How to save the world

It’s a cool rainy day in Knoxville, so I’ve been catching up on my reading.  Yesterday’s Daily Reckoning had a great article titled “How to Save the World” and I want to post a bit of it here with some comments, because it sums up the cause – and the solution – to the economic train wreck we’re all watching.

I like this line: It is not often that we are called upon to advise the world’s government. In fact, we can’t remember a single time. But we can’t resist a lost cause. So, we offer the Daily Reckoning Plan to Save the World, or DRPtStW for short.

Humor like that always make Bill Bonner’s articles a great read.

Just read the Financial Times. This week it has a windy series on the “Future of Capitalism,” inviting readers to imagine how the decaying old creed might be reformed. Alas, for capitalism, it’s out of the frying pan, into the toilet. Larry Summers, Obama’s number one financial advisor, voiced the prevailing view: “This notion that the economy is self-stabilizing is usually right, but it is wrong a few times a century. And this is one of those times…there’s a need for extraordinary public action at those times.”

Larry Summers is wrong.  The economy is self stabilizing – if only government would get the hell out of the way and let the stabilization happen.

The gist of his program can be expressed in another wistful absurdity: The consumer economy died because of too much spending; now we will revive it by spending more. “Give me your cunning bankers, your hopeless CEOs, your huddled masses of chiselers, spendthrifts and boondogglers,” says the Obama team, “and we’ll give them other peoples’ money!”

This is Keynesian economic theory in action.  It’s just as wrong now as it was in the 1930’s, but the government feels it has to do “something” even it it doesn’t makes sense.

Note – government spending in times of economic slowdown can help alleviate the suffering, but only the government has money to spend.  We’re $11 trillion in debt. Too much debt caused the problem – does anyone really think borrowing more is going to fix it?

“There’s no place that should be reducing its contribution to global demand right now,” explained Summers. “The world needs more demand.” But it was demand that the world recently had too much of. English speakers took on too much debt to create it…and built too many houses and too many shopping malls to satiate it. And despite the ready cash offered by Bush, Bernanke, and Paulson, demand has sunk, because the real problem is not an absence of spending, but a surfeit of debt. In America, for example, total debt went from 150% of GDP in the ’80s to 350% in 2007. The financial markets panicked when it became clear that debtors didn’t have the cash flow to pay off the debt…and that an entire world economy had been fizzed up to supply products to people who couldn’t afford them. Investors have been discounting debt-soaked assets ever since.

The fix is obvious – reduce the level of debt. About $20 trillion worth of debt, in the United States alone, needs to disappear. Then, consumers can go back to doing what they do best – consuming. But how do you reduce the debt level? Former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon had the right idea in 1929: ‘Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate…It will purge the rottenness out of the system…Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.”

It really is that simple.  That’s capitalism.  People who make bad decisions go broke, and people who make good decisions get wealthy.  Government interference only gums up the process and keeps it from working.  Which is about the only thing governments do well.

What’s the cure for a depression? It’s a depression. Let willing buyers and sellers mark debt down to what it is really worth. Mellon’s plan was not followed by the Hoover or Roosevelt administrations. Instead, they introduced elaborate bailouts, stimulus programs, and boondoggles. That is why the depression is known as the Great Depression, rather than the So-so Depression. By the end of the 30s, the US economy was almost exactly the same size it had been at the beginning. Likewise, in Japan, holding off liquidation brought a “lost decade” in the ’90s. Bush followed in Hoover’s footsteps. And now, the Obama administration follows in Roosevelt’s and Miyazawa’s.

Here’s our advice: forget it. Let the depression do its work. Let the bad times roll!

Great article Mr. Bonner.


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