The US Continues Along an Alarming Continuum
Late at night on November 6, along with John Mauldin, Doug Casey and a group of partygoers in a café here in Cafayate, we watched on a small television as Obama’s contract was renewed by a majority of the mob. As was the case with many readers, I suspect, my initial reaction was disbelief.
While I try not to pay a lot of attention to the careers of individual politicians, but rather prefer to monitor the carnage they inflict on the world in the collective, I sincerely believed that Obama’s steady transgressions against commonsense economics, individual liberty and the rule of law would see him unceremoniously turned out.
So much did I believe this that I even put money on the outcome. Upon waking the next morning, I reflected on what had come to pass and felt doubly stupid in having expected a different outcome. It was, in hindsight, so obvious.
You see, if Mitt Romney had been elected, it would have been a pause in the continuum that we here at Casey Research have been warning dear readers about for years.
Specifically, the continuum that has remained intact for the better part of a century now is for the devolvement of power from the individual to the state. There’s no question that that has been the case with President Obama, but it was equally true with his predecessor. And, with a few brief periods of slowing, it has been the case all the way back to before the US Civil War.
In the specific case of the Obama administration, my expectation that the public would vote him out and by so doing risk a repeal of “free” medical care or otherwise curb the government’s elevated level of public largess was in hindsight misguided in the extreme, as it would be a break in the continuum.
Which begs the question, “What government actions are consistent with the continuum of growing state power, and so are likely to either continue or occur in the future?”
Continued Deficit Spending
No matter how you slice it, curbing government spending by any significant amount – and by “significant,” I mean “enough to make a positive difference” – is approaching the point of impossibility, or at least serious improbability. That’s because someone’s ox has to get gored, and gored hard, in order to turn the deficits around. So, whose ox is it going to be… oldsters? The military? Everyone’s? Not likely, not in a degraded democracy where votes are the only currency that counts to the politicians.
And, mind you, when the punditry talk about the deficits, they refer only to the $1.3 to $1.5 trillion the government claims to be spending in excess of its incoming. But the government and the useful idiots in the nation’s media are obfuscating the inconvenient truth about the true scale of the problem. A clear-eyed analysis would show that the true extent of the deficit problem – and that of its parent, the national debt – is probably 7 to 10 times worse.
To keep the continuum intact, the governments of the US and most of the large economies must continue the spending. Otherwise they risk the serious social consequences of a public that has been studiously trained to look for its well-being and sustenance in public coffers.
Unfortunately, the piling of debt on top of debt can’t continue to infinity. We have the locked-in, demographically driven cost increases associated with supporting the large entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare. Then there’s the hundreds of billions of dollars in bad debt bulging under the carpets in the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), the FHA, in student loans, the FDIC, etc., etc.
And sooner or later interest rates must begin to return to more normal levels (and probably well beyond). At which point the cost of servicing all the debt – currently about 6% of the US federal government’s expenditures – will soar.
Simply, there is no denying that government is firmly caught in a trap from which there is no politically acceptable way to free itself. Thus, for the continuum to remain intact, expect the excess spending to continue and, in all likelihood, get worse.
Tax Increases – The Fun Is About to Begin
Some people were aghast when Hollande, the new president of France, jacked the tax rates on high-income earners to as much as 75%. Given the continuum, I suspect that won’t even cause eyebrows to be raised a couple of years down the road.
As far as the masses are concerned, the polls and Obama’s reelection confirm that individuals with an above-average net worth, along with evil corporations (e.g., any company not involved with burning through public money on the false promise of baseload “green” energy) are due their just deserts.
On that general topic, this morning I came across the following gem from the International Monetary Fund, which is increasingly assuming a role as the “thought leader” for governmental schemes designed to keep the de facto sovereign bankrupts from becoming actual bankrupts.
Quoting from the Washington Post… (emphasis mine):
A new study by the International Monetary Fund raises a further warning flag for fiscal cliff negotiators in the U.S. In what it bills as the first-ever study of its kind, the fund analyzed decades of data on the world’s major industrialized countries to estimate how changes in government spending or revenue affect economic output.
The news isn’t good. Given current circumstances, with a U.S. economy that is growing but still trying to make up lost ground from the 2008 crisis, a one dollar change in government spending could knock as much as $1.80 in output from the economy – what fund researchers called a “statistically significant…and sizeable” outcome.
One brighter spot that could also influence negotiators: the growth impact of a tax hike is estimated to be negligible. The list of measures that automatically become law absent an agreement include both spending reductions and tax increases. While the spending cuts would comprise a heavy drag on growth, the fund paper suggests that a one percent rise in tax revenue would knock just 0.1 percent from gross domestic product.
In other words, according to the ivory-tower intellectuals at the IMF (none of whom are rabid socialists, I am sure), cutting government spending even a little is verboten, but raising taxes is two thumbs up. Of course, both of those notions are entirely in sync with the continuum.
Those of you dear readers with a solid net worth no longer need to wonder who’s for dinner – it is you.
Tougher Tax Enforcement
Given the entirely natural trait of us humans to try to avoid being tapped out for unworthy causes (and what could be more unworthy than bailing out the politicians?), it is only logical that the state in all its various permutations will begin to clamp down on potential tax dodgers. This, too, is solidly within the continuum.
Unfortunately, in this particular case technology is a one-edged sword, and that edge is very sharp and aimed at the necks of higher-net-worth individuals and businesses. A recent article in the Telegraph of London pretty much says all you need to know.
Here’s a relevant quote from the article, accurately titled Tax Hitmen to Track Your Spending…
Credit reference agencies will cross-check details of the income people declare on their tax returns against their spending patterns to identify “high” and “medium” risks of both illegal and legal tax avoidance.
People identified to HM Revenue and Customs will then be subject to more detailed investigations. About two million people are expected to be scrutinised under the programme, which may lead to privacy concerns.
HMRC will today unveil the “successful” results of a pilot programme involving about 20,000 people which will now be extended nationally.
Many of those who are expected to be identified are likely to be self-employed workers who have under-declared their income to the authorities.
However, those who have benefited from secret windfalls – such as an inheritance or a bonus – and people with secret offshore accounts could also be highlighted.
Underscoring the coming squeeze, here’s yet another sparkler from the IMF, which is fast becoming my least favorite meddlesome international organization. As reported by Bloomberg…
The International Monetary Fund endorsed nations’ use of capital controls in certain circumstances, making official a shift in the works for almost three years that will guide the fund’s advice to member countries.
In a reversal of its historic support for unrestricted flows of money across borders, the Washington-based IMF said controls can be useful when countries have little room for economic policies such as lowering interest rates or when surging capital inflows threaten financial stability. Still, it said the measures should be targeted, temporary and not discriminate between residents and non-residents.
IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde has cited the shift on capital controls as an illustration of the fund’s attempts to modernize.
“Capital flows can have important benefits for individual countries across the fund membership and the global economy,” the IMF staff wrote in a report discussed by the board on Nov. 16 and published today. They “also carry risks, however, as they can be volatile and large relative to the size of domestic markets.”
The danger, of course, is that once governments around the world see that “everyone” is doing it, they will ratchet up their efforts to trap their citizens’ money within their political borders, then squeeze the productive members of society until they bleed. While there will still be pockets of civilization where people can go to escape the heavy hand, in this world of interconnected governments, those pockets will be few and far between.
That last point brings to mind a conversation I had not so long ago with a successful Argentine businessman, in which he lamented his country’s misguided government, saying, “We only need a little better government, and the economy of this country will take off like a rocket.”
With a knowing smile and a wink, he then added, “But we need it to only be a ‘little’ better, because an inefficient government is better than an efficient one, yes?”
Wagging the Dog
Not so long ago, Rick Maybury told the audience at one of our Casey Research Summits that, based on his interpretation of things, the US government is “war shopping.” On the surface, this makes no sense. After all, getting embroiled in yet another war will only result in hardening politically motivated resistance to cutting the bloated military budget… which now closes in on about 20% of the federal budget.
In my view, this is the canary in the coal mine. If the US government under a liberal administration can’t muster the political will to reduce the military budget, and by a substantial amount, then there really is less than zero hope of getting the country’s fiscal house in order.
You can draw your own conclusions as to why the US might be war shopping, but the phrase, “War is the health of the state,” penned by Randolph Bourne during WWI, sums it up pretty well for me. Simply, the military-industrial complex and its many allies within government have a huge vested interest in seeing the wars continue, damn the consequences to society at large.
At this point, the most likely candidates for the next war remain Iran and Syria, where the potentially demented Mrs. Clinton recently escalated the rhetoric by drawing a firm line in the sand over chemical weapons. All that’s needed now is for something appearing to be a chemical weapon to be unleashed, if not by the al-Assad regime, then maybe by the rebels or even another anti-Syrian regime in the region. It won’t matter who the actual perpetrator is, as long as it provides the cover needed to get the show on the road.
Public Apathy Deepens
Thanks to the continuum, the US government has become akin to a mosquito on the body of a comatose patient – free to suck as much blood as it wants with no danger of being slapped.
This is possible because it serves the self-interest of so many people who pretend not to notice how broke the country is or how far down the path to socialism we have traveled.
And I’m not just talking about the large army of direct government workers – about 3 million people in the federal government’s non-military workforce alone, and the 2.5 million or so in the US military – but tens of millions who rely on government assistance for a substantial part of their daily feed.
On the latter category, here’s one of many anecdotes about the public’s increasing reliance on the state – and the state’s increasing willingness to be relied on (perhaps to reduce the unemployment numbers?). Here’s an excerpt from an article by Michael Barone on the RealClearPolitics website.
In 1960, some 455,000 workers were receiving disability payments. In 2011, the number was 8,600,000. In 1960, the percentage of the economically active 18-to-64 population receiving disability benefits was 0.65 percent. In 2010, it was 5.6 percent.
Some four decades ago, when I was a law clerk to a federal judge, I had occasion to read briefs in cases appealing denial of disability benefits. The Social Security Administration then seemed pretty strict in denying benefits in dubious cases. The courts were not much more openhanded.
Things have changed. Americans have grown healthier, and significantly lower numbers die before 65 than was the case a half-century ago. Nevertheless, the disability rolls have ballooned.
One reason is that the government seems to have gotten more openhanded with those claiming vague ailments. Eberstadt points out that in 1960, only one-fifth of disability benefits went to those with “mood disorders” and “musculoskeletal” problems. In 2011, nearly half of those on disability voiced such complaints.
“It is exceptionally difficult – for all practical purposes, impossible,” writes Eberstadt, “for a medical professional to disprove a patient’s claim that he or she is suffering from sad feelings or back pain.”
In other words, many people are gaming or defrauding the system. This includes not only disability recipients but health care professionals, lawyers and others who run ads promising to get you disability benefits.
Between 1996 and 2011, the private sector generated 8.8 million new jobs, and 4.1 million people entered the disability rolls.
The ratio of disability cases to new jobs has been even worse during the sluggish recovery from the 2007-09 recession. Between January 2010 and December 2011, there were 1,730,000 new jobs and 790,000 new people collecting disability.
This is not just a matter of laid-off workers in their 50s or early 60s qualifying for disability in the years before they become eligible for Social Security old age benefits.
In 2011, 15 percent of disability recipients were in their 30s or early 40s. Concludes Eberstadt, “Collecting disability is an increasingly important profession in America these days.”
Disability insurance is no longer a small program. The government transfers some $130 billion obtained from taxpayers or borrowed from purchasers of Treasury bonds to disability beneficiaries every year.”
Then, of course, there are the constituents relying on Social Security and Medicare, programs that between them suck up about 42% of the federal budget… and that are growing at roughly the same brisk pace as the aging population.
Sure, you and I might be paying attention to the scale of the problems – but trust me on this one, we’re the exceptions.
Interest Rates Are Likely to Remain Low… Until They Can’t
Tellingly, even the so-called “bond vigilantes” have grown apathetic at the fiscal and monetary madness. For the simple reason that they know the government is going to keep shifting the problems into the next election cycle until it becomes physically impossible.
The following excerpt is from an article on Bloomberg earlier this week, about the fiscal-cliff follies now being staged in Washington…
While lawmakers are making deficit reduction a rallying cry, the bond market shows nowhere near the same level of concern. As the national debt exceeded $16 trillion from less than $9 trillion in 2007, U.S. borrowing costs tumbled. The yield on the 10-year note touched a record low 1.379 percent July 25, down from more than 5 percent in mid-2007.
Treasury 10-year yields were little changed at 1.62 percent at 5 p.m. New York time, according to Bloomberg Bond Trader data. The rate fell eight basis points last week and reached 1.59 percent on Nov. 30, the lowest level since Nov. 19.
In Europe, the ECB is currently considering moving nominal interest rates into negative territory. Of course, real interest rates in the US and elsewhere are already in negative territory – to wit, the meager yields you are now earning on your cash are well below the actual rate of inflation, and even that of the CPI (Consumer Pretend Inflation) rate published by the government.
In the end, though, as governments continue to print money and otherwise engage in a race to the bottom, investors are going to demand higher interest rates, which will be devastating to the larger debtor nations.
It is clear, however, that the precarious state of the global economy has investors placing a premium on safety over returns, so interest rates will stay low for some time to come. There will be fortunes made by speculating on a reversal in interest rates in the US and the other damaged economies – because the duration of interest-rate moves tend to be very long. That said, as long as it is in the government’s interest to keep interest rates low, that trade remains extremely risky. Not to worry – when the trend changes, you’ll know about it and have plenty of time to reposition your portfolio to profit.
“Make the trend your friend” is an oft-used adage in investment circles, and one that we here at Casey Research are fond of as well.
In the case of the continuum, however, one may want to keep in mind the admonition, “Don’t forget to duck!”
Are there opportunities to profit? Sure. Any time a government makes a firm policy decision, figuring out how to profit by getting ahead of the policy isn’t all that hard.
But at this point your primary focus should probably be how to avoid an asset stripping. That’s because if you earn a decent wage or have built up a respectable net worth, you have a target on your back. And not just from the government and its minions, but from the army of potential litigants who would love to own what you own.
Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer ways left to protect yourself. Especially with the legal precedents in the financial industry that, á la MF Global, establish that the money you have in any bank or brokerage firm is subject to looting without recourse.
Personally, I have come to the conclusion that the only real protection comes from fairly broad diversification… between financial firms, between asset classes and especially between political jurisdictions.
On that latter point, a group of us were recently chatting about this and that when the subject of inflation came up. At which point I made a comment to the effect of, “Inflation doesn’t have to be a problem. Consider that we are in the middle of an inflationary crisis here in Argentina – a crisis that if it happened in the US would be catastrophic. Yet here we sit enjoying an excellent wine at a cost of around $10 a bottle. Later, we’ll eat a fantastic dinner for around that same $10. So where’s the problem?”
The problem, of course, is if you are an Argentine with your assets and income denominated in pesos – in which case the 25%+ inflation is devastating. On the other hand, as an individual with assets denominated in stronger currency units or, for that matter, assets that appreciate with inflation, inflation is at worst neutral but, as is the case just now in Argentina for US-dollar-based investors, can be a real boon.
I sincerely believe that investors need to step back and see the continuum for what it is – and take steps to diversify before the capital controls get slapped on, the taxes rise and the asset seizures (including your retirement plans) begin in earnest.
Failure to do so will leave you as little more than a victim and a target for the masses as the continuum leads to a world where the entity of government controls all the important levers of the economy and of society at large. Unfortunately, for most dear readers, that is a world they either already live in or soon will.
Don’t be complacent.
I should also tell you that the latest book by my dear friend and business partner, Doug Casey, is nearly ready to hit the stores. It’s titled Totally Incorrect, and if you haven’t guessed, it is filled to the brim with Doug’s inimitable, irreverent and thought-provoking musings on the US government’s shenanigans… how to make corruption your friend… the folly of Obamacare… the domestic brand of terrorists called TSA… and much more.
If you want a good read (and a good laugh) for the holidays, you should take a look. For another few days, you can get Totally Incorrect for 46% off the retail price if you preorder now. You’ll find all the details here.