LESSONS LEARNED #28: “Politicians love failure because no one ever asked government to fix something that was working.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 26th, 2010

THE TELEVISION SHOW Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. aired from 1964-1969.  It was a spinoff from the Andy Griffith Show.  Gomer, a naive country bumpkin who worked at Wally’s filling station, joined the Marines Corps.  And there was much mirth and merriment.  To the chagrin of Sergeant Carter, Pyle’s drill instructor (DI).  Think of Gunny Sergeant R. Lee Ermey’s Sergeant Hartman in the movie Full Metal Jacket only with no profanity or mature subject matter.  Sergeant Carter was a tough DI like Sergeant Hartman.  But more suitable for the family hour on prime time television.

Gunny sergeants are tough as nails.  And good leaders.  They take pride in this.  But sometimes a gunny starts to feel that he’s not himself anymore.  This was the subject of an episode.  And Gomer, seeing that Sergeant Carter was feeling down, wanted to help.  So he stuffed Sergeant Carter’s backpack with hay before a long march.  While the platoon was worn and tired, Sergeant Carter was not.  He was feeling good.  Like his old self.  Until he found out he was not carrying the same load his men were.  He asked Pyle, “why hay?”  He could understand rocks, but hay?  Because if he outlasted his men while carrying a heavier load, he would feel strong.  But knowing he had carried a lighter load only made him feel weak.

This is human nature.  People take pride in their achievements.  They don’t take pride in any achievement attained by an unfair advantage.  Self-esteem matters.  And you can’t feel good about yourself if you need help to do what others can do without help. 

AN OLD CHINESE proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  Let’s say I am a fisherman in a small village.  I catch fish to feed my family and sell/trade for other family needs.  There’s a man in my village who asks me for a fish each day so he can eat.  I’m a caring person.  So I give him a fish each day.  So a pattern develops.  Each day he shows up when I come in from my fishing.  He takes the fish and goes away.  It works out well for him.  He doesn’t have to work.  He can live off of my kind charity.  Then I move.  Without me being there to give him a fish each day, he no longer can eat.  And dies.  If I only had taught that man to fish. 

Kindness can lead to dependency.  And once dependent, you become lazy.  Why develop marketable skills to provide for yourself when someone else will provide for you?  The problem is, of course, what happens when that charity ends?  If you’re unable to provide for yourself and there is no longer someone providing for you, what do you do?  Steal?

Dependency and a lack of self-esteem are a dangerous combination.  And they feed off of each other.  This combination can lead to depression.  Behavioral problems.  Resentment.  Bitterness.  Envy.  Or a defeatist attitude.

These are often unintended consequences of government programs.  A failed program, then, has far reaching consequences beyond the initial economic costs of a program.

LIQUIDITY CRISES CAUSE a lot of economic damage.  If capital is not available for businesses to borrow, businesses can’t grow.  Or create jobs.  And we need jobs.  People have to work.  To support themselves.  And to pay taxes to fund the government.  So everyone is in favor of businesses growing to create jobs.  We all would like to see money being easy and cheap to borrow if it creates jobs.

But there is a downside to easy money.  Inflation.  Too much borrowing can create inflation.  By increasing the money supply (via fractional reserve banking).  More money means higher prices.  Because each additional dollar is worth a little less. This can lead to overvalued assets as prices are ‘bid’ up with less valuable dollars.  And higher prices can inflate business profits.  Looks good on paper.  But too much of this creates a bubble.  Because those high asset values and business profits are not real.  They’re inflated.  Like a bubble.  And just as fragile.  When bubbles burst, asset values and business profits drop.  To real values.  People are no longer ‘bidding’ up prices.  They stop buying until they think prices have sunk to their lowest.  We call this deflation.  A little bit of inflation or deflation is normal.  Too much can be painful economically.  Like in the Panic of 1907.

Without going into details, there was a speculative bubble that burst in 1907.  This led to a liquidity crisis as banks failed.  Defaults on loans left banks owing more money than they had (i.e., they became illiquid).  They tried to borrow money and recall loans to restore their liquidity.  Borrowers grew concerned that their bank may fail.  So they withdrew their money.  This compounded the banks problems.  This caused deflation.  Money was unavailable.  Causing bank runs.  And bank failures.  Business failures.  And unemployment grew. So government passed the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 to prevent a crisis like this from ever happening again.  The government gave the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) great powers to tweak the monetary system.  The smartest people at the time had figured out what had gone wrong in 1907.  And they created a system that made it impossible for it to happen again.

The worst liquidity crisis of all time happened from 1929-1933.  It’s part of what we call the Great Depression.  The 1920s had a booming economy.  Real income was rising.  Until the Fed took action.  Concerned that people were borrowing money for speculative purposes (in paper investments instead of labor, plant and material), they put on the brakes.  Made it harder and more expensive to borrow money.  Then a whole series of things happened along the way that turned a recession into a depression.  When people needed money, they made it harder to get it, causing a deflationary spiral.  The Great Depression was the result of bad decisions made by too few men with too much power.  It made a crisis far worse than the one in 1907.  And the Roosevelt administration made good use of this new crisis.  FDR exploded the size of government to respond to the unprecedented crisis they found themselves in.  The New Deal changed America from a nation of limited government to a country where Big Government reigns supreme.

ONE PROGRAM OF the New Deal was Social Security.  Unemployment in the 1930s ran at or above 14%.  This is for one whole decade.  Never before nor since has this happened.  Older workers generally earn more than younger ones.  Their experience commands a higher pay rate.  Which allows them to buy more things.  Resulting in more bills.  Therefore, the Great Depression hit older workers especially hard.  A decade of unemployment would have eaten through any life savings of even the most prudent savers.  And what does this get you?  A great crisis.

The government took a very atypical moment of history and changed the life of every American.  The government forced people to save for retirement.  In a very poor savings plan.  That paid poorly by comparison to private pensions or annuities.  And gave the government control over vast amounts of money.  It was a pervasive program.  They say FDR quipped, “Let them try to undo this.” 

With government taking care of you in retirement, more people stopped providing for themselves.  When they retired, they scrimped by on their ‘fixed’ incomes.  And because Social Security became law before widespread use of birth control and abortion, the actuaries of the day were very optimistic.  They used the birth rate then throughout their projections.  But with birth control and abortion came a huge baby bust.  The bottom fell out of the birth rate.  A baby bust generation followed a baby boom generation.  Actually, all succeeding generations were of the bust kind.  The trend is growing where fewer and fewer people pay for more and more people collecting benefits.  And these people were living longer.  To stay solvent, the system has to raise taxes on those working and reduce benefits on those who are not.  Or raise the retirement age.  All these factors have made it more difficult on our aged population.  Making them working longer than they planned.  Or by making that fixed income grow smaller.

FDR used a crisis to create Social Security.  Now our elderly people are dependent on that system.  It may suck when they compare it to private pensions or annuities, but it may be all they have.  If so, they’ll quake in their shoes anytime anyone mentions reforming Social Security.  Because of this it has become the 3rd rail of politics.  A politician does not touch it lest he or she wishes to die politically.  But it’s not all bad.  For the politician.  Because government forced the elderly to rely on them for their retirement, it has made the Social Security recipient dependent on government.  In particular, the party of government who favors Big Government.  The Democrats.  And with a declining birth rate and growing aged population, this has turned into a large and loyal voting bloc indeed.  Out of fear.

A PROGRAM THAT straddled the New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).  Its original New Deal purpose was to help widows take care of their children.  When program outlays peaked in the 1970s, the majority of recipients were unmarried women and divorced women.  Because this was a program based on need, the more need you had the more you got.  Hence more children meant more money.  It also reduced the importance of marriage as the government could replace the support typically provided by a husband/father.  Noted economist Dr. Thomas Sowell blames AFDC as greatly contributing to the breakdown of the black family (which has the highest incidence of single-parent households).

With the women’s liberation movement, women have come to depend less on men.  Some affluent women conceive and raise children without a husband.  Or they adopt.  And the affluent no doubt can provide all the material needs their children will ever need.  Without a husband.  Or a father for their children.  But is that enough?

The existence of ‘big brother’ programs would appear to prove otherwise.  Troubled children are often the products of broken families.  Mothers search for big brothers to mentor these fatherless sons.  To be role models.  To show an interest in these children’s lives.  To care.  When no such role models are available, some of these troubled children turn to other sources of acceptance and guidance.  Like gangs.

AFDC has compounded this problem by providing the environment that fosters fatherless children.  And another government program compounds that problem.  Public housing.

POOR HOUSING CONDITIONS hurt families.  They especially hurt broken families.  Without a working husband, these families are destined to live in the cheapest housing available.  These are often in the worst of neighborhoods.  This is an unfair advantage to the children raised in those families.  For it wasn’t their fault they were born into those conditions.  So, to solve that problem, government would build good public housing for these poorest of the poor to move into.  Problem solved.

Well, not exactly.  Public housing concentrates these broken families together.  Usually in large apartment buildings.  This, then, concentrates large numbers of troubled children together.  So, instead of having these children dispersed in a community, public housing gathers them together.  Where bad behavior reinforces bad behavior.  It becomes the rule, not the exception.  Making a mother’s job that much more difficult.  And because these children live together, they also go to school together.  And this extends the bad behavior problem to the school.  Is it any wonder that public housing (i.e., the projects) have the worst living conditions?  And some of the highest gang activity? 

Government didn’t plan it this way.  It’s just the unintended consequences of their actions.  And those consequences are devastating.  To the poor in general.  To the black family in particular.  AFDC and public housing enabled irresponsible/bad behavior.  That behavior destroyed families.  As well as a generation or two.  But it wasn’t all bad.  For the politicians.  It made a very large constituency dependent on government.

THERE ARE SO many more examples.  But the story is almost always the same.  Dependency and a lack of self-esteem will beat down a person’s will.  Like an addict, it will make the dependent accept poorer and poorer living standards in exchange for their fix of dependency.  Eventually, the dependency will reach the point where they will not know how to provide for themselves.  The dependency will become permanent.  As will the lack of self-esteem.  Conscious or not of their actions, Big Government benefits from the wretched state they give these constituencies.  With no choice but continued dependence, they vote for the party that promises to give the most.  Which is typically the Democrat Party.

But how can you fault these politicians?  They acted with the best of intentions.  And they can fix these new problems.  They’ll gather the brightest minds.  They’ll study these problems.  And they will produce the best programs to solve these problems.  All it will take is more government spending.  And how can you refuse?  When people are hungry.  Or homeless.  Or have children that they can’t care for.  How can anyone not want to help the children?  How can anyone not have compassion?

Well, compassion is one thing.  When the innocent suffer.  But when government manufactures that suffering, it’s a different story.  Planned or not the result is the same whenever government tries to fix things.  The cost is high.  The solution is typically worse than the original problem.  And the poorest of the poor are pawns.  To be used by Big Government in the name of compassion. 

Of course, if Big Government were successful in fixing these problems, they would fix themselves right out of existence.  So as long as they want to run Big Government programs, they’ll need a stock of wretched, suffering masses that need their help.  And, of course, lots of crises.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #20: “It is never a consumer that complains about ‘predatory’ pricing.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 29th, 2010

LOW PRICES.  GOD help me, I do hate them so.  I hate them with every fiber of my body.

Who says this?  Do you?  I don’t.  Of all the times I’ve spent shopping, I have never heard anyone bitch about low prices.  I’ve heard people bitch about high prices.  But never about low prices.  When gas approached $3/gallon, people bitched about that being too high and drove 10 miles to find ‘cheap’ gas to save a few pennies per gallon.  Let it approach $4/gallon and they’ll want Congress to take action.  To attack Big Oil.  To seize their oil and their profits and give us cheap gasoline in return.  But when gas was cheap, no one ever bitched about it being ‘too’ cheap.  It just doesn’t happen that way.  People bitch about high prices.  Not low prices.

So who bitches about low prices?  Competitors.  There’s a saying that competition makes everything better.  And it does.  It lowers prices.  And raises quality.  And who is looking for lower prices and higher quality?  Consumers.  Who isn’t?  Competitors.  Especially competitors with political connections.

WHEN THE BIG 3 were putting out crap in the 1970s, they did so because they could.  I mean, who else were you going to buy a car from?  So what if your car breaks down and the fenders and quarter panels rust away?  That just means you gotta buy another car sooner rather than later.  A pretty sweet deal.  Especially when there are only three places to go to buy a car.  And each of the Big 3 is selling the same crap.

Then the Japanese had to go and ruin a good thing.  They started selling cars in America.  These cars were smaller than your typical American car.  But there were other differences.  They didn’t rust like the American cars.  They didn’t break down as much.  And the imports were cheaper than the American cars.  Lower price and higher quality.  More bang for the buck.  Exactly what consumers were demanding.

So what was the response of the Big 3?  Did they rise to the level of their new competitors and deliver what the consumer wanted?  No.  They ran to government for help.  For protection.  And they got it.  Voluntary Export Restraints (VER).  The government negotiated with the Japanese to ‘voluntarily’ limit the number of cars they exported to the United States.  Or else.  So they did.  To avoid worse protectionist policies.  Problem solved.  Competition was limited.  And the Big 3 were very profitable in the short run.  Everyone lived happily ever after.  Until the Japanese refused to play nice.

The problem was what the Big 3 did with those profits.  Or, rather, what they didn’t do with them.  They didn’t reinvest them to raise themselves up to the level of the Japanese.  Protected, they saw no incentive to change.  Not when you have Big Government on your side.  And how did that work for them?  Not good. 

So look, the Japanese said, the Americans like our cars.  If the American manufacturers won’t give them what they want, we will.  While honoring the VER.  We won’t export more cars.  We’ll just build bigger and better cars to export.  And they did.  The Big 3 were no longer up against inexpensive, higher quality subcompacts on the fringe of their market share.  Now their mid-size and large-size cars had competition.  And this wasn’t on the fringe of their market share.  This was their bread and butter.  What to do?  Build better cars and give Americans more bang for their buck?  Or run to government again?  What do you think?

The Big 3 assaulted the Japanese under the guise of ‘fair trade’.  The cry went out that unless the Japanese opened up their markets to American imports (in particular auto parts), we should restrict Japanese imports.  To protect American jobs.  To protect the American worker.  To protect the children.  This was code for please make the Japanese cars more unattractive to purchasers so they will settle for the more costly and lower quality cars we’re making.  (Let’s not forget the reason Americans were buying the Japanese cars in the first place).

The Japanese response?  They took it up a notch.  They entered the luxury markets.  They launched Acura, Lexus and Infiniti.  They competed against Cadillac and Lincoln.  And well.  The quality was so good they even affected the European luxury imports.  More attacks followed.  Americans were losing their jobs.  Soon there would be no more American manufacturing left in the country.  So the Japanese built plants in America.  And Americans were now building the Japanese cars.  The Japanese actually created American jobs.

SON OF A BITCH!  So much for the loss of American jobs.  The Japanese threw a wrench in that argument.  So now the argument became about the loss of ‘high paying’ American jobs.  For the Japanese plants were non-union.  Didn’t matter that their workers were making better pay and benefits than many in their region.  No.  What mattered was that they were building a better product.  And they didn’t want THESE jobs in America.  But if they couldn’t get rid of these new workers, they should at least unionize them so their cars cost more.  To make them a little less appealing to the American consumer.  So far they have been unsuccessful in this endeavor.  The workers are happy as they are.

Well, these cars just weren’t going away.  So the Americans surrendered car manufacturing to the Japanese.  They couldn’t beat them.  (Of course, it’s hard to do that when you don’t even try).  They, instead, focused on the higher profit truck and SUV markets.  Then the Japanese entered those markets.  And at every level they competed with the Americans, the Japanese gave more bang for the buck.  And the consumers responded.  With their hard-earned wages.  It just wasn’t fair.  The Japanese kept giving the American consumer a better product.  No matter what political action the Big 3 took or demanded.

And there’s the problem.  They sought their answers from government.  Instead of making a better car.  They wanted to stop the Japanese from giving the American consumer what they wanted so they could force Americans to pay more for less.  All the while the economy was forcing the majority of consumers to get by on less (the majority of consumers do not have the wage and benefit package the ‘select’ few had in the Big 3). 

Fast forward to 2008 and we see the ultimate consequence of their actions.  Bankruptcy.  GM and Chrysler had to grovel for a federal bailout and in the process become Washington’s bitch.  Ford survived on her own.  As did the Japanese.  You can bitch all you want about costs, but if you have the revenue you can pay your costs.  And the Americans just couldn’t sell enough cars to maintain the revenue they needed for their cost structure.  By refusing to address the core problem (they weren’t making cars Americans wanted to buy), they only made their competition stronger and more entrenched in the U.S. market.

IT’S ALL POLITICS.  Political cronyism.  And crony capitalism.  It all comes down to political spoils and patronage.  That’s what happens when politics enter capitalism.  Big Business partners with Big Government and they enter into relationships.  You scratch my back and I’ll scratch your back.  But when government protects a business for political expediency, the industry suffers in the long run.  As the U.S. automobile industry has.  Ditto for the U.S. textile industry.  And the U.S. steel industry.

So what goes wrong?  When you protect an industry you insulate it from market forces.  You can build crap.  The problem is, consumers don’t buy crap.  So, for awhile, politics intervene and makes the crap more favorable.  Whether it’s predatory pricing, monopolistic pricing or collusion, business can’t win.  Big Government is there.  If your prices are too low, government will intervene.  If prices are too high, government will intervene.  If prices are too similar, government will intervene.  To make things ‘fair’.  And by fair they mean to reward those who play the game and to punish those who don’t.  And the spoils go to those large voting blocs they need.  And in return for their votes, they can count on patronage.  Government jobs.  Political positions.  Favorable legislation and regulation.  If you got the vote out, you were rewarded quite nicely. 

And consumers be damned. .

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