Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Solving economic problems

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The topic for this essay may sound very alarmist.... I'm talking about problems at a time when the global economies are booming. Housing prices and equities have never been so good, we have full employment and the poor nations of the world are growing. But how real is it.

In the wake of the internet bubble - Americans might have been asking that exact question. In the bear market that followed, critics were panning corporate executives that had conspired to defraud shareholders of wealth, employees of jobs and security for the sake of personal gain. A few executives have been found guilty under the Corporations Law in several countries. The Worldcom, Enron cases in the USA, Parmalat in Italy and HIH Insurance in Australia are testimony to the fact that its a global problem. The problem being global in its extent.

The governments in many countries have responded to calls to reign in such dubious accounting & management practices as they always promise to do, but executives always find new ways to evade such laws. It comes as no surprise that dubious conduct is often lawful, that executives in concert with their lawyers are often able to find 'technically' legal ways of evading the law. We must remember that the law and morality are not the same, though one might question why? Pragmatism is the short answer. Those people that write laws only do so to protect their own interests. It is therefore dangerous for voters to narrow their focus to their immediate self-interest, lest they suffer the repercussions of illegitimate acts by others.

Unquestionably the greatest threat posed to a society is by the agency that professes to represent them - the government. In the name of the 'common good', governments have rationalised a great many 'technically legal' breaches of morality for the sake of protecting their own interests, ie. Affirming their own power or popularity. Hitler, Lenin and Stalin are perhaps extreme examples, but less grandiose breaches of morality occur today, but since they don't attract the concern of the populace, they are marginalised and their impacts desensitised. People are no longer defenders of principles, because they no longer see principles as serving them. Consider that holding principles today is tantimony to holding contradictions. But rather than checking their premises, people are prone to discount their knowledge and resign themselves to the 'common good', choosing the 'safe mode' and going with the consensus. The manifestation of consensus thinking is entrenched vested interests and lower standards (expectations) of value. The implication is an erosion of principles and accountability, and a wider sense of disillusionment and cynicism.

Consider that in response to the corporate failures the government decides to increase accountability and establish new guidelines for corporate reporting. That's fine. But such practices have been going on for decades, and guidelines are endlessly side-stepped because they are arbitrary rather than based on principle. Arbitrary laws or guidelines are dogma that apply only within a narrow context. Only principles are contextual, and can be countered to prevent executives from side-stepping breaches. The reason that principles are not adopted as legally sanctioned guidelines is that - by implication - they would be universal. They would need to apply to government as much as corporate executives.

One need only look at the double-standard evident in the global society today - whether we are talking about Australia, the US, Britain or China. Laws are applied to the general citizenry with little restraint, but government officials are relatively free from such double standards. The governments of western governments in the wake of the Enron & Worldcom scandals have moved to improve accounting standards and to tighten disclosure regulations.... but look at the public accounts for governments. Not only are the acounts incomplete, often meaningless, unaudited, but they are often confidential or not collected. The government is without a doubt the most important organisation in every country, representing 15-35% of the each economy, yet they are surprisingly free from public scrutiny. There is no better evidence than this that the public's interest is not being protected, and that public officials are acting contrary to those whom they represent. An honourable representative does not ask for the trust of their supporters, and nor does he countenance it.

The governments of each most countries are guilty of perhaps the greatest crime that can be perpetrated against its people - the blatant & mass expropriation of wealth. For years they have done it by sanction of a 'cynical & unprincipled majority', but they have also perpetrated such breaches by stealth - though the 'theft of inflation'. It is a nonsense that western nations have not experienced inflation as any investigation of price levels will demonstrate. Western governments and their bureaucrats are party to the biggest, self-serving fraud ever perpetrated against productive people. Paradoxically, the theft is being perpetrated by 'doctoring the books', by using accounting and limitations on disclosure to conceal the facts from the general public.

This is not so much a mass 'conspiracy' as a mass evasion. Mostly its honest people just sticking to what they know, and being reluctant to get involved something so grand they could never resolve it. Its easier not to know the facts, easier to lower your expectations, easier to just pay up. Justice gives way to molevolence. "Who am I to question" is the answer to a question they never ask, to a question they don't want to hear.

People look at corrupt third world markets and think they are so backward. But the reality is that they western world is backward too, just less so. Its only 1st world by default. Like third world countries, people sanction corruption in their society by default, by not questioning the integrity of their institutions, by remaning passive. Decadence is as much a curse as poverty, for it is the institutional safeguards that make any society what it is - and can potentially undermine it. The integrity of western institutional stability is being undermined by the largesse and ineptitude of western governments. They are not conspiring in an act of self-interest, rather as an act of fear......the fear of being powerless or irrelevant.

Governments have the greatest power possible to mankind - the power of the moral sanction over other humans, the power to override his identity and righteous for the 'common good'. That is a considerable responsibility, and a dangerous capacity when that power is welded by unprincipled people. It is through its monopoly of the right of moral sanction that governments are able to tax, print money and sanction other organisations through state-backed sancitioning. That sanction is only as safe as the capacity of taxpayers to finance any resulting liability. The power comes down to the governments ability to raise money. That is a debt western governments are fully willing to abuse, and its a level of trust the public can scarcely afford to extend. There is not just the possibility of ineptitude and deception, its a forgone conclusion if history is any guide. There has never been a monetary standard which has not been corrupted by governments over hundreds of years.

Governments are able to achieve their deception through structuring the economy in a way that serves them. They need their allies to achieve their ends. Politicians count on 4 parties to preserve their self-interest. These are:
  1. Private Bankers: The banks are among the biggest beneficiaries of the public abuse of money. In the old days bank executives were able to cash in their shares prior to bank failures. In the advent of derivatives, banks need only off-load risky assets to third parties, paradoxically mutual funds managing household savings. Private bankers can get very rich in the process.
  2. Central Bankers: Central bankers have a different goal. By financing western governments expenditure, they are able to expand their job market, incomes and thus benefit from not just a richer treasury, but also an entrenched hold on government, not to mention considerable notoriety.
  3. Bureaucrats: The role of the bureaucrats is to make the government look good. Ministers are very careful about the type of public 'servants' they employ. They don't want recalcitrants, rather safe, subservient minorities who do as their told. Of course such loyalty doesn't come without a price - the price being life-time employment, generous retirement packages and tax benefits.
  4. Military & police: The military and police can be important for preserving government's power. As agents of justice, they hold considerable moral power, despite the fact that many police forces are tainted by accusations of corruption. Police forces go to considerable trouble to dispell those concerns, to downplay the extent of the trouble. But consider the facts: The police and military are secretive, open only to self-scrutiny and are well-paid.
  5. Big business: Corporate executives are another favoured party of politicians for several reasons - but fundamentally they have the capacity to make governments look good. Consider how. Executives create jobs that would otherwise go to another country, they have the credibility or prestige of belonging to a more impressive institution (read 'commercially profitable'), as well as the power to retrench and go home. This is why business is beholden to 'big business'. Big business also has the capacity to spend their way through recessions, whether on capital investment or on political campaign donations. Thats why it takes considerable pressure ('public opinion') for governments to act against public opinion. Rest assured that when they do, the laws they enact will be 'toothless', in as much as they will make little difference. In fact, often those laws are designed to fail, as they need to countenance vested interests. Big business acts through industry representation with a powerful capacity to serve their own interests. Clearly the most powerful interest group is the media. More dangerous still is a media with a large market share.

If these are the vested interests, then the question has to be asked, who are the sacrificial lambs. There are 3 types:

  1. PAYE Salary Workers: The contemporary salaryman is the hardest worker but gets the least benefit. They are often under-paid, get few tax deductions and pay tax up-front.
  2. Small business: Small business is cherished for its autonomy, but its alot of work. Ever wondered why they struggle to get government to remove excess red-tape? Its because politically they don't matter. They often go out of business, rarely make campaign contributions and they don't employ a great many people workers. They are staunchly independent, so they are politically poorly organised. Farmers are perhaps the most powerful lobby group in many countries because many city folk retain a 'rural identity' or sympathy, but otherwise farming is of declining importance in most countries, and its power is quickly being eroded by big business interests as they consolidate productive capacity. Big business (including big farmers) are better connected and organised than 'small farm' lobbyists.
  3. Unskilled workers: Unskilled factory workers have historically been very powerful because they were organised into unions, manufacturing was an important income earner, and they were effective in harnessing community sympathy. That was before 'unskilled' jobs moved offshore to developing countries and unskilled workers moved into service industries. That loss of power saw big business break the unions through government legislation. The unionists deserved it because they were hedonistic in their demands.

The last 3 vested interest groups are likely feeling pretty secure after record rises in property prices and tax cuts prior to the last election, but consider this - the good times will not roll endlessly. The current boom is not sustainable, but is the result of public largesse. The greatest culprit in these 'money illusion' stakes are the Federal Reserve Board (USA), the US government, and their counterparties in China, Britain and Australia. Really any central banker should know better, but people don't like to be critics. But eventually when the credibility of these institutions comes into doubt, there will be alot of criticism. The encumbent governments will loose power for a decade, but nothing will change, irrespective of how much soul-searching will be done.

But these last 3 vested interest groups represent the best opportunity for greater accountability in our public enterprises. Why? Because they have good reason to be frustrated and because they represent the bulk of any population, albeit they are important only is so far as they raise their expectations, have a representative body to unite them, they are able to articulate a clear message, and are able to gain support among other competing interest groups. Clearly they have to change their tact.

Their greatest opportunity lies in identifying the future fallibility of this bubble economy before it happens. There will eventually be a collapse in housing prices in the USA, Britain, Australia and China, which will likely be precipitated by high oil prices. High oil prices are blamed for 90% of the recessions this century, but the truth is - they are just the symptom of the underlying problem - a lack of accountability in public administration. We can go further and identify the structure of modern democracy as the problem. Irrespective, those public administrators and politicians that are supposed to earn our trust, are in contempt. How can they defend such a gross contradiction? How can they reasonably apply increased disclosure upon executives of private enterprises, whilst ignoring public administration. Its not so long ago that public adminstrators were breaching public confidence. eg. The Pyramid Building Society in Victoria, Australia, as well as FEMA in the USA (of Hurricane Katrina fame). Where is the accountability? The absence of accountability points to a deeper flaw in our political system. The answer is not that these 'forgotten' poorly represented vested interest groups expand their influence at the expense of other groups, rather that 'reason is the standard' - not political pull. That is the subversion that needs to be avoided.
Reason is the standard for debate.

- Andrew Sheldon www.sheldonthinks.com

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