Friday, October 24, 2008
In light of current market gyrations and swift fluctuations of wealth and status, both for countries and individuals, I feel it time to air out a discussion on wealth and poverty. This has taken quite a few days of reflection and writing a little bit at a time. I should begin with the premise that I am a philosopher at heart, a sociologist in practice/observation, with roots in Judeo-Christian ethics while pursuing human reason and objectivity. Yet I aspire to be scientific and rational regarding my absolutes in life...so to understand me and my thinking is to start with those complicated parameters for discussion :).
During the course of my "blogging", we have had a number of postings and comments regarding the economic problems that confront us. We have discussed a lot of politics as it related to our pocketbooks and tax consequences. We have discussed religion and how it shapes our outlook on social and economic issues. We have touched on causes and solutions for the various economies from first world to emerging markets. I mean, if you look back at these past months of blogging, we have covered a plethora of significant topics and agendas related to money and economics. This past week’s blog on "Obamas New Tax Plan" elicited some of the most heated comments so far, so I thought maybe a direct blog on wealth and poverty along with our personal roles and responsibilities in the economic world might merit some comments and continue a hearty and hopefully helpful discussion.
Philosophically and politically, as many of you know by now, I lean heavily towards Libertarianism. I am not a card carrying member of the party, am not much of a "joiner", and would hold suspect any such organization that would have me as a member. I am more about individual rights and responsibility...which includes a strong respect for "otherness", a healthy regard for those whose opinions differ from mine, and always attempting to see the whole puzzle of how our varied thoughts, beliefs and opinions combine in actions to move humanity one direction or another. One of the most perplexing aspects of putting the puzzle together is understanding how such a large percentage of humanity can be so poor while such a SMALL percentage control the vast majority of the world's wealth and resources. Let’s look at some theories or philosophies that might help explain this perplexity.
Free Trade and Laissez-faire capitalism: Those of us who grew up in the breadbasket of USA democracy have pretty strong roots in believing this form of economics to be the most sound and productive form of economic theory. The problem is, as we grew up and experienced the real world, we see how this has been more a doctrine than a practice. Many people say they believe in free markets and capitalism until they lose a battle or two in the marketplace. When people, or organizations, or countries find themselves losing or broke, their pure thinking about a competitive marketplace go out the window. Most humans in the shadow of failure will adopt any new idea that helps them get quick access to security and/or pleasure and away from the stark pain of failure.
We see this behavior acted out in children at an early age. When one kid is picked on by another kid, you often see the underdog resort to recruiting friends, and maybe even their parents, to combat the threat and losing proposition against a larger, more experienced opponent. While this reaction is understandable and seeming smart on the part of the weaker kid...it truly changed the conflict from one on one competition/combat to "who can gain the largest following and popularity to support his image and agenda". We learn gang warfare at a very early age, and now we know where the fundamentals of the world's arms race began.
Capitalism and Free Enterprise to me should be about individual and business behaviors, not a statist or political position / theory. It is not even about rich/poor or a belief system. It should just be a common sense approach within humanity that determines how we interact, trade and exchange goods and ideas. There should be no borders or complicated trade agreements to initiate or sustain free enterprise. The problem is, we now have centuries of statist governments indoctrinating the masses that somehow they know better how to maintain trade relations with foreigners on our behalf...and the masses capitulate to the state. In return, the masses have forgotten how to take care of themselves and pursue individual goals and dreams. Instead we have traded for some "corporate" approach to health and happiness.
In my observations and reading of recent history, I don't see positive results from this statist, corporate approach. Most of what I have seen is one historically free, capitalistic, democratic society (USA) on one hand become the wealthiest nation in world history, only to quickly be taken down by expensive expansionist political thinking by its leaders and lazy acquiescence by its relatively wealthy constituents. We are now seeing this watered down version of democracy and free enterprise implode under the weight of unbridled expansion and commercialism provided for by unrealistic national and individual credit. Our economic system has become anything but “capitalistic” or free/fair trade. Our laws and economic practices have gotten so out of whack that now we have the major political parties of our country talking about "redistribution" of wealth and government takeovers of private industries. We refuse to let large institutions fail or accept the hard medicine of their folly. We refuse to let capitalism and free enterprise take its course where the successful prosper and the foolish fail. We are now entreated by our governments and religious institutions to be patriotic and charitable in bailing out those government and large corporate institutions that have set themselves up for such dismal failure and mismanagement. Everyone seems to have "golden parachutes" from their failures...accept us middle class working people and the poor. Somehow we small businesspeople and entrepreneurs have never considered the concept of "golden parachutes". We have always had to face the joy of success or bitterness of failure on our own two feet. The more we have succeeded, the more that has been asked of us and the successful have often been despised by those who failed. The more some have failed, the more society has felt sorry for them and offered them "welfare". The world as a whole has rewarded the wrong type of behaviors and efforts.
Let’s look at the core of poverty for a minute. Most of the ancient books of religious or philosophical persuasions somewhere imply that "the poor will always be among you". One has to ask if this is based on some missing gene in the majority of mankind, or is it a mindset that has been propagated and instilled over centuries of programming and planning by a FEW powerful influential parties.
Just like economics, I think there is a micro and macro aspect to this puzzle of poverty. On the micro level, it is obvious to me that there are individual traits and values both positive and negative that contributes to every individual's status in life related to poverty. Just like the spate of "get rich" books in this century opine that we should "think positive and grow rich"...the reality is that most people read or get messaging throughout their whole life that they are destined to be poor and locked into the system or demographic they were born into. This programming starts in families and the earliest messages to our psyche as we are growing up. The smart, studious, disciplined kid is looked down upon by a majority of his lesser classmates while the majority idolizes the big, attractive, athletic kid who can beat everybody up. From there, our whole society learns to idolize the athlete and sport while ridiculing the "geek" who is too smart for his own good and “has all the answers”. This is the core of the "micro" reality that keeps people in a mindset of failure and poverty. We just can’t measure up if we do our own thing and don’t conform to the norms of our peers. In my own life history, I have observed this from the kids I grew up with...many of the popular jocks or pretty girls of childhood who got caught up in their own hype and adulation turned into dismal failures as adults with no imaginations and living on their past memories of better days for their self esteem. Meanwhile, some of the "geeks" and misfits I came from have turned into quite successful and self sufficient winners in life. Good educations, strong family values, and strong sense of identity and direction. For some reason I have always liked those surprises and supported individualism over conformity. I think eventually the individuals dominate over the conformists...which is one explanation for the differential numbers of wealthy versus poor.
That is the core of what I think we see in the macro aspect of poverty. Most conformists are controlled by their peers and "the rules". The rules are laid out by the individuals who rose to the top and then "lorded" their positions over the masses. After a few generations of imposing behaviors and attitudes under the authority of religion or government, it is no wonder the masses of people have lost any sense of hope and potential for self achievement. Centuries of statist governments and fanatic religiosity have shaped our world into segregated groups. Our world is segregated by race, religion, wealth and poverty. Some countries are very wealthy, most are very poor. The poor ones depend on the charity of wealthier neighbors...or if charity is not given the poor masses rise up and take what is not theirs. Most institutions, governments, or religions on the "giving end" represent some form of the philosophy of give to us and it will be given back to you. Give us your taxes; we will look out for you. Give us your vote and we will be your voice at the leadership conference table. Give us your allegiance and we will give you something to believe in and live for...because somehow WE ALL MUST LIVE FOR SOMETHING HIGHER OR GREATER THAN OURSELVES. That is usually interpreted to mean self comes into play at the back of the line after God, country and others. This is the macro spirit in play that I believe keeps the worlds progress in check, keeps the rich in power, and keeps the poor in their place.
The debate on what to do about the chasm between wealth and poverty obviously touches on many sensitive issues in life. Our core beliefs about religion, government and rights of the individual can get easily confusing and paralyze our thinking to the point of inaction or inability to function as individuals. Most humans in the world I am quite convinced live lives of quiet despair, feeling locked into a set of circumstances or geography that is totally inescapable in their minds. Most resign themselves to living their whole lives "as they are, where they are"...even if they are miserable doing so. Societies teach us to conform, think "humbly" of ourselves, and "behave". And while one would think that with the modern advent of television, the internet and all types of ways we can better interconnect and get educated and expand our horizons...that we would become more productive and knowledgeable...I'm not convinced that is really happening. Instead, the "culture" itself has taken over these vehicles of communication and cultivated the old stereotypes of conformity and distortion of truth. In my lifetime we went from two television channels to HUNDREDS to choose from, yet I think there was more content on the original two than all the rest combined. On the internet, you have to sort through hundreds of wasted, empty websites on most any subject to find one of merit and non distortion. So, instead of sorting it all out, most of us simply resort to what entertains us...and to a scary level that is primarily porn sites and MTV type of music. Information and "truth" sites are just not as profitable or popular.
So, in essence I am seeing the world at least through my eyes as not moving forward very quickly in solving this conflict between wealth and poverty. "Supply side" and "trickle down" methods have not worked in the long haul to meet the challenge of poverty. Communism or Socialism models have not succeeded in bringing wealth or sense of fulfillment to the masses. Every pure model or philosophy for growing wealth or success ends up mired down by mass appeals for "fairness"...for protecting the losers from the winners. Governments in wealthy nations put up walls and borders against poor nations. Wealthy neighborhoods are getting gated and walled in more and more in order to protect the haves from the “ have nots”. Money hangs out with the money...the poor hang out in their barrios and ghettos. These walls and borders simply perpetuate the continued persistence and growth of poverty.
For me personally, I live pretty well in the small, emerging growth country of Panama. Every day I see, touch and feel both ends of this spectrum. I am glad that I do...I WANT to feel the heartbeat of the whole of mankind. I WANT to feel thankful for what I know and have...and at the same time I WANT to touch the poor and destitute. Not the professional beggars in the streets and elsewhere. Some of these people are beyond help...lost in a lifelong mindset of entitlement and handouts. But, a majority of the poor I see are working the best they can to get by...and in some cases to get UP.
I believe in the potential of every human being to elevate their level of thinking and livelihood. It starts with willpower...which has to be encouraged and instilled from a very young age. If we want to reduce or have a vision for eliminating poverty, we must start with educating the youth. Not just book education and institutional degrees...but educating their hearts and souls as well that they are valuable and have great potential. I'm not sure how we teach "desire" and "fortitude"...but I think it starts with just being an example of those qualities...and then reaching down in our immediate world to help bring some others UP with us. It is my opinion if we don’t bring the poor UP, they will eventually bring us DOWN. So to an extent, helping the poor can be a very selfish exercise. But, if it takes selfish motivation to value and preserve what we have, and taking PRIDE in helping others less fortunate, then let's have a little more selfishness around here. In the end it will help our own survival, and be the best answer to providing a bridge between wealth and poverty. I hate to sound redundant, but it starts with the “power of one”, each of us first taking responsibility for ourselves, and THEN pulling up others in our immediate reach. Only this over time will truly overcome the chasm between the rich and the poor.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Well, it looks like Obama and the Democrats are leading in all polls in the final days of this tremendously long election season. McCain appears to be "huffing and puffing" to the finish line with no new ideas and riding the disappearing coat tails of a vivacious but inexperienced Sarah Palin. Really sad days in the Republican Party from what I am able to observe. No cohesion, no new message, no fire...
I think alot of people, especially higher percentages of independent voters, have been attracted to Obamas youthful and intelligent persona and are seeking change from the traditional politicians many of us have come to despise. I do think that he has represented SOME good ideas and a more hopeful, positive message than the Republicans have been able to muster this year. As I have often stated on recent blogs, I don't like either of the main party platforms at this point in America's history and voted 3rd party. Yet, I realize one more time we will be stuck with one of the bloated two party leaders for another four years...and it seems to point to Obama.
If/when he gets in office, one of the biggest concerns I have about his objectives is how he is going to pay for all his big "change" ideas. Everyone now has a clearer picture of our governments record deficits and a quickly sinking economy. In the middle of this, it appears that the focal point of his economic and tax plan is a "redistribution" of WHICH taxpayers pay WHAT within our system. While on one hand you can understand the desire for fair and balanced payment of taxes, it does concern me that Obama and the Democrats think they are going to be able to create more "entitlements" for the non-productive by taking more from the productive sector. Most people I have talked to who are voting Republican this year are doing so more as a vote AGAINST Obama than FOR McCain...and the main focus of their concern is Obama's not so subtle suggestion that its time for the wealthy and successful to pay more while a large percentage of the electorate will pay less. If this idea goes too far, it will appear much like other leftist or socialist exteme systems such as Chavez in Venezuela, and many other Central and South American countries who have been nationalizing their major industries, leaning heavy on the rich, and giving freely to the poor. It doesn't appear to me very successful in those countries when it comes to economic stability, balance and growth. I now see the potential for America to go down that same road and am very concerned about what the results will be.
An article today in the Wall Street journal probably more clearly examines and states my concerns. It bears repeating here as my summary statement:
Obama and the Tax Tipping Point
How long before taxpayers are pushed too far
By: Adam Lerrick--professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute
What happens when the voter in the exact middle of the earnings spectrum receives more in benefits from Washington than he pays in taxes? Economists Allan Meltzer and Scott Richard posed this question 27 years ago. We may soon enough know the answer.
Barack Obama is offering voters strong incentives to support higher taxes and bigger government. This could be the magic income-redistribution formula Democrats have long sought.
Sen. Obama is promising $500 and $1,000 gift-wrapped packets of money in the form of refundable tax credits. These will shift the tax demographics to the tipping point where half of all voters will receive a cash windfall from Washington and an overwhelming majority will gain from tax hikes and more government spending.
In 2006, the latest year for which we have Census data, 220 million Americans were eligible to vote and 89 million -- 40% -- paid no income taxes. According to the Tax Policy Center (a joint venture of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute), this will jump to 49% when Mr. Obama's cash credits remove 18 million more voters from the tax rolls. What's more, there are an additional 24 million taxpayers (11% of the electorate) who will pay a minimal amount of income taxes -- less than 5% of their income and less than $1,000 annually.
In all, three out of every five voters will pay little or nothing in income taxes under Mr. Obama's plans and gain when taxes rise on the 40% that already pays 95% of income tax revenues.
The plunder that the Democrats plan to extract from the "very rich" -- the 5% that earn more than $250,000 and who already pay 60% of the federal income tax bill -- will never stretch to cover the expansive programs Mr. Obama promises.
What next? A core group of Obama enthusiasts -- those educated professionals who applaud the "fairness" of their candidate's tax plans -- will soon see their $100,000-$150,000 incomes targeted. As entitlements expand and a self-interested majority votes, the higher tax brackets will kick in at lower levels down the ladder, all the way to households with a $75,000 income.
Calculating how far society's top earners can be pushed before they stop (or cut back on) producing is difficult. But the incentives are easy to see. Voters who benefit from government programs will push for higher tax rates on higher earners -- at least until those who power the economy and create jobs and wealth stop working, stop investing, or move out of the country.
Other nations have tried the ideology of fairness in the place of incentives and found that reward without work is a recipe for decline. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher took on the unions and slashed taxes to restore growth and jobs in Great Britain. In Germany a few years ago, Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder defied his party's dogma and loosened labor's grip on the economy to end stagnation. And more recently in France, Nicolas Sarkozy was swept to power on a platform of restoring flexibility to the economy.
The sequence is always the same. High-tax, big-spending policies force the economy to lose momentum. Then growth in government spending outstrips revenues. Fiscal and trade deficits soar. Public debt, excessive taxation and unemployment follow. The central bank tries to solve the problem by printing money. International competitiveness is lost and the currency depreciates. The system stagnates. And then a frightened electorate returns conservatives to power.
The economic tides will not stand still while Washington experiments with European-type social democracy, even though the dollar's role as the global reserve currency will buy some time. Our trademark competitive advantage will be lost, and once lost, it will be hard to regain. There are too many emerging economies focused on prosperity and not redistribution for the U.S. to easily recapture its role of global economic leader.
Tomorrow's children may come to question why their parents sold their birthright for a mess of "fairness" -- whatever that will signify when jobs are scarce and American opportunity is no longer the envy of the world.
Friday, October 17, 2008
Love him or hate him...I can't deny that a lot of what Bill Maher says in this video is some reality one would like to hear in a political stump speech. I'm not sure where all his data comes from, but the points regarding where our country falls behind are true.
When he talks about the growing inability for "getting things done"...our inability to get Iraq under wraps, our inability to "get" Bin Laden, and our initializing the current global financial collapse...it's pretty hard to maintain our smugness on "greatness".
More appropriately, we need to recognize we have GREAT problems. Covering up our problems and growing ineptness does not contribute to turning things around...and just claiming ignorance and counting on current national leadership to pull us out of the downward spiral doesn't cut it anymore. If we cherish the American dream we grew up with and the freedoms that portends, it is time for each of us to speak up instead of just listening to the constant ramblings of nefarious politicians! Otherwise, we will just follow the herd of “sheeple” over the cliff of mass manipulation.
It is time to reawaken that American spirit of "can do" with integrity and honor. It is time to get off our soft pillows of self indulgence and complacency. It is time for each of us to get our hands dirty by participating in the public discourse. It is time to truly live up to those challenging words of John F Kennedy when he said, "ask not what your country can do for you...ask what YOU can do for your country". And by that I don’t think he meant to blindly follow your government to unwinnable or undeclared wars to the death. I interpret the challenge as doing what you can INSIDE your borders to better our country and influence positively it's ideals. He primarily meant activities like the PEACE CORP and community support organizations.
I have had a few people over the past few years challenge me about how I can talk or write about America's issues or politics when I haven't lived there for over 6 years. How can you be patriotic while living outside the USA? For those that raise that question I have forthrightly answered that it is easier to get a realistic view of the country and its culture from outside than it is caught up in the middle of it on a daily/hourly basis. I think Americans and their ideals stand out more outside the borders of our country. I also have experienced that you don’t appreciate the whole essence of American ideals, proficiency and accomplishment until you live in countries that don't have those ideals. America's free and capitalistic roots are what have driven the ingenuity and productivity that made us the great powerhouse economically and otherwise that it was. Unfortunately we have taught many other nations and cultures our ways too well, and some of them are kicking our butts when it comes to production and wealth creation. You won't see this unless you get out of your backyard in America once in a while. It has come to the point where it is easier to compete in less regulated markets and keep more of your profits in foreign counties than to operate domestically in the USA. You can thank high taxes and government regulations/manipulations for those contemporary realities.
Strangely enough, our political "leaders" continue to try and paint foreign corporations, competition and trade as unpatriotic or worse. My personal opinion is that America's competitive ideals are BEST demonstrated in foreign markets...and we need to be sharing our values and ideals OUTSIDE our country in order to bring peace, understanding and COMMERCE to the global arena. Getting outside our borders and interacting with the world in trade and commerce is to me the greatest plan of national defence we can foster. We need to export more forcefully our rule of law (albeit not all our ridiculous Tort laws that help tear down our gains) and continue building free and fair trade alliances...driven by private enterprises and American individuals...not Government manipulations. This would be much more effective than exporting guns and bombs to try and keep a dangerous world "in line".
Does anyone not see where the USA is the largest manufacturer and exporter of weapons to the world? In 2006, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, total worldwide spending on "Defense Budgets" was over $1.1 TRILLION...almost 50% of that was spent and developed by the USA. So one of the few remaining indexes where America is still #1 is in this nefarious development of the world's armaments. We need to do everything we can in my opinion to limit our export of weapons while INCREASING our export of business and peaceful ideals. While it is probably too late to go back to pacifist, Gandhi-like positions because of the many enemies we have, it should be a top priority to control and roll back the armaments industry on a global basis. It will obviously take a world wide effort in diplomacy and verification to do so...but in my opinion, America should lead the way on this one as well. If we don’t, America will continue to be viewed as one of the most hypocritical countries in the history of civilization. We say we want peace and prosperity out one side of our mouth, while we continue to apply force throughout the world through armaments more than dialogue, commerce and diplomacy. To me it comes down to the fact we have put ourselves in a corner just like Bush did with Iraq. We will either build communication and understanding with our enemies, or we will have to someday annihilate them. I don't see any middle ground here. Unfortunately, many leading Americans prefer the short, aggressive annihilation option versus long and tedious negotiations. In light of history, this is very concerning to me.
If there is anything good to come out of our current financial crisis in America and around the globe, hopefully it is a common understanding now among the average "Joes" that our world is inextricably linked together financially. It is currently taking a united world effort to restore confidence in our markets. If and when we succeed to restoring health there, I hope we will use the same process to restore peace on a global basis. America cannot do this alone. We can no longer live in our own little shell of "the American Way" and isolationism. That ideal is no longer viable if only for our country's dependency on foreign oil and our international debts. We can no longer afford "enemies".
I truly hope our next administration of leaders will make America the #1 arbitrager of peace and prosperity, not armaments and war. I am convinced only America can affect this turnaround approach to international conflicts. If we start this new approach, I believe a majority of the world will follow our example. If we have the majority of the world in our corner, we will reign victorious. If we don't we will continue to fall under the weight of our own folly and self indulgence as a nation.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
In recent months I have been reading a number of articles and sources on alternative clean energy. While it seems most government and media coverage, especially in the USA, is about drilling and finding more oil/fossil fuels to sustain the world's addiction to carbon fuels which continue to contaminate our environment and quite conclusively accentuates the global warming phenomenon, I see relatively little promotion of clean energy in comparison. This is just blatantly short sighted and wrong on the part of world leaders. Now in light of our global economic downturn, I might suggest that refocusing on alternative energy development could be a significant counter to the continual draining of our world's oil and finances. Panama, where I currently live, could play a leadership role and profit handsomely by doing so if only qualified leaders in both government and the renewable energy industries got together.
Wind it seems to me is one of the most obvious and cheapest sources for energy development. First, some global examples proving this statement, after which I will focus on ideas and reasons why Panama should and could take the lead in the Americas on this agenda. Of course, one caveat is that I have no technical or engineering background in energy. To that end I would welcome any qualified persons insight or corrections on my assumptions. Yet, I feel there is enough basic and obvious proofs in the marketplace globally for wind as an energy source that it doesn't require an "Einstein" to realize we should be looking towards wind power with more emphasis and ingenuity than it seems we currently are.
As I wrote many weeks ago on this blog, Denmark is one global example of a small country that in a relatively short time turned its energy insufficiency and high costs into an amazing "win win, surplus surplus" situation. Just to recap a couple key points, Denmark gets 20% of its consumed electricity from wind. One-third of all terrestrial wind turbines in the world are imported from Denmark. Energy technology exports there rose 8 percent in 2007 to more than $10.5 billion...more than 10x the annual income of the Panama Canal.
So...my proposition for Panama is this. If you want to solve your energy problems AND your budget deficits all in one swift move...line the Panama Canal Zone with wind turbines! The winds are strong and dependable year around from the Caribbean to the Pacific and vice versa. The ACP (Panama Canal Authority) could oversee the development and implementation in their zone where there is no other development or commercialization allowed. It would not be an eyesore for your tourist areas or residential zones…no one would know they were there except those passing through the canal on boats. What else are you going to do with all that vacant land throughout the Canal Zone? The energy created would more than cover the projected deficits of the current power grid in this vastly growing city of Panama. It would probably allow for billions of dollars of energy export income to surrounding countries like Costa Rica and Colombia who have their own energy challenges. The wind would be much more dependable than the water levels for the hydro electric dams that currently provide the country's diminishing electricity supply. It would be a much better investment than your new coastal bypass road for the city or even arguably the current canal expansion itself. Cancel the canal expansion (based on potential DWINDLING demand for transit of goods between North America and China), and put the money into the wind energy that will keep the country energy independent forever and a more powerful source of export income.
Of course, this probably won't happen...at least in the near future. First...most Latin countries down here don't often seem to see obvious opportunities, at least from political perspectives. And two, my current understanding of FENOSA (Panama's electricity monopoly) is that by contract, any energy produced in Panama privately has to be sold to FENOSA who will then be glad to sell it back to you at a profit. This significantly limits any privatized venture towards cutting edge energy developments in this country. So, until those macro factors and laws change, we will continue to pray to the "rain gods" for sustainable water levels in the dams and Canal Zone to squeak by on our marginal energy supplies.
I would love to see one of the main political parties running for the Presidency to consider adding this platform idea. It would be a substantially better new idea than any of the parties are running on currently.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
(Panama union construction workers clash with police in Feb 08...over work standards and pay)
Once again columnist Tom Friedman sheds some reality thinking on the world's current financial crisis. HIS ARTICLE rightly points out some basic realities of high flying economies tied to mass movements and false realities...that continue to drive markets. His summary paragraphs bear repeating here...
...Charles Mackay wrote a classic history of financial crises called “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” first published in London in 1841. “Money ... has often been a cause of the delusion of multitudes. Sober nations have all at once become desperate gamblers, and risked almost their existence upon the turn of a piece of paper. To trace the history of the most prominent of these delusions is the object of the present pages. Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
And so it must be with us. We need to get back to collaborating the old-fashioned way. That is, people making decisions based on business judgment, experience, prudence, clarity of communications and thinking about how — not just how much.
This points to some of the core reasons current markets are upside down. Some traditionally "sober" and conservative countries and economic systems, including the USA, who were flying high on macros and debt that was unsustainable are now experiencing the reality of flying on thin air...and the engines of unrealistic expectations have sputtered out and are facing the "laws of gravity" when facing mathematical equations and scientific realities. While emotions obviously affect markets, this time it is the math that is catching up to us as well.
Many people are asking me these days how this all is affecting or WILL affect Panama economically. I don't claim to have a crystal ball or any inside track on all of Panama's future expectations, but I DO live and operate here and try to keep a broad ear to the ground and eye on the activities in this small country. The banks have been tightening up here for a while now, a bit before the actual crashes happened internationally. To me that is a good sign for Panama financial institutions. They never did have the free for all offerings to the masses we saw in the USA. While that was a complaint of developers and real estate marketers, it has kept the institutions here more liquid and with better reserves than many of the big boys on Wall Street.
Of course, now we have to ask who is going to buy and live in all these mega condos, hotel and office building developments that dot most every corner of Panama City, the new "Singapore of the Americas". It is quite obvious that purchases have slowed considerably the last quarter. Prices are either stabilizing or coming down a bit. What activity remains is mostly at the high or super high end offerings in the market as the wealthy always seem to retain buying power in bad economic times. Panama is also arguably a nice port in the storm based on its offshore privacy and low taxes on profits in addition to competitive incentives for foreign retirees and investors. One could build a solid case that Panama could profit from these globally uncertain times, but there are many unknowns here as well. Some points to consider:
One...we are looking at new elections this spring which typically brings about many changes in administration of the country...and its financial management. This country just like the USA has seen tremendous increase of national debt, and cash flow via tax collections are way less sophisticated and effective than most first world systems. Being in the middle of some major infrastructural projects like the widening of the canal and new locks on each end, a new highway to run alongside the canal zone, a new coastal bypass in the downtown area tied to improved waste treatment challenges to support the huge growth of city condos and their dwellers...it just seems obvious to me that we need to keep an eye on where all the money is going to come from to continue or complete these projects. Just like elsewhere in the world, money in the hands of government bureaucrats get siphoned off quickly to mysterious mazes of various funds with malfeasant intents. Wolves are in the hen house everywhere it seems.
Two...money attracts money. There has been a lot of big money flow into this region the past 3-4 years with names like Trump, Gates, and many big Oligarchy families from all over Latin America fueling these projects and putting money in these offshore banks. If Panama handles and serves them well, those funds should stay long term, circulate and profit well. Of course, Panamanians seem to be quite inwardly focused and they could do some bonehead things legislatively to make investors uncomfortable. It would be a shame, but it is not unviable that government here could turn more "leftist"...which would not bode well for investment/investors. Chavez DOES have his thoughts and some fingers in the "Panamanian pie".
Three...you can have all the money in the world come here, but it would not change much unless it positively affected the culture and inherent poverty that pervades this small country. There has to be a rational plan to help ALL Panamanians improve their way of life during these growth years and handle the rapidly rising cost of living. Otherwise, you will continue towards class war and conflict internally that could get ugly and immediately stunt the growth perspectives for this marketplace.
Four...it will take a ton of education and training to get a country like Panama to continue the growth and progress we have seen these past 5 years. While we see all this progress and economic growth, we are NOT seeing advances and more money for education of the young and work training for the not so young. And based on realities of culture, it is not going to be an overnight result from training and education. You are going to have to train the teachers first in many cases. The public universities here are very Leftist leaning and many of the professors/teachers have questionable or false credentials. Meanwhile the government continues policies of protectionism for jobs during a time when there is a vacuum of qualified, highly trained and experienced workers. Just live here for 30 days and you will see the general lack of service and capabilities in even simple operations. You cannot have 4 or 5 star service in tourism without people who understand and perform that 4-5 star service. I am convinced even top management at many of our most popular Hotels and resort here "don’t get it". You can put all the billions you want into land and structures…but without qualified people it will go to ruin without sustainable customers.
So, as you can see, my point is it’s not just about the MONEY, but it is HOW that money goes into action and what it produces. Just paying someone an executive salary doesn’t make them a qualified executive. Just look at the track record of these hideously overpaid Wall Street "executives" who never saw the train coming.
As Mr. Friedman says, you can’t just "engineer money from money"...it needs to fund and improve "human endeavor". The money has to get down to the people...whether in Panama or America...to force them on to their feet...with vision and hope for better things to come. Things THEY can control and affect. That my friends are what will turn our worlds down cycles around.
Friday, October 10, 2008
After listening to all the hype and panicky voices on all the major news media channels these last couple days, I finally found a voice of warning and reason that sounds authoritative and offers some ideas and hope for turning the global crisis around. I hope the G7 and World Bank leaders in Washington DC are listening to him.
Nouriel Roubini is my new guru on global economics as he has been the most proficient forecaster of economic events and fallout that I have been able to find or follow. This is from his blog yesterday (http://www.rgemonitor.com/blog/roubini/ ) and I felt his suggested actions worth repeating to whoever might be interested and listening for alternatives to panic and hopelessness…
At this point severe damage is done and one cannot rule out a systemic collapse and a global depression. It will take a significant change in leadership of economic policy and very radical, coordinated policy actions among all advanced and emerging market economies to avoid this economic and financial disaster. Urgent and immediate necessary actions that need to be done globally (with some variants across countries depending on the severity of the problem and the overall resources available to the sovereigns) include:
- another rapid round of policy rate cuts of the order of at least 150 basis points on average globally;
- a temporary blanket guarantee of all deposits while a triage between insolvent financial institutions that need to be shut down and distressed but solvent institutions that need to be partially nationalized with injections of public capital is made;
- a rapid reduction of the debt burden of insolvent households preceded by a temporary freeze on all foreclosures;
- massive and unlimited provision of liquidity to solvent financial institutions;
- public provision of credit to the solvent parts of the corporate sector to avoid a short-term debt refinancing crisis for solvent but illiquid corporations and small businesses;
- a massive direct government fiscal stimulus packages that includes public works, infrastructure spending, unemployment benefits, tax rebates to lower income households and provision of grants to strapped and crunched state and local government;
- a rapid resolution of the banking problems via triage, public recapitalization of financial institutions and reduction of the debt burden of distressed households and borrowers;
- an agreement between lender and creditor countries running current account surpluses and borrowing and debtor countries running current account deficits to maintain an orderly financing of deficits and a recycling of the surpluses of creditors to avoid a disorderly adjustment of such imbalances.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
As I was reviewing a comment I made on my last blog to a friend, I said to myself, "this is as close as I have come to a reasonably short summary of my personal world view". So, with that realization, I thought I would requote it as a standalone blog today...and of course see what some of you friends and neighbors think or feel about it.
Just as a preface...a lot of people and our current politicians are talking about "world views" today. I think it would be a very good thing for every leader or politician to state a one page "world view" statement. From that, personally, I could make a very quick judgment on whether I want that person leading me or not. Of course the world view has to coincide or correlate with personal action and behaviors...since actions speak much louder than words. But, I think each of us needs to establish some foundation and "personal statement" about ourselves and our views...in order to objectively examine those of others.
This statement is not meant to be all encompassing on every issue that could come up in examining my world view, and arguably, a world view should be something that shifts and flexes to a reasonable degree to new information or personal experience. Yet, I think most people's true world view doesn’t change much over the course of a lifetime...and while the following statement relates mostly to current events, I think a lot of what I wrote supports how I have lived my life to date...
To put this into context, I was challenged by my friend's statement that being for small government and less government controls in life, markets and finances is somehow "impractical" in light of current events and world needs...
...What is unfortunately "impractical" is my country's national debt, it's citizen's personal debt factors, and now the multiple TRILLIONS in "CMOs" (Collateralized Mortgage Obligations) and CDS's (Credit Default Swaps) which have been leveraged to cover up all our mis spending and over valuated holdings under all this paper that reaches international money systems. Those false platforms have been what sustain all the money sent to support our wars and the SCORES of countries the USA government has been GIVING money to. Money that it doesn’t have.
So...PRACTICALLY speaking, this has to stop now, and we and the rest of the world have to drink the hard medicine of reality. We have to teach people to fish versus just give them fish. We have to sustain our own democracy before trying to impart it to others. We have to float our own boat before we can take in any more stragglers to democracy and free enterprise. Yes, it is going to be nasty...and fatal in many cases. But...that is a reality of life...and death...when you have been living on borrowed time and money for DECADES.
In the long run, this can and will correct itself...but if we don’t start, the whole world could implode. Maybe that is what some people want...especially those who harbor apocalyptic fantasies...but it doesn’t HAVE to be that way.
But the answer starts with the "power of one"...each person doing their part to take care of their own space in this life. If each individual just worked smarter and harder to take care themselves, their families and their communities...these statist government systems would not have the pressure, or the obligation, nor the permission to sustain these unsustainable systems for the masses.
This is not to say I don’t feel for the poor and downtrodden people of the world or my own country. I try and help when and as best I can. But the first duty of freedom is to defend and support that freedom. After that, one can pursue helping others arrive to that principle and lifestyle as well. Unfortunately, the masses in history have not been allowed or exposed to the concept of free and independent living. And, it is something they have to TAKE. It is not something freely given by governments and/or religion. I feel my main responsibility and goal in life now is to sustain...and share...my knowledge and freedom...because I do not want to live in slavery to "the world" or wrongful ideologies that bring death and destruction.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Well folks...tonight is the 2nd debate between the Presidential candidates. We are less than a month away where we finally get this election over with. Its 3rd down, fourth quarter...and I HAVE ALREADY VOTED!
One of the benefits of living offshore are you get to submit your ballot from afar and send it in early. Hopefully this secures it gets counted...not that my vote will help either of tonight's two candidates.
Has anyone beside me been turned off by the lack of leadership, constant negative campaigning, lack of agenda and fresh ideas during this current long and drawn out election season? On one hand you have the incumbent party front runners flip flopping on every issue known to man, bringing in what I can only politely describe as a "token" female VP candidate, and carrying the mantel of attack and sensationalist politics to a whole new level. On the other hand, you have the traditional "new idea", "new deal" party coming up to the plate with their own finger pointing campaign while representing a controlled congress of the past 4 years that is arguably the worst/weakest set of leaders ever! ALL OF THEM were asleep at the wheel on this current economic meltdown...and all these contenders can do is point the finger at the OTHER guy ASAP. Neither of the two parties has any claim to leadership on the economic issues of the day. Hell, two of Obama's committee leaders were former heads of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac who snuck out with mega millions from those organizations as they were going down. How can ANY of these people hold their heads high on this economy? And...it IS all about the economy...stupid.
While it will probably be entertaining to see the debaters go at it tonight...my mind is made up and I have already voted. In the state of Florida we had FOURTEEN Presidential candidates to choose from! Why were none of these included in these national debates? Good question...because most all of them have some new/fresh ideas to contribute...but our national media and corporate complex has chosen NOT to let their voices be heard. The candidates are (in order of ballot appearance):
Gene Amondson: Prohibition Party
Charles O. Baldwin: Constitutional Party
Robert L. Barr: Independent, Libertarian
Roger Calero: Socialist Workers Party
Charles Jay: Independent Boston Tea Party
Alan L. Keyes: America's Independent Party
Gloria E. La Riva: Socialism and Liberation Party
John S. McCain: Republican
Cynthia Ann McKinney: Green Party
Brian P. Moore: Socialist Party USA
Ralph Nader: Ecology Party
Gary Nettles: Write-In
Barack H. Obama: Democratic
Thomas R. Stevens: Objectivist
Now, with all those choices, it was a hard call between Thomas Stevens and the "Objectivists" who have the basic platform of..."The source of the government's authority is "the consent of the governed." This means that the government is not the ruler, but the servant or agent of the citizens; it means that the government as such has no rights except the rights delegated to it by the citizens for a specific purpose", and Charles Baldwin of the Constitutional Party whose mission statement reads "to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity through the election, at all levels of government, of Constitution Party candidates who will uphold the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. It is our goal to limit the federal government to its delegated, enumerated, Constitutional functions and to restore American jurisprudence to its original Biblical common-law foundations."...
At the end of deliberation, I had to go with the more established Constitutional Party since I think it is too late for "pure" Objectivism. I think a bit of faith tied to rational effort and reasoning is not a bad thing. Baldwin also has a pretty good read on the need to solidify our borders, get a handle on illegal immigration while allowing legal, constitutional immigration to proceed. They also believe in taking care of the home front domestic issues before funding and getting burned out on all the foreign affairs that are breaking the will and the financial backbone of our country.
While globalism is with us forever with the shrinking of the world and growing mindshare spurred by technology (internet) and historic cross migrations of people and ideas...it is still within principle to say "I cannot save my brother if I cannot save myself". In other words, if I can't pay my own rent, I surely can't afford to loan or give anyone else a cent”. The USA is unfortunately now in this position...and it is just a damn shame that we have been taken over by a dim witted, two party system (and media that supports it) that has no answers and replaces truth for a lie.
Yea , yea...I know...some of you will say "you are wasting your vote". I know...either McCain or Obama will be our next President. But you won't be able to say I did not vote my conscience, and if what I think is going to happen happens...you will be seeing some major changes in the lifestyle of Americans. And...I hope in the long run these painful times will lead to a more democratic, multiparty system where we will truly have freedom and justice...for ALL! Not just Republicans and Democrats.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
(Warren Buffett interview points out the need for government intervention and focusing on sound alternatives)
It now looks like the Senate has passed a "better" bailout package for our economic crisis...and sounds like the House is getting ready to fall in behind for the parade. It's sad to observe a Congress that has worked more and produced more ideas in 2 weeks than it has the whole 4 years preceding. I say it's time to vote them ALL to the unemployment lines this November. Where are the fresh, young, realistic LEADERS?
I think their first problem in resolving this crisis is calling this process a "bail out". Most of us who are critical of this mess are primarily putoff by the total mismanagement and lack of oversight by both Wall Street, the SEC, and the federal government overall who are supposed to regulate and legislate over these things. If they called this a "buy out" instead, some of us might be more positive in our perception of what is or needs to be done. "Bail out" sounds like we are keeping these criminals out of prison for some reason...and keeping them in the game when they don't deserve to be. That is what I think "Main Street" is upset about.
Obviously, something major needs to be done to protect and correct our markets and the masses of American's and later the whole world who are and will be affected. The problem most of us have is, this process is being driven by the very people who have benefited from the golden parachutes (including Treasurer Paulsen) and all the "cronies" of Wall Street in the Capitol. And they still arent giving us the details on the plan before passing it. Everyone is in a rush now, after spending a decade asleep at the wheel. I get very skittish when someone tries to put together and spend such immense cash in such a short time. I believe it is likely we will throw a lot of good money of the taxpayers after bad.
As usual, columnist Tom Friedman had a spot-on column called "Rescue the Rescue". In it he calls for strong oversight of whatever funds are committed to this bailout. The last two paragraphs are my favorite quote...
Message to Congress: Don’t get cute. Don’t give us something we don’t need. Don’t give us something designed to solve your political problems. Yes, Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke need to accept strict oversights and the taxpayer must be guaranteed a share in the upside profits from all rescued banks. But other than that, give them the capital and the flexibility to put out this fire.
I always said to myself: Our government is so broken that it can only work in response to a huge crisis. But now we’ve had a huge crisis, and the system still doesn’t seem to work. Our leaders, Republicans and Democrats, have gotten so out of practice of working together that even in the face of this system-threatening meltdown they could not agree on a rescue package, as if they lived on Mars and were just visiting us for the week, with no stake in the outcome.
I also hope they will have public accounting of every dollar this bill provides. I have my doubts we the public will have access...for "national security" reasons or some other excuse. But, if we can watch this, I requote here a comment from my last blog on this issue since it too applies to today's theme...
http://www.rushprnews.com/2008/10/02/the-united-states-public-debt-tops-ten-trillion-dollars-for-the-first-time/ points out the fact that "As of April 2008, Japan, Mainland China and the United Kingdom were the three largest holders of US Treasury Securities. Japan and China own a combined one trillion dollars plus of US debt, with Japan holding $592 billion and China holding $502 billion.
The ten trillion dollar figure works out to $32,895 for every man, woman and child in the United States."
I'm quite convinced that a significant portion of this emergency bailout will go to these foreign holders of our treasury notes. After all, SEc of Treasury Paulsen will have almost carte blanc on using most of these funds with very little oversight. Scary scary...
For all the above reasons, we Americans should demand exacting accountibility for whatever plan these culprits are splicing together...