.” He then went on to blame everyone except government and the Fed for our current economic mess. The Wall Street Journal says:
“The Fed's monetary policy apparently gets a pass. The media and Members of Congress will use Mr. Greenspan's testimony to impugn the very free market principles that the former Ayn Rand protégé has spent his life promoting. It was a painful spectacle to watch.”
The Journal, however, does a good job of showing how the Fed caused or helped cause two financial bubbles, both of which have now burst. “The original bubble was in housing prices and mortgage-related assets, which the Federal Reserve helped to create with its negative real interest rates from 2002 into 2005. This was Alan Greenspan's tragic mistake….”

Bubble number two came at the hands of Greenspan’s successor, current Fed Chair Ben Bernanke. The Journal has some charts depicting the oil bubble and the parallel euro-dollar exchange bubble that resulted from the Fed’s mishandling of the credit panic that ensued after the first bubble burst.

Instead of a solvency crisis, the Fed treated it like a liquidity crisis. They dropped interest rates drastically, injecting masses of new dollars into the system. This caused inflation, especially in oil and euros, as dollar holders worldwide dumped the shaky dollar for more stable instruments.

Coinciding with the run up in oil and foreign commodities was a run up in stock prices, as this chart shows. The chart also provides a good visual of the bursting of the bubble. What this means to you and me is that when our 401k funds looked great at the end of summer last year, they were really just overpriced. That problem has now been corrected. In fact, it has been overcorrected, as revealed by the tail end of the chart (and our 401k balances). The Journal says:
“Commodity prices have now fallen back to Earth, as the reality of global recession hits home and the Fed can't ease much further. Meanwhile, the euro has fallen from the stratosphere as Europe heads into recession and the dollar becomes a safer haven in a world of fear.”
But all is not well (as everyone is painfully aware). The second bursting bubble is impacting commodity prices worldwide. Emerging markets “such as Russia and the Persian Gulf countries” are being hit hard. And with the precedent of government bailouts now set, other industries such as auto manufacturing and ethanol production have lobbyists plying the Beltway crowd like sharks swimming in chum, looking for similar favors.

The bizarre thing is that most political movers and shakers seem completely oblivious to the real causes of the current crisis: federal meddling in housing markets and “Reckless monetary policy that did so much to create the credit mania and then compounded the felony with a commodity bubble and run on the dollar whose damage is now becoming apparent.”

I have heard and read many arguments in favor of strong central banks, such as this one and this one. Even many self-styled free market supporters have argued passionately for a strong central banking system. But in light of all of the mischief caused by our central bank of late, it’s difficult for me to swallow. FA Hayek’s observations seem much more appropriate at this juncture. He noted that government control of money has caused much worse problems than anything ever seen with private money.

As Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, a host of financial gurus, big business types, and most of our federal politicians urge us to look to Washington DC for salvation from our financial woes, perhaps it would be wise to realize that these are the same people that caused the crisis in the first place. Looking to them for solutions is akin to an abused wife seeking a non-abusive relationship from her abusing husband.

In other words, now is the optimum time to be looking for financial solutions outside of the federal political class and its fellow travelers. Competing currencies anyone?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I Endorse Early Voting

After work yesterday I stopped by my city’s office building and voted. There were about 20 other people there at the same time, a number I found rather impressive. I exercised my civic voting duty two weeks prior to Election Day, and from the comments of the election judges at the site, a record number are likewise voting early.

I personally enjoy early voting, having done it a number of times previously. The last time I voted on Election Day in a major election, I had to wait in line 45 minutes. Yesterday I waited less than five minutes total. I waited in line a couple of minutes to get my ID verified and then sign in. I waited another minute or so for a booth to open up so that I could vote.

I have heard the criticisms of early voting. I think they have some validity. But on the whole, I think that making early voting available is wonderful. It increases convenience, reduces lines at the polls on Election Day, and increases opportunities for citizens to get out and vote.

There are some valid concerns about early voting increasing voter fraud. This isn’t such a big problem when people go to an actual polling place to vote, as I did. But it is a problem with mail-in ballots. In some cases this problem has been severe. Not only is mail-in voting quite expensive, it can also produce long wait times in determining the outcomes of elections because they have to wait long enough for the ballots mailed on Election Day to arrive, each mailed in ballot must be verified as belonging to a properly registered voter, and it must be ensured that each voter’s vote is counted only once.

There are likely things that could be done to reduce fraud problems with mail-in voting, but that would make it even more expensive. Perhaps it is best to restrict mail-in voting to those that are physically unable to present themselves at a polling place during early voting or on Election Day, such as those that are temporarily living abroad.

I have heard several times that early voting detracts from the sense of community spirit that used to surround Election Day. Pointing to voter apathy, some have even suggested that we make Election Day a national holiday. While community spirit is nice when you can get it, the main goal is to get people politically involved. Increasing voter convenience helps in this regard.

Also, every time we produce a new national holiday, it results in another excuse for retailers to bombard us with inane ads about faux sales events. Not only does adding holidays cost employers money, but most people that get the day off end up recreating rather than doing anything about what the holiday was supposed to be about. A national election holiday might even result in fewer people voting.

Some would like to make voting more exclusive by actually making it more difficult to vote. The argument seems to be that so many ignorant people are voting that we need to restrict the privilege of voting to those that are motivated enough to overcome obstacles to exercise that right

Frankly, I think this is pure poppycock. Even the ignorant are citizens and should be able to cast their ignorant votes. Some will argue that the idiots are already overrepresented in politics. While the rest of us have to live with the results of elections partially influenced by ignorant voters, that is part of living in a democratic republic.

Another concern is that something might change during the early vote period that could change your mind. If you had already voted early, it would be too late to change your vote. There is clearly some risk with this, but it’s really not much different than if something were to happen the day after Election Day that made you wish you’d voted differently.

I think that for the politically informed, the risk of casting an early vote that would be regretted within two weeks is no higher than if they were to vote on Election Day. I mean, I’ve studied the candidates and the issues enough. If I don’t know by this point how I should vote, I can’t see how two more weeks is going to make a difference.

For the politically uninformed that vote early, I don’t see how voting a few days later is going to improve their vote. I remember years ago seeing an older lady on the news being interviewed as she came out of a polling place. She said that she had voted for Jimmy Carter because she liked peanut butter. Two more weeks simply isn’t going to help people like that. And, as I alluded to earlier, even idiots deserve representation.

I think early voting is a wonderful convenience, as long as it’s properly handled. Thanks to early voting, I hope to never stand in a long line on Election Day again.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Making It Up

"Rarely do we hear a message of sacrifice -- unless it is a justification for more taxation and transfers of wealth to others. Nor do we hear from leaders or politicians the message that there is something larger and more important than the government providing for all of our needs and wants -- large and small." — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas

Anyone that actually cares about our nation's Constitution likely feels that it has been incrementally amended without proper consent over the past few decades to mean something very different than was originally intended. If you feel this way, you're not alone. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently lamented this course in a speech, part of which is recounted here.

Justice Thomas suggests that we as citizens have become overly focused on ourselves. By turning Kennedy's call for service on its head, Thomas says, "The message today seems more like: Ask not what you can do for yourselves or your country, but what your country must do for you."

This attitude is reflected in our law. Our Constitution has only been successfully amended 27 times, and two of those amendments cancel each other out. Today we no longer bother to amend the Constitution when we want to change how our government does business. We just simply pass laws that are blatantly out of line with the document's original intent. We get five justices to decide that we (or even other nations) now think differently, so the document has magically changed meaning. Why go through the pain of attempting an amendment when these other avenues are much easier?

Thomas admits that "there is no one accepted way of interpreting" the Constitution. But that does not mean that he thinks this is an acceptable situation. He bluntly says, "Let me put it this way; there are really only two ways to interpret the Constitution -- try to discern as best we can what the framers intended or make it up."

As a nation, we have increasingly been following this latter course of action. We've been making it up as we go along. Imagine if we did that with any other legal document. Lawyers and judges would go berserk if we suggested that we can simply change the original intent of a document at our whim. (Although some of our politicians want to let judges do this with mortgage contracts.) This would destroy our ability to make plans and decisions, since any agreement could be capriciously re-interpreted.

I had a friend ask why the framers' original intent is any more important than what we think today, and why we should consider ourselves bound by words written down by people that are long dead.

The Constitution is the document upon which our government functions. If you don't have that, you don't have a valid governing system. In the absence of a document with solid meaning there is no reason for any citizen to submit to the demands of government or to consider such demands to have any validity, except on the basis of tyranny and fear.

The framers of the Constitution never intended that their word would be the last word on the matter. That's why they established a method for amending the document. If we're going to constantly make end runs around that method — in essence amending the Constitution by stealth rather than by the consent of the governed — we no longer have any valid basis for government.

Before we condone making it up as we go along, we ought to consider Thomas' caution:
"No matter how ingenious, imaginative or artfully put, unless interpretive methodologies are tied to the original intent of the framers, they have no more basis in the Constitution than the latest football scores. To be sure, even the most conscientious effort to adhere to the original intent of the framers of our Constitution is flawed, as all methodologies and human institutions are; but at least originalism has the advantage of being legitimate and, I might add, impartial."
It seems that Americans in general are quite ignorant of what the Constitution says and how it impacts their lives. Thomas says:
"As I have traveled across the country, I have been astounded just how many of our fellow citizens feel strongly about their constitutional rights but have no idea what they are, or for that matter, what the Constitution says. ... [I]f one feels strongly about his or her rights, it does make sense to know generally what the Constitution says about them. It is at least as easy to understand as a cell phone contract -- and vastly more important."
Instead, we seem to develop some kind of emotional meaning about how something ought to be done without any consideration of the total impact such a course of action might have. We want what we want. We want it now. And we want somebody to provide it for us. As Thomas puts it, "Certainly this is no way to run a railroad, not to mention interpret the Constitution. . . ."

The fruits of our me-now attitude is that we get the kind of government we deserve.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Doing Something About Citizen Apathy

A couple of weeks ago, David Miller at Pursuit of Liberty announced that he is forming a group that has as its goal to “draw people out of the silent majority until the silent become the minority by fostering civil dialog between people of differing perspectives. “ People of all political stripes are encouraged to join.

With people from disagreeing political viewpoints participating, you might anticipate some fireworks. But David writes, “The only requirement for participation is a commitment to avoid the playground politics of name calling and guilt by association.”

In other words, David is calling on us to join together to steadily increase the numbers of people that are politically informed and engaged. He is asking that we commit to engaging in civil dialog and put aside acrimony when discussing issues.

David has put out a call for people to come forward to help him put his plan into action. He writes:

“In addition to my own energy, and knowledge I need the energy and experience of others who can help me to spread the word, engage effectively with public officials, organize group efforts, and generate ideas to further these aims.”
Why are Citizens Apathetic?
Despite pleas from religious and community leaders, only 56.8% of Utah’s adults are even registered to vote — the third lowest rate in the nation. And only a fraction of those registered actually vote. There are a variety of reasons for Utah’s low rates of voter registration and turnout.

It’s the Demographics
It has been a longtime national trend for young adults to be less politically involved. Looking at the statistics, it appears that voter participation rates dropped off in 1972. But in fact, this was due to the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 by the 26th Amendment. When screening out the 18-20-year-olds, voter participation rates were actually higher in 1972. People under 25 vote at very low rates except for when they get enthused about a single candidate or issue.

Americans generally tend to become politically involved around middle age. Utah’s adult population consists of a much higher percentage of young adults than does the national population. When adjusted for age, Utah’s levels of political involvement are closer to the national average, but are still below the median.

It’s the Decreasing Value of a Vote
After adjusting for age factors, Utah’s registration and voter turnout rates fall into a grouping of other states that are heavily skewed toward either of the political parties, such as West Virginia. In these states, the incentives for political involvement are lower because the overwhelming majority will dictate the outcome of most races. Most of the uninvolved limit their political engagement because they are relatively certain that the outcomes will be about what they would have chosen anyway.

Others feel disenfranchised because there are few rewards for going up against a large majority. For example, I do not support Governor Huntsman’s re-election. But I don’t see that I am much inclined to vote for any of his opponents. And even when I do cast my vote for a different candidate, how much difference will it make? There isn’t the slightest chance that the Governor won’t win a massive landslide victory.

It’s the Lack of Information and Differentiation
I live in a suburban community where 91% of the adult residents were registered to vote in 2007. That’s a very high rate for Utah. A bond to raise an exorbitant amount to build a cover over the city’s lap pool failed by a 71-29% margin in a special June 2007 election. But only 25.6% of registered voters bothered to turn out (see here). And that was considered a magnificently high rate of participation.

Three months later, only 9% of registered voters bothered to turn out for the primary election that winnowed a field of 10 candidates for 3 city council seats down to 6. I complained at the time that even for politically involved voters there was simply insufficient information about most of the candidates, so that it was difficult to develop an informed opinion. For the less involved, it was nearly impossible to detect any qualitative differences. Why bother to vote when there is no detectible difference between candidate A and candidates B and C?

It’s All the Disincentives
Factors such as this lend to citizen apathy toward politics. When people sense that their involvement could actually make a difference, they tend to get engaged. Involvement increases when questions about direct taxation are involved. But when the incentives for getting engaged are low — well, we’re all busy, our time is a scarce resource, and we believe there are much better uses of our time and energy.

It’s Politics
It has often been said that even if you like sausage, you probably don’t want to watch it being made — and that the political process is analogous to sausage making. With the advent of CSPAN, CNN2, and a MSM corps that shoves the bits and twiddles of the political process in our faces 24x7, many people have come to see how politics really work (and always have worked), and it’s not pretty.

It’s the Parties
Church leaders have urged involvement at the grass roots level, where activity can actually make a difference. There is higher value in helping determine who gets on the ballot than in simply voting for those that end up there by whatever means. Still, as friends of mine from different parties have reported, ever since they attended their neighborhood caucus meetings they have been the objects of endless pestering by the national and state parties to cough up cash to put in the parties’ coffers. This is a disincentive to grass roots party involvement.

I used to deride those that referred to our two major political parties as Republicrats or Demblicans (meaning that there isn’t much difference between the parties). There are plenty of differences, but the behavior of both parties at the national level seems to consist of posturing, power plays, and corruption. These ruling elitists seem to care very little about the real ‘Joe the plumbers’ of the world, except to use them as pawns in their games. This poisons the perception of the validity of both parties all the way down to the local level.

Organizing is Hard
I think David’s idea of an organization that encourages political involvement is a worthy cause. I have often argued that Americans are made, not just born. It requires education and involvement to uphold the principles of liberty and justice upon which our country was founded. That’s why I have worked for years to help teach Citizenship in the Nation to Boy Scouts.

It seems, however, that starting a new organization might be a duplication of Project Vote Smart, a non-partisan group that aims to increase citizen awareness of and involvement in politics. The League of Women Voters takes positions, but has worked for years to foster civil discourse and to get information out to voters. I can’t help but wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to work within an established organization such as one of these. At any rate, getting a new organization off the ground requires serious work and commitment.

Activism Needed
It is also important to realize that not everyone that has political interest has a desire to be an activist. For example, I enjoy analyzing, discussing, and providing my opinion on matters. But when it comes to “engag[ing] effectively with public officials [and] organiz[ing] group efforts,” I start thinking that I’ve already got as many irons in the fire as I can manage and that these matters lie outside of my scope of talents.

I know myself pretty well. I regularly stretch myself beyond my comfort zone. But long experience has shown me that I’m no salesman. That is, I don’t mind explaining why I think and act as I do, as well as how others might benefit from thinking or doing likewise. However, I am not the guy that closes the sale. I have organized relatively large church and Scouting events, and will likely continue to do so. But frankly, I hate doing it. And as I explained here and here, I have a certain distaste for the game of politics.

I freely admit that attitudes such as this will make the development of an activist organization an uphill battle. How do you get people involved that already feel that they are doing a good work within their current scope when involvement in another group would take time and resources away from those other efforts? How do you engage people that shy away from activism?

Doing It
I appreciate David’s thoughtful blog posts. I applaud his efforts to put his words into action. I encourage others to get involved and help in this effort. But let’s not delude ourselves. We are fighting against significant disincentives to political involvement. Simply providing information and discussion isn’t going to overcome that.

If you want people in general to get involved, we will have to break down our elitist system and make each vote actually meaningful. Then the incentives for political involvement will increase. It starts with efforts like this.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Making the House of Representatives Representative Again

For years I have stewed about the declining value of an individual vote when it comes to electing and influencing the behavior of our congressional representatives. It simply made no sense to me that we have capped the number of representatives.

This has wildly increased district populations, meaning that each citizen’s voice has less clout with her/his representative. We have ended up with two congressional chambers of elitists rather than having one chamber that is closer to the people. We effectively have two senates.

On the last day of the 1787 constitutional convention, after the document had been finalized and prepared for signing, Nathaniel Gorham proposed that Article I Section 2 be altered. It had read that the minimum population for a congressional district would be 40,000, but Gorham wanted that number reduced to 30,000.

George Washington, though he had presided at the convention, had refrained from speaking out on issues involving the House of Representatives. But he broke his silence on this point and spoke in favor of the reduction because it would increase the number of representatives. He felt that this would help secure “the rights & interests of the people” (see here). The proposal was approved. The ‘fo’ in forty was erased and replaced with ‘thi’ to change the word to thirty.

Since then, the number of representatives increased as the population of the U.S. increased. But in 1911, Congress voted to cap the number of representatives at 435. Congressional districts that once averaged 40,000 citizens in population now average over 700,000 citizens.

The idea that representatives can represent 700,000 people today as effectively as they once represented 40,000 is preposterous, despite our communication technology. The candidates most likely to win are the ones that avoid principled stands and legislate in nondescript ways.

Moreover, the cost of running a campaign to appeal to 700,000 is far higher than the cost of campaigning to appeal to 40,000. Unless one is rich, today’s congressional campaigns require taking lots of money from special interest groups that expect something in return. This severely limits those that can run for office.

If congressional districts today had populations of about 50,000, we’d have about 6,000 members of the House of Representatives. Yes, this would mean more politicians, but it would also mean better representation. You’d see a more nuanced viewpoints. You’d see a decline in the power of the two major parties — of their leadership in the House. Instead of marshaling lieutenants, it would be more like herding cats.

The arguments against returning the House to a truly representative body have been anticipated by J.E. Quidam, who runs an organization called Quidam addresses (here) 15 common questions/issues people have with this proposal. Concerned about having too many politicians, the increased cost, or inability to accomplish anything? Quidam addresses those concerns and others.

The power of lobbyists, big business, and special interest groups would be vastly diminished and diluted. It would be far more difficult to schmooze 6,000 reps than it is to schmooze 435. Legislation would necessarily require a much broader appeal than it does today. Bills would be more readable. Congressional staffs would get smaller. This would not solve all of our country’s problems, but it would certainly get us closer to the principles of freedom envisioned by our Founders.

I frankly have become very disillusioned about politics during this election cycle. My son has been watching the presidential debate tonight. I watched part of it, but I finally had to walk out. It blows my mind to think that one of these fools is about to be the next president of our country. Of course, in retrospect, the last several general elections haven’t offered a much better choice.

If I had my druthers, I’d opt for divided government. Having both houses of Congress plus the executive branch controlled by a single party doesn’t seem to have served us as well as has divided government over the past century or so. Not under FDR. Not under LBJ. And not under GWB.

But I’m also disillusioned about Congress. In fact, one of the reasons I have problems with just about any federal level politician is that I have problems with what the system has become. While I have been concerned about an elitist House of Representatives for many years, I didn’t know until today that there are other people out there that are likewise concerned and that have a plan to do something about it.

I simply can’t get enthused about any candidate at just about any level this election. But this is a cause I can support. Quidam notes that achieving the goal of small congressional districts is improbable. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get the ball rolling.

Boyd K. Packer recently talked about how members of the LDS Church could be so patriotic in 1849 after years of being repeatedly driven from their homes while the government refused to fulfill its obligation to protect its citizens. It was not the government that had failed them that they adored. Rather, it was the principles of freedom and justice upon which this country was founded — the ideals to which we aspire — that was the object of their patriotism.

While I cannot generate enthusiasm for any politician right now, I can generate enthusiasm for a course correction that would bring us closer to the principles upon which our nation was founded.

Friday, October 10, 2008

America Will Pull Through

When I was a kid, my brother brought home a 45-rpm vinyl recording of a tribute to the USA by Canadian commentator Gordon Sinclair (see text, hear recording). I had heard it many times on the old vacuum tube radio we had on the shelf in the bedroom we shared. Like all of the vinyl records we had back then, we listened to this one over and over.

Even as kids we knew that times were turbulent. We could often see the worry in our parents’ faces about what was happening in the nation and in the world. We were at war in Vietnam and opposition to the war was strident. We were experiencing rapid inflation. The scandals surrounding President Nixon seemed to get worse with each passing day. The counter culture was in full bloom everywhere. The whole world seemed to be coming apart.

On June 5, 1973, Gordon Sinclair spoke on nationwide Canadian radio about the many favors Americans had done over the years for other nations, calling us “the most generous and possibly the least-appreciated people in all the world.” He talked about the mess we were in and strongly chided “the many smug, self-righteous” people that were “gloating over [America’s] present troubles.” His chiding was somewhat saucy for that era.

Sinclair’s talk so struck a chord that it was set to patriotic background music and released as a single under the title, “The Americans.” My brother was one of many Americans that bought a copy.

Until today, it had been years since I had heard or even thought about Sinclair’s single. But somehow, current events took me back to 1973. I didn’t remember much of the recording, except that the commentator’s name was Gordon, he was Canadian, he talked about America’s problems, and he said that Americans would “come out of this thing with their flag high.” I had completely forgotten that he had added, “And when they do, they are entitled to thumb their noses at the lands that are gloating over their present troubles.”

A lot has changed since Gordon Sinclair spoke those words 35 years ago. We are no longer the only nation that produces decent commercial aircraft, for example. Although, we are still the only nation that has sent humans to the moon.

The reason current events took me back to 1973 is that conditions today are similarly ominous. We are now being bombarded on all sides with news of the dourest nature. It’s nearly impossible to glimpse any hint of sunshine on the other side of the gathering gloom.

Given the state of affairs, parts of Sinclair’s commentary are applicable today. Contrary to what the doom-and-gloomers say, I believe that we “will come out of this thing with [our] flag held high.” We’re Americans. It’s what we do.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Is Banking Immoral?

Connor Boyack asserts in this post that our banking system is inherently immoral. At issue is the fractional-reserve system.

Most adults understand that the money they deposit in a bank is invested or loaned to others. It is not held in a massive vault like Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. That would be like you trying to privately loan money to someone but still retain the cash in your hand. The bank retains only a fraction (thus, the term fractional) of the actual deposits on hand (in reserve) to meet regular business needs. The bank acts as a clearance house that links up willing investors and those seeking investment capital.

The bank pays us interest for the amount we keep on deposit. The bank charges a higher rate of interest to those that take out loans. After subtracting operating costs, the difference between the interest paid by debtors and the interest paid out to depositors is profit to the bank.

Connor claims that this system is immoral, because most depositors expect to be able to access all of their funds at any time they wish. The system only works because the depositors generally do not all want all of their funds at the same time.

If depositors ever demand more funds than the bank holds in reserve, the bank cannot meet the demand. This is called a run on the bank. The bank would have to call in its loans and sell its investments to satisfy depositors’ demands for their funds.

As far as I can tell, there is no implication in this argument that the bank does not have sufficient assets to cover its liabilities. Rather, Connor seems to assert that fraud exists because deposit funds are expected to be far more liquid than the instruments into which those funds are invested.

Let’s put it this way. If you were to privately loan $5,000 to someone with the agreement that this amount would be repaid in monthly installments over a period of two years at a set interest rate, you would not expect to be able to call in the entire debt should you suddenly decide that you wanted to use that money to buy a car instead. You would patiently wait for each monthly payment to arrive. You would also bear the entire cost, should the debtor default on the loan.

However, if you take that same $5,000 and put it in a regular bank account, the bank might take that money and loan it out under a similar agreement to the one in the private loan example. For your trouble, the bank pays you a portion of the interest from the loan.

But you also expect to be able to walk into the bank tomorrow and pull out the entire $5,000, should you wish to do so. In addition, you expect that your funds will be available even if the debtor defaults on the loan. Thus, your deposited funds are highly liquid, while the corresponding debt is far less liquid.

To Connor this is fraud. I can only assume that he would want the bank to tell you at the time of deposit that you can only withdraw, say, $210 per month and that your funds are toast if the debtor fails to repay the loan.

I disagree that this system is inherently immoral or that fraud exists. Rather, the differences between depositor and debtor expectations of liquidity are calculated as risk. We receive information about the nature of the risk via the interest rates associated with the instruments involved. In fact, this is really the only way depositors and debtors have of understanding the risk of using the clearing house’s services.

Each of us engages in risk calculations on a daily basis. You put your life in jeopardy simply by walking out the door to go to work. Will the total cost (including value derived) of taking mass transit exceed the total cost of driving myself? Would it be better to be a few minutes late, or should I try to get there on an eighth of a tank of gas?

Sometimes we subcontract risk, such as with auto insurance. Even ordering something off the Internet to be delivered to your home is a type of risk subcontract. You transfer the risk of driving to the store to the professional UPS driver, for example. If the item arrives damaged, you expect the seller and/or shipper to bear the cost of replacing the item.

In these examples and many other daily risk transfer decisions, the costs of our actions are constantly in front of our faces helping us make informed decisions, even if we don’t understand how the whole system works.

I do not see that the use of a bank as a clearing house is much different than other types of risk transfers in which we regularly engage. The costs of the risks involved in depositing funds in a bank are readily apparent. If you choose a very low-interest deposit instrument, your funds are safer than if you choose a riskier investment. The bank bears the cost of failed loans usually with small impact to you.

Financial Immorality
The problem we run into is when the pricing mechanisms tied to banking transactions are messed up. The prices (interest rates) constitute the information we need to make informed decisions and to weigh alternatives. When anyone meddles with interest rates, we get inaccurate information. This causes investors and depositors to make faulty decisions, resulting in bad behavior.

When a business manipulates financial information, it is called fraud and it should be prosecuted. When the government meddles with interest rates it is called shoring up the economy, or some other politically correct term that is trumpeted by the media and swallowed up by citizens.

In the former case, a firm is trying to unfairly harm others to their benefit. In the latter case, the political class is inserting itself into the market under the guise of altruistically improving the common good (see Aschwin de Wolf article) — paving the road with noble intentions. But in either case, deception is being employed to manipulate the messages participants in the market rely on to make informed decisions. This is immoral.

As economist Judy Shelton noted in this WSJ article, it is not the overall system that is broken, but rather our medium of exchange — “the measure, the standard, the store of value -- which defines the very substance of the economic contract between buyer and seller.” She writes, “It is the money that is broken.”

In other words, our Federal Reserve System is at the heart of our current crisis. Shelton writes:
“Think of it: Nothing is more vital to capitalism than capital, the financial seed corn dedicated to next year's crop. Yet we, believers in free markets, allow the price of capital, i.e., the interest rate on loanable funds, to be fixed by a central committee in accordance with government objectives. We might as well resurrect Gosplan, the old Soviet State Planning Committee, and ask them to draw up the next five-year plan.”
Whenever I mention the problems with the Fed and suggest that there are viable and better alternatives, people’s eyes tend to gloss over and the ticker tape running in the background starts spitting out, “Warning! Warning! Crazy lunatic!” They have accepted the propaganda about how much the Fed is needed to create economic stability (gee, that sure worked out well) and how awful things were in the days before the Fed.

Even for those that disagree with me about the (im)morality of the private banking system, I suggest that they take a closer look at the inherent immorality of our public banking system. I hope people start thinking to themselves, “There has got to be a better and freer way.”

Friday, October 03, 2008

A Time to Laugh

There isn’t much to be cheery about lately. Pretty much everything we have been barraged with has been quite negative. But even in the most serious of times, it is important to smile and laugh. Humor is an essential element to a balanced and happy life.

I once was attended by a neurologist that had an extremely dry wit. Moreover, he spoke in a nasally monotone that made intoned nuances and emotional intent elusive. I think that many people didn’t realize it at all, but this guy was constantly injecting humor. And much of it was pretty funny stuff.

Not everyone can appreciate deadpan humor. I have a brother that excels at it. I have another brother that is the family funny man. He’s been that way since we were kids. He has a natural ability to make people laugh. He even had the congregation laughing at my Dad’s funeral and it didn’t seem inappropriate at all.

I notice that my children have different styles of humor. My oldest son very much likes sarcasm. He doesn’t mind humor with a sharp edge or a dark hue to it.

My #2 son has worked at being funny over the past few months. He really came to love this Pablo Francisco comedy routine called Little Tortilla Boy:

My son liked it so much that he worked to mimic it, and then he expanded on it. A few weeks ago his high school had tryouts for acts for their homecoming assembly. My son tried out and was accepted.

I went to the auditorium the morning of the assembly with my video camera. The place was swarming. I had to stand at the back, where I had a good view of the stage, but was a fair distance away.

The girl that did the first act sang a patriotic country song. She had a beautiful voice, but she was not an entertainer. She just stood still and sang. This was just as school was starting. Many students were greeting each other and talking over her performance. The audience was not engaged with the performer. I felt badly for her.

Then my son came out and did his performance. It took only a few seconds for the audience to become engaged. The response was great. Even the teachers were impressed. Unfortunately my position made the images shaky and infused a lot of audience noise. Still, it’s a pretty good performance for a kid his age. And it’s funny.

More Is Less

Well, the massive bailout bill that has been ‘improved’ with massive infusions of pork is now the law of the land (see AP article). The same government that created the conditions that caused the crisis will now print loads of money that it doesn’t have and distribute it pretty much however the imperial Treasury Department sees fit. This will, of course, solve the crisis.

And if you believe that, there’s a bridge I’d like to sell you.

Out of Utah’s five members of Congress, two voted against it (see KSL article). Rep. Rob Bishop (R) of the first congressional district and Rep. Jim Matheson (D) of the second congressional district both voted no. Outgoing Rep. Chris Cannon (R) of the third congressional district enthusiastically supported the bill, as did Sen. Bob Bennett (R). Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) gave some cautionary lip service, but ultimately voted for the bill, as did three quarters of all senators, because, “We’ve got to do something. Doing something is better than doing nothing.” I don’t even let my kids get away with such lame excuses.

Peggy Noonan finds the events of the past couple of weeks both historic and instructive. Questioning the seriousness of the economic condition, Noonan writes, “We have never seen an economic meltdown like this? We've never seen a presidential meltdown like this. George W. Bush's weakness is not all lame-duckship. … After the first bailout failed, Mr. Bush spoke like a man who was a mere commentator, not the leader in a crisis.”

Noonan explains why she thinks this is important:
“We witness here a great political lesson. When you are president, it matters—it really matters—that a majority of the people support and respect you. When you squander that affection, you lose more than mere popularity. You lose the ability to lead when your country is in crisis. This is a terrible loss, and a dangerous one, for the whole world is watching.”
While Noonan’s observations strike a chord, she seems not to appreciate the fact that even as her article went to press, it was quite certain that the bailout bill would succeed the second time around. Pres. Bush, for all his squandering of trust and lame-duckness was able, with only 3½ months remaining in his presidency, to pass the single largest transfer of the private economy to centralized government control in the history of our nation. And he did so with masses of Americans clamoring for it to happen. Marx would be proud.

While Noonan’s assessment of Bush’s weakness seems somewhat myopic, I think Noonan is right on a more significant point. Everything that Pres. Bush has accomplished with the passage of this bill diminishes him in many ways. It diminishes the institution of Congress. It diminishes the free market. And it diminishes each of us as Americans.

With the passage of the bailout, we are less — both individually and as a whole — than we were before. This accomplishment may even trump that of the damage Bill Clinton did to the office of the presidency. It’s kind of grand, in a rather macabre way.