Saturday, October 18, 2008

Zakaria Sees Hope on Horizon

In this era of uncertainty it's refreshing to hear a voice of reasoned optimism. From Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria:

Since the 1980s, Americans have consumed more than they produced—and they have made up the difference by borrowing.

Two decades of easy money and innovative financial products meant that virtually anyone could borrow any amount of money for any purpose. If we wanted a bigger house, a better TV or a faster car, and we didn't actually have the money to pay for it, no problem. We put it on a credit card, took out a massive mortgage and financed our fantasies. As the fantasies grew, so did household debt, from $680 billion in 1974 to $14 trillion today. The total has doubled in just the past seven years. The average household owns 13 credit cards, and 40 percent of them carry a balance, up from 6 percent in 1970.

But the average American's behavior was virtue itself compared with the government's. Every city, every county and every state has wanted to preserve its many and proliferating operations and yet not raise taxes. How to square this circle? By borrowing, using ever more elaborate financial instruments. Revenue bonds were backed up by the prospect of future income from taxes or lotteries. "A growing trend is to securitize future federal funding for highways, housing and other items," says Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute. The effect on the projects, he points out, is to make them more expensive, since they incur interest payments. Because they "insulate the taxpayer from the cost"—all that needs to be paid now is the interest—they also tend to produce cost overruns.

The whole country has been complicit in a great fraud. As economist Jeffrey Sachs points out, "We've wanted lots of government, but we haven't wanted to pay for it." So we've borrowed our way out of the problem. In 1990, the national debt stood at $3 trillion. (That sounds high, but keep reading.) By 2000, it had almost doubled, to $5.75 trillion. It is currently $10.2 trillion. The number moved into 11 digits last month, which meant that the National Debt Clock in New York City ran out of space to display the figures. Its owners plan to get a new clock next year.

...At some point the magical accounting had to stop. At some point, consumers had to stop using their homes as banks and spending money that they didn't have. At some point, the government had to confront its indebtedness. The United States—and other overleveraged societies—have now gotten the wake-up call from hell. If we can respond and change our behavior markedly, this might actually be a blessing in disguise.

In the short term, all the solutions to the current crisis require that governments take on more debts and larger obligations. This is inevitable and necessary. But that doesn't mean we should, as some noted economists advocate, stimulate the economy with more tax cuts. That would be only one more way to keep the party going artificially—like asking a drunk to go to AA next year, but in the meantime to have even more whisky. A far better stimulus would be to announce and expedite major infrastructure and energy projects, which are investments, not consumption, and therefore have a much different effect on the country's fiscal fortunes.

...we have to get back to basics. Households, for instance, should save more. Governments should put incentives in place that make such savings more likely. The U.S. government offers enormous incentives to consume (the deduction of mortgage interest being the best example), and it works. We have the biggest houses in the world, the thinnest flat-screen TVs and the most cars. If we were to tax consumption and encourage savings, that would also work.

...A new discipline would benefit America in a more general sense, too. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has operated in the world with no constraints or checks on its power. This has not been good for its foreign policy. It has made Washington arrogant, lazy and careless. Its decision making has resembled General Motors' business strategy in the 1970s and 1980s, a process driven largely by a vast array of internal factors but little sense of urgency or awareness of outside pressures. We didn't have to make strategic choices; we could have it all. We could make blunders, anger the world, rupture alliances, waste resources, wage war incompetently—it didn't matter. We had more than enough room for error—lots of error.

...Checks and balances are James Madison's crucial mechanisms, exposing and countering abuse and arrogance and forcing discipline on people. This discipline will be painful for a country that has gotten used to having it all. But it will make us much stronger in the long run. If we can learn the right lessons from this crisis, the United States will once more be playing by its own rules. And that cannot be bad for us.


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