LESSONS LEARNED #51: “The longer you wait to balance your books the harder it will be to balance them.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 3rd, 2011

Almost half of a Plantation’s Value was its Slaves

Slave labor wasn’t cheap.  First there was the capital expenditure to purchase the slaves.  Then you had to feed them, clothe them, house them, etc.  It took money.  But that money made money.  Mostly on the big plantations.  Where the division of labor was minimal.  And large labor gangs could work a single crop profitably.

The more slaves on a plantation the more land they could work.  So the more slaves on a plantation the more valuable the plantation was.  Like a dairy farm with many dairy cows is worth more than one with fewer cows.  A productive dairy farm makes money.  And it can borrow money to grow.  Ditto for a cotton plantation. 

Now suppose we free dairy cows everywhere.  They’re free to walk off of their farms and pursue their own lives.  What will become of the dairy farm?  It won’t make money.  It won’t be able to pay back its loans.  The farm will lose value.  Because no one will buy it without the cows to make milk.  Dairy farmers everywhere will go broke.  And they will lose their farms.   

If not for the Civil War, Abolition would have been the Greatest of all Bailouts

When we discuss slavery, we focus more on issues of morality.  But the reason we had it for so long is partly due to the economics.  There was a large price tag attached to abolition.  And the question was who was going to pay?  Slavery, though immoral, was legal.  The plantations grew.  They purchased more slaves.  Worked more land.  Incurred debts to grow further.  All based on the collateral of their plantation.  Much of which was their slaveholdings.

Based on the 1790 census, there were just fewer than 700,000 slaves in America.  At the time, the nation’s finances were in a mess.  We were begging Europe to loan us money.  There was no money available to reimburse the slave owners.  And the North didn’t want to pay for this ‘southern’ problem.  There was no easy way to free the slaves without a huge financial hit.  For someone.  So we tabled the issue.  For another generation to consider.  And resolve.

But we didn’t.  By 1860, the slave population topped 3.8 million.  That’s over 5 times the number from the 1790 census.  The cost to reimburse these slave holders had grown to over $3 billion dollars.  That was almost 70% of the 1860 GDP.  In comparison, the total budget of George W. Bush reached as high as 69% of GDP.  Clearly, the cost of freeing the slaves was huge.  It dwarfed all other federal spending.  And this is one of the reasons that it took a war to finally resolve.  And it was our nation’s bloodiest conflict.  More died in the American Civil War than did in WWI and WWII combined.  And the war devastated the southern economy.  Besides the direct war damage, the South was impoverished.  And easy pickings for northern carpetbaggers.

The issue of slavery was less costly to resolve sooner than later.  But the price was always so great that the institution continued on because no one was willing to bear the costs at any time.  This only guaranteed that the final reckoning would be greater.  Which it was.  The final cost was so great it nearly destroyed the nation.  And bitter feelings linger to this day.

Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste

Woodrow Wilson and his fellow Progressives were going to change the world.  But that didn’t work so well.  In fact, a lot of their meddling just crashed the economy.  Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon helped President Warren Harding fix the economy.  And we got the Roaring Twenties.

But the Progressives kept tinkering.  And Republican Herbert Hoover was even a bit of a Progressive himself.  Anyway, some government mismanagement (and inept Federal Reserve actions) gave us the Great Depression.  Our nation’s greatest crisis.   Which Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) would exploit to transform the nation with his New Deal.

FDR’s economic policies failed.  Only capitalism re-unfettered for the war effort brought the nation back.  Even though he failed he is still remembered fondly by most Americans.  He stood fast with our allies and defeated Nazi Germany.  And he gave us Social Security.  Which, financially speaking, will cost the nation more than defeating the Nazis did.

The Great Ponzi Scheme Social Security

Social Security was originally intended to help poor widows who had struggled through the Great Depression.  It has subsequently grown to cover retirement and disabilities.  Not a big deal then.  The actuaries crunched their numbers.  They took into account immigration, birthrates, life spans, death rates and other important stuff.  Like actuaries are wont to do.  And they figured it would work.  Because we had a growing population.  With a lot more younger people entering the workforce than there were old people retiring and collecting benefits.

So, like a Ponzi scheme, Social Security was as sound as a pound.  As long as their assumptions held.  But they didn’t.  Immigration slowed.  Our life spans increased.  And worse, we just weren’t having as many babies as we once did.  Now we had more people retiring and collecting benefits.  And fewer entering the workforce to pay for these retirees.  The pyramid inverted itself.  The base was smaller than the tip.  And that just ain’t good for a Ponzi scheme.

Everyone predicts Social Security will go bankrupt.  They’ve been trying to fix it through the years.  To extend the solvency.  By reducing benefits.  Raising taxes.  And raising the retirement age (to decrease the years retirees collect benefits).  These ‘fixes’ have pushed insolvency out a few more years.  But it hasn’t addresses the elephant in the room.  Old people.  They’re living longer than the actuaries ever imagined.  Worse, because they’re living so long, they’re getting all kinds of medical problems that are costing Medicare and Medicaid a lot of money.  And, you guessed it, they’re going bankrupt, too.

Why Fix something Today that we can Leave for Future Generations?

Because there are so many seniors in these programs no politician wants to touch them.  They’re the ‘third rails’ of politics.  Seniors vote.  And if you cut their benefits, they’re probably not going to vote for you.  Every politician knows this well.  So, like slavery, they table the issue for a later generation to address.  But every day that passes, more seniors join the ranks of the retired and begin collecting benefits.  While fewer people enter the workforce to pay for their retirement.  Which guarantees that the cost to fix these problems will grow ever larger.

The day of reckoning will arrive.  It always does.  For the issue of slavery it was civil war.  Over in Europe as they struggle to control their out of control spending they’re having riots.  Which sometimes happens when you take away stuff from large numbers of people.  Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that here.  But one thing that we can be pretty certain about.  Fixing this problem is going to hurt someone in the wallet.  And the longer we wait, the greater that someone will hurt.

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