2/13/2012

small potatoes

This post attempts to organize some thoughts regarding where we are headed. It's fun when there is a clear vision, but perhaps the most important times for reflection are when things are muddier. Basically, if we can identify unsustainable trends, we can identify sources of change. While the catch is anticipating what exactly that change will be, having some semblance of the terrain is useful.

One of the analytical approaches that interests me is where the tendency toward optimism/pessimism intersects awareness of reality vs. fiction. There is a lot of emphasis in our culture on the first dimension, almost as if being optimistic is more important than being right. Visually, it puts the emphasis like this, on the vertical columns.


However, an attempt to rationally understand the world around us needs to compensate for that natural cognitive fallibility by emphasizing the horizontal.


Truth requires an ability to interpret events both optimistically and pessimistically, to have a vision of what could be yet also a sense of what might go wrong.

With a couple decades of general wage stagnation providing the context for several years of very specific economic hardship and dislocation, the strategy of the governing coalition of interests in the US appears both clear and consistent. Outside of the national security nexus (GWOT, drug war, deportation, etc.) neither the Bush nor Obama Administrations are particularly hostile toward or directly targeting 'average' Americans. The 'not Hitler' meme was one of the better ones that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert encouraged at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. Metal Chris captured this one:

Hitler Sign

In other words, it is not so much that individual political leaders act maliciously toward the citizenry so much as they don't care about us. Apathy is the key descriptor; we are simply irrelevant. All of the energy in government is devoted to marshaling whatever resources are necessary to save the Big Fish. What we are left with is the crumbs; small potatoes, so to speak. You can almost see the political class psyching themselves up to sell the latest batch of small potatoes for the masses as something of remotely similar importance to the efforts to save the Masters of the Universe. The transparency that Vice President Biden accidentally showed at the health care press conference, for example, revealed so much.


It's not that Bush's Medicare 'Modernization' or Obama's HCR 'most important reform since FDR nevermind that Medicare thingy in the 60s' are Terrible Legislation that will Destroy America. It's not that Bush was an Idiot or Obama is a Kenyan Muslim Fascist. It's not that abortion and gay rights renders America ungovernable and/or on a path of moral decay and damnation.

Rather, that's not where the action is. Two successive presidents, from two different parties, pushed massively complicated bills that purported to make the healthcare system significantly better. Yet they didn't actually solve the problem of expensive healthcare that causes preventable deaths.

I learned to hone in on that tactic of over-selling and under-delivering as a teenager, and it has proven to be one of the most insightful observations in comparing words and deeds. It's the 'let your yes be yes and no be no' philosophy: either government should do something (such as guarantee quality healthcare for all citizens) or it shouldn't. Both are legitimate beliefs. So is I don't know/let me think about it/it's not important to me. But to pick bits and pieces from both is to give away that neither belief is sincerely held; rather, they are merely justifications for acting upon an unrelated set of beliefs (like the belief that government should protect the economic interests of the wealthy).

Clarity has been particularly revealed with the financial crisis because we now have so much data upon which to draw. It's a simple statement of fact to observe that the Obama Administration supports the use of law enforcement resources to arrest hundreds of thousands of people every year, from illegal drug users to illegal residents to illegal assemblers. Yet one specific group of criminals stand in stark contrast to this massive deployment of police and prisons: politically connected financial crooks. There are literally more baseball players in legal trouble for testimony given before Congress related to steroid usage than there are top corporate executives and board members in legal trouble for all financial crimes combined. The current Secretary of the Treasury was literally head of the New York Federal Reserve when the proverbial bile was impacting the proverbial turbine. The ongoing effort to enter into a mortgage settlement is designed to give the Too Big To Fail financial firms immunity from liability in court - that's the point, that's what a settlement is - a settling of claims of unlawful behavior outside of court.

The preceding paragraph is neither pessimistic nor partisan. It's simply recognizing where we are at. The past and current Presidents of the United States think cocaine users, whistleblowers, protesters, and immigrants should be treated like murderers while financial fraudsters should be treated like people who don't pay a parking meter.

This is beyond specific policy debates or even broad ideological contests. We are now in the realm of questioning, of bringing to light, the core foundations of the American experiment, in all of its grandiose, exciting, and dangerous forms.

Is the Constitution the foundational pillar of secular governance, or do we now look to something else? Is there a rule of law, or a rule by men? Do we want to participate in a peaceful world order, or do we want to instill an American world order? Our basic systems of property and finance and law are quite literally crumbling around us. It's not pessimistic to point this out, to consider the implications. It's responsible.

We know housing prices got out of control. We know higher education costs got out of control. We know healthcare costs got out of control. If actual solutions to these kinds of problems are not going to be forthcoming, that is important to know, to understand what it really means. If you're a Big Fish, you play things very differently, but for areas of American life that depend upon the broad 'middle class', there are only two outcomes. Either public policy ultimately changes and we start encouraging wage growth again (either directly through employment policies or indirectly through additional transfer payments like universal unemployment insurance), or the asset classes dependent upon wages will simply wither away.

This has to happen*.

Either $20,000 - $30,000 a year has to become what it is elsewhere in the world - a comfortable living - or millennials in aggregate looking for jobs have to have a way to earn much more than that in entry level positions. Xers have to have broadly accessible means of earning promotions and switching careers. Baby boomers need to be able to easily replace lost jobs and find part-time income in retirement.

We have utilized credit to bring forward as much consumption as possible. The distant future is finite, too. And the near-future was spent in the past.

Household formation has slowed. New home sales are at record low levels. Record numbers of Americans do not participate in the healthcare system. The percentage of Americans employed has dropped precipitously. Millennials are even ditching things like cable and phones. Student loans - financial commitments undertaken by minors deemed incompetent to buy a Bud Light - can't be discharged in bankruptcy, ever.

Any asset that depends upon middle class wages, any industry that sells to those last marginal dollars of disposable income, will simply shrivel up to a much smaller core.

That's what I don't follow about some of the more intense hyperinflation perspectives. Massive increases in broad pricing measures ultimately requires the government to get money into the pockets of 'normal' people somehow. But that's not the bailout mechanism this time around. The most well connected players are seeing such socialism, but the general citizenry confronts a dearth of capital. I wonder if our 'capitalist' system can handle such misallocation of resources on such a grand scale.

But what I don't wonder is that it is a misallocation. Undermining the rule of law causes many more problems than it solves.

*It is becoming increasingly difficult to get simple, accurate information. The Consumer Price Index, for example, is so watered down and altered that it's not even clear why it's a good measure. A KC strip steak from grass fed open range cattle simply is not substitutable with a breast from a tightly caged, anti-biotically stuffed, corn-fed melange of chickens. Our political process helpfully focuses attention on the relatively small amount of trinkets from places like China and India when the bulk of American household expenses go to much more mundane domestic sources like housing, healthcare, higher education, food, transportation, and so forth. I keep anal financial records, so I thought it interesting to look at a few specific items of my own. By my various calculations, I had a stretch of rental increases that amount to an annualized rate of 4.8%, tuition and fees at Wash U increased by 5%, the cost of an entry level car increased 6%, health insurance increased 12.6%, and food increased 14.7%. The drawback of course is that by being specific, it's unique to me and just anecdotal. But comparing that against the average annual increase in household income over the past decade - 1.6% - it's obvious to see something has to give.

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