May Day 2021: Income Inequality in America

Socialism works in two places: heaven where it isn’t needed and hell where it already exists.

May Day 2021: Income Inequality in America

By: George Noga – May 2, 2021

 

When queried about former socialist havens like the USSR, China and Cambodia, today’s socialists demur. When asked about modern socialist Xanadus like North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela, they say not that type of socialism. Yet, when each of these socialist utopias began, they were darlings of collectivists everywhere, at least until they began eating their pets. When pressed, socialists aver that their model is Scandinavia – which is 100% capitalist. See our post of 10/15/17 at: http://www.mllg.us.

Socialism never has achieved economic success; a person would have to be blind not to see the advantages of capitalism. Yet, liberals remain enamored with socialism, even knowing it is a failure, because they don’t care. They see socialism as a moral, not an economic, imperative and their goal is a socialist society, not economic prosperity.

 

Income Inequality in America

 

A progressive meme is inequality. But is inequality good or bad; is it increasing; how is it measured; how much is too much; and what policies create inequality?

 

There are numerous and mind-numbing statistics for inequality. The Census Bureau reports the Gini coefficient, Theil index and the MLD or mean logarithmic deviation. Some of these metrics show more inequality than in the past. However, deconstructing the numbers reveals they are fatally flawed for the reasons listed below, every one of which, if properly measured, would significantly reduce income inequality.

 

1. The source for all statistics is AGI from tax returns. But adjusted gross income excludes giant swaths of income such as IRA and 401(k) contributions, non-taxable portion of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, EITC, stimulus and SNAP.

 

2. Statistics don’t track the same people. Income cohorts change. New (mostly poor) people enter the back of the line, skewing data downward. If the same individuals (rather than groups) were tracked, the data would show decreasing inequality.

 

3. Use of household instead of individual income. This renders comparisons between time periods and income groups meaningless as the number of people per household changes over time. One-person households have significantly increased, resulting in more inequality per household although there is much less inequality per individual.

 

4. AGI fails to account for income taxes. The USA has one of the most progressive tax systems in the world and failure to include taxes skews the data in favor of inequality.

 

5. Income cohorts (quintiles) are inconsistent. The top income quintile has 3.2 people per household whereas the bottom quintile has 1.7 people per household; hence, the household income in the top quintile must be spread among twice as many people.

 

6. Spending per income quintile. The Census Bureau reports the lowest quintile spends $2 for every $1 of reported income. If inequality were measured based on spending rather than on AGI, there would be a humongous decrease in income inequality.

 

It is radiantly obvious the six flaws noted above render conclusions about income inequality meaningless. No one knows how much inequality there is and whether or not it is increasing. Income inequality per se tells us nothing of value; inequality could be rising while the lives of those in the lower cohorts are greatly improved.

 

Some inequality is beneficial. There is little inequality in Haiti; where everyone is poor, there is no inequality. Even increasing inequality is beneficial if it results from innovation by new ventures such as Wal-Mart, Amazon or Apple. The benefit (savings) to low-income families from Wal-Mart alone is $100 per month. The Waltons are in the top 1%, but their gain must be juxtaposed against the benefit to ordinary Americans.

 

By the flawed measures that do exist, income inequality decreases under conservative administrations and increases under progressive regimes. That is due to progressive tax and regulation policies which result in less freedom and slower economic growth. As Milton Friedman said, “The society that puts equality before freedom ends up with neither; the society that puts freedom before equality gets a great measure of both.”

 

Angst about alleged increasing income inequality is political class warfare intended to beguile Americans into supporting the progressive agenda. Moreover, it is progressive policies that are the root cause of much of the income inequality in America today.


Next on May 9th: An honest discussion about race in America.
More Liberty Less Government – mllg@cfl.rr.com – www.mllg.us

The American Dream – Strangled by Government

Two worker households are a Faustian Bargain, the second income pays only for government. 

The American Dream – Strangled by Government

By: George Noga – May 31, 2020

        I graduated from high school in 1961 and went on to college. Most of my high school friends remained in Orlando, began work, married, had children and bought homes. The wives stayed home; a second income wasn’t necessary to buy a house and to raise a family. I kept in touch with many of my classmates. Following is the true story of two such people, Steve and Sandy – their real names.

       High school sweethearts, Steve and Sandy married soon after graduation. Steve started work in the paint shop of the Martin Company (today Lockheed Martin) at $2.00 per hour, soon increasing to $2.25. With a little overtime, their income was $5,000 per year. A year after their marriage, they bought a new home and were blessed with a daughter. Sandy did not work and stayed home to care for the baby.

         I visited Steve and Sandy often. They bought and furnished a median-price home, accumulating enough for a down payment and furniture in one year with both working. Once the baby was born, Sandy quit work as they could live solely on Steve’s income. Their home cost the equivalent of 2 years of Steve’s income and their monthly house payment including principal, interest, taxes and insurance (“PITI”) was under $100, or 22% of his income. Sandy never returned to work; it simply wasn’t necessary.

        Fast forward to 2020 and see how a modern day Steve and Sandy would fare. We begin with the generous assumption that a high school graduate earns $15 per hour, or $30,000 per year. The median home price in Orlando is $260,000; assuming a 10% down payment and low interest rate, the monthly PITI payment is $1,167, or $14,000 per year. The house costs 9 years of income and requires 47% of monthly income to pay PITI. Many years are needed to save for a down payment and furniture.

       What could account for such a sea change in the course of a few generations? Why did these changes happen? Why is it necessary today for a family to have two wage earners merely to live as well as their grandparents lived on one income? The answer in one word: government. The causes are many but all have a nexus to government.

     Housing costs skyrocketed due to government diktats including, zoning, growth management, building codes, greenbelts, bureaucracy, anti-leapfrogging, concurrency, infill and regulatory delay. All taxes were increased, especially the payroll tax and many new ones added. The Florida sales tax Steve and Sandy paid was 3%; today it is 7% – an increase of 133%. Steve and Sandy’s real estate tax was $100; today it would be $2,600, a 2,500% increase. Government drove up the cost of many other things such as health care, tuition and child care. The more government got involved, the more costs increased over time, less intervention meant lower prices.

       At first, as the second family wage earner entered the workforce, there was a sense of faux prosperity; they could afford an extra TV and some other accoutrements. But higher taxes and government-imposed costs devoured the second income. By the time they realized they were hoodwinked, it was too late for a volte-face. Two income families are a Faustian Bargain, the second income pays only for more government. Families doubled the number of workers but have nothing to show for it.

       A modern day Steve and Sandy can’t afford to buy a house or to start a family and they often live lives of quiet desperation. The American dream didn’t just die; it was murdered. The cause of death was strangulation by government!


Watch for our special D-Day posting on June 6th.
More Liberty Less Government  –  mllg@mllg.us  –  www.mllg.us

The Spending Crisis: Monopoly Money

Americans are not accustomed to thinking about currency risk; this needs to change.

 

The Spending Crisis: Monopoly Money

By: George Noga – May 17, 2020

       My last post on May 10, 2020 established new all-time MLLG records for forwards and reader feedback. If you missed it, go to www.mllg.us to understand what all the hullabaloo is about. It was one of the most consequential posts in my 13 years of blogging – until this post. This post may be even more consequential!

           I now can see clearly how the spending crisis plays out and, as a corollary, how better to prepare for it. Due to an unforeseen confluence of events, the end game came into focus. More time at home due to coronavirus restrictions allowed for discernment. Second, mountains of new pandemic-related debt made the crisis imminent. Third, as shown in my May 10th post, we have passed the point-of-no-return and are nearing critical mass. Fourth, I read excerpts from a new, unpublished book by Ray Dalio, arguably the most astute investor of our era, that crystallized my thinking.

Possible Government Responses to the Spending Crisis

         There are five main ways government can respond to the crisis: (1) cut spending; (2) raise taxes; (3) default and/or restructure; (4) seize pension assets; and (5) print money. The first two options clearly are untenable. Spending cuts would need to be so deep and tax increases so huge the social cost would be unacceptable. Moreover, such actions would need to be sustained for decades – an impossibility. Default would be too painful as the defaulted debt represents someone’s assets. Seizure of pension assets (by converting them into government pensions) would be a hard sell. That leaves option five – print monopoly money. BINGO!  (See our 5/12/19 post for more on this.)

        Government will print money because it is expedient, poorly understood by most people and results in the least (apparent) pain. Printing money and inflating (basically the same thing) historically has been the go-to choice for governments with their backs against the wall. It is likely there also will be token spending cuts, tax increases and other actions, but they will be more symbolic than consequential. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s proposal to issue trillion dollar coins may not be that far fetched.

        A few words about timing. The analysis in my May 10th post shows the debt ratio at 169% in 2025 and 264% in 2030. That makes the onset of the crisis no more than 5 to 10 years away – perhaps less. Ray Dalio has stated the US is in the seventh inning of its debt crisis – that means he believes we are 78% of the way to Gotterdammerung!

Preparing for the Crisis – Protecting Your Family and Your Assets

         Readers always ask what measures can be taken to prepare for the crisis and I am frequently asked what I am doing to prepare for the inevitable. At this juncture, I am taking the most obvious, commonsensical and lowest-risk actions described below. Note: My posts of 10/14/18 and 10/21/18 (on website) discuss these issues in depth.

1. Firearms: Although I strongly support the second amendment, I do not presently own firearms. The debt crisis will be accompanied by a high probability of civil unrest, breakdowns of law and order, interruptions of public services and financial chaos. Therefore, I am reevaluating and likely will acquire guns and ammo.

2. Gold: I will begin investing in gold, precious metals and hard assets. Initially, this will be 5% of my portfolio – perhaps increasing to 10% over time. It also is wise to keep a supply of small denomination gold and silver coins at home for use in a crisis.

3. Currency: Americans are not accustomed to thinking about currency risk. This needs to change. Per Ray Dalio, Americans need to think about currencies in the same way they think about holding any other asset. I am diversifying my currency risk with a foreign bank account denominated in a foreign currency and by buying bond funds that focus on highly rated bonds in currencies of countries with low debt ratios.

4. TIPS/Long Bonds: The hardest hit asset when the monopoly money starts flying off the printing presses will be long-dated bonds. I am divesting such assets. I also will take a position (5% to begin – more later) in TIPS to protect against hyperinflation.

       The above measures are only initial responses; there will be more to come. It  appears my analysis and writing about the spending crisis soon will be validated. I derive no pleasure whatsoever from this and wish I was wrong. I do take some small consolation however, if I am able to help readers better prepare for the inevitable.


Next Sunday: A memorable posting about school choice and the LGBTQ issue.
More Liberty Less Government  –  mllg@mllg.us  –  www.mllg.us

The Spending Crisis: Reductio ad Absurdum

Given current trends, the annual interest on our debt will exceed GDP; let that marinate!

The Spending Crisis: Reductio ad Absurdum

By: George Noga – May 10, 2020

OF THE 600 POSTS I HAVE AUTHORED DURING THE PAST 13 YEARS, NONE IS MORE CONSEQUENTIAL THAN THIS ONE! Usually I limit posts to 600-700 words but did not wish to break this one into two parts; hence, it is twice the normal length. I used my time at home due to coronavirus restrictions to research and to prepare an expanded, fresh and gripping analysis of the spending crisis.

       For the first time, I employ an apagogical argument that proves a contention by deriving an absurdity from its denial. Specifically, reductio ad absurdum disproves an argument by following its implications to an absurd conclusion. The fallacy lies in the argument that can be reduced to absurdity; reductio ad absurdum merely exposes the fallacy, in this case that the US can continue spending and borrowing.

       What makes this analysis so different and riveting? (1) I have taken a much deeper dive into the data; (2) Assumptions about the composition of the debt are changed; (3) Realistic assumptions are used instead of optimistic ones; (4) More recent data are available; (5) The reduction to absurdity argument is adduced; and (6) It explains why, at its beating heart, the spending crisis is moral rather than economic.

Assumptions About GDP

       GDP for 2019 was 21.4T (trillion); for 2020 I used the latest Goldman Sachs forecast – a 6.3% reduction from 2019. For the first time, I assume mild recessions (4% contractions) once a decade in 2026-27, 2036-37 and 2044-45. Other than recession years, I assume GDP grows at 2%, in line with the past decade, and then slowing to 1.5% in later years. These are middle-of-the-road, Goldilocks assumptions.

Assumptions About Debt

      Public debt at year-end 2019 was $17.2T. To that I add coronavirus spending Phases I, II and III of $2.3T (total) and my Phase IV (infrastructure, etc.) estimate of another $2.0T. I also must add the 2020 structural deficit of $1.0T and the additional operational deficit due to coronavirus of $0.8T. This results in a public debt of $23.8T at year-end 2020. For future years, I assume the debt grows at a rate in line with the trend of recent years – with appropriate adjustments for recession years.

“Before long, public debt and total debt will be one and the same.”
Public Debt Versus Total Debt

         Here I make a notable departure from the past. Previously I have counted only the public portion of the debt, which is $7T less than the total debt. The difference consists of intragovernmental debt owed to Social Security, FHA and other agencies. Before now I excluded such debt because it is non-marketable, accrues (but does not pay) interest and is notional in nature. Before long however, the government must begin issuing public debt to fund the intragovernmental debt for, inter alia, paying future Social Security benefits. Therefore, I now assume that intragovernmental debt of $1.0T is converted to public debt each year from 2021 through 2027. Thus, public debt and total debt will be one and the same by the end of 2027.

Government Sponsored Enterprises (“GSEs”)

        Fannie Mae (FNMA), Freddie Mac (FHLMC) and a few other GSEs are owned by the federal government. In a rational universe, they would be consolidated into the accounts of the federal government. Although the feds are not legally liable for the debts of Fannie and Freddie, there is an industrial-strength implicit guarantee based on precedent. Fannie and Freddie guarantee $7T of debt; in a crisis they would need trillions in bailouts. For this analysis, I have not included any debt for GSEs.

Unfunded Liabilities and Obligations

       The Treasury Department estimates federal unfunded liabilities are $122T; this means the government has made promises to pay that amount without providing any funding. Over time, these obligations come due and must be financed with – you guessed it – more debt. I have not counted any of this $122T in this analysis. I once studied unfunded liabilities and concluded that a more realistic estimate is double the Treasury number, or one-quarter of a quadrillion dollars. In even more cheery news, state and local governments have another $10T in unfunded pension liabilities.

Reduction To Absurdity

        Based on the assumptions described supra, following are the Debt/GDP ratios for select years. The GDP and debt are in trillions of dollars. Data for 2019 are actual.

Year             GDP              Debt             Ratio
2019             21.4               17.2                80%
2020             20.1               23.8              119%
2025             22.2               37.5              169%
2030             22.6               59.7              264%
2040             24.4             161.2              659%
2050             26.4             588.4           2,226%

       In five years the ratio is projected to be 169%; within a decade it is 264%. In twenty years the ratio skyrockets to an absurd 659%, while in 2050 it is a preposterous 2,226%. The US has passed the point-of no-return. The Titanic has hit the iceberg and there is no way to unhit it; now it is but a matter of time until the inevitable happens. Because of the humongous coronavirus spending, the advent of the crisis has been advanced by five to ten years – all in just the past few months.

       By reducing to absurdity the future spending and debt, this analysis proves it is impossible to sustain our spending and borrowing for much longer. It is risible that the US can have a ratio of 2,226%, or even 659%. Moreover, the 2030 ratio of 264% is tinctured with absurdity; even the 2025 ratio of 169% is problematic. Even with a powerful tailwind from MMT, it seems like we have fewer than 10 years left.

        While trafficking in the absurd, let’s peek at interest on the debt. At the current US composite rate on its debt (2.5%), annual interest on the debt will reach $1 trillion circa 2026 – in just over five years. If the interest rate to service our debt increases to 4.5% (a low number historically) interest payments would exceed GDP by 2050. Let that metric percolate for a while; our annual interest on the debt would exceed GDP!

“We always chose the easy path. As a nation, we failed morally.”

        It is impossible to look at the data and analysis presented herein and to imagine we have more than five or ten years left before the spending crisis reaches critical mass and discombobulates our lives for the next 20-25 years, i.e. a lost generation. It will be worse than the dot-com bubble, the great financial crisis and coronavirus combined. Great and sustained sacrifice will be required until all the excess debt is purged. The gargantuan spending cuts necessary (20% to 30%) will rend the social fabric of our nation; we will be lucky to avoid anarchy and to maintain the rule of law.

The Moral Root of the Crisis

        Ever since I began writing about the spending crisis, I have posited that, at bottom, it is a moral crisis, not an economic one. Historically, the US has borrowed heavily only to finance wars. Our national debt in 1980 was less than $1 trillion and our debt ratio was under 30%. Inexplicably, that’s when we began our debt binge.

       We gave some segments of the population huge tax cuts to beguile them into accepting massive spending on other segments of the population. We spent vast sums on certain cohorts of Americans to bewitch them into tolerating the tax cuts on other cohorts of Americans. We have repeated this pattern up to the present in a futile  attempt to avoid tough choices and to buy social peace via massive borrowing.

         The decades of the 1980s and 1990s were prosperous. There were no major wars, natural disasters, pandemics or financial meltdowns. The baby boom generation constituted 38% of the population and was in its peak productive years. There were few retirees and Social Security and Medicare generated massive fiscal surpluses. The Berlin Wall fell and the USSR collapsed, unleashing an enormous peace dividend.

         The period since 1980 should have been the easiest time in American history to balance the budget; instead, we kept borrowing feverishly and never stopped. We danced while the band played on. We must plumb the depths of our souls to understand why we became so addled and addicted to spending and borrowing. For whatever reasons, we always chose the easy path and, as a nation, we failed morally.

       We believed politicians who promised us the moon was Stilton, wishes were horses and pigs had wings. They promised abundance for all by robbing Peter (our children and grandchildren) to pay Paul. They promised social peace by avoiding the confrontations inherent in making choices. They promised no man must ever pay for his sins. But even in this brave new world, water will wet us and fire will burn, and the Gods of the Copybook Headings, with terror and slaughter, will return!


The final paragraph uses snippets from Kipling’s, The Gods of the Copybook Headings.
Next on May 17th, we blog about school choice and the LGBTQ issue.  
More Liberty Less Government  –  mllg@mllg.us  –  www.mllg.us

Modern Monetary Theory and Coronavirus

MMT likely will influence the amount the US can spend and borrow before crisis begins.

Modern Monetary Theory and Coronavirus
By: George Noga – May 3, 2020

          We have long planned a post about Modern Monetary Theory (“MMT”) as part of our intermittent series analyzing the issues in the 2020 election. The coronavirus epidemic has added a palpable sense of urgency to plumbing the depths of MMT because the untold trillions in new money being created by the government in response to Covid-19 will provide an acid test of MMT much sooner than contemplated. This post focuses on explaining and analyzing MMT – a daunting task even for us.

Our next post May 10th is among the most consequential of the 600 posts we have written over the past 13 years! It presents an up-to-the-minute projection of the US Debt-to-GDP ratio incorporating the multi-year impact of the mammoth new debt and deficits that result from the effects of coronavirus. The analysis in the May 10th post is new and different than anything we previously have written about the spending crisis. This truly is a blockbuster and one you definitely don’t want to miss.

Just What is Modern Monetary Theory?

        First off, MMT is not so modern; the accepted origin is a book “Soft Currency Economics” by economist Warren Mosler published in 1993. However, as with most economic theories, its underpinnings can be traced back for centuries.

         The main tenet of MMT is that any government that issues its own fiat currency can create and spend unlimited amounts without the need to finance it via either tax revenue or debt instruments. Such a government can never be forced to default on debt denominated in its own currency. Further, any such monetization does not compete with the private sector or cause higher interest rates. The only problem acknowledged by MMT proponents is that inflation can get out of hand under some conditions.

        In layman’s terms, MMT asserts that the USA has much more leeway to spend money than previously thought; it can’t ever go broke; and the debt to GDP ratio is immaterial – provided inflation is managed. Progressives like Sanders, Warren and AOC believe MMT is the Holy Grail of economics which can be used to finance the green new deal and the rest of the progressive wish list – all at once. Beware however, MMT makes for strange bedfellows and it also has many conservative adherents.

Is MMT Valid and Does It Work?

        The strongest case against MMT is millennia of human experience. From Rome to today, many countries with their own fiat currency have defaulted or suffered other terrible economic fates, MMT notwithstanding; the lengthy list includes, inter alia,  Weimar Germany, Argentina and Zimbabwe. Logically, MMT defies understanding; how can we create and spend money ad infinitum without adverse consequences? If MMT works, why doesn’t every country use it? It appears to be pie-in-the-sky or like finding a unicorn at the end of a rainbow. Many top economists and businessmen including Bill Gates, Jerome Powell and Warren Buffet believe MMT is claptrap.

      To its credit, MMT explains certain economic phenomena better than classical economics. The USA and Japan among others have seen budget deficits skyrocket and bond markets respond in accord with MMT; yields on government bonds decreased despite sluiced up supply and trillions of dollars of quantitative easing. Massive government borrowing has not crowded out corporate debt or raised interest rates. Simply, some markets are acting in ways that can best (only) be explained by MMT. The chief economists for Goldman Sachs, Pimco and Nomura believe MMT is valid. The top investor of our era, Ray Dalio, attributes much of his success to MMT.

         So, how can such diametrically conflicting theories, logic and data be reconciled? Economic principles that have stood for millennia are not going to be replaced by MMT nor will countries be able to borrow unlimited amounts. Nonetheless, thanks to MMT nations may be able to borrow more – much more – than previously thought possible. Moreover, the recent behavior of bond markets and interest rates can’t be reconciled with other economic theories. MMT provides much better explanations for what is happening. In short, MMT works in certain areas where other theories don’t.

         Although MMT may permit more borrowing, this is a double-edged sword. The increased debt will make the resultant crisis deeper and longer. Another disastrous result of MMT is that it vastly diminishes the power of markets and central banks to allocate money and credit and to control the money supply and interest rates. To a corresponding degree, MMT increases the power of politicians. Progressive politicians could use such power to control the entire economy and spend the USA into oblivion.


DO NOT MISS OUR NEXT POST ON MAY 10TH; IT IS A BLOCKBUSTER!
More Liberty Less Government  –  mllg@mllg.us  –  www.mllg.us

Issues of 2020: Universal Basic Income

Even communists demand that each person give according to his abilities.

Issues of 2020: Universal Basic Income

By: George Noga – March 8, 2020

 

        This is the next in MLLG’s intermittent series covering 2020 election issues. Previously, we wrote about Medicare for all (12/8/19), the Electoral College (2/2/20) and the wealth tax (2/16/20); all these are available on our website: www.mllg.us.

      The idea for a universal basic income (“UBI”) originated with American revolutionary Thomas Paine in the 18th century. The modern genesis belongs to British politician Rhys-Williams in the 1940s. Milton Friedman advocated it in a 1962 book in the form of a negative income tax, although he later came to oppose the idea. Today, Yang, Castro, Williamson and Gabbard favor UBI of $1,000 per month – no strings attached. Warren, Sanders and Buttigeig all are sympathetic to the concept.

          UBI makes for strange bedfellows. Liberals favor it for social justice reasons, while conservatives view it as the least destructive way for government to transfer wealth between citizens. UBI (or a variant) has been implemented in other countries but failed to take root anywhere it was tried. Finland ended its UBI program in 2019. Currently, about half of all Americans (72% of those ages 18-34) support UBI.

The Case for Universal Basic Income

        There is a crescendo of voices in academia, media and politics asserting that automation, driven by advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, computers, 3-D printing, driverless vehicles and other technology will displace millions upon millions of jobs in the coming decade causing entire trades and professions to disappear. They argue UBI is necessary to provide for all these millions of jobless people.

         Advocates claim it can pay for itself by displacing all transfer payments and welfare including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, SSI, and housing subsidies plus all the bureaucracy that supports these programs. Some conservatives and libertarians sign on to UBI in the wane hope it will reduce the role of government in people’s lives and will be a more efficient way to effect transfer payments.

     Progressives cite social justice as their rationale, including providing greater security, choice and freedom to recipients. They allege it empowers individuals because there are absolutely no strings attached. Supporters cite Alaska which since 1982, despite its rugged individualistic culture, pays every citizen a royalty share of its energy fund – last year the amount was $1,600 or $6,400 for a family of four.

The Case Against Universal Basic Income 

       For centuries, going back to the industrial revolution, doomsdayers have argued advances in technology would result in massive unemployment. Each and every time for 300 years, the opposite has happened as new advances created as many or more new jobs than those displaced. Despite recent tech advances, the unemployment rate is at an all-time low even though more workers are entering the workforce. Advocates of UBI say it is different this time, but so did worrywarts for the past three centuries.

      The political apparat would not eliminate any bureaucracy; they would incessantly tweak UBI to attach conditions and mandates. UBI soon would metastasize into a monster. Politicians would favor some groups at the expense of others based on the politics du jour and engage in class warfare. A Chinese system could evolve in which each person’s UBI depends on his/her social credits. UBI would require everyone to have a universal ID and a bank account, leading to an Orwellian twilight zone of government control. If history teaches anything, it is distrust of government; however, you can’t take the politics out of politics and UBI would be a political Godzilla.

         As with many other pie-in-the-sky schemes, the strongest argument against UBI is a moral one. It would entitle people to the work of others, untethered from need and with absolutely nothing required in return. Even communism demands that each person give according to his abilities. UBI would sever the link between income and work, create a cycle of dependency and would serve as a gateway drug to collectivism.

       Universal Basic Income would result in less liberty and more government, directly opposite MLLG’s raison d’etre. UBI should stand for Universally Bad Idea!


Next on March 15th, we address the tyranny of democracy.
More Liberty Less Government  –  mllg@mllg.us  –  www.mllg.us

Greatest Social Thinker of the 20th Century

“There is no such thing as a mixed economy midway between capitalism and socialism.” 
Greatest Social Thinker of the 20th Century
By: George Noga – September 29, 2019

           Today marks the 138th birthday of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, who died in 1973 at age 92. I have read economics for over a half century and von Mises has influenced me more than anyone.  I consider him not only the best economist, but also the greatest social thinker of the last century. I honor his birthday by presenting a small sample of his writings, very lightly edited for modernity and length.

        Sovereign consumer:The common man is the sovereign consumer whose buying, or abstention from buying, determines the quality and quantity of what is produced, and who in preceding ages were serfs, slaves and paupers. They are the customers for whose favor businesses compete and who always are right. Wealth is only acquired by serving customers in a daily plebiscite in which every penny gives the right to vote.

       Anti-capitalist mentality:Laissez-faire capitalism has raised living standards to unprecedented levels. A nation is more prosperous the less it puts obstacles in the way of free enterprise. The US is more prosperous than all other countries because its government embarked later than others on policies that obstruct business. The bias and bigotry of public opinion manifests itself by attaching the epithet ‘capitalistic’ exclusively to things abominable but never to those of which all approve.

      Socialism: “The champions of socialism call themselves progressives, but they recommend a system which is characterized by rigid observance of routine and by a resistance to every kind of improvement. They call themselves liberals, but they are intent on abolishing liberty. They call themselves democrats, but they yearn for dictatorship. They call themselves revolutionaries, but they want to make government omnipotent. They promise the blessings of the Garden of Eden but they plan to transform the world into a gigantic post office – every man a clerk in a bureau.”

       Foreign aid:Making underdeveloped nations more prosperous cannot be solved by material aid. It is a spiritual and intellectual problem. Prosperity is not simply a matter of capital investment. It is an ideological issue.”

     Von Mises Sampler:If history teaches anything, it is that private property is inextricably linked with civilization. . . . All rational action is in the first place individual action. . . . Every government intervention creates unintended consequences which lead to further interventions. . . . Every socialist is a disguised dictator. . . . Tyranny is the political corollary of socialism as representative government is the political corollary of a market economy. . . . . Worship of state is the worship of force. . . . . . Socialism is not what it pretends to be. It is not the pioneer of a better world, but the spoiler of thousands of years of civilization; it does not build, it destroys.

Following is the conclusion of von Mises’ magnum opus, Human Action

     “Economic knowledge is an essential element to human civilization; it is the foundation on which all moral, intellectual and technological achievements of the last centuries have been built. It rests with men whether they will use this rich treasure, or leave it unused. But if they disregard its teachings and warnings, they will not annul economics; they will stamp out society and the human race.”

Note: The Ludwig von Mises Institute is an outstanding source of information; it has a free daily email newsletter (available at articles@mises.org) to which you may subscribe. It is one of only a very few publications I read every day. Try it; you will be glad you did.


Next on October 6th is “Condor Cuisinart” or, liberalism is for the birds.
More Liberty Less Government  –  mllg@mllg.us  –  www.mllg.us

Spending Crisis – Part IV

We chose to steal from our children and grandchildren rather than control our spending.
Spending Crisis – Part IV
Can Catastrophe Be Averted?
By: George Noga – May 19, 2019

        This is the fourth and final post in our Spending Crisis series, available in its entirety at www.mllg.us. Our headline asks, “Can Catastrophe Be Averted?” The answer (spoiler alert) in one word is: no! If something cannot go on forever, it won’t; the spending cannot go on forever, so it won’t. America today is only 2-3 years from the point-of-no-return, from which no nation ever has escaped without grave harm.

          The USA will blow past the point-of-no-return because there is no constituency for action and there won’t be until the crisis affects people’s daily lives. Politically, there is no incentive, and in fact there is a strong disincentive, to act absent a manifest crisis. When the crisis arrives, government initially will take only quarter-measures and it will be far too little, far too late. We simply have dug the spending, debt and deficit hole too deep; but instead of beginning to fill in the hole or even to stop digging, we blithely continue to dig the hole ever deeper, oblivious to the consequences.

         The most likely initial government response to the crisis will be to hold short-term interest rates at or near zero – and perhaps even negative. If the interest rate is ultra low, the amount of debt theoretically is unlimited. However, although the Fed exerts strong control over short-term rates, they don’t have similar control over long-term rates. Alternatively, the Fed can simply buy an unlimited amount of debt in a massive quantitative easing process. Neither of these actions is without consequence and at some point everyone will know that the emperor has no clothes.

Comments from Reviewers

        Three highly knowledgeable people, to whom I am grateful, reviewed this series. No one disputed the data or the analysis. Most were less pessimistic about the final outcome, although they didn’t present solutions; one wrote, “Things are never as good or as bad as they at first seem; the sky is not falling – it never does.” Another wrote, “As long as (people) continue to invest in our Treasury debt, the crisis will not happen. The point-of-no-return comes when no one will invest.” All the reviewers noted that, despite everything, we are better off than in the past and than most other countries.

         One reviewer suggested we might be able to reduce the debt to acceptable levels, over many years, by a combination of inflation and weakening the dollar such that foreign holders of our debt absorb most of the pain. Officially, foreigners hold only 39% of the debt, but this reviewer believes the real number is higher as some foreigners mask their ownership. However, this reviewer acknowledges this tactic can only succeed if the US gets its budget into balance; otherwise, it doesn’t matter.

Two Dimensions to Crisis: Excess Debt and Balancing the Budget

        There are two distinct dimensions to the spending crisis. First, we must purge the system of all excess debt to return the debt/GDP ratio to an acceptable level. Second, we must get our spending under control and balance our budget. Even if aliens from another galaxy showed up and miraculously repaid our national debt, we would be right back in the same position unless we got our budget into reasonable balance.

        Timing: When Will the Crisis Begin?

         The most frequent questions I get are about timing. The short answer is that there is no way to know. No bell goes off when the crisis begins; no bell went off in Japan or Greece; at first, the crisis may seem transitory. I can make a credible argument that the crisis already may have begun given the ultra low interest rates. In all of recorded history (since 3000 BCE) there never before have been zero or negative interest rates.

        The best answer I can muster is the crisis will be in full bloom when the ratio is 125% to 150%. But it could happen much sooner; once markets see where things are headed, it isn’t necessary to wait until they get there. It also could happen much later. I recall Adam Smith’s admonition, “Be assured, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation“. By that, Smith meant it requires much to completely ruin a nation, which can survive mistakes, stupidity and disastrous policies far longer than is assumed.

 

Concluding Thoughts

            The spending crisis has many moving parts and it is easy to get overwhelmed by the data. Fundamentally however, it is simple. The US has spent and borrowed too much in relation to the size of its economy. It is rapidly approaching a hard and fast tipping point (90%) determined by the inexorable laws of mathematical compounding and from which no nation ever has escaped without great pain and a lost generation.

           By the time the crisis is manifest, the budget gap will be over $1.5 trillion per year, or 30%, amidst punishing demographic forces. There is no realistic way to bridge that gap. Perhaps, catastrophe can be postponed or ameliorated with extreme financial repression – which in itself will put America in crisis; moreover, it won’t permanently solve the fundamental problem. Ultimately, all excess debt must be purged and the budget brought into some semblance of balance. There is no other way out!

       Charles Murray, one of the titans of our time, recently said, “The American experiment in self-government is essentially over“. I fear he is correct, as America in 2019 panders to people’s fears and prejudices, while it ignores existential threats. The spending crisis, which will cost America a lost generation, was eminently foreseeable and preventable. It is at root a moral crisis because we lacked the will to act.

          We chose to take from our children and grandchildren rather than to control our own spending. To make matters even worse, the money we stole was not put to good use. Instead of borrowing to save our nation from calamity (as in World War II), we stole the money from future generations to finance a perpetual New Year’s Eve party.

Note: Email us with questions or comments. We may publish a follow up post in a few weeks with reader questions. We also are open to publishing other viewpoints; if you are interested, email us for guidelines. We will continue to publish regular updates about the spending crisis.


Next up: MLLG’s Complete Principles of American Politics

Spending Crisis – Part III

Possible solutions: grow, cut, tax, inflate, repress, restructure, repudiate, seize, MMT
Spending Crisis – Part III
Possible Solutions to Spending Crisis
By: George Noga – May 12, 2019

           This is the third of four posts in our Spending Crisis series, which is available in its entirety at www.mllg.us. There are many theoretical ways a spending crisis could be averted; we could grow, cut, tax, inflate, repress, restructure, repudiate, seize, or MMT our way out. More likely, we will employ a combination of these measures.

          Grow: There once was a time, as recently as 5-10 years ago, where growth was a possibility: no longer. There is no way the economy can grow at a faster rate than the debt, which currently is growing by 5.25% and increasing to 8.00% by 2025.

         Cut (Spending): FY 2019-2020 spending will be about $4.7 trillion with a deficit of $1.1 trillion. To balance the budget requires spending cuts of 23.4% but, by the time an impending crisis gets Congress’s attention, cuts of 30% will be necessary. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, pensions and defense would have to be savaged to such an extent as to sow the seeds of civil unrest. Moreover, the cuts would have to remain in effect for 15 straight years just to get back to today’s 78% debt ratio.

       Tax: Balancing the budget will require a 36% tax increase. Even if possible, it would be self defeating, as sky-high taxes would lead to economic stagnation. Note: tax hikes are a higher percentage than spending cuts due to starting from a lower base.

        Inflate: Inflation is the cruelest tax of all and devastates everyone’s plans, hopes and dreams. Just to cut the debt in half requires 10 years of 7.5% inflation provided the deficit is not increasing during that same time. Realistically, it would require 20%  inflation for ten or more consecutive years just to maintain the status quo.

       Repress: Repression is government action that insidiously transfers wealth from the private to the public sector to facilitate financing massive public debt. It includes: (1) low or negative interest rates; (2) war on cash; (3) currency/capital controls; and (4) bail-ins. We already have repression; it will get much worse as the crisis approaches.   See our post of November 11, 2018, devoted entirely to financial repression.

       Restructure: Debt restructure likely will be part of the government crisis response. It takes many forms including: (1) lengthening maturities; (2) requiring roll-over; (3) imposing haircuts; (4) lowering interest rates; and (5) conversion to other securities.

       Repudiate: Nations that have repudiated are unable to borrow again for decades. Any repudiation would be perpetually tied up in courts and would decimate the savings of ordinary Americans who own government debt, directly or indirectly, in money market accounts, pensions and annuities. A direct repudiation is unlikely.

       Seize: When crisis hits, there will be $25 trillion of IRA, 401(k) and pension assets; government could seize some or all such assets in exchange for government pensions. In recent years, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ireland and France have, through one artifice or another, seized money from pension assets. Government, like Willie Sutton, will go where the money is and that place is pensions.

         Modern Monetary Theory: MMT has been around for a while but recently has been embraced by the democratic socialist crowd as a justification for unlimited spending. MMT asserts that a sovereign government that issues debt in its own currency, has flexible exchange rates and controls its central bank can spend without limit or constraint. With MMT, the state simply creates unlimited amounts of money.

Combination of Most of the Above

          Just to stabilize (not to fix) the ratio requires $1.25 to $1.50 trillion per year from the above sources for up to 15 years. In the early stages of the crisis, a panicky government will: (1) enact VAT and/or carbon taxes; (2) make modest spending cuts; (3) increase repression; and (4) tweak Social Security and entitlements. It will be too little, too late; at most, it could slow the progression of the crisis for a few years.

          In the advanced stages of the crisis anything is possible including: (1) massive tax increases; (2) hyperinflation; (3) severe financial repression including negative interest and currency/capital controls; (4) debt restructure; and (5) reliance on MMT to create unlimited amounts of money. When the crisis reaches the desperation stage, I would not rule out government seizure of most or all IRA, 401(k) and pension assets.


        Our final post in this series (next week) addresses the ultimate question of whether or not a spending crisis catastrophe can be averted. Don’t miss it.

Spending Crisis – Part II

Official government data are frightening – despite being wildly optimistic.
Spending Crisis – Part II
Analyzing the Data
By: George Noga – May 5, 2019

       This is the second of four posts on the spending crisis. The entire series is available on our website: www.mllg.us. Parts III and IV will be distributed on May 12 and 19 respectively. We begin with some data. The current public debt to GDP ratio is 78% and is increasing rapidly. GDP has been growing at 2.5% (with no recessions); we assume it continues to grow at 2.5% in the future, but at a net rate of 2.0% after taking into account the inevitable periodic recessions. The debt is now growing at 5.25%; we assume it grows at 6% until 2025, 8% to 2028 and 10% thereafter – again net of recessions. This assumption is consistent with projected deficits and demographics. These are conservative assumptions and actual results are likely to be worse.

          Based on the assumptions supra, the US will exceed a 90% ratio in 2022 and a 100% ratio in 2025. After 2025 it gets really ugly, with the ratio approaching 150% by 2030. Social Security is now devouring its reserves, Medicare exceeds its funding in a few years and interest on the debt skyrockets. Deficits will average $1.5 trillion over the coming decade. The deficit easily will exceed $2 trillion during the next recession and it would not be shocking for it to be as high as $2.5 trillion, or even $3.0 trillion.

          The really bad news is that the above data (mostly from government sources) are wildly optimistic. For example, CBO projected in 2018 that the deficit would not go above $1 trillion until 2022, but now is expected to exceed that in FY 2019-2020. CBO is touted as being non-political, but it really isn’t; it is required to follow the rules established by Congress. Hence, CBO is severely constrained and its data are neither objective nor accurate. MLLG’s data have proven to be far more accurate.

Caution: Don’t get hung up on the source of the numbers or the specific timing. There is no significant difference whether you use CBO, MLLG or other data; they all lead to the same ultimate outcome, only the timing differs slightly

Significance of a 90% Public Debt to GDP Ratio

          The 90% ratio is not arbitrarily plucked from the ether. Governments have been borrowing money for 600 years and there is no example of recovery from a 90% ratio without social and economic upheaval, usually accompanied by a lost generation until excess debt is purged. The 90% ratio is valid because beyond 90% the mathematics of interest and compounding results in an economic death spiral. Note: The World Bank asserts the tipping point is reached at 77%, which the US already has exceeded.

          The crisis doesn’t begin on cue when the debt ratio hits 90%; that just represents the point-of-no-return. The crisis may not begin until years later when the ratio reaches 125%, or even higher. The 90% ratio is analogous to Titanic hitting the iceberg. The ship remained afloat for quite some time after the iceberg encounter and no crisis was immediately evident to passengers. Nonetheless, the moment Titanic hit the iceberg its fate was irreversible as is a nation’s fate once its debt exceeds 90% of its GDP.

The Mathematics of a 100% Public Debt to GDP Ratio

          When GDP and the debt are equal, i.e. the ratio is 100%, it is much easier to grasp the mathematics of the death spiral. At a 100% ratio, the economy (GDP) must grow as fast as the debt to prevent a meltdown. Herein we assume that GDP grows at a sustained 2% rate net of recessions and in 2025 debt grows at 8%. The differential between the growth of the economy and the debt is then 6% per year; debt grows $2.0 trillion while GDP grows $400 billion. The annual addition to the debt now is up to $2.0 trillion and increasing; soon thereafter, the debt reaches critical mass.

           Clearly, our debt is growing at a much faster rate than our means to discharge it. This is readily apparent to creditors who are likely to demand much higher interest rates. If interest on the debt simply reverted to its historic level of a composite 6%, it would amount to $1.5 trillion a year in 2025, equal to about 25% of the budget. Long before America reaches that point, the spending crisis will be in full bloom.

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Next on May 12th – Part III: Possible solutions to the spending crisis.