Is Obama good for the American Economy?

So far I have avoided blogging about a topic in the overlap region between politics and and economics. But after watching a couple of YouTube videos I found on the website of Prof. Franz Hörmann, I have repeatedly asked myself the following question: if I were an American Citizen already and had the option to participate in the Presidential Elections come November, would I vote for Barack Obama? Do I truly believe that Obama is good for the American Economy? And if not, would Mitt Romney be better?

Well, I honestly cannot answer the question about who I’d vote for with certainty. I mean, really, who knows with absolute certainty who they will vote for anyway, if there are still weeks ahead with the potential to reveal important information pertaining both candidates… Yet, I have at least found my disappointment with the current President grow into a sense of disillusionment over the past few months. Here are my thoughts on why I would at least feel much less inclined to be voting for Obama, and why I think that, ultimately, Obama isn’t the President to spearhead the changes necessary to find a way to make a free-market economy work for the benefit of all Americans. What America needs is a President who is not afraid to stand up to the forces that have invaded, pervaded, and perverted the political process, transforming it into something similar to a anchor-hosted regular television show where two supposedly opposing teams vie for “who’s the fairest of them all”.

As far as I can see, the problem is systemic in nature. And my guess is that many people “in power”, both in politics as well as in financial institutions, are at least subconsciously aware of the fact that there is a problem waiting to blow up. Maybe some even have a good idea what the problem is, but it seems that, so far, playing by the established rules seems the preferable choice, and I can see several very good reasons why it seems that way… So, what is the problem?

In short: We, The People, have over time gotten accustomed to how the monetary system is organized to a degree that even just thinking about possible alternatives comes across as “communist”–which is maybe just a different way of saying something like “crazy”, “impossible”, or “un-American”. Furthermore, some of the collectively held beliefs about money are simply false but, given that they support the current system to a degree that were they to be questioned the economy might collapse, no-one dares to bring this up. Let’s start maybe with some of the reasons why we (think we) need money:

Exchanging goods in a free-market economy is simply impractical without a form of currency, some representational good that can be converted into any other good or service we require. In addition, based on the fact that the “good or service” we contribute to society, usually in form of performing well at a job, leads to the acquisition of only relatively small amounts of currency units at a time, an economy with a monetary exchange function gives the opportunity to “save” some units of currency for future transactions, in other words to delay consumption in favor of “investment”. Naturally, for this to work reasonably well, people must have faith and be willing to trust that the value of their savings will not decline too much, and this trust has to be earned, to some degree, by the experience of stable prices.

If those were the only functions of money, we probably wouldn’t be anywhere near this economic mess we are faced with at the moment though. So, what are the problems in the current system? Well, I can see a few of them, and some are probably mixed up, but I will try to single out the root as far as I understand the matter:

But first it is important to know that the control over the monetary system does not lie directly with the people or their representatives, but instead, at least in the U.S. economy, with the Federal Reserve, a public entity which all the same states on its website that, quote, “its monetary policy decisions do not have to be approved by the President or anyone else in the executive or legislative branches of government”. While that in itself may not necessarily be a problem, so long as this entity is given a clear set of instructions and its performance is more or less closely monitored by the sovereign’s representatives, it means that the control over monetary policy is, for some reason, not considered something worth putting into the hand of the elected representatives. One of the typical arguments given is that if the government were allowed to print money, it could increase spending without limits. The misconception in this statement lies in the understanding of where inflation, the loss of value per unit of currency, comes from.

The real problem, I think, lies with the fact that while the central bank, the Federal Reserve, provides the economy with “physical” currency, every regular bank and every mortgage lender creates money out of nothing every time a loan is made. You don’t believe it? Well, here is how it works: if I go to my bank tomorrow and request a loan over $100,000 and the loan is granted, all the bank needs to do is add $100,000 to the number on file in a computer, my account, and that’s it. Well, not quite. In return for this generous act of creating $100,000, I must promise to pay back the money, which the bank generated out of nothing, and pay it back with interest. This promise is a debt the bank puts into their books as well. But from the day the number is added to my account, I have to pay interest, whether or not I convert this number into physical currency or not. And the true problem with this system lies in the fact that to pay back the money with interest, the total amount of money has to increase. And the amount by which it has to increase in any given amount of time, the interest rate, is not controlled by anyone, not even the central bank! It is “set” by the “market”, but in a free-market economy you have supply and demand, but since the money I took out on the loan didn’t even exist before I took it, the supply is endless, and the price should be much lower.

Also, the total amount of money in all regular banks must grow, regardless of whether and how it is spent, simply by the fact that it exists (in the banks’ computers). And given that banks have very little motivation in having people pay back their loans early, as that would lower their profits, both the interest rate as well as the suggested payments are in favor of prolonging the loan term and bank profits.

Now, it is often argued that the interest rate is the price for the risk of the bank, but what exactly is that risk? Given that the money was generated out of thin air only at the time the loan was made, the risk only materializes in the case of a default of the lender, in which case the promise the bank has put into their books has to be written off. But the people running the bank are unlikely to be personally liable should the case occur that a huge number of people default all at once. This has led, in the past, to the incentive of giving out more and more loans even to people who the banks sort of had to know would not be able to keep their promise of paying back the loan, because the risk is deferred to the future, and only threatens the bank, but not the people making the bad decisions. And to top it all off, those “bad loans” were then bundled together into “good packages” and re-sold to investors who wanted to put their profits, in part coming from interest payments of people already in debt of course, to “good use”.

Given that it is not the interest rate the Federal Reserve charges for central bank money but rather the average interest rate of lenders that determines the amount of additional money required in the system, any inflation that occurs–that is to say the ratio between money in existence and all available goods produced by an economy in a given time–remains largely invisible to the people, until the point comes when those who have profited from the system were to try and “cash out”. And until that point comes, those who “have” will always become those who “have more” and vice versa… In other words, while the current system lasts, all but those “invested” in financial market products will become disenfranchised over time. Even big industry players are suffering from this, which might be one of the reasons for the Koch brothers to support the Tea Party rather than the GOP establishment.

Finally, the belief that our economy is a free market driven by supply and demand is incorrect in at least two regards: First, money cannot be scarce, given that it is created by banks whenever a loan is taken out. And to pretend otherwise so as to keep people in the mood of paying a high price for it is, in my eyes, simply unethical. Second, if people truly had a choice about what “work” they could “offer” on the market, my guess is that certain jobs would pay much better than they do. And the reason that they don’t pay better doesn’t lie in the supply of those services or, put more accurately, in the willingness to do so, but rather in the fact that they seemingly do not require highly specialized training.

Given that our current economy requires people to sell their “workforce” to either acquire currency (cash) or the “right” to obtain money from a bank by having someone “deposit” money into their account, this in the end leads to the potential for a modern-day slavery system, where those people without preexisting means, such as owning monetary wealth or other ways to generate income, or specialized knowledge are essentially forced to sell their workforce at “market value”, which in a industrialized economy drops to ever lower amounts if those who can offer unprivileged services increase in number.

But contrary to talent-searching shows on TV, people who really matter in our daily lives, such as policemen, teachers, security guards, or simply the person who always holds the door open when someone doesn’t have a free hand to do it themselves, will never appear during prime-time, and yet it is those people who truly make our lives better. If our economy were to go through another recession, which it very well might if the burden of debt isn’t brought down to bearable levels, who is going to have a greater impact on my life with their talents? Some “talented” rich kid with the added bonus of being able to impeccably smile in front of the cameras, or yet the hard-working, honest average American who does not expect the system to provide luxury but a simply a decent way of living? I put my bet on the latter “talent” any old time!

And as long as the political debate solely focuses on how to improve the economy for those who are already in power and well off, the general population will hardly ever see any real improvement. So, who would I vote for? At the moment I would say: I wouldn’t vote at all. Maybe if enough people send the message that neither candidate is worthy to lead America out of this mess, the required momentum to rebuild the political process and debate from the bottom up will finally come together. But it seems that we rather prefer to support a broken system based on partially false beliefs, because that way we can at least dream of being rich, instead of being free and happy. What did the Declaration of Independence say again…? I think I have to do some reading!

Why I love to live in the U.S.A.

Good morning 🙂 In the last three entries of my blog, I have more or less tried to tackle a singular issue, with a few sidelines here and there maybe. But, at the moment, my brain doesn’t seem to be willing or able to focus on just one topic, and so I figured I might just mention a few of the thoughts I’ve been having over the past few days about why I wanted to leave Germany for the longest time and am now tremendously glad I have found a new home. For those of you who don’t know: I started submitting my name to the Green Card lottery when I was 22, and it took almost ten years to be “drawn” and have this dream come true…

Looking back on and thinking about this past week, I was reminded again on how fortunate my life turned out: during a longer conversation with a friend, I once again conjured up the emotional situation I had created for myself while I was still living in Germany. And probably it has become even clearer to me now, compared to how I assessed my life back then. I had a job, not entirely unlike the one I’m having right now, and I was surrounded by friends. But I also had a secret. Something I felt I couldn’t really talk about at work or with friends…

Back then, my homosexuality meant for me that I needed to censor myself, my thoughts, my feelings. In many situations, although there are only a few that I recall most clearly, I had the wish and desire to tell people about “it”, but at the same time I also felt that by doing so I might jeopardize my very existence. What if I were to lose my job over this? Or some of my best friends? Luckily, I had at least my immediate family, with whom I felt I could share this part of me–I had come out to my parents and brothers at the age of 23, so around the same time I began to get a Green Card through the lottery.

Why was this so bothersome? I mean, Germany is, when it comes to how people think and feel about sexuality, as measured in the general population, a fairly liberal country: same-sex marriage probably is even more approved of, at least by law, than here in the United States. But…

The one big difference I have always perceived in the two cultural spheres is that the United States of America is, in general, much more diverse and that this diversity is not only present but truly welcomed. I would even go as far that it is essential for the American Dream: people having the opportunity to express themselves without immediate fear for being written off as “outliers”, who, if they had the decency, would better remain silent.

From my early childhood days on, I felt that I was different. My mom has eight siblings, and it became somewhat of a standing joke at family gatherings that my brothers and myself weren’t as well-mannered as should be, which is pretty much the kindest way I can think of to describe their sentiments. Suffice it to say that my dad, in particular, had this funny idea of being anti-authoritarian, of allowing his kids to make up their own minds and decide what’s best for them.

During my school years, beginning with some serious arguments with my music teacher in elementary school, leading up to me not going to school for a period of almost 4 months in 6th grade because I just didn’t feel like going, I often felt some inner urge, a calling, to antagonize the system. The fact that during my time in the classroom someone who wasn’t even family had the mandate to make me do things, even if I wanted to do something else instead, was a provocation and contradiction to how things were done at home. And before I forget it: I sincerely thank my parents for allowing me to “make up my own mind”. In the end, I was so bored that I decided that accepting school for what it is and spending the time being exposed to new knowledge and interesting things is preferable, even if someone pretends to be in control of the whole thing. I think my interest in Buddhism has become clear already, so I might add that I believe that the idea of ever being “in control” of something is an illusion…

The one crucial difference I believe exists between German and U.S. American culture for me can best be summarized by the fact that in Germany it is much more important to “fall in line” with the mainstream. Naturally, in the commercial sphere, people in both cultures are subjected to considerable pressure to align their taste with mainstream fashion. But when it comes to ideas and thoughts, the American culture has, from its early days on, been able to bridge a gap as far as viewpoints from the far right and the far left, by allowing people to express their views and not give them a sense of “not belonging” to the nation.

This last thought brings me to one of my few worries: the rise of electronically distributed media, such as television in the second half of the 20th century as well as the advent and success of the internet in the past two decades has come at a fairly high price, in my opinion: given that it is the advertisements and not the information being disseminated being the “real product” that is sold to the public, those channels with the most aggressive positions and opinions are the most successful ones, because who wants to hear news if they’re not sensational. And while I do not believe that those involved in politics or the media had any higher or better opinions of their opponents on the other side of the spectrum 50 years ago, this divide and its over-representation by the media seems to have created a far more radicalized population in the process. Even I have, occasionally, caught myself thinking things such as, “those people on the other side are plain stupid or crazy.” But I think it is important not to let that thought grow and take over.

Only as long as we are willing and able to accept, or at least tolerate the diversity that exists in the minds and hearts of the people in our nation, can we truly be free. As soon as we mark a position as “crazy”, or in other words indefensible by someone sane, we have given up on arguing about it, we have sentenced our opponents to insanity, and we simply want to set our beliefs and ideas as the standard for everyone. My hope is that America will remain the country and nation of the free spirit, where ideas can be expressed without fear of being marginalized simply for expressing them. If someone disagrees, we should always welcome the debate… Well, at least that is my vision of it all 🙂