Paul Jacob

I get confused about the economy as much as the next guy. For days — indeed, weeks — I can go about my life without understanding what the Sam Hill is going on.

The bad news is I’m not alone.

The worse news? Our leaders are not only just as confused as you and me, but they actually manage to cause much of our mutual confusion.

Case in point: The way our leaders have been talking, they are spending our future trillions to stimulate today’s economy.

The trouble with talk of stimulus is that it turns out we are not in a liquidity crisis. The trouble is not that banks don’t have, or haven’t had, enough money to loan (hence the talk of “liquidity”). The horrible truth this time around is that banks suffer from accounts that just don’t add up. Their capital appears to have evaporated with the decline in housing prices and the mortgage bubble, leaving them unable to cover future bursts of unpayable loans.

Though our leaders from Bush and Paulson to Obama and Geithner talk about stimulus and liquidity and stuff like that, the eventual and “better” rationale for giving money to the banks was not so that they’d make loans, but that they’d have enough capital to cover future defaults.

Defaults which, alas, appear to be coming in several big waves.

There’s evidence that one of the next waves of economic crises to hit us is the collapse of a whole array of pension funds. It turns out that a lot of managed funds have taken more and more risk in the past few decades. And you know what that means.

As a fascinating article in Reason puts it, there’s been a further destabilizing element added in recent memory: So-called “moral investing.” Goody-two-shoe types have played the piper’s tune and enticed a lot of investors and fund managers to take their lemmings (I mean earnings) and sock them away in businesses that are “good” — not in the sense of profitable or secure, but in the sense of “moral,” “trendy,” or just plain “politically correct.” That makes the funds and the investments themselves less secure, as money has gone from likely winners to pipe dreams.

When pension funds collapse, things can get pretty bad.

Of course, things are looking bad on any number of fronts.

We have been reminded a lot, recently, that, since the establishment of FDIC, no one has lost money in a U.S. bank in an account insured by the FDIC. But the head of the FDIC recently upped insurance on accounts. Why? She blurted out the truth: The account insurance system may itself be insolvent.

Panic ensues. People with lots of dough (not me) have been pulling cash from banks in the hundreds of thousands, the millions.

On a bright note, the sales of safes are way up.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s the stimulus our leaders were aiming at.

Though every downturn, like every spurt of progress, is different, this downturn has more than a whiff of the stench of the Great Depression about it. What reeks? Our sense of the future.

An economy such as ours depends on a sense of stability about the future. It rests on stable policy, and the perception of same. The only thing stable about the stories coming from the White House has been the huge hunks of money being doled out. Everything else has been contradictory and at cross-purpose.

Fear itself. Roosevelt was right, that is the biggest problem. But Roosevelt was wrong moving beyond this homily: His flailing from policy to policy gave the investment sector a sense of paralyzing fear. Capital was withheld. The depression drew on and on.

And it’s happening all over again. The policy announcements, the revisions, the regrets — they keep on coming from the White House and Capital Hill. And the swings from rationale-to-rationale can have a horrible cumulative effect, dashing all expectations of hope and confidence in policy, signaling to investors to withdraw from investing.

Yet even that isn’t the worst of it. The worst of it is our gargantuan government debt, both explicit (issued and traded and monetized) and implicit (promised in the form of “entitlements” like Social Security and Medicare). Looming over our nation’s head has been this ever-growing public debt. Debt cannot continue to grow and grow.

This is where the current administration’s blunderings, like the last one’s, are so dangerous. Both have panicked, insisting on doing “something” so as to appear to have courage and resolve and all that, while in truth showing little else but very empty hands. And heads.

Of course, if you don’t look closely, it looks like a plan. It’s money. Money, money, and more money.

But no matter how much research we do trying to make sense of our current economic predicament, and the shifting rationales of leaders’ bedrock policy — no matter whether your explanations tend to lean Post Keynesian or monetarist or Austrian or what-have-you — one truth remains abundantly evident: it’s money we don’t have, and spending it increases debt. And that hastens the final wave, the last wave. A tsunami.

Our politicians, too shortsighted to see the damage they do, continue to draw nearer that last wave of financial disaster.

It’s all these trillions spent. And owed. The Congressional Budget Office recently reported that its estimate of the national debt is $2.3 trillion more than figured by Obama’s team. And while Congress trusts the CBO rather than any administration’s BS, astute observers of debt know that both estimates are far too low.

Spend a trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon it adds up to . . . unreal money, as the dollar collapses, inflation goes hyper, and the real crisis begins.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.